When ‘I’ is me: an author in search of his character
As a writer, I have no qualms about drawing from my life to fuel my creative practice, though I adhere to some rules: like Brien (2002), I am guided by ‘a sincere desire to tell the truth’. It is in this manner that I have sometimes used myself as a character in works of fiction, as in ‘Letter to my children’ (in Fisher 2013a) and ‘Into the light’ (Fisher 2008). In these works, I refer to the sexual assault and subsequent suicide attempt I experienced in 1973 when I was 18. Some readers have objected to my classification of these works as fiction, arguing that I was writing non-fiction, memoir or biography. My counterpoint, however, is that these stories are not recounts of what actually happened but my imagined narratives using actual events for their framework; they are my sincere attempts to tell a story I still find difficult to comprehend nearly fifty years later. Undoubtedly, some of my unconscious motivation was therapeutic. Like Gandolfo (2014), ‘there were certainly benefits at a personal level from going through the difficult process of turning that experience into fiction’. Nevertheless, consciously I was attempting to write narratives with content and themes relatively uncommon in literature when I was that 18 year old; that is, I was exploring my deviance from the norm, as my sexuality was described to 18 year old me by a well-meaning psychiatrist.
The exegesis accompanying my doctoral dissertation (Fisher 2003) detailed my reasons for following that path. I wrote there: ‘While my history of acceptance of this label [of gay] is hardly remarkable, my experience of it has defined my ways of seeing. I interpret through the prism of this experience. My subjectivity will always be apparent. For me a lack of “authorial intrusion” is impossible, though technique might disguise that. I cannot separate myself from my past, though I can reinterpret that past, and accept or reject it according to mood or need’ (14). This, then, is also how I found myself approaching another writer’s depiction of me as a fictional character undergoing those same events I still find difficult to recount, though not in my familiar medium of text on a page but audio-visually, in a movie.
My practice as a writer has never involved the writing of screenplays, although I once had a play, Dreams for the working week (Fisher 1982), read by actors at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre downstairs space. The audience roared with laughter at what I considered an earnest drama, so I left the theatre with head bowed in shame and never approached theatrical writing again. It was years later before it dawned on me that, had I swallowed my ego, as a writer should, I could have been a comic playwright.
Instead, professionally I progressed from publisher, to authors’ advocate, then to teaching writing at the University of New England, all the while writing and having my work published. I might have dreamed occasionally of some of that work being adapted for the screen; the reality was I received little or no return from my published work, thus ensuring my need to make a living elsewhere. Throughout this process of living a life, in terms of my writing practice one of the constants was that I continued an involvement with gay content and themes. I involved myself in Pride History Group in Sydney, with the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Melbourne and presented papers at Homosexual Histories conferences (Fisher 2010, 2012a, 2013b).
These networks led to me being approached by Carrie Anderson around 2012. In a phone call, she explained she was researching a storyline for a movie about the origins of the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney in 1978. This rather chaotic event was organised to coincide with commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York of 28 June, 1969, which marked the beginning of an international gay rights movement. June in New York is of course summer, but in Sydney it is winter so 24 June 1978, when the celebration and march was planned, was cold but about 500 people, including myself, attended. The celebration, harassed by police, degenerated into a riot and 53 people were arrested. Forty years later, the Mardi Gras has moved to March and is one of the largest festivals in the world, a celebration of gay pride far in excess of what any of us shabby hippies of 1978 ever imagined.
Carrie’s initial research had made her aware that I knew Lance Gowland, the man who drove the lone truck in that first event; could she talk to me about him and other events? I agreed to talk so we met in a park in Five Dock first, then, over coffee in a cafe, she asked me questions about Lance and events in my past. I have written about some of this elsewhere (Fisher 2008; 2012b, 2013a); they concerned my engagement with Gay Liberation through meeting and having a brief relationship with Lance, expulsion from Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University in Sydney in May 1973 for being gay, and my peripheral involvement in that first Gay Mardi Gras. After interviewing me in 2017, Angus Dalton has also written about these episodes from the perspective of a contemporary LGBTQI+ Macquarie University student (Dalton 2017, 2018) and, while the pedestal he puts me on is flattering, in reality I was just a bullied kid standing up for myself.
Carrie explained that she would pitch her storyline to movie producers but the probability that production would ever commence was highly unlikely as most ideas for movies remained just that and, if anything did eventuate, any project would be years in the making. Therefore, it was not until Friday 5 May 2017 that I received a voice message on my landline phone from Gavin Harris of the Pride History Group asking me to contact him in connection with a movie being made. I called him the next day and he asked if I would give permission for him to pass on my contact details to the film’s producers. I agreed and a few days later, on Thursday 11 May 2017 I received a call from Louise Smith from Werner Film Productions.
Thus began my peripheral involvement in the production of the telemovie Riot (Walker 2018). As a consequence, I was led to consider the complexities of writing for the screen and to wrestle once again with my sincere desire to tell the truth and what makes a work fiction. Further, from a research perspective, my involvement in this movie serendipitously brought me to compare my practice of using myself as a fictional construct in my writing with the practice of another writer, Greg Waters, and his use of me as a fictional construct in the screenplay for Riot (2018), and how the screenplay became a film in the hands of the producers, director and actors.
In her first of many phone calls, on 11 May 2017, Louise explained a little more about the film; it would be a telemovie on the ABC in 2018 and it was to be a dramatised (fictional) account of the first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras with some other storylines, such as mine, included to illuminate the gay history of the time. She wanted to meet and interview me. She hoped that she would come with scriptwriter Greg Waters, but he was hell-bent on finishing the script so might not be able to come. I agreed to see her and at 2 pm on 22 May 2017 she arrived at our home (I live with my partner Lloyd Christison) on her own. Greg was chained to his computer, the script deadline looming. Louise, Lloyd and I chatted for a few hours over cake and coffee at the dining table in our sun room. Louise recorded the conversation on her iPad. At one point, Louise playfully asked which actor I would like to portray me. Chris Hemsworth, I answered. She said she wished she had the budget for that casting choice. Who else? Matthew Mitcham (the Olympic diver), I said. Mitcham has forged a post-diving career as a cabaret performer with droll, self-deprecating delivery. At the end of the interview, Louise asked Lloyd and me to sign release documents. Basically, these gave Werner through Bent Productions, a company that had been set up specifically to make the film which was originally titled ‘Bent’, all rights to use the material from Louise’s interview with us in the production and promotion of the film. I had no right with regard to the telling of my story, but throughout the production process Louise was consultative and caring, as was Joanne Werner who was executive producer for Werner.
As she left our house we joked about Lloyd and me coming on set to observe filming. I said something stupid like I looked forward to seeing Matthew in his swimmers and telling him how to act like me. In a serious tone, Louise replied that I would not be permitted to offer the actors any direction; I could only watch. There was nothing threatening in this; she was simply emphasising the rules for outsiders on set. I now knew my place.
Louise called me on 27 July to go though some details of the story again. As we finished the conversation, Louise asked me, given my experience as a writer and teacher of writing, whether I would be prepared to read the script to look for major errors and omissions. I agreed to do this and a copy of the script was sent via email within minutes of our phone conversation ending. Louise sent a follow-up email to advise that Greg Waters would be changing scenes 62, 63 and 64 which covered the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF) imposition of a ‘pink ban’ on Robert Menzies Collee in response to my expulsion. This event is the most historically significant in my story. It was the first time that a trade union took industrial action to support gay rights. Credit for this is due the union’s officials Joe Owen, Bob Pringle and, especially, Jack Mundey.
I read the script immediately and offered my feedback; I could see why Greg proposed scene changes.as what had been written stretched history perhaps a little too far. I had some suggestions for minor changes and I wrote: ‘Scene 60 [where my parents find me in hospital after my attempted suicide] has been nicely written. If I had any concerns they were about the portrayal of my parents, but the scene does justice to both of them. Thank you to the writers’ (Fisher 2017).
Louise responded by email to arrange a phone hook-up with her and Greg on 28 July. This time, they wanted to know more about how the BLF were brought into the dispute and how I felt during Macquarie University’s investigation into charges that Robert Menzies College had imposed religious rules in disallowing me re-entry to the College. The University found the College had broken no rules. We spoke for some time about these matters. The movie shows Jack Mundey, played by Rob Carlton, speaking with Damon Herriman’s Lance Gowland and implies that Lance was closely involved in initiating the pink ban. In reality, this was done through the Students’ Council, particularly by its President the late Jeff Hayler, but I could see that, for the movie to be coherent, narrative threads needed to be created to link my story into the larger one of the origins of the Mardi Gras, so scenes showing Lance and Jack talking together continue to stretch history a mite too far, but they work dramatically.
A few weeks later, Louise called to ask whether I would agree to meet the actor who would be playing me; it was not to be Matthew Mitcham, who, like Chris Hemsworth, was too old for the role. I agreed and a few days later on Friday 11 August I opened my front door to a young man with straggly hair (which I later discovered was composed of hair extensions). This was Will McDonald, whose main claim to fame at that point was his portrayal of the troubled youth Jett in the popular soap opera Home and away. Regrettably, I was not a viewer of this program so I had no knowledge of Will’s acting experience. My first impression was how young he appeared. Lloyd asked him how old he was. I’ll be 19 in September, he replied. He was the same age I was in 1973.
We chatted for a couple of hours. Will also showed me a clip from the ABC current affairs program This Day Tonight in 1973 when I was interviewed by Stuart Littlemore. I had long straggly hair, which obviously inspired Will’s hair extensions. I had never seen this clip before as I did not have television at the time. I wore a cardigan knitted by my mother, a corduroy shirt and a Gay Liberation badge. I was surprised by how articulate I appeared. While this archived interview provided the basis for the appearance of my character, it meant that appearance was sustained over the six-year narrative span of the movie. The fact that in 1978 I was employed as a sub-editor at the conservative Medical Journal of Australia, necessitating a hair-cut and change in clothing style, was ignored by the moviemakers as it was immaterial to their storyline. This made me appreciate the decision-making required in the production of a movie. Six years were being compressed to one hour and forty-five minutes, and a national audience expected a comprehensible story of those six years. History and the truth are not always convenient in constructing such a story.
On 28 August, Lloyd and I, along with other 78ers portrayed in the movie (Peter de Waal, Peter Murphy, Robyn Plaister) and Lance’s children, were invited on set at a shoot in Taylor Square. The scene being shot was the beginning of the Mardi Gras, with the truck being driven off after an altercation with police officers. I realised that it would be too onerous for me to perform as an extra as this required much standing which a neuromuscular condition I have prevents. Lloyd however appears in the movie briefly behind actor Damon Herriman as do some of the original 78ers and Lance’s children. This shoot was joyous, a complete contrast to the original night. The crew, of whom a large proportion identified as LGBTQI welcomed us oldies. Time and again we were thanked. People asked us to pose in ‘selfies’ with them. Will and I posed for the shot that features at the end of the movie, as David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ plays. That vision of the 78ers as heroes was already clear to the production team that night at Taylor Square but it would not become clear to me until after I had viewed the finished movie.
On the evening of Tuesday 5 September, we drove over to watch filming at Fox Studios in Moore Park. It was a bitterly cold night, which was unfortunate for the actors. Will was there and explained he had been given heat packs to put in his pockets to keep warm. The scenes that were being filmed that night were a recreation of the violent events in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, when the New South Wales police attacked the Mardi Gras and made 53 arrests. I had left the real Mardi Gras at that point, but in the screenplay I was in the Mardi Gras right up to the bitter end, so Will ran between the paddy wagons over and over as Jeffrey sought his perfect shot. I sat behind Jeffrey watching his screen and the repeated visions of violence and brutality; it looked frighteningly real, even when Will as me evaded a policeman and got away, something that never happened. The historian in me gave way to my innate storyteller. For the sake of the credibility of the screenplay’s narrative, the ragged bunch of pilgrims led by Lance had to reach the end of their journey, bittersweet though that end might be.
Lloyd and I, along with other 78ers involved in the shoot, were invited to the wrap party for the movie, held at a trendy Surry Hills hotel. Some rushes were shown. The young crew sat on the floor; the oldies settled into comfortable chairs. Joanne Werner, Louise and Jeffrey Walker gave speeches, Louise acknowledging the 78ers present. We were given a massive cheer. The rushes gave an indication of the music planned for the movie and some of the action, but my character did not appear.
Louise had promised to show me the finished movie before it was broadcast on the ABC on 25 February 2018. She brought over a DVD in the late morning of Friday 19 February. Louise explained that she was showing it to me and Peter Murphy (who is shown being savagely bashed by police, and whom I met at Macquarie University where he was a member of the Gay Club) because we were ‘vulnerable’ characters and she wanted us to know how our characters were portrayed in advance of public screenings. She was visiting Peter later that day to show him the movie. She, Lloyd and I sat down to watch it in the sun room. Friday is a busy day in our home. It is sheet washing and ironing day and also the day the groceries, ordered online, are delivered. The delivery was late and the arrival of the groceries allowed for the movie to be paused just before the crucial scenes involving my character. It also provided an opportunity to open a bottle of prosecco, so I watched the scenes of my attempted suicide, subsequent hospitalisation and my parents caring for me (and learning for the first time of my homosexuality) with a glass of bubbles in my hand and a plate of cheese, crackers and fruit nearby. It only strikes me as surreal as I write these words.
But something else also happened to me as I watched the movie. The first scene where my character appears is set in Lance’s room in the Gay Liberation house; watching this scene I saw Will stating he was leaving to go to Robert Menzies College. The next significant scene featuring me is set in a gay bar; Lance taunts me regarding my sincerity in wearing an anti-war tee-shirt. I rip it off, dance and get drunk and this leads to me being sexually assaulted. In a later scene, Lance is shown wearing a tee-shirt with the same slogan as the one I was wearing. At this point I yelled out at the television: ‘You bastard! You criticised me for the same tee-shirt!’ I now fully identified with Will playing me, even though every one of these scenes was completely dramatised, all figments of Greg Waters’ remarkable imagination. I had changed the perspective and the view and the I on the screen was someone else’s creation, and yet it was me.
Louise had alerted me to the fact that there had been changes to the scenes which featured me, particularly Scene 60. In the original screenplay, the Master of the College appears in my hospital room and tells my parents I had been possessed by a Chinese mask given to me by my father after a trip to Singapore. The Master, Dr Alan Cole, did actually say this, though at the College, not the hospital. In all of my versions of this story I have made this a key point since to me it epitomises Cole’s zealotry and intolerance. I was pleased the Greg had been able to incorporate it into the screenplay. It is removed from the filmed version, replaced with a briefer scene where an unidentified priest talks of possession. As I watched the movie I understood why the changes had been made; this part of my story was irrelevant to the overall narrative. It was important to me, but not to the Riot storyline. Yet the priest still appears intolerant and zealous and my father still tells him to ‘get out’. The absence of what I consider key facts have not made the scene any less sincere. The scene still respects my parents.
The emotion in the scene is powerful. If I attempt to write about how much I wanted to die at the moment in 1973, my words are banal and trite. However, the memory of my misery still comes back to me in the banal and trite words of Christ on the Cross in Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970): ‘My God My God Why have you forgotten me?’ The album, recorded in October 1970, had been a constant on my record player through my final years of school and in my room at Robert Menzies College. Riot is fiction, and the character named after me depicted in it is not me, yet what Jeffrey Walker brings forth from Greg Waters’ script rings emotionally true to me, even while I recognise it as artifice. And that is the way we tell our stories.
It was confronting to read about myself through another’s writer’s eyes; more so to see that writer’s words interpreted by a director and actor. Then there was my family. My parents are dead, but I had refrained from telling my two sisters and two bothers about the movie until the same-sex referendum of 2017 had been completed because there were divided views on the matter. However, I wanted all to know that our parents would be characters in a movie. All of my siblings have seen the movie and their comments indicate that it had a profound impact on them. I have watched it three times now. It is just a dramatisation, but it is beginning to seem real.
Jeremy Fisher OAM is adjunct senior lecturer in writing in the School of Arts at the University of New England. In 2017, he was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia for services to literature, education and professional organisations.
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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence