The rage within

Moments of transformation are difficult to capture in words, but the effects of such experiences can be life-changing. Tony McNamara had one such epiphany in a Rome hotel.

McNamara describes himself as both a playwright and a director, a luxury in an industry full of wannabes who’d be grateful for a crack at just one of those job descriptions. His first major film, The Rage in Placid Lake, an amusing yet vicious take on the upside-down life of Placid, the son of self-indulged baby-boomers, is due for release on 22 August. It is the film version of his successful play The Café Latte Kid, the first of four plays that have performed to full houses, good reviews and public acclaim. McNamara has a fifth on the boil but reserves the writer’s right not to discuss it, since it’s still in formation.

The Café Latte Kid debuted with the Sydney Theatre Company’s New Stages, was nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and won the Phillips Parsons Award for Young Playwrights, all in 1995.

McNamara believes it was a success because it took a new and angry position on baby-boomers. By calling his lead character Placid (he is anything but), McNamara satirises all the parents who’ve ever called a child River, Tiger or Summer.  Placid’s baby-boomer parents consider that no matter how self-obsessed they are, if they are happy their child will be too. The play charts them blithely following this philosophy, rationalising all the evidence to the contrary, as Placid hurtles towards self-destruction.

McNamara is a gentle man of 37 with an endearingly easy manner. He hasn’t shed his Melbourne identity, despite ­exposure to the faster pace of Sydney and its more impatient social interactions. He is gracious when I fumble the film’s name.

‘It’s not Lake Placid, it’s Placid Lake. Lake is his surname,’ he reminds me. And the rage is in not on.
He’s had a blessed career (not his word) and recognises his good fortune: ‘I’m in the ­position where people go to see my plays in tens of thousands. They want to watch my plays, I write for TV, I write for film—I make a living out of something I love.’

All said without a touch of arrogance or neurotic posturing. Nor any suggestion of fear that it could all crash down, a thought he claims has never occurred to him.

Not for a minute during the making of Placid, as McNamara affectionately calls it, did he fear failure or even see its shadow. Not even in film-making’s hot-house moments: the extraordinary cast, the ­temperaments, the dramatic tension, script incongruities, the payroll, the catering, the heat, the lack of oxygen.

McNamara is quick to acknowledge that his producer Marian MacGowan ensured he had a straightforward ride. ‘She never allowed anything to unravel,’ he says.

‘Placid explores a middle-class ­Australia we don’t capture very well in theatre and film. It wasn’t an obvious comedy and that told against us for a while. But those who liked it loved it and there were enough who loved it.’

Even though the response to the script was initially slow, MacGowan eventually found backers. The film will be launched in Melbourne and then at the Edinburgh Film Festival before being released to selected cinemas in Sydney.

McNamara cast Ben Lee as Placid, Miranda Richardson as Sylvia Lake and Garry McDonald as Doug Lake. They were his first choices and all said yes as soon as they read the script—an indication of McNamara’s capacity as a writer.

The involvement of Lee, a singer, has been well-publicised. Some articles during filming were sceptical about the casting of a singer rather than a professional actor, but McNamara is pleased with the
performance.

He says he was fascinated by what each actor brought to the script. ‘No-one simply replicated the script, they all brought a little more to it.’

As McNamara talks it becomes clear that there is more to his success than the right producer and good actors. He has belief. Belief that the film will work, that wherever it lands will be the right place, that he will go on undented and undaunted, a playwright-director.

But it’s not as though the future was always assured.

McNamara claims he was lousy at all the subjects and activities that usually give emerging talent the audacity to lay claim to a writing career. At school his marks in English were unremarkable.  Apart from one inspirational teacher, a Marist brother, McNamara says there was nothing distinctive about his education at Assumption College, Kilmore, in country Victoria. ‘I’m trying to think of the positives. But at this point I can’t see what they are.’

He explained that it was the drive to get out of Kilmore that propelled him forward, a conviction that there had to be something better beyond. Kilmore and Assumption were small-town experiences he was happy to leave behind.

McNamara’s experiences working in London for a merchant bank at age 22 confirmed for him that chasing money for money’s sake is one of the most inane things a person can do. ‘I wasn’t paid a lot. But I was in the industry long enough to see that the dissatisfaction and sense of futility are really, really high. It seems to me that the money you get paid is really a bribe to get you to stay in the industry.’

For counterbalance he hung around theatres seeing plays. At the time it was a good distraction but at a subconscious level he was no doubt sifting, sorting and storing, separating good technique from bad.

After eight months he took off and went to Rome. Alone in a country where he didn’t speak the language, McNamara withdrew into the cocoon of a hotel room, and over the next few days a conviction took shape that he was really a writer. Not the writing itself, mind, just the conviction. McNamara believed he was a writer.

‘The logic of who I was until that point didn’t really bear out my conviction. But I just knew. I had a powerful belief, against all the facts. I had to believe in this intuition, since all rational logic told me otherwise.’

After Rome, he managed to scrape into a one-year writing course at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), presenting an early work in gestation as his only credential.

Still lousy at writing prose and after writing some spectacularly awful poetry, McNamara managed to hang on until a semester on playwriting was offered. While others floundered in this highly specialised craft, McNamara found a natural, relaxed voice. ‘It was the first time I felt comfortable. It simply seemed easier to write, I found myself enjoying the writing.’

Yet McNamara failed the RMIT course and there followed plenty of bleak moments waiting on tables and collecting debts to survive.

With his future wife he went overseas for a while, then on returning he spat out The Café Latte Kid. Michael Gow read the script and agreed to workshop it at a national playwrights’ conference, and the play went on to win its awards. McNamara’s dream now a reality, he attended the Australian Film, Television and Radio School from 1995 to 1997 and as one of their best graduates won the opportunity to write for Southern Star, the company that produces the television program The Secret Life of Us. ­McNamara has now written about six episodes and this work gives him the luxury of pursuing his other writing. He enjoys the opportunity to sharpen his comedic skills on one of television’s hippest programs.
‘It’s fun to write a quality show, not a cop show, something that’s a bit evocative. I like its irreverent morality, the way it explores the grey, grey area of how some people live, of topics such as gay and
lesbian sex.’

McNamara added to his repertoire of plays when The John Wayne Principle was produced by the STC’s New Stages in 1996. It has since toured Australia and gone to London. The Resurrection of Grudge Grahame (1998), The Recruit (2000) and The Virgin Mim (2002) have also played to full houses. In addition, McNamara has directed short films Kick to Kick and Seduction 101 and has won an Australian Film Industry award for best screenplay for the short film The Beat Manifesto.

I return to his experience in Rome and try, far too earnestly, to work out what really happened in that room. McNamara hesitates then simply restates that it was the moment that he first knew he was a writer.  If there was a break down, angels’ wings, God’s voice, booze, a woman or gangja involved, he isn’t saying. It’s an unadorned story and McNamara refuses to romanticise or elaborate, but even if he doesn’t see it in religious terms it’s a remarkable story of transformation. 

Margaret Rice is a freelance journalist.

 

 

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