“People seem to be queueing up to expose their souls to millions in front of the camera. Maybe I’m wrong to feel outraged about it”
In anticipation of our July screening we put some questions to David G. Compton, author of The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, the book which inspired the 1980 film Death Watch.
What inspired you to write The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe?*
Usually, when people ask writers where they get their ideas from, they receive vague, dusty answers. In the case of this book, though, my answer need be neither vague nor dusty. I remember the manner and the moment exactly.
The year was 1973, a tragic time in Northern Ireland, and I was in my London home, watching an evening TV news report from Belfast when the newsman, quite a well-known figure, brazenly asked the woman he was interviewing, ‘And can you tell us please, Mrs O’Hara, how you felt when you saw your daughter being blown to pieces by that IRA bomb?’ Or words to that effect. He really did.
I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that the clip appeared again in the next news break. Clearly his network wasn’t bothered. It knew that its public’s appetite for the suffering of others was insatiable. What next? I thought. The sad private processes of actual dying on camera in prime time TV?
How did you feel when you learned that the book was to be made into a film?
I was obviously amazed and delighted, but wary also. One hears much of the travesties film directors make of books, and I was quite prepared for a crass, cigar-chewing mogul when I first went to meet Tavernier. A moral issue threatened – should I dig in my toes against unworthy changes and lose the sale, or should I simply, as the saying goes, ‘cry all the way to the bank’? Very luckily, of course, Bertrand was a treasure and had never chewed a cigar in his life.
“Everything’s of interest, but nothing matters” -Katherine Mortenhoe
Did Bertrand Tavernier face any difficulty getting the film made, considering it was based on such a bleak story?
As a sad confirmation of Hollywood crassness (back then anyway) Bertrand had a long and unsuccessful fundraising visit, during which several studios expressed serious interest in the project, but only if the ending was changed. Bertrand refused, of course, and finally gained backing from what he described to me as ‘a group of German dentists’. He made the film for a little over a million pounds, tiny even in those days. Louis Malle told him he’d just paid that much for a script. Bert was helped a bit, though, by the four stars accepting very small fees for their usually quite expensive services because they strongly approved its message. I certainly detected their commitment on the set. Maybe I was biased but it truly didn’t seem to be just a job.
What did you think of the finished film when it was released?
A brief story here – through odd film-world circumstances my first viewing of the film was with my wife at an SF film festival in Trieste, where a balls-up had resulted in the dubbed French-language version being shown. Our French was far from fluent but we kind of knew the story so we managed pretty well and left the cinema impressed and delighted. Fine performances (Romy a joy to watch), riveting scenery, story close to the book. A few weeks later, though, we saw the English language version in London and (I’ve never told Bertrand this) were frankly dismayed. In the second half of the film it seemed to us that the characters simply sat around and told each other things. I joked to friends that it was a great film as long as you couldn’t properly understand the dialogue. I think now that I was foolishly harsh. Maybe films (non-blockbuster ones) are allowed to be wordier these days.
The original SFT Death Watch poster by Alex de Tisi
I understand that you weren’t closely involved with the screenplay… is there anything you would have done differently if you were?
Writing for the screen is a very special skill. So is compressing a quite-thick-on-the-page novel into a two-hour film. I have neither. Bertrand had enormous difficulties in getting it down to length – acres of good stuff died on the cutting room floor – and the choices he made wouldn’t always have been mine. Katherine’s scene in the book after she’s been told she’s dying, for example, I sorely miss. We need to be with her in that difficult time. But in all honesty I don’t see other stuff in the film that could go to make room for it. Just one thing, though, I wish he hadn’t done. When she’s talking to Gerald at the very end she should never have worried about Vincent ‘winning’. That’s not what their relationship had been about.
How do you think the film holds up today? Do you enjoy watching it?
Viewing it again on its recent re-release after so long, I was pleasantly surprised. It was much better than I remembered. I really don’t understand why it bombed so badly when it first came out. Audiences not ready? That’s a very pretentious thought.
“Death is the new pornography” -Vincent Ferriman
Has modern reality TV lived up to your ‘expectations’? Are you surprised by anything you see on TV anymore?
I’ve been warned so often about today’s reality TV that I admit I’ve never actually watched any. People seem to be queueing up to expose their souls to millions in front of the camera. Maybe I’m wrong to feel outraged about it.
Finally, what are your favourite science fiction films?
I’ve always avoided films with monsters or spaceships or mad scientists in them. I suppose I’m an earnest person. An SF film I’m fond of is Soylent Green, especially because of my beloved Edward G. Robinson. I believe it was, sadly but suitably, his last movie. I do wish, though, that the writers hadn’t treated the eating of compassionately-dead people as so shocking. The society portrayed would have grown out of that. Personally I’ve often used SF, maybe over-obviously, as a message medium – speculative sociology, really. Still, SF can be fun too. The movie Brazil is a treasure. So, very differently, is Memento. How about the preposterous Being John Malkovitch?
Science Fiction Theatre is a London-based monthly film club run by The Space Merchants, purveyors of classic sf in all its guises. Death Watch will be screened at the Victoria on Monday 20th July. Advance tickets are just £3.50 and are available via the shop.
*the answer to this first question was taken, with permission, from a 2012 interview by Jonathan Melville, which can be read in full here.