They say that the best art cuts to the bone...
I caught up with screenwriter and playwright Michael Ashton for a fascinating conversation on art, redemption, film, Shakespeare, writing, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his steadfast defense of human rights, and Michael’s very first feature film, The Forgiven.
The Forgiven is based on his play The Archbishop and the Antichrist about Tutu and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – to help the country heal from the scars of Apartheid and its plethora of human rights abuses. See it on VOD and Digital now.
Born in 1953, in Dundee, Scotland, Michael went from college into the British Army where he saw active service across the world. Following the end of his Army career, he returned to university and saw himself through working as a taxi driver, ice-cream salesman, to the middle temple and studied law, qualifying as a barrister specializing in human rights.
To say that he has had varied life experiences is an understatement. In 2008 following a conviction for fraud, he was sent to prison for 18 months. While in prison he undertook a course in playwriting at the end of which he wrote The Archbishop and the Antichrist.
The play was submitted for an award in 2009 by those running the playwriting course (Michael relays a pretty profound story about this in the interview below) and it won an immediate Koestler Gold Award. It then won Amnesty International’s Protect the Human prize. The play has been seen at the Royal Festival Hall, the Amnesty Theatre, and the Soho Theatre London.
Michael has consistently won awards for his work, notably the Lost Festival with Mirrors, Koestler with Peter Chamberlen’s Case of Conscience, and a Writers Guild best newcomer with I6 Charlie. In 2011 his stage play The Beekeeper won the Pulse and played to a sold-out audience in its run at South Hill Park. It then played to great reviews at Waterloo East in London in 2012 and was nominated for 3 OFFIE’s.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Forest Whitaker) is appointed to head a nationwide investigation, he’s summoned to a maximum-security prison by a notorious murderer seeking clemency (Eric Bana). Inside the brutal prison walls, Tutu is drawn into a dangerous, life-changing battle with the cunning criminal in this captivating film from Oscar® nominated director Roland Joffé.
The Forgiven does not just function as a thriller or even as your more prototypical story of redemption. Whitaker and Bana act as two players delivering a protracted discussion on the basis of morality and the human experience with Bana’s Piet Blomfeld firmly taking a very Nietzschean “might makes right” position, with all the gross depravity and banal degradation of humanity is a central pillar to his case.
Whitaker’s Tutu, on the other hand, firmly takes the more stock Christian position that while we are all capable of the lowest forms of depravity, we are also perfectible – but only through the necessity of owning our faults by emptying them and seeking true forgiveness from those, we have wronged.
The overall story of The Forgiven is a great one – will Blomfeld finally seek forgiveness for his crimes? – with all the background of South Africa and the death rattles of Apartheid? Another real reason to watch is how Bana and Whitaker compellingly deliver their sides of this profound moral discussion throughout the film, all anchored by Michael’s brilliant writing and a deft hand at crafting character and narrative in both his play and the film.
Most recently Michael’s play Bethlehem Lights won the Henley Festival Playwriting Award 2016, and being the headline work at the Henley Festival May 2017, became Overall Festival Winner and won best original script.
He believes in artistic perfection and has a hell of an eye for detail. What he has to say on art, film, and the human experience is incredible and his work in The Forgiven speaks to the fallibility within us all, but also the possibility of redemption we all share and should extend to our fellow humans.
Hi Wess! How are you?
Just wonderful. How are you?
Well, as I’ve told everyone who’s interviewed me this evening, I’m lying on my bed, in England, with a broken leg.
I’m sorry to hear that! May I ask what happened?
I wasn’t able to come to the States for the premiere.
From my army days, I have a metal plate in my left knee cap – my left knee cap is a plate.
It gave way on the stairs, and my other leg stayed behind me – so I broke it in 3 places.
Still – for someone who by nature was born idle – it’s ideal! [Laughs]
Rest up and get well soon with that! Getting into the meat of the questions: you have quite the prolific output as a writer. I’m curious there – what drives you?
I hadn’t written until I wrote The Archbishop and the Antichrist in 2009. When I was a practicing lawyer – before I went to prison – I specialized in human rights issues.
So, I find that if I start writing, I start working on something that interests me – I don’t stop because I’m high on the Asperger’s scale. So once I start writing, I can’t stop. For example, on my ex-wife Kim’s website, KS Productions, you see some of my productions, like The Beekeeper – which is set in one of the satellite labor camps to Auschwitz.
Or others with human rights: like Bethlehem Lights which tells talks about it in The Congo.
Once I get started on it, once I’ve done my research, I can’t wait to get writing. I must say, every time I finish a script, I tell myself that I’m never going to do another one.
…and then I do. [Laughs]
…being Aspergers… once I get at the end of a script, I get intensely depressed because I’ve got to come out of that world, stop being all these characters – and now I have to step back into our real world.
So, it’s a kind of pleasure and pain.
But, at any rate, I’m digressing…
It’s fascinating. A question I like to ask everybody is about film influences. I wanted to expand that for you – do you consider film an influence on you? Also, who would you consider as literary influences?
Wess, you’re talking to a man who the last film I watched was Minions…
[Laughs] I’m only joking.
I have a classical education and I’ve always found it hard to make friends because my conversation doesn’t normally run to standing at the bar, making comments about the afternoon, or football, or what have you…
So, I’ve always found it difficult to make friends and I’m a voracious reader.
When it came to The Forgiven, you wouldn’t believe how pleased I was to hear Forest Whitaker was attached from 2011. I watched this guy’s movies – whatever he’s in, he’s just wonderful to look at, wonderful to listen to.
My Shakespeare is perfect – I know every word of every single tragedy. Of course, my love for Shakespeare is slightly tempered – not overtly but slightly tempered – by the fact that he is one of the world’s great plagiarists.
So he stole from other material especially “Holinshed’s Chronicles”.
I guess when I’m thinking about a movie, I love things that are just so challenging that they’re almost perfect. I’ll give an example, you never see it nowadays, but there’s an absolutely fantastic film, The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen.
You remember that film?
It’s been quite a while…
I love films like that. I love the old ‘40s films [Laughs] you know?
[Laughs] I do because I do too.
With film, if you would’ve said to me when I was a soldier… I saw this film in a shed in a bus station in Belfast where I was stationed. It was The Mission.
I instantly – when I had some leave and went home to Germany – I instantly got a video of The Mission. If you said to me that almost 30 years later I would be working with the director of The Mission, well … you know [Laughs]
…Just unbelievable. [Laughs]
So, my influences are classical, mainly classical. When it comes to films, great films… when it comes to film Wess, another film that I love that had a great influence on me, is Crash.
I’ve read lots of negative things about Crash.
It seemed to be in vogue in certain circles for a while to bash that one…
…you know, how the depiction of racism is “clumsy”. Ok. You can knock it. But I’ve just sat through 2 hours of worthwhile entertainment.
So that’s the kind of films I go for. Ones that challenge you.
Certainly. I know how that is because my tastes are pretty close to that.
You mentioned Forrest Whitaker was brilliant as Archbishop Tutu – he radiated a magnetism, passion, and likability that I imagine the real archbishop has. Also Eric Bana as Piet Blomfeld…
Do you want an Archbishop Tutu story?
Roland said to – because obviously, we had to meet the Archbishop – I met him in 2010 in London. Obviously,for the film, I had to meet him and his daughter Mpho who had taken over for him as archbishop in Capetown.
The film uses the Archbishop and Blomfeld as foils, but the film’s not really about them.
I thought the same thing when viewing it.
…it’s about the issues.
So Roland said to Tutu, “well, you know Archbishop, the film’s not really about you.” And he said, “what do you mean it’s not about me? Of course it’s about me!” and he started laughing [Laughs]
[Laughs] I could absolutely see that happening.
One of the producers, who didn’t finish up on the film, one of the producers was Ian Smith.
When he met the Archbishop in London, the Archbishop was laughing. Then when he moved on, Ian said, “What was he laughing at?”
I said, “Don’t be stupid! Your name is Ian Smith, the same name as the last white prime minister of Rhodesia!” [Laughs]
[Laughs] The Archbishop was just completely tickled by that.
So yeah, I mean he is a jovial, just a HUGE personality. Only 5 foot 3 inches tall but he’s 10 feet tall.
Wow. Yeah absolutely.
Like Forest in the film, this guy fills a room when he walks in.
When I first wrote the stage play, I was a bit worried because the way I present him, I’ve got him coming at a crisis of faith and conscience – and struggling with his wife over it.
Once he had seen the stage play, I asked him if it was a bit much. He said, “Good God! You might have been living with me and Leah.”
Wow. Quite the compliment on capturing the reality for the Archbishop at such a pivotal time in history.
Another interesting fact from the film, you know the lady who played Tutu’s wife, Pamela Nomvete?
I do. She was incredible.
Well, she played that part every time the play’s been on in London.
All 4 times she played the same role.
Yeah. She is a South African actress so after she had gone back to South Africa, I had persuaded Roland to cast her as Leah.
So she’s been Leah right from the start, right from the first read-through. [Laughs]
Seeing her in the film reminded me of the old adage, “behind every great man there’s a great woman.”
I would imagine so.
You were talking about how the Archbishop and Blomfeld are foils in the film. That got into a question I had – the film played out very much as a protracted moral discussion between two archetypical figures – “foils” as you aptly point out – what was your creative process like when you wrote the play?
When I wrote the play – it was quite the journey from sitting in an English prison cell, looking out over a rainy yard, and writing The Archbishop and the Antichrist by hand, in a prison notebook, to an LA premiere. That’s quite a journey.
So, when I sat down and wrote, I was writing from the heart, not from the head. I was writing with no expectation. I thought I would hand this in – these 3 notebooks – I thought I would hand it into the people running the course who would mark it and I would get released from prison and return to life somehow.
I didn’t know that they’d sent it off and entered it into the Amnesty International competition. I didn’t know that.
Seven days after I was out of prison, I was sitting in a Salvation Army hostel, for homeless people in East London. I had 2 bottles of whiskey and I had 500 Benzedrine tablets.
I was halfway through killing myself, when a staff member knocked on the door and said, “There’s a phone call for you.”
When I left the prison, what they do is, anything you’ve been working on on computers they wipe. I asked for the hand-written copy of The Archbishop and the Antichrist, so I had that. I thought, that day, what am I doing looking at this? So, I threw it in the script.
Esther Baker said to me, “We’re going to be performing it at the Royal Festival Hall, but they lost the CD, so do you have a hard copy?”
So, 1 o’clock at a night with one staff member shining a torch, I have to get into the script and find all the pages… [Laughs]
[Laughs] Wow, yeah…
What do you hope audiences will take with them from The Forgiven?
I hope that audiences will be able to go away and be able to forgive themselves.
When it comes to getting angry and frustrated in this technological, technocratic society you live in, that they’ll forgive people because none of us are perfect.
I learned on this journey from prison to a Los Angeles premiere, that I couldn’t attend because I managed to throw myself down the stairs and break my leg, [Laughs]…
…be nice to each other! Don’t go out and shoot somebody, just be nice to each other.