INTERVIEW: North By Northwest’s SIMON PHILLIPS and CAROLYN BURNS

Screen-to-stage hit returns, as creators share their insights with Theatre Press

By Caitlin McGrane

Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns, the marvellous creative team behind Kay + McLean Productions’ outstanding production of North by Northwest graciously agreed to be interviewed by me over Skype. As the show returns at The Arts Centre for two weeks only from 29 January I was keen to know about how the production came together, what their creative processes had been and what their next project will be.

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Theatre Press: Can you tell me a little about the production process and what it was like working with the MTC?
Simon Phillips: Well, I used to run the MTC for so long, so I love the MTC and everyone’s my friend, you see…
Carolyn Burns: … Yes, they’re always very gracious about the demands…
SP: And it’s lovely working with the MTC because [North By Northwest] was quite a big project and they took it on with enthusiasm and they were such big supporters. And before that we’d actually had it developed: it had been commissioned by Andrew Kay in Brisbane while we were trying to get all the video concept to come together. We couldn’t really proceed with confidence until we had that sorted out, because so much of putting the production together was unproblematic, but that really was something we had to get right. We did a lot of development with QPAC (Queensland Performance Arts Centre) and then with the MTC itself.
TP: Yes I can imagine that must’ve been quite involved as a process.
CB: The workshop we did in Brisbane we only got up to the airplane scene. It was really about Simon getting the style right before I even started writing, in a way. Because I knew the work and had done a lot of studying and knew the angle I wanted to take, so until Simon worked with Audio/Visual Artist Josh Burns on how to do those scenes… Simon and Josh came up with some brilliant concepts – I think Josh came up with the Lazy Susan.
TP: Can you tell me a little about how you adapted the film for the stage? Did you use any footage of the film? And was it very hard to obtain the rights for that footage?
SP: Well we actually didn’t use any of the footage from the original film. Although one of the main issues we had, was that Mount Rushmore is a copyrighted image so we had to find a creative solution to incorporating that. I always think that if you’re going to adapt a film for the stage there has to be a point of difference because if you’re showing parts of the film on stage you’re essentially saying that the film is unadaptable.
CB: The only real difference was that I wanted to make a tribute to Rear Window, which is one of my favourite films. So, starting off the production looking into people’s windows and getting a slight hint on who they were and what they were doing. The mother playing cards, one of them cleaning the gun, and getting a feel of the spies.
TP: I feel like the script and the way that the play pans out is a tribute to Hitchcock in a lot of ways it incorporates a lot of his themes and his unique visions. Would you agree?
CB: Oh well, I would. I studied [North by Northwest] at film school when I was a student from an art-direction point of view; I did fall in love with his wonderful way of shotlisting, and his take on life and his subtexts, and his mad, mad mind. My job really was to assume that no-one in the audience had ever seen the film, so it could still tell the story if they hadn’t seen the film. And Simon’s was to do everything else; he created the most beautiful set design.
TP: Can you tell me a little about your creative vision? And do you think you were able to realise that vision?
SP: I know it sounds too easy but Liza McLean [from Kay and McLean Productions] said to us after it had opened that it had perfectly realised what we had described and how it was going to work. But it’s funny because I really had to work out the design in order to say with confidence ‘yes I have a way of staging this.’ Actually I only realised the other day when I came across some early sketches that it did go through a hell of a lot of permutations. The two most difficult scenes were the cropduster and Mount Rushmore, and it was those two scenes that we had to make sure we were on top of before we even started. And Carolyn was very interested in the East versus West thing, spy versus spy.
CB: Yes. my favourite line is the whole thing is when Roger, the Carey Grant figure, says ‘you’re as bad as each other.’ And I just thought ‘both countries’ and I think it’s still the same and it’s still completely relevant today, wouldn’t you?
TP: I would completely agree. One of the great things about Hitchcock is that he is so contemporary and still so relevant today. For instance Eve is given her own character arc, she’s not a femme fetale, she has her own character development.
SP: Oh yes and she’s incredibly witty and very contemporary, which is so great and she is much more than a match for [Roger].
CB: And it also shows the development of one of the original Mad Men [Roger] who starts shallow and ends up slightly deeper. I did really enjoy writing for the mother, and in doing so making [Roger] even more of a mummy’s boy. We’re very lucky that Gina Riley has taken on that role.
TP: I just have one final question, Carolyn you mentioned your time at film school, I was wondering if you could give me a brief overview of your journey to the stage.
CB: Well, because I spent a lot of my childhood reading I found that writing was something that came fairly naturally to me and when I was 9 I wrote my first musical. Then I began writing little pieces for the newspaper; I didn’t really begin writing properly until I went to university in Auckland with Simon, where I wrote my first adult play. I’ve had a very long and complicated journey and in some way it has been a sideline to bringing up four children. I learned from Alan Plater while I was at film school that there is a real art to adaptation. But this one, North by Northwest, is really all about the style. Simon and I haven’t worked together that much but it is lovely to work with him now.
TP: That’s wonderful, thank you very much for your time. Best of luck with the next run of North by Northwest and with the opening of Ladies in Black.

North by Northwest is showing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from 29 January to 10 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit : https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/theatre-drama/north-by-northwest-2016
Ladies in Black is showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company from 16 January to 27 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black/

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