Adventures in the Empire of Ice

Wingrove on Empire of Ice, the film script based on Chung Kuo. Full text after the break…


Adventures In The Empire of Ice

In the last few months of 1992 – from about mid-November on – I began work on a film treatment of Chung Kuo, collaborating with an American friend, John Kavanagh, the two of us working three or four evenings a week and keeping the fax machine humming across the Atlantic into the early hours. At that stage we hadn’t got the story sorted out, but it was fun and made a real change from the novel writing, which, to be honest, wasn’t going well. There’d been a long period when I simply couldn’t face the thing and so didn’t write a word, and I guess I was still feeling rather hung-over from that. The novel was less than 65,000 words long and was due to be delivered by the end of January!

By mid-January John and I had a fair chunk of the screenplay written – 45 pages or so – and were coasting. And the novel? Beneath The Tree Of Heaven – book five of the original sequence – was limping along at a frighteningly slow pace. I’d added another 8,000 words, but there were still at least 125,000 words to go. Something had to be done. In early February I wrote to my editor, Caroline Caughey, asking for a delay in delivery until the end of June.  She phoned me a day or two later to say no, but we agreed to a new deadline, March 16th. It gave me five weeks to finish the book.

What followed was intense. The screenplay was put on hold, football games were banned, and I found myself working 12-15 hour days. Some days I got 5-6000 words done, and most of it quite reasonable, though on average I managed something between three and four thousand words a day. In fact, things were going so well, I’d returned to the collaboration. Even as the first version of the screenplay was completed, we were working on the polish.

And the novel? It was now March the 13th and Beneath The Tree of Heaven was a chapter short of being finished. I’d already sent off large chunks of the book to Carolyn, who loved it. By the following Monday it was done. 103,000 words in 33 days, with 3 days break in that time. How did I feel? Pleased, but physically done in.

A week later, I got down to finishing the last few scenes of what was now called Empire of Ice, and even as the cheque came in from Hodders for the delivery of book five, John and I got the screenplay under wraps, the final scene written. Although the process of re-writing and editing and polishing would go on for another few months yet, as March ended I had the feeling like I’d run a marathon and come out the other end of, still standing and in good shape.

April was suddenly upon us and my task was to re-read Empire of Ice and get my notes together for a face-to-face with John, over on his side of the Atlantic later that month. By the seventeenth I’d done the copy-edit on Beneath The Tree and delivered it to the typesetters, bang on schedule.

I flew out early on Wednesday 21st April 1993, and spent the next day or two in New York, meeting my publishers, having lunch with my American agent, Ellen Levine, doing various interviews and getting drunk in the Waldorf Astoria with my US editor, Brian DeFiore. It was all great fun. Then, that next Saturday, I boarded a train in Penn Station and headed south… to New Jersey, where, at Princeton Junction, I got to meet John for the very first time.

We hit it off at once. That evening John and his wife Susan threw me a big party, where I met the whole Hart clan. Then, on the Sunday, we headed south once more, a full one hundred and sixty miles, to Avalon, on the New Jersey “Shore”, where the Harts had their family beach house.

The next three days were INTENSE. Each day we’d get up and get out to the local diner by ten for breakfast, taking the same window seat. After that, we’d have a walk and then return to the house and get down to work. We averaged 30 pages a day, but to do that we’d be working a good 8-10 hours, rewriting practically every line of the script. Somewhere along the way we started writing a second, shadow movie, too – EMPIRE OF RICE, the spoof! – which from time to time broke the tension and had us rolling about with tears of laughter. But John and I got on amazingly well and the script benefitted hugely from the changes we were making. Evenings, to wind down, we’d crack open a few beers, eat some of the leftovers from Saturday’s party, and watch a hired video, usually stopping it frequently to debate some point of the script writing. It was all HUGE fun!

Thursday morning – the 29th – we packed up and, just after twelve, left the shore, our work done.

By the end of the next month, the corrections to the script were near enough done and we were about to parcel it up and send it off to Amy Ferris at ICM, the second biggest of the Hollywood agencies.  Before we did, however, we decided to get things as tight as possible and spent a lot of time crossing the t-s and dotting the i-s. It was therefore not until the 4th June that we sent off all of the Empire Of Ice material to ICM in New York, less than seven months since John and I had begun work on it.

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