Society’s more forgettable characters sometimes prove to be life’s most memorable ones.
About twenty years ago I appeared for a hapless heroin addict called to give evidence at an investigative hearing which required him to be cross-examined by a very experienced and capable Queen’s Counsel.
Arguably, there was little merit to my client, and undoubtedly it’s fair to say he was no genius, but after decades on the soup, scrounging desperately to make ends meet and stay one step ahead of the long arm of the law, he’d learned a thing or two about surviving. There’s no scammer like a seasoned junkie and, when this one climbed into the witness box, it was clear he brought a lifetime collection of finely-honed street smarts along with him.
When the questioning began, the esteemed, erudite and urbane QC opened the scoring impressively, plying his craft astutely and with masterful precision. But then the witness somewhat surprisingly hit back – whether wittingly or not was hard to confidently discern – with an inelegant, confusing set of clumsy answers, batting back the learned barrister’s questions with mindless responses that gradually began to hopelessly distract and ultimately derail the hearing. Asked about historical events he consistently just whined pathetically “Mate, I’ve been on the gear for twenty years. My brain’s fried. I can’t remember nothing.” When pressed for detail of specific incidents, he countered with such pearls as “Youse are trying to verbal me,” and inane inquiries of “Do I get paid witness fees for being here today?” and “Who’s paying for my bus fare to get home?”
I felt like I was witnessing two foreign worlds colliding, on one side well-ordered legal reason and restraint, and on the other a messy, desperate free-for-all in which the end game was survival at all costs. When the QC finally gave up in obvious frustration, and my client was excused from attending further at the hearing, it was hard to know whether the shambolic obfuscation I had just witnessed was unwitting or deliberate, but I couldn’t help suspecting the latter. Certainly, this junkie’s testimony was either the most witless or the most wily I had ever heard.
Years later, that intriguing experience inspired me to write a screenplay entitled Gettin’ Square, featuring a feckless but endearing character called John Francis Spitieri, a.k.a. Johnny Spit. A fictionalised amalgam of a long list of colourful if disreputable characters I had encountered over many years in practice, Johnny was a hopeless but essentially good-hearted junkie, determined to overcome his heroin addiction, and start a new life as “a squarehead.” When I wrote the script it seemed counterintuitive to expect mainstream audiences to warm to a heroin addict who went from peddling drugs to perjury, armed robbery, breach of bail and parole violation. But for some reason, there was something about the hapless Johnny that struck a chord with moviegoers and, when the film was released in 2003, it garnered more award nominations than any previous Australian film in history.
David Wenham, the sublimely talented actor who played Johnny Spit, won all four major Australian Best Actor awards that year for his performance. David went on to garner international success in huge films like Moulin Rouge, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean, but he recently told me that the role his many fans most quiz him about is Johnny Spit.
Just last week, in no-less-esteemed a journal than the prestigious New York Times, respected journalist Damien Cave wrote an article entitled 5 Things I Love About Australia (and One I Loathe), in which he nominated, high on his list at number 2, none other than our humble friend, John Francis Spitieri. “Whenever I watch Australian movies,” Cave wrote last Wednesday, “I find myself comparing the writing and characters to Johnny Spit, the scene-stealer of Gettin’ Square played by David Wenham. John Francis Spitieri is the ultimate larrikin, a savant, a satirist and a fool all at the same time. I long for the day when I can cock my head just the way he does and tell someone, as he does in court, ‘Hey, you’re trying to verbal me, trying to put words in my mouth!’’’
Thank you Mr Cave, and all Johnny’s other faithful fans, for so fondly remembering the all-too-forgettable John Francis Spitieri.
Chris Nyst, Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker