The Expat Revisited: Matt Graham

Screen writer Matt Graham.
CV: Matt Graham
From: London
Age: 32
Profession: Screen writer
Education: Masters degree in writing for screen and TV from the University of Southern
Currently reading: Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy
Last film seen: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Gadget: I don’t own a mobile phone and I don’t even drive

What brought you to Argentina?
I came here in 2007 looking for adventure and I didn’t want to do any more assistant jobs in Los Angeles, which is the standard way for someone like me to get into the film industry.
I decided not to do any more work like that as I wanted to be a writer so I decided to come to South America. I didn’t know anybody, and I only chose Buenos Aires on whim as I was going to go to Mexico City. A friend of a friend had said it was “really cool” and “like Paris”. All I knew was I had to broaden my horizons. In LA; it’s a bit Romeo and Juliet, “there is no world without Verona walls.”

What has happened to you since we met three years ago?
I’m living in the same house in San Telmo with my yoga-teaching girlfriend, although I also live in Los Angeles as I have an apartment there. Work breaks down to about a third of my time there and the other two-thirds here. I went to LA at the end of 2009 for a year.

What changes did you see after that year away?
It’s really clear that San Telmo is much more like Palermo Viejo now. When I first went to Palermo in 2007, it was becoming quite western and looking like New York Soho.
So in 2010 I saw that San Telmo is much more upmarket, with boutiques and shops, and much less edgy. It used to be a little bit rough.

And whow have you progressed professionally?
The big thing I’ve been involved with in the past three years is being one of the writers for a primetime show directed by Oliver Stone on ShowTime, called The Secret History of the United States, which airs in September in the US.
It tells the story of the US from the years 1898 to 2010 and it’s an attempt to get away from traditional historical documentaries. It’s exciting, there’s scandal and affairs and it tries to get people interested in history, which is unusual for the US.

How did the Stone gig come about?
I really like getting other people interested in history. At school, I was crap at every subject apart from two: English and History. Except I used to be crap at history too, until one day I realized that history is basically an action movie that never finishes, and if you understand history, you can also predict the future.
I remember studying the Stuarts and the Tudors, and one day we were taught the seven ways how they killed Rasputin. That’s when I realized that history was great.
So I’d written a script about some white mercenaries in Angola in the 1970s, based on a true story. That script percolated around and one thing led to another.

What has kept you here?
I’ve made loads of great friends, and obviously my girlfriend is Argentine, and I have a great social life. It’s a great city to live in and work as a writer: it’s relatively cheap, and if you work inside all day in somewhere like San Telmo, it gives you tremendous opportunities, which my contemporaries in California don’t have. I can walk to a café and meet a friend, I love going shopping at 8pm every day and it’s really relaxing to do that.
If I was living in Brentwood, LA, I’d drive to a supermarket, have a passive-aggressive fight with someone behind the counter over whether I was buying an organic turkey or not, then go home and watch a DVD. The opportunities are greater here and Buenos Aires is far more attractive to be in on a daily basis than most other cities in the world. It’s very hard to find something that I don’t like about it.

Does working in Buenos Aires help you?
It’s great doing it from here as it gives a nice sense of perspective. I’ve learned a lot about America as a result and actually how similar America is to Argentina which is a completely unintended effect. Even though Argentina has a traditional antipathy to the US, they are similar places, socially, economically, they are both immigrant countries.

You had just finished the script for an expat short film three years ago. What happened to that?
We wrapped Last Night in Buenos Aires at the end of 2009 and it looks really good now. Working with (director) David (Labi) was wonderful so it was good for us both. It was a positive experience and I really enjoyed it. I think expats liked it and it involved a lot of people I know here peripherally. And more people than I realized heard about it.

You’ve been involved with a group promoting awareness of the destruction of the city’s architecture.
The wanton destruction of the city’s architecture is the greatest tragedy I’ve observed since living here.
It’s especially painful because Buenos Aires is like a living monument to fin de siècle architecture from the 1880s to the 1930s, and there’s no other city in Europe that’s quite as rich. The designs percolated here without any restrictions. And I just don’t understand why the people in charge, the City government I suppose, that the city’s image, internationally, depends on it looking nice and is known to be a very beautiful, exotic place.
But there seems to be no idea that the image of the city is being fundamentally ruined at such a fast speed. They’ve just torn down something at the next intersection. People always used to tell me that “it’s San Telmo, they can’t do anything” but they’ve just done it. But there is no interest in historical preservation apart from a couple of action groups which are endlessly sending emails but have no affect.

Tell me about the BA writing community.
Buenos Aires has always been a city for writers. The city’s very feel extends itself naturally toward creative people — it is after all, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Buenos Aires is also the home of a major film industry and a centre of literary excellence. Many writers from all over the world are working here, and there are many other screenwriters from Hollywood working here and making the 14-hour commute via Lima to LA! It’s a city that naturally lends itself to working creatively. I feel very humbled that I can go out after a long day and go to San Telmo Market — while my friends in LA have to drive to Whole Foods (although that, too, has its charm…).

And what about your relationship with about Tigre?
Tigre is a very interesting place for one simple reason: despite the efforts of foreigners, it refuses to be discovered. I go every weekend I can, especially during Carnival, and you take the ferry and see very few foreigners.
In my first year people would say “I went to Tigre but it wasn’t that nice.” Then you realize what happened: they’ve gone to the end of the line, hung around the Fruit Market and come home. It’s like someone saying they’ve gone to Paris when really they’ve gone to Charles de Gaulle airport.
Tigre is the secret to living in Buenos Aires. It’s so beautiful and haunting, and I go to a place in the second section way beyond the Paraná River. You could be in the middle of the Amazon.
I think the reason why lots of foreigners don’t go is because it’s got “brown water.”

Do you see yourself as an expat?
I’m a professional expat and have been for 10 years. I went to England at Christmas and it was no longer my country. And I suppose my family have always been expats because we were cleared out of the Highlands in the late 1700s.

What has Buenos Aires given you?
I’m a totally different person to the one who got off the plane in 2007, which comes down to living here, interacting with people here. I never dreamed I’d end up in Argentina. It wasn’t part of the plan. I’m a better writer, a better person, I can speak Spanish. It’s been 100 percent positive. The only negative has been the fact that the headquarters of Carnival is at San Juan and Chacabuco!

What would you do as City mayor?
I’d change the name of Independencia subway station to San Telmo. And I’d pipe Hank Williams III over the subte to increase quilombo at rush hour. There’s not enough quilombo in Buenos Aires.

“Why do they hold carnival?”
The Carnival bank holiday, which took place last weekend, was reintroduced by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2011 after it was shelved during the last military dictatorship.
In fact, the day of the presidential election, murga musical collectives took to Plaza de Mayo in recognition of her reinstating this much-loved holiday.
However, screen writer Matt Graham is less enamoured of Carnival than many of his San Telmo neighbours.
“Ah, the carnival whose Ground Zero is outside my door and kept me up until midnight last night (Tuesday). Actually, that wasn’t so bad as we thought it would go on until 2am which is what the toothless security man had told us.
“I’m the wrong person to be charitable about it as I don’t understand what it’s for. There’s a lot of old people living in my building and all Carnival seems to succeed at is keeping everyone who has a job awake on this intersection.
“’Okay, it’s Carnival, let’s have a party, let’s have a good time and make sure everyone who has a proper job is really exhausted. Hurray’. I just don’t understand. It’s not just one night, but every weekend, Sunday night too. I’ve seen the old lady who lives underneath is sitting out on the street at 11pm because she can’t get to sleep.
“There’s some arsehole on a microphone at the end of the road, and it’s obviously his five minutes of fame, and it’s like listening to a headache. It’s a collection of disparate, desperate, wailing anthems which isn’t even music. Carnival is meant to be joyous! It’s really annoying, and I don’t think it’s just me as everyone who lives on this intersection gets annoyed. We have no say in it. But it also takes place around the city.
“Last night, I went on to the official Carnival website desperately trying to find out that it wasn’t going on until 2am, and I saw 30 comments basically saying ‘I wish they’d do it somewhere else, I‘ve got a kid, I have to work at 6am.’ They’re just keeping everyone awake. Hurray Carnival.
“In fact, on the first night it ended in a knife fight. I heard the guy on his microphone saying ‘put the knives down, we’re all friends.’ I’m all for Carnival but when it’s forcibly imposed on you as it is on me, it’s different. Don‘t they have any other songs?
“We live about five minutes from the Costanera, where there’s masses of space. Why don’t they go there, and have a great party? What no one will say, is that it’s held in the City and is an aggressive statement about reclaiming the streets. I’m all for Carnival but I wish they would do it somewhere else. It should be a work Carnival, four days of really hard work!”

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on February 26, 2012.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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