‘Florence Foster Jenkins’: three trials, two sopranos, and one woman’s fight for artistic justice

“The theft of intellectual property has been the dirty little secret of the film world for a very, very long time.”

Julia Kogan

When Julia Kogan was an undergraduate studying music and English Literature and struggling with the challenges of the coloratura soprano’s repertoire, she discovered Florence Foster Jenkins – a figure who was to change her life.

She remembers the experience to the very day.

“I was in the music building of the Conservatory of my university, and I was walking down the corridor…and one of my friends a countertenor, was sitting on the floor and he had a boom box and…it was blaring out Florence Foster Jenkins singing the Queen of the Night aria and [it] had to be one of the funniest things I’d ever heard.

The seeds of the idea that was to become the screenplay to the hit movie “Florence Foster Jenkins” were sown then and were to accompany Julia as she developed an international career – one that also saw her singing at Jenkins’s own favoured venue – Carnegie Hall.

“The challenge was how to create a feature film around the story of an old woman who sings badly in the same way over and over again?”

Enter Nicholas Martin who was to become Julia’s partner in crime. Or rather in life as in fiction. And it was to him that Julia pitched the idea for the screenplay.

It was a difficult time for both of them: Julia had been horribly injured in a near fatal car accident which had put her singing career on hold; Martin had just lost his job writing for the TV series Midsomer Murders; money was running out for both of them.

As Julia explained to the Music Works podcast, buying an extra copy of Final Draft, the screenwriting software, for her own computer seemed an unnecessary extravagance so Julia worked on Martin’s computer, which was already equipped with the programme.

It was an economy she would come to regret.

The resulting screenplay was pitched successfully, and both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant were signed up to the project as the eponymous heroine and her pseudo-husband. The film was made, launched and became a box office success.

But by then Julia Kogan and Nicholas Martin were no longer a couple and, in 2016, Martin took pre-emptive legal action to prevent Julia claiming any right to a share of the credit in the screenplay.

It was a court case that would go through three separate trials, redefine the law on joint authorship, and finally, in a judgment published in January this year, see Julia acknowledged as having made a 20% contribution to the work.

It was a victory, but a bitter one, and one that had taken its toll. For Julia it was a matter of creative integrity and recognition:

“When you’re in this kind of situation, more than anything else in the world, you want to be believed…”

Julia’s description of the conduct of the trial is a tale of pain, misogyny and years of a systematic attempt to discredit her as a writer and an artist.

It is a story that will resonate with many women as she describes the pressure placed on her to downplay her creative contribution in order to sustain her romantic relationship.

“It’s something that happens; someone essentially rewrites your identity.”

A lot of people would be discouraged and embittered by this experience, and Julia acknowledges the trauma she still carries as a result of the days of interrogation in which the final trial judge preferred the testimony of Nicholas Martin in the face what seemed compelling evidence in support of Julia’s case.

But this is not, in the end, a story of victimhood and loss, as Julia has emerged stronger, even more creative, and determined to build an enhanced career as a writer and publisher alongside her established name as a brilliant coloratura soprano.

“These years have been probably the most creative time of my life. I’ve gotten so much writing and singing done in the years fighting this case. And I think if I hadn’t fought this case, if I hadn’t stood up for myself, I don’t think I could have continued to write.”

This is one of the podcast’s most compelling episodes as Julia, a natural storyteller, takes us on an extraordinary journey through the machinations of the movie industry and the tortuous processes of the English legal system.

If you want to find out more about Julia as both a singer and a writer, and specifically about the “Florence Foster Jenkins” case, you can find this here on the Polyphony Arts website under her client profile: https://polyphonyarts.com/julia-kogan-soprano/ and on her website: https://www.juliakogan.com

You can watch the official trailer to “Florence Foster Jenkins” here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rRVCNffvKk

And, if you really want to hear Florence Foster Jenkins singing the Queen of the Night, you can find it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwthfxxbKho You have been warned!