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Emma Thompson delivers her Screenwriters' Lecture

20 September 2014

Discover more about Emma Thompson's fascinating screenwriters' lecture.  


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In the second of this year’s Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, Emma Thompson delivered an entertaining and heart-felt talk, in conversation with fellow screenwriter and founder of the series, Jeremy Brock. 

As the lecture was set to begin, bare-footed Emma Thompson took to the stage dressed in dungarees and a hooded sweatshirt, and began busying herself; performing yoga moves, polishing her desk and vacuuming the stage floor. At one point she ran out of the auditorium crying hysterically. Thompson then returned to explain; “I just wanted you to know, without me having to tell you, how I write. I hoover, I find odd places to polish…there’s a lot of weeping as well, there’s a lot of crying in foetal positions.” This glimpse of Thompson’s writing process no doubt reassured many writers in the audience. 

Just write. It doesn’t matter what you write. It does not matter. Just sit at that desk and write.

The discussion opened with an episode of The Magic Roundabout, a much-loved children’s television programme that was written and narrated by Thompson’s father, Eric. This was both a moving and appropriate starting point: as Thompson recounted, it was her late father’s ardency for writing that stimulated her own “relationship with words”.

She conversed with Jeremy Brock about her origins in stand-up (“a great training in how not to die”) and went on to reveal some of the most difficult moments in her career. She spoke in detail about failure; in particular, the sketch-show Thompson that she was commissioned to write in 1985 and that was met with dreadful reviews.  After that “violent experience”, Thompson explained, “I didn’t write sketch comedy any more. I never wrote another monologue, and I think that’s quite tragic actually.”

As Thompson came to discuss her dramatisation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, she lifted from a box on stage all seventeen drafts of the screenplay - the first handwritten draft being over six hundred pages long. She referred to adaptation as a combination of “distillation and a kind of imaginative invention”, adding that, “you can’t put a whole novel onto the screen, it’s not possible.” Focusing on the techniques of extracting and refining, Thompson asserted that screenwriting was a collaborative medium; one almost impossible to master without “a decent editor”. 

Screenplays are about ellipsis. Write everything and then take out as much as you can.

As her Screenwriters’ Lecture was drawing to a close, Thompson chose to recite the words of choreographer Agnes de Mille: “Living is a form of not being sure. Not knowing what next or how… The artist never entirely knows, we guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” This final statement resounded poignantly with all that had gone before. From stand-up comedian, to sketch-writer, to actress, to screenwriter, BAFTA-winning Emma Thompson has not been afraid to take leap after leap in the dark – and has, for the most part, landed on her feet. 

Biography

One of the UK’s best-loved screenwriters and actors, Emma Thompson’s early career was writing comedy for stage, radio and television. Her feature screenwriting debut Sense And Sensibility (1995), for director Ang Lee, remains one of the definitive Jane Austen screen adaptations and saw her win an Oscar and a BAFTA-nomination for her screenplay. Returning to writing for television in 2001, Thompson wrote the Golden Globe-nominated Wit for director Mike Nicholls. In 2005, she wrote the screenplay for the family hit Nanny McPhee, as well as the 2010 sequel Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang. Chaired by Jeremy Brock.