Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Anthony McCarten
Jeremy Brock: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Jeremy Brock. On behalf of BAFTA, Lucy Guard and the JJ Charitable Trust, welcome to the fourth and final allocution of this year’s extraordinary quartet of screenwriters’ lectures. As this is our final event of the year I’d like to remind those of you who don’t know that every single one of our lectures is available online on the BAFTA Guru website. Since the foundation of this series in 2010, our plan was always to make the lectures available to everyone and I’m proud that by the end of this year, thanks to Lucy Guard’s incredible and endless generosity, we will have posted no fewer than forty lectures on BAFTA’s website. No lecture is ever the same because no artist is the same; no artist is the same because, of course, no story is the same. Our speakers cover every element of screenwriting that you could possibly imagine and some, bogglingly, that you cannot. They are generous, inclusive and always insightful, and BAFTA is incredibly grateful to them for their generosity. Tonight’s speaker is a world-renowned playwright, an internationally acclaimed novelist and one of our industry’s foremost screenwriters. He is the double Oscar-nominated, double BAFTA winner of films including Death of a Superhero, The Theory of Everything and Darkest Hour, and anyone who’s seen Darkest Hour will be immediately struck not only by the screenwriter’s incredible and cinematic imagination, but also by his genius for layering character with such emotional detail that even people we thought we knew, we see again for the first time. So BAFTA is honoured to close 2017’s international screenwriters’ lectures with the great Anthony McCarten. As always we will begin with a short montage, Anthony will lecture and that will be followed by a Q&A with the presenter and film critic Robbie Colin, after which we will open it up to questions from the floor as we always do. So thank you for coming and have a wonderful evening.
Anthony McCarten: Hello everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you BAFTA. Hello guests, friends. Many thanks for being afforded the chance to speak on a subject so mercurial, so elusive we can only pretend to know what we are talking about when we are talking about it—the dark art, the lonely art, the bloody difficult art, the under-celebrated art that dare not speak its name, but we will speak it: the screenplay.
In the late ‘90s I lived for a couple of years in Los Angeles, where ‘How To: Screenwriting’ books were in every bookstore en route to being in every apartment. Everyone I’d seen wanted the Midas touch, to write Martin Scorsese’s next picture and eventually be able to deliver master classes on the lucrative master class circuit. These books were everywhere and I remember one title in particular, it was really popular: The 90 Day Screenplay. It was a bestseller when it came out, an absolute Bible for many, and it gave every taxi driver and secretary and bus boy the sense that the big time was close at hand—how close? Well just ninety days and fifteen dollars away. But this book’s days at the top of the non-fiction bestseller list were numbered, for a new Bible was soon to appear, and The 90 Day Screenplay was knocked off its perch by a sensational new bestseller: How To Write a Movie in 21 Days.
Clearly the latter was a superior book by some margin—I mean, same result, sixty-one days less time.
And a publishing pattern had thereby been established. Soon we had Darrin Donnelly and his brother Travis stepping up to the plate. Travis’ book was called The 10 Day Screenplay.
Wow. Apparently Dar and Trav had found a way to write an insight to be written nine feature films of similar or better quality than their predecessors in the exact same timeframe that The 90 Day Screenplay could only produce one. Things were heating up and begging the question: Would records continue to be broken?
As the history of the 100-metre dash has shown, we have not yet reached the maximum speed at which screenplays can be written, but there is of course a logical terminal velocity: The fastest speed at which you can type 120 pages. The ultimate title, therefore, we may yet see ‘The 80 Words per Minute Screenplay’.
Speed-aside, all these books have something in common: They tell the same story, they have identified key qualities that many commercially successful screenplays share, they have codified a language that has been adopted by creative executives in both film and television. In my experience these books won’t hurt you; they’re not harmful to writers at any rate. They are only harmful to producers, and to funders, financiers. Why? Because books like this provide producers and funders a template and a vocabulary by which to measure and critique screenplays to allow them to say where and how they don’t conform to certain moot rules whose purpose is to minimise the risk to their financial investment. The executives are entitled to this position and are expressly employed to decline uninsurable ideas, those too-risky proposals that have no successful precursors. Their position is entirely sane, but this has resulted in a landscape where, as the screenwriter, you will always, always be asked to define your story in terms of the classic three-act structure. Because it’s then that those who fly business class will feel that they have their best shot at evaluating its potential. Footnote number one: They will never ask you to present your idea as a five-act structure because no one actually knows what that is.
So, to survive in the business it’s necessary to understand the pressure that producers and financiers operate under. As such you have to know what a three-act structure is. Fortunately it’s pretty simple—reason, perhaps, for its broad appeal—and here it is: Act one, the shit hits the fan. Part two—oh sorry, act two, part A: The hero has no choice but to act. Mid-point: Realisation of initial goal, but first appearance of a greater goal. Act two, part B: Even more shit hits multiple fans, ending in a river of excrement in which the hero is more or less submerged, otherwise known as the lowest point.
Act three: With the clock now ticking and the hero digging deep, the river is drained, most of the fans but not all cleaned, the hero reaching a higher state of maturity and reconciliation. So there we have it: A mould, a famously successful mould into which you can now pour your slurry of words. When it sets you will have a screenplay that will at least look like a screenplay, read like a screenplay, conform to the expectations of a screenplay and may possibly be saleable as a screenplay. But is it any good? Does it have anything fresh or new to say? And does it employ exciting new ways to say it? Well those are other questions entirely, and the only ones we should spend any time discussing.
One of the nice things about preparing to give a talk like this is it’s forced me to think about how I do what I do, something I’ve never before felt inclined to do. I honestly don’t know where I am in my own personal climb, but ‘til now I’ve never looked down, never taken stock and perhaps thought it inadvisable to do so. So when I began to consider what I might talk about today, I first asked myself: Well, where am I now? I mean right now. The answer, without false modesty, is that wherever I am it feels like a good place and by most systems of measure it’s better than ever, a place where I at least feel like I am able to take on more and achieve more than I ever have before. Fewer things intimidate me and the rejections—which never stop, by the way—are fewer and less impactful, while the times I’m told I’ve ‘knocked it out of the park,’ have increased.
So maybe, maybe, I’ve gotten good at what I do. And if I can afford to let myself think that, then it begs a big question: OK then, bright guy, what changed? How did you get good? And is the answer useful to anyone else? Well, we’re about to find out. The facts are that I’m currently working on five major feature film projects concurrently with some of the biggest film companies and some of the best directors in the world, and I’m finding that I can handle it. I’m required to jump between these projects at any given hour, on any given day, and I find I can handle it. And the pressure of expectation at this point is considerable, but I’m handling it. Twenty years ago, for certain, I would not have been able to handle it, for sure, no chance. So what changed? What makes the me of now any more capable than the me of yesteryear? Is there any difference? Why am I now able to handle what hitherto would have overwhelmed me? My attempt to answer this question is your fault, BAFTA. You started this so don’t blame me. So let’s go.
Now there is such mystery surrounding the craft of screenwriting, with so many different theories out there about how it’s done that our industry has felt it necessary to nail down a few basic rules, golden rules. I want to quickly mention some of the big ones, but let me add another big caveat: If these rules were any good, then simply by following them you’d per force end up with a superb end product. But the fact is this: these rules only work sometimes. I’ve had now some twenty-five years trying to make films and almost everything I will say today can be just as convincingly contradicted. When I make a definitive statement, bear in mind that the opposite can also be true. For instance, strong arguments could be made for the following heresies:
One: Write what you don’t know so that your personal journey is an exploration. In other words, write what you want to know. Did Shakespeare visit Venice? Did Jules Verne go to the moon and back?
Two: Tell it don’t show it. Sometimes it’s better to hear about it than to see it. What comes out of a human mouth can have more emotional value than any toppling skyscraper. When the lovers kiss at last, perhaps it’s better to fade to black.
Number three: Never let your characters tell you where the story should go. You’re paid to be in charge. Your characters are your slaves, no more. Order them around brutally—they may not be animals but to paraphrase Hitchcock ‘they should be treated like animals’.
Four: Structure is nothing. Structure is nothing. It is, as TS Eliot once put it, just the meat you throw the guard dog so you can get inside and rip the joint off. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films ever made, partly because its structure is indiscernible; it is a vacation from narrative.
So now we have heard from the rebels, the contrarians, we can move on and discuss iron cast principles that I have found useful sometimes but not always, powerful truths that have worked on some occasions and not others, golden rules that have only once or twice paid dividends. For those needing certainties I give you the exits. So, how do you write a screenplay so good that millions—that people will invest millions of dollars to see it made and millions of people will shell out to go and see it? Evaluating the potential of your idea—imagine the situation: You have a concept for a film, a pitch you hope to sell. You go into your—you go into a room and want to convince money-minded executives that your idea is going to make them a) a lot of money or b) no money at all and possibly lose some, but will gain them some kudos at awards time that will in turn make them feel better about themselves when they’re old.
The moment arrives; you’re invited to speak, to present your idea. No matter how well you do it, and pitching is a science in itself that we don’t have time to go into now, you are asking them to make an enormous leap of faith. It’s as if you are trying to sell someone a car when all you have are a select few of the car’s parts lying around on your front lawn. You are, in effect, telling them to look at a few extracts from the car you have in mind and imply there’s more where that came from. To their valid question about whether your proposed motor vehicle will ever run, you reply ‘for sure, absolutely’. ‘What will be the range and speed of the vehicle?’ they then ask. You reply, ‘well we will have to make it first, but we plan to ensure that it will be a miracle of economy and performance quite unlike any other car previously manufactured’. When then asked to offer some proof for this claim you struggle to provide it, maybe just saying, ‘well, you’ll have to trust me’. I’m describing it in this way because I think it’s useful to put yourself in the producer’s, funder’s shoes. It is very hard to evaluate what will work and what won’t work and why these executives are desperate to fall back on some system of evaluation.
This is why producers and funders set so much store in the power of the premise. If your film has a seductive premise, you have your best shot of winning over even the most risk-averse producer or funder. The premise is often called the elevator pitch or car park pitch. It’s the reductio ad absurdum of your complex, deeply nuanced idea, into a vulgar sound bite. My second-to-last film took ten years to finance, even though it was about one of the most recognisable and brilliant men in the cosmos. Why? Well, because my elevator pitch went like this: Quadriplegic gets cuckolded and so writes a book merging Einsteinian relativity with quantum mechanics.
You can just see the film company boss glazing over, adjusting his glasses on her nose, glancing at her watch with zero discretion and then asking me, ‘what else you got?’
By far the most determining factor in a script being good or, better still, great, and by far the most decisive factor in getting it made is the quality of your original concept. From this, even the dimmest financier will be able to weigh its commercial viability. It is a truism that if you have a million dollar idea, you don’t have to be a very good writer to write a saleable script, get the film made and even be successful; but if you have a mediocre or lousy idea for a film, your name could be William Shakespeare and you won’t be able to get it off the ground unless you hang out with Megan Ellison.
When I was twenty-five years old I wrote with a friend of mine a stage play in three weeks. My buddy Stephen came over, said, ‘hey, why don’t we write a play about male strippers?’ Maybe he’d been drinking. And I said, ‘gee, I’m not sure Stephen. I don’t know much about male strippers. How about we write about some regular guys who think it’ll be easy to be male strippers?’ So we did that. It was a good idea; a good idea is a good idea and can prove impervious even to slapdash craftsmanship. In fact, this particular idea was just so good it sailed away, became New Zealand’s most commercially successful play of all time and continues to play around the world twenty-five years later.
So why did it take off? It was a good and universally appealing idea. I tried many other times to find another one just like it. Hmm, not so easy. Great ideas are rare birds, you see—you need binoculars and you need to keep real quiet and you need to know what you’re looking for. ‘So where do good ideas come from?’ I hear you asking. Where to find great stories with strong premises: A) in your own personal story, B) in the nation’s history and culture, C) in your community, D) in other cultures, E) in other stories that have gone before, F) in your imagination entirely, G) in all the above. My advice is, the only advice is, look everywhere inside and out and look all the time. Part of being a professional is never being off-duty; the hours are lousy but it’s seldom boring. Learn to notice—with any luck you’ll come up with one or two or maybe three great ideas in your lifetime. Most writers would settle for one. The rest of the time you’re trying to make the mediocre ones work. Don’t beat yourself up about it; we’re all in the same lousy boat.
Great ideas are rare, and here’s something else: A great idea isn’t even, isn’t ever delivered to you whole with all the elements in the right place—at least I’ve never been gifted one. Great ideas are made by you. The germ of a great idea isn’t a film until you’ve cracked the story; the internal engine of the story has to be made to work. Reality is messy and history is a lousy filmmaker, and the writer’s job is to lick it all into shape. Sometimes you can see how to do this from the off—these are the best projects. You can see right away how the idea might be turned into a story that can work and you have to know what to look for. Here’s what I look for in order of importance:
One: A story in which I can foresee before I’ve even written a single word most of the twists and turns in that journey.
Two: Characters who I can’t wait to gain control of, to subordinate, to make them do or say things that are so extreme and out of the ordinary that they’re almost unacceptable.
Three: A bittersweet ending. I believe perfect bliss is the preserve of cats, small children, drunks and idiots. Importantly for me I need to sense the ending before I begin, for only then will I know how to tell the story in the right way. Plan your story. If this sounds unromantic, screenwriters are not tasked to be poets. You can and should keep a certain analytical distance from your work.
Four: Finally, a story with dimension, with some cultural importance or personal significance. A story that contains issues I am burning to examine, and which will take me to some extreme of human experience. The prospect of telling the story must stir you to great excitement. This excitement will be tested and will diminish as you struggle with the telling, so make sure you have a huge reserve of it before you begin.
Let me expand on these points.
Number one: No one knows where good ideas come from; if we did we’d go there more often. But we can agree, at least, that they are around us all the time and the task is to notice them.
Number two: As I say a great idea isn’t ever delivered to you whole. The story has to be cracked. Hollywood producers will pay a great deal of money to a writer if they can crack a story, work out how to tell it in a compelling way. The internal engine of the story has to be made to work. Sometimes you can see how to do this—they are the best projects.
Three: Character. In a fiction a person’s character is their fate, so know the fate, where this character has to end up in your story and then select the character traits appropriate to that fate. In a non-fiction project you don’t quite have that flexibility, but you can still make them do and say what you need them to do and say in honour to—in order to honour the film’s theme.
Number four: Humour. I always look for some element of humour. To me no story, if it is to make a claim of being true to life, can be devoid of humour. Almost every meaningful human interaction you will ever have will include some attempt at humour. It’s the standard currency of conversation and how human beings do business. Humour is part of the ritual of negotiation; so if you want your stories to feel real and truthful, don’t forget about humour.
Number four: Know your ending before you begin. For me I never feel I have a grip on a story until I know the destination or have at least the sense of it. In fact I never take a project on unless I know the ending and am convinced it’s a powerful one. Now not all writers will agree with this; many writers write freestyle, spontaneously, making it up as they go with no idea where their story’s going. They say that this is what makes the process feel exciting and artful, almost spiritual, the next step being the only important one. But personally, I’ve found that those writers who are most vocal about their opposition to structure and formula and planning out their story, are invariably crap at structure and form and planning out their story.
‘Harold Pinter never planned any of his plays’. Really? Well it shows. I love his plays, but it shows. The plays are indisputable masterpieces but their endings are the weakest part. And in a movie a weak ending is a deal breaker. With endings being so important in movies, because it’s what the audience takes away, it’s a very brave writer, indeed, and a very brave producer, who will spend years on a project with the ending as the weakest part of the screenplay. I sometimes feel I need to know what my ending is first because I just don’t have the guts to go through all those months of uncertainty and doubt and self-hatred and expec—and personal loathing tied up with not knowing where the hell I’m going.
And it’s true, writers who write without a plan will all tell you the same thing: Halfway through the writing process, the misery starts. Major perturbation—as the original impulse weakens, as a mess develops in the middle, as problems pop up, improbabilities, forced transitions, this way of working always gets the writer down. It’s migraine inducing, anxiety-spawning. Simply the freestyle writer will struggle more than the structuralist, and I began as a freestyler who believed his intuitions would carry him to victory, so I’m speaking from experience. I learned eventually that lack of planning will always catch up with you; God will not always provide. Let me give you an example of a perfect ending, one that could only be achieved by a structuralist, an author knowing exactly where she was going before picking up her pen—here it is: There was a young man from Hibernia, who rhymed himself into a hernia. He became quite adept at rhyming except for the odd anti-climax.
Take a bow, Mr Stoppard. You will excuse the irony that the ending is not an anti-climax at all—quite the contrary. Now this is a perfect example of a perfect ending for two reasons: The final line had to be known before the first line was written. It was, of course, the reason the poem was written and it dictated these preceding lines. Secondly, while being about an anti-climax, it’s anything but an anti-climax—it’s the perfect climax because it delivers satisfaction in a way we were tricked into not being able to foresee, but which when it arrived superseded our expectations. The rhyme pattern promised us a final line that would rhyme with ‘Hibernia,’ and then the author detonated our expectations and delightfully, because the author had something even better up his clever sleeve, because he has craftily set up for us.
Know your ending. I personally never decide to work on a project unless I know the ending and know that it satisfies my own personal criteria for a good and worthwhile climax.
OK, so let’s say you had an idea for an interesting premise and you’ve come up with a really satisfying end point that delivers in an unexpected way on the potentials of that premise. How do you write the hundred or so pages in between? Well, you reverse engineer your story. What do I mean by reverse engineer? I mean that the ending will dictate almost everything you need to know about the story that precedes it: Character, plot, theme and structure.
Example—if your film is about a talented pig who wants to run faster than any pig has run before and you have foreseen the ending and foreseen it involving Porky winning the hundred metres at the Olympics, then the task is to instil in your audience for the preceding 100 minutes a subconscious craving to see a pig, its arms and legs pumping, hurtling down the track to victory. That’s your job. But it must be a victory the author has tricked the audience into not quite being able to anticipate: If at any point it’s too evident to the audience that bovine gold is where the story is headed then no swine on a dais will save you. If they can see it coming they will hate you for it. We can call this sleight of hand concealment of true intentions. The film at the outset must one way or the other ask a question that your secret ending will answer, but not in the way they had expected it to be answered. He became quite adept at rhyming except, someone? — Mr Stoppard, if he’s present? —For the odd anti-climax.
On the point that your ending contains the clues you need for how to write the preceding 100 pages, here are two examples: Imagine a climactic scene that occurs on top of the Eiffel Tower, then it might make you decide to create a character who, in the first act, suffers from vertigo. If the character has vertigo this may then oblige scenes to explain why the character suffers from vertigo. The writer’s job is to earn the emotion they wish the audience to feel, and you earn it by setting up—setting it up in a way that ensures the biggest pay off. The Deer Hunter, one of the greatest films, is a masterpiece of reverse engineering: The ending involved De Niro in Saigon playing Russian roulette with another man in order to save his life. To make us care about the outcome and to make it powerful, the writers decided to make the two men spiritual brothers, make them familiar with gunplay, and go further—make them brothers pledged to look after one another no matter what. How about even make them in love with the same woman? So that maybe one of them dies and it simplifies their love life. But make them noble, also, so we don’t want either of them to die. And then the gun goes off and one of them dies. Our heart breaks, but not because the gun went off, not at all: If the film had started with that scene we wouldn’t have cared; we care because of all the scenes we have seen in the previous two hours. We think of the pledge, the woman, their families back home, their lost, simple dreams—in short, know your ending.
Something else I’ve learned along the way, which rises logically from this example: If there are problems in your third act, the real problem is probably in your first or second act. It’s not the ending that isn’t satisfying; it’s your set up. The ending is fine; it’s probably why you wrote the script in the first place or should have done. But you can’t believe your great ending isn’t working for people—the gun went off, why is no one crying? Answer, you didn’t create the right sense of preconditions that would establish audience anticipation for your obligatory but unpredictable ending. That sentence will sound like gibberish but it actually isn’t. So I’ll say it again: If there are problems in your third act, the real problem is in the first act. You just didn’t create the right set of preconditions that would establish audience anticipation for your obligatory but unpredictable ending. Your Eiffel Tower climax isn’t satisfying because you omitted to give your hero vertigo in the first act. If your climax involves a reconciliation and it isn’t satisfying, it’s because the earlier conflict wasn’t deep enough so that it made us ache for reconciliation. Make us ache for your wonderful ending, but be unable to see it—what form, but be unable for us to see what form the reconciliation will come in.
My personal list of favourite screenwriters are all reverse engineers, retrofitters nonpareil. Robert Bolt, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman; and my favourite screenplays all show the fingerprints of the writer knowing the ending first and writing toward it in the most elegant and satisfying way. Lawrence of Arabia, Godfather I and II, Jean de Florette, Raging Bull, Casablanca, Once Upon a Time in America, All the President’s Men, Star Wars. Now you don’t have to work this way, and may people don’t, it’s just the best ones all do.
You may plan nothing and just get lucky with your ending, it happens. One of my favourite New Zealand films Smash Palace was a film where the filmmakers didn’t have a clue how to end it. Its director, Roger Donaldson, told me that during the writing process he and his co-writer Peter Hansard didn’t have an ending and they were completely stumped. Their lead actor Bruno Lawrence, a famous drinker and smoker and bon vivant, came by to check on the progress of the screenplay and was so dismayed by the possibility that the film would die for the lack of an ending, he promptly fell asleep on the couch while the director and producer continued to bang their heads against the wall deep into the night. Apparently what happened, then, was that eventually Bruno woke up and in a moment of delirious inspiration envisaged a car on a railway line, his character, a cuckolded husband, holding a shotgun to the head of his wife’s lover as a speeding train hurtles towards them, their mutual destruction certain. A quite good ending in itself, pretty dark, until at the last minute the train forks away, something the husband had planned for, the tracks bifurcating just before the train reaches the car, the train not harming anyone but eliciting a confession from the terrified lover, roll end credits. They had their ending; it delivered perfectly on the premise of the film. But the moral is this: Unless you have a Bruno Lawrence lying on your couch at three AM, I would caution against this approach.
Create a keen anticipation for an ending we cannot foresee. I want to switch, now, to the issue of how to make yourself a better writer no matter what your story is. How do you make yourself fundamentally better at what you do? There is a simple answer and it’s this: Make yourself talented.
Talent isn’t something you either have or don’t have. Talent is acquired, it is won, it is the result of hard work and more hard work. Only then will you become talented. Some acquire it early during childhood as a natural extension of a sustained period of mental engagement. Others develop it later, become talented after the age of fifty when a perhaps dormant interest is suddenly reawakened. Practise creates mastery, and repeated exercise of that mastery creates talent. It doesn’t come with your mother’s milk or by going to an expensive school. It’s inside you, waiting to come out if you have the guts to draw it out. Over time, if you work hard enough, you can set free capacities inside you that you may currently not imagine you even have.
So what is the exact process by which this can be achieved? How can anyone become talented? When I started writing in my twenties I had developed through my interest in language a certain aptitude and sensitivity for language, but I was by no one’s estimation— and I mean no one’s, and certainly not even my own—talented. These days not even my harshest critics would say I’m entirely devoid of talent. So what happened? Talent is meant to be like your hair colour—you can fake being a brunette but sooner or later everybody’s going to find out the truth.
When I assess myself, I can say without blushing that I am better now at what I do than I used to be. So how did this happen? What made the difference? What was the change agent at work? Was it simply a factor of age and becoming more worldly wise? Or was it something even more mysterious? Well I have a theory about this, and it’s even supported now by science. So I’ll share it with you because it’s pretty good news for all of us: Neuroscientists have only recently been looking at the matter of aptitude, and some very recent studies have come up with some pretty spectacular findings. One study focused on two thousand black cab drivers in London. London is not laid out like a grid; it’s an impossible, huge maze. You don’t need to be told, but black cab drivers in order to get their license are forced to know every single street by street. These guys are not rocket scientists—many never finished school. It takes them years to learn every street and to remember it. And what researches found to their amazement is that cabbies have grown a significantly larger hippocampus than the ordinary person. The hippocampus in the brain controls spatial awareness, and it turns out that the brain mass of cabbies grew to meet the extraordinary demands being placed upon their memories every day. And we can apply this example to screenwriting or any creative activity—to become adept at screenwriting, the only way, the only way to gain mastery is not by buying Darrin and Travis Donnelly’s ridiculous book, but by making huge and sustained demands upon the networks of your brain that govern creativity.
Now were I to write a book on the subject and stuff it into LA bookstores, it’d be laughed out of town, for what might we call it? Screenwriting Made Hard?
Or, Give Me Ten Years and I’ll Make You A Star. But actually I think this is the closest we’ve come to a true understanding of what it takes to get real good at all—extremely real good at all extremely complex and difficult tasks. I’m sure we all grew up being aware of the old right brain, left brain model. Right-brained people work in banks and know what a square root is; left-brained people drink Beaujolais and discuss Kierkegaard and are a little bit effete.
But it turns out this is all wrong. Instead, the truth, as it often is, is much more interesting. We now know that creativity, the entire creative process—from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification, four stages—consists of many interactive cognitive processes, both conscious and unconscious, as well as involving emotions, all operating in vast networks that reconfigure depending on what stage of the creative process you’re engaged in. For instance, every time you try to figure out how to work spatially, such as trying to work out the structure of your screenplay, you will be using the same part of your brain—the dorsal attention visuospatial network—that we use when we try to fit luggage into the trunk of your car when we go on holiday. Or if you are trying to write a lyrical passage, a climactic speech at the end of your film where the sound of each word is vital, then you will make greater demands on the language network in the Broca area. Jazz musicians and rappers engage in creative improvisation while in a flow state; they will call upon the imagination and executive attention networks. Writers, however, can’t afford such uninhibited freedom, unless you are Charlie Kaufman, so must bring this salience network back online to critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.
So it seems, and this is the bad news for Travis and Darrin, if you want to become a really—if you want to become really talented as a creative person, then you will need to develop these large-scale brain networks, and we are talking about training and literally growing the brain to match the task, all an apprenticeship of years. No nine-day shortcuts. What this means is that wannabe screenwriters with an interest in being talented can be so, but these writers will need to write one script, then another, then another, then another, until their minds are bursting like a London cabbie driven mad, trying to remember every twist and turn and the journey from Kensington Church Street to Wimbledon Common.
And by the way this information used to be well known. This level of devotion and concentration was actually standard in the artistic academies of previous centuries. In pockets, this ethos is still understood—the Florence Academy of Art maintains the old masters’ standards to this day. Their website for their five year apprenticeship—check it out, five years—actually has this statement: As individual artists are challenged to push their technical capability beyond their perceived capacity, they develop strength of character and the confidence necessary to become a professional. This helps create a state of mind in which they are certain of their choices.
We’re going to show, now, three or four clips. The first is from The Theory of Everything, so can we pull something up?
That was the ending of the movie, and that was the ending I knew before I started. I knew that Stephen’s life was devoted to many things but principally the subject he kept being fascinated by was time, so the unifying principle of that entire movie was time. And when I had the idea that the movie should at the end reverse time and we should see the contents of his entire life, that’s when I sort of set out to tell that story. So that’s an example of that. OK, next clip.
That—the final image there is of the able-bodied small child being kind of the adult and Stephen being sort of reduced to an infant who can’t get up the stairs. Sometimes when you’re dealing with true stories history and the facts just kind of give you these gems. Jane’s book was a very, very difficult book to adapt—it didn’t have an obvious structure, but it was full of these moments which were so tremendously heart breaking, and that was one of them. I added the child at the top of the stairs, that’s kind of what you do—you take reality and then you augment it to reach a sort of deeper truth, to make it live in your consciousness even more. OK, next clip.
We were all in tears watching that particular one. Again, part of the reason for wanting to tell the story is a very universal moment, a break up between a husband and wife—it’s been covered a million times in movies, but never, I felt, having to mediate through a computer. ‘What would that be like?’ I asked myself, before I started writing the project. How would the simplest things be done if you had to speak through a computer, laboriously write out the words? I think there’s seventy-five words in that scene, and it starts with a moment of marital triumph, where Stephen has conceded that there might be a God, which is very important to the very religious Jane. And by—seventy-five words later, they’re divorced, um, which, I’m quite proud of.
For some one who’s very devoted to words, it was quite a feat of economy. But it was only possible through the exquisite level of emotion and non-verbal transference of emotion and feeling that these actors were able to achieve in that scene. OK, next one. OK I think we’re going to Darkest Hour here.
Not bad. Um, yeah.
By the way that was Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill, completely unrecognisable. Um, the reason for showing that scene, one of the greatest and oldest principles of drama is dialectic. The idea of two people arguing, both with fixed and opposite but equal positions. What is fantastically fun to play with as a writer is to give your antihero the better argument. In this case the moral centre of the movie changes in that scene from Churchill to Halifax, who up ‘til now has seemed a loathsome appeaser. But in the scene he makes the most practical and life-loving and humanistic argument that peace—we should never give up on peace, we should not stop exploring it. Um, and what happens is a wonderful thing for the audience, their allegiance has to shift. Their opinions are challenged and the most amazing thing can happen, that your—that you go from an entrenched position and you move, you adjust and in that, if we’re capable as an audience of shifting our position, then, you know, there’s hope for the world because most of the troubles in this world seem to me to come from people in fixed positions who can’t conceive of any idea other than their own. OK, next clip.
I included that scene because it’s the one that’s already the most discussed scene in the entire film and it’s discussed because people invariably ask, ‘did that scene happen? Do you have evidence that Winston ever rode the underground?’ And the simple answer is there’s no evidence that this scene ever took place. So it goes onto a much bigger question, probably bigger than we have time to deal with here, as to the limits of artistic license and the point where that tips into artistic licentiousness. It has to do with many issues to do with the tolerances of history and the tolerances of audiences and the contract that you enter into with an audience when you have the words before the title ‘based on a true story,’ but um, essentially, if you’re in service of the truth and you responsibly are bringing an element into a story that you believe are consistent with that character and consistent with that historical moment, then I think you’re completely at—within your rights to import a scene like that. To defend a scene like that is very easy for me. Did he ride the underground; do we know that he did? No, we have no evidence. But at this decisive moment in British history when Winston was wobbling and he wasn’t sure whether to do a peace deal with Hitler, the opinion of the public that he was receiving via polls proved the turning point for him. So the dramatist says, ‘well, what am I going to do? Am I going to have a scene with some polls, two pieces of paper being put in front of him on his desk? And he says, ‘oh the people support fighting on,’ or do I have him go and meet the people?’ Now it’s consistent with his character that he often went off-grid and popped up among the public to take the pulse of the public, so I combined those two things and created a scene. It’s amazing how many people find it the best scene in the film, and how many think it’s absurd or a breach of the writers’ contract. I’m not quite sure why it’s controversial at all because I think it’s what we do, it’s our task; we’re compelled to use our imagination and bring our imagination to the telling of true stories, even where the facts are, you know, known.
So that kind of almost concludes our evening. Um, I want to wish you good luck for those who, like me, are workers in the vineyard of the word. You need a lot of it. Persistence is everything; dare to fail and may you all earn your living doing what you love. Thank you for the invitation.
Robbie Collin: Thank you so much for that, Anthony. There’s so much, I think, to get into now. We’re going to have a conversation between ourselves and then we’ll—
AM: I think I ran a little long there.
RC: No, no, no, you were perfect. You were to the minute; it was perfect.
RC: Yeah. Um, but yeah, we’re going to have a little bit of a conversation and then we can open it to questions from the floor after that. I want to pick up specifically on what you said about reverse-engineering your story.
RC: Find the ending; work out a way to get to that ending that the audience is going to be desperate to land on it
RC: But not expect to get to it. Now your two most recent films Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything are both based on true stories, incredibly well-known men whose achievements, I think Churchill in particular, are not just widely known but quite well understood by the general public. So how, when you’re adapting a true story, can you still take the audience to a point in history that they’re already aware exists, and still make it feel unexpected?
AM: Well if you take Darkest Hour as an example, I began Darkest Hour about ten years ago, and it was a moment where I realised that three of the greatest speeches of all time were written and delivered by Winston Spencer Churchill, and within one four week period. Now it’s extraordinary for any leader to create a speech that will, you know, rival a soliloquy from Shakespeare, but he wrote three absolutely doozies in a four week period. And then I did a little digging, did a little research, and thought ‘What compelled this outpouring of magnificent rhetoric?’ because it wasn’t true of Churchill’s whole career that he was churning out these great speeches. And the facts were this: It was nothing less than the collapse of central and Western Europe under the Nazi book and enormous pressure at home to do a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. Um, I didn’t know about that peace deal with Adolf Hitler, it’s kind of airbrushed out of history and I think the person most wielding the airbrush is Winston himself. He—I think he devoted like a paragraph to it in his huge history of the Second World War. So it was like, ‘Oh, there’s news here, there’s a different man than the one we’re handed down from history,’ so, you know, that fitted in with all my little obsessions that pedestals are for statues and it’s great to take heroes down and, you know, make them human. But you have to have justification for that, and I just found him wonderfully complicated and flawed and uncertain, and I thought ‘OK, now this is a movie worth making’ because uncertainty to me, rather than being a negative, is actually a prerequisite in a leader because uncertainty allows for the possibility you may be wrong. And if we have leaders incapable of thinking they’re wrong, we’re all in deep shit, it seems to me. There’s a wonderful line that Cromwell wrote to the Church of Scotland, and it goes like this, he goes: ‘I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ to think it possible you may be wrong’. And I would love that to be written above the doorways of every world leader. Just allow for that possibility and then you’ll be open-minded. So that’s the kind of—that’s where I start to know my ending: I know that I’m going to create a man who you establish them as one thing and then you make them something else, you present them as something else, you—I saw the whole journey then.
RC: Given that you built the film around these three speeches, or that was certainly the jumping off point for the screenplay, and the speeches are reasonably well known—as political speeches go they’re very well known—do you feel there’s an obligation to give the audience Churchill plays the hits? I mean, was there a way in which you could bring a fresh take to these speeches when you sat down? Or did you just think, ‘oh we’re going to let these play out’. And there’s one moment I want to refer back to specifically, but I’d just like to ask that in general—
AM: Well there was no—in the Houses of Parliament, in the Commons, there was no recordings made of those speeches, so in fact the recordings we have of ‘Fight them on the beaches’ and so forth was made after the war, I think 1946, when the BBC said ‘We should get a recording of these because they were rather good’. And so Winston says ‘all right, I’ll do it. I’ll do it from my bed,’ and there’s a photograph of him sitting, little fat, pink, in his onesie, and they’ve got a microphone dangling from the ceiling and he did a very quiet rendering of these speeches. So the copies we have, I don’t—this is Gary’s observation, too—they’re a poor representation of what he would have delivered to 800 parliamentarians. Because he was a show boater, he was an actor, so he really was on a stage. So when Joe Wright filmed the scene, and it’s extraordinarily beautifully done when you see the film, Joe didn’t put in fifty people as extras, he brought in 800 extras fully costumed. Gary came out there like Winston would have done: Like an actor having to belt those lines to the back rows. So that’s a completely different take on those great speeches that audiences will never have seen, but we think it’s probably the most accurate rendering of them.
AM: Can I ask for a quick show of hands: Has anyone here seen Darkest Hour yet? I know it’s—oh, OK, so quite a few of you. Good, OK, OK. Churchill’s maiden speech in parliament as prime minister—there’s something incredibly unexpected in the way that you present that, where you have him delivering the speech, so first of all that’s of interest, but then you set up this kind of parallel thing running where you have Chamberlain decides he’s going to signal to his supporters basically in the House whether or not Churchill is to be accepted and his presence as PM is going to be condoned, and basically this is going to be done by a gesture with a white handkerchief which Chamberlain has sitting on his lap. So as an audience, simultaneously while you’re listening to Churchill’s speech, you’re also—this kind of parallel story is ticking over in your head, and it’s set up, of course, by saying this is what he’s going to do and we should look out for it at the very start. Now, tell me about taking something that’s like historically pre-existing and just giving it that extra, I suppose the technical term is like a ‘zhuzh’ or something.
That extra little tickle is going to make it more, even more cinematically than it might have.
AM: Yeah, yeah. Perfect example. A perfect example of reverse engineering: So you know you’re going to end up with this climactic scene, and you know that the drama is going to depend on will he, by the speech, win every heart in the House? So I know that the Labour party will be sort of rooting for him; will the Conservatives support him? Will the leader do, you know, give the signal? So I thought ‘OK I need some signal, how would the leader communicate to the rest of his party, who are waiting on a gesture?’ So I just sort of chanced on the idea of a handkerchief. So I thought ‘OK, at the end of the movie, I need him to pull out a handkerchief. Oh, I’d better establish that at the beginning of the movie in act one then’. So that’s what we do; we set it up in act one and now we all learn the sort of vocabulary of this handkerchief, that it’s going to signify this. And then at the end of the movie, as you say, it’s not just about what people are saying; you’re then all waiting. So you get this terrific emotional payload that comes with just the gesture of one man lifting a handkerchief. It becomes quite triumphant. But it’s not the gesture itself; it’s the work you did earlier.
RC: The fact that the white handkerchief doesn’t look unlike a flag of surrender, that helps too, right? You can kind of alight on the perfect symbol for the moment. Um, when you—you’re telling a story here where Churchill, the fate of Europe’s at stake and his reputation as a politician is at stake, so there’s different kind of things, different stakes on different levels. And with The Theory of Everything, that’s, you know—you’ve got a story about a marriage in crisis, you’ve got a story about a man’s body, the kind of medical story of his physical breakdown, and then also the story of his cosmological discoveries, the theory of everything itself. And those are three types of story that are quite, I would think, as some one who’s never tried to write a screenplay, they seem they would be quite difficult to reconcile in one story.
AM: They were.
RC: Right, OK. But when you were going through this, did anyone at Working Title or elsewhere kind of say, ’do we need to have these three things happening simultaneously?’ or on the other hand, did they like the idea that there’s a love story but there’s also the science bit and there’s also a medical bit?
AM: Um, they’re all moving parts and in the process there are different moments in the evolution of a screenplay where it becomes apparent that you need to do more with this one, you need to put the fader up on that one, the fader down on that one. Um and that’s what’s terrific and collegial about the filmmaking process, is there’s so many people helping you at a certain point to make this better, and you know, presenting arguments for it. Even right down to the actors with Kristen Scott-Thomas saying ‘I’ll do it but I want one more scene’. She didn’t actually say that but it became apparent that she thought her role was kind of one scene too few. And she had damn good reason for thinking that. Um, and so it was—it fell upon me to write another little scene for her, but it wasn’t just something for her vanity or anything, it was ‘we can go further with that character’. So, you know, there’s a lot of little movements and stuff that you make and when you work with a director and you work on a director’s pass, they’re trying to make, you know, find a way to tell the story cinematically so you then changes again that you make adjustments here. But it’s all pretty much you’ve made the suit, now you have to make the suit fit the client—so you’re taking the arms and shortening this, shortening that, and it’s a bit of tailoring and so forth. It’s all a fascinating process.
RC: And by that stage you’re specifically writing for Kristen Scott-Thomas, as well, so that must change your approach to the character.
AM: Yeah, yeah. And you’re—then, the wonderful thing is they’re kind of already inhabiting Clementine Churchill and Gary’s coming out and Gary will say something, a very actor’s kind of note, which is ‘I’d like to shout in this scene,’ you know, and I’d be on set and we’re two hours from shooting a scene and I’d say to Gary, ‘what do you think he should shout about?’ and he’d say ‘I have no idea, but I had a very quiet scene before this and I think it would be very effective if I shouted’. And for those who have seen the movie, when he does his first radio broadcast I decided to have him changing the speech up to the last second and he shouts at the BBC guy who’s counting in and saying ‘Sir we’re going live to the nation, three, four, two, one,’ and he’s shouting ‘One moment, damn you!’ and that’s—Gary wanted his shouting moment and it’s very effective. So it’s all very, very collaborative in the best possible way.
RC: I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both The Theory of Everything and also Darkest Hour if you’ve read any of the early reviews of it, something that has been absolutely fixated on is the transformative quality of the central performance. So, and what I love about it is it’s Gary Oldman doing Churchill, but it’s still recognisably Gary Oldman, and it’s a proper Gary Oldman performance, and going back to Sid Vicious and what have you—
AM: Nice arc, isn’t it, Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill?
RC: Right, exactly! And then with, um, Theory of Everything, as well, that was an incredibly bone-deep inhabited performance from Eddie Redmayne. Now when you’re writing a lead role, is it possible to calibrate what you’re writing to build in that transformative potential into it? Or is that something that the actor just brings? I don’t know if maybe that’s something you’ve fine-tuned since your earlier screenplays of if that’s something you now feel that you’ve cracked?
AM: I think it was—who was it? —Noel Coward who said ‘the job of the writer is to write the lines that an actor will kill to say’. Um, so you have to create the arc, you have to create the road map for this actor. You have to play with all the colours and then the actor will say ‘oh my God, I can—look what I can do. I can do triple somersaults here, I can do this, I have all the room to move, to bring everything to the table’. Um, it’s very much in the writing and then that’s a launch pad for the actor, so yeah. My attraction to both stories was the potential to write great roles, especially—for everybody across the board you want to do justice for them all, but I sensed real potential in telling Stephen Hawking’s story. I think he’s, you know, he’s so unique—one of them in the universe. To have one of the brightest people on the planet who has to speak through a computer is so far-fetched it’s James Bond, you know, it’s a crazy idea of some one’s sci-fi fantasy. And with Winston Churchill, you know, a fantastically huge character with all the facility with language, his love of the word. The move is really a study in the power of the word and he’s the personification of that, of the proposition that words can be enlisted to change the world.
RC: ‘He’s mobilised the English language,’ that’s the last—
AM: Yeah, that’s the last line, which is Edward L. Morrow’s line, which he wrote in eulogy for Winston. ‘He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. And that was the attraction with that is to get an actor who can create that symphonic music with language and the challenge to write for Winston Churchill, to write jokes worthy of Winston Churchill. To show him as a romantic man and what would Winston Churchill say to Clementine in a private moment? It’s all very daunting, but also extremely exciting.
RC: I was going to ask, does that necessity, tamping down your own voice in order to convincingly express—because I mean purely even in terms of how it sounds, Stephen Hawking’s voice, you could play a clip of Stephen Hawking talking and everyone in this room would immediately know who he was; Winston Churchill, of course, he has that kind of—he has his public voice that he uses to deliver his speeches in the film, there’s also his private voice which would sort of modulate in between those. But in order to convincingly write dialogue in those voices, are you conscious of removing yourself, like you have a kind of way of writing yourself that you then have to extract from it?
AM: A little bit; it is ventriloquism—emotional ventriloquism. And it starts with researching their natural voice, which is available to us through the writings and through clips. We didn’t—I didn’t have any recordings of Stephen’s voice pre-the computer. His voice was very slurred the first news clippings of him, his voice had already degenerated heavily. So I had no idea what he sounded like, but I knew how he wrote. And he’s an extraordinarily good writer and a lyrical man, so there were these clues. And yes, you try and do justice to them. When we finally showed The Theory of Everything to Stephen we had a private screening for him and literally carried him in in his wheelchair, it was like a Roman Emperor or something on his barge, and we sat him down and he watched the movie and I’m very, very nervous—you can imagine, you know, you’ve done a portrait of some one else’s life and they’re sitting right beside you. And the lights went up at the end and he had a tear coming down his cheek at the end and he started writing his verdict on the film. It takes him ages, it took fifteen minutes—a really white knuckle fifteen minutes—and he wrote two words: Broadly true.
RC: It’s a good review!
AM: It’s a good review, and it’s a strange thing and another subject is that even though you’ve invented a great deal—I mean I invented ninety per cent of what he said and half the things that he does in the movie we have no record of him doing, but he could own it. And the way that then history almost follows fiction and embraces it and embodies it… There’s a great story of Picasso, he did a portrait of Gertrude Stein, and when he finally revealed it to Gertrude she was horrified because it wasn’t very flattering. And she said ‘it doesn’t look a thing like me,’ to which Picasso replied, ‘oh but it will’.
RC: Let’s open this to questions from the floor. If you have a question, please put your hand up. Do we have mics? We do have mics. Do we? Yes, great, OK. Just there with the scarf, there, perfect.
Q: Thank you very much; I very much enjoyed what you had to say. I’ve got a question about—you mentioned collaboration and what you think about script editors. I heard quite a famous British screenwriter say recently that he hated them and had only trusted two in his life. So what do you think about that process of some one who can help, or do you hate shooting your babies?
AM: Well my answer would be this: I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be wrong. And that would apply to the script editor, and it would apply to me, too. Um, you can always be wrong, you can always learn. So I think you’re unwise to throw out advice. They’re only trying to help you in the end. What your task is to take the great ideas and say ‘thank you’ and own them. Um, which is the lovely thing is that sometimes people give you million dollar ideas and they walk happily into the distance and you get to sign your name on it. But, and when it’s a terrible idea, a lousy one, that’s your job, too, to identify and come up with a very good reason. But it often doesn’t hurt you to try it out anyway. Sometimes in trying out a lousy idea you come up with a third thing and that might prove a way forward. So it pays to be flexible.
RC: Yep, just there.
Q: Hi Anthony. It’s a pleasure to hear you. My question is vague and nosy: You said that it’s OK…
AM: Vague and nosy
Q: You said that it’s OK to mine one’s life for a story, and I’ve had a lot of life experience but I’m often shy to use it and whereas my belief in my writing ability is tenuous, I do believe in my life experience. So I suppose my question, the nosy part of me wants to ask what life experience you’ve had that you’ve used? But I guess better, how do you use your life experience? How do you use it respectfully or, like, can it be problematic?
AM: Well I haven’t done anything particularly autobiographical, but I write about the things that I care about. I don’t necessarily need to know the subject matter well because that’s part of the joy of exploring and research and getting to know the subject matter as you learn stuff. But take Churchill for example, as soon as I sort of embarked on it I thought—I didn’t initially know why I was fascinated by it, and this is where sort of the process of discovery starts because it becomes a self-journey into saying ‘Oh I know what I have in common with that guy,’ or at least ‘the story I want to tell about this man is deeply personal to me’. Why is it deeply personal? Well, it’s got to do with that proposition I spoke of before, the idea that words matter, that we have to sort of protect them, that they can change the world, you know. And that is every writer’s—every writer has devoted themselves to that proposition. Um, and, so that theme I realised is an autobiographical one. I did not know that, however, at the beginning. So I hope that answers your question.
RC: Uh yeah, just down at the front.
Q: That was an amazing lecture, thanks very much Anthony.
AM: Thank you.
Q: Um, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone going from writing plays to writing films?
RC: This is a transition that you’ve made, as well.
AM: Yeah. They’re very similar, very similar art forms. In both, you’re getting people in a room, you’re making them do things; the writer is always sort of the first director. So the skill set is very similar, but the vocabularies are different, and it took a while for me to stop writing cinema the way that I would do plays. I thought that it was sufficient then to just have people walking in a room as if it was a stage and just leave it up to the director to just make it cinematic, and then at the end of the scene people would either stay or they’d leave and the scenes would over wear their welcome, as well, they’d be sort of long eight, ten page scenes and so forth. So they were essentially theatrical in nature. That can work. There’s a scene in here, we just saw part of it—here it’s eight pages long, which is unheard of, almost, in screenwriting. Um, so I love kind of flirting with the theatrical and importing that thing that I love which is just staying in a scene and making it long. But yeah, you have to learn the vocabulary of cinema. I’m not sure any of these clips have shown you the way that I’m increasingly interested in the cut, which is ostensibly a director’s interest and an editor’s interest, but it’s what you learn through the cut that is not a theatrical device, and yeah, I’m still learning an apprenticeship in.
RC: Actually in the opening pages of The Theory of Everything screenplay you’ve got that cut, incredibly telling, back from Stephen Hawking in the present
RC: Right back to him on the bicycle where you see the kind of stillness and age through to, you know, full speed ahead. Now the way you wrote that on the page is incredibly cinematic because you have ‘Bam, this happens,’ ‘Bam, Jane does this,’ ‘Bam, he looks and sees these two things happening—there’s footmen at the palace kind of rearranging things’ and it’s all intensely visual. In order to start writing like that, was that something you could kind of, in a related way, reverse engineer from watching films that you had enjoyed and seeing how it worked with them.
AM: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s also exploring those devices yourself, taking it to a certain point with one film, starting a new film and say ‘oh that’s work to be continued,’ and then you get an opportunity in the next one to push a little further, push a little further and evolve and it gets more exciting. There’s a sequence in Darkest Hour where Churchill’s delivering his speech to Parliament—very long speech—and so it cuts, becomes non-linear. It cuts between the composition of the scene and he’s dictating it to his secretary while he’s in the bath, and it’s continuous so it starts in the Parliament, and then the next line is him in the bath dictating it, and then the next line is the secretary typing it, then you see the letters pounding out on the typewriter and so forth. And it was like ‘oh, this is a fantastic sandbox I’m in now. I can play with all these things’. And the reason for getting there was that I’d just finished a movie where I’d been—Bohemian Rhapsody it’s the Freddie Mercury story—where I had been playing with this idea that any time Freddie is going to compose a song you can cut to him recording it, you can cut to him performing in a stadium, then you can cut back to him still composing it and play with all these timeframes and so forth. And I’d had such fun playing with all these sort of devices of intercutting that I was able on this one to use that. So that’s one of the little areas I’m exploring.
RC: Possibly a really great reason for having multiple screenplays on the go at once, as well.
AM: Yeah. Yeah.
RC: Um, we’ll take another question. Yeah, just down the front there. Sorry, not quite the front there.
Q: I was wondering when you first started out what kinds of things did you do to deal with or cope with not having a boss and having perhaps not as much time as you wish you could have for all the ideas that you have or even when you do find the time that suddenly you’re two hours staring at a blank screen, but you have the greatest idea when you’re in the middle of something else and you can’t write it down. What kind of things would you do to deal with all of that?
AM: Erm, well my sort of evolution was I left university and I became unemployed and in New Zealand the welfare state is the great patron of the arts. They look after you handsomely for about as many years as you would like and you can work on dealing with the tyranny of the blank page and what it is to have a whole day where you’re supposed to write something and you have no idea what you want to write and all that sort of things. And I remember being absolutely—I was doing an original creative writing course at university and I remember going to the professor and knocking on his door and saying, ‘it’s awful. This writers’ life is awful. It’s just hours after hours after hours. Everyone else has gone out into the real world to do real things and I’m just home and there’s nothing going on and nothing’s inciting ideas and I’m trying to convince myself I’m a professional…’ and he said ‘Yeah it’s tough, isn’t it? It’s a tough job’. And then he told me this story that you should create other claims on your time so that it’s not all you’re doing. And then you’ve got, then when you’re doing this other thing you’ll be thinking ‘Oh I can’t wait to get to my typewriter’. And then when you do get that moment at your typewriter it’ll be a joyous thing because it’ll be ‘oh my God this is a precious time that I have’. So I started doing that, I took a sort of job and I became a part-time writer for a while, but then I found that I wanted to be more selfish with the writing and I got more confident and comfortable with being alone for all these hours. I grew up with seven children—I was one of seven children and so I was used to noise and people being around and being a writer is so solitary. It takes quite a lot of time to get used to how to handle and make yourself productive with all those empty hours and so forth. Now it’s the norm, it’s the default; everybody clears out of the house, brilliant, I know exactly what I’m going to do and how I’m going to fill it and I’m going to sit down and do eight hours and not bat an eyelid. But it’s part of the transition into thinking of yourself as a professional.
RC: There’s a question a couple of rows down from the front, there.
Q: Anthony, thank you for a brilliant lecture. You mentioned the writer enslaving their characters and you mentioned a beautiful phrase: Emotional ventriloquism. Can you talk a little bit about how you manage to create characters in the public domain that have so much veracity and feel as if they belong in their time? Because writers struggle, all of us struggle with wanting the piece to be expiation. And how do you control the material to the extent that you do? Because it’s about period as well, isn’t it? It’s about making sure that you’re writing about them in their time, using the lights by which they steer—you were mentioning that to me earlier.
AM: Yeah, how do you get it right? How does it feel authentic? How does it feel of its time and not anachronistic? It’s research; it’s dreaming yourself into that world. Often when I turn projects down it’s a phrase I lean on a lot: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can dream myself into this world’. But when you do, when you’re creatively excited by it, usually you feel it’s—to use that American expression, ‘it’s in your wheelhouse’. It’s not in your timeframe, it might be centuries ago, but the themes, the universal things, the timeless things, you feel you’ve got a grip on. Getting hold of the language of the day is interesting—I’m just working on a Benedict Cumberbatch movie for his company about a 400 year-old man, so he’s born in the time of Shakespeare, and I’m spending my time trying to write cod Shakespeare at the moment, it’s awful. Because the bar is so high, it’s never been higher, so it’s a tough proposition. But I imagine that, and the research is still on going as to how you would—how some one from a working class background living in the Gloucester area would have spoken 400 years ago. We don’t have any particular records of that so you’re sort of creating a reality that you’re hoping people will buy into. It’s research, it’s sensitivity, it’s using your instincts.
Q: Thank you.
RC: In the middle…
Q: I must say that Darkest Hour is my favourite film this year; I think it’s amazing. One of the things I think is so extraordinary about the way you’ve written it is how strong all the other parts are. Now Gary Oldman’s part obviously is amazing—Churchill’s wonderful. But when you look at Stephen Dillane playing Halifax or Ronnie Pickup playing Chamberlain, they’re really rounded and strong, and I don’t imagine that Gary Oldman’s performance would be as strong if you hadn’t written so many actually wonderful parts around them.
AM: Well that’s—
Q: And I just wanted to ask you what you’re writing next but we know you’re writing for Benedict 400 years—but what are the other four scripts that you’re—
AM: Well we’re shooting one at the moment and Anthony Hopkins is playing Pope Benedict and the wonderful Jonathan Price is playing Pope Francis, and it’s a sort of—again it’s a dialectic. You couldn’t find two more opposite types of people, both charged with the spiritual leadership of 1.2 billion people. They’re both meant to be infallible but they can’t agree on anything and I thought that was an interesting opportunity for a sort of papaal, theological smack down.
We’ll see how that one goes, that’s shooting now. Again it’s things where I go ‘I think I know how to tackle that’. Those themes interest me; I think I have something to say on those. I’m doing a John Lennon, Yoko Ono love story, producing it with Yoko Ono, which is an absolute privilege, although she fell asleep on me when I went to see her.
But uh, we have all of John’s music, and setting John’s music within the context of the ‘60s and what the ‘60s meant and why the themes of the ‘60s meant so much to those people who lived through it is an incredible privilege. Doing the Benedict Cumberbatch movie, working with Alex Gibney the great documentary filmmaker on a Vietnam War movie. How many have a numbered now?
RC: That’s four.
AM: That’s four. Yeah.
Q: They’re all real people, so you’re writing almost biographical films, again. Do you like doing those rather than fictional films?
AM: Yeah, the Benedict Cumberbatch one isn’t.
AM: Yeah that’s the 400 year-old man. I—
I seem to have found myself, quite a happy situation to be in, of sustained portraiture. Just walked around the Hockney exhibition of all those portraits; I seem to be in a Hockney phase. But it didn’t disserve Shakespeare to focus on portraiture. So I’m very happily doing what I’m doing at the moment and just because they’re historical and famous doesn’t mean you can’t make them contemporary and interesting and personal. So sometimes it’s like poets say when you write a sonnet—the very fact that there are sever limitations on what you can do can be actually very liberating. Um, and I’m kind of finding that.
RC: Now, so Anthony, we’ve got to liberate you
RC: Because we’ve come to the end of our Q&A session. Anthony thank you so much, it’s been fascinating
AM: Thank you, thank you
RC: Thanks very much!