Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Ol Parker
[Ol Parker]: Thank you, thank you. Thank you very much and thanks to Jeremy that was incredibly kind. I’m really nervous. I’m used to other people making my words sound much better than they are, so if you guys could please imagine that I’m Colin Firth or Maggie Smith that would be great.
I should first thank you guys for coming and say it’s an absolute honour to be part of this, especially with the other speakers this weekend. It’s a privilege to do the same job as them, let alone share the same stage. And I would also just like to take a moment before we kick off to remember and celebrate the great and recently departed William Goldman, who famously said about screenwriting ‘nobody knows anything.’ He said that consistently throughout all the definitive books he wrote about screenwriting.
His films will be watched forever and that’s how long he’ll be missed for too.
So when I was thinking about tonight, I thought that instead of a kind of potted autobiography, what might be more useful is if I just picked one project and talked it through, warts and all, all the way from the first optimistic chat to spotting the DVD in Poundland.
I know I’m up here advertised as the writer of Mamma Mia 2, but the bodies are still warm on that and they might be listening, so I thought I would tell you about the development and making of a film I wrote a little while ago, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Not hopefully in a smug way because it eventually turned out OK, but because it was such a long and difficult journey and there were so many times on the way when it seemed like it wouldn’t. And then maybe at the end we could see if there’s anything to learn other than dumb luck and blind persistence.
So it started like most of the best things do with a nice conversation about something entirely different. The excellent producer Graham Broadbent and I were hanging out, having lunch, and I was lamenting the fact that as I got older the wisdom I’d expected to somehow be visited upon me still seemed elusive and I wondered aloud if when I hit my senior years I would still be quite so clueless. And we laughed and carried on eating fish.
A couple of months later, Graham called: ‘Do you remember that conversation?’ he said, ‘I think I might have something for you.’ Working Title had optioned a book by Deborah Moggach called These Foolish Things about a group of senior citizens who retire to India. Deborah had written a couple of drafts herself but for whatever reason Working Title had let it go.
Actually I say for whatever reason, but I know exactly why: It’s because no one thought there was any money to be made in a film about old people. And in that no one I totally include myself and Graham. None of us had a clue; we just liked it, which might be the first lesson.
Anyway, Blueprint, Graham’s company, had picked up the option. There was a director attached, let’s call him ‘Director One,’ but don’t look him up, that’s now his name, and a start date, but they wanted a quick polish before the shoot. I read the book, I read the script, I liked them both, so I went to meet the director.
Director One is a lovely guy; I liked him hugely. He has a great way of giving a note, he says, ‘I wonder if you feel as I do that this scene is running a little long…’
And then when you do say ‘yeah I do think we could cut it some,’ he says, ‘I totally agree.’ His work is not known for its subtlety and the changes he wanted to make to the script reflected this: He had an idea for a scene where the wheelchair of a character we all hoped would be played by Maggie Smith got attached to a bus and she was dragged through the streets screaming as she went. I was pretty sure I’d seen something similar in Only Fools and Horses and I didn’t know how to make that work, but I signed up to do a six-week polish anyway.
What I didn’t know then was that I suck at six-week polishes, well polishes in general. They require a specific and forensic skill to spot key flaws in the script as it stands and to fix them and only them. A good example of this is Bill Nicholson’s brilliant pass on David Franzoni and John Logan’s script for Gladiator, which introduced the notion that Maximus’ goal in life is not power but revenge for the death of his beloved wife, giving the film an emotional heft that was a huge part of its success.
It turned out I couldn’t do that. It turned out that I felt I had to retype every line and rewrite most of them, including the title. So the result was that after my allotted six weeks I gave the producer and director the first twenty-eight pages of the film. I thought maybe we could have a look at the first four or five now, which actually didn’t really change from then to when we shot them.
That’s really nice of you. It’s not Chekov but it does a job, and it sets up the characters fast and thankfully, to my relief, there were some laughs!
Graham was very kind about the pages, if clearly and rightly frustrated that there were so few of them. The extreme weather conditions in India mean that you can only really shoot there between October and March and so because of my incompetence we were going to miss our window that year. It also meant that we lost Director One, who departed for Hollywood where I’m sure he’s totally agreeing with people, even now.
Graham and I made a list for his replacement: At the head of which was John Madden, whose work we greatly admired, but he passed, so we moved only one place further down the list to Director Two. Director Two is a lovely guy, I liked him hugely, but as he warned me himself he’s famously indecisive and terrible at expressing himself, which are unusual qualities for a director and ones that make for an interesting collaboration.
At one point he gave me a note so self-evidently baffling he could only shrug and go ‘even I don’t know what I mean by that.’
So thanks for that. But the script got better gradually; Director Two wanted it to be less of an ensemble and more focused on one character, so I dutifully did that even while disagreeing. But on the good side, he hated the idea of a wheelchair being dragged by a bus, so out that came. And eventually we had something ready to go to cast.
Which is a thing, casting. You might think that it’s not part of a screenwriter’s purview, but you’d be very wrong. Today, I have no doubt Shakespeare would be ask if he could punch up Ophelia to help get someone relevant, and just think about whether she might be American. She could be studying abroad—Hamlet does.
The unavoidable fact is that you can’t make your film without the acting people that the finance people think the watching people will pay real money to see. In our case, though everybody doubted that we’d sell a single ticket. It was clear that to even have a shot there was only one person at the top of that list: the goddess that is Dame Judi Dench, around whom we should, of course, erect railings.
But Judi is fantastically loyal to people whom she’s enjoyed working with before, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time on her dance card for new partners. So I did a sneaky thing: I happened to be reading Richard Ayres’ diaries about his tenure as head of the National Theatre in which he talks about directing Judi as Gertrude in a production of Hamlet. On the first night she sent him a card with a quote from Great Expectations: ‘What larks, Pip!’ So I wrote the following scene.
Actually can we show that again? Because just out of interest the guy in between them that gets on the bus is not one of our extras, he’s just a bloke and Bill, God bless him, goes with it.
Is that alright if we see it again?
Yeah I’ve always wondered how long he sat on the bus before realising it was never going to move.
Anyway, a couple of weeks after we sent the script out, Judi’s daughter Finty was reading it at breakfast and she got to page eighteen, read that line and said, ‘You must do this mum, she talks just like you.’
Actually as a postscript, the day we shot that scene several years later I was sitting with Judi waiting while the camera crew got set up and she turned to me and she said, ‘It’s funny, you know, because I do actually say this in real life,’ which was obviously my cue to go, ‘yeah I know and I did a sneaky thing,’ but instead I went, ‘really? I had no idea.’
But this may be another lesson, which is write to get a cast, whatever that takes.
So we had Judi, we had the great Penelope Wilson, we had some momentum, and the window for shooting in India was just coming round again. We all felt pretty good. And then to everyone’s surprise, most of all his own, I think, Director Two suddenly made a decision: He didn’t want to do the movie.
Since I’d spent much of the previous six months supressing the impulse to bury my burrow in his neck, I wasn’t entirely disappointed by his decision. But it did mean that another window slipped by, that we wouldn’t be making the film that year, and that we lost our cast, which was not good—nobody was getting any younger.
Graham and I regrouped, reminded ourselves that we’d actually always wanted John Madden and now we had a much better script we were certain he’d like. So we sent it to him again: He passed.
Director Three is a lovely guy, I liked him hugely.
His background was mainly in comedy, in quite broad comedy, so while I tried my best to write the film he wanted we weren’t a great fit. Apart from the day I heard myself suggesting a scene where Maggie Smith’s wheelchair is dragged along by a bus. He loved that.
He also thought we should focus less on one character and more on the ensemble, bless him. And so through the third year we worked in reasonable harmony. I was getting tired by now, and at those times we require the inspiration to come from our collaborators, which feeds the energy back into us. That wasn’t really happening with Director Three, but after several more drafts we had a new script to go out.
And it took us to the next level because Fox Searchlight rang to say that they liked it. This was excellent news as they’re good people who make great films. They were lovely about the script, although like us they acknowledged that it was a commercial risk, making a film about elderly people in the third act of their lives. Unlike us, their solution was to suggest that the leads be played by Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson.
This was a tricky moment. I wrote a passionate letter saying that those actors would pass and they’d be right to because I didn’t know what that hotel was. If they didn’t want to make this film I totally got it. After all, no one else did. But if they tried to turn it into something else, then it really would have no chance at all. Now the point was taken, thank God, and we moved on.
Searchlight’s next action I agreed with slightly more, which was to gently nudge aside Director Three. When that deed was done we all had a meeting and talked excitedly of John Madden. Finally, all the elements had lined up perfectly; We had an improved script, some excellent casting options, and we were now financed by a studio. So we sent it to him and he passed. As did another Indian window and another year.
Director Four, I have to say I liked somewhat less than hugely.
This was at least as much my fault as his. I was getting sick of the film by now; a six-week polish had taken nearly three years and I didn’t have much less to offer. But also, Director Four had absolutely no interest in it being a comedy, which on the good side meant that we lost the scene where a wheelchair is dragged along behind a bus…
But also we lost pretty much every other joke as well. He also thought it should be less of an ensemble piece and focus more on the lead character. But despite my issues with his vision for the film I look back on my behaviour in the meetings at this time with some shame as I was so unhelpful and truculent as to be actually juvenile… Although he started it.
He’s smart though, Director Four, and there were some good things in the script. There were enough things for Judi to come back in, single-handedly, torpedoing the studio’s hope for a younger cast because who can say no to the great Dame? Pen Wilson came back too and others arrived such as Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imrie and there was a glorious day that I got a message that I would come to regard as typical from Maggie Smith, that she would do the film on the condition that I made it a bit better.
But he was tricky and fussy and a research trip to India revealed a fatal mismatch between him and that glorious country. As everyone here trying to make a film knows, it’s hard enough to get the rock up the hill, but if there’s a lack of conviction anywhere about what you’re doing you really have no chance. As the window approached yet again, I don’t think anyone really believed we were going to go there and shoot a movie, so we didn’t. And that was the end of Director Four.
Churchill defined success as the ability to move from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm. This is a standard I spectacularly failed to meet when Graham called me early the next year: ‘So,’ he said, ‘about Marigold.’ And I just couldn’t. ‘The horse is dead,’ I told him, ‘stop flogging it. It’s an ex-horse, it has ceased to be.’ He was, as all great producers have to be, remorseless as water torture. ‘I was thinking maybe we should offer it to John Madden,’ were his last words before I hung up.
Two weeks later he called again. John, or as I like to call him, Director Five, was in. He’d read the latest draft, and while he missed some of the jokes, he’d found it deeper and more truthful than any he’d read previously. So there’s another lesson here, I think: What I’d thought for the previous three months had been backwards steps, turned out to be partly sideways ones offering at the very least a better chance to move forward.
But I was done. I was very clear about that. Thrilled about John, loved the idea of the film he might make, but the script needed new energy and I simply didn’t have it. ‘Just come and meet him,’ said Graham, ‘he’s lovely, you’ll like him hugely.’
So I went and we met and I explained why I was extricating myself from the project. There was nothing left that could happen between these characters, nowhere they could go, no arrangement of words in the English language, that I hadn’t had them say to each other a thousand times over. I was written out. It was the first and only time in our friendship that John completely ignored what I had to say, and as he started to talk and talk about the film he wanted to make, I felt sufficiently buoyed by his inspiration, enthusiasm and belief in me to agree to do just one more month’s work on the film.
Just over a year later we wrapped production in Jaipur.
I’d been at John’s side throughout the whole process. He believes that the director’s most important relationship on a film is not with the lead actors, the cameraman or woman, or even the editor; he believes it’s with the writer. And he proved that every day. It’s useless you knowing that because he’s literally the only director that ever lived that feels that way. So work with him, I guess, is the lesson there.
He also wanted the script to focus less on the lead character and be more of an ensemble, and I never even bothered to pitch the wheelchair behind the bus. Maybe the best example of his touch and tone is what he got me to write for the ending. For years the big climax of the script had been Bill Nighy running through the crowded streets of Jaipur, through the Holi festival where people throw paint dust at each other. He arrives back at the hotel looking like a very handsome rainbow, comically out of breath as he tries to make a passionate speech to Judi, which somehow does the trick, and she falls into his multi-coloured arms.
I loved it. All the directors had loved it. John didn’t. ‘Let’s take it down a little,’ he said. ‘Less running?’ I said. ‘Less paint,’ he replied. I rewrote it. ‘Less romance,’ was his note this time. I rewrote some more then some more. ‘Just less,’ he said. ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ I asked, ‘Having a cup of tea?’ ‘Perfect,’ he replied, so I wrote this.
That’s John, not me. Of course he was right. The camera rolled on draft thirty-eight of Marigold Hotel, and there were a couple more during the shoot itself. But the work paid off: we had ridiculous fun making the film. Judi actually described it as life-changing, and when you’re seventy-eight to describe anything as life changing is just massively cool.
And then to our astonishment people went to see it and they saw it again and again. We had a theory that older people went to repeat viewings because they’d already forgotten the jokes…
So they could laugh every time as the first time, like goldfish.
The thing about a zeitgeist is unless you’re really smart, which I think we’ve established I’m not, you don’t see it coming. But if you’re lucky enough to be on that wave, to be giving people something they want and need right at that moment, you really have to just not screw it up. It’s not for me to judge whether we just didn’t screw it up or did any better than that. I remember when I got home from India, friends would ask what I’d been doing out there and I’d describe the film by saying ‘Judi Dench and Bill Nighy fall in love while Maggie Smith wanders around being racist in the background.’ And everyone of every age was like ‘I’ll see that.’
So maybe all the work, all the drafts, all the deadlines and directors’ notes mattered way less than the fact it was just a brilliant idea of Deborah’s in the first place, with a wonderful cast and a fabulous location. Or maybe, just maybe, in this business where we’re all so endlessly frustrated by the process, this film is an example of the process actually working, with every iteration of the script that it went through just leading up to it being ultimately the best version of itself. I like to believe the latter, partly because we all worked so hard, but mainly because that means it can happen. And that, I guess, is the final lesson. Thank you so much for listening.
Duncan Kenworthy: Hello. I do want to ask…
OP: Thanks again, thank you again, by the way. It was lovely
DK: I do want to ask, actually, if Directors One, Two or Three or Four could identify themselves at this point, if they’re in the room…
OP: I can give you their names…
DK: Well that was brilliant. The most charming man in London and the wittiest, which is so clear now.
I looked up your career—we’ve known each other for quite a long time. And in fact I have to admit that every time they offered it to John Madden and he turned it down it’s because he was attached to something I was developing.
OP: It was your fault.
DK: Which has not yet been made. So that’s my pain as well as his. I’m interested: When you now only direct the films you write—through your career you’ve done a bit of both; you’ve written scripts for other people, you’ve written scripts for yourself—can you talk a bit about the differences?
OP: The difference is budget and scope, I think. I wrote a film that was made and I didn’t massively like what was done with it, and so I started writing something on spec and I wasn’t sure why because I couldn’t afford to, but halfway through it I was like ‘I know what I’m doing, I’m going to attach myself to this, and if nobody wants to make it with me then I totally get it, but if they want to make it then they’re stuck with me.
So I did that and we made it and it was really cheap and there was a lovely producer Barnaby Thompson who backed me. And so then I’d done that—
DK: Which one was that?
OP: That was called Imagine Me and You, and it was tiny and I’m proud of it.
DK: That was the one about the two girls?
OP: The two girls yes, the inadvertent lesbian romance. Yeah.
DK: Was it inadvertent?
OP: Well I tell you what, it was. It was…
DK: I’ve only just watched it.
OP: I had this idea where I was thinking ‘what’s the worst place to fall in love at first sight? It would be walking up the aisle at your own wedding, you’d see someone.’ And I thought ‘that’s quite funny I’ll give it a go,’ so I started writing it and the actress, the lead character, walks up the aisle, turns to her left and sees this guy and you know, is encircled by him but you know, carries on, gets married, but then as soon as they met at the reception it’s like they know exactly what’s happened and it’s just going to be an eighty page guilt fest before the ending, do you know what I mean? So I just junked it. I thought that’s a neat idea but it’s not going to work.
Then a couple of months later I was like actually if they’re the same sex it might be more interesting because they might just mistake that if they hadn’t been gay before they might mistake it for the thrill of friendship and so that’s how it became an inadvertent lesbian romance.
DK: Did the producers have anything to say about that at the time?
OP: They were—Barnaby was great, no everyone backed it.
DK: I love women too, so why not.
OP: It was an odd thing to direct the sex scenes, though. That was a strange thing.
DK: Did it have repercussions on the box office?
OP: It did. Yeah it didn’t do well. Fox Searchlight bought it, which was very nice of them, and then absolutely nobody went to see it. But I still get letters from young people coming out and asking for my advice so it’s sort of lived on.
I mean the bar is so low for gay movies unfortunately, certainly for lesbian movies. It’s getting higher now. It’s done OK, it lives.
DK: So going on from there on your directorial—
OP: So yeah I’d just alternate. I’d write things for other, much better people than me, but the next thing I wrote that I really loved was a book called Now Is Good, well the book’s called Before I Die by Jenny Downham and again is really small so I got to direct myself with Graham Broadbent.
But anything that was bigger than two people in a room on a really small budget I just figured would be beyond me and for something else, someone else. And I was very comfortable with that and indeed that was absolutely true when I got the gig for Mamma Mia—it was just for a writer and if I’d known I was going to be directing it I would never have written a dance sequence on fourteen boats. That was always going to be someone else’s problem and it was only a couple of months into pre-production that I think they must have offered it to everyone else and I was left standing so then they offered it to me.
Now that I’ve done that, it’s pretty big, I don’t know.
DK: That was not the last movie before you directed Mamma Mia, so in-between—
OP: In between I wrote, yeah, I love collaborating, I love working for people who are much better than I am, which is many of them. If I’ve got things to learn then I’ll do that, so whatever the next thing that comes is…
DK: It’s not one for them, one for me?
OP: I’ll do anything for anyone really.
DK: Did you ever learn directing?
OP: Well being on set—I was on set every day for both the Marigold movies and every day on Mamma Mia there was something I would say or do where I was like ‘that’s John. That’s school of Madden.’ The way that I’d talk to the studio or the way I’d talk to the actors or the way I’d deal with the problem was always ‘oh that’s John.’ Every day. I’ve been really fortunate in that everything that I’ve written the directors have let me be part of and stay on set. The one that I didn’t like I opted not to be on set anymore because I was just getting in the way because I wanted it to go in a different direction and then you’re just left with a mish-mash, so you’re better off hoping that at least he knew what he was doing, do you know what I mean?
But otherwise I’ve always been part of everything that’s been made so I’ve always got to watch and study and hang out.
DK: And is it the best of all possible worlds to be a writer who’s been invited on set by a very good director who you can then look over the shoulder of and say…
OP: Yeah I mean it’s the best of all possible worlds. To be in India making lines better and to be with John and, you know, if it’s only five per cent… If it’s only five per cent you go you know what I would do that differently, but if it’s that low and there’s eighty per cent that’s better than you could have imagined, you take it every time. There’s fifteen per cent or ten per cent that I would do the same. Then that’s an easy bargain to do...
DK: So this is not an inevitable journey towards you just being a director?
OP: No, no.
DK: You’re not going to ever direct other people’s work?
OP: You know I’m now sent—because Mamma Mia did OK I’m now sent other people’s scripts for the first time, but yeah, who knows. If I read one I thought I could do then I’d be thrilled.
DK: Looking at your career, because having done just one project in your career let’s look back: You started out like everyone here I suppose in television.
OP: Yeah I wrote a play and someone from the BBC came to see it and it was back in the days when they were just more—when they had less pressure on them. So they gave me six thousand pounds and told me to write an hour long, seventy minutes ‘screen two’ it was called, it was a single drama.
And I started writing something horribly pompous that I thought should be made, some state of the nation thing. And after a few weeks I called up the head of the BBC and said ‘I need to come and see you,’ because I basically hadn’t slept, I was just having a panic attack. And what I said was ‘look I’ve spent most of your money, but what I haven't spent I’ll give you back because I can’t do this, I’m not a writer.’ And he said ‘tell me about the thing you’re writing,’ and I pitched it and he said ‘that’s terrible.’ He said ‘how could you know anything about any of that,’ and ‘you need to write about something you know about’ and I said ‘I’m twenty-two, I don’t know anything about anything.’ And he said ‘what did you do last night?’ and I said ‘I took a truckload of ecstasy.’ And so he said ‘then you’ll have a script on my desk about that in six weeks.’ So I wrote that and it got made luckily and Pete Catania directed and it went on to do great things, so that was how I kicked off.
DK: it seems to me looking—I haven’t seen this work but looking at your IMDb page—that you started out in TV doing heavy, real life ecstasy taking dramas, which is very interesting for someone who’s ended up in how you would describe it I don’t know, but romantic comedy, possibly? Because you went on from that—what was the TV film that Chiwetel was in?
OP: I wrote In Your Dreams that Thandie, my wife, was in, that was about date rape and I wrote It was an Accident that Chiwetel was in that was also quite hard hitting.
DK: Did you hear that was date rape, he just kind of skimmed over that. So it’s very sort of hard-hitting, dramatic things that you’re attracted to as a writer?
OP: Yeah I’m attracted to any story that I think I might be able to give something to, I guess. You never quite know. I’m more attracted to themes, I think. It wasn’t really about date rape, I think I was fascinated by lies. It was actually the story of the date that leads to it and whether or not it leads to a rape, so it was less about the court case afterwards and more about the date and signals and misunderstandings. And Now if Good, I knew that a friend of mine had died and I knew that a few years before that I wanted to write about grief at some point. And I was sort of looking—not actively looking—but when the book came out I thought ‘that’s something I want to say’.
And so it’s often something that I wanted to explore, and Marigold was the same, as I say, it was something I was pondering as I was turning forty and just thinking about mortality or getting older or whatever and then you know, Marigold came along. So just whatever I think I might be able to do.
DK: I thought Now is Good was terrific. Made me cry several times.
OP: Thank you very much. It’s a weird, aggressive thing to want people to cry in the cinema. I used to sit in the back and when the hands would go up you’d go ‘yeah!’—that’s a strange place to be.
DK: Is it the case that almost all the things you’ve written are about women initially?
OP: Yeah it’s weird isn’t is? I don’t know why that is but it’s often almost entirely true that there’s a female lead and in the case of Mamma Mia about eight female leads. Yeah, I don’t know why.
DK: Are they all written for Thandie?
OP: They’re all written for—Thandie was going to do Imagine Me and You and I impregnated her by mistake and so she couldn’t do it. But hopefully one day we’ll work together.
DK: Maybe not a mistake! So is comedy, for you, a way of making all these really very dramatic issues that are in your head somehow palatable for an audience? Does it connect in some way?
OP: I think so. John used to refer to Marigold as a melancholy comedy. The trailer—I remember watching the trailer with absolute horror because it’s very sprightly and it’s all the gags and I totally see why they did that and that sells the movie and all that stuff, but it didn’t seem to me to be the tone of the movie.
And even Mamma Mia I killed off Meryl, so… And that was my choice, it was a deliberate thing and I wanted to hopefully get people moved at the end of that, even though it’s obviously meant to be a sunburst of a holiday experience. So yeah, if you can sweeten the pill slightly, but if you can say things that matter to people while making them laugh, you’re ahead of the game, I think.
DK: Tell us a bit about Mamma Mia. Obviously everyone here, I think, has seen Mamma Mia 2. Looking at the writing credits, it’s story by you, story by Richard Curtis, and screenplay by you, songs by ABBA. Is that about it?
OP: That’s about it!
DK: How did it…?
OP: Well Judy Kramer, the wonderful producer, saw Richard at a party and it had been, I think, eight years since the first movie and they were just stuck and didn’t know a way to go forward, and she asked Richard if he was around and available and he had any time and he said ‘I’m not but I know somebody cheaper.’ And so Judy called me and I went to see her and we chatted for a bit and I pitched a version and she said ‘go away and have a think’ and I came back and I pitched the version which is basically Godfather II, a steal from Godfather II which is that it’s a prequel and a sequel and also I said we should kill Meryl. We should just deal with the absence of the heart if she’s not going to be in the movie that much we should kill her off.
And I think again because I was cheap and they were desperate they were like ‘well OK have a go.’ And so then—but it was amazing, I got the job in September, it was the opposite to this, I delivered the draft on Christmas Eve and it was green lit on January 2nd to shoot in July. And so it was very—writing the sequel to Marigold 2 was kind of nearly the same; it’s a lovely feeling when the rock is already rolling down the hill, it’s a lovely feeling when people want to make the film rather than convincing them they want to make the film.
So yeah, then it was just a lovely process. The process of writing it: Richard and I went to his caravan, he had three days and he has a caravan in a field near his home in the countryside and there’s no Internet and we stuck up our favourite ABBA songs on the wall and I went with a rough plot and a rough idea but we basically just tried to zigzag from song to song and to make each other laugh, and if I could make him laugh that’s a golf shot basically. And then I went away and wrote it.
DK: It’s a dream, a dream story that.
OP: Yeah. And then making it was a dream; it was ridiculous. And Cher was in it.
DK: What’s your skill? What do you consider your skill to be?
OP: Oh god.
DK: As a writer is it—it feels as though, to me anyway—we’ve never worked together, annoyingly….
OP: That’s your fault not mine.
DK: Hopefully at some point.
OP: I’ve begged. Begged! Pleaded.
DK: But you can make everything funny and charming and emotional. Is it about the story? Is it finding the structure of the story that takes the time?
OP: Well thank you, firstly. That’s absolutely not for me to say. I don’t think I’m good at story or structure. I think if there’s anything… I’ve no idea. But thank you very much.
DK: I can imagine the pleasure of being offered Mamma Mia is you’ve got these characters, you’ve got these songs, now make it all work.
OP: Yeah that was a blast, I mean just ridiculous fun.
DK: Be still my beating vagina and all those…
OP: Be still my beating vagina was fun. I don’t know if any of you have seen the movie, but at the end we had like four songs left on the wall that we couldn’t get in, we just couldn’t crowbar them in, and it was literally we were just like finishing for the three days and I was like ‘alright here’s one: We have to drop in—we need an older guy, he works at the hotel, he’s the hotel manager, that’s what he is. We give him a comedy name: Cienfuegos, I’ve got a joke about that.’ And Richard’s just listening and I was going ‘OK so we have to drop in the fact that Ruby, Cher’s character, has her heart broken many years ago. We have to hide that fact we have to do this, and then at the end he looks up and shouts ‘Ruby!’ and she turns to him and goes ‘Fernando?’ And Richard just fell off his chair laughing. I thought well that’s—we just stayed true to that moment. And that’s the fun. Some songs you kind of go, ‘OK we’re stuck now where’s the song, how can we get there?’ and some you write backwards from, and some—I mean, Mamma Mia for example Lily James has just had her heart broken and we’re looking at songs on the wall and Mamma Mia, the first line is ‘I’ve been cheated by you since I don’t know when,’ and so you sort go ‘oh brilliant, we can now do that one,’ and so some—if you’re writing well, good things lead to good things. It’s a weird way that that happens.
There’s a great bit in Alan Partridge where he’s talking about anagrams of his name, and Anal Dirge Prat is one and in that episode, the beginning of that episode, he’s just found out that his band leader Glen Ponder is gay, and he’s horrified by it, and he turns to Glen and he goes ‘do you have an anagram of your name, Glen?’ and Glen goes ‘Porn Legend.’ And it’s a brilliant joke and I don’t know if they thought of Glen Ponder—I think they only found that after, but it’s because Glen Ponder was a brilliant name that it gave that second gift, do you know what I mean? And so when you’re doing things well—
DK: I don’t believe that. They wrote that name—
OP: You think they started with Porn Legend?
OP: I don’t think that they did, but you may be right. But my theory is if you’re doing things well then it keeps coming. And very luckily, and obviously because of Richard now, but Mamma Mia was that for me.
DK: For me the second one was better than the first, I have to say. I really enjoyed it.
OP: Thank you.
DK: I’m more interested in the story of the young guys than the older guys, but then you’ve already been rude about one of them in your lecture I shouldn’t be rude about the others. So does that mean—have you ever written scripts for Hollywood?
OP: Yeah I wrote a film for Tom Hanks for a long time that nearly happened. Yeah, I mean yeah I have.
DK: Nightmare stories? Have you had any nightmare stories about—
OP: It’s just the usual. It’s all nonsense. You have to put up with all kinds of nonsense. Mamma Mia’s tricky, you know, there’s a lot of money and the more money there is the more fear there is, so even though it was a nice ride and the studio were basically lovely there’s a lot of stuff to deal with. But if you try to not view it as a nightmare but just comedy, if you think everything, the worst meeting you’ve had if you just think ‘in ten minutes I’m going to be having a cup of tea with someone I like, telling them this story and we’ll be laughing,’ then you’ll get through it.
And Mamma Mia I just refused to allow anybody to be in a bad mood at any point. Because if you’re not enjoying that, you should get out of show business. So it was a preposterously happy set.
DK: Plain sailing from here on.
OP: No sailing at all.
DK: I’m just here before inviting you guys to ask questions, so maybe you should chip in at this point. And I think we have microphones around. If you put up your hands and I’ll point. You on the left there, if you pass the mic along.
Q: What would you say to some one who’s trying to get into the industry? How would you, I don’t know, how do you phrase pitching yourself to someone asking for a job?
OP: How would I pitch myself to someone asking for a job? Oh God. Can’t you tell by now I’m like the worst person to ask about that ever! I don’t pitch myself. Do something brilliant, be brilliant, you look great. Whatever you do just do it really well. Be impressive and then you’ll succeed, you’ll be fantastic.
DK: Perfect advice. And then the girl next to you.
Q: Hi. I wanted to ask you what advice you give to people writing ensemble scripts, so obviously The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ended up less about focusing on the lead character and more of an ensemble piece and Mamma Mia as well.
OP: Yeah. The advice I would give is to try and—my wife was in a film called Crash and she won a BAFTA. She’s in four scenes but because every scene she’s in she has something to do. So when you have characters that have less screen time, even when it’s Marigold and it’s not exactly the biggest, most emotional thing, just make sure when they’re in a scene they’re running a scene. Give them all a—because like I said getting a cast is really crucial, but also just for people to enjoy it. Make sure that when that character is there it’s that character’s story, that you’re getting the most out of that story that you can possibly get, that’s my advice.
And also when you’re in the story, stay in the story. I think in an early draft or even when we were in India and we see Maggie going somewhere and we’d cut to somebody else and we’d see Maggie arrive there and John was like ‘this isn’t working, this isn’t going to work.’ If you see Maggie going somewhere you want to see Maggie get there and you want to see Maggie have a scene. You can do the thing he does in Magnolia every now and then where you—we did it, I ripped it off in Marigold, Judi has a diary entry, and we could kind of go around everybody and check in on them, but when you’re with someone be really with them and make them own that part of the movie.
DK: Could you pass the mic this way—oh you’ve got it.
Q: I wondered if you ever go back to old projects that either you’ve abandoned because they weren’t working or they just weren’t right for the time. Or ideas that perhaps you haven’t worked on.
OP: There’s a really great director and he gave me this tip actually after Mamma Mia that he’d been in Hollywood trying to get things made and they hadn’t made them and he made a movie that did really well and he was like ‘oh now this is my chance because I have some kudos and cachet and I have a hand and now they’ll make those movies,’ and he went back and they still didn’t make those movies. And he thought ‘actually maybe they were right, maybe it’s the movies and not me.’
And so I think—like with this I really thought I was done and it was obviously John’s inspiration and brilliance that kept me going, but there’s a certain point if things die, there’s a great Groucho Marx line: ‘When ten people tell you you’re dead, lie down.’
And sometimes there’s a reason things don’t happen. Sometimes it’s unjust and I don’t think I’ve written anything that I think ‘damn that would have been great,’ but if I did maybe I would. Generally I tend to agree with the people that—the crap thing about film is that—TV is brilliant; when they don’t make your TV show they just tell you, really quickly. But film is an incredibly slow death, you don’t even realise that you’ve died ‘til about six years afterwards. By that time you’re so heartily sick of it that you wouldn’t revive it even if someone paid for it.
DK: You started out doing series television didn’t you?
OP: I wrote Grange Hill, I did. It was my first gig and it was hilarious, I loved it. We all just sat around and—
DK: Had you written before that?
OP: I’d written a play at Cambridge that the guy had scene and we’d put on. Actually my other bit of advice for you about starting out: I was really lucky, the brilliant Jez Butterworth who wrote The Ferryman directed my first play and Ben Miller the brilliant comedian was in it. So when you’re starting out find good people and glom on to them and stick with them as long as you can and they’ll take you forward.
DK: Very good advice. As with Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson.
OP: That’s what I’ve done with Richard, I’m glomming on to Richard. That’s how I roll.
DK: One over here, you stole the mic but you can still ask a question.
Q: Hi Ol. Is there—I don’t know if you’re writing now, but is there a particular theme that you’re thinking about in your head that you’d love to write about or see more stories about?
OP: Oh that’s nice. No. I’m not actually writing now. My wife is directing a movie so I’ve got all our children. I’m kind of looking for the next thing. So no, thank you for that, I’ll think about what that might be.
Jeremy Brock: First of all thank you for a beautiful lecture, absolutely wonderful. You mentioned in the Q&A that structure’s incredibly difficult. I don’t know a screenwriter who, if they’re honest, doesn’t admit that. Can you talk a little bit about your process, the actual process you go through when you’re preparing to write, when you’re writing, and whether that differs according to each project? How you actually get yourself in front of the screen and how you actually battle with structure because it is a great challenge, whereas dialogue is often a talent that can’t be taught. What do you do when you’re working your way through structure? How do you actually do the process of writing?
OP: Well my daily structure of writing is I take the kids to school, come home, make a cup of tea and try and read the entire Internet before I start working. On a more macro sense, most writers, and they absolutely should, write treatments. And I don’t. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m lazy or I like the idea that I’m surprised by—I think if I’m surprised then hopefully someone else will be.
When I was doing Marigold 2 there’s a bit where I was giving John and Graham the pages and we were going along because we were shooting it in that window, and I gave them up to page sixty and there’s a moment where someone goes up to Judi Dench’s room and comes out and said ‘she’s gone,’ and I gave it to them and they were like, ‘brilliant, where’s she gone?’ and I was like ‘I’ve no idea.’
But it seemed like a good bit. And so, but the brilliant thing—adaptations are great, true stories are great; the joy of knowing where you’re going is fabulous, but in general I just busk it, it’s headlights in the dark for me, like you can only see the next twenty yards. But by now I’ve done it often enough to know that if I keep going, I’ll get somewhere in the end.
And then obviously that entails a lot of rewriting. By the time I hand in the first draft I’ve rewritten the first draft many times. But it does mean I can’t jump forward. Some writers if they’re struggling I know that if they’re struggling writing a scene will write the ending, which will keep them in the mood and in the spirit, and I can’t do that because I have no idea what’s going to happen. I couldn’t say it works for me but I’m sitting here, so…
DK: Do you do that thing Richard always does, apparently, which is he saves a little bit that he knows what he’s going to do next for the next morning, so that—
OP: No, I rewrite. I rewrite and I listen to music, which really helps. If you find an album—and it’s really random and sometimes it can take a while to find—
DK: I find that so odd. And he listens to pop music all the time!
OP: He listens to one song, actually, Everything but the Girl, he did Love, Actually to. But for me it’s one album or a playlist for a movie. And that’s really helpful, you can listen to that and it’ll put you back into the emotional state.
DK: You put together a playlist in the mood of the thing and—
OP: Yeah in the mood of the thing. Sometimes those songs end up being, you know, Now Is Good, actually the playlist pretty much went straight in to the film. But others obviously not. Marigold 2 I got to use Marigold 1, Tom Newman’s brilliant score, so that was really lovely. But I begin, you know, it’s only about half past four when self-disgust overcomes me and I start working. I tend to just rewrite what I did the day before.
But no Richard’s brilliant, he does that thing of ‘I’m looking forward to writing that, I’ll leave it.’ But I don’t have that willpower. If there’s anything I know how to write then I’ll write it straight away.
DK: Good. Good, good, good.
Q: I’d like to say thank you for the lecture as well, I really enjoyed it. I wanted to ask a question about breaking the rules and how you do that or have the balls to do it. I saw a BBC drama about a year ago and it was a BBC hour and suddenly there was like a nine and a half minute scene of two people talking, it was a priest and a woman came in and confessed she was going to kill herself. But I did think that if you’d have shown that script to someone, a script editor, they’d have said ‘you can’t possibly get away with that.’ Do you have that?
OP: I’m probably not good enough to write a scene that good. But you do, I mean, you have to just commit—and if you’ve done something… I mean I don’t have any fear. If I thought that’s how it should work best then I’d do my best to do it. And then you rely on the strong producer, the strong people around you, and also the people—you may be right, but the people who make things really try, and nobody sets out to make a bad movie. They really try, so if you can convince them with the force of your writing, the force of anything, that you’ve got something that works, they’ll be thrilled about it too. Everyone’s on a glacier to a degree. They’re all scared. But if you can show them a better way, they’ll be thrilled to take it.
When I used to go to meetings when I first started being a director, I would go as a writer and was kind of reasonably calm and reasonably casual. But as a director you have to go in and kind of go ‘I’ve got this, who’s with me?’ You have to kind of have more moxie and more balls. It would be hard to write something like that without directing and go ‘this is great, trust me.’ And that may not be something I’m entirely comfortable saying but I can fake it because you have to, because there’s a bunch of people believing in you and you’ve got to pretend you believe in yourself.
DK: Is that your first piece of advice about becoming a director, that you have to fake confidence?
OP: Yeah a degree of energy. I would go in laconically going ‘I don’t know how we’ll do this but we’ll find a way, we’ll figure it out,’ and they’d be like ‘do you really want this?’ ‘I’m not sure I do…’ and so yeah, you’d have to go in and go ‘I’ve got this.’ It’s a benevolent dictatorship and it’s yours to give away. You can give it away once you’ve got there but—the first film I did people called me ‘governor,’ and I said ‘don’t call me that, call me Ol.’ And actually that’s—I remember interviewing a Director of Photography and going ‘I don’t have a clue about lenses or anything and I need you to do that stuff for me.’ And they just look at you like ‘that’s not cool. That’s not right.’ You’ve got to actually just fake it a little bit. There’s a reason you’re the director and if they can’t believe in you—and actors certainly need to believe in you because they’re making absolute gibbons of themselves if not. So you’ve got to project a degree of energy and self-belief that you may not feel.
DK: Convince the producer you know what you’re doing.
OP: And convince the producer you know what you’re doing, yeah.
DK: More questions.
Q: Have you ever dealt with any particularly difficult actors or stars and do you have any strategies for dealing with that when it does come up?
DK: Actor number one.
OP: Actor number one, number two. It’s different, there are different kinds of difficult. You try really hard to avoid—there’s difficult people that care: Paddy Considine is not easy, but he’s fabulous, it’s all worth it and it’s just because he cares passionately. And if he goes off at you it’s just because he’s searching for the truth, and I’ll take that every day.
Difficult ‘where’s my sushi?’ is a different thing. And that’s much more problematic because there’s no way to solve that. Fresh sushi isn’t—it’ll be something else the next day, do you know what I mean? And so it’s in the casting process—you try and hang out. Mamma Mia, for example, they’d had such a lovely experience on the first one that it was incredibly important to me that all the new people I’d cast—you don’t want to fake joy, that’s ghastly. So I went to meet Cher to check that she was—actually, Cher is fine, if she’d been a diva that’s fine because she’s Cher. But she’s lovely and warm and gorgeous. But you just research and talk to people and try really hard to avoid it. And if they’re difficult give a shit, then embrace that. That’s great, work with them.
DK: The studio flew you out to meet Cher—
OP: No, Cher was a process. She was a challenge and a process—
DK: Was she someone else before Cher?
OP: No I wrote the part for Cher, nakedly. Not literally nakedly, although I would’ve done that too if it had got her. And then when you’re casting actually you always need a plan B because the first person will turn you down. And in order not to be depressed and wait a week you need to go ‘oh, Matt Damon can’t do it? Ben Affleck would be brilliant.’
But with Cher I just refused to contemplate anyone else. And she made us wait a long time because she’s Cher and she owns time.
And I wouldn’t allow—there was this other list and I was like ‘no, it’s her. It’s definitely her.’ When she came on set the first time she puts out her hand like this so you can only kiss it and curtsey.
You can’t shake that, it doesn’t work. But she’s ace, she’s fantastic. So yeah it worked out.
DK: I’m sure that waiting was what persuaded her
OP: Oh but yeah then when she comes and she’s Cher and she opens her voice and that happens. She’s incredible.
Q: Hiya. I was just wondering if you have a process for writing dialogue for characters that makes them distinct.
OP: Writing dialogue for characters?
Q: Just making each of your character distinct, like with a distinct voice.
OP: I don’t—I never quite know. I mean I don’t want to be really precious and go ‘oh it’s visited upon me,’ but if you try listening… I used to write, I used to have a notebook for witty lines and almost kind of stand up bits—like, ‘ooh I’ve got a bit about the Beatles hair, I’ve got to get that in somewhere.’ So when two people are having dinner or whatever happens he’s going to be doing a comedy monologue about the Beatles hair.
But actually, probably what they’re going to be talking about is what just happened to them or what they want or something more characterful. So if you just listen, then generally that’ll tell you the way forward. I mean I’m really bad at writing jokes. I just did this thing and this script that I’ve just written is about to happen I think, but someone has a first line and it’s meant to be a comedy line, that’s just disastrous to me. Whereas if someone else says something then I can hopefully come up with a comedy response to it, do you know what I mean? Because that would be truthful and that comes from hearing the line before.
So the only advice for dialogue is to try to let it flow. Actors love it when—and they find it easy to remember—when the next thought is the logical next thought. And that comes from listening I think, I hope.
DK: Do put your hands up if I’m missing people. Can you pass that microphone along and we’ll take this question here?
Q: Hi. I guess I’m interested in writing as that space between the personal and the universal and kind of the private and the public, but do you ever worry that what you’re writing is kind of not going to land because it’s something that’s so specific to the way you see the world? Although I guess that is the most kind of wonderful thing.
OP: I remember being in a cinema watching The Full Monty in New York, and I know Simon who wrote it, and I know Pete the director, who was my friend from the first thing that we’d done. So I’d seen part of it, and there was a bit in it where one of them explains the dance sequence by likening it to the Arsenal offside trap. And one of them goes ‘I see, you’re Tony Adams and we all step up at the right time.’ It’s a lovely bit of writing but it’s astonishingly specific.
And I was like ‘that’s cool, it’s going to work great in London.’ And I watched it in New York and they didn’t understand what the fuck anyone was talking about, but they knew that it was true. They knew it was what those guys would be talking about so they listened with absolute pleasure with that little bit, and it made them like the movie even more, even though it was more specific than they could understand. And it was a real lesson to just write it to be the thing that it is and don’t try to second-guess. If you write it truthfully—if you build it they will come and if you write it truthfully they’ll appreciate that. So I wouldn’t worry about it.
DK: Very good advice. Is there a microphone near you? Great.
Q: Hi. First of all a big thank you. So much. You said that somebody told you at the start to write what you know, and that happened to be about ecstasy, which was a thrill to hear. Would you say, therefore, that playing it safe is not a good idea when you’re writing and you shouldn’t tame your ideas because they might be rejected or might be dangerous?
OP: Well Marigold’s an example of—as I tried to say, none of us had a clue, you just go with what you like whether that feels safe or not—just tell the truth. Just write the thing you want to write, write the thing you don’t think you’ve seen, write the thing no one else has done, but not in a kind of ‘oh my God how can I be radical.’ No one else has seen the thing you can write, no one else has written the thing you can write, only you can do that. And so do that. And don’t worry about if it’s safe or not, it’s just yours. And hopefully it’ll be ace.
DK: But is there a way in which, I mean looking at your CV again it did strike me that you worked with Peter Cattaneo on… He directed what?
OP: He directed Loved Up, the first thing I did.
DK: Loved Up, which was the ecstasy film. But he had his success when he went on to something that was real but perceived as a comedy. And I wonder if that’s true for you, too. Somehow you started out at ecstasy and date rape and all these things. Now maybe, I don’t know if they were happy experiences, whether you felt you’d really nailed it with them, but it wasn’t until you’d found a way of adding to those bits of real life that you wanted to express comedy, that somehow—
OP: I see—I try not to look at my work in totality as an oeuvre. I just try and do the next thing. I think that’s where madness lies if you look back and analyse yourself. I seem to have found a place where I’m writing things that are hopefully quite funny but hopefully truthful as well. But I don’t know that that would necessarily be the next thing.
I answered that question before that I’m burning to—it’s not like now that I’ve done Mamma Mia I can go back to the art-house project that I’ve always cherished. It seems to suit my—there’s a truism that most writers talk the way they write and it seems to me to suit my personality and the things I do.
DK: Yes just there behind.
Q: Hey, I was wondering, with your projects that you’ve considered your most successful or you’ve been the most happy with, have you found it the most useful to start with a really good plot idea or an event or a situation, or with a really good character?
OP: I don’t think I’ve ever started with a good character. All the characters I’ve thought of have always come after the situation. It’s always ‘who would be?’—and I never really know how I come up—how anyone comes up with anything. But I remember Marigold was kind of mathematical because some of the characters aren’t actually in the book. For example I remember Tom Wilkinson’s character thinking we need someone that’s been in India before, we need someone that’s not a virgin to the country—so OK he would’ve been there, why would he have been there?, he’s a retired judge and he’s gay and he’s lost his lover. So it came out—the creation of his character came out of a need for someone in the plot. So generally story, I think, and then you try and find people that service that, but I think the story will get you there.
Listen, Naked, for example, the great Mike Leigh movie—you can build a film around an extraordinary character, and there are few films better than that, but it’s rare and difficult to do. Generally it’ll be story that gets you there.
Q: Hiya. I was just wondering what and how the success of Mamma Mia 2 has changed your own opportunities in terms of the things that you’re being offered, but also is there a sort of desire to try to do something smaller and more intimate and not try to compete with something like that.
OP: A bit of both I think, oddly. A bit of both. On one level it was this giant thing and helicopters and eight cameras and that’s tremendous fun, being on boats and nonsense. We took speedboats round to the set every night and every morning. And we just had a blast. And we had time as well, which was extraordinary. It was a seventy-nine day shoot. So the feeling—if you’re making a cheap movie you have a day in a bookstore, that’s your day in the bookstore and whatever you get that day, that’s what you’ve got, do you know what I mean? And when eight o’clock rolls around and you haven’t got the scene that’s your fault. When you’re doing Mamma Mia you have a feeling there’ll be another day in the bookstore or they’ll build a bookstore, do you know what I mean.
And that’s a lovely place to be. So that’s tempting. But on the other hand it’s also nonsense and is scary and the studio make it scary and the test screenings are scary. It’s nice to get away from that and make something raw. So both, I think is the answer to that.
DK: Did you do reshoots?
OP: I think we did one day of reshoots. I screwed up the death of Meryl. I really went for it, went for a very Scandinavian beginning. The beginning of the movie had a beautiful track in across the mountains and we ended up with a close up of Amanda as she’s saying Mamma Mia through her tears, and it was just too heavy. Audiences were like ‘yeah, no.’ ABBA loved it, God bless them, because they’re Scandinavian. And the tests were like ‘yeah, no.’ So we reshot the beginning and made it a little bit more cheery and Amanda does invitations and Meryl’s still dead but it’s not quote so heavy. I feel we had to kind of own the disaster that we were unfurling.
Host: But just that.
OP: Just that. It worked out.
Host: How are we doing, any more questions? This one over there.
Q: Hi, thank you. I just wondered how you kept going when you were not knowing if Marigold was going to be made—mentally as well as financially?
OP: You do rely on other people. it’s like in a marriage—there are times you feel good, times your partner feels good and you subconsciously or consciously bolster the other one. You just keep going and you rely on the energy of the producer.
It’s tough when—I mean Director Four, when Graham called and said ‘so, Marigold,’ I was totally serious, I was totally done, but I thought the film was done. All respect to him for still trying. There are times when it’s harder than others. Sometimes you’re the guy and you’re like ‘oh I’ve got a good idea.’ But if you’re curious, if you have a good idea—if there’s one thing somebody says that you’re like ‘oh I could write that,’ then that’ll do you. You don’t need much, you just need a sense of—I think with John there was one thing he said and I thought ‘oh I know how to write that scene.’ And that’s when I knew as he was talking, even though I wanted to quit and there were other things I wanted to do, I thought, ‘oh no I’m still in this.’ But just a small thing, you just keep going. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and sometimes it works out.
DK: That’s the great thing about having a creative director on board, that sort of collaboration.
OP: Yes, and John is gorgeous.
DK: He’s amazing. I don’t know what time we’re supposed to wind up. Are we around about this time?
OP: My daughter’s going to sleep. She’s heard all this before.
DK: Have we run out of questions, in which case…? There’s one down here.
Q: Thanks. I was just going to ask a bit more about your rewriting and especially around dialogue and if you rewrite it after you’ve heard the actors or if you get friends who are actors to read out the dialogue and you get ideas from that? If you try it out first or if the shooting script is the first…?
OP: I don’t really try it out. I mumble as I write, so I say it all the time. My family always know when I’m writing because they can hear me under my breath. But you’re prepared to rewrite, of course, if an actor has a problem or there’s a great moment in—exposition is really tricky for writers and there’s a great moment in Marigold 2 where Judi Dench just has three lines of crap exposition and she looks up and she goes ‘is Ol around? Is Ol on set?’ and I said ‘Yes Judi I’m here,’ and she said, ‘Can we do any better than this?’ And so—that was a low.
Sometimes you hear them and you go ‘oh that’s wrong,’ and sometimes they come up with better things and that’s brilliant. Richard Gere is an odd one because he’ll just take the lines as a vague guideline for what he should be saying, because obviously he’s working with all these guys who are used to working with dead writers so they just take the crap they’re given and make it work. So he would just say random things and they would answer; he would say ‘it’s a beautiful day,’ and they would go ‘half past four.’ And it’s like ‘Richard you can say whatever you like but you’ve got to in the end get to the question.’
Sorry, I’ve come off your point. If it’s not working, you rewrite, but if it is you’re lucky. And if you work with those guys, then generally they make it work. It’s a constant process of revision, and I’m so bad at the macro, so whenever I rewrite it’s just the micro. I had a very happy hour with Bill Nighy doing one speech after which we changed one ‘um’ to an ‘ah,’ and that’s heaven to us both. It was like sex.
DK: We’re going to make it two more questions. One in the middle there. Is there one ready on this side of the room?
Q: I don’t mean to ask you a silly question. What’s the best film you’ve seen recently or in the past you wish you’d written?
OP: I wish I could’ve written? I mean almost everything. Roma is a masterpiece. I could never have written it for fourteen different reasons, but Alfonso’s talking tomorrow? And if you haven’t seen it, it’s a masterpiece, so that’s the best one I’ve seen for a long time, it’s extraordinary.
But sorry, in terms of thing I’d hope to be able to do? Pretty much anything by Kenneth Lonergan, pretty much anything by Kenneth Lonergan: Manchester by the Sea was a masterpiece I think, but You Can Count on Me was a massive influence on my writing. I’ve only seen it once because it was so important to me, so it might not be as good as I remember it. But it’s so understated and so underwritten and so beautiful, and that taught me a lot. So anything by him.
DK: And where has the microphone ended up on this side? Oh I thought I saw an arm earlier.
OP: I’ve exhausted them.
DK: Well then I think we’ve used up our allotted time and anyway. So please will you join me in thanking the talented, witty and very successful Ol Parker.