Hi Chris – thank you for taking part in this online interview. I have known you for nearly 40 years, you were a tutor at Cardiff College of Art in my third year and after that I knew you as part of the emerging film-making scene in Cardiff. Since then of course you have gone on to great things as you IMDb entry shows(http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0003355/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1), and you are now based in Los Angeles.
As a screen writer do you write work generated from your own creative ideas or do you mainly work from a brief?
I’ve written around 60 screenplays for film or TV and half of them have been my own ideas. Of my own ideas, I’ve written some speculatively, but mostly I’ve taken my ideas and pitched them to various companies who then commissioned me to write a script.
Of the assignments, many have been adapting books, (fiction and non fiction) or rewriting other people’s screenplays.
How detailed can you be, for instance as well as the dialogue do you detail the setting for a scene and note what should be seen on screen?
When I started writing screenplays, one was expected to be quite technical, using sluglines: Interior. The White House – Night – and using many abbreviations to list the shots, like CU, BCU, BG etc.. That has slowly disappeared and the quest now is to try and write a script that is an easy, fast read, that shows the movie to the reader. That same script would now start WE’RE IN THE WHITE HOUSE AT NIGHT AND –
Hopefully reading one of my scripts should be like seeing a transcript of the finished film: Anything and everything that the viewer must see and hear (with the exception of soundtrack) is described. But the descriptions must be very concise. A feature script can only be between 90 and 110 pages. Given that dialogue takes up so much page space, visual and aural descriptions must be kept to a minimum and plots must unfold in the scenes, not in descriptions. Most executives go home every weekend with literally dozens of scripts to read. Blocks of prose are a total turn off, and readers will just skip to the dialogue unless the descriptive lines are pithy and informative.
With the script for Temple Grandin I was attempting to show life from the perspective of a woman who literally thinks in pictures, so there was a lot of very specific images, often only to be used as quick flashes.
How much does a script depend on what actor will be playing a part, or if the actor is cast after the script how much intervention do you have in say fitting the words and actions to an actors’ style? Do you write with an actor in mind?
With the exception of some stars, the development of screenplays happens way before actors are committed or finances have been raised to actually make a film. The industry spends a lot of money on scripts, in a process that is just like R & D in any other industry – and the majority of scripts never make it to production. Once the script is written, it may attract stars who want to play the parts and their involvement will raise the finance; or the script may attract a director and producer, who find the money, and then hire the actors. I NEVER think of an actor when writing. I want to try and create characters that a whole range of actors might be attracted to.
The exception to this rule is that many big stars have their own production companies and often have specific vehicles written for them. I’ve rarely been involved in those.
However, it’s almost inevitable that in the final stages of preproduction the leading actors and the director, will ask for changes. I try to embrace these, because it’s usually a fresh perspective on something I may have been working on for months. It’s a bit like a playwright who will be making improvements during rehearsal.
Have you adapted someone else’s book or writing to create a script, if so how much do you work with the original author?
With a work of fiction I have little or no contact with the original author. In those cases a producer or production company will have acquired the rights to the book. I will have pitched to the producer how I would approach the adaptation, and the producer will have told me what attracted them to the novel. We might be trying to reproduce the book faithfully, or we may be using the book as merely a starting off point, and everything in between.
But with works of non-fiction, and especially with biographies and auto-biographies, I might often call the author to clarify some aspect of the text, or ask them whether my dramatic take on the events is believable. Very often I’ll be trying to collapse very complex events that took place over months or years into a few scenes, or trying to collapse several minor characters into one. It’s inevitable that a biography will make major abbreviations (otherwise the film would last as long as the portrayed life!) but one works hard to stay faithful to the true dynamics.
What is the process of taking a book and turning it into a screenplay?
Wow. That’s a big question, because each book is so different and presents its own unique challenges. Some books are inherently cinematic: They have strong plots and revealed characters. But if the strength of a novel is its prose, then it’s very hard to make it into a compelling film. Didn’t Godard say ‘Great literature makes bad films, but bad novels make good movies’? I think so, and he’s right. Pulp novels usually have driving plots with simple narrative twists – they make for easy faithful adaptations. But where does one start with a novel where all the charm and substance is in the prose style? I actually believe that many of ‘the greatest novels’ should not be made into films. Except in very rare cases it’s a recipe for disappointment.
Usually I start by breaking the book down – literally going through it page by page, transcribing the story beats and character changes. It’s usually clear very quickly whether the book’s structure will work, or whether I’ll have to add, subtract, or alter the time line. For example, a book’s opening paragraph may describe a character arriving in town, but telling us in prose how he or she got there, and what he or she is running from. One line might describe a childhood trauma. In a film you might have to start earlier to show those events, or find a place to flashback to them — otherwise you’re doomed to create a scene where that character has to tell all this backstory to someone else – and that sort of exposition is deadly dull.
Last year I broke down a 700 page biography for a 4 hour TV series. With that one I ended up creating a twenty-foot time line around the walls of my office. From that I broke it down into roughly 600 scenes, each one of which I wrote on cards and then spent weeks juggling them into four dramatic episodes, each of which had its own thematic thread.
You scripted the Golden Globe Award winning Temple Grandin, and you won a Writers Guild of America Award for it. It is very easy for those who don’t win them to be dismissive of awards, but how did you feel to have such a huge critical success be recognised by your colleagues?
(Actually I didn’t win the WGA – I was nominated. But I did win a Peabody, a Humanitas and several others and the film one literally dozens, everything from international TV festivals to science prizes.)
I think everyone in the industry has an ambivalent attitude towards awards. Ultimately they are great publicity tools but it can feel a little like being cast into a Reality TV show, where one will be lauded or humiliated. Sitting, waiting in the audience, can feel like a lose / lose. If you lose, you lose, but if you win you have to go up onstage and possibly make a total fool of yourself. Not fun…
What is indisputable is that they are career-changing – one’s profile and status are immediately elevated. You join a select club and it is much easier for your agent or manager to ‘sell you’ to a producer.
Winning was fun – I can’t deny it, but the thrill wears off pretty quickly when you wake up the next morning only to discover that you’re the same jerk you were the day before.
You have an impressive list of films and TV that you have both Written and Directed, probably the film most known to people in the UK that you both Directed and Wrote would be The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. For people who write getting a book published is a major achievement, but to get a film made is a mammoth achievement. Perhaps you could just outline the process you went through to get people to support your projects and get them made.
Each film happened in its own bizarre, non-linear way. What was common to each is that enough people with passion eventually joined forces to champion it along. Very often a piece of casting (that’s to say an actor who was bankable) clinched the deal, but before and during that process the producer was crucial. No film gets made unless there is a tireless producer shaking every money tree. Sometimes talent agencies help, sometimes it’s just luck that a major star becomes available and happens to want to work where your project is set. There’s literally no simple ladder and that makes it very exciting, and infuriating.
Have you a project you have wanted to get made but it has never come off yet, I remember you often talked of a Dylan Thomas project?
Like every writer/ director I have several – ! My script about the lives or Dylan and Caitlin Thomas is one – over the years I’ve had a range of great actors who wanted to be in it, but we never clinched both actors and the finance at the right time. I have another about my time working in a timber mill when the guys wanted me to take pictures of their wives in lingerie. That one has had actors attached twice and been in preproduction once, only to have the finance drop out at the last minute. Right now I have a film about a dog (yes you read that correctly) that I am desperate to make. It has almost no dialogue.
Do you think that with the huge success of the drama series on TV that the standalone film is now inadequate to still tell stories?
‘The Wire’ completely changed the way people thought about TV – suddenly here was something with the scope of Dickens, playing out over many many hours, allowing us to embrace a huge range of characters and situations. Having said that, I’m still amazed how much a movie can pack in – and the punch that it can produce. Recently on a long flight, I was bored and chose to watch Chinatown again. I imagined I was just going to enjoy twenty minutes before falling asleep – but I was riveted (again) and just stunned by how it has both scope and intimacy.
Ultimately film and TV are very different media, and I love both. I particularly now like the luxury of watching several episodes of TV ‘on demand’ or DVD – but there is something about the communal experience of sitting in a crowd, illuminated by a huge screen that I just love. As a kid movies transported me, and I still want that fix.
To finish, do you have film(s), music or book(s) you have recently experienced that you can pass on?
I wish I had some books to recommend – I’m a voracious reader but in the last two years I’ve been getting two or three books to read a week for projects. It’s hard enough to read when I’m writing, but reading more than these submissions has been nearly impossible. Also, when I’m writing, I steer away from reading fiction – especially if the author has a strong voice. I’m very nervous of sitting down the next day and finding that I’ve carried his or her style or plot into whichever script I’m working on. I do manage to read a lot of science writing. I can’t pretend that I always completely understand articles on string theory or dark matter, but I love entering that realm. There is a fabulous series of paperbacks published here, ‘The Best American Writing’ series. They are compilations of the best magazine articles published in the previous year. They range from The Best American Science and Nature Writing, through The Best American Horror, Fiction and Non-Fiction and even The Best American Comic Books. Last year’s Science and Nature had an article on octopi that totally changed the way I think about them. Don’t be surprised if an octopus makes an appearance in one of my scripts soon…
I have always listened to a lot of music (I did a film in Brazil some years ago and came back with 200 CD’s…) and am lucky to have possibly the best American college radio station here in Los Angeles: KCRW. You can stream it from the web. My tastes are utterly eclectic. Recently (and this may be the result of iTunes and iPhones…) I’ve found myself doing in-depth listening fests. I’ll suddenly want to hear everything an artist ever did. It started about four years ago when, on a whim, I decided I didn’t know enough about Hank Williams. I’d always liked a couple of his songs, but downloaded everything from iTunes and just played him for a few weeks. Then it was Charles Mingus. Then early be-bop and Swing. I’d never really listened to Swing, I’d heard too much bad Swing on British radio as a kid – but some of it is amazing. Recently I’ve been re-listening to 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Bob Dylan. I’d been a big fan in my teens and early twenties but switched off in the Seventies. But I’d returned to him in recent years: Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft stunned me. Also I’d kept stumbling across some great songs that I’d missed (like ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and The Man In The Long Black Coat) so decided to give it all a listen again. Great fun.
Otherwise iTunes tells me my recent listening includes Tame Impala, Parquet Courts, Pharaoh Saunders, Curtis Mayfield, Alabama Shakes, Aimee Mann, Cannonball Adderly, Public Enemy, Sufjan Stevens, and Television. Pretty crazy mix…
Two tracks I’ve been obsessed with are ‘Precious Lord Lead Me On’ by ‘King Britt presents Sister Gertrude Morgan’; and ‘The Boy With The Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers’ from Karl Hyde’s new album EDGELAND.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Right now I’m finishing a 4 hour mini-series based on Robert Harris’ POMPEII. It’s being directed by Mikael Salomon and should be great fun. It’s unlike anything I’ve done before which is what attracted me to it – I never want to write the same script twice. Unfortunately this industry is often very unimaginative. After Temple Grandin I was offered a half dozen projects about autism, so to get offered the Roman Empire and volcanoes was very exciting. And next I’m hoping to write an animated film for a very talented director, Shane Acker, who made a wonderful film ‘9’. I’ve never written for animation before, so again, I’m excited by the opportunity.