Dear friends and readers,
Last night I watched on PBS Great Performances Emma Thompson steal all attention in a concert performance of Sweeney Todd from Lincoln Center (I have yet to discover who was the director) with Byrn Terfel as Sweeney, astonishing if you consider his extraordinary voice against her comic caterwauling. Entertaining (vivid, full of a sense of witty there-ness), it nonetheless did not match the dark and somber — and wildly exhilarating version I saw years ago (16 years ago now, Signature Theater’s opening show) directed by Eric Schaeffer where Todd is a man in an insane rage over what the world has done to him, and the magnificent Donna as dark and saturnine as he is mad, and somehow wildly comic, with blood everywhere, and continual death — but this version does make sense of all the music equally. The darker versions don’t know what to do about the lyrical couple. This Lincoln Center director had re-conceived the piece to be more like a Victorian music hall, partly to accommodate Thompson’s vein of quizzical nervous comedy. The lovers’ duets are done in a analogous vein of an ironic comedy that defuses deeper disquiet, and leaves Sweeney more humanly accessible. It was striking too how Lucy now the mad beggar also emerged as more important, a kind of opposite to Mrs Loveit. You might say this was a woman’s Sweeney Todd as Todd’s daughter became an icon of escape on the stage.
All this to introduce a transcript of selections from an interview about screenplay writing between Thompson and Charles Brock, a central topic of which is her screenplay for the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee.
Jeremy Brock began by asking about her father, Eric Thompson who wrote the playlets for the Magic Roundabout. She said her father would watch the pictures of the Magic Roundabout – and write words for pictures. In screenplay writing you write words for the moving pictures. He did not write for children as if they were separate human beings but for adults and children as of one species.
She started writing and performing sketches when she was 16: monologues and sketches from Footlights was what she grew up with. Andy LaTour and she were doing stand up comedy – musicals in Australia – Al Fresco in Manchester – earning money doing sketch shows – and they then went to Edinburgh.
She got a commission to write a sketch show in the 1980s (1986), which she regards as an important signal in her life because it was such a massive failure –- yes it was all political, against that right de seigneur as practiced in modern film-making, against dieting (auto-cannibalism). No one seemed to watch and the reviews said “this is very man-hating.” She felt she loved men, and told herself this is what it feels like to be here writing shooting scripts as a woman now. So she never wrote another monologue or another sketch. It was a violent experience: she had wanted to be Lily Tomlinson.
She: men’s jokes are something this lead to an ejaculation at the end. Women’s comedy is more circular: big laugh, little laugh her, and then big laugh. Goes hand in hand with orgasmic nature.
She then suggested that screenplay writing is a kind of negotiation with a film industry.
On her two best-known successful screenplays become films:
Branagh and Thompson in a typical moment from Dead Again
How did Sense and Sensibility come to her? “It came to me because of that sketch — the sketch she was so attackd for: they showed that series in the US on some obscure channel.” Lindsay Doran produced Dead Again, and as Emma’s friend, Doran thought that’s the woman I want to adapt a Jane Austen novel. Thompson said she’d have preferred Persuasion. “I’ve never adapted anything … I’ll have a go.” She is told to begin by dramatizing the whole book, see what works, and then take out what she wants and link everything together through tiny connectives. Thompson’s first script was 600 pages long and the task was to distill.
“You end up with an imaginative invention of your own. First you adapt the whole thing and much of the language in S&S is arcane.” Thompson said several times she writes her first drafts by hand. She went through 17 drafts over five years for the 1995 S&S. She was not doing this all the time –- she produced one draft while they were shooting Much Ado About Nothing affected by experience. Doran said throw it out and go back to the one before. Everyone needs a good editor – really good at knowing what’s good and what isn’t – editing in film is highly regarded . She, Emma, couldn’t write a decent screenplay without a good editor. Unless you are in conversation with someone you can’t get to final draft – it’s a collaborative writing.
What was nature of Elinor emotionally as seen by Austen and then translated by Thompson, realized by Lee – “Emma’s language is arcane [she kept saying this], late 1700s. What Elinor comes to stand for is the honor of a man,” not the same as virginal intactness. “Elinor Dashwood holds to honor and duty;” Ang Lee has the same line (as above scene), in Eat Drink Man Woman: “What do you know of my heart?” meaning also, “How does a woman act to be honorable? What is honor to her? What her methods?” (Is integrity to tell the truth is about it? yes, I think so.) What’s interesting here is Thompson gives weight and gravitas to Elinor’s decision to keep Lucy’s secret, to support Marianne. They become not just steps in a romance.
Emma Thompson went from there to ask and to answer the question, What is a female hero? Where is she? What does she do? She suggested we need to define and see female heroism existing in the ever flowing river of human behavio … in details Detail of human life acts of heroism stitched into last flow. This reminds me of George Eliot’s praise of Dorothea’s life at the close of Middlemarch, but she went on to say for her it’s not enough to know you’ve protected others and helped them by your little acts of heroism. She’d also to be the one who goes out and be the active hero – she instanced Clint Eastwood.
On the Jane Austen society: “she’s very protected,” and her adherents easily “excited.” They had been no picture since 1940: she means movies, reinforcing this idea that what’s on TV doesn’t count. Thompson told someone in the JASNA organization that she had cut Nancy Steele and the person walked away – the woman was so appalled.
She then talked of Elinor and Edward as characters and said she saw in them the potential for a connection to contemporary relationships. Edward and Elinor (she and Hugh Grant) had to lay in a deep humorous understanding of one another, a shared sense of honor. There is a frisson of sexuality embedded in Austen indirectly and as screenplay writers you write it into the script directly. The script is the muse for the performer; you leave open for such a thing to have happen offstage: our problem is how little we know of Austen from her letters since so many were destroyed: I did like how she said “I want to kill Cassandra for burning much of JA’s correspondence. The books show selfish people getting what they want, they stay selfish, Lucy is extremely selfish and carries on; that is the realism of Jane Austen.
So how do you approach a classic novel: you must bring your own feeling to the work. The way it’s done is dramatize the book. Go through it dramatizing as you go, and then start to cut. You eventually recognize some keystone, some central crucial incident or theme and build a structural integrity around that. This keystone enables the director to navigate the filming the film, or it’s a loadstone attracting everything to it like a magnet. You build around keystone if it’s taken away, the arch of the film’s arrangement of scenes will fall. It has these angles to it. The screenplay holds water like a balloon – a good one will carry on holding its water, some water might move and change shape but not burst.
Great screenplays – making a screenplay to film — after dramatizing the whole book, you take out the bits that don’t work. You have to cut the bits that don’t work. Essential in screenplay you’ve adapted it to film, I can see it, it’s implicit, there already, so I don’t need to have that scene
In thinking of her screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, she remembers Howards End where Margaret talks so famously of only connect. Everyone said and Jim Ivory too, we’ve got to have it in. Well theye shot it, and in the movie it wasn’t there. We didn’t need it; the idea of only connecting was watched all movie long.
Adaptation process is double: there’s book to screenplay and screenplay to film. Editing is the final rewrite of the film where people see what the film doesn’t need. Now when you excise something you can make juxtaposition of the two remaining scenes much more powerful. That is key to power and effect.
About ellipses, it’s a matter of taking out everything; then what’s left really pings out because of whaty ou have taken away. And performance art all to do with energy
The ending of a film should ideally be like a magnet — scenes, characters and words – all are piles of iron and then pulled to end into the magnet. All the odd filings have gone whosh and you go out filled up with energy – magnet’s your ending.
Elinor’s last scene with Edward is the last scene of S&S for real (so she discounts that marital montage orgasm the studio insisted on) – she’s all about withholding, well I wrote it all first and saw how much you can withhold. Now sometimes people take out too much; you must be able to follow – she’s accused by sister of having no feeling, but she’s nothing, she can do about it nothing as everything having do with being active is against what she has been taught. Thompson said that “every time I read it, I cried so I didn’t change it.” That last scene was written quite early. When Grant began to rehearse it with her, he asked “Are you going to do that cry all the way through my fucking speech. She answered “Yes, because it’s funny, it’ll work I promise you it’ll work. He all right, I’ll do it,” and it did work.
Long languors, they can be written or just performed. This is not to deny that stage directions are very important –- they need to be witty, well written – cursory or banal. “Then I am willing to read bloody dialogue — every single word must be the most beautiful things. It has to be as perfect as it can be and then you do hand it over to other people’s art” (acting, production design, costume, directing).
Later she was asked, Where do you keep the box of drafts? In the attics – she does not go back and reread – she ddid find the box of drafts for S&S and was asked by Jeremy to bring them to the interview. She begins by writing by hand, and goes through 3 or 4 drafts by hand. She becomes more neat – nearer all the tie –- you have to copy by hand so you get to know your text when you barely do copying and pasting.
Turning away from Sense and Sensibility gradually Brock asked her, “To what extent do you bring actors’ antenna to writing and the journey. She referred him to her comments on the DVD feature accompanying The Remains of Day. She will tend to act all the roles as she writes. She will not write something that cannot be spoken. You test that continually. “You can learn bad writing. Good writing goes into your system. Such a joy, such a pain. When it’s good, you are so grateful.”
She turned to her other well-known script: Nanny McPhee. How did she come to write a screenplay for this child’s book? Well, hovering in the room which has got best of the books in my house, Matilda by Christiana Brown, she came to read it again and came to think Brown was writing for herself: the book was about an anarchic change from an ugly to a beautiful nanny. She phoned Lindsay Duncan (who had suggested S&S to her). Thompson thought it’d be so much easier: 9 years later she had a script which took 7 years in development. When you come to make it into a film, you realize there’s no story. You also you can’t have 32 children. It was hell to adapt.
They had thought it would be this lovely simple story – “we’re going to be so happy” … instead it was “I can’t go on … “ Thompson says “You want to make something good and precious and good for an important audience — children — and find there is no story in them, no structure.” It was while she was staying in the Hotel Avalon – “Hitler’s favorite hotel by the way” she says, she began to see that it was a western about a kind of war. Nanny McPhee is about subversion. In the conversation she keeps bringing up Clint Eastwood who seems to me irrelevant; but she does have the archetypal pattern of the western right: the hero comes into a situation where order has broken down; he restores order and has to leave as he is the outsider. She made Mcphee into this cowboy-like character; she subverted a children’s film genre to allow Nanny McPhee to say what it is and then leave. So she was repeating her father’s ploy: again her father wrote for people not for special breed of human beings. You don’t want children to drown themselves or open a vein but you want to show them some truths.
Thompson as P.L. Travers in Saving Mr Banks: she wrote stories for children which had some truths
Asked what is the relationship between screenwriting and acting, she answers “There is no science,” and quoted choreographer Agnes de Mille, “Living is a form of not being sure not knowing what next or how. The artist never entirely knows; we guess we may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark. Good,huh?”
The audience applauded and then they took questions.
A woman identified herself as a playwright, and explained she was trying to get her screenplay realized. How do you approach production companies? (Can she invite you to her new play? — this was ignored.) Thompson: “There’s no science. You have to be in the context – and then resilient, persistent and solipsistic. You have to send it to people and turn up. You also need to be sure it’s good.” Thompson said “I have had scripts rejected – and later seen the underlying material she wrote up made with another script.”
A woman said, “when you want a strong female character, at some poin tyou have to make it a male; where do you stop to keep the character a female?” Thompson denied her central assumptions: first of all, great dialogue won’t necessarily tell you if speaker is a man or woman. Thompson said there is not this hard and fast difference at all; our brains not sufficiently different; then education and nurture starts to twist and beat us out of our shapes. We are gendered through culture and culture changes.
A woman asked, “How do you know when your re-write is finished, “It” — all done. Thompson: “It changes with each project. You can have a situation and a director drops out and hey suddenly say this actor or that needs to be a man – there’s that. “You get your studio notes – good and bad, irritating; you must buckle down and suck it up and make compromises I think. That’s as far as I can get it for now … leave it to cook and go back to it a month later …” Thompson said “I edit, I am a fierce editor; I like getting rid of things. You can only know up to to a point and then you have to leave it.” She has to earn a living between drafts and she can as an actress (and celebrity – she did not mention that.) She doesn’t write a screenplay for 7 years and do nothing else, she can’t afford to do that.”
No good questions from audience so Brock said “Tone, pace, touch and feel; you to apply all of that, and it is an educated process; you learn while doing. Advice is “don’t panic. Let it be.”
“Who’s her role model?” Says Thompson, “You must be honest in these things. My role model is my mother (Phyllida Law), a great writer, my first editor. I did my first stand up for her in Croyden (age 25, 60 quid). “I would do pieces for my mum in the kitchen and she edit them.” Long after her father died. Both parents could and can write.
How do you find balance of what to keep in and out. She says you can’t know. She told of a recent film about a miscarriage of justice. A father wrongly imprisoned and has died – many scenes cut; only when editing was it seen the cutting of playlets would only make the script better.
Brock made an effort to find a male questioner and found one. I don’t remember if he or the next questioner asked, “Do you go in knowing how story will end … or is it during flow that you get the ending? Thompson said most adaptations end with the ending of the book (it’s remembered by audiences). You have to have this writer’s stuff to work with, do the knitting, spin the wool, if you have nothing to work on, just write. Just sit and write – this is the only advice that works for her. (I can’t do that, I must make each section as good as I can before going on to the next, even when I have break throughs and suddenly write and write.)
Someone asked, “How often do you write a character with an actor in mind,”and “how does that work? Thompson replied that she “never gets the actors she wants.” She pulled back from that joke to saye sometimes she does – she sometimes does write with a specific actor in mind. “It’s very helpful; ” in the case of Hugh Grant, she knew he would be able to do Edward, so 90% of work of directing was achieved; directing is also done in casting. But then “Not always she does not always have people in mind.”
I omitted from my transcription how Thompson came back several times to say her mother was her best reader and inspiration. How she read her early writing to her mother, how her mother accompanied her sometimes early in her career, how her mother is still there for her and her sister, Sophie Thompson. Phyllida Law never remarried.
Thompson’s close: William Wyler said “your screen play needs to be all good scenes, no bad scenes and one great scene.”
I hope readers find this as instructive as I have.