My work­ing day ‘For every hour you spend writ­ing a screen­play, you spend 10 hours de­fend­ing it from col­leagues’

The Guardian - Review - - Review - David Hare

Every morn­ing, Mon­day to Fri­day, I get up at 7am and make my wife break­fast in bed. She al­ways wants some­thing salty. I en­joy do­ing it be­cause the rest of my day may be self­in­ter­ested. I then walk for 15 min­utes to a stu­dio once owned by the artist Mark Gertler. Here, in 1916, he painted his an­ti­war mas­ter­piece The Merry Go Round .

The day de­pends on whether I’m writ­ing for stage or screen. If stage, I’ll put­ter through a cou­ple of news­pa­pers on­line, then start writ­ing di­a­logue, ideas or maybe struc­tural charts in a sketch­book that I get from an artists’ sup­ply shop. When I’m ready I’ll trans­fer what I have to the com­puter and re­write. My hand­writ­ing is so bad that some­times I can’t work out what I’ve scrawled. If I end up with just a few lines of di­a­logue, it no longer pan­ics me. All time spent con­sid­er­ing your play is well spent, re­gard­less of out­come. One day you write noth­ing, the next you write eight pages. It’s not in your hands. At lunchtime, I’ll go down to the lo­cal deli to get a pork pie or a bagel. If the writ­ing is go­ing well, I’ll con­tinue into the af­ter­noon. If not, I’ll go to the cin­ema or an­swer emails.

Life is dif­fer­ent when writ­ing for the screen. For every hour you spend writ­ing a screen­play, you spend 10 hours de­fend­ing it. Be­cause you are the per­son who first pro­poses what the even­tual film should be, you are likely to have to deal with 50 peo­ple who, usu­ally from the best in­ten­tions, imag­ine some­thing else. A film is a car­ni­val of opin­ion, and if your view is to sur­vive, you need the skills of an ad­vo­cate. Screen­writ­ing is more lawyer­ing than writ­ing.

On such days, I am likely to get on the tube to spend hours in meet­ings, usu­ally vict­ualled with stale sand­wiches and a to­ken or­ange. Pro­duc­ers fall into two cat­e­gories. The great ones make sug­ges­tions to help you re­alise your work more fully. The annoying ones tell you at length how they them­selves might have writ­ten the story, if only they could write. I have one sim­ple rule. Only those who are in­vested in the out­come are al­lowed to give ad­vice.

What this means is: when you write a screen­play, all sorts of peo­ple will want to fan­ta­sise their pre­ferred ver­sion. But are they on board to be the peo­ple who ac­tu­ally make it? If you fi­nance a film you have a per­fectly le­git­i­mate right to ar­gue about how it might be im­proved. But dilet­tante script edi­tors and Bafta club bores who feel en­ti­tled to judge a script with­out the courage to com­mit to it are a waste of time. It’s sim­ple. You have to buy chips to sit at the ta­ble.

The hard­est thing in film is dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween good and bad in­put. The whole point of writ­ing screen­plays is to pro­vide a plat­form from which a direc­tor, ac­tors and cin­e­matog­ra­pher will be able to leap to cre­ate some­thing in­fin­itely richer and more sug­ges­tive. You have to ex­cite your col­leagues. If you are too pre­scrip­tive in what you write, there is no room for their ge­nius. But if you do not fight for your struc­ture and un­der­pin­ning, then ev­ery­thing will go to hell in an in­choate mess of ac­tors’ im­pro­vi­sa­tion and di­rec­to­rial over­reach.

The joy of the per­form­ing arts is in col­lab­o­ra­tion. If there is a bet­ter way of spend­ing a day than watch­ing Carey Mul­li­gan or Bill Nighy or Bil­lie Piper per­fect their per­for­mances, I have yet to find it. It’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing, but also in­struc­tive. When good ac­tors re­hearse, they test the ground, show­ing you or telling you where your own work is boggy. This is the glo­ri­ous pay­off for the hours you spend alone. Good ac­tors il­lu­mi­nate ev­ery­thing.

In­tel­li­gent di­rec­tors then wel­come the writer into the cut­ting room, be­cause a film editor does ex­actly the same job as you. They de­fine shape, struc­ture, theme and char­ac­ter, while driv­ing nar­ra­tive – only they hap­pen to do it at the end of the process, not the begin­ning. It’s only sec­ond-rate, de­fen­sive di­rec­tors who lock the door of the edit­ing suite in or­der to pre­tend they’re au­teurs. I avoid any direc­tor who, metaphor­i­cally, sweeps around the set in a cape.

Lately I’ve worked with youth­ful di­rec­tors – Robert Icke in the theatre, and SJ Clark­son in tele­vi­sion. In both cases it’s been pure plea­sure, partly be­cause their younger per­spec­tives have deep­ened my scripts, but also be­cause they both have a fab­u­lous sense of hu­mour. The sur­pris­ing thing about a writer’s day in film and theatre is how much of it we spend laugh­ing.

It’s only sec­ond-rate di­rec­tors who lock the door of the edit­ing suite so as to pre­tend they are au­teurs

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