Saturday, January 08, 2011
At a recent workshop in South Africa on some aspects of film- writing, making and acting, international stars Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Greg Wise interacted with an audience of the Who’s Who of South African theatre at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The second day’s workshop was effectively an analysis session of All That Breaks with Thompson, Fry and Greg Wise acting out scenes from the script and asking for feedback from the enthusiastic audience.
One of the first aspects of film-making to be highlighted by Emma Thompson was that getting a film made takes a long, long time. Sense and Sensibility, the film for which Thompson won Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, took over fifteen years to be made. “I was brought in to write the script just five years before it was made,” Thompson said.
She also spoke about the specialized skill required of really great screenwriters. “Sidney Pollack, the producer of that film, taught me something of great importance. He told me not to think of Jane Austen’s novel as an outdated piece of nostalgia and, as such, to treat it with reverence,” she said. “One of the first things he said to me is that he was my audience. He was just an average guy from Indiana who hadn’t a clue about Jane Austen and her times. He needed to be drawn into a story about real people to whom he could relate. So I decided the best way to write the script was to wrap up as many of the exposition points in a joke of sorts. With film writing you have to keep the dialogue going to drive the narrative along without anyone noticing it. So you have to wrap up the exposition points like pearls in an oyster. One has to layer a script. Layer it and layer it so that the audience has to dig into the screenplay to find the treasures within. Sidney Pollock’s approach was echoed by the director, Ang Lee. As an oriental he approached the film very differently than we would have. He never required us to step outside the film and observe the period we were in at all. It had to work as a modern piece in some sense for him.”
Stephen Fry added that working on a period piece was always very interesting. Referring to his role in Wilde, the film about Oscar Wilde, he said that when one is acting in a period film, it was important not to regard oneself as being in a period piece. “If you filmed all of us in the theatre now, in about two hundred years time, we would call this very moment a period piece,” he said. “Yet you are not consciously aware of being in a period right here and now. Just so, when you are acting in a period piece, you would act as if the clothing and style of speech are completely natural to you. One has to be unselfconscious in performing as well as writing period pieces.”
Regarding the modernization of classics, Fry said he had no problem with the way adaptations are done to classic pieces of literature or even of music, some of them more liberal and less reverent than others. “You don’t want to preserve a piece of work in aspic, do you,” he asked. “And the original will always be there.”
Fry spoke about the difficulties inherent in dramatizing the life of a writer. It isn’t very exciting filmically to show a writer writing. “But at least with Wilde,” he said, “he put his talent into his work and saved his genius for his life so he was one writer who was easy to dramatize. As a rule, however, it is easier to dramatise the lives of artists such as Picasso or Dali for instance. A writer’s life is the very devil. Think of trying to write about the life of Henry James? He was such an introspective character that to write about seems a little unimaginable.”
Thompson suggested that in the case of Henry James it might be better to write something a lot less vast about his life and concentrate perhaps on just one single moment which was pivotal to him. Fry agreed.
“People do have a life moment, don’t they,” he asked of the audience. “There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to make a definitive choice. That moment defines their character and marks out the path of the rest of their lives in a sense. Showing that moment, creating a story about that moment, can become your screenplay.”
Greg Wise remarked on the importance of making the opening scene of a film completely captivating. “One can decide whether the opening scene will be a vignette – a small preview or tableau - of the whole of the film to come, or not. But what one has to avoid,” he stressed, “is what we in television call the ‘shit-click’ moment. If a viewer is watching a programme at home especially, and the opening few minutes don’t grab him, he will mutter, ‘Oh this is shit,’ and click it off or switch to something else. This is much more applicable to television writing as the cinema viewer does have more invested in staying at the cinema. So with film one can be more elliptical and keep audiences in the dark for a little longer than one can in a television show, but it is still important to grab the audience from the first scene onwards.”
Talking about adapting a novel into a screenplay, Thompson mentioned advice from Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala who adapted E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India amongst other novels. According to Prawer-Jhabvala., the best way to approach adaptation was to dramatise the whole book into events. “She said you should then remove the scenes which are the most dramatic and then re-plot the whole story,” Thompson explained. “Another useful thing to remember when writing any screenplay is, as Jim Sheridan said, always have a magnet at the end of the story which draws the reader or viewer to the end. The pull of the magnet should be felt from the very first scene.”
The importance of theme and subtext was also discussed, especially in relation to the screenplay from which Thompson, Fry and Wise had acted out scenes earlier during the morning’s workshop. In the screenplay, All that Breaks, a feature film in pre-production about the life of Ingrid Jonker, written by Helena Nogueira, Wise and Thompson had enacted a scene where Ingrid denies her real feelings for the love of her life, Jack Cope. The most compelling part of the scene was how neither of the characters had the courage to say exactly how they felt about each other.
Thompson stressed how a film’s dialogue has to convey the subtext of the characters without making the writing ‘on the nose’. “What you’re looking for in a screenplay are lines such as ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ which really mean ‘You have ruined my life,’” she said. “And by making sure that you have stayed true to the themes of your story throughout the script, the subtext of the characters should form a continuous thread throughout the whole film. This thematic subtext should form a compulsion – the magnet as I said earlier – which draws the viewer on throughout the film.”
Helena Nogueira had spoken earlier about the difficulties of writing a biopic. She felt that “the challenge of writing about a real person is not to lie about that person’s life, but to put as much of yourself into the writing as possible. One of my favourite biopics,” she said, “is Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and made in 1998. He plays fast and loose with the facts of her life but remains true to the essence of who Elizabeth was. That film to me is a successful transition from the facts of a life into a story about the life.”
Regarding specificity and generalizations in screenplays, Thompson spoke about the importance of specificity. “I don’t like generalizations in terms of character or even in terms of production,” she said adamantly. “Some directors can be so specific however, as to make you question their sanity, but it is better to be more specific than not. Pedro Almodovar is quite obsessive compulsive apparently. And I remember one scene I did for hours with Tony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. We did the same take countless times and still James Ivory wasn’t happy. We had no idea what to do anymore, until he walked past us quietly, moved a vase on a table behind us just a few inches to the left and exclaimed, ‘That’s what I wanted.’ It was the vase causing all the problems!”
Perhaps that was specificity taken too far, she suggested. Better directing advice came earlier on in the workshop when Thompson and Fry acted out scenes from All That Breaks and then asked the audience for feedback. Two times Oscar winner, Emma Thompson, listened patiently while an apparent Drama 101 student lectured her as to how she could perform the scene more effectively. Thompson held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rattled on ad infinitum until the audience literally told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Thompson turned to the girl and asked her if she planned on becoming a director. The irony was huge.
Thompson then continued. “All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, is to remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) be practical.” Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: “Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost as to how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him how to act the role. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment replied: ‘Your character is very… hot.’ Masterful.”
In writing a screenplay and in acting too it is essential to keep one’s mind focused, Thompson continued. “Mike Nichols is known to say when we are working on something together that we have a lot of tone but ‘what’s the event?’ That’s what you have to look for in your screenplay and also in your portrayal of a scene as an actor: ‘What’s the event?’ For a scene to be good it has to have an event. Something of importance must take place.”
Thompson also spoke about how poorly regarded screenplay writers are. “The British playwright Christopher Hampton always goes on about how rude people are about writers,” she said. “They have no idea how difficult and delicate a task it is to create a good screenplay.”
In the afternoon session, comedy was the order of the day. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined the three actors on a panel. Every comic actor of note in South Africa was in the audience, including the cast of recently released Bunny Chow. The panel was chaired by the erudite Alan Swerdlow.
Stephen Fry opened the proceedings by quoting his fellow comedian Ben Elton. “Ben says that being a stand up comic is so nerve wracking that one’s rectal circle ages twice as fast as the rest of one’s body,” he said. “So while a comedian might be forty five years old, his anus is ninety!”
The international stars paid tribute to the remarkable role played by Pieter Dirk Uys through his work during the Apartheid struggle. As Fry put it, “There are real uses to comedy. Comedy can contribute to the great boulder of history which effects change.” Thompson added that she’d always thought humourlessness was the path to fascism. She quoted Mark Twain who said that “You can push at humbug (mindless ideology) with drama and rhetoric but only humour can blast it to atoms in a moment.”
Uys agreed and said that his brand of humour was the great weapon of mass destruction in this country during Apartheid. Fry quoted another of his favourites G.K. Chesterton who said that “Comedy is truer than any other form of entertainment.” Greg Wise observed that comedy was the opposite of sex where “one had to come in soft and leave hard,” meaning that you have to beguile the audience and then give them a profound message when they least expect it. Wise also spoke about the fact that everything is political, and at last in South Africa, everything is ripe for all types of comedy.
“Comedy is always truer than any other form of entertainment,” Fry remarked. “G.K. Chesterton said that if you say something amusing people don’t take it seriously but it is always truer than most other statements. And once again good comedy lies in the specifics. The enemy of comedy is abstraction. For example someone asked Woody Allen if there is a God, but he answered, ‘Not only isn’t there a God but you can’t get a Dentist on Tuesdays.’ That’s comedy at its specific and absurd best. Comedy is about the very essence of where you live, from childbirth to lavatory paper. That’s why comedians are always so keen on ‘bottom’ jokes. Everyone can relate. Everyone has an arsehole but not everyone has a computer, you see.”
Emma Thompson went on to describe the way women and men approach humour differently. “Female rhythms in comedy are very different to male rhythms,” she said. “The male joke is a bit like the male orgasm. It starts off with a da dum da dum da dum da dum, and builds up to a giant climax with its punchline. The female rhythms of humour are more about ‘mmm that’s nice, and yes that’s nice too, and mmm that’s really nice and mmmm that’s really good.’ I don’t like traditional jokes. The burden on me to laugh at the punch line is so huge! Sometimes I have to fake it. The laughs, that is.”
“Comedy films are the most difficult to make,” Thompson continued. “They’re never given the credit they deserve. And they’re never taken seriously for all the right reasons.”
Fry talked about writing comedy in novels rather than in screenplays and said a lot of comedy has to evoke a physical reaction for him. “I suppose it’s a bit like pornography,” he laughed. “There is always a physical reaction of sorts. And a certain kind of comedy is like that. Cheap comedy tickles that easily accessible comic gland, like fart and bottom jokes I suppose. But there are more sophisticated forms of comedy just like there are more sophisticated forms of erortica. Anais Nin was one such sophisticated writer of erotica for example, writing passages that you never forget. And in comedy that is the kind of writing one values, the kind that you never forget. Great classic comic writers are Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse for example. In one essay Wodehouse wrote that the letters he received praising his work were mainly from people in prisons or hospitals. At one point he thought this fact was rather depressing, until he realised that there is no greater compliment than being appreciated by those who are truly in need.”
In conclusion, Fry summed up, “humour is one of the few things which is free and it is also one of the very few things left which nourishes the soul.”
First published in Screen Africa.