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BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series 2016 – interview with screenwriter Jeremy Brock – words Paul Risker
“I sort of feel that it is a battle that has to go on being fought” – Screenwriter Jeremy Brock on the BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series 2016.
In the glorious artistic medium known as cinema, the writer has become subjugated to the director as author. It is a journey that perhaps began in the ‘60s when the auteur theory was championed by the likes of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers and influential critics such as Andrew Sarris. Although truthfully the dominance of the producer in the preceding decades attests to the subjugation of the screenwriter and screenplay throughout film history, which continues to receive the support of the critical establishment.
The BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series organised by BAFTA-winning screenwriter Jeremy Brock (Mrs. Brown, Charlotte Gray, The Last King of Scotland, How I Live Now) each year attempts to illuminate the art of screenwriting through a series of lectures given by some of the finest screenwriting practitioners. This year’s opening weekend lectures by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, whose Manchester by the Sea plays at the BFI London Film Festival and German screenwriter, director and producer Maren Ade (Everyone Else, Toni Erdmann), is followed by Korean screenwriter, director and producer Park Chan-wook (The Vengeance Trilogy, Stoker, The Handmaiden), and concludes with the BAFTA-winning American screenwriters, producers, directors, actors and animators Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie). With an international presence, one of the intriguing threads this year’s lectures will offer an insight into is the influence of culture on the screenwriter.
Speaking with Flux ahead of the series launch, Brock reflected on the growth of the series, its inception, as well as the potential thematic threads of this year’s series of lectures. He also discussed the collaborative nature of cinema, the true place of dialogue and language within a film, while showing no fear to put his reputation on the line with his praise for Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea.
How do you perceive the way in which the Screenwriters’ Lecture Series has grown over the past six years?
It has been an incredibly rewarding experience to witness over thirty of the worlds best screenwriters talking freely about their art, and the really surprising thing has been the reaction of the audiences. They are incredibly warm and engaged. I think the reason that it’s now in its seventh year and is branching into a truly international group of speakers, including Maren Ade and Park Chan-wook, is because there is an appetite for detailed conversations about how great screenplays are crafted, and the experiences of those great screenwriters from Charlie Kaufman onwards. And honestly, curating these lectures is one of the happiest things I ever do. I absolutely adore it and it’s something I think BAFTA should be all about.
I interview regularly and I consider interviewing a great art, but one that is tragically under-appreciated by the critical establishment… Even looked on as a lesser form of film criticism.
Utter rubbish. Totally disagree with that one.
From my perspective interviews are an education. As a film critic to be able to engage with the perspective of the practitioner of the craft, whether it be an actor, filmmaker, writer, producer or editor is invaluable in allowing me to consider film with a greater insight.
I couldn’t agree more and I’ll add another thought to that if I may. I totally agree with you because irrespective of whether Hollywood and the machinery of film finds it convenient to label the director as the author of a film, simply because that is a shorthand the audience can get hold of, the truth about filmmaking is that it is an intensely collaborative medium. It is the most intensely collaborative medium of all of them, the reason being it’s so expensive and the interface between art and technology is in a way that even theatre can never be. It is industrial in cost and often at the top end industrial in scale. You are calling upon the talents of writers, directors, actors, camera crew, makeup, special effects, design and music, and I am naming only some of the top heads of department. Granted that it is conducted by the director, conducted is the word, not authored, and the director is the singular artistic first among equals. You are always going to find that the more you know of each individual creative collaborator’s skill, the more you will understand about film. So if you are going to be a good critic, and by the way a good writer, you need to constantly engage with what makes good writing.
When I was on the film committee (the first writer they’d ever had by the way), I said, “Look, if I’m going to be here, then I’ve got to champion writers. And if I’m going to champion writers one of the things I want to try and get across to people is that writing isn’t something everyone can do.” Just because you can hold a pen or you’ve got a laptop does not make you a writer, and really, really good writing is really, really hard. There is a reason there are not that many successful films. And what I wanted the series to do was to be much more of a celebration of great writing, and not that workshop: We can all do it together if only we just learn the a,b,c of it, and page fourteen catalysing incident of it all. Bullshit… Utter bullshit. Really, really great writers like Charlie Kaufman are great writers because of a combination of talent and zeitgeist, but the talent is an unquantifiable thing. And when you hear him speak you just go, “Oh fucking hell, of course he’s great because listen to him.” He’s a completely original thinker, but he just happens to be a screenwriter. He could have been a novelist or whatever. My passion with this series is osmosis and not: Hey folks, let’s all pick up a pen and paper and we can all do it. We can’t! I do believe that’s why it has been the success that it has been, because it’s quite singular in that regard.
One of the annoyances I experience with my own film criticism is the ignorance I demonstrate towards the writer. While I have on a few occasions considered the writers, I find myself slipping back into the mode of treating the director like the Quarterback in American Football – the success and failure all attributable to the director. It is an approach that disregards not only the writer, but the contributions of the editor and the composer amongst others.
The editor can completely recalibrate the tone, the pace and the structure of a movie, even though they are dealing with finite. The only person who deals in infinite is the writer. From that moment on the premphase document that is the script is a finite document, and it is something that people never really ponder, and I include most critics here. They never ponder the fact that the only person who deals with infinite choice, which is the most creatively exhausting thing in the world, is the writer. Everybody including the director has a script that is a finite document and they work within those finite means. They may change it, but there is a document and that is the document that they work with and on. And everything they do from that moment on is adapted – it is not original. Now obviously if you are talking about writer/directors like Kenneth Lonergan our opening speaker or Maren Ade, you are then talking about a different level of engagement, and they have every right to call themselves the authors of their work, and I wouldn’t argue with that at all. But the interesting thing about the really great people is they very often don’t, and they are very often the ones that are most modest and confident about acknowledging the collaboration. It’s not a coincidence to me that the great Paul Laverty is given joint credit by Ken Loach on the poster. Why, because Ken Loach doesn’t need to boast; he doesn’t need to claim authorship. He’s Ken Loach and I love him for that, because what he’s doing is he’s acknowledging that without the script, nothing.
The script is the seed of a film and I know there are filmmakers that will dabble with improvisation, but generally the overwhelming majority of films are planned or scripted…
99.5% of film, narrative film anyway has to have a script, partly because it is a wildly expensive venture, even now. I know people can make films for much less, but I would be very surprised if there are even a handful of movies that someone as experienced as yourself, as a reviewer could call genuinely improvised. Obviously even improvised films end up with a screenplay of some sort because how do you organise an army of people around a set of spoken ideas. And usually they are structureless and they don’t hold because you need to spend a great deal of time thinking about how the narrative works, how the tone, the shift and the cut will work. Another thing that I find beautiful and wonderful, and so uplifting about the series is the way that audiences appreciate great screenwriters like Emma Thompson, who a couple of years ago spoke in detail about the struggle involved, the pain and the grind of actually drafting and redrafting. I’m still shocked by how few people understand what a script is and what the document entails. People say, “Oh you write the dialogue don’t you?” The idea of a script that is so detailed in its all encompassing description of scene, character, dialogue, intercuts, montage and one, two three, or one, two, three, four, five act structure is the battle for me. I sort of feel that it is a battle that has to go on being fought, which is why I don’t really feel the series ever loses its purpose because every speaker we have has something singular to say about their experience of being at the coalface.
With writing you must remind people what it is. As a film critic I still feel that people close to me don’t understand what I do. I think writing is one of those things that falls into the shadows and many do not truly comprehend it. They understand it as playing around with words, but beyond that they tend to struggle to connect with it. So what you are saying I wholly agree with and the reason for this lecture series to continue is that the practitioners of the craft talking about their experiences and perspective, it reminds people what writing actually is. And perhaps this is the only way to ensure some semblance of appreciation exists.
I agree, and it’s a constant reminder that the alpha and omega of a film is the document upon which it is based. One of the truisms of film, which all screenwriters know is that a director can fuck up a great script, but they cannot make a great script good. If you look at the movies that don’t work and you study them as a writer, you will always see that it’s the script. The clastic would be those huge Hollywood behemoths, $150 million movies which have been completely overworked and improvised on the day by actors who have no right or the power to do that, and do by the way because I’ve been on set with people like that. You watch that car crash happening and you think, Jesus Christ that cost a $150 million dollars and yet they still walked onto that set with people scrambling the rewrites in on a daily basis. That’s no way to make it… Can’t do it. You can’t do it with pink pages everyday. You will have chaos and you’ve seen those movies, schlock number two, number three movies where you know it’s about the accounting, and not really about the story.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. But in speaking with filmmakers, I’ve seen the idea emerge of a fourth version that is created by the audience through their own experience.
Well, I think there is an enormous power in that framing of it. I would question it in this regard. I think like all rather beautiful paradigms, the idea that a script goes on four journeys is enormously attractive because it has a sort of poetic flow. I suspect that the reality is a little less permanent or universal. In other words I would argue that there are some scripts, in particular scripts written and directed by the same person that even in the edit and even in the experience that the audience have of them, are still in direct connection to their first genesis when they were written. And I think that’s to do with this idea that we touched on earlier, which is the authorial voice. The ‘60s and the Nouvelle Vague is where it took off and Hollywood appropriated the idea for their own convenience. But most people don’t remember that prior to ‘61 it was the producer that was the head honcho and author of the project. When you get really great writer/directors, and I would include Kenneth Lonergan in that… I don’t know if you’ve seen Manchester by the Sea yet, but it’s a treat and I’m prepared to stick my neck out and say that to a critic. It’s an example of a story that’s got such artistic control you know you are in the hands of someone that is leading you through the story with such composure and control of their craft and their art. And what you experience in the cinema is very, very close to what I think Kenneth experienced when he was typing it and hearing it in his head. Now at the opposite end of that spectrum, if you were talking about one of the tentpole Hollywood movies, the paradigm you’ve described works perfectly. I think then you are talking about a script as a document which is then reimagined on set, reimagined in the edit and then it is whatever experience we take when we walk into the cinema because it’s not got that visionary control. It’s just the thing it is and you are quite right. I could go with my kids and my reaction to a Star Wars movie would be very different to theirs. They’ll be reacting to the characters in a completely different way to me and they’ll have their own adolescent take on it. Their own social media world will have even influenced how they approached the actors because a lot of them are following these actors on Twitter. So it’s a really, really interesting one to debate, and of cause the fact that we are having this really interesting conversation is in and of itself an example of what I think the series is about. It stimulates these kind of conversations if people come at it with an open mind… It’s exciting.
Earlier you mentioned how the series has become more international through the choice of speakers. Have you noticed patterns of perspectives or an approach to the writing and the storytelling process on a cultural level?
Well it’s interesting that you should ask because one of the things BAFTA got me to do this year was to write a piece for online and the headline I think was, Writing for an International Audience. And while I was working on that piece I came to the conclusion that of course the division between film in the English language and film in a foreign language is another one of those slightly bizarre divisions. If you don’t speak English, you don’t think that you are writing a foreign film. You are writing a film, but you are just writing it in your language. So already we are dealing in false paradigms, which are the consequence of the western hegemony of film. A film that was sublimely excruciating was Son of Saul and when I watched it I wasn’t thinking this is a film in another language. I wasn’t even thinking about the subtitles to be honest. I was just thinking, This is a fucking incredible film and I can barely watch it because it is so intense. So my conclusion is actually that there isn’t really a thing called cultural difference if you are writing about matters of the deepest significance like Son of Saul was, as we are all someone’s child. We are all the sum of one set of experiences that we have to take into our adult life and hope that experience is enough to arm us. And actually most so-called foreign films amplify rather than externalise our experience. They amplify, they don’t push us away. There’s a possible exception to do with comedy, but I don’t write comedy and I don’t feel expert enough to know. It’s possible that comedy doesn’t travel between cultures, but I actually think that a film like Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, which is about a Palestinian/Israeli life story, when I watched that I thought, this could be Romeo and Juliet, this could be any great classic. So for me it’s one of those distinctions that’s going to be end up being historical in about twenty or thirty years I suspect.
One of the ideas I frequently discuss with filmmakers is how cinema is a communal language.
Of course it is, and actually the lazy approach to the so-called subtitled film, which I have to say stems in a large part from America is just that, lazy. It’s just lazy. And it’s ridiculous when people like Steven Spielberg say, “Well I don’t really watch subtitled films.” You think, Well fuck off. It’s ridiculous because it should just be straightforward and simple. You happen to not speak the language, but film is playing so many notes and language happens to be only one element of it. When I write a film the dialogue is the last thing I worry about to be honest. If you can write, then the first thing that you can do is write dialogue. You can’t teach dialogue. You can teach almost every other element of film writing and experientially you can build a proper bedrock of learning about craft and structure. But you can’t teach dialogue, which is only one element of film and which is exaggerated in the public’s mind that they think of it as the key to scriptwriting, when actually for most writers it is the thing they find easiest. And it’s also the thing that changes the most even on set.
Looking to what audiences can expect from this series, how do you anticipate it will unfold from speaker to speaker?
I suspect that all my assertions will be put to the test in regards to culture. I suspect that Maren and Park may well say things in direct contradiction, and that’s exciting and thrilling. They speak from within these experiences that I am commenting on because they write in cultures very distinct and different from my own. I think having the authors of the Lego Movie is also incredibly thrilling, partly because they understand comedy and the internationalism of comedy. I am curious and will ask if no one else does their view on whether comedy is culturally limited. They’ve written movies that clearly have a worldwide audience and somebody like Kenneth Lonergan starting us off is thrilling because he’s going to speak, as Maren and Park will to the issue of authorship in film, and the extent to which even a writer/director is reliant upon others. And it was like you said earlier, the reason this series is the success it has been is nothing to do with anyone except the writers who come on and brave the lectern. And I know that many have found the experience to be one of the most alarming they’ve ever had to go through. But they do it and I am enormously proud of the fact that the majority of our writers are still prepared to stand at the lectern and talk for however short a time, or in the case of Charlie Kaufman for the entire ninety minutes. When they do I’m always struck by how articulate they are – how fiercely articulate and modest they are. And why? They are writers and why shouldn’t a writer be able to lecture as articulately as any academic, when you think that that’s what they do every day. They deal in language and the application of language to a very particular and bespoke document called a screenplay. So it’s thrilling and full of potential this series to continue expanding our understanding of this wonderful, wonderful art.
Kenneth Lonergan launched the 2016 BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series which will feature Maren Ade on Sunday 9 October, 5.30pm at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly, Park Chan-wook on Saturday 22 October, 1.30pm at the BFI Southbank and concluding with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on Tuesday 25 October, 7.30pm at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly.
Public tickets for Phil Lord and Chris Miller are available via the BAFTA website
Tickets for Park Chan-wook are available through the BFI Southbank box office
Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann is released in the UK on 3rd February 2017 via Soda Pictures
BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture Series 2016 – interview with screenwriter Jeremy Brock – words Paul Risker