Buffini is a playwright and screenwriter with ambitious and confident vision. Her feature scripts include adaptations of Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre and the forthcoming Byzantium.
Event recorded on 16 September 2011.
Moira Buffini: Hello, good evening. I just want to thank BAFTA for the opportunity of being on a stage of sorts for the first time since 1998. It’s very rare that writers get to talk about their work. I think it’s a great idea.
Two years ago, pretty much to the week, I stepped onto a film set for the first time in my life so please let me make clear that these are not the wise reflections of a screenwriting expert, these are the observations of a novice.
Midway through my life I find myself at the start of something new, and if no-one in the film industry knows anything then I really know nothing. This is a talk about beginnings. So, my first time on set was a beautiful September day in a lovely Dorset village. The film was Tamara Drewe, my first screenplay into production, but not the first one written – which I’ll come to in a bit.
I’d adapted it from Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, for producers Alison Owen, Christine Langan and the director was the legendary Stephen Frears. I was pathetically excited. I marvelled at everything; the catering truck, the en suite Winnebagos, I was astonished at the scale of this modest production and the number of people it involved.
Who were all those guys in black North Face? All the women in Hunter wellies, what did they do? Did it really take so many people to make a film?
Stephen likes to have his writer around and I was there for most of the shoot. He’d call me over to watch rehearsals with him, which was always great watching a scene take shape before your eyes. ‘Everything alright there?’ he’d ask. And he genuinely wanted a reply. He was genuinely asking me, the novice screenwriter, if everything was alright. I didn’t realise at the time, but for a film director this is quite unusual.
He continued to ask it throughout the shoot, ‘Everything alright there?’ Quite honestly, for a good while I think I was a total liability because I didn’t understand quite what was going on. I didn’t understand the way a scene was shot over and over again in scores of tiny fragments.
But I had an idea what my role should be, which is the same role as a writer in a rehearsal room of a play, which is to take care of the writing and try and really, really finish it to the best of one’s ability. And finding myself in at the deep end I learnt really fast.
I began to see how a scene develops as it’s filmed, how it evolves, how performances deepen and become more nuanced. How much actors can do. I began to find my feet. Stephen didn’t give the actors many directions. He’d occasionally say, ‘A bit faster,’ or, ‘Great, do it faster this time.’
I was quite surprised by this but I began to see that he was allowing the actors space to work it out, to be playful, to be spontaneous. He trusted their skill, and he trusted mine too. Over time Mr Frears and I developed a great way of working. A lot of script changes were made on set, often because you simply think of better lines, or realise when they weren’t necessary.
I stress-tested scenes before they were shot, re-writing specifically for the actors, sometimes with the actors, getting them to read scenes out for me to try and make it better all the time. Sometimes I agreed with Stephen and sometimes I disagreed. He liked scenes I tossed off in minutes. He hated scenes I’d agonised over for days.
And sometimes he’d read something I’d written and simply say, ‘I don’t know how to shoot that,’ which was a really good lesson. It’s undoubtedly a better screenplay for all the work that I did during its making; I was involved at every stage from the casting to the final edit. And what a brilliant education it was.
Nothing in a screenplay can be set in stone, although it needs to be as tough as bricks. None of it can be precious, although it is highly prized. They are amazingly fluid, malleable documents and this is their strength. Perhaps it’s also their weakness, where the very plasticity of the screenplay melts all over the set.
Screenplays have to be very strong, robust, clear and open to change. I think the same could be said of the screenwriter. Stephen Frears is rare in the way that he works with and relies upon his writers. And I don’t think his way of working would suit everyone.
When he met me he said, ‘You do realise I’m going to make your life hell?’ And I thought, ‘Oh my, this is where it begins. This is where all the stories that I’ve heard of – screenwriters being chewed up, spat upon, abused and generally left lying face down in Hollywood swimming pools – this is where that life starts.
He was difficult and occasionally infuriating, but I look back on the experience of Tamara Drewe with great pleasure. Frears is an artist, exacting but generous. What a privilege; your first screenplay into production and it’s directed by him.
Two years on and my third film, Byzantium, is about to go into production with another legendary artist, Neil Jordan, at the helm. And I’m still here, writing more. My life hasn’t been hell at all. In fact I’m more enthusiastic about the possibilities of writing film than ever.
Directors, producers, agents and other screenwriters have all warned me how bad it is. And I’m fully expecting to get sacked, side-lined and generally slapped, especially when I start working for the Godzilla that is Hollywood.
My expectations about the way that I’ll be treated are very low, and perhaps that’s why I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I said this was about beginnings, and I’m no spring chicken as you can see. I’ve actually been writing drama for many years, plays. That’s my day job really, or my parallel universe job. It continues to go in tandem with writing film and that’s the way I like it.
Most screenplays are adaptations, whatever the source material; literature, biography, radio programme, graphic novel, newspaper article. You’re part of a team – right from the word go –that’s interested in recreating that material as a film. As a screenwriter, as an adapter, the job has a big element of, ‘How can I help you?’
Not so as a playwright; you write from a very different place. With a play you’re trying to articulate something from inside yourself, your personal response to the world. With a film you’re applying yourself to articulating the source material.
But on to the beginning. I was paid for writing three screenplays before Tamara Drewe and Jane Eyre got made, and there you go. Films are hard to learn and even harder to get made. I met Christopher Hampton a while ago and he said his hit rate is about one in three, and that seems kind of right.
You write three and on average only one gets made. So often you’ll put in all that work and it ends up on a shelf. I’ll talk about the ones that didn’t get made very briefly because I learned some good lessons.
Firstly, if you’re in a position to choose, choose carefully. The story has to chime with you in some proper way otherwise you won’t be writing to your strengths. One mistake I made was to write a story in a genre I wasn’t suited to, which was horror.
I didn’t know I wasn’t suited to it before I set out, but alarm bells should have been set ringing by the fact that I’ve never willingly gone to see a horror film. The screenplay I wrote went down okay, although it didn’t get made, and I got lots of offers to write more.
But horror made me unhappy. The genre requires horrible deaths, and that’s how you spend your day while you’re writing; alone with horrible deaths. It’s not that I shy away from difficult material – my plays are full of darkness – but in horror essentially the darkness on some level has to be fun.
It isn’t quite serious, like a fairground ride that turns your lunch upside down and makes you scream. The people I was writing for loved horror, they were passionately enthusiastic about it and I wished that I could be too. But I found the violence real and deeply upsetting.
I couldn’t make it fun. I couldn’t make it scary enough either, because I didn’t want horrible deaths to keep happening to my characters and I kept reprieving them. Lesson learnt; you have to know your genre and you have to respect it.
Every genre has its rules and my instinct has always been to resist them. Plays don’t have genres, they tend to defy genre or subvert it. And at first I took this attitude with me into writing film. Northern Soul, my first unmade screenplay, was a ghost story. Not a horror, there is a difference. But it wasn’t really about the ghost and it was warm in tone, it was working class family drama meets Poltergeist.
Kesmeets Carrie I heard someone say. The result –although quite original – was probably impossible to market. Perhaps that’s the main difference between plays and films: budget. There’s such enormous amounts of money at stake, even in low budget films, but the question, ‘How are we going to find an audience for this?’ should never be the starting point for a writer’s journey. But it is a question that the writer ignores at their peril.
I’ve learned also that, sometimes, by obeying the rules of a genre you can be even more fresh and original than when you’re trying to break them. Byzantium, my screenplay currently in pre-production, is adapted from my play A Vampire’s Story. The premise of the play – are they or aren’t they vampires? – worked really well on stage.
In the theatre there’s no such thing as a vampire genre, the audience has no expectations. And the ambiguity of not knowing what these two girls were was really good fun. But the tone didn’t translate. Each draft kept eluding me.
Neil Jordan came on board and said, ‘Of course they’re vampires, it’s a vampire film.’ Stephen Woolley had been saying this to me all along and at last I took it on board. I embraced the genre, I embraced everything about it. And the story hasn’t lost any of its originality, in fact it’s gained.
Good vampire stories are always about something other than vampires, they’re about human beings seen through a twisted prism. The genre sets the prism up, that’s all. Know when to stop writing, that’s something else I learnt on those unmade films. Sometimes you just go on and on trying to fix something and it might not even be your bit that’s broken.
And this is the impossible lesson really; the question no-one’s got the answer to. What’s got the best chance of getting made? When I heard on the grapevine that BBC Films and Ruby Films wanted to make a screen adaptation of Jane Eyre I knew I had to have the job.
Two reasons: one, I loved the book and two, I knew it would get made, I just knew it. It’s Jane Eyre. So I chased it, and what a great job, spending all day in such a brilliant book. I loved Charlotte Brontë’s language and I wanted to honour it, and yet I wanted the film to be fresh and modern and for our times.
I thought of Jane Eyre the self-taught artist, and I tried to see everything through her artist’s eyes. It became apparent while I was writing the first draft that the structure of the book wasn’t going to work. I changed it from linear to circular, transforming it from an expansive novel into an ever tightening film.
Every time you write a draft of a film you go in and meet the development team. Development execs are very important to a writer. When they’re good the process is a pleasure, and when they’re unskilled it can become a real chore.
How hard is the job of the development exec? It’s really hard, and a writer appreciates it when it’s done well. Hannah Farrell at Ruby Films is superbly good at working out where the fault lines lie in a script, and helpfully discussing how to fix them.
Kate Lawrence at Number 9 Films recently helped me transform the ending of Byzantium just by listening to me talk it through. A good development exec will listen, will openly discuss, will protect a writer from unhelpful notes and will make sure that the helpful ones are clear and agreed upon.
A lazy exec will simply send an e-mail with a string of jargon filled notes. On one job I was taking notes from seventeen different people. This cannot be good. The good development exec in the early stages should be the writer’s closest confidante. It is a very particular skill and a very creative one.
The process of writing is difficult, and it can make writers difficult. We find it actually, physically painful sometimes and most painful when our work is not treated well. It happened to me once that a play I was writing was mistreated and I found myself with constant heartburn.
I was raw from head to toe. ‘Oh for God’s sake’ I kept saying to myself, ‘it’s only a play, get over it and walk away.’ And I did, but this is what I learnt: Until a piece of work is finished it is still attached to the writer, viscerally.
Rochester talks of a string under his heart, connecting him to Jane Eyre, and I think writers have similar strings connecting them to their work. Until it is finished it is still partly inside us, and this is why it hurts when it’s tugged out.
In the film world, where I know I have fewer rights, I have tried to protect myself from this pain. You have to let your work go much earlier, and like I say, I’ve been really lucky so far. I’ve worked with directors and producers who have treated my work – and by extension me – with great respect.
I have been made welcome and I’ve been kept in the loop. But perhaps this pain of premature separation is what’s kept me so far from attempting the original screenplay. You are protected by your source material. After much work and many drafts of Jane Eyre we found our director, Cary Fukunaga.
I liked the fact that, for both of us, it was our second film. He came to it with great energy and intelligence, and he cast it brilliantly. I wasn’t on set so much; it was a very different beast from Tamara Drewe, very hard to improvise, Brontë.
There were a few last minute changes but nothing major, and although it was fantastic watching the actors at work, there wasn’t much for me to do. I felt slightly in the way, and I think this is the much more regular experience of the screenwriter on set.
It was in the edit that I found myself useful once again. I love edits and editors; I think they have a lot in common with writers. They are writing the film in images, all the thousands of fragments, they’re the writer who puts them back together again. And like good development execs at the beginning of the process, I think editors are unsung heroes.
But let’s go back to the beginning. I started writing plays when I was fourteen. I’d get my friends to be in them at school and I’d direct them. If I’d been a boy perhaps, or if I’d had advice from anyone who was in the industry, perhaps I’d have gone that way much younger – writing and directing.
But I was a girl and I had no advice at all, so of course I wanted to be an actress. It amazes me how many young women want to go in for this. I understand exactly why they do. Zillions. But actually, if ever there was an excellent training for being a writer, it’s being an actor.
I learnt how to inhabit characters, physically. I gained a sense for what works and doesn’t work dramatically. I learnt how hard shit dialogue is to say, and make convincing. I learnt that good words almost do the job for you. They lift you, they give you power.
I saw everything from the actor’s perspective. I learnt to improvise. All these skills have been invaluable to me, and I never did a writing course until very recently.
Acting has various sub careers for a lot of people, and mine included waitress, temp receptionist, shop assistant, theatrical dresser, market researcher and a soul destroying episode failing to sell advertising space.
And an amazing job teaching drama in the education department of Holloway Prison. I put on two productions there. I also ran a theatre company with my sister Fiona, who’s a theatre director, and we put on plays. All this, I now see, was part of my training too.
I resisted writing for as long as I could, but it got me in the end. I loved acting, and I think I had an instinct for it, but I couldn’t get a jot of work. I’d walk eagerly into a room to find 15 young women who all looked exactly like me, waiting to be seen for ‘young Mum’ – a part of six lines.
It was woefully dispiriting. I had such gifts to give, such pearls to spread. It seems obvious to me now that I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. I was terribly bad at auditions. I remember going up for quite a big part in a TV series – a regular, the wife of the young detective – and the director asked me what I thought of the character.
‘Well, she’s a bit insipid actually.’ I honestly said that. I sat there and I told him the character was rubbish. Why did I do that? Because it was true. Needless to say I didn’t get the job, but this has been something I’ve always tried to address in my own writing – no wife parts, unless she’s the kind of wife who’d put a lobster in your bath.
I want to write parts that are delicious and not wearisome for actresses to play. Don’t get me wrong, I think men are very interesting, I love writing them and if the story’s good you never notice the gender of the protagonist, do you?
If the story’s good and the film is well acted and well made, you should be lost in it. You should be empathising so fully with the protagonist, you should be so anxious on their behalf and so wrapped up in their life that you don’t notice until afterwards how different their life and their experience is from your own.
I don’t notice when I’m watching a brilliant film about men, but I think we do notice more when we’re watching a brilliant film about women, because there are far fewer of them. I think there’s fertile ground out there for putting a woman’s life at the heart of a film. And not just rom-coms and horrors, there are so many untold stories.
I watched Wasp the other day, Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winning short, and I just want to share with you the opening, because it’s kind of breath-taking.
Thank you. There are no boring women there; it’s a girl and her children in a terrible predicament. It’s half an hour that literally has you on the edge of your seat, and it’s inspiring. The percentage of films released each year that are written by women is still tiny, and this is surprising to me because I’ve found it to be an amazing career.
I’m my own boss, I’m very decently paid, I pretty much choose my own working hours, and by and large I can fit them round my kids. But I wonder what has put women off embracing this career for so long. I now know we’re entering it in much greater numbers. Women filmmakers and film writers are beginning to proliferate, but why is it that we haven’t done it so far?
Surely a career where you could be sacked at any moment, where you don’t own your own work or have any rights over it, where failure in public is brutal, where your status is low and where directors are horrible bullies who’ll steal all your credit – surely such a career would be attractive to anyone.
There are undeniably myths about directors. Whole books have been written about their vaulting ambition, their shocking egotism, and their outrageous bad behaviour. We love this maverick bad boy figure, this tormented genius. Do you have to be that kind of person to be a director?
I made a film at college, I wrote it and I assistant directed it. Not at any point, when I was 20, did it occur to me to put forward my name as the director. I thought I lacked a vital quality – balls. I think the generation coming up is different, leastways I hope so.
In reality it strikes me that there are two kinds of directors – and this is true for both theatre and film. It’s got nothing to do with age, gender or anything. A director has to be a good leader, which goes without saying, but there are those with democratic leanings and those with autocratic tendencies.
I’d always rather work with the former, because for me it always has to be an equal relationship. That’s got nothing to do with who is the primary creative artist; it’s to do with the fact that for better or for worse, writer and director need each other equally.
On rare occasions I have met with a director and realised that what they require from a writer is something subordinate, and I’ve always steered clear. When I started out, to return to the beginning, I read ‘one of the books.’ I think everyone reads ‘one of the books’ – How To Write A Screenplay in so many days, with 101 tips to enhance character.’
And in the books you’re introduced to the sterile language of structure. Mr Frears refused to use any of this language. When you talked to him about backstory he’d virtually snarl. I’m familiar with this script jargon but I don’t like it.
Character arc, moral wound, I find these terms reductive and anti-creative. The books make you think that structure is a science. But in a science if you follow a particular set of rules you’ll always get the same result.
The disappointment must be great when all those tips to enhance character and a perfect three act arc have still created something lifeless and clichéd. Structure’s hard to learn and I’m still learning. You really have to wrestle with it. But it begins to become second nature. The rules disappear under your skin and become felt. You feel act changes, you get attuned to pace.
And at the end of the day, structure is only the climbing frame on which we can play. If it’s solid then we can take risks. I write dramatically because I’m fascinated by who we are and what we do. By our character, our clumsiness, our ingenuity, our corruption, our capacity for love, our temptations, our excesses, our endeavours, our cruelty, our egotism, our foolishness, our flaws. The comedy of us, the tragedy of us, the beauty of us and the horror.
Theatres are dark. What I write for the theatre I imagine on a stage, coming out of the darkness. I hate naturalistic sets with wallpaper and sofas. It doesn’t matter if I can’t see the full image, because the darkness is part of the act.
The opening direction for my play, Dinner, simply describes a table surrounded by darkness. The writing gives energy to the space between the actors. You’re following invisible things: power, mistrust, desire, as they move around the stage. Character is action. We are what we do.
But we’re also what we say, and although stage images are very important, the playwright’s job is primarily one of language. Our articulacy is as revealing as our fingerprints. It’s alive and it’s unique. People used to talk about going to hear a play, and I think that’s your main tool in the theatre for uncovering the human heart, for peering into the human soul – our language.
I’m so glad I know and appreciate the power of language because once I start writing film I put it aside. Here’s a bit from Rebecca, a film I’ve always loved for the immortal line, ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’ Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, and directed by the master, Hitchcock.
(Clip from Rebecca)
It’s fabulous, isn’t it, how all the elements come together in that piece; the brilliant set design, the score, everything. But in film, traditionally, dialogue has been down there with the garbage. Where is today’s garbage? Here’s a Hitchcock quote: ‘Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds.’
There’s more to that quote, but let’s just take that bit for a minute: ‘A sound among other sounds.’ In all his greatest films the dialogue is so well written: Rear Window by John Michael Hayes, Notorious by Ben Hecht, fantastic dialogue. Why take such pains over it if it’s not intrinsically important?
I think Hitchcock’s disparagement of dialogue was maybe disingenuous, a stance. He was perhaps making the point that film is not a literary medium and the writer isn’t king. It took directors half a century to get their art form taken seriously and it’s true, film is a visual medium.
To write a screenplay you have to see, vividly, every single moment. You have to find images that reveal. Here’s how that Hitchcock quote goes on: ‘A sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.’
I hate to, but that bit I agree with: the eyes have it. The interplay of eyes has to be clear from what is on the page, you have to write the subtext and you want the director with the skill to reveal it.
The dialogue in that clip of Rebecca is a beautifully written catalogue of a dead woman’s finery, all those knickers made by nuns. But the relationship is not revealed by it, and neither is the story moved on, that is done in the silences, in the eyes. Even in the eyes of the photograph of her husband at the end.
You can guarantee that the groundwork for all of that is in the script. It takes flight with the direction, and with the acting and with all the other elements. I think that’s where my taste lands actually, it’s somewhere between Rebecca and Wasp.
Here’s another Hitchcock quote: ‘When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’’ And true enough it should be. It should all be there so that all a director has to say is, ‘Do it faster.’ That’s why they’re so darned tricky to write.
Distilled into the screenplay should be everything. The actors, production designer, cinematographer and the director and all the other people needed to make the film. They’re strange documents, hardly anybody reads them – maybe no more than one or two hundred people.
But the way in which they’re read, the detail with which they’re scrutinised, is unbelievably thorough. To write them you have to try to see and feel every moment of the film vividly from the perspective of every character. And then you have to let it go, because your collaborators will see it differently.
You trust, always, that they will see it better. When the production of a play is over, all that remains is the script. The script is the lasting thing. When a film production is over the script has vanished. That document has gone, it’s invisible, it has disappeared into the fabric of the images. It’s holding them up, but what remains is what you see.
So I’m at the beginning of something and I’m trying to eke this beginning out for as long as I can, because this job is full of possibilities. Talk to me in ten years’ time and you might find me chewed up, battered, slapped and jaded. Time will tell, but bring it on, I say. Bring it on. Thank you.
Lizzie Francke: Well Moira, I thought that was absolutely inspiring and in fact I was just thinking she’s answered all my questions, so I’m not quite sure what to ask you now! You just ranged across the totality of yourself as a writer and you’re quite inspiring. I hope that this conversation can unpack a few things in terms of what you’ve just said but I’m keen for it to be opened to the floor sooner rather than later.
You are our prominent female screenwriter. You’ve given us Jane Eyre, you gave us Tamara Drewe and you’re about to give us Byzantium. It’s great, when you’re waiting for great female heroines to come along they come along like buses, all at once.
But why do you think as a writer yourself, that it’s so hard still? The depressing thing is, I did a survey of women screenwriters in Hollywood that I published in the ‘90s and someone asked me whether I would do an update. I said that tragically the update would probably only be about three pages because not much has changed in terms of the amount of women writing.
Moira Buffini: One could get depressed by it, but why would you? You’d give up. And I genuinely find it surprising. It is an immensely rewarding career. I mean it’s difficult, it’s undeniably difficult, but then every career where you put yourself on the line is difficult.
LF: You’ve talked about [how] you enjoyed writing theatre as a teenager and collaborating with your sister, but you did also question yourself as a director potentially.
What were the kind of things that made you think, ‘I can do this and it’s going to be fine,’ and who were the people who went, ‘Actually you’re good, you must carry on doing this’? What were the series of relationships that helped you think, ‘Yes, I have a voice and it’s to be heard’?
MB: My friends primarily, going, ‘That’s good [laughs], you can do that.’ The support of my friends, and then gradually you develop the courage to send your work out a little wider. And compared to acting, where the knocks are so brutal – I think the other thing that acting taught me was, very importantly, how to take knocks.
When I started writing and sending out little bits of writing, it was such a relief to be judged solely on the quality of my work. As an actor I had been judged on my appearance, on my height, all this waffly ‘Am I right for the part?’ and it’s also intangible. You’re being judged not worthy for reasons you cannot understand.
Now, if a piece of writing is out there speaking for you, I just found it much easier to take. I find criticism of writing much easier to take than the knocks of an actor.
What I learned as an actor was you give yourself two days to get over it, when you have a bad knock, two days – 48 hours – to get over it and then you get back up on your feet. And I’ve carried that through with me into writing both for the theatre and film.
LF: We have a couple of women writers coming through, there’s a range, but theatre seems to be a common denominator in terms of voices and a training ground.
MB: There are so many more young women writing for theatre than there was when I started writing for theatre, just 15 years ago.
LF: Is that obvious? Because in a way with theatre there are smaller commissions, there are smaller places… you can kind of practice your craft. I think you’ve talked in the past about how a screenplay may cost lots of money but a theatre play is a small commission. Do you think that kind of economic risk in a theatre makes it an easier place for the writer to come through?
MB: Yes, I think so. Theatres where writers start out are generally small. So you have to find a hundred people who are interested in seeing your work on any particular evening. When a film opens, if there are only a hundred people interested in seeing it on any particular evening... The theatre is a wonderful place to find your own voice.
More so than television I think, where writers start out writing, largely, series TV. Where the very point is you’re supposed to sound like all the other writers. That’s the necessity of the job, but in the theatre you are paid – not much – for the originality of your ideas. I stayed in the theatre for a very long time. I’ve hardly written any telly, virtually none.
I went straight from theatre to film, and I’m very, very glad that I stayed and developed and learnt a bit more about my own voice.
LF: It’s an obvious point to make, but with your screenplays, Jane Eyre and Tamara Drewe are adaptations. Byzantium, which is in a way your first originally conceived piece, was a theatre piece to begin with.
MB: Yes, adapted from a play.
LF: So again does it feel that film is a limiting space? Is it harder to conceive something original for film?
MB: So far I have chosen to conceive all my original ideas in the theatre, because I know I’ll have more artistic control over them. It’s as simple as that. I think it takes great courage to develop an original screenplay and give it over before you even know what it is.
I think in the theatre you’re allowed to stay close to the process for long enough to really know what that story is and to really shine and polish it and get the best out of it. I freely admit I’ve been too afraid in the film world to do that yet.
I think also adaptations are easier. When you’re working with so many collaborators the source material is something upon which you are all agreed. When it’s an original idea there is no source material, nobody’s agreed on anything, it’s so nebulous.
And the safety of developing the original idea in the theatre has, so far, really appealed. I’m sure that one day I will develop the courage to step out there and write the original screenplay, but it hasn’t come to me yet.
LF: You talked, rather brilliantly, about Hitchcock and also very wonderfully about Wasp exciting you. You started writing plays when you were 14 but what was the thing when you were growing up that made you think, ‘I want to tell stories like that.’ What was the great pivotal moment of inspiration for you?
MB: I don’t think there was one. I didn’t have a Road to Damascus kind of, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be a playwright!’ It really didn’t happen like that.
LF: Cumulatively then?
MB: Yeah, it was cumulative. And there were some very, very positive experiences of things I saw, plays and films. You know when something has profoundly affected you when everyone else has left the theatre and you’re still sitting there and the cleaners are coming in.
There were a couple of things like that, where I just thought, ‘I’d love to be able to do that,’ and also anti-inspiration I think is really important. When you see something that is so terrible, that is so appallingly bad and corrupt and empty of anything valuable. That is extremely inspiring as well, in a weird way. I think both inspiration and anti-inspiration have been very helpful to me.
LF: You’ve talked about why you want to formulate great female characters, but I think what’s interesting is you’re interested in the Gothic.
MB: I think I probably am, yeah.
LF: You’ve talked about genre and your relationship with genre. Why do you return to the Gothic as a space?
MB: I don’t know. Somebody once described Dinner as a Jacobean play and I was so chuffed. It never would have occurred to me. The Jacobeans were very interested in corruption of the individual in society, moral corruption, and I think I am drawn towards these things too – and also to the slightly mysterious.
There’s a kind of idea – and I’m sorry to talk about theatre again, I will try and keep it to film – but there’s an idea in late 20th century theatre, I think, that everything has to be about society. It has to be about the here and now; it has to be about real life.
And film is very good at not being about real life. Now, real life is all very well but I love the idea that something can both be about real life and not be about real life. I think I slightly seek that in both my plays and my films.
LF: This is something that’s been written about extensively but there’s a particular relationship of women writers to the Gothic, whether it’s in fiction, photography or art. Do you again feel yourself as part of a tradition in terms of women investigating...?
MB: I don’t really know. That instantly makes me want to parody myself.
LF: I suppose the spaces in between the real, in getting your hands dirty…
MB: Yes, getting your hands dirty, explorations of power, of where desire fits into that picture. It’s great. They’re great stories as well; they’re kind of big stories, epic stories. I think the other thing that attracts me are legend stories, Greek myths and so on.
It is the scale of the story, the way a story can take on the tiny and the personal and the relationship between the human being and the universe. Some stories can do that. They have resonance.
And I think those are the sort of stories that I’ve always looked for in the theatre and that I’m beginning to look for more in film. Although they always come through little bunches of human beings being very clumsy with one another.
LF: As a playwright you were part of a manifesto, The Monsterists, which had the idea of bringing and exploring big, epic ideas to theatre.
MB: Yes. Because of budget in theatre, most younger writers were confined to 100/200 seaters and a cast of four – six if you were really lucky. This meant that a whole generation of writers were losing the skill of writing scenes of scale; scenes with lots of people in them, and to write the epic.
It’s hard to write the epic in a small black box and we felt it very important that we should not lose these skills and that we should be given chances on bigger stages. I am now the fourth Monsterist to have a play on the Olivier stage. The National Theatre has now tried to give a play in a big space to a living writer every year.
LF: Would you have a manifesto for film?
MB: I haven’t been doing it long enough, I’m such a beginner.
Q (from the floor): You were talking about female screenplay writers and how there’s not that many of them. For the few—probably quite a lot more now—that are trying to come through, do you have any specific advice for them, or do you think that once you’re at the level that you’re at, or even slightly before in development rooms, that you are then perceived completely equally and you don’t feel there’s any differences?
MB: I don’t know, it’s hard to give advice because then I feel like some sort of spokesperson, and I’m not. I would say don’t get hung up on your gender as a writer, I never ever did. A lot of people have said to me I write like a bloke. I don’t think that’s true.
Just write to the absolute best of your ability, and the quality of work will shine through, whatever your gender. I’m convinced that’s true. It has to be true otherwise we’d live in an unjust world, and that’s not nice.
Q (from the floor): You talked a lot about development and how important the relationship was with the development exec or the script editor. And you referenced working with Hannah Farrell on Jane Eyre. Do you have any specific examples of problems or issues and how, working together, those were resolved?
MB: One thing springs to mind. We got some notes in from financiers and the notes were pages long. They made me really angry actually, because they were those jargon-filled notes that you dread that sort of say, ‘We need to do something about the bit where Act One drags,’ and you go, ‘Which bit? Be specific.’
Notes can be horrendously unspecific. And not just Hannah but Alison Owen, we all went through the whole list of notes, ‘Is this one worth bothering with?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is this one worth bothering with?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have they got a point there?’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘Why have they written that note? We’re already doing that.’ I think what you long for from a development executive is courage, honesty and open communication.
LF: It’s a bit like the relationship and a patient and their shrink, the writer’s relationship with...
MB: Who’s the patient and who’s the shrink?
LF: Well that’s a good question; you swap all the way through!
MB: I don’t know, that sounds a little unequal, it’s very collaborative. When it’s working well it’s brilliant.
I think the development executive is the enabler. And I think that is a superbly creative role. It’s the same as the dramaturge or literary manager in the theatre. It’s a kind of innate skill and it is rare and wonderful I think.
It makes the job of writing, especially a screenplay, and especially for someone who’s new to it, so much easier and more pleasurable where you know you’ve got that person, where you can just go ‘Actually I’m stuck here, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and you don’t feel you’re really letting the side down to say so.
Q (from the floor): Do you have any advice for new writers in practical terms, in just getting your work put on?
MB: If no-one’s doing it for you do it yourself. Absolutely do it yourself. That’s what I did, and it teaches you so much. Do it yourself on the Fringe, raise the money somehow, do everything and you really learn.
Q (from the floor): Just a question about Byzantium; I’m curious to know what some of the characters in the story are and where did your inspiration for them come from?
MB: I’d read this story called Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, which is a really early Gothic vampire story. And I’d also read Fragment by Lord Byron in which there is a character called Augustus Darvell. There’s another one called The Vampyre by John Polidori. I was ill one summer, I was in hospital and this was my hospital reading, these vampire stories.
I thought they were fantastic, and it was really Carmilla, the set up for Carmilla is that a beautiful young vampire gets taken around all these country houses in a carriage with an older woman who is kind of like a mother figure.
And the mother figure says, ‘Please may I leave my daughter with you? I’ve been called to St Petersburg,’ or Karlstejn or wherever, ‘I must leave my daughter with you, I’ll return soon and I will thank you for your care of my daughter.’ The daughter goes into the house and starts killing everybody.
I sort of thought about these two women in the coach, these two vampires, and I thought they’re mother and daughter and this is their kind of con. This is their kind of set up. So imagine they’re mother and daughter, what would they be doing now? What is it like spending 200 years with your mother? I suppose that’s really the inspiration for Byzantium.
Q (from the floor): Are there any boys in the cast at all?
MB: Oh yes, like I say, I love writing men.
Q (from the floor): What would you say to aspiring screenwriters who may still be at school?
MB: Just keep writing, really. Write, if you can, every day. Make it a habit and you will undoubtedly get better at it. And you don’t have to write screenplays to become a better writer, you can write anything. Even if it’s a really self-obsessed diary. I mean I kept one of those for years, and it helped me learn how to write good prose. You can write anything, but as long as you’re writing every day I’d say that’s how you become a writer really.
Q (from the floor): In adapting Byzantium, to what extent do you feel protected by the fact that the play has been finished and to what extent do you feel re-attached as a writer?
MB: It was much, much harder adapting Byzantium. It took me a long time and I went quite badly wrong with it because at first I had a feeling that it would be alright if it was kind of the same as the play but a film. And it really wasn’t alright. The first draft of it really didn’t work at all. The tone didn’t translate, the language didn’t translate. It was an oddity, it was a complete oddity and I had to absolutely start again from scratch and reinvent it for the different form. It was much harder.
Also I had no objectivity to it. With Charlotte Brontë you think, ‘Okay, Charlotte Brontë, here we go’ and you jump into her book and you get your marker pen out and you think, ‘Well that line’s good, that line’s good, I’m having that.’ With your own work you think, ‘Oh Christ, what’s good? What’s shit? I can’t tell, I’ve got no objectivity!’ It was really hard adapting Byzantium, really hard, and it took quite a few drafts to get going in the right direction.
Q (from the floor): I wanted to hear about how you move from your first draft – with or without the development exec – to your next draft, and how that process feels and how you go about it.
MB: Well the first draft really is always just a kind of stab in the right direction. It really is. I do think – and I know other writers think this and I agree with them entirely – that the real writing is done once you’ve done the first draft. The real writing is actually re-writing. It really is. It’s like a piece coming into focus.
It’s like a big sketched thing that just comes more and more and more into focus. I never count the number of drafts I do. It’s always dozens of drafts of each piece, whether it’s a play or a film. Dozens and dozens of drafts, and it does begin to become tighter, more distilled and more focused. But it is in the rewriting that everything starts to happen.
Q (from the floor): Do you keep it all in your head or do you have a big wall?
MB: Mostly in my head. My writing’s messy and I stick things on a wall and they just look so terrible that I take them down quite quickly. I mostly work it out in my head or on paper.
LF: Actually I’m always curious about a writer’s process. Are you a morning writer, an afternoon writer, how do you get into the space where you can sit down at a typewriter and go for it?
MB: I’m a working mother writer. Kids, school, sit down, write and then I write until either I pick them up from school or the child-minder has had enough.
LF: Do you keep a notebook in between, for those moments when you have an idea?
MB: I don’t really have a notebook, but I am always thinking. I’m always thinking, making the pasta I’m always thinking. Writers do, it’s terrible, we can’t stop. It’s awful. You have to have quite a long break. I took some time off this summer because last year was two films into production back to back, and four plays on. It was really overwhelming and I was tired, so I took a bit of time off. And it took me weeks to stop writing, it really did.
LF: Do you think that downtime was helpful for replenishing the brain?
MB: Yes, absolutely. It was great.
LF: Do you read during that time?
MB: I read, and I play with my kids. Just live, you know?
Q (from the floor): You mentioned chasing the job for Jane Eyre, and I just wondered what that process was, whether it was you or your agent?
MB: Well actually I met Abi Morgan, who’s a friend of mine and another wonderful screenwriter, and we were talking. She said she thought there was a film of Jane Eyre. I phoned up my agent, St John Donald, the very next morning and said, ‘Please, please, please if there’s any chance they’ll see me, will you get them to see me?’
And they did see me. I just went in with my passion for the book I suppose. And it was Alison Owen and Christine Langan and I’m very glad to say they gave me the job. I was passionately enthusiastic about it. I really did want to do it.
Q: Was it there and then, or did they say, ‘Go off and do us a little sample and come back’?
MB: No, they don’t make you write a bit as a sample and then say, ‘No, we’re not going to give you the job after all.’ They did offer me the gig.
Q (from the floor): Could you say something about the developmental and writing process of Tamara Drewe? I thought I recalled Stephen Frears saying that it was the first draft?
MB: He read the first draft.
Q: Is that what was made?
MB: No, golly. But Stephen read the first draft. It was such a gift to adapt, Tamara Drewe, it was an absolute gift. The first draft wasn’t like Byzantium –that was a bit of a mess. In the first draft a lot of the elements kind came together. And Stephen Frears read it and wanted to direct it on the strength of the first draft.
But then there were many, many more. It did go into production very quickly for a film. It was under a year from when I started writing to when I was walking on that film set, and that’s unusually fast for a film. So the work in that year was quite intensive, and it kept on going throughout the production.
Q: I don’t relate very well to cartoons or graphic novels. When I look at it it’s a mystifying stream of images. And somehow you have made a very coherent film [Tamara Drewe], so I’m wondering about the intellectual process or did it just pop out for you?
MB: Well, you see I did relate to it. I found Posy [Simmons]’s drawings immensely characterful. I’d look at her drawings and I’d just know who these people were. My advice is never adapt anything if you don’t relate to it. I did relate to that, it chimed with me in all sorts of ways. I found her drawings inspirational. It wasn’t difficult for me to make it into a film, it was a real pleasure.
Q (from the floor): You talked about the string under your heart and being connected to your work and I think writers in any form can empathise with that. When you really, forgive the cliché, pour your heart into your writing and face rejection, is this a pain you grow out of as you grow as a writer?
MB: No, you don’t grow out of it and you don’t stop feeling it. I think you learn to cope with it better. You really do. And at the end of the day it’s not a lasting pain. You get a devastating parcel of notes, and it’s only devastating for about a day. At the end of the day somebody said, ‘What’s it like killing your babies?’ – they’re not babies. Yes it’s painful, but compared to the real things in life it’s really not that painful.
Q (from the floor): It’s kind of been asked but I wanted you to describe the space in which you write best. Or can you write anywhere?
MB: I like best not writing at home. I write in libraries a lot, I love libraries. I don’t have a very functional office at all. I don’t like being on my own, I like writing where there are other people. I write in cafés. But libraries mostly.
I love the British Library, I really like the London Library, stuffed full of other writers. It smells of old books. I write where there are people. I don’t carry stuff, I don’t keep paper, I just have my little laptop and I sit anywhere and write.
Q (from the floor): Do you find yourself bubbling up and thinking, ‘This is a good film now,’ or, ‘This is a better play?’ in your ideas?
MB: I’ve always known up until now, but for the first time I have an idea now and I’m not sure whether it’s a film or a play. It’s always been really clear up until now, and for the first time I’m confused and I don’t know. So I’ll have to work it out.
LF: Do you think that’s because you now have the clout for original ideas in film, having three films under your belt?
MB: It could be that, or just that I know more. I’m more confident as a screenwriter. I’ve learnt so much about playwriting in my career, but really I’ve been catching up as a screenwriter and I think now I am becoming more confident. And yes, you sort of think ‘Why pour yourself into an original idea with absolutely no chance of it getting made?’
And maybe that’s just changed in my circumstances, with a body of work behind you you’re in the very fortunate position of perhaps being able to get something made.
Q (from the floor): I wanted to ask a little bit more about your transition as a playwright to a screenwriter, and what the particular challenges were for you, or new focuses you found in that move?
MB: It’s not really a transition because I’m still a playwright. It’s not that I’ve stopped doing one at all. I have to say it’s so banally practical. The reason why I started writing films in earnest was because I had kids.
As a playwright, what I was paid as a commission didn’t even cover the cost of the childcare for the time it took me to write the play. So I just got really practical and I thought, ‘I have to earn some money.’ And I can honestly say, hand on heart, that is what led me into the film industry.
I just needed to be paid. Now that I’m there I’m passionately in love with it. Simon Beaufoy last year talked about this band of obsessives, who love making films. I would hope now that I’ve joined that band of obsessives.
LF: You’ve talked about your friendship with Abi Morgan, but do you have writer friends that you can actually talk about craft and ideas with? Do you have a pool of people that test ideas out with before committing them to paper?
MB: Yes I test ideas, not out on other writers but usually with my family and friends. But writers do feel a sense of camaraderie, I think. I’ve certainly not felt myself in competition with other writers. I think we do feel more of a sense of camaraderie than anything else.
Q (from the floor): You said that when you heard Jane Eyre was being made into a film you sort of jumped up and wanted to do it. Are there any other books that you’ve really loved, and if they were going to be filmed, that you’d go for?
MB: Most of them are either films already or they’re books that I wouldn’t know how to make a film of. Most of them are probably films already, and I guess they’re the same as everybody else’s favourite book. But you always know.
The wonderful thing is when you read something, and you just think, ‘Yes!’ that’s always the book you long to be given. You just think, ‘Yes, I love this, I know how to do it’ as I did with Tamara Drewe.
LF: But if there’s some book that you were passionate about that you would love to revisit, even if it’s already been made into a film.... What would you push for?
MB: Well, for example – it’s impossible – but it’s The Master And Margarita by Bulgakov. I love that book passionately, I think it’s amazing. I think it’s a really weird, frightening, funny, extraordinary book. I’ve no idea how to do it as a film.
I can’t think of an example. Stupid things come into my head, like Pride & Prejudice. No. Or Middlemarch. I don’t know how to do Middlemarch as a film. I love the book passionately but I don’t think it’s a film.
LF: Thinking about Hitchcock, who said that for him the short story was the more perfect adaptive form, are there short stories that you have read, do you trawl things…?
MB: No I don’t, I’m not a great reader of short stories. But I do agree that they’re fantastic starting points for films because you have room. That’s why Posy’s book was so good, there was room in there. You can see why writers love novellas and short stories so much.
Like Brokeback Mountain I think was a gift, that wonderful, wonderful short story. But I don’t know, I’m so busy writing at the moment that I’m afraid I don’t get enough time to read. And when I do, I want to read for time off and not be thinking, ‘How would I adapt this?’
LF: So maybe it’s more about producers bringing things to you to see if you’ve got a take on it at this point, is it?
MB: At the moment it is, or it’s me thinking. Scenarios are really, really easy to think up. I keep thinking up scenarios and thinking, ‘Oh God, that’s a good scenario.’ Beginnings are really, really easy to think up. The difficult thing to think up is the ending, the solution, how it resolves.
And that’s what you’re always looking for as a project; something that has a really satisfying resolution. That’s when you know that you’ve got it, that it’s going to make a really good film and it’s possible to write to the very best of your ability.
Q (from the floor): Do you have any specific pointers or advice for writing multiple character storylines?
MB: Yes, which of course Tamara Drewe was. There were eight central characters in Tamara Drewe. Find what links them, there has to be some kind of link between them. In the case of Tamara Drewe everybody, including the two teenage girls, had some kind of a relationship with writing.
Either there’s the incredibly conceited novelist and the academic, or there’s Tamarawho’s a kind of journalist with aspirations. There’s Beth the wife, who’s the enabler of writers, who’s a nurturer. And then there are the two teenage girls who read trash writing. They read magazines. Oh, and there’s Dominic Cooper’s character, who writes songs. So I kind of thought the very weakest link – it is a weak link but it is a definite link – between all these people, is their relationship with writing.
And once you’ve got the link between them, no matter how vague it is, you can then enjoy their differences. That really is the only link you have to make, a metaphorical one, and then their differences can be the making of the story.
Q (from the floor): When you’ve written a first draft, how do you judge it with objectivity to appreciate how to change it?
MB: Sometimes it’s hard to be objective and you have to leave something a few days and come back and read it. Then its faults become glaringly obvious. I think sometimes it’s good to walk away and come back and read it as if you haven’t written it. That is easier said than done, but the more objectivity you can put towards the reading of an early draft the better.
Q (from the floor): You talked about not wanting to kill some of your characters in your lecture but I wondered whether you ever had any characters that you’ve absolutely hated writing? And if so, how did you deal with that?
MB: Cut them. I was trying to write two detectives a while ago and they were so boring. I couldn’t make them interesting, I just couldn’t do it. Clichés kept coming out of their mouths and I cut them. I thought something was wrong there. If you really hate a character it’s usually because they’re boring and you should cut or change them.
LF: I’ve got a question in terms of you evolving your technique or your writing style. You talked about going on a course. Did you learn anything from it?
MB: Oh yeah, that was a fantastic course, The Script Factory ran that and it was called The Writers’ Circle and it was a one-off. It was brilliant. They took a few writers from other disciplines –novelists, playwrights, journalists – and it was kind of ‘this is what the film industry can offer you, here’s some pointers in the nuts and bolts of writing’ and then they threw dinners and invited people from the film industry to come.
We sort of met everyone from the British film industry. It was a real privilege, and it made me fearless about the film industry because I’d actually met a lot of people who worked in it, not in a ‘give-me-a-job’ situation, and I thought ‘they are just people.’
And you can sit down over a dinner with someone about something other than film and find them to be human beings and therefore not frightening. It was a very good course, but that’s the only writing course I’ve ever done.
LF: So there was more space for you to exchange ideas and feel comfortable in a new industry?
MB: In a new industry, yeah.
Q (from the floor): I just wondered if you have any keys or secrets to a good ending. You mentioned when you’re writing something original, with the ending, there are certain rules. They’re so hard…
MB: I don’t have any, I wish I did! I wish someone would give me the key to a good ending. It’s great fun writing Act One, brilliant writing Act Two, really good fun writing Act Three – I’m sorry I always think in terms of five acts. I know most film people think in terms of three but it’s what I carry from the theatre, five acts – up until Act Three, up until the moment in Romeo & Juliet that Mercutio dies, you’re still throwing balls in the air, you’re adding more things to the mix, you’re developing new ideas into the film.
What happens at the end of Act Three, after Mercutio dies, is that you have to start resolving everything. You have to pull it all in, and you have to put every single one of the characters through a grinder.
It is very difficult, and I think it’s more helpful to think of it in terms of five acts, because then the ending is divided into Act Four and Act Five, so that Act Four is the beginning of the end. And you think, ‘Okay, I’m not thinking about the whole ending here, I’m just thinking about the beginning of the end,’ and then Act Five is the end. I have nothing more helpful to say than that.
Q (from the floor): Did you read a lot of film scripts, great film scripts, and do you enjoy reading other people’s film scripts?
MB: Yes, I do. I found it so helpful when I was starting out, more helpful than watching films and trying to deconstruct them. I found the most helpful thing was reading the screenplays of films that I’d seen.
You can get loads of them online. I read the screenplays of Miller’s Crossing and Fargo and I learnt so much just from reading those two screenplays. Far more than I’d learned about screenwriting from just watching the film. I think if anybody should read screenplays – and hardly anybody does – it’s people who have any kind of interest in becoming screenwriters.
Watching the films… yeah that’s great, but that’s not really useful. Read the screenplays. You wouldn’t become a playwright without reading plays. You really have to read the written documents and then you can see how the screenwriter has made this climbing frame, has made this document that ultimately has to become three dimensional.
LF: I think we’ve had the most extraordinary insight into your craft, into your thoughts about screenwriting. I really have found it quite inspiring and there were some very interesting questions from the floor. You talk about beginnings, but you’re now in your stride and I look forward to a long journey following your screenplays and your theatre work. So thank you very much Moira.
MB: Thank you.
We produced a small print programme to accompany the Screenwriters' Lecture Series, each with one of the featured writers as the cover star. Find out more about each of the writers and read special written contributions from Spike Jonze, Ralph Fiennes, Charlize Theron, Danny Boyle, Ken Loach, Michael Apted and Stephen Frears. Just click on the cover below...