N: Hello, and welcome to the Creative Conversation with Nicole Lee. My name is Nicole Lee and my very special guest today is novelist, screenwriter and former doctor, John Collee. John is the writer of Hollywood films such as Happy Feet, Master and Commander, Creation and the upcoming Walking with Dinosaurs 3D. His novels include Kingsley’s Touch, A Paper Mask and The Rig. John, thank you for chatting with me today.
N: I’d like to just starting asking where you’re from.
J: Well, I come from Edinburgh.
J: Went to school there. I went to university there and yes, have sort of been moving steadily southwards ever since. We ended up - I met my wife in Moscow of all places and we ended up, yeah, living here in Sydney for the last fifteen years.
N: And so, how did you develop an interest in writing?
J: You I think, those of us who write probably always have that from an early age. I, when I was a medical student used to put on little shows with my friends, we’d put on the end of year revues and finally ended up doing shows at the Edinburgh festival. And reading was something obviously I’d always done a lot as a kid and I always had a secret yen to be a novelist so, yeah, that’s the first kind of writing I did.
N: Okay. So and then, so then how did that lead you to medicine?
J: Oh, you know, well, that’s a complicated question, I mean, I know you studied medicine as well, and you know, I think a lot of us don’t know exactly what we want to do when we’re young, have sort of a vague idea of it and then life sort of takes strange right angled turns. In my case I went into medicine, got very involved in third world medicine, I really enjoyed travelling and working in the third world and did several jobs all over the place. The downside of that as a medical pracitioner is that you spend a lot of time working in remote places and gradually, gradually lost connection with the mainstream medical kind of career path. And so while my writing was sort of becoming more and more lucrative, my medical career was becoming more and more marginal, and finally, after we got married, Debs and I met in Moscow as I said and my final job as a doctor was in the Solomon Islands where our first daughter, Lauren, was born and after she was born we then, after a year in the Solomons we thought, well, we’d better come back somewhere safer, where there’s not malaria, sharks and crocodiles -
N: Strange diseases!
J: - and Debs could work, so we came back to work in London, and then I went to work in a first world hospital and I was so kind of rusty, really, compared to the young, newly qualified doctors, I thought, well, I’m more of a bush doctor, I should sort of probably hang up my stethoscope now.
J: As I say, writing then was actually making more money than medicine anyway, so economically it was an easy enough decision.
N: Well, let’s go back a little bit, back to your medical school days. So you did study medicine at the University of Edinburgh and then practiced in Bath and Bristol and Cambridge. And how was that experience for you back then as a medical student?
J: Oh, it was great! I mean, medicine’s a very hierarchical job, you know, one of the reasons that I went off and started working in these slightly out of the way places was that you know, it is a bit of a corporate sort of a life, and that has good and bad dimensions to it. You learn a huge amount, you’re constantly surrounded by fabulously experienced people, but it was a, you know, there was a sort of a sausage machine element necessarily to any national health service. You become a component in this large, huge organisation with kind of career paths and you know, five year plans and the whole thing. So that was the down side, but those years were really happy and creative, you know. It was during the time in Bristol that I met all the theatrical people and we did shows and plays and revues, and it was during that time also that I bailed out for six months to write my first novel, I think I was twenty-eight at the time, and that luckily got picked up by Penguin.
N: So you mentioned your first novel, Kingsley’s Touch, about an Edinburgh surgeon and his experience with mysticism. So how did you - how did that come about? When did you decide to write it, what prompted you to take time off?
J: Well, a couple of things. They say that you never base novels, characters in novels on real people. That’s completely wrong - of course you base them on real people and most of the characters in that novel were based on people that I knew. The central character Alistair Kingsley is based on my consultant, my surgical consultant. He was a Scotsman working in Bristol whom I greatly admired, incredibly good at his job but sort of completely wedded to the scientific, rational principles, you know, if it’s cancer, cut it out, he had no time at all for alternative medicine, and you know, I’d sort of agree with him in many ways, but anyway, he was a guy I worked with, worked for, really liked, and he became the central character in this fantasy about what would happen if an ultra-rationalist was suddenly presented with the proof that magic actually worked. And so, in the story, this very rational surgeon working at a [indistinct] place in Edinburgh, working in Edinburgh, is contacted by an Indian mystic who says look I can give you the healing touch if you let me do the necessary ceremonies. And then the conflict between the surgeon and the mystical power that he becomes a conduit for is, that’s what the thriller’s about.
N: And what made you decide to write it then?
J: Well, I don’t think you consciously decide to write stories but you can always look back on the stories that you’ve written, and if they’re good stories you can generally work out what they were about. And that was, I suppose, through that story I was working out my own - in a way I was working out my own doubts about my commitment to medicine. So one of the questions in that story is suppose as a doctor that you did have the magical power to cure everyone, would that be a blessing or a curse, you know, if our - if the final expression of being a great doctor is being able to cure everyone you lay your hands on, what would that feel like, you know? And of course that would be absolutely terrifying because your obligation to society is sort of measured by the skills that you can bring to society and if you have unlimited skills then you also have unlimited obligations, you know. You look at someone like Barack Obama, an immensely accomplished politician, someone I greatly admire but on some level you think well, the better he is, the more he has to do, and the more impossible the task becomes. And so that, I think, on some kind of deep level, I was wrestling with my own future as a doctor.
N: How long did you take off to write it?
J: Six months.
N: Right. And you wrote it all in six months.
J: Yeah, yeah. And I’m sure there were rewrites and stuff after that, there always are. In fact yeah, I remember taking one character and completely rewriting them through the book at the suggestion of my editor at Penguin and that worked really well.
N: And how did you get - how did you get it published in the end?
J: Well, I got a friend of mine to design a cover and it was a, the picture was of a hand touching a breast, which suggested that it was an erotic novel. It wasn’t at all an erotic novel but then this cover caught the eye of Fanny Blake who was an editor at Penguin -
N: So you self published it.
J: No, I didn’t, no, no, Fanny saw it on my agent’s desk and said ‘What’s that?’ and then she read it and then she offered to do it as a -
N: So you got an agent first.
J: So I had an agent first, yeah.
N: Oh right. So how did you go about getting your agent?
J: I’d had a couple of short stories done on BBC Radio.
J: And then I’d written this manuscript and I sent it to her.
N: And this was all while you were being a doctor.
N: Wish I was as multitasking as you! I did try and take a year off to write a novel but I ended up acting. It was a funny time.
J: Oh well, same kind of thing.
N: So then you worked, after that novel you worked in emergency in Madagascar and Sri Lanka and you wrote your second novel.
J: Well I worked, yes I worked first, as you know, the nature of medicine is that you sort of do an apprenticeship. So I qualified at age twenty-four and then the next three years were taken up with doing house jobs where you, you basically learned your skills. And I did like accident and emergency, orthopaedics, that kind of fast-paced instant response sort of stuff really appealed to my kind of slightly butterfly mind, you know, I like to be constantly sort of challenged. And so yeah, I got into accident and emergency and did sort of three years of that and then started taking jobs overseas and the first of those jobs was for an oil company in Madagascar who employed me for a couple of years.
N: As a doctor.
J: As a doctor. And now, wait a minute, it was before that I took six months off to write Kingsley’s Touch and it was during the time that I was away that Kingsley’s Touch got published and then I started writing the second book and that job, that job in Madagascar, was almost the perfect job for a doctor, because every month you go away to a remote place - perfect job as a writer cos you’re forced to kind of live in this remote spot where everything is provided, the meals and the laundry and all that stuff done for you. The job is kind of, is pretty episodic because I just had to respond to crises on the - they were exploring for oil up and down the coast of Madagascar, and they’d take me to a different seismic camp, so the drilling rigs. But in between times I was just on my own with my own time and so I wrote my second and most of the third novel when I was there.
N: Right, okay. You also wrote the screenplay for A Paper Mask, which was turned into a movie with Tom Wilkinson and Tom McGann, directed by Christopher Morahan. So how did that come about and what was that experience like, adapting your own novel?
J: I think before you, before you know anything about writing, it’s amazingly easy, once you start, once you start studying the technique of it, it becomes more and more complicated. But adapting that book, I kind of, it was amazingly straight forward. I’ll take the scenes from the book and I’ll write them as movie scripts, I’ll take out the description and just to dialogue, and yeah, without really thinking about it, I kind of produced a makeable screenplay, which is unusual. I guess a lot of the work had been done on working out of the plot of the book and it was a short book, it was only 280 pages or so. So having worked out the plot, and it did actually, that particular novel, broke down in a kind of filmic structure into scenes. It’s interesting some writers like Graham Greene, who I was always a big fan of, I mean, Graham Greene cut his teeth as a film reviewer and so he writes in the same way, many of his novels are kind of written with a kind of filmic pace, you know, and even the way that he introduces characters and the structure of his books, something like Our Man in Havana, he, he’ll structure it exactly like a film, or The Third Man, which he wrote first as a novella and then as a screenplay, again you know, he’ll, as you’ll do in a film, he’ll, sort of, you know, bring in first his primary characters and then second or third characters and they, he doesn’t sort of, weigh in with a lot of internal monologue early on, and so it’s kind of, they’re filmic books.
N: Right. Did you do any training as a screenwriter?
J: I didn’t, but when I started writing novels, I studied a couple of books to see how the thrillers that I admired were put together, so before I wrote my first thriller Kingsley’s Touch, I read and sort of dissected Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, and worked out how it was put together.
N: And the film as well, or just the book?
J: Say again?
N: Just the book, or, and the film?
J: Just the book. Yeah. Well I think many writers do that and many film writers and film directors do that as well, just obsessively study the films and books they admire and the scripts they admire, take them to pieces, summarise them, work out how they’re done, yeah.
N: Is that the process that you did with The Rig, your third book?
J: Yeah. Yeah. That was more of a sprawling international thriller, so it was less disciplined than the first two.
N: Right. Do you have a process for writing novels? I mean, do you feel like you’ve honed it down?
J: Yeah, with the novels I read a book, I can’t remember what it was called now, John, John Braine, Writing the Novel (ed. note: the book is actually How to Write a Novel), English writer in the sixties. And he just basically described yeah, how to break your story into its component chunks. There’s a kind of, I think a false notion that you begin a story in the middle and you just start writing, you get all the way through to the end. As I see it, you start off with a global idea of what the story is, this is how it will start, this is how it will become complicated, this is how it will finally conclude. And then, as you think about it and research it, and talk about it, you gradually build it out from the middle outwards, so that all of these areas become more and more complex, and so you finally build up to a detailed synopsis of the film or the novel.
N: So you’re not a planner.
J: I am a planner, but not, I’m not someone who starts a novel and will begin and then sees where it’ll take me. There are writers like that, you know Salman Rushdie writes in that way, he’ll -
N: Being attacked (ed. note: We were being surrounded by cicadas at this moment)!
J: Being attacked! Salman Rushie says that he just sits down and sees where the story takes him. I think you have to have a very amazing kind of brain to do that.
N: To be able to do that, yeah.
J: I’m definitely kind of a planner.
N: And how long did each book take you? So the first book was six months, the first draft, or...
J: Yeah...you know you can write a draft of a book in three months quite easily, it’s not, I mean, if there’s a 100,000 words in a book - I mean, screenplays are only 30,000 words - so the, it’s the thinking and planning that takes all the time, you know, and the research you know. And as you know I’m a big believer in using real life experience, you know, one of the, when people talk about writer’s block they’re often talking about just having running out of things to say, things they know, things they care about, things they have research. And so you’ve got to do two things simultaneously as a novelist or a screenwriter, one is to be planning your story, and the other is to be loading up your mind with all the elements that would go into that story, and there are often, sometimes there are parallels in your own life and your own experience and other times you’ve just got to go off on your own and research, and so you’ve got to be doing both of these things at once.
N: And so the second book was less time or more time?
J: The second book was the same amount of time, and when I said it took three months to write a draft, on reflection it took about two years to write both of these, each of these books because you write a draft and then it has to sit, and then you have to break it down again and write it again, you know. I’ve only written three novels, but I’ve written many screenplays, and I always write a draft and then I write a synopsis, write the draft and the synopsis, and then I write a new synopsis from the draft that I have written, and then I go back and write a new draft from that and so you’re constantly summarising and digesting what you’ve written, looking at it, rearranging it so that it reads as a short document and then building it up again into a larger document, and that’s how I work.
N: Right, like an outline.
J: Yeah. Yeah. And with the outline, you can actually work out where the story is taking you, what it’s about, what the highs and lows are. And ultimately what the story means, yeah, and that’s important that you finally get that as well: ‘Ah, I see, I see, this is a story about such and such a theme. And once you know that theme, then you can sort of –
N: Go back.
J: Go back. Yeah. Go back through it all.
N: And then so, so how did you make your transition to full time screen writing?
J: Well, that second book was called A Paper Mask and I, and that got picked up by a TV company called Granada who made it as a cinema movie, as you said, with Tom Wilkinson and Paul McGann. And then, yeah, then you know, the hard part in all of these jobs is getting a track record, so you’ve gotta write something first, you know, and then you’ve got to tout it around and sell it. But once you’ve written your first novel it’s pretty easy to get a second novel published cos the publisher’s already invested in you. Same with screenplays, once you’ve got a name as a screenwriter then you know, you’re off and running. The hard thing is how to get that first thing written, that first credit.
N: So, after you wrote your third novel, then you went and did Master and Commander is that right? Was that a natural progression?
J: Yeah, well, there was a lot of life and events in between!
N: Of course! I’m sure there was life in between, more - I know you wrote, you did a column for the Observer.
J: Yeah, I got a job as a columnist for the Observer –
N: Which also sounds like an amazing job.
J: That was great fun. Yeah, yeah, so that was, and again, I was in my 30s then, basically, all through my 30s I was travelling to out of the way places and writing this column for the Observer, and as long as I could write my weekly column and fax it back from wherever, then they would pay me. And that was a fantastic job, yeah.
N: Did you write anything at the time? Like as in, screenplays or novels at the time, or was that just the -
J: No, I think the newspaper column took over, between real life and writing a newspaper column. I started and didn’t finish about three projects in that period.
N: Right. And that was when you were in the Solomon Islands?
J: So I was there, I was in Russia, I was in Sri Lanka for a bit, yeah, yeah.
N: And when did you decide to, yeah, do more screenwriting? Or move to Australia, really?
J: Well then yeah, as I say, yeah, so then I met Debs and we had our first daughter and we decided to give up our – Debs was a foreign correspondent – so she’d had the same kind of experience as me, a life of itinerant roaming around the globe, and we decided we’d go straight, and we lived in London for a short while, then we moved to Sydney, Australia, which is where we’ve been ever since. And basically from the time of arriving in Australia I’ve sort of been a full time screenwriter. And the good thing about being a screenwriter is that it’s – unlike a novel, which is completely immersive for a long period, you know, you become, when you’re writing a novel, a little bit like a heroin addict, in that you’ve got your real life going on in parallel to this fantasy life that you’re sort of, living in, thinking about the book almost continuously, cos you really do have to create this whole fictional world. And with a screenplay, because it’s shorter, and because screenwriting is basically more collaborative, it’s more of a social kind of writing job and so, having tried journalism, which is very short term and you know, constant voracious appetite of the newspaper and magazine to get the next article, and having tried novel writing which is very long term, where as I say, you can disappear into your own fantasy world, screenwriting is a kind of nice mix between the two: you’re working with other people, you’re constantly discussing the story, refining it –
N: It’s kind of more alive.
J: It’s more social.
N: More social. Yeah.
N: And then, so was that just a process of your agents said ‘Peter Weir’s interested in working with you,’ or do you try and get onto that project, or how did that…
J: No, well, my agents at that time were CAA and Peter was represented by the same people and so, yeah, it just came about that he was looking for somebody to work with locally, and I happened to be in town.
N: And what was that process like, adapting I think it’s the thirteen original books by Patrick O’Brien?
J: Yeah, that was great fun. Well, Peter lives up north of Sydney and I used to travel up to see him in the car, over quite a long period, some weeks, and I’d listened to all the Patrick O’Brien books, those talking books on the car tape deck, sort of, to and from Peter’s place, and then we’d talk through all of the various plots. And the one we chose to base the film on, The Far Side of the World, had a relatively linear plot, which Peter liked, and so we kind of took that as our main structure and then we’d throw in bits and pieces from other novels that we’d read, and gradually refined it down that way.
N: And that movie was nominated for Best Picture.
J: Yeah. Oh no, it got several nominations for the Oscars -
N: Or several nominations for the Oscars. What was that like?
J: It was good. It didn’t get nominated for the script, but it got nominated for everything else!
N: Ah, that’s okay.
J: Nah, that’s good. But you know, to be honest, those sort of awards, they are a big marketing thing, they’re kind of not what you…well it’s always great to be nominated and invited to these things, but they -
N: Does it make working easier?
J: It’s a bit of a circus. And to be honest the pleasure to be had from filmmaking is the collaborative thing of working with other people, so, you know, much more so than the brief moments of celebrity.
N: Yeah. Did you get to go on set? How involved were you?
J: Well, the other thing is, with big films, they become, it becomes a whole sort of a, industry…I’ll just wait till this airplane’s gone past.
N: Yes! The ahh…it’s very nice outside but also plagued by animals…
J: Animals, birds and planes.
N: Planes, yeah.
J: So yeah, what was I saying?
N: About the circus of filmmaking.
J: Oh yeah. Oh the circus of the awards ceremonies. No, the pleasure is definitely the kind of interplay of ideas and the exchanges that you have with people that you’re collaborating with, so I’d say that’s, that’s really what I do it for and it’s amazing rewarding.
N: How long did the process, was the process to write Master and Commander?
J: Again, well, again, you know, I generally say it’s always three months for a draft, and it’s generally two years somehow to produce one of these things, and there are so many accidental things that happen in the course of writing a film, you know. At one point it wasn’t going to be made at all, and then Russell Crowe sort of came on board, and then suddenly everything was possible. And you’d asked me about visiting the set and the thing about that, the larger the film, the less input you really have as a writer, so you, there’s, I mean, on Master and Commander there were 500 people involved building the lighting and running around doing important busy jobs, and the script is sort of locked off by then, so you sort of –
N: So, after the final draft you –
J: After they start filming, and they’ve scheduled the whole filming schedule and it’s very, the larger the project, the less likely they’ll be to make sudden changes. On Creation, the last film, which was a much smaller operation, I was quite heavily involved, because we had Paul Bettany again playing the lead role, and his availablility was limited, and the filming took longer than we thought and so at one point in that I had to rewrite some scenes to, in order to take some of the filming days out of the schedule. And that’s kind of interesting, stressful, but you know, good.
N: And how collaborative was Peter Weir?
J: Oh very, no, the writing –
N: He shares a screenplay credit?
J: Yeah, he did, yeah. So we, I mean the writing was very backwards and forwards you know, we’d go in and discuss it all, and we’d work it out. My own system is just to, first of all write everything on a card, you know, and you sort of stick up all the cards on a cork board and then tell each other the story, backwards and forwards through all these events in the story until finally we get a plot that we like, and then I’d write out more detail about each of these component sequences. I always think that films are made up of three-minute blocks that you can sort of tell as little short stories, events in the film. So from the cards I go and write out each of these sort of blocks as a sequence, and then I’d read it to Peter and we’d discuss each sequence. And then went off and wrote these pages of sequences into the final script. And then Peter would rework the stuff that I’d written, and backwards and forwards. And so yeah, it was, yeah.
N: I remember you saying how he wanted certain set points of waves, or something, and you needed a sequence to incorporate those sorts of things.
J: I mean, ah, he’s very, I’m very much of a structuralist, Peter is very loose in a good way, and he’s quite happy to throw things in, take things out, keeps it very loose right up until the final draft. Yeah, occasionally Peter will say ‘incorporate this,’ or ‘incorporate that’; ‘I want you to take out this character, see what happens,’ and finally we get to the version that he wants to direct. I mean, ultimately as a writer, you’re at the service of the director and the producer, you’re trying to create this version of the story that they want to make.
N: And how was your experience writing Happy Feet, with George Miller?
J: With George Miller? Oh, that was great fun as well.
N: Who’s also a doctor! A former doctor.
J: Yeah, and so when, George had seen David Attenborough’s Life in the Freezer, and was very taken with the community of penguins, Emperor penguins. And so he pitched this to me as an idea for a film. And I talked about the research thing and we got in a whole lot of Antarctic travellers and penguin experts and people, and we downloaded a whole lot of information from them, and I read a bit about penguins and then just started the script, and I worked there at George’s office in Sydney for the best part of a year doing the first draft of that script through various iterations. And finally then, went off to do Master and Commander and George and his co-directors embellished and improvised on it over the next six years, actually, a long process.
N: Oh, so you started with George Miller first.
J: Yeah, yeah. And then I came in at the end when the whole thing got a little bit sort of, out of shape, I came in at the end and did a rewrite to, this is when they’d filmed quite a lot of it in basic form, brought it all back to a more linear form again and then they revoiced some of it, and that was the film that we saw.
N: Right. Was there, was it different working with someone who has a medical background? Was that – it was just the same, working with Peter Weir or someone like that?
J: Yeah, well everyone has their own little quirks and eccentricities, but you know, they’re all, as I said at the beginning, these relationships are the great fun of working as a film writer, cos you’re not the sort of solitary artist in the garret. You’re constantly discussing, reworking, incorporating other people’s ideas, and that’s very stimulating.
N: I know you spoke once before about how Happy Feet I guess was about going from a logical or conservative environment to…can you talk more about that storyline?
J: Well you know, as I said, again, the, you constantly are bringing elements of your own life into any story that you’re writing, you’re constantly looking for the theme, you know. And George and I both had similar life trajectories, we’d both come from this rather conservative medical background, and found a kind of home and a life of –
N: Crazy town.
J: A life of bohemians, yeah. And that’s basically the story of Happy Feet. And I think George right from the beginning had seen this as a little parable of being true to your own voice, your own, following your own imaginative path, even if you feel like an exile and an outcast at first, that’s the way to go. So, yeah. And I think, and I talk about this in the course that I teach about writing, but I do believe films work on the level of parable and actually there’s usually in successful films and films that really take off there’s usually some thematic little message that resonates with people, and often it’s quite deeply hidden in the film, but that’s the thing people seize onto, and that’s what people take home from the film and reflect upon.
N: I know you’ve spoken about how film is dreamlike –
N: It’s like entering a dream. Can you expand a little bit more about that?
J: Yeah, well, film is very narrative driven, and the reason for that narrative, the reason it needs to be so kind of, effective and so immersive is you’re asking your audience to enter a kind of dream and during that dream you have the luxury of being able to plant little ideas in their heads. But the creating the dream and sustaining the dream is the real job of film writing, and when I saw the film Inception I was struck by the fact that that’s a film about filmmaking, this is what we do. You create, you get an architect and an actor and a, you know, various other experts, and together you create an environment in which people can find themselves.
N: Yeah. And that’s quite different to, I guess, writing a novel, or theatre.
J: Well, yes, in that novels are much more, novels are a, they’re less immersive and they’re more contemplative, you know, you read a novel in a different way to when you see a film. If you go to a film and you find yourself looking at your watch, then the film has failed. It has to kind of harness your attention right from the beginning, and hold you all the way through, and that’s why plotting is so important in films. The novel you can sort of editorialise, you can come out of character, you can talk a little about, you can take different view points, and the reader can put down the book go off and have a coffee, come back and reread a section, skip forward, skip back. In that way it’s a different art form. I think novels are much less plot as a result of that.
N: Can you talk a little bit about your life as a screenwriter, I suppose. How do you go about choosing projects, or when do you write your own material? Do you do things on spec, or do you only work on other people’s projects?
J: The ideal would be to only work with people you really like, and only work on projects that really resonate with you, but you know, the nature of the business is that you don’t always get to choose, you know, cos you gotta make a living. And the truth is, you can usually find something of virtue in almost anything that you do, you know, and weird projects come up and you think I’ll never be able to relate to this, but then you do a little bit of reading around it and think, oh yes, I can connect to that. I mean, Happy Feet is not a bad example, you know, when George first pitched me the notion of a film about Nazi penguins, I thought it was a completely ludricous idea. And then of course you get into it, you get into the detail of it and you go actually, no, this can be really magical. The same with the Walking with Dinosaurs movie that I wrote recently. It seemed like a fairly kind of plodding project at the beginning but then you go, wow –
N: Was that based on the stage show?
J: No, but it was based on the, on the TV documentary series from BBC. But then, part of the brief was that they didn’t want the dinosaurs to talk or to be anthropomorphized at all, so then you’ve got to make a natural history movie that plays like a silent film and work out how the kind of dance of body language actually, we’ve got a cat and a dog running around the garden here, and you can kind of tell little stories about them just from their posture, and what they’re doing, whether they’re stalking a bird or relating to each other. And the idea that then, in this dinosaurs film, that the whole plan, cos they wanted to keep it very scientifically accurate, and not to have the dinosaurs sort of emoting artificially, and of course you can’t tell a story without emotion in it, so it needs to be a film in which it’s a silent movie in which we’re projecting emotions onto these creatures who are just doing things that are intuitive and instinctual. And the way I wrote it in the end was to give the animals dialogue, and then say to the animators, here’s what they would say if they were speaking, but I want you just to act this, you know, and then work out how much dialogue –
N: So it is like a silent film in that you just have the –
J: Yeah. We’re just going to have the, here’s the meaning of the scene and here’s the emotion of the scene, and here’s the sense of how they’re relating to each other, but let’s now reverse engineer that into just something that’s completely silent, or is all done with movement. And that was a really interesting process.
N: And do you always spend three months on a project? Is that, do you have a time, when you, when they sign you up do you say, I have three months, and this is how…?
J: When they sign you up, you say, how long it’ll take to write the draft and I’ll say three months, and out of that, at least six weeks to work out the storyline and do a lot of the research, and then – really you can write a draft in two or three weeks, and then to sort of distill it down, work out where the problems are, rebuild it again, so yeah. To get a readable first draft, it usually takes about three months.
N: Do you have a writing routine?
J: I wish I did.
N: This question always fascinates me, because people never seem to be able to give me a straight answer.
J: I’m deadline driven, and the thing about giving yourself a limited amount of time to write something, and then giving yourself a schedule, okay, I have to finish the research by this time, I have to have my thirty sequences worked out by this time, and you have, again, the nice thing about the film business is that there are these deliverables. You say, okay, I’ll send you a synopsis by such and such a date, and I’ll send you a script by such and such a date, and that’s contracted. So then it’s just about, okay, if I’ve been messing around all day Saturyda, Sunday and Monday then I gotta do twice the work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. It’s just time management. And it’s especially difficult when you’re working alone. When you’re working with somebody else then there’s somebody to drive you and keep you honest, you know. When you’re on your own, of course we all take time off and potter around, and go for walks, and get diverted by things on Facebook. That’s all completely normal. So really having a schedule of what you’re going to deliver and when is the only way to keep yourself honest. And sometimes you end up working all night to get the thing finished on time, but at least you’re on it.
N: And how do you reconcile, I guess, the freeflowing-ness of the life of a writer compared to you know, having been in such a medical, sort of straight forward and – I mean, they give you your hours in medicine, you know where you’re going.
J: Sure. You know where you’re going.
N: Whereas writing, you just don’t know.
J: And the other thing that’s bizarre in writing is that you can spend a month or two month with a script and not make it better, and you can completely turn it around in a couple of days. So that’s a very bizarre thing, you know, you’ve got to get, I mean, changing from medicine to writing you’ve got to get rid of the Calvinist notion that the number of hours you spend on the job is somehow the worth of your work, cos it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re stuck on a script is to go away from it completely. I don’t mean just go on a holiday, I mean go and read around it, load up with new ideas and talk to people about it.
N: Go for a walk.
J: Yeah, or read around a subject, get a couple more books out of the library and read around the subject, charge up with new ideas. That thing of knowing of when the well of inspiration runs dry, is basically you gotta recharge your batteries, go on a journey, read a book, have a conversation. Learning that is part of the process, learning how to be a writer.
N: And how many projects do you do a year?
J: It depends, because some of them are originals, some of them are rewrites, so it depends on the minute. This year I’ll do three projects, of which two will be originals and one will be a rewrite.
N: Tell me about your original projects, I know you’re planning to direct, Black Honeymoon?
J: Yeah, yeah. So, well that’s a thriller set in Africa. We recently, I went with a producer, Martin Brown, to Tanzania where I think we’ll set it. And it’s a, yeah it’s a story about a chap who’s an American businessman who meets a woman in Paris, falls in love with her and has a whirlwind marriage, and they go off on holiday to Africa, where she disappears, and in looking for her, he thinks she’s been abducted, but in looking for her he discovers this past life that he didn’t know about. And ah, yeah, it’s a story that’s sort of been obsessing me for a while, it’s quite kind of again, Graham Greenish sort of thriller, kind of story I grew up with and really like.
N: Would you say medical thrillers are your forte?
J: No, I would say a short plot driven novel or film is my forte. But also it has to be about something and what this film ends up being about is the love of children, and I think I wanted to write a story about somebody – the man in this story doesn’t have kids, and the woman in this story, we discover, does have two young kids, which she’s had to leave behind because she was in an abusive relationship with a powerful guy in Africa, and she’s now come back to try and kidnap her children back again, and he’s just the way in which she gets back into the country again, because she needed a new passport. So it’s a story about a guy who thinks he understands love, who then meets a woman who is genuinely in love with him, but also, there’s another dimension to human affection, which is the affection you feels for your children, and he has no experience of this and so he doesn’t understand it, and so when she kind of goes off the map, he pursues her, he’s gradually drawn into this new understanding of relationships. So when you have a story which is both a thriller and a meditation on something that’s important to you, I think then you, those are the kind of projects which you should ideally always work on. And if you don’t know the story, you need to work hard on that, and if you don’t know the meaning of the story then you need to work especially hard on that, because it’s only when you find meaning or theme to the story that obsesses you, and is important to you, that anything really good will come out.
N: And that’s, this is the first project that you’re directing?
J: Well, I don’t know if I’m directing it –
N: Oh you don’t know if you’re –
J: – because it’s sort of like we’ve got a producer and we’ve got sort of, a sales agent, and we’ll try and get an agent and take it from there.
N: Right. So it’s kind of in the works.
N: Right right right. And tell me about what, the things you would suggest to someone who was starting out in the business, I mean, what kind of advice would you have?
J: Well, I would say, do something, I would say do something that is not just writing, so get some experience of life, I would say. I would also say, understand that part of the job of being a writer is being a kind of a teacher of philosophy, I think that’s what the job really is. We write stories for a reason, and the reason we write stories is to express a kind of a philosophical or political theme that’s important to us and important to the world. Unless you’re doing that you’re just basically manufacturing entertainment, and there’s no real point of that, there’s so much entertainment out there already. So if you’re going to write something meaningful, if you’re going to be a writer, then write something meaningful. And if you want to write something meaningful, you probably want to have a meaningful life first.
N: Fair enough!
J: Otherwise, what do you know of the world, you know? And the fastest way to get to that state of understanding the world is to go and do something that scares you a little bit. I have a young friend who asked me how to become a writer and I said, well just go and do something a little bit dangerous and scary and difficult, you know. And he went off – he’s a teacher – he’s now teaching in a school in Dubai, of all places. So, and Alistair writes me these emails with the most fantastic anecdotes about people he’s met and the stuff that he’s done in Dubai. So there’s a guy, I think that’s a great example of how to become a writer, just expose yourself to weird shit, you know. Suddenly he knows, a few years on, Alistair knows far more about migrant labour, Arab customs, building booms, you know, he knows about all of that stuff, and crazy Russian mafia and nightclub owners, he knows far more about that stuff than I’ll ever know. And he’s immersed in it, and he could just write it with his eyes shut because it’s all so real to him. You know, if you’re gonna be a writer you’re going to have to have a few of those experiences as your raw material, you know.
N: What about training? Do you recommend people go to classes, or writing school?
J: Well, I did this film course with Robert McKee, which was very good but it sort of only made sense to me because I’d had a go at writing prior to that, so when I was listening to Robert McKee he was sort of making sense of principles that I’d sort of discovered from trial and error. So you can’t really teach creative writing until you, unless you’re also doing creative writing, you know, once you’ve had a go at it, at writing a novel, and experienced all the problems of it, then read about how it’s done, and then suddenly all that stuff makes sense, but it’s like, you gotta do both. You gotta do the practical as well as the theoretical, and doing one without the other is kind of, a little bit, yeah, well, it’s, you don’t really know what you’re learning until you try to do it. Same with medical courses, until you’ve actually been on the wards, all the theoretical learning is sort of, well, it’s a little bit abstract and forgettable, you know?
N: Yeah. Um, I’m kind of, I guess winding up to the end of my interview slash conversation slash whatever it’s turned out to be! But I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions from Proust’s questionnaire, I don’t know if you’ve every heard of it. So I’ve got a couple of questions: if not yourself, who would you be?
J: Who would I like to be?
J: I would like to be Barack Obama.
N: Would you? Why would you like to be Barack Obama?
J: I think he’s that rare, I think he opens his mouth and sensible things come out of it. I think that’s an incredibly rare gift that I don’t have. I think he has incredible composure and dignity, and a kind of ability to encompass a lot of really complicated ideas and make sense of them. And so you know, of the statesmen in the world, he’s one of the people I most admire. But who knows, you know?
N: He might have a horrible habit we don’t know about!
J: He might have!
N: Alright. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
J: Having kids. Absolutely. No, well, it’s also you know, it’s the scariest thing you ever do because you think, this is redefining my whole life and then when you’ve done it you think, how crazy it would be not to do that. And it really is the only point of living, to procreate other little beings that are kind of ah, in some ways little echoes of you and your partner.
N: And what is your motto?
J: Oh I did have a motto. I was going to put it on my Facebook page, so edit out the gap while I just think about this.
N: Oh that’s alright, there’ll be a couple of things I edit out. I’ll probably have to edit thinking time.
J: It was…I’ll have to email you that. I did have one but I’ve forgotten it.
N: Alright, that’s cool. And maybe in place of that, what’s your greatest happiness? Or what makes you happiest?
J: I think discussions. I really, conversations with like-minded people. Yeah. Sort of, the intellectual jousting. And I think that’s where genuine creativity lies. In the kind of the way we exchange we ideas, I really think there’s a kind of creativity which is a conversation with yourself, but conversations with other people are even more interesting and surprising.
N: Definitely. That’s all I’ve got for today, so thanks for chatting to me John…