Interview with David Hare: Screenwriter of The Reader and The Hours
“When I talk to the young I say, ‘Things are always worth trying.’ I don’t think there’s anything more exciting in life than discovering a gift you didn’t know you had. And it might have gone undiscovered.”
About David Hare
Heralded as a playwright, screenwriter, and director, Sir David Hare has enjoyed a professional career that has stretched across more than 40 years. His time in the theater has been marked by several triumphs, including Plenty, The Blue Room, and Stuff Happens, and in 2011 he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for his thought-provoking and politically engaging oeuvre. Hare’s transition to film began in earnest in the 1980s when he wrote and directed Wetherby (1985), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Paris by Night (1988), and Strapless (1989). But a growing dissatisfaction with his films inspired him to refocus on theater, where he wrote his celebrated trilogy of plays about British life—Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges, and The Absence of War—in the early 1990s. Thankfully, Hare returned to screenplays with his terrific script for Louis Malle’s Damage (1992), a portrait of obsessive, doomed love based on Josephine Hart’s novel. More recently, he has received Academy Award nominations for his adapted screenplays for The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008), which won, respectively, Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet the Oscar for Best Actress. He also worked to adapt author Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel, The Corrections, into a feature film. His plays Plenty and The Secret Rapture have been adapted into films, and in 2011 he wrote and directed the conspiracy thriller Page Eight, which starred Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Gambon.
“I only went into the theater because it was impossible to go into the cinema. Cinema in the 1960s, particularly in Europe, was the most exciting art form, but British cinema was going through one of its many collapses. And so I started a traveling theater company, and I was the director of it. One day, somebody failed to deliver a play—it was a Wednesday, and we had nothing to rehearse for the following Monday—so I sat down and wrote a one-act play, How Brophy Made Good, which we then started rehearsing. But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. For many years, I just thought of myself as a director who wrote.
That first play wasn’t very good—I was 22, it was terrible. But then the most famous producer on the West End—Michael Codron, who had produced Joe Orton and Peter Nichols and Harold Pinter—commissioned me to write a full-length play. I stumbled into an ability I didn’t know I had. It was just chance. When I talk to the young I say, “Things are always worth trying.” I don’t think there’s anything more exciting in life than discovering a gift you didn’t know you had. And it might have gone undiscovered. It might be for tending a garden beautifully. Or it might be for making a nice pair of curtains. But you don’t know until you’ve tried, and it’s always worth trying.
Even though my first play was no good, when I handed it to the actors they looked at the dialogue, and I knew they were thinking, “Oh, this is fine, I can say this.” I’d been a literary manager, so I’d read a lot of plays. It’s like a chef in a restaurant—when the plate is put before you, you know whether it’s edible or not. And it was exactly the same thing when I wrote a page of dialogue—it looked like a page of dialogue. That’s harder than it seems. And actors immediately went, “Oh great, if I say this, I can there’s this conservative politician . . .” And within about two sentences he’d say, “What sort of person is he? Why is he doing that?” He’d just ask questions. And so maybe by lunchtime we had got through about six scenes, and it would be really solid. Then the next day, he’d get up and say, “Tell me the story of the film.” And I’d try and pick up where I left off the day before, and he’d say, “No, no, you’ve got to go back to the beginning.” And this went on for about 10 days. By the end of that process, I could tell the story of Damage in about 20 minutes. He said, “Well, you’ve done the hard work now—you’ve written the film. Just go and hang some dialogue on it.” It was an incredible way to write. And writing the dialogue only took me a few weeks, because the story was already completely laid out. It was the most severe way that I’ve ever worked on structure, but it was also the best way ever of writing a film. It does drive you absolutely mad—you just think, “Oh, I’m going insane.” But that’s when I began to realize why my own films were so bad: I’d never subjected them to this narrative test and created such a taut string on which you could just hang the pearls.
If my life in the cinema has been about anything, it’s been about introducing subject matter that is not normally seen in mainstream films. During The Hours, director Stephen Daldry and I did our very best not to use the word “lesbianism” or “suicide,” but ultimately, that’s what that film is about. And if you start thinking about movies about lesbianism or suicide that have played in multiplexes, there are actually very few. I’ve written plays about aid to the Third World, the Chinese Revolution, the privatization of the railways, the diplomatic process leading up to the Iraq War. These are not regular mainstream subjects, but what I want to do is get this kind of subject matter into the mainstream. That’s the first thing that draws me to a movie.
People who disdain my movies tend to complain about them having “messages,” and implicitly say how much they prefer what they call “pure” entertainment. Well, I’m all for good entertainment—I wish there were some in the mainstream cinema. But so much of the stuff that’s presented to us, I don’t find very entertaining. Do I want my films to have some content? Yes, I would prefer that. But this idea that my films have “messages”? To me, it’s just a nonsensical line of argument. You know, who are these tender flowers, these sort of overprotected people, who just feel that they’re going to wither if anybody brings content to them? I’m bewildered by this line of argument. So many great American films are full of content. But now there’s this extraordinary delicacy that everybody has developed lately, as if they’re not hardy enough to be able to withstand a plot with something urgent to say.
After Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for The Hours and Kate Winslet won an Oscar for The Reader, I got a lot of telephone calls from actresses saying, “Oh, I understand you’re the man who writes films that win actresses Oscars.” And I had to explain to them, “You know, Nicole Kidman won the Oscar for The Hours.” If she hadn’t played it, the actress playing it would not have won. Same with Kate Winslet. It’s not the part, it’s the actor. The idea that I write these parts that are a free pass to winning an Oscar is nonsense. I just happen to have worked with two very great actresses.
I don’t have any insights into how to write Oscar-winning roles—I only know how to write good parts, but that’s completely different. That’s something I developed. My first play I had in the West End was called Knuckle, and there was a part of a barman in it. The barman had to say, “Do you want a drink?”—that sort of thing. The actor was sitting around in the dressing room all evening just to say that. And I thought, “I’m never going to do that again—I’m never going to get people along for something that isn’t worth playing.” And so now, I look at every character and think of it from the actor’s way around: “Is this worth it? Is there going to be something in this to play?” I mean, everybody in Page Eight remarked to me how incredible that cast was. They all came because the parts were worth playing. And that’s because I thought about the structure of their parts—even if they only last three scenes. Gary Oldman did a film of mine, and he said, “I did it for this one line that I just knew I wanted to say.” And so what you’re trying to do is give actors something that they go, “Oh yeah, I’d really want to do this—this gives me something extra.”
Lately I’ve seen some absolutely appalling films where actors have obviously been allowed to improvise their own dialogue. You know, when Mike Leigh improvises, it takes him three months. When John Cassavetes improvised, it took him six months. And yet, now I regularly go to the cinema and see films where the actors have plainly improvised on the spot. You can feel the whole film sag when it happens. Last month I saw the dramatic climax of a film where the actor’s line in response to the film’s principal revelation was, “Wow, hey, that’s a real slap in the face.” Now, no writer has written that line— you can tell the actor has improvised it. And this foolish director imagines the line is more authentic for the fact that it’s the first line an actor can think of on the day. You can only say in response, “Get a professional,” because a writer will spend a week working on what that line should be. And they will know as much about writing as the actor knows about acting. The whole notion that an actor saying the first thing that comes into his or her head somehow delivers authenticity is a complete misunderstanding of what art is.
I was asked during previews of the musical of The Lion King to rewrite it. They said to me, “The dialogue is very bad, and you’re very good at dialogue, right?” And I said, “Nobody is listening to the dialogue in this thing. That’s not what it’s about.” I saw the musical, and it was dazzling, but the dialogue is not important—it’s only there to express what’s going on. If a lion cub wants to go back to its dad, then “I must return to my father” is a perfectly reasonable line. I can’t come up with a better line than that. I can’t make something happen between those lines that’s not happening anyway. The audience will be perfectly satisfied with that line. It may not be the greatest line ever written, but it’s doing the job you want it to do. Good dialogue is not something that you slap arbitrarily on top of a narrative: Good dialogue is the expression of good ideas and complex feelings. It grows out of ideas, it isn’t decoration you add at the last minute.
I’m very pleased with Page Eight, but my only regret is that it’s genre. I’ve been trying to avoid genre all my life. I think it’s the death of cinema. Nearly all the interesting work these days is from people defying genre. I’ve tried hard to avoid genre because the audience know the game so well. They know more about Joseph Campbell’s writings than the screenwriters do—they’ve read all that stuff about character arcs and journeys and all that mythic nonsense. They know the hero’s setting out to find the holy fucking ring or grail or goat’s foot or whatever it is. They can see the strategies coming a mile off—they know that in reel 10 the hero will face an insuperable problem, and they know that in reel 11 he will overcome it. Why write it?
Corrections not being made. I was on it for 23 drafts. I think the problem was that there was nothing for a director to do but shoot it. Jonathan Franzen has a huge personality—and I don’t have a small personality—and by the time we had got what we wanted as a feature film, there wasn’t anything for any director to do except turn up and shoot it. That’s all they had to do. And now, of course, nobody will do that—that’s out of fashion. They all want to say, “What is my unique creative input going to be into this?” To which the answer was, “I’m already taking up a lot of room, Jonathan Franzen is taking up the other side of the bed, and there isn’t room for three people in this bed. Just shoot the fucker.” Director Stephen Frears is famous for the fact that he regards the script as the thing that he’s just there to deliver, but that is not how most Hollywood film directors talk today. And so ultimately I think that’s why it wasn’t made. A part of me died when I lost all that work.
I think that my interest in writing came from— not a lonely childhood, but I suppose a solitary childhood. I was born 60 miles from London by the sea in a town, Bexhill, with the oldest average age in the country. It was just full of old-age pensioners, and it really was the most boring place on Earth. So I had the classic provincial childhood—exactly that kind of solitariness that fires the imagination. And it’s left me for the rest of my life grateful that I’m not in Bexhill. Life has always seemed to me incredibly enjoyable and interesting because it’s not Bexhill. But there’s no doubt that I dreamed very powerfully from such a background. I mean, come on—suburban setting, semi-detached, it’s a classic writer’s background. The theater and the cinema were very, very glamorous to me.
And they still are. I still get an incredible kick out of walking past a cinema and seeing my name on there. That sense that I’m incredibly privileged and lucky to be doing what I’m doing has stayed with me. I’m 64 now, and I still get thrilled at the sight of a marquee because I can’t believe it’s happened to me.”
Excerpt for FilmCraft: Screenwriting by Tim Grierson © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.