Wednesday 1 June 2011

Christopher Hampton: On adaptations and why it can take 21 sets of revisions to make a soufflé

Christopher Hampton is best known for Dangerous Liaisons, which won him an Oscar for his adaptation of his play, but across film, television and theatre he has more than 50 credits to his name. 15 of his screenplays have been filmed, including Atonement, for which he was nominated for another Oscar, and he has also directed three features himself, is the author of 10 plays, and the translator of many others, including Yasmina Reza’s Art.

But as is quite usual in the film industry, many of his projects haven’t been filmed, although his success rate of one in three is, in fact, very high. Greatly in demand as an adaptor, his screenplays for unfilmed, but perhaps yet to be filmed, projects include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, on which he spent a year working with David Lean.

With CHÉRI, Hampton reteamed with Dangerous Liaisons director Stephen Frears and star Michelle Pfeiffer. Based on the novel by Colette, it’s set in pre-First World War Paris and is a lightly told tale of the doomed love affair between a retired courtesan and the 19-year-old son of a friend of hers. Here Hampton discusses the art and craft of adaptations and why it can take 21 sets of script revisions to make a soufflé.

How did the film CHÉRI come about?
I’d always loved Colette’s writing and had been preparing a project about her early life, but the producer of the project, Lester Persky, died and the project never advanced. Later a friend suggested that I adapt one of her novels instead and CHÉRI had always been my favourite. It’s one of the classic stories about how people don’t quite understand what love entails. These characters on the face of it aren’t particularly sympathetic: Léa is a retired wealthy courtesan and Chéri is the rich layabout son of another courtesan, but what’s very poignant is the slow dawning in both of them that they find something they weren’t quite expecting. And in the case of Chéri it’s going to mark the rest of his life.

Stephen Frears is noted as a director who likes to have the writer on set.
Oh, he absolutely insists! The one film that we’ve done together where I wasn’t on set with him was MARY REILLY and he was extremely grumpy about it.

What’s the nature of your collaboration with Frears?
It’s very close. He endlessly refines the script. He’s always saying, “I don’t think this scene is quite working,” which makes you think about what would improve it. So when people ask me “What are you doing on set?” the answer is “21 sets of revisions”.

The film uses voice-over from a narrator. Was that always intended or added later?
When we showed an early cut to an audience our sense was that they were a bit baffled about the world in which these people moved. The demi-monde of Paris before the First World War is largely a forgotten world where people had enormous wealth and no overbearing fears. It occurred to us that the period wasn’t really established. Then once we did the opening voice-over we quite liked the tone of it and started to add it at various junctures throughout the film.

The final moment in the film does a striking thing by giving a major piece of information in voice-over.
That occurred to me very late on and at first I thought: “No, I can’t do that.” Then the following day I woke up and thought, “It’s not a bad idea.” I told Stephen and he said: “Oh, you can’t do that.” Then the next morning he woke up and he too thought that it was quite a good idea.

That’s Stephen Frears himself doing the voice-over, isn’t it?
Yes. It started off in quite a casual way as a rough guide in the cutting room. But he did it rather well, so we took it from there.

With his slightly plummy accent and jaunty tone it reminded me of Carol Reed doing the voice-over at the beginning of THE THIRD MAN.
Yes, we certainly had that in our minds.

Is there a general approach that you have to adaptations?
No, although usually at some stage I write a digest of each chapter and what strikes me. Gradually you start to get an architecture. And you work out which scenes you need to fill out and which you can cut.

And what about CHÉRI in particular?
Colette turns out to be very difficult to adapt. That impressionistic style is deceptively easy on the page. Stephen and I both found that CHÉRI was one of the most difficult projects we’d worked on. To find the tone and stick to it was one of the hardest things to do. It’s nice that a lot of the reviews have said that the film is like a glass of champagne or a soufflé, but it didn’t bloody well feel like a soufflé when we were doing it.

Has any project felt like a soufflé when you were making it?
Yes, DANGEROUS LIAISONS was an absolute laugh a minute! We all had a wonderful time. But with CHÉRI there was a lot of head-scratching, thinking: “What’s the best way of doing this scene.”

Do you aim to write a set number of pages a day?
Yes, though it generally accelerates as you go. I tend to start fairly slowly but by the time I get to the end I can do 10 pages a day if I can see exactly where I’m going. It’s usually the case that I spend longer before I start writing than I actually do writing.

Do you revise as you go?
I tend to look at yesterday’s stuff and rewrite bits. The hard work is always between the first draft and the finished article. It’s very hard to work out what works and doesn’t and why.

And then there’s the matter of incorporating other people’s ideas.
Absolutely, although I’m fairly stubborn. But I really am open to the kind of work that I do with Stephen. With him it’s largely instinctive. He’ll say, “There should be something extra here or maybe there’s too much here.” And then it’s just a case of arguing it out or thinking it through.

You write by hand.
Yes, then somebody else types it into Final Draft for me and I can jiggle about with it on that.

Are there things that frustrate you about your writing?
Scenes with lots of characters are very difficult, but they can be very satisfying. Also, I’ve tended to quote Harold Pinter who when asked to write a few scenes showing the couple happy together in THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN said, “I don’t do happy.” I find happy quite hard to do too.

Is that because a happy scene might be lacking in tension?
I suppose so.

It’s a moving moment when Chéri sees that Léa has returned and for the first time he happily takes his wife to bed. It’s an interesting mix.
Those are precisely the things that people would tend to cut. A lot of people would ask: why is he waiting for her to come back and as soon as she does, he goes back to his wife? The answer is, if you don’t understand the psychological accuracy of it, I can’t help you. It’s a script editor culture we live in where people always want explanations underlined. They’re anxious that someone somewhere won’t understand and will have a question. In my view, if people have a question, that’s a good sign, because it makes you think.

Do you ever still write on spec?
Yes, but not very often. It sometimes takes quite a long time to write a script and it’s rather heartbreaking to spend a year on something and then it doesn’t get made.

You’ve had about one in three of your scripts made, which is a very high rate. But how do you feel about others that haven’t been, such as The Secret History and Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country?
I have varying degrees of hope for my other scripts, depending on the project. Sometimes things take a long time. CARRINGTON took 18 years and IMAGINING ARGENTINA took 14 to get made.

Your work on screen and stage is mainly characterised by adaptations or is about real people. Why is that?
I feel I have more of a talent for that than for fiction. Fiction’s really hard. A lot of my projects do have to do with things that really happened, with real life.

You said that film is more like a novel than a play.
Yes, I’m not sure whether it’s true or not but it seemed to be true when I said it. Film and the novel share the close-up, as well as a fluidity and the fact that at the end they’re immovable objects, whereas theatre is different every night.

Despite this, in Britain it is writers who began as playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Ronald Harwood and you who are asked to adapt major books for cinema.
That’s an indication that theatre is the most difficult form of all. I guess that if you can get through an evening in the theatre without boring the audience then you’re likely to be able to do it in the cinema.

You’re now adapting John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for Hollywood.
And when they first asked me I said: “Are you out of your minds?”

Because of the place the James Dean film has in people’s memories?
Yes. And in my memory too, as it’s one of my favourite films. I hadn’t read the novel until now but the James Dean film only deals with the final sixth of the book. In the novel the main characters are the earlier generation to Dean’s character. So, I’ve got to about page 100 in the script and the character played by James Dean has only just arrived. I think the real reason that the earlier film didn’t address more of the novel was that the material, such as running a brothel, was just beyond the pale in the 1950s. Then when director Elia Kazan found James Dean I think he had the idea of putting Dean’s character at the centre of the story. But we’re doing something completely different.

Lastly, do you have any words for aspiring screenwriters?
It’s more difficult now for new writers because the doors are guarded by those people trying to homogenise everything. And therefore writers with a stubborn or original streak, which you must have, are finding it even harder. So, firstly, patience. Secondly, cultivate a thick skin because people are going to say very hard things about you. And thirdly, I’m afraid there’s no substitute for perseverance.

April 2009. First published in movieScope Magazine

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