A lesson in screenwriting from Sir Tom Stoppard
This week I was lucky enough to have a lesson in screenwriting from Sir Tom Stoppard. Not literally, you understand: he did an interview in front of a live audience to raise awareness of the charity Open Cinema, which gives homeless people access to film and film making. But for me, it was a masterclass.
Sir Tom made me feel that this screenwriting thing is possible.
If the name is familiar, but you can’t quite place it, Sir Tom Stoppard is one of Britain’s most influential playwrights, and the writer of Brazil, Empire of the Sun and Shakespeare in Love, for which he won the Academy Award.
How can such a great writer make a beginner like me – a late starter at that – feel that writing is possible?
There’s a theory of creativity that’s a bit Star Wars: it’s a force that you channel though you. Your job as the artist or writer is to get your ego out of the way, humble yourself before the force and let the work be what it’s meant to be. When Michelangelo said that every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it, he was subscribing to this theory.
But there’s no escaping the fact that all art takes skill. If you’re serious about being any sort of creative, you must be prepared to knuckle down and learn the craft. And there’s nothing mystical or spiritual about that. It’s all about graft.
And then there’s the ‘message’ question. Does – or should – a writer or artist set out to change the world? Does the theme reveal itself in the work?
As if that’s not enough to grapple with, there’s the reality of market forces and the demands of the industries that both fund your art and provide a channel through which your art finds it audience. Do you take a purist approach and refuse to listen to anything but your muse? Do you bow to the whims of the market and shape your craft to the latest vampire-wizard-teen sex romp meme? Do the former and you risk being Van Gogh, unappreciated and therefore impoverished but if you do the latter you risk producing tripe – and still being unappreciated and impoverished.
Sir Tom demonstrated the humour – in the archaic sense of the word (although he is well known for his wit) – necessary to balance these competing and contradictory demands. Passionate about his work and the industry without being excitable (I tend to confuse the two), at seventy-three he is still clearly enchanted by the possibilities of his chosen profession. He railed against what he described as ‘the mayfly existence’ of good films in the current environment, saying (to resounding applause) that the centre of gravity of the industry has shifted to ‘advanced technique in the service of arrested development’.
But at the same time, he’s philosophical about the impact that has on his writing. He told how on Russia House, he felt the real drama was in the tension between the CIA and MI6 but that the marketing department wanted Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer to get together. He said this calmly and without rancour; it’s just the way things are.
At the same time, he was unequivocal when asked if working with a superstar director like Spielberg or on a project like Shakespeare in Love, where a draft existed that was receiving a lot of interest, altered his process or approach. His answer? No. He doesn’t think about anything but what he wants to see on the page. Similarly, he was adamant there are no sacred cows, that you cannot be overawed by anything: his decision to direct the film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was largely driven from a sense he was the only person who wouldn’t be intimidated by the play’s status as a modern classic.
By the time Stoppard started writing screenplays he was already a celebrated playwright, so his craft was, arguably highly developed. Yet when he was not available on set for Empire of the Sun, another writer was brought in. When Stoppard re-joined the crew, he couldn’t tell what difference the writer had made. Kathleen Kennedy told Stoppard the other writer had done two very important things: the crew cut and the leather jacket adopted by Christian Bale’s character. Stoppard told how he realised that the things that he thought he was good at – the ‘timber of the narrative structure’ and the dialogue – were not necessarily the most important contribution.
Stoppard’s works are generally regarded as having depth – meaning if you like – and the audience pressed him to admit this was important. He gently refused, saying that theatre (and film) “is first and foremost a recreation. There’s no pressing need to force people into the same room to hear a message.” He went on to say that the impulse to gather people together to hear a story goes back so far there’s no question of trying to shanghai that in service of polemics, finishing “no one would object to a work having subtext or supertext but the point is, is it engrossing?”
My takeaway from all that is this: the job of the writer is to craft an engrossing story. To do that, all other considerations must be pushed aside and you must dedicate yourself to the task of honing your craft so that you can do that.
But bringing that story to the screen (or to the market) is another matter. Once you have your story, you must allow those who’ve honed their skills in that arena to shape the work, and respect their role. You can learn from this process and refine your craft accordingly, but every time you sit down, pen in hand, keyboard at the ready, your only concern should be ‘is this an engrossing story?”.
To me, that’s an incredibly clear brief, and that brings this mountain down to a size I feel I can scale.