Thursday, April 12, 2012

Screenwriter Interview - Simon Beaufoy

This is a very exciting moment for me because I’m interviewing my first OSCAR WINNER. Simon Beaufoy wrote 2008’s Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire. He also wrote The Full Monty and 127 Hours. But the reason I wanted to interview Simon was because of his new film, “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen,” which is a script I read a long time ago and loved! It’s one of those movies all screenwriters should seek out because it’s just really well written. – My relationship with Simon is funny. I think he both loves me and hates me. Loves me for my review of “Salmon Fishing” and hates me for my review of “127 Hours.” But even after that unflattering review, he still agreed to an interview! I love me some Simon Beaufoy!

SS: Simon, thank you for stopping by our community here on Scriptshadow. Now I chatted with you once a long time back and you mentioned you’d visited the site. Have you since recovered from this visit? Don’t tell me you actually came back in the meantime.

SB: I remember there was an outbreak of brickbats (what ARE brickbats, really?) on your site round the time 127 Hours was about to be released. I love the passion of the contributors to the site even if I am sometimes dumbfounded by the certainty of opinion of people who haven't even seen a film or read the script, but still feel they have a valid point of view....A forum for screenwriters can only be a dangerous thing for a species who live in the dark and eat only bananas and chocolate. But dangerous is usually good.

SS: Let’s jump right into your newest film, Salmon Fishing. As you already know, I loved this script. So let me ask you this. Was it a difficult script to write? And if so, what was the most difficult thing about it?

SB: Thanks for loving the script. You're a generous soul. People assume that because the entire novel was made up of emails, interviews, diary entries and news reports (an epistolary novel) that finding a structure was the most difficult part of adapting it. But actually, the most difficult part of this particular adaptation was cracking the problem that this was essentially a love triangle with one of the three people in the triangle absent. Film doesn't like absence much- whereas in novels, that's fine. I had to do some radical things to the original novel to address this complication.

SS: When you sat down to write it – or really when you sit down to write any script – what is the single most important thing that you need to get right? What story element gets all of your focus and why?

SB: The single most difficult element to get right when I sit down to write is the strength of the coffee. Everything else is secondary. I rarely get it right and it puzzles me endlessly. Same coffee, same amount of water, different taste each day. Why? It definitely tastes better in a white cup, but still, something is going on that I can't get to the bottom of.

Tone is most hard to keep uniform throughout a script. Especially when adapting a novel. The tone is one of the few things I promise to keep the same as the original material- character being the other, though the two tend to be interwoven anyway. Everything else is up for grabs, usually. There's no intrinsic merit in a 'faithful adaptation' as far as I can see. The very reasons why a novel might be incredibly successful as a novel are often the very opposite of what might make it a good film. There's no intrinsic merit in a 'faithful adaptation' as far as I can see. There is merit in turning a wonderful idea with wonderful characters into a wonderful film.

SS: Let me ask you this because it’s a problem I’ve personally dealt with and I know other screenwriters who love these kinds of movies deal with. When you write something like Raiders or Pirates, movies with big concepts where the characters are always on the move trying to achieve things, it’s fairly easy to keep the story moving (as the concept practically moves it along for you). But it’s different when you write a character piece with a lot more talking and a lot more character development. What’s the key, in your opinion, to making these movies move along quickly? How do you prevent them from becoming slow and boring?

SB: I've never written one of those huge movies, so I'm not even sure I understand the problem you are suggesting. I am self-taught, mostly by the Landmine School of Education. I've never read a How To book on screenwriting. I work instinctively, from the first principle of my process (and life) that plot comes from character, not the other way round. So interesting people do interesting things. If the story is boring, you're at the wrong party. Sometimes I've found my narrative slowing up and I usually find the answer is that the main character has become passive, has stopped doing and is being done to. With some notable exceptions (can't actually think of any right!) passive main characters don't work in films. It's like driving with the parking brake on.

SS: For me, the thing that always sticks out the most in your movies are your characters. Can you give us your process for character-building? What is the key to writing a great character in your opinion? 

SB: Authenticity. Is the story of a man spending his life tracking down a beautiful woman in a city of twenty million indians- via a gameshow- true? No. Do you believe it? Weirdly, yes. That's authenticity.

SS: Now it’s been over a year since I read the script, but if I remember correctly, Fred, the main character, is a rather prickly sort. When you write characters that are in danger of coming off as unsympathetic to the audience, are you conscious of that? And if so, what do you do to endear them to the audience more so that they root for them? 

SB: Fred is not at all likeable for a good deal of the script. That's the point, really. But we see the possibility of a kind, funny person trapped inside a dull shell, too scared to be the person he could be. And we want him to succeed. Many years ago, Alfred Uhry read a treatment of mine for another film and had only one question: "do we like him?" I answered with all sorts of clever stuff about how he was a complicated, layered person at a crossroads in his life, blah blah and he just repeated the question: "do we like him?" It took a long time to really understand the simple and perfect beauty of that question. It really is that simple and that complicated. Do we like Fred? He's spectrum autistic, rude, humourless, apparently passionless. But in a moment of weakness (as far as he's concerned) he reveals his care and love for Harriet by making her a duck sandwich. And in that moment, ridiculously, we like him. After that, anything's possible.

SS: Another thing I’ve noticed about your work is that your movies tend to have strong themes. Since theme is such an elusive term in the craft of screenwriting (it seems like everyone I talk to has a different take on it), could you give us your personal definition of it and how you use it to craft your stories?

SB: Theme....what a strange question.

SS: I'm a very strange person.

SB: Of course the work has themes. Every film that is more than an anecdote has themes: it's what underpins everything that aspires to being more than the newspaper that wraps up the takeaway fish and chips. How can you inspire, worry, uplift, depress, piss off people without themes? It is part of the architecture that keeps the building up.

SS: As long as I’m picking your brain about all these tough screenwriting issues, I’d be dumb not to bring up the Second Act Black Hole – This is, of course, the last 30 or so pages of the second act where most screenplays go to die. How do you tackle the Black Hole? What do you focus on to keep the script moving until you get to that 3rd act?

SB: Thanks for flagging up a previously unknown ailment. I'm sure I'll forever after have Second Act Black Hole syndrome now. I'd no idea they existed. Until now. There are slow bits. I end up cutting them. Or actually, I usually amalgamate them into another scene. It's a good game to see if you can squeeze two scenes into one. It usually works and usually makes the remaining scene much juicier.

SS: You’ve been in the business for almost 20 years now. Can you give us a couple of the most important lessons you’ve learned about screenwriting in that time? Your big “Ah-Ha!” moments?

SB: There's only one that I really stick to now that I feel I've discovered it (the hard way). Your main character needs to be active, not passive, needs to be driving the story. Film is a kinetic medium- it's not called the movies for nothing. Keep your central character moving, discovering, learning.

SS: You’ve obviously worked closely with Danny Boyle on a number of projects. What are some of the things you’ve learned from him that have made you a better writer? 

SB: I learned 9) from Danny. I'd suspected as much for a long time. But there's no way you can have a passive character with Danny. He doesn't understand the word. His film making embodies the potential of the camera to move around subjects, time, characteristics, places.

SS: What would you tell all the screenwriters out there who are trying to break in? What’s the one piece of advice you’d want them to know? 

SB: See 9. And add the need for authenticity. It's only my opinion, but without authenticity, I switch off. I know I'm at a movie. I want to be IN the movie.

SS: Okay so you gotta tell me. What’s it like winning an Oscar and walking up on that stage? Was it the coolest thing ever? Can you please give me a play by play of what was going on in your head as it happened?!

SB: I can't remember a thing about it. Only the bar backstage afterwards. Utterly silent and empty and stocked with everything in the world- as far as my blasted brain could process- including a barman who calmly said, "congratulations, sir, what can I get you?" I had a Martini and sat there entirely on my own for five minutes, thinking, "what the hell just happened?"