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Listen to Emma Thompson Talk Screenwriting: ‘If You Can’t Fail, You Can’t Do This Job’

Listen to Emma Thompson Talk Screenwriting: 'If You Can't Fail, You Can't Do This Job'

Thompson’s approach couldn’t have been more opposite to James Schamus’ opening lecture — a drier, university-style sermon — two days prior. The actress-screenwriter showed clips and performed a sketch-comedy monologue to supplement her inspired preamble, during which she sat writing at a desk, barefoot and in overalls, before getting up to wander the stage, stretch on a yoga mat, pull a face of tearful frustration and – to great amusement – whip out a vacuum cleaner and start suctioning the carpet.

"I think it’s good to know what the writing process is like," Thompson noted drily upon returning to engage in a boisterous conversation with screenwriter Jeremy Brock ("The Last King Of Scotland"), architect of this series. "There is lots of crying, in fetal positions."

From there, the conversation devolved broadly into three chapters: Thompson’s introduction to writing and early sketch-comedy efforts; her adaptation of Jane Austen’s "Sense And Sensibility," for which she won the 1996 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay; and "Nanny McPhee" and its sequel, her adaptations of Christianna Brand’s children’s book series. Thompson peppered the conversation with recollections, anecdotes and lashings of droll humour. It was an entertaining performance, with her actress persona in full flow, but one that didn’t stint on insight.

The first clip shown came from the subversive animated childrens’ series "The Magic Roundabout," which Thompson’s father Eric famously adapted from its French origins for British audiences. Eric’s English-language scripts bore almost no resemblance to the original story lines, and Thompson recalled watching her father as he spent hours translating "these little French films" into spectacularly absurdist entertainment, using rarefied language and situations that would sail above most youngsters’ heads (and prompted frequent complaints from unhappy parents, with Eric answering in letters laced with dry wit).

Her father had a stroke when he was 48, leaving him unable to talk and lamenting to his daughter the "dangers of language": "I’m aware of my own reliance on language and articulacy, and I’m aware of the danger in that — that you can be glib, which I have been for sure," observed Emma. "But he taught me something else. He made no concession to the fact that he was writing for children. He said, ‘Children are just people that haven’t lived as long as we have so there’s no need to talk down to them.’"

Thompson’s first writing forays came at Cambridge University, where she was part of the comedic troupe the Footlights with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Following a stab at stand-up, Thompson was rewarded with her own sketch-comedy show for the BBC in the mid-1980s. It was "a massive failure," recalled Thompson, and famously eviscerated by British critics, but a sketch shown from the self-titled show "Thompson" entitled ‘The Victorian Mouse,’ in which Emma portrays a clueless virginal Victorian housewife describing to her mother and sister (Emma’s own mother Phyllida Law and sister Sophie) a "small" appendage on her husband’s person, was genuinely delightful, revealing a skilled facility for comedic character writing that later prompted producer Lindsay Doran to seek her out for "Sense And Sensibility." "Lindsay was watching it and she thought, ‘That’s the woman I want to adapt a Jane Austen novel,’" grinned Thompson. "Go figure."

At the time, "Thompson"’s failure was devastating to her. "It was a very violent experience," she said. "After that, I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch — and I think that’s quite tragic because I really wanted to be Lily Tomlin; I wanted to be Jane Wagner and write another version of "The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe." But I tell the story with great purpose because if you can’t fail like that, you can’t do this job."

One of Thompson’s stage props turned out to be a crate containing all 17 drafts of her "Sense And Sensibility" adaptation, which Thompson penned in long-hand for the first five or six iterations before finally committing it to type. "I keep that box in the attic, along with the portrait of me which is looking fucking ropy," Thompson joked during the post-lecture Q&A session. Prior to that, she stressed Doran’s importance during the adaptation process ("everyone needs a good editor; I couldn’t write a decent screenplay without one"), the eternal question she asks herself as a writer ("What is the female hero?"), and her belief that you need to "write everything and then take out as much as you can so that what’s left really pings. I can’t explain why that works but it sometimes works in performance as well."

After screening the scene where Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood disintegrates into sobs when Hugh Grant’s character reveals he’s not married and thus free to love her, Thompson, who teared up herself watching the sequence, said, "I wrote that scene early on in the process and I never changed it because every time I read it, it made me cry. When we came to perform it, Hugh said, ‘Are you really going to do that? Are you going to cry all the way through my performance?’"

From "Sense And Sensibility," the conversation segued to Thompson’s next produced screenplay. She pitched "Nanny McPhee" to Doran after spotting Brand’s volumes on her bookshelves while she was, appropriately enough, vacuuming: "I thought, ‘Oh, I remember these books about that nanny who comes and is really frightening and ugly but by the end when they’ve learnt all their lessons, she’s very pretty. There’s something about that I really don’t like but there’s also something quite interesting and anarchic about it.’ This was long before [daughter] Gaia was born but like my father, I wasn’t writing for children, I was writing for myself."

It took Thompson nine years to fashion a screenplay she was prepared to make, and the final result, she disclosed, pays a heavy debt to one of her favorite genres: the Western. "It was hell adapting that book,” she said, before introducing a clip reel blending similar sequences from "Nanny McPhee" with the 1953 classic "Shane." After Thompson revealed her Clint Eastwood worship, and a picture of the pair at the 1993 Oscars flashed up on screen (Thompson won for "Howard’s End," Eastwood for "Unforgiven"), Brock pointed out her father’s provenance in influencing Thompson’s approach to "Nanny McPhee". "My dad was always about writing for people," she concurred. "Children watch films again and again and you don’t want the adults who are being forced to watch it with them to want to drown themselves or open a vein."

Concluding the conversational part of her lecture, Thompson cited a quotation by choreographer Agnes de Mille: "’Living is a form of not being sure; not knowing what next or how. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.’ Good, that."

During the audience Q&A, Thompson dispensed no-nonsense advice to aspiring screenwriters. "You have to be sure, if you can, that your screenplay is good," she remarked to a query from one writer about how to get their script made. "Sometimes what we write isn’t very good – sometimes what I write isn’t very good – and I do think it’s worth remembering that… Most of the screenplays I’ve written have not been made. And the ones that haven’t been made I’ve worked very hard on, believed in and loved. I’ve handed them in and somebody, years later, has made it with a different script and said, ‘Oh yeah, we just left yours.’ I don’t get very well treated as a writer either. So that’s comforting."

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Comments

rgm

Wonderfully amusing précis of Thompson’s BAFTA/BFI screenwriting lecture.

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