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‘A Most Wanted Man’ Screenwriter Andrew Bovell on the Harsh Realities of Writing Scripts

'A Most Wanted Man' Screenwriter Andrew Bovell on the Harsh Realities of Writing Scripts

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The BAFTA BFI Screenswriter’s Series continued on Friday evening with Andrew Bovell. Known in the industry as a “screenwriter’s screenwriter,” the Australian playwright has penned novels such as “The Rain
Stops Falling” and adaptations such as “Lantana,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “The Secret River,” “Edge of Darkness” and “A Most Wanted
Man.”

Like Nick Hornby, who kicked off the BFI Series two days prior, Bovell began the evening launching into a conversation with a point that most screenwriters can easily identify with: Not being recognized.

Bovell hilariously told the audience how he goes through a dilemma every time he travels by taxi: To lie or not to lie about his profession. He goes back and forth in his head if he should tell the truth, which will inevitably set the cabbie off into a “I’ve never heard of that one, but good for you” speech.

It seems that Bovell is well-aware of the unglamorous side of the film industry, specifically his line of work. He said, “Sometimes, I wish I was a landscape
gardener out in the sun all day, in a garden.
Instead of a dark office, with the blinds
drawn, the only source of light coming from
the laptop screen. Empty coffee cups. The
crusts of yesterday’s sandwich. Unpaid bills.
Notes scrawled on pieces of paper. And a
line of emails reminding me that the draft
was due last month.”

He continued to explain why he is so invested in his profession: “Our job is just to tell a bloody good story
with a damn good crisis and a redemptive
ending, preferably with more than one
action sequence. In other words, get over
yourself.” His words of advice to simply accomplish the objective at hand echoes the style of films he helps create.

Bovell also told aspiring screenwriters the importance of knowing the nature of their role acutely before he or she gets into writing scripts. “Your job is to serve the
director’s vision and to help to make a
bloody good movie which makes as much
money as possible.
Art versus commerce — it is one of the great tensions in what we do,” he said.” “Are they opposites and enemies or can
great cinema be a fusion of the two?” 

He was able to speak so passionately on the subject because his self-esteem has been rattled by the industry on a number of occasions. He recounted a story where in the midst of chain-smoking to no end out of stress, the producers of “Edge of Darkness” called him with soul-crushing news: He was going to be replaced by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Departed.” At the time he had been working on “Edge of Darkness” for five years, and he recalled how it had “dominated” his life and the life of his family.

READ MORE: Nick Hornby Kicks Off BAFTA and BFI Screenwriter’s Lecture Series With Honest Discussion About His Place in Hollywood

Thankfully for Bovell, Hollywood changed in his favor just weeks later. Monahan was signed on to “Americanize” the script, and Bovell was kept on. However grateful Bovell was to stay signed onto the project, that didn’t stop him from feeling low. Telling himself over and over that “these things happen to Hollywood writers” made Bovell depressed when he would look out of his office window. Feeling far removed from where the real decisions of what was to come of his script and his livelihood became an everyday occurrence for Bovell, and he warned screenwriters that it is a feeling they should get used to.

Along the lines of giving up control to Hollywood, Bovell said that when he was reeling from the news that his script needed help, he thought to himself, “Maybe this hot-shot Oscar-winning
writer will come on and iron out the rough
patches and give it a Hollywood shine. And
at the same time I’m thinking it’s the rough
patches that make this screenplay what it is
and Hollywood shine is the very thing I have
fought against through the last seven drafts.”

At the same time, Bovell understands that being an outsider to Hollywood is also one of his greatest strengths; Troy Kennedy Martin first approached Bovell to turn his BBC Series, “Edge of Darkness,” into a film because he was “someone outside of the Hollywood system
who wouldn’t be a slave to plot and genre and
who could write fucking good dialogue.”

READ MORE: Film Review – ‘Edge of Darkness’

When asked to describe how he pens such good dialogue, he claimed, “Often the best dialogue simply frames the
moment. Writing a screenplay is about
creating the space for an actor to fill. The
camera is at its most revealing in the spaces
between what is said, in the silence and
stillness of the moments in between.
And of more and more interest to me as a
writer is not what a character says but their
struggle to say it. Their search for meaning in
the words and actions they use to describe
their world. Not so much what they convey
but their failure to convey it.
That’s art.”

Words that stun are Bovell’s specialty. It seems that pure talent is the only sure ticket to success for a foreigner to the industry like he was. He said when he was pitching “Edge of Darkness” to MGM, he knew he had it. “I could see it in their faces. I had
clinched the job not because I impressed
them with my understanding of structure or
genre or the politics of the piece but
because I understood the emotional terrain
of the film. I understood the emotional
experience that would be given to the
audience, and that’s what they wanted.
That emotional understanding.”

Hollywood’s interest in finding people like Bovell to tell real human stories was made all the more evident when he realized what kind of place Los Angeles truly was. He recalled that he quickly learned that there are “two versions of Los Angeles” — the Los
Angeles he was seeing out the window — black,
Mexican and Hispanic and poor — and the
Los Angeles of the film industry — white and
very, very rich. It made sense for him to try and break through in the industry because he felt so strongly that if he could cut out the phony nature of Hollywood, just in some small way through his writing, he would consider himself a success.

Bovell offered aspiring Hollywood screenwriters even more frank words of warning when he spoke about the accountability a writer has to know with his or her subjects and intentions. “They
are paying you a lot of money because you
are expected to be the one who knows…
they are paying you for your expertise.
And as the writer you have to know what the
problem is and what the solution is,” he said.

“Of
course you always listen to those you trust in
the process, particularly the director and
the producer.
But my advice to writers working in
Hollywood is to never go into a meeting
without being ready to lay the solution on
the table,” Bovell continued. “They are paying you for your ideas
and you better have them. Never allow a
void to open up around your script because
a lot of people in Hollywood are clinging to
their rung on the ladder and they will rush to
fill the void.”

In a very human way, he admitted that writing hasn’t gotten easier with time. He gestured towards the audience with sincerity and said, “You might think the art
of writing a good screenplay will get easier.
But strangely, at least for me, the opposite is
true. The more I know about it the more
difficult it has become. It is almost as if I know
too much. And knowing too much can
paralyze you with self-doubt because you
know when you’re getting it wrong. And that’s deadly, that voice in your head
that is telling you it’s not good enough.” So first-time writers should revel in the fact that they are out of their league.

“There is a kind of courage in ignorance or
lack of experience and one of the great
challenges we face, I think, as we develop
our craft is not to lose the courage and
spontaneity you had as a new writer,” said Bovell.

READ MORE: Review: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Lead Role in ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is One of His Best

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