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Inside the Studio Beast: Writer William Nicholson Directs “Firelight”

Inside the Studio Beast: Writer William Nicholson Directs "Firelight"

Inside the Studio Beast: Writer William Nicholson Directs

by Anthony Kaufman

British screenwriter William Nicholson, whose screenplays include
Sarafina,” “Nell,” “First Knights” and the Academy nominated
Shadowlands,” had never directed a feature film before. But when the
studios approached him with an offer, he couldn’t refuse the seduction
of directorial control. So Nicholson scripted “Firelight,” the story of
a poor Swiss governess (Sophie Marceau) who is paid to bear a child for
a wealthy aristocrat (Stephen Dillane) and then disappear forever. This
romantic story of passion and family is now in release from Hollywood
, a division of Disney. Nicholson spoke to indieWIRE about his
background, his trips from writer to writer/director, 20th Century Fox
to Joe Roth’s Disney office, and what it took to get the cast and budget
he wanted for his feature film debut.

indieWIRE: I noticed that before you wrote in Hollywood, you worked in
Television in the UK.

William Nicholson: Yes, I started in television. I was a
documentary-maker, so that was what got me into screenwriting. And I
had written a lot of TV movies for British television and in fact, two
for HBO. I did really well with those, three of the films made from my
scripts won all the major awards. And that was my launching pad. . . .
I have to say, though, it wasn’t my original intention. I always wanted
to be a novelist. My television work was like a day job. And the novel
writing, I’m afraid was a complete failure.

iW: Your script for “Shadowlands” did feel somewhat like a 19th century

Nicholson: In some ways. I am very influenced by the 19th century
novel. That was the great age of the novel, where you have the
combination of qualities that I love, of which, one is very strong
storytelling. The modern novel has become very self-conscious. 19th
century novel, because it was the growth of the genre, was on the whole,
committed to entertaining its audience. We forget that when these are
classic texts taught in a university. These were the soaps of the day.
They had to have compelling stories, which I love, they had to have
strong characters. But they were also aiming to touch the deepest truth
buttons that they could. So I always wanted to a novelist, but I went
into TV because I had to have a job. The job you don’t take so
seriously turns out to be the one you’re best at and the thing you think
you want to do is actually a mistake. But you don’t know that, you’re
stubborn, you press on, and you don’t value your actual talents, until
eventually life clubs some sense into you. . . . [Screenwriting was] my
kind of second career, I must have started when I was 35, so I am not a
boy wonder. God, I wanted to be a boy wonder. I did try. I’m afraid
it didn’t happen. I’m 50 now.

iW: Tell me about going from a writer in the industry to a

Nicholson: On the practical side, the way it happened for me, I have
been writing for people in Hollywood for a little while now. The real
test of screenplays as far as they’re concerned is not how good they
are, although they do care about that, it’s whether they get made.
Because if a screenplay gets greenlit, a whole lot of people are in work
and they get paid. Studio executives get credit. All sorts of other
people, their lives become real instead of imaginary. So, there’s a
tremendous value attached to screenwriters that write screenplays that
stars commit to that get made. And I’ve had a few of these. I’m not a
top property, but I’m valuable. And when that happens, people start
wanting you to persuade them to work for them. They have money, but
really everybody is kind of equal on that, they’ll pay about the same.
They try, obviously, to be your best friend. But the other weapon in
their arsenal is “Do you want to direct?” And they say this because
it’s taken for granted that everyone in Hollywood is born wanting to
direct. I have always resisted directing, partly because I’ve always
perceived myself as a writer and partly because I was very frightened.
It’s an amazingly difficult job. I’m not so young and hungry, that I
feel like I have to be world famous and have everybody love me. And
also, I know that directing is very damaging for family life. So I had
a lot of reasons for being very cautious about this.

So the way it happened, because of the position that I’d established, I
was being asked come on, if you want to direct something, we’d be
certainly interested in giving you a shot. So, you can’t help when
people say that even if you think they’re not meaning it. You can’t
help turning in your mind, ‘well, you know, it’s tough handing over a
script to another director.’ It really is tough. Even though I’ve
admired the other directors I’ve worked with, they’re not me. And when
I write a script — people think scriptwriters just write dialogue. I
write the whole damn thing. I invent the story, I invent the
characters, I invent all the beats, I invent all the locations. I
written the entire movie on the page. And so, I started thinking, you
know, maybe I could do this. I also noticed, in watching my scripts
being directed, what an enormous amount of talent is at the disposal of
a director. That there are a lot of people who really know what they
are doing. I learned the key lesson: the director’s job is to know what
he wants. He doesn’t have to work everything out, he just has to know
when he sees it — yes, that’s it, that’s what I want.

When I was next in Los Angeles, with some people at Fox, and they said,
“how about that idea that you might direct someday.” I said that I had
worked out a story. They said, “how great, we love it, let’s do it.” I
still didn’t believe it, to be honest with you. So I went away and
wrote the script, working with a friend of mine [Brian Eastman], who was
eventually the producer — and who I knew would give me the hard time
that I needed to knock it into shape. I wasn’t really working through
the studio system, at this stage. Did more than that. My friend, the
producer, costed it, so I knew how much money I wanted for it.

iW: Can you tell me how much that was?

Nicholson: Our first costing came in at $13 million, and we thought that
was too much, so we squeezed it down to just under ten. So we were
asking for $9.7 million. And I knew in that squeezing process, that if
I went below that feature — now believe me, I know people make movies
for a $100,000, so I’m aware that 10 million is a huge amount — but I
was in a curious position. I was a first time director and I knew the
thing that I needed was time. And that 9.7 figure gave me 10 shooting
weeks. And I knew with every million that I dropped from that, I would
drop a week. And I knew that would give me Hell. I said to myself, how
much do I want the Hell for the glory at the end, given that there may
be no glory, if I haven’t had the time. So I made a mental decision —
I will not make the money for less. I’m not saying that people had to
give me the money — they don’t have to give me the money — I don’t
have to make the movie. So I made a second decision, which was I must
have total casting control. And that’s because I was aware that if we
were talking about this being financed by a Hollywood studio, that they
quite rightly know that they can help their distribution by having name
stars. On the other hand, I have seen so many pictures where people are
put in, because they have the right names, but they’re wrong for the
part. It’s happened to me. It’s happened on my pictures, so I was just
completely determined to control that process and in order to control it
honestly, I said to the executives, “I must have casting control, and I
can tell you now, you will not get stars.”

iW: This was at which company?

Nicholson: This was Fox. So, my third stipulation was that I shoot at
home [the UK] where I wanted and that wasn’t a problem for anybody. The
big ones were casting and budget. So, armed with a finished script and
a script in really good shape — I’d worked on it for a long time, I
worked it, did four drafts, working with my people, and it was in very
tight shape — and they really loved the script. We go into
negotiations on the budget and the cast. And what they said, and I
don’t blame them for this at all, was “if you’re not offering us stars,
10 million is too much. You can do this for 6 million.” And they
cited a film going into production being made by Christopher Hampton
called “The Secret Agent” which in fact, did have big stars, Gerard
Depardieu and Bob Hoskins. And even though, I am a writer, I have been
a television producer, and I’m not dumb about this stuff, so I just
said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it. 6 million, I understand, you’ve done
your calculations, I’m sure you’re right about how much you can get back
on this, but I can’t make the movie.” So I had 24 hours to set it up
somewhere else, before flying out the next day. And although Fox had
been closely involved in the excitement and development, they said
kindly, “Yes, okay, we understand, you want your shot if you can get

And immediately, I had two offers at my price. I had those offers,
because the other people liked the script. I went to Joe Roth, who was
then and is now, the head of Disney Films, and you know Joe Roth is an
ex-filmmaker, himself. I sat in his office with him. He read the
script very fast. He loved it. And by then, I had fingered my cast, I
knew who I wanted — it was like I said, they were virtual unknowns,
Sophie Marceau and Stephen Dillane. He said, “9.7 million, Marceau and
Dillane, filming it where you want to film it — all terrific. I’m very
happy with all of that. My only question to you is, ‘Are you a
filmmaker?'” Which is a sensible question. I’ve only been a writer. So
I talked for about 15 minutes about my vision, which incidentally, is
exactly expressed in the finished film. Everything about the use of
light, the anamorphic lenses, all of which I’d taken the trouble to
learn. I didn’t go into this, acting like a greenhorn. So, I was able
to talk about the kind of D.P. that I wanted and I had a close
understanding of all the budgetary issues, which I think reassures
people. So, at the end of the conversation, he said, “Okay, I’ll give
it a shot.” So we shot it, and several months later, I’m back in his
office and he’s just seen the finished movie, and he said, “You know
you’re a very good writer, but I think you’re an even better director.”

iW: I was struck by the visuals. It is very striking visually, and for
someone who’s never directed before, it is surprising.

Nicholson: I have worked with the camera and the images through my
documentary work. But that is different. You don’t have the
opportunity to control the images. But, I guess, through my 15 years of
setting up shots in documentaries, there must have built up in me a
strong frustration with not being able to get it just the way I wanted
it. Which was unleashed on “Firelight.” I hadn’t even realized it,
myself, until I actually started, of how incredibly exciting it is to
compose images.

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