Tricks of the Trade: “Iron Lady” and “Shame” Scribe Abi Morgan Muses on Screenwriting

Tricks of the Trade: "Iron Lady" and "Shame" Scribe Abi Morgan Muses on Screenwriting

In the midst of the 55th BFI London Film Festival, writer Abi Morgan sat down with a group of festival goers to deliver a master class, offering insight into her craft.

Who is Morgan, you might ask? Across theater, television and film, she is quite prolific in the UK, from plays like Laurence Olivier Theater Award nominated “Tender,” to television series like 2004’s “Sex Traffic” and continuing “The Hour” (which is set in a 1950s BBC newsroom and stars Dominic West and Ben Whishaw), to British independent films like Sarah Gavron’s “Brick Lane.”

So far, though, much of her work is little known Stateside. That should change this December as her considerable double whammy of films – controversial Michael Fassbender vehicle “Shame” (which she co-wrote with Steve McQueen) and Margaret Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady” – both hit U.S. theaters.

In the meantime, here are a few musings from Morgan’s London master class:

Theater feels like her natural home, but it’s also what she finds the most difficult: “I think theater is very much my natural home. But the truth is that the older I’ve got and the more I’ve written film and television, I find it incredibly hard to write theater. And I think in part that’s also because when I actually started to move into writing for the screen the revelation for me was that I suddenly didn’t need the monologue anymore. Because a visual image could do it. So I could get back to the kind of lean writing I love and allow a lot of the poetic storytelling to take place through the visual. So I’ve sort of grown to love film even more now.”

She finds film and television much more isolating than theater: “There is something wonderful about being part of something. I think film and television – particularly film – you are very isolated as a writer. If you’re lucky, you have a good relationship with the director. Then you do make that development and come on set and be part of something. But ultimately you’re work is kind of done by the time you come on set. Whereas what’s so wonderful about theater is that it’s always so active. And you still feel incredibly connected to it.”

She believes screenwriters are quite invisible… Though not when they’re working with “Shame” director Steve McQueen: “Steve is very efficient. I know this sounds really odd, but for someone who is just a poet he’s quite specific. He really believes in the notion of the artist. And he gets you to come to the table as an artist.

“I slightly cringe at using that phrase, because the truth about writers in the film industry – and you all need to know this if you’re going to become screenwriters – is that we are the bottomfeeders. You’re status is very low, in many ways. And I say that without bitterness, it’s just a fact. And there’s a great strength to be gained from that because you’re also quite invisible.

“But Steve really says ‘I don’t want you to be invisible. I want to hear what you’ve got to say.’ And that was very exciting. So we literally sat down and we very clearly said ‘I think there’s a very intense story about a guy in here.’ From there, it felt so natural.”

Her and McQueen had a unique working process together… and cut the first 60 pages of “Shame”‘s screenplay: “I sit down and write, and [Steve] sits very close by. We eat a lot of room service. And I read out to him and he looks over my shoulder. Then he goes off for a walk and comes back and he adjusts. He says ‘this isn’t working’ or ‘that isn’t working.’ He tweaks. Then we talk some more…

“You know, the first draft I did we cut the first 60 pages. We actually started with the last 40 pages of that first draft.”

She thought “Shame” would be “shit” because she had so much fun on the project: “What’s great about the way ‘Shame”s been received is that I kept on thinking there’s no what this film will be received well since I’ve had such a good time. It’s going to be shit. Because most things you do when you go ‘this was so great we got along so well’ actually end up not being good on the screen.”

Her sex life has been quite boring, at least relative to “Shame”: “I’m so straight and boring really. I have two kids and a very nice partner. And I really would love to have had a lot more sexual weirdness than I’ve had. But I don’t.”

She hasn’t seen “The Iron Lady”… But she’s certain it’s not a “left wing fantasy”: “I haven’t seen it. And I really won’t know what that film is until I see it. I’ve seen edits and I’ve seen an amazing performance by Meryl but I haven’t seen the whole thing. But I wanted was to write about power… a loss of power. Whether I’m left or right, I just wanted to write about that. It’s been called a ‘left-wing fantasy.’ But as I said then, if I was going to have any fantasty – whether it be left or right-wing, it would not involve Margaret Thatcher.”

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