How the black, sordid thoughts of a male sex addict came from the kind, unassuming Abi Morgan is a mystery. But talent that great is always a surprise. The Shame co-writer tells i-D online about subtext and falling in love with her directors.
The night before her talk at Hay Festival earlier this week, Abi told i-D she was worried no one would turn up except her mother. The talk the next day was so busy they had to bring in extra chairs. They did not have to bring in extra chairs for Ian McEwan, or Salman Rushdie, or Boris Johnson in the days previously. After the talk, she told us she didn’t consider herself an artist, “I can often be part of a piece of art but I don’t feel I’m the artist” and in a recent interview with The Guardian, she said the greatest sacrifice she had made for art was a good haircut. Perhaps it’s her humility, in addition to that whopping talent, that has made unassuming Abi one of the best screenwriters of our generation. She really is ruling the game.
Unassuming seemed to fit, but unafraid might be better. Abi tackled Islamic extremism in Brick Lane (2007), took on one of the most controversial political leaders in history in The Iron Lady (2011), the Suez Crisis in the BBC series The Hour, and World War I in the adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ beloved novel Birdsong. Co-writing Shame with the legendary filmmaker and director Steve McQueen, Abi had to watch a lot of porn for research. If you had to pick a person out of a crowd who looked like they definitely didn’t watch porn, you would pick Abi. Yes ‘unafraid’ was better.
Following her conversation with Francine Stock at Hay Festival, sponsored by i-D, Abi described her first ever play, written at university for the water authority (!) as ‘the angst monologue’. Its official title was ‘Dick Dipper’s Water Adventure’. She has since carved a prolific career, one any writer would dream of, and if you are, start by reading this…
Which playwrights inspired you growing up? Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Samuel Beckett. From an early age I watched a lot of plays because my father was a director so it was very normal for me to be dragged along to three-hour productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I loved film when I first came to London. I went to see a lot of film and I loved the Curzon Cinema. I fell in love with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh when I was growing up.
How do you take the pressure of adapting books the whole world loves, like Birdsong? I don’t engage with it. That doesn’t mean I ignore it or deny it but I try not to over-engage with it. I try and trust the book actually, I try and trust that what is important in the novel will stay with me, but there are always losses. There is something wonderful about reading a book on a wet afternoon; you completely disappear. Television is a different medium, you’re often challenged by several different things going on at the same time. I hold on to my inherent sense that I know how to make a piece of film work. I trust my medium. I trust my interpretation, and I own that away from the novelist and the novel. I trust that I take it somewhere else.
Shame is so much about subtext – the un-comfortableness, the unspoken scenes. How do write those things in a script? You learn how to set a scene. You set out a scene like a piece of poetry. I love the way a scene looks on the page. I love the relationship between dialogue and stage direction. I think very hard about when I’m going to puncture dialogue and stage direction because I know it’s physically going to break a reader. I enjoy the rhythm of a script and how you make that rhythm happen through the way you lay it out. Also, the thing about working with a director who is also a co-writer with you, is that you really trust that the director is going to know how to carry the message of the film because you share the message. We actually cut the first 60 pages of the screenplay so the film is actually just the last 40 pages.
I found the timing so interesting, the way you watch things in real time like at the end when he’s in the lift… Yeah it’s like real time and you’re there waiting for the lift too. Steve hates dishonesty and anything that feels artificial. He would just say, “no, when you press the button it will take that long.” He doesn’t come from the world of film and television in the same way. We were constantly saying “you’ve got to cut that, you can’t leave an audience hanging”, but he’s very comfortable with it, I think because he’s a visual artist and he knows that the combination of visual image and sound will allow you to inhabit the world of the characters. He’s very liberating to work with. He makes you bring your artist to the table. As I say, I don’t consider myself an artist but you do raise your game with him. I think working with him really allowed me to let go of the script and just trust that he would make the film. He would find the film he needed to make from what I gave him.
Why do you not consider yourself an artist if writing is an art? I consider novelists artists. I think with screenwriting it’s a collaborative medium and I do think the screenplay is everything, if you don’t have a good screenplay then you’re not going to have a good film. So, I guess I don’t consider myself an artist because I think being an artist is about single vision. I consider the director to be an artist, although he has to collaborate with production designers, actors and writers, ultimately he is the single vision maker and the same as a visual artist of any kind. I feel like I can often be part of a piece of art but I don’t feel I’m the artist.
When and where do you write? I write at home usually, pretty regularly between 9am and 7pm everyday.
Do you ever get writer’s block? I don’t get writer’s block but I do feel like I’ve slightly lost my palette at the moment. I don’t quite know what I want to write next and I don’t quite know where to go next. I think at the time where everyone, very nicely, is giving you medals and patting you on the back and saying “wow, what’s it like to have finally made it?”, it’s often the time when you actually feel creatively quite lost.
Are you working on scripts at the moment? Yes, Invisible Woman which is an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s novel about Nelly Ternan, Charles Dickens’ secret lover. I’ve also just written a film about the Suffragettes, which is at the moment, unoriginally, called, ‘The Suffragettes’ and I’ve written an adaptation of The Little Mermaid too.
Who are your heroes? Artists like Steve McQueen and Cornelia Parker. I’m very inspired by Tim Minchin at the moment. The director Anthony Minghella was hugely inspirational to me. I was writing a film for him when he died called The Story of You so, I just felt like I really missed my moment of getting to know him. Then, eternally, it’s Mike Leigh and Ken Loach who I just think are genius film makers. I haven’t mentioned any women in that. Jeanette Winterson! I’m a huge fan of hers. Caroline Duffy, Lynn Ramsey, Sarah Gavron.
Do you ever think about directing? I think my vanity makes me think I could do it well but in my heart, I know I’m not a director. I like the dark, I like to hibernate on my own with my work. I think as a director you have to be great with people and voices. I’d like to but I don’t think I will.
Hay Festival runs until 10th June 2012.
Text: Sarah Raphael
Image courtesy UK Cue