An Interview With – Writer Christopher Hampton
Christopher Hampton has written and adapted multiple screenplays and plays, and has also directed. He is perhaps best know for adapting the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses into Dangerous Liaisons, and more recently for writing the Academy Award nominated screenplay for Atonement. Martin Daniel is the Professor of Screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and interviewed him about his approach to writing screenplays.
Has there been a progression in the way you approach a plot, how you outline your stories – has that changed over the years?
There is a great difference between one script and another, in how long a script will take you to write. But in general, I do try to prepare a script very carefully so that by the time I come to start writing it I may have spent three, six or nine months just figuring out the best way to do it. Now that doesn’t mean planning little details because that tends to kill the spontaneity. But planning the bones of it, what happens, what will happen next, what is going to happen at the end and how are you going to prepare for the end – somewhere in the middle or at the beginning?
Getting all that scaffolding up is really important to me. And then when I come to write, I write as fast as I possibly can. And I know everybody has their own methods but my superstition or theory is that the amount of energy you pour into a script is somehow visible out the other end. And that if you write a script in a white-hot intensity this will have a beneficial effect on the energy in the finished product.
This may be nonsense, but up until recently (I have got a bit more sedate now), I used to get about half way through a script and feel that I knew where I was going and where it was going and how long it was going to take to finish it. Then I would go abroad and sit in a hotel room until I finished it, which was usually a week or ten days. I would just do nothing but write all day and as much of the night I could bear, writing the thing until I got to the end of the first draft. And then there is all the time in the world to mess about with it. And somehow that method of writing a script became a ritual really, I suppose. And that’s the way I have always tried to do it.
So the preparation, the outlining stage – what form does that take?
I have a big notebook and I list all the events, a précis of the plot, on one page and on the other page I put striking images and moments or incidents or themes or things that catch my attention as I go along. So that you have the plot of the narrative. And you have the fireworks that you’ve discerned within the source material. So that’s the first stage and at the end of that you have twenty or thirty pages of text. Then I do a very rough outline of what scenes will follow in what order.
That’s when you make decisions about whether you are going to have a linear story from A to Z or whether you are going to have flashbacks or flash sideways or whether you are going to see it through one person’s point of view or whether you are going to have multiple points of view or whether you are going to have an omniscient camera point of view. All those decisions come in the second stage. And eventually you have a third stage – and I sometimes begin writing at that point. But you might break down sequences within those broad outlines so you can sort out what would be an appropriate order to put the scenes in, where is a good moment to cut from one group of people to another group of people if you are orchestrating a complicated sequence. Eventually, it’s like taking a deep breath and jumping off the high diving board.
So you don’t actually write an outline?
I don’t write an outline and I don’t write a scene-by-scene before I start. But what I do think is very helpful is when you have finished it, the first time you look at it and see where you have got to, I create a scene-by-scene, one line for each scene.
That’s when the draft is finished.
That starts to show you what you have – it’s just a way of looking at the scenes without endlessly having to thumb through the script.
So it allows you to see the proportions of the screenplay and if there are any problems with proportion.
Yes; I am quite mathematical about it. When I am writing, if I have got this plan of what I am going to do I will note the number of pages that each section is going take. So if I noticed that I was spending twenty-five pages on one section where I have only spent eight on another, I try to work out why that should be and whether that was right.
But you don’t revise as you go along?
You write it in one go and then study the result?
Because the laying out of the bones has a counterpoint in spontaneity – if something happens along the way that doesn’t adhere to the structure, do you go with it?
Yes, because what you hope is that while you are in this writing-frenzy thing, better ideas will occur to you than you had in the first place.
And how many drafts do you do?
I used to absolutely detest rewriting because having edited the first draft, I felt I had to do it all again and have better ideas than I had the first time.
When I first signed those contracts where they pay you for a first draft and then they pay you for a second draft. And then they pay you for a polish and I’d think, ‘What do I have to do all this for? I will just write it and give it to them and then they can make it.’ I know David Mamet, for example, he only does first drafts. He has it in his contract. He says if you don’t like the first draft get someone else. And I rather admire that. On the other hand, over the years I have learned that you really can improve films. I think the secret is (and this is an observation I have worked out over the years) that the difference between something that is bad and something that is good is a much shorter distance between what is good and what is really good. This is not only true of writing. I very much admired Joe Wright, a director in his thirties who did Atonement, in that he had a film of I think about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which everyone was very happy with and quite prepared to release. But he had that obsessional thing that really good directors have and he couldn’t leave it alone. He was scratching his head and puzzling over it and suddenly he went back into the editing room and cut, I think, 12 or 15 minutes. The most difficult lap of all is the last lap that turns ‘good enough’ into something really good.
This interview first appeared in Issue 130 of Film Ireland Magazine.