Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The End Of My Suit

“I bet you’d like to see one of your books turned into a film.” People are always saying that to me. Well of course I would. And the money would be nice, too. I just hope it wouldn’t be anything like my experience in the world of theatre. That was a long time ago when I was a young man with a great deal of enthusiasm and a very small bank balance.

Despite the constraints on spending imposed by my bank-manager, when I received my first commission to write a play, I splashed out on a rather nifty designer suit in which I thought I looked very cool indeed. It seemed to me to be exactly the kind of suit a playwright ought to wear.

Yes, those were heady days. Working with actors is great fun and seeing your dialogue come to life in performance is thrilling. But directors, well that’s a different matter.

Some of my colleagues never stop complaining about their editors. I tell them they don’t know how lucky they are. Editors are, on the whole, entirely reasonable people. Certainly, you can get annoyed with them on occasions when they take the liberty of rewriting a sentence you’ve written. But nine times out of ten it’s because that sentence was a dead donkey in the first place. So you have a choice: accept the editor’s version or write a better one.

Directors are an entirely different kettle of fish. They don’t just want to rewrite your sentences. They want you to bow down and worship them. Okay, so not all of them. Some will just be satisfied with an incessant stream of flattery.

The last director I worked with was a woman called (let’s say) Carmen. Now Carmen was a very difficult person to please. Once when I refused to change a line she threw a cup of hot coffee and an omelette bap (that’s a kind of bread roll for those of you not familiar with the UK catering industry) straight at me. And she scored a direct hit. I was wearing my suit at the time. It never recovered. And neither did our working relationship.

I remember going to see the first night of that particular play and just before the interval there was a fairly lengthy scene that I didn’t remember writing. It seemed entirely disconnected from the rest of the play and was, in my opinion, incredibly wooden. I sat there asking myself, could I have scripted this lame bit of theatre without even realising it.

As soon as the interval arrived I bolted outside, found the director and buttonholed her. I didn’t remember writing that scene, I protested. ‘That’s right, you didn’t,’ she told me with the silkiest of smiles, ‘my husband did.’

That was the end of my love affair with the theatre and also the end of my suit.


Lee said...

You haven't met my daughter, who is directing her first film based on one of my short stories. It's not a question of worship, but a clear and uncompromising vision and trying to coordinate a huge team while eliciting their own unique contributions. Perhaps it does take a certain type of person to be able to manage this - to even want to (I shudder at the thought) - but there's plenty of ego in writers too. I know, I've been there.

Faber has a very good series of books on directors speaking about directing, and a lot of them are very illuminating about the process, also for writers.

As to your take on editors, I prefer to take responsibility for my own 'dead donkeys'. A painter doesn't expect their gallerist to suggest a bit more bright red in the left corner, do they?

Brian Keaney said...

Surely there's a contradiction in your comment? You seem to suggest that I should appreciate the collaborative efforts of directors but reject those of editors. Could this be because your dauther's a director and you naturally see things from her point of view.

I guess it's all a matter of personal experience but at least no editor has ever thrown a cup of coffee at me.