How important is the collaborative process with other screenwriters? For instance your work on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.The interesting thing about these collaborations is that a bit like tennis or rugby, the interaction of two different minds creates something quite unpredictable and often substantially better than anything you could have produced on your own. With Master and Commander for example I’m sometimes asked why we don’t have a woman in the plot. And the answer is that, in the early drafts, we actually did have a woman who seemed completely central to the story, but later proved redundant In the novel “The Far Side of the World” on which the film is loosely based there’s a woman - the Gunner’s Wife - who comes aboard with her husband and has an affair with the ill-fated lieutenant Hollom. The wife gets pregnant by the lieutenant. She asks Dr Maturin to secretly do an abortion. He refuses because he’s a Catholic. The affair is revealed, the gunner is killed and Hollom commits suicide. We’d actually written all of this into the script, over a period of three months, when Peter (Weir) rang up one day and said he thought we should chuck the gunner’s wife overboard. My first reaction was of total horror. Without the Gunners Wife we had no second act - she was central to the whole film. And Peter said: “well yes that’s the problem. The important relationship is Aubrey and Maturin and she’s kind of stealing the show.” After sulking for a week I concluded that of course he was right and we rewrote along those lines. Later, stepping back from the canvas to look at the big picture I had a sudden insight: Maturin is the woman! This is a movie about family life. Jack Aubrey is the adventurous authoritarian father. Stephen Maturin is the nurturing, contemplative mother. The crew are the unruly teenagers and Blakeney the cabin boy is the kid growing up trying to be like both his mum and his dad. That line of Blakeney’s “is there such a thing as a fighting naturalist” is the key to the movie. I told this to Peter who rather dislikes these facile analyses, mistrusts the three act structure and the whole theoretical, structural thing. He thinks you kill a story by over-analysing. You should just write it as you dream it. So he laughed and said: “Yeah maybe, have another coffee. Now where were we? I know - lets put in a that bit where the sea turns purple and the crew spots a whale! By some extraordinary stroke of luck and against all logical expectation Happy feet and master and Commander both got made and both got nominated for Oscars, which is kind of what you’re always aiming for but also not really the point, because unless you’re enjoying the process of creation which may last years , then fifteen minutes of fame on the red carpet is hardly going to compensate.
Do you have any tips for budding film writers?They say you should write about what you know but I think the rule is more: write about what you care about. And that often flows from your occupation. I do believe writers should have another occupation – if not a profession then motherhood, voluntary work, whatever – something to keep them connected to the real world. There’s a notion that writers wander around reading and pondering and observing the world but if you want to understand how the world works there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty; for getting involved in the messy imperfect business of real life It’s become possible nowadays for a writer to do most of their research on the internet rather than actually travelling, digging for facts, meeting people. A lot of our “experiences” are now second- hand via films and documentaries. Indeed it’s quite common for films to be a sort of collage of other films rather than reflecting real lived experience. Inevitably, when you’re copying a copy – the quality, the accuracy deteriorates. I’m not saying we should just write about stuff we’ve done, but unless you DO stuff, your writing will never be authentic, never convince, never really resonate. Any final words... I think Cinema is the dream machine and we’re the guys who operate it. But what is the function of the dream machine? I believe that part of our job as writers is moral instruction. I believe people go to cinema the same way they used to go to church in great numbers, not just to be entertained for two hours but to hear parables. I believe one difference between bad, inconsequential films of all genres – horror films, kids films, dramas or musicals – is that bad films merely distract us for a couple of hours and good films transform us as people. If a film doesn’t have the potential to transform its audience then it’s probably not worth making. If films are mere distraction I’m not interested in that business, we have enough distraction already The problems we currently face – weaning ourselves off carbon, repairing the earth’s environment, promoting tolerance between races and religions, fairly distributing wealth and education, shifting the world from its ludicrous goal of continual expansion to some kind of steady state economy…. these are problems of baffling complexity and scale. In this way the medium in which we work has the power to do immense good.