OH, SCANDAL!                                                                  

                                ŠJim Spellman/
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Screenwriter Patrick Marber on writing the most diabolical "Notes"

Patrick Marber has been flying high.  On December 14, 2006 the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced five Golden Globe Award nominees for best motion picture screenplay and Mr. Marber was one of them.  And with Writers' Guild, BAFTA and Academy Award nomination announcements to come, the 42-year-old playwright from London may well be hearing his name called on several more occasions and deep into this awards season.  The writer of such film adaptations as "Closer" (which was adapted from his own original stage play) and "Asylum" delves into his latest tale of emotional anguish and torment, "Notes On A Scandal", which he has adapted from Zoe Heller's best-selling novel entitled "What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal".  Richard Eyre directs the film version which opens in limited release in North America on December 27.  The Fox Searchlight release expands to shores both near and far in 2007.  "Notes" stars Judi Dench as Barbara Covett and Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart.  The Popcorn Reel was the recipient of Mr. Marber's precious time, which he graciously shared with us recently as he spoke to Omar P.L. Moore about the process of writing the screenplay for the Globe-nominated "Notes" and living with its characters in his head.

OMAR MOORE:  First of all, congratulations to you on your Golden Globe Nomination.

PATRICK MARBER:  Thank you very much.

OM:  Sure.  I wanted to first start out by asking you how you became involved with "Notes On A Scandal".

PM:  The producer Scott Rudin sent me the book about three years ago and asked me to read it.  I read it.  And he said, "do you want to write a movie of it?"  And I said, "yes".  It was a straight offer.

OM:  Now you've said that "Notes On A Scandal" was difficult to write.  Could you please explain why?

PM:  Yes, because the book is told from Barbara's point of view in the first person and is completely subjective narrative and . . . as you read the book that she's not a reliable narrator and what she's telling you isn't necessarily true.  So I had to find a way to try and find out the movie equivalent of that -- a way to keep her voice in the film -- and so I invented a voice-over for her that did justice to some of the tricks of the novel.

OM:  How long did it take to write the script and how many drafts did you find you had to go through?

PM:  We shot the twelfth draft -- put it that way.  So I spent a year thinking about writing the screenplay, thinking about what I was going to do and then I guess I wrote the first draft in about three months.  And then eleven more drafts over a six-month period when we were in pre-production.

OM:  What was it specifically about the characters of Barbara Covett and Sheba Hart that interested you as a writer?

PM:  Well with Barbara, to have an older woman who was as funny and as lonely and as self-deluded as this seemed to be a very good combination of traits.  And then Sheba I liked very much because she was so lost, so lonely, charming, sexy.  And I guess both  characters were full of contradictions -- which interests me -- that you couldn't say they were one thing or the other.  They were a number of different facets, they were complicated.

OM:  I wanted to go back just for a moment to the drafting of the script.  During the course of the drafts that you did was there any thought at all to giving the Sheba Hart character her own narration or her own narrative voice within the film?

PM:  Well she does have a narrative voice because she narrates the section of the film where she describes how the affair started with the boy.   I never thought that she would be the main narrator of the film.  I always knew that was going to be Barbara.  But I did give Sheba a narrative voice. 

OM:  I bet you must have been very pleased to have Cate Blanchett on this film after she was unavailable on "Closer".

PM:  Oh yes, yes.  It was a thrill to finally work with her.  Absolutely, yes.  I can't imagine it ["Notes On A Scandal"] with any other actress in either role -- I mean they're [Blanchett and Judi Dench] just perfect together.

Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench in "Notes On A Scandal".  (Photo: Fox Searchlight/DNA Films)

OM:  I guess since you just mentioned that I'm assuming that you also had Judi Dench in mind when you were writing the screenplay.

PM:  What happened was that I agreed to write the screenplay and then the book [What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal] was sent to Judi and Cate.  And they were told that I was writing it and they both knew me as a writer and were keen to read what I wrote and while I was writing it I was kind of writing it for them and hoping that they would both sign up and work in it as well.  Plus they'd be excited to work with each other as well.  So I think the attraction for them -- that was the script and each other.

OM:  When you write characters for stories at what point do you as a writer disengage?  Is it when you've completed the screenplay?  When the screenplay becomes a film?  When you've seen the finished product?  And another question to add to that: how long did it take you to mentally say "goodbye" to both Barbara and Sheba?

PM:  Well it's a good question but I never completely say "goodbye" to any character who I've written.  Because you like to leave a little bit of yourself in there.  And I know it was like this film -- for me they all kind of live in my head.  So I've created a range of character and a kind of afterlife.  And so sometimes I'll, you know, when the film is long gone I'll think of lines that I could have put in the film or I'll think of things that Sheba could have said to Barbara, or -- my brain is always still ticking over on behalf of those characters.  So I didn't fully disengage.  That's the case with anything I've ever written.  And I still think of moments that aren't in "Closer" [Mr. Marber's play from the 1990's, later his own screenplay directed by Mike Nichols] that could have been that might have happened to Alice or Larry or Dan or Anna.  They're always still present.  I imagine it's a bit like being an actor where every part you've ever played is still within you somewhere.

OM:  Have you ever personally known any Barbara Covetts or Sheba Harts?

PM:  I've known some mean old ladies in my time, sure -- and I've known some sexy and lost women in their thirties.  So -- but there's no specific person . . . it was all so clearly laid out for me in the book, that that was really my roadmap [for writing the screenplay].

The boy in question: Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart, with Andrew Simpson as Steven Connolly, the young schoolboy she has an affair with, in "Notes On A Scandal."  (Photo: Fox Searchlight/DNA Films)

OM:  I want to return to another aspect of the film.  The fact that the young schoolboy by the name of Steven Connolly -- the young man that Sheba has the affair with -- he is said to be -- at least initially -- a "special needs" child.

PM:  Yes.

OM: And [Sheba] also of course has a son who's roughly around the same age [early teens] who happens to have Down's Syndrome.  Now that seems to create an uncomfortable parallel, or juxtaposition if you will, in the film.  Is this something that you used in the film as a conscious decision to create that kind of discomfort?

PM:  Yes.  I suppose I tried to give her that motif in the scene where Steven Connolly the lover, tries on the son's wizard's hat.  Do you remember that scene?, where --

OM: Sure do.  Absolutely, yes. 

PM:  And that is one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film, I think, when her life with the boy she's having an affair with kind of crashes into her life with her son and it's very disturbing for her.  I should add that the son in the film [played by Max Lewis] is 11 or 12 and the boy she's having an affair with is 15.  So they are -- they're not the same age.  And also "special needs" -- it sounds very dramatic but all it means is he [the Steven Connolly character] needs some help with his reading and writing.  It's not like he's some kind of a, you know.  The words sound more [harsh] than they actually are, I think.  Having said that, I don't know whether you in Americans have got the same phrase, "special needs".

OM: Yeah.  I wanted to kind of piggy back off of that last question and move on to the sexual aspect --

PM:  Will you answer my question then about --

OM:  I didn't hear you there, sir -- I'm sorry. 

PM:  Do you use the phrase "special needs" for kids who need help with reading and writing?

OM:  Yes.  Most commonly the specific term here would be "special education", "special ed", for short.  I'm sorry I didn't hear your question before.

PM:  That's okay.

OM:  I wanted to ask you about the sexual aspect of the film . . . in terms of your screenplay -- was that the most direct angle that you were looking at all along through this -- to emphasize the loneliness through this kind of dysfunctional sexual connection throughout the run of characters?

PM:  I certainly think that the central theme of the film is the loneliness of the two female protagonists and the strange parallel then, between them but then two women from completely different backgrounds, completely different experiences in life, very different in terms of their personalities, you know.  Sheba is open, Barbara is closed.  What they share is the loneliness in the sense that their lives just haven't quite turned out as they'd hoped. 

          Notes on a Scandal - Movie Stills
Bill Nighy and Cate Blanchett as husband and wife, in "Notes On A Scandal."   (Photo: Fox Searchlight/DNA Films)

OM:  Generally when you're talking about films like "Notes On A Scandal", where you have an illicit affair going on and one spouse, you know, obviously feels the repercussions of it as does the other.  In this case you had the cuckolded husband -- who's almost always depicted as a narrow, one-dimensional character -- at least in a lot of the films that are out there.

PM:  Yeah.

OM:  Your screenplay really made Bill Nighy's Richard character both sympathetic and authentic.  Now even though it's not necessarily pronounced in the film -- he has his own insecurities -- he is lonely to some degree too, is he not?

PM:  Yes he is.  And it's quite a big change for me from the book.  In the book his character is kind of an asshole, a bit of a bore.  And he kind of justifies the affair a bit more because she's married to this sort of boring guy, whereas I wanted to make her husband quite an interesting and amusing fellow and make the affair even more transgressive and stranger -- that she would choose to go off and have sex with this kid -- rather than with be the rather sexy Bill Nighy.  It's a strange decision to make [to make the character's actions less justifiable] but one that I'm pleased with, because I think it makes what she does more astonishing, more desperate.  It's like she's almost choosing to trash her marriage. 

OM:  Which makes things more disturbing too, for the audience.

PM:  Absolutely.  But I think people do do that.  People who constantly get into marriages, leave them [to commit adultery] and they don't quite know why.  And they're trying to find something but they don't quite know where it is.

OM:  As a screenwriter what is it specifically that draws you to the themes of obsession and emotional violence and betrayal -- those things that erupt between human beings?

PM:  Well, see I would argue that I'm drawn to stories about love.  I think that "Notes On A Scandal" is a love story.  I would say the same about "Closer".  I'm interested in the strange places we go when we love people. 

OM:  And in that process Patrick, when you're writing about that -- what kinds of truths are you trying to unearth?  Is it an inherent truth about human beings, is it a truth that you are trying to stick to within the narrative of the film or the book that you are adapting, or is it your own personal idea of what the truth of these characters should be as they go through that journey of love?

PM:  Always the third one.  [Third choice in the last question.]  I'm always trying to be true to what I think to be any device of the characters.  I'm never trying to make general points.  But then, but what gets written about [in the press is] as if I'm making a general statement about the world.  I'm not.  I'm always trying to be specific and true to the characters that I've either created or inherited. 

OM:  And in following that question Patrick, with your screenplays "Notes", "Asylum" and "Closer"  -- in those three that you've written -- one of the things that seems to be very consistent is that you do not make, or least don't appear to make any specific judgments about these characters.  They seem to be very open-ended situational characters. 

PM:  Yes.

OM:  Is that something, well, obviously it's something that you choose to do -- but how does that enhance or embellish these themes in your screenplays in terms of how you do this on a consistent level?  What is it that you're trying to accomplish there?  Is it authenticity, is it just a certain sense of realness, I'm assuming?

PM:  Yeah, I'm trying to suggest, I guess, that human beings do things sometimes without understanding why and that the whole idea of motivations is just overrated.  In life and in drama.  People are always looking for answers and reasons why people do things and I like to suggest a range of possibilities where people do things without ever actually deciding what it is that guides human behavior.  And I think that [these aspects to human beings] is a mystery.  And I'm trying to do justice to what I think to be the strangeness and the accidental and mysterious nature of the human heart.


Fight to the finish: Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart in the clutches of Judi Dench as Barbara Covett, in "Notes On A Scandal", which Mr. Marber adapted from Zoe Heller's novel "What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal".  Both actors were nominated for Golden Globes recently for their performances in Richard Eyre's film.  (Photo: Fox Searchlight/DNA Films)

OM:  About the writing process generally.  Writing is a big lonely journey as they say.  But when you are writing is there anything Patrick that you specifically do in the process that's different?  For example, any techniques that you use -- in terms of speaking dialogue out loud, or recording it, or bouncing ideas off of others?  In other words, is there anything that you do to specifically cultivate and make the process less lonesome?

PM:  Yes.  I did read out when I've written the scene and read it and then gotten it to a point where I think it's going to work I'll read it out loud to myself, which can sometimes be a very humiliating experience.  And I always think that I don't want to have this in the hands of an actor until I've said it out loud myself and believe it can work and I can say it without embarrassment.  And my wife always reads my work before it gets sent to anyone.

OM:  And probably your harshest critic, perhaps? 

PM:  She's my best critic --

OM:  -- okay --

PM:  -- my harshest critic, and -- but also my most supportive one -- as well.  And she knows my work pretty well.  So she can say, "you did that seven years ago, you told me it wasn't true then and it's not true now," or whatever.  Yes, she can be pretty tough.  But she's very valuable.

OM:  What are the highs and lows of screenwriting for you?

PM:  The high is when something starts to assume its own shape, starts to speak to you and let you know what should be in it and what shouldn't be in it.  And that's a weird thing that just seems to happen about three-quarters of the way through of any script if it's working.  You start to realize that certain things you thought were important actually are irrelevant, and that you need to write other new scenes that actually become a center of the film.  One other thing you can find that you ordinarily might not is that the scene that you thought was the meaning of the film actually becomes the thing that you can cut because you've achieved the meaning of the film without having the scene that provides the meaning, if that makes some sense.  So that's one of the highs.  I guess the low is the constant struggle when it's not forming itself and when you don't quite know why it is but you have to keep going.  And the knowledge that once you've got to the end that's still not going to be any good, but you might have twenty-five percent of the script.  I wish I could say I found it easy, but I don't.

OM:  You're a playwright, you're a director and you've done both of those things before becoming a screenwriter.  Are there any differences Patrick, in the way that the dialogue is written in those mediums between the theater and the movie screen for you?

PM:  Yeah, every line of dialogue in a movie you have to really be able to justify big time, at least in terms of it needing to be in the film.  Whereas when you write a play people can small talk a bit more and you can be more expansive with the dialogue, whereas in a film you might have a dialogue scene of three or four pages.  That's a long dialogue scene on screen.  It's something to do with how big the human face is going to be on the screen.  Somehow the words get magnified.  And they'd better be good words and they'd better be useful words -- that they need to be had [in the film].  Whereas on stage you can get away with a lot more kind of "luxury dialogue", shall we say.   

OM:  You've directed your own original plays such as "Dealer's Choice" and "Closer", and audiences in England are familiar with you as an actor of course on the 1990's television series "The Day Today" and "Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge".  Do you prefer acting or directing, or is it really writing where you feel you excel the best?

PM:  Well I think I'm better at writing than I am at directing or acting.  I mean, my job is as a writer.  I occasionally direct and I very occasionally act.  So I think I'm best at writing.  But often when I'm writing I'll long to be doing a bout of directing or doing a bit of acting.  Anything to avoid the desk! 

OM:  You've said in the past that you are fond of film comedies like "Meet The Parents" or "School Of Rock" and your favorite comedy is "Curb Your Enthusiasm".  Would you want to direct or write those comedies as bleak film noir-ish vehicles, based upon some of the prior work that you've done?  Would you re-imagine them in that way?

PM:  I would leave them as they are.  I wouldn't want to touch them -- I enjoy watching them.  I wouldn't want to mess with anything like that.  They're just perfect. 

OM:  What type of book or story would you like to adapt that you haven't had a chance to adapt, that you've always been interested in adapting?

PM:  I'd quite like to do as a classic horror -- a Dracula or a Frankenstein. or a -- something like that, that people wouldn't normally think of me as being a writer for.  And I'd quite like to do a kind of fun horror film.

OM:  Finally, I understand that you have been working on something [a film] called "The Tourist" --

PM:  Oh no, no, no -- I just had a week or two on that. 

OM:  Oh, okay.  I do understand however that your good friend Steve Coogan and yourself are working on a film version of the "Knowing Me Knowing You" series? 

PM:  Oh, no, that's not quite true.  We've had a series of lunches where we've talked about working on a film.  But we've never actually got round to working on anything.

OM:  I see, I see.  Well I want to thank you very much Patrick.  I wish you all the best of luck with this film --

PM:  Thanks.

OM:  -- and everything else.  Thank you very much.

PM:  Thank you.


The Popcorn Reel.  Copyright 2006.

Originally published on December 21, 2006.



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