John Brownlow

In the latest installment of their ’10 to Watch Series’, Variety have announced what they consider to be the 2003 ‘10 Screenwriters to Watch’, turning the spotlight on the rising stars of the scriptwriting scene, focusing on emerging writers whose early projects suggest they have the talent and creativity to become hot property in Hollywood.

The one British screenwriter in this year’s list is John Brownlow – the man behind the eagerly awaited Ted and Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. With Cate Blanchett starring in his next feature film it’s a pretty fair to say that his place in Variety’s list is more than deserved and that the former documentary filmmaker will indeed be ‘one to watch’. Fortunately, John was able to take some time out from his busy schedule to tell Future Movies what it’s really like working in film, his thoughts on working with two of Australia’s most talented exports, and his plans for the future

Future Movies: In your career you’ve covered three different roles in the film industry – producer, director and screenwriter. What facets of your personality do you think have allowed you to be successful in each position and which have you enjoyed the most?

John Brownlow: The three roles are really very different, although they intersect.

As a producer you have to take ultimate responsibility for the fate of the film. You can fire the director in extreme circumstances. You have to find the money, and you have to make judgements about the commercial viability of projects. You have to be able to problem solve, and you have to be able to make people do things they really don’t want to. You have to be willing to make the shitty phone call that nobody else wants to make. Out of the three, being producer is my least favorite role. What people never realize is that producers have ultimate responsibility but almost no power. It’s a recipe for stress-related illness. I have literally watched films I produced transmit on TV from a hospital bed because of stomach cramps brought on by stress. You have to have extraordinarily broad shoulders. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamentally important role to understand, because if you can think like a producer you can steer around the rocks that many directors and writers find themselves wrecked on. If you cannot understand why a producer might object to that scene where your hero tortures a small animal, or wants you to change a part that is so specifically written that only one A-list actor can play him/her, you are going to have problems in Hollywood.

I am a good but not a great producer. To me, producing is purely a means to an end. I don’t like the job itself. I don’t like the things you have to do. Because, make no mistake, you have to lie as a producer. As a writer or director you should never be insulted when a producer attempts to screw you. It’s a good sign. It means they are screwing everyone else and the film is probably going to get made. If they don’t try to screw you, watch out. The film is in trouble already.

As a writer or director, the first job is to make friends with the producer. I am always astounded that some writers and directors set up the producer as the enemy. Peckinpah did this and it was his undoing. The producer should be your very best friend. Or at least they should think they are. When there are several producers, you have to figure out which one you should befriend. Here’s a clue: it’s the one with the power.

Incidentally, the only job that is conceivably less pleasant than that of a producer is that of an agent. It beats me why anybody would ever want to be an agent.

In some ways, the writer’s job is the easiest of the three, or at least it is if like me you find writing relatively easy. You have a huge amount of freedom, you work your own hours, you spend every day creating things, and if you are lucky people send wheelbarrows full of money round to your house quite regularly. You can live anywhere, or more precisely you don’t have to live in LA, which is a big plus. Because you can originate your own material, you don’t hang around waiting for the phone to ring. The downsides are more subtle, but significant. For a start, you have essentially no power, unless people think that only you can write the script. Once this happens you have a lot of power and you will suddenly be consulted on everything and go out to dinner with executives, which is very pleasant. Of course it ends as suddenly as it began once you have finished the script.

The biggest downside is simply that on that rare occasion where you write a script that you really think represents your finest work, a script that you understand every nuance of, that you’ve watched in your head a thousand times, you then have to hand it over to a director who may not understand it at all, or at least not in the same way that you do. The process of watching them butcher it is stunningly painful. Not only that, but you will be required to do rewrites in which you participate in the butchering. The blood is on your own hands. Note that I am not objecting to this process: it is necessary. The director has to make the film their own. It may well be a very good film. It may well be a lot BETTER than the one you had in mind. The process is, however, very bloody and very painful and makes you think that it is better not to invest so heavily in your scripts. This of course is death to the writing process. The only solution is to direct your own stuff, or at least the stuff that comes right from the heart, which is where I’m headed.

(The other hard part about writing is when you take on a project that you fall out of love with. You have to do draft after draft, rewrite after rewrite, and it kills you. You’re exhausted, you hate the material, you have no ideas for it. You get blocked, which is simply another way of saying you can see no way of improving it. In these circumstances you end up praying that they will take you off it and employ another writer. Of course, you can’t actually SAY that. And of course they will probably have decided by that point that nobody else can write it, so you’re stuck with the damn thing.)

Directing is really the hardest of the jobs but also the most pleasant. It’s the hardest because YOU have to roll the stone uphill. Nothing happens unless you say so. You cannot relent for a moment. It is physically exhausting. It is massively over determined, which is to say that there are always decisions to be made for which you do not have sufficient information to make an informed decision. And yet you must always be decisive. The great part about it is that you do not have anyone else second-guessing you. At least not until you start arguing about the cut. I can remember going from being a producer to a director in documentaries and suddenly feeling this massive release of tension because I was no longer a middle-manager, which is what a producer is. To have power over your own work is immensely liberating. It also does tend to feed megalomania, which is quite dangerous if you have megalomaniac tendencies, which most directors do (I include myself).

One of the first things I learned as a director is that it is impossible to direct and be a nice person at the same time. My old boss used to say ‘we’re making films, not friends’, and boy was she right. You have to be a complete monster sometimes. Of course you have to back this up with being nice some of the time or everyone will quit. The main thing is to make people realize it’s not personal when you yell at them. The only way to do this is to get drunk with them. Buying them baskets of muffins, which is widely practiced as an alternative, simply doesn’t work.

You have to pursue your own obsessions as a director and hope to God that other people find them interesting. The moment you start trying to make films for other people, you are dead. You’re either condescending to them or you just misunderstand them entirely. You really have to make the film you would like to watch.

FM: You have been involved in many documentary films and television programmes. Which one you have you been proudest of?

JB: I really liked CANTERBURY TALES, which was a series of 3×60 minute documentaries telling the story of the Church of England in the 20th Century. I liked it because it sounded totally boring, but it was riveting, by turns funny and tragic. I lost count of the number of times I found myself in tears when we were editing it. I met the most astounding people while we were making it, who told me enough stories to make films out of until I die. I also liked it because it had a sort of epic narrative sweep, and it used cinematic rather than documentary techniques. We had cranes and lots of tracking shots and wonderful music.

We did the same thing in PENNIES FROM BEVAN, which was a feature length documentary I made about the founding of the British National Health Service. It was even more cinematic. At one point we built two entire 1940s hospital wards in disused hospitals, complete with cast iron beds and rubber enemas and all the rest of it. We filmed all the interviews here. I can remember doing a big tracking shot with the presenter, Ian Hislop, where he walked through a pair of double doors into this huge light-tent that we had built so that it appeared he was entering the pearly gates of heaven or something. After we’d finished the shot he turned to me and said “You’re not long for TV, are you?” and I realized he was probably right.

FM: Do you think the investigative documentary genre has been affected by the considerable number of fly-on-the-wall documentary programmes (i.e. Airport, Driving School etc)? Has it increased an interest in more serious documentary programmes, or has it pushed out programmes with a non-trivial slant?

JB: I think we are witnessing the death of TV documentary, to be honest. I have seen the greatest minds of a generation go into reality TV. There is one person I know very well, who worked with me on many films, who I respect as probably the most able researcher I have ever employed. She’s now doing GET ME OUT OF HERE, I’M A CELEBRITY. It’s enough to make you despair. I spent the last year of my TV career as the Head of Development at a big London TV company and I pitched the most wonderful, extraordinary stories, that six or seven years earlier would have been commissioned in a second, and hit a brick wall. The stuff they commissioned was the crap we came up with in the pub when we were drunk. You know, sex and shopping and cars and tits. At that point you sort of shrug and say, well, it was fun while it lasted but so long and thanks for all the fish.

FM: Which documentary filmmakers, past and present, do you most admire?

JB: As one door closes another opens. There are very good documentaries being made but they are not being done for TV. BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE opened up a lot of doors. Joe Bullman’s THE MAN WHO STOLE MUSTIQUE is another exemplary film. Personally I’m tired of complaint-documentary and documentary which focuses on one minority or another. I really loved Ken Burns’ THE WEST. But the best documentary maker of all time, without question, for me is Humphrey Jennings.

Jennings is a paragon of film-making. I am beyond awe at what he achieved. It’s impossible to single out his best films, because so many of them are astounding. FIRES WERE STARTED, THE SILENT VILLAGE, LISTEN TO BRITAIN. So many. Technically, he was a master. His cinematography, his use of music… utterly modern. Moreover he was making films at a time when films were radically important to the future of the country. He saw something in England that nobody else had seen, and made historical connections that completely valid. His films were propaganda, but they were also true. He worked entirely within the establishment, but with a completely radical perspective. And the best thing is that people LOVED his films. You can never forget them once you’ve seen them. Wow, I’d better shut up, I think. But he’s my favorite documentary maker, by a long way. His end was rather tragic, unfortunately.

FM: What made you change emphasis from producing to writing?

Many reasons. Primarily I wanted the freedom to tell stories as I wanted to hear them rather than always being forced to stick to what actually happened. When you are making documentaries, you have to play the hand that the facts deal you. You know, this happened then this happened. You can still play with the narrative, but you can’t change the ending. I wanted the freedom to deal my own hand and play it according to my own rules. Moreover, in documentary making you continually find yourself in this ridiculous situation where, for example, you are making a film about the Church of England, and you are interviewing this ninety-year-old man about the Archbishop of York in 1933. In between takes he starts to tell you the most extraordinary story of how he met and fell in love with his wife, but she was a secret agent, and got captured in Germany, and he thought she died and married someone else… and so on… and it’s just the most amazing, unbelievable story… and then the cameraman finishes changing the tape, and you have to say…”Roll… now, back to the Archbishop” because you can’t use the story he just told you.

Everyone in documentaries knows the best stories fall between the cracks like this. I have a thousand of these stories in my head. I wanted to be able tell them.

FM: How do you go about choosing the subject matter of your screenplays i.e. why write a screenplay about the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in particular?

JB: In that case because somebody asked me, but also because I knew a lot about the subject and could see that it was a story that had a universal aspect. What I mean is, it was still an interesting story if they weren’t famous or you weren’t interested in poetry. Two people meet and fall in love. They marry, but it’s a marriage which only one of them can survive. This would be a great story anyway: the fact that it’s specifically about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath just makes it better.

FM: When writing about ‘real-life’ individuals, as you have done in Ted and Sylvia, to what extent should you consider how your work might affect their existing relatives?

JB: I think the only responsibility you have is to the truth. I don’t mean the literal truth, although that is important: I mean the deeper truth. For example, say two people had an argument where one of them hit the other. There are all sorts of ways of writing that as a scene. You could make either one of them a monster. Actually its much more interesting if you understand both points of view. Can you be true to what each of them felt? Of course, the truth is lost so all you can do is tell a story that you personally believe, based on everything you know. I think if you treat the story with respect, there’s no reason anyone should get upset. In the case of Plath and Hughes, each of them has been vilified in biographies and the press. I think we took a substantially more humane approach.

FM: Do you feel actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow or Cate Blanchett taking roles in your films detracts or attracts focus to the films themselves?

JB: Are you kidding? Movies are a business. You need stars to get your movie made. Stars are stars because they have something special about them. Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett are great, great actors. It’s a privilege that they decide to get involved with your work. There are sometimes movies that don’t need a star, but they are few and far between. Even if you don’t have a star, you need someone with star quality. Hopefully you are writing about extraordinary people. You better have someone extraordinary to play them.

FM: Do you find it easier to write strong roles for women, or is this simply an unintended by-product of your writing in general?

JB: I just try to write strong roles. The key is always to figure out what a person is like inside, what drives them and what limits them. I think it’s a bit like being an actor. I don’t see any difference in that respect between writing men and writing women. If you think of women as objects, you will write them as objects. The same with men.

It’s true that strong roles for women are thin on the ground. But strong roles for men are thin on the ground too. In fact, it’s a wonderful opportunity. There are great female actors who find good material hard to locate. So if you write a great female part, you are likely to get an amazing actor for less than their market rate. I’m always amazed that people haven’t figured that out yet. Of course, some have, which is why you get films like IN THE BEDROOM or THE HOURS.

FM: Which other actors would you most like to write for?

JB: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Dirk Bogarde, James Stewart, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Sydney Greenstreet, Charles Laughton, James Cagney. Quite a few others. I think you get the picture.

FM: If budget was no option, what screenplay would you most like to write?

JB: Ha, good question. In fact budget itself is rarely a problem… it’s what they will give you versus what you need that is the problem.

I always say that there are only two kinds of movies worth making: Agincourt, or Agincourt of the heart. In terms of epic scale, I would love to do Custer’s Last Stand, or something about the Battle of the Somme, or the Charge of the Light Brigade. Some great doomed military project. Cortez in Mexico. Napoleon and Wellington! Nelson at Trafalgar. I love all that stuff.

I’ve a real hankering to do Sci-Fi, too. I have one project, GENESIS, which is the retelling of the Genesis myth in space. It was set up at BBC Films for a while, but we agreed it wasn’t a good fit for us. It’s a big, big film. I may write it as a spec, I think. I’d love to transplant one of those great fifties epics like SPARTACUS into space. SPARTACUS on Mars, that’d be cool.

FM: Of the other members of the ’10 to watch’ list, whose other work do you most admire?

JB: Actually I don’t know any of their work so it’s hard to say. I guess I admire people who are ‘real’ writers rather than just wrote a screenplay because they lived in LA. I’m in awe of novelists. I’m not sure I could write a novel, though I’ve been tempted.

FM: Do you feel any added pressure to succeed further now that you have been designated ‘one to watch’?

JB: No. The “One to Watch” thing was kind of funny. It’s the classic case of the overnight success that takes ten years to happen. Everyone who matters in Hollywood knows who you are if you’re any good. The Variety thing gives them a poke in the butt, but that’s all really. My mum was happy, though, as she now has something she can show to her friends. My sister ‘accidentally’ left the article in the photocopier at work. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am quite a driven person, so I have way more inward pressure to succeed than outward. In fact I am more or less immune to outward pressure of that kind.

FM: Is it correct that you are planning to direct your first feature in 2004? If so, how do you feel your career developing? Would you like to concentrate on one particular role, or would you prefer to both write and direct your films?

JB: Yeah, I plan to direct. In fact, it was always the plan. The only way I could see of moving from documentaries over to features was to become a successful writer and then use that as leverage to make someone let me direct. Once you have worked with people on a couple of projects they figure out whether you are reliable and whether they like to be in the same room as you and get drunk with you and whether they think you can pull it off, so when you ask the $64,000 question “Can I direct?” they tend to say “Yes”, because it’s an abstract question and you’re not asking for money right there and then. You then tell everyone else that you’re going to direct a film for them, and suddenly you’re a director. Then it comes down to the material. I found a book that I thought would make a wonderful film, got the rights, and wrote a spec script. Now we’re developing that to shoot in 2004. So far it’s all gone according to plan. The attraction for a producer or financier is that they get a (hopefully) terrific script for a knock-down price. The downside is that they have to deal with a first time director. You just have to make the prospect palatable for them. Show them storyboards, find the locations, make them feel that you can actually do it. And make sure they are going to surround you with a support structure that doesn’t allow you to fail, or at least not too spectacularly.

The great thing about potentially being a writer/director is that you have a lot of creative freedom and you’re not dependent on other people for your material. If you can add ‘producer’ to the mix and become a ‘producer/writer/director’ then your hand is even stronger. You have to be careful not to overplay it though, or everyone will just run away from you. You have to listen to what other people say.

I think that a large amount of baseless self-confidence helps and I’ve been told I have that.

I now have a production company (Deep Fried Films Inc) and am also forming a company with Ruby Films, who made Sylvia. My aim is to develop material for me to write, and possibly direct. In the longer term, I may develop stuff for other people to write and direct. So I guess I can see myself wearing all three hats for the foreseeable future.

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