Jemima: Hi Henry, how’s the writing going…?
Henry: Happening in short bursts in between home-school meltdowns and playing swing ball.
Jemima: Is writing in quarantine any different from your general writing practice? I guess you have the kids at home now and all the anxieties about how it’s all going to pan out, which is distracting?
Henry: It’s harder to concentrate – the news is an enemy of writing at the best of times – but it’s also a brilliant escape. My boys are aged 14 and 12- old enough to get on with things, young enough to think they know everything!
Jemima: Nora Ephron famously said, ‘The fundamental thing is there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. If you know that you’re half way to being a screenwriter.’ She makes it sound so easy.
Henry: She does, but keeping it simple really helps. I’ve also heard people say, if you can tell a joke, you can write a script: set-up, conflict, resolution. Storytelling is more straightforward than you might think because it’s hard-wired into our brains. Getting bogged down or side-tracked by unnecessary plot is a common mistake. What makes a memorable story are the people in it, so concentrate on them and, if your script is founded on a strong idea, the story should take care of itself. It might take 12 drafts to get there mind you….
Jemima: Does writing screenplays ever get easier – or is it a daily challenge to bring the characters and stories to life?
Henry: Very good question. Like anything you improve with practise, no question about that. It’s a craft and the more time you spend fashioning words on a computer the more polished and professional your work will be. That said, it can still be a horrible experience when you hit a wall. The biggest challenge is probably to find a story worth telling. To find something that can punch through in the very crowded and competitive marketplace.
Jemima: Are there writing techniques that help?
Henry: Whisky works for me. Otherwise, I’d say it’s very easy to get side-tracked doing research, which can become sort of displacement activity for actually writing. The most important thing to research are your characters. Know them and the writing will flow. Don’t worry too much about details which can be filled in during subsequent drafts. Get to the end of the first draft. Then you’ve a living, breathing script and something to build on. Also, know your ending. A script is not a novel which you can perhaps feel your way into and which isn’t constricted by the same narrative demands as film. A film has to have a great ending and you must have a pretty good idea of what that is – not just because you might discover the story doesn’t have legs and you fizzle out half-way through but because the whole theme and point of a story is usually wrapped up in its conclusion. If you don’t know what that is, how do you know what your story is about? By all means surprise yourself along the way in terms of how you reach that ending (if you don’t surprise yourself, chances are you won’t surprise the audience) but have the destination in your head. But the best writing technique there is, is to write.
Jemima: It must be amazing to hear actors say your words…
Henry: I’ll never forget the first time. I was visiting the set of Born A King at Hatfield House and they were acting out a scene I’d written two nights ago. Such a buzz.
Jemima: What’s this latest screenplay you’ve just finished?
Henry: It’s a romantic comedy and if I’m allowed a massive name-drop I’ve just done a pass on the script for Dustin Hoffman. He’s agreed to play a supporting character and made some terrific observations which I’ve just incorporated. He’s one of my all-time favourite actors, if not my favourite, so this is proper ‘dream come true’ territory. Although in this climate who knows what will happen, so I’m not taking anything for granted. Still, it beats thinking about Coronavirus.
Jemima: Real classics stand-the-test-of-time, don’t they? — I’m thinking of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn sparring in Bringing up Baby, with all her falling over and ripping clothes off each other’s backs? It’s slapstick. I guess taste has changed quite a lot since then…
Henry: Absolutely. Classics stand the test of time because they’re timeless. Bringing Up Baby is a great example because we’ll never tire of the magic of seeing one person work their magic on another. It’s intoxicating. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is sheer joy too. But humour is more subject to the vagaries of fashion and taste than other genres perhaps. I love the social comedies and satires of Preston Sturgess and Billy Wilder whose spirit live on in the likes of Trading Places (co-written by Tim Harris who I had the pleasure of writing a script with a while back) but which went out of fashion with gross out humour.
Jemima: I love all those 90’s rom coms with Meg Ryan and Hugh Grant. One Fine Day with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeifer as Manhattan divorcees stands out for me, beige macs and whiny kids. And George. It’s always the same ingredients, isn’t it?
Henry: Yes. Timing, chemistry, pulling heartstrings and hitting funny bones at the same time – and it’s very very hard to pull off because the audience know all the tricks. The rom com has become calcified by formula and critics are very unsparing although audiences seem to be more forgiving. Emma Thompson’s Last Christmas was a big hit despite being booed and hissed. Interestingly, people seem to be turning to favourite rom coms for comfort during the Corona crisis, rewatching all those Nancy Meyers movies. And who can blame them? Wouldn’t it be nice to escape to the world of those 90s rom-coms where your biggest problem is accidentally swapping your chunky mobile phone with Michelle Pfeifer’s?
Jemima: What about casting? Who’s the new George Clooney? Do leading men exist in the same way they used to?
Henry: There are no traditional rom-com leading men any more. Seth Rogen might give great rom-com (see Longshot) but he’s not a rom com guy. Also, what makes a great romantic leading man now? What are desirable characteristics in this day and age? It’s a complicated question. Not necessarily the Clooney type and certainly not the stuttering Hugh Grant type.
Jemima: Hugh Grant’s second coming is pretty thrilling though, isn’t it, as a serious actor? Any tips for budding screenwriters in quarantine before we ‘hang up’…?
Henry: Don’t be afraid! Dive in and write.