“I want originality!” and seven things I learnt when I met Christopher Hampton by Tom Kerevan
After a short break, the London Breakfast Club was back. At the new, more sociable time of Pimms O’Clock on a Friday, the Phoenix Artist Club was yet again packed out to hear words of wisdom from a Hollywood great.
I was lucky enough to get a bit of time beforehand to talk with Christopher. What struck me most about him was that the old adage ‘leave your ego at the door’ just didn’t apply here, simply because he didn’t have an ego to start with. An incredibly generous and genuine soul who seemed to enjoy being in a room of writers as much as we enjoyed listening to him.
The hour flew by as he delivered soundbite after soundbite of anecdotes and lessons from a legendary career of award-winning work in collaboration with film-making greats. What follows here is just a highlights reel!
1. “I want originality!”
‘Give me the same but different’ is something we all hear, time and time again. Christopher went a step further to talk directly about originality. It’s not a word that producers always want to hear as it can be translated as ‘too different’. But it’s also a word you can associate with most, if not all, of his work. As he pointed out, Atonement probably wouldn’t have fared well as a spec script because it didn’t conform to the traditional 3 Act structure. We don’t tend to like non-conformity, but originality is precious even if some don’t think so.
Be original. And believe in that originality.
2. “There are no hard and fast rules.”
Tying into originality, Christopher doesn’t subscribe to a lot of the Hollywood rules of writing. Knowing your ending before you start writing, for example – if the final draft is stunning, does it matter how you got there?
And do characters have to be protagonists or antagonists? He said he tries to identify with all of them, to truly understand them: “Always try not to sit in moral judgment of your characters”.
3. “Tell the story, through and through.”
Whilst working with Fred Zinnemann on a film that didn’t end up being made, he learnt one of the most important lessons of his career. Just tell the fucking story. As plainly as possible without distractions. Narrative is the most important thing, so chip away until all that’s left is what is necessary to tell the story.
As he pointed out, it’s an easy lesson but often gets forgotten.
4. “Every chapter has a rope.”
Whilst working with David Lean, he learnt another crucial lesson. Every film is divided into a number of chapters – sometimes called sequences – which consist of a few scenes. Imagine a rope stretching through each chapter, and just keep pulling on that rope. Make it as taut as you possibly can. And then tie the last image of one chapter to the first image of the next.
5. “When adapting, you get closer as you go deeper.”
Talking about working on ‘Atonement’, it was interesting to hear that in his original drafts Briony Tallis narrated the film to convey the central message. But as he rewrote, he got closer and closer to the heart of the novel. And in fact, the deeper he went the more he chipped away at the narrator until he realised they didn’t need it. It was eventually replaced with the TV interview we see at the end of the film.
It might be more difficult to adapt a book without a narrator, but it’s much more interesting as a result, and therefore often more truthful.
6. “Close relationships generally produce the best outcomes.”
In Hollywood there is a trend to fire writers and bring in fresh blood at every turn. In fact, him being fired featured quite heavily in many anecdotes! In his experience, the more writers there are, the more those involved lose sight of what attracted everyone to the project in the first place.
The best films either tend to be from writer/directors, or from close relationships between the writer and director. When two people have worked together and naturally understand the overall creative vision, the outcome is normally far superior to a film that leaves a trail of fired writers in its wake.
7. “Embrace diversification.”
Some writers try to ‘polish a career’, write the same style, plough the same furrow. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, that’s not what Christopher ever wanted to do, and is perhaps one of the hidden secrets to his success.
He has written in as mediums as there are and it keeps him fresh, to know that when this is done, there’s something different waiting for him. Maybe it is this very desire that has produced so much originality in Christopher’s hugely successful career?
This really is just the tip of the iceberg of what I learnt, and I recommend listening to the full podcast, particularly if you’re adapting work at the moment. He spoke a lot about his playwriting, and his experiences in Hollywood as well.
But I think what I took away beyond all else, was a sense that being genuine and heartfelt, both in your work and with everyone you meet, will not lead you far wrong.
On behalf of all who attended, a big thank you to the London Breakfast Club and Christopher for an inspiring afternoon.
Tom Kerevan is a screenwriter and producer with Cannibal Films. His first feature ‘Tear Me Apart’ is available on Amazon Prim, and his second feature ‘Gun’ is intending to shoot later in 2017.