William Monahan – Exclusive Interview
Posted by Frosty
I’m a huge fan of William Monahan’s work. If you are not familiar with his name, shame on you. He recently wrote The Departed, which got him nominated for an Academy Award, and he also wrote one of my favorite films of the last few years – Kingdom of Heaven.
If you never saw the directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven you owe it to yourself to seek it out and watch it immediately. The film is a masterpiece and one that was overlooked by far too many people.
But while most missed the epic, many of you have seen The Departed and were as captivated as me by the snappy dialogue and great exchanges between the stellar cast.
Recently, there have been rumors about a sequel with no real info to report. Below is the first time Mr. Monahan has spoken on the record about what he sees for a future film and whether or not the Infernal Affairs films will influence where the American version goes.
But what is also great about the interview is the other subjects he covers. What is the status of Tripoli? What’s it like to work for some huge directors? And of course, what is he working on right now?
This is a great interview and one that I think many of you will like. Hope you enjoy reading it and of course a big thank you to Mr. Monahan for answering these questions. Everyone wish him luck this Sunday where he is up for an Oscar.
What was the process which led you from being a journalist to being a screenwriter?
I was always a dramatist, or screenwriter, as well as a novelist, but journalism and editing became the way I first made a living by writing. And that was all right, because I then saw myself working on the continental plan, where if you’re a literary writer you do journalism, criticism, whatever you can do to make sure that you’re living one hundred percent as a writer, rather than following the American plan of being a teacher. I got pretty entangled in journalism and editing, because even in a field that ultimately will not be your own, you become competitive in it. I’d made headway as a literary novelist, but I decided even as I was publishing my first novel that I was going to ditch it all for film. I really hated the experience of publishing a novel, to the extent that I bought “Light House” back from Penguin Putnam and took it off the market while we were shooting Kingdom of Heaven. It was demoralizing to write a really good book and to realize how little the rewards were, even though the book did quite well, as far as first novels are concerned. The only positive benefit from publishing “Light House” was that I got hired to write the screenplay and then shifted my attention to screenwriting exclusively. Nothing I’ve done in film has been less personal than a novel, or less literary, so I’m not missing out on anything. I made a decision to carry the war into a bigger and better art form.
What was it like to collaborate with Martin Scorsese? How does it differ from working with Ridley Scott? And who’s next, Steven Spielberg?
I’ve actually worked for Steven Spielberg, who I liked a very great deal. I loved every minute of writing Jurassic Park for him. The thing is with all of these guys is that they are absolute masters of their art form in their different ways, and in just watching them operate and talking to them you learn more than you could learn in a billion years of film school. Talking to one of them would be a monstrous advantage in itself. Learning from all three is mind-bending. I’ve had the longest standing relationship with Ridley and we have one way of working, we have kind of similar, Northern, personalities. There’s another way of working with Marty, but I click with both of them. It’s a privilege. I don’t think you ever entirely exit the “fan” state of mind. I keep having “holy shit” moments. You’ll be sitting there with a guy you work with perfectly normally for months on end but then at an odd moment you’ll glance up and you’ll get hit again: Christ, that guy across the table drawing on the script is Ridley Scott. Or, Christ, I’m at Martin Scorsese’s house having dinner. These are guys I grew up idolizing. It's crazy. I sat through almost the entire run of The Duellists at the Exeter Street Theater in Boston when I was seventeen. .
Can you talk about your writing process? Are you a 9 to 5 guy and can sit down and just write or do you go for long stretches of time without writing a single word?
Screenwriting involves a lot of location work and travel and meetings, things that I would never have desired, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with having a schedule. I used to be just a writer in Northampton, Mass., or in downtown New York doing whatever I liked, and now there are other necessary things to do. And then there’s another change because I’m married and have kids, so there’s been a universal shift in how I work. I can’t work at home because when I hear my daughter at the door I will open the door. So I have to leave the house and go to work at an office, and I’ve done that since “Tripoli”. I have an office on the Warners lot these days. One thing which is bugging me recently is working on a computer, because for all the convenience and speed, you’re trying to work on a machine which is also a communications center and a newspaper and a television and a magazine and a movie theater and also you’ve got your music on it. I’d kill for an old Olivetti Praxis and but you literally can’t buy an electric typewriter any more. I’ve tried. I write a lot, continually really.
What is the status of Tripoli?
I own Tripoli. Ridley and I were just talking about it recently. I think that the reason that Tripoli did not get made at Fox at that time—and this is my own appraisal of tea leaves several years old— it’s because Tripoli and Master and Commander were set in the same era and both had Russell Crowe. The guys upstairs made a decision and went with Master and Commander, possibly because of franchise considerations that have obviously not played out. Decisions get made, sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but they’re made and you move on. I might have made the same decision if I already had money sunk into one picture set in 1804, even if the other film was Tripoli. We were very fortunate to have been able to move straight into Kingdom of Heaven. And that's a masterpiece, so what was lost? Nothing. Tripoli will get made. There's no way it can't be. It'll be made when the time's right.
Many rumors are floating about a sequel or prequel to The Departed. What can you tell us and has Martin said if he would be interested. Also are you going to draw any inspiration from the sequels that were made in Asia?
I read the prequel and sequel to Infernal Affairs for the first time a couple of weeks ago and there wasn’t anything I could use in Boston situation, not now. The thing is, that world of “The Departed” is sort of an intensely personal literary construct. If you analyze what the commodity is now, it’s that literary construct. People are talking about a sequel, but the reality is that I could propose “Untitled Boston Crime Picture” and sell it for more than I’d get for a sequel. I’m not putting the screws to anybody, I'm stating a fact. The commodity has transformed. I'll be writing about Boston as long as I live, but whether or not I do it in the form of a Departed sequel is up to other people. I’d honestly love to bring back Dignam, and I know how the picture would open. With The Departed Tango and snow falling on the Boston Common. I know every scene in the picture. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t. When I say that I couldn’t use Infernal Affairs 2 and 3 I’m not criticizing either film, I’m saying that “The Departed” now points in its own direction. Mak and Chong are brilliant filmmakers. I think that the give and take between American and Asian cinema is one of the great energizing cross-cultural relationships, like rock music getting to England in the fifties and coming back as the British invasion. Except both are the R&B record and both are the British invasion. If there were no Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann there probably never would have been an Infernal Affairs, so there’s a chicken and the egg situation to begin with. I’m in negotiations to do another adaptation of a Mak and Chong script, somewhere down the road. And I may do an original in Hong Kong. I love the way they make films, they just run them up and get them in the theaters. If one doesn’t work you do another one. There’s no over-thinking.
Where were you when you fond out that you were nominated for an Oscar and what does being nominated mean to you?
I reckon that the nomination is the win. It’s an honor to be nominated. As for the award itself, you never know how these things are going to bounce. I just won the WGA, but someone might get out there and shake hands, or run a campaign, or people might genuinely believe that someone else did a better adapted screenplay, and I’ll lose, and it’s just not up to me. There are things you can’t worry about, which you absolutely can’t control, and winning an Oscar or not is maybe definitively one of them. It would be nice. I’ve taken extraordinary personal chances for writing since I was sixteen years old and believe me it’s a big deal to hold an award in your hand. I was actually asleep when the nominations came out and had forgotten to leave my phone on. So I found out when I checked my email. My first reaction when I got nominated was real grief that my parents are dead. These things are for your parents. It still is for them, though, if I win.
With the success of The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven are the executives giving you more space and fewer notes? Also what is the worst note you’ve been given?
The thing about this business is that you have to come out of your shell and deal with certain realities of commerce and collaboration and still come up with a masterpiece at the end of it. And you know what? The masterpiece also has to make money. It’s not easy to walk into that set of problems and come out with a work of art at the end of it, but it can be done. As far as getting notes is concerned, I‘ve spent thirty-odd years studying English drama, so I’m personally at a point where I’m post-conscious about craft, but that’s a pricey personal evolution, that’s a thing I chose to do, and you have to remember not everyone’s had time for it, any more than you can expect some other guy off the street to know kung fu or biochemistry. So yeah, there I am, and I sure I know English drama, plus film, and sometimes the other guy knows what somebody at a class told him a screenplay needs, and there’s a difference, but I tell myself what I’d say to my kids or anybody else: when your boss is talking, you listen. The studios catch a lot of crap from the peanut gallery but they’re the guys who pay for the movies and they are rightfully concerned about their investments. I don’t expect an MBA to be Northrop Frye, but I do want to hear his opinions and I’d ask for them were they not given. Do I want to hear is “arc” and “journey” and how does someone “change” through the course of the movie? No, I do not. People change in stories about people changing, not in every story. Not every story is A Christmas Carol. You get this crap about “story” because of these chuckleheads out there running script classes, who really prey on confusion about art and people’s genuine desire to learn. It’s shameful what they’ve done to discourse about motion pictures and to film itself. Writers literally get fired in this business because they aren’t providing enough “journey” in a story that doesn’t call for any. There are no general rules to any sort of writing. Each work has its own inherent rules. You discover them. You don’t import them.
Finally, what are you working on right now?
A really big contemporary film with Ridley, based on a spy novel by David Ignatius, who covers the Middle East for the Washington Post. It's going to shoot next fall. There’s a lot of action and a terrific plot, and great characters. Ridley and I have several things in the tray, including I hope “Tripoli”, and “Blood Meridian”—which is a terrific script but it scares people at the budget level because it’s very violent— and I also have “The Venetian”, with Matt Damon, George Nolfi producing, a couple more things with Leonardo di Caprio, and something pending with Martin Scorsese. “The Gamblers” is something I’m excited to write. It’s about the Clermont set and the disappearance of Lord Lucan, from the book by John Pearson, which I bought in partnership with the producer Quentin Curtis. Ridley Scott will maybe do that and I love the idea because, not only because I love working for Ridley, but you know, odd as it sounds, he’s never done an English film, something which gets really right down in London. And no one knows London in the Sixties and Seventies, better than he does. I love that period, the Technicolor British films from that period. Another couple of projects are coming together at Warners. I'm busy. If I win anything next Sunday I'm going to take a week off and quit smoking, which I've been avoiding doing.