A few days ago we reported screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) was going to adapt Park Chan-wook’s fantastic 2005 film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance with Charlize Theron set to star and produce along with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures. For those unfamiliar with the original, Lady Vengeance “is the story of a woman who for reasons of her own completes a prison term for a murder she did not commit, reemerging to punish the killer, and avenge the dead.” The film is the final chapter in Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy.
Shortly after the news broke, I reached out to Monahan to see if he could offer us any additional information about how the project came together. In addition, we talked about whether he’s started writing it yet, if Sympathy could take place in Boston, whether it would be watered down for American audiences, when did he first see Park Chan-wook’s movies and does he have a favorite, his adapting process and much more. Finally, as we reported earlier this year, Monahan is set to get behind the camera again with Mojave. He told me he starts to shoot early next year and we’ll hear about casting in the coming weeks. Hit the jump for more.
William Monahan: Charlize asked me a few months ago if I’d be interested in doing it and I said yes. You would be right to imagine that I’ve turned down a very great number of Asian adaptations. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is different in a lot of ways. It’s the big one, it’s a female lead, it’s technically impossible to take on unless you can be very sure of yourself taking up the themes and coming out with a win, which makes it a sort of duel, and it’s Charlize, who is a genius film actor. I thought, right, if there’s going to be another Asian adaptation from me, that’s the one, because it’s the most difficult one. If you can set yourself a seriously enjoyable, which is to say difficult, artistic problem, and work with Charlize Theron, and kick internet lunatics in the nuts, I’m in.
My great-grandfather In Gloucester, Mass., was a bare-knuckle boxer. People would come to the door of his very respectable house and say “Henry, there’s a man here from Halifax Nova Scotia who’s heard of you and says you can’t take him.” And old Henry would go out and whale the gentleman under the laundry lines where they used to hang the dried codfish. That genetics thing really works. Go ahead and tell me I can’t do an Asian adaptation and see what happens. You might glance at what happened previously.
Monahan: I love his work. I’ve seen everything as it’s become available. Lady Vengeance is my favorite at the moment from an artistic perspective, but I won’t watch it again. My job is to forget it visually and rhythmically. I’ll be provided with a transcription, preferably not a very close or good translation, because that’s the way you do it. I love his film but that’s not what I’m coming in to do. I’m not going to name a favorite. I’ve said this before, somewhere, but after you’ve hit a certain level as an artist, you start to view films with a strangely divided consciousness. One part of you is the regular viewer. But the other part just can’t be “audience” any more. You’re another professional, intensely conscious of what the other guy is doing and how he’s doing it, the same way a songwriter can’t listen to music in the way that a guy who isn’t a songwriter can. Dylan listens to music knowing exactly what came from exactly where. It doesn’t ruin the experience or improve the experience but it’s a different experience.
I’ll watch a film and know what the studio notes were, and see where the actor clearly went off the page. So you can fall out of the experience of simply enjoying something. I’m saying all this to build a contrary case, because Park can sustain his genius, call it a level of unadulterated individuality, through a picture, and certainly through the Vengeance pictures. Very rarely do you see a sustained level of quality and surprise that you get in Park, and you see that in Park more than in most other people, probably because he gets fucked with less. He’s in Korea, he gets his finance with no strings, nobody worries about notes from the distributors, he does his thing. He gets to be Park. He can do his show with no one coming in to scramble the work in the end-game, out of fear. He can be an artist, and that’s where you have to get to, and it’s hard. We are not in a golden age of film in the West. It costs too much, and all too often a picture isn’t soup until everybody’s pissed in it. But wonderful things get through, if there’s enough, call it power, completely on the same page creatively. I think you have that in this case with Megan, who is fearless, and Charlize and me, neither of whom you would want to meet on the wrong terms in a dark alley. Forget me, I’d be afraid of Charlize.
Monahan: I never say yes to anything until I’ve seen how I’d do it, which I suppose is a kind of writing. And you get to yes when something comes up that connects with something you’ve been thinking about or trying to get at independently. I’m finding more and more that a job is a kind of doorway to get at your own marooned obsessions. The Departed caught fire, pure and simple, because at the time I was obsessed with Boston and thinking about myself in my twenties. I was angry in my twenties, I was lost, I had lost people. I was finding it hard to reconcile my physicality and energy with a sedentary and intellectual profession. If somebody in the history department had come to me and said do you want to join the CIA, I would have done it, not because I believed in it but because fuck it. I hesitate to say it but the cranberry juice scene was largely autobiographical. I cleverly concealed a lot of this by calling the protagonist Billy. I just did something rather big for Universal, which I can’t talk about, and it went very well, and it was a yes because it connected electrically to a novel I’d put aside.
Kingdom of Heaven was a yes on the spot because Ridley said “knights” and I thought of the Leper King. So if I say yes, you can assume that it’s already to some degree written in my head. I think I’ve said yes twice to things I shouldn’t have, to please people in earlier days, or because I wasn’t thinking, or because I wanted to beat some other guy for a job, which is very male and less than creditable, but then you grow up. I’ve become very careful and selective. So if I say I’ll write it, it’s written.
Monahan: I’ve had stuff watered, but you can be sure that I’ve never done the watering. As I said before, this is me, Charlize, and Megan Ellison. Charlize and I went with Megan, and she with us, because she wasn’t afraid of the material. We’ve discussed the adaptation thing before, but you’re asking the question again, quite rightly, on behalf of the sort of turbulent Internet proletariat that doesn’t quite get what’s going on in this sort of cultural exchange. American films never get redone in other countries not because someone in say Korea or Holland might not like to do Batman, but because our films go to those countries as part of the usual market and always have and always will. No studio is going to dilute its market or library by consenting to foreign productions. But if you’re working in Asia, like Park, you offset the problem of not being able to be widely released in America by having a second crack at monetizing your intellectual property, through American adaptation, and also have attention more broadly drawn to the original or underlying material. That’s why it’s a double positive for a foreign filmmaker for so called “remakes” to be made, but people are too thick to realize it. There was no downside for Alan Mak and Felix Chong when The Departed went up—and certainly not when it did well and won four Oscars. It started a nice little fight about what was better, which still rages, and moved a lot of DVDs for those guys.
From my end of things, as regards adaptation, it never quite gets through to people that screenwriting is merely drama in English, and if you know anything whatsoever you know that that drama in English was at its absolute apex when Shakespeare and other Elizabethans were taking foreign stories and doing their departures from the material, which, by the way, was the sort of unrecognized joke in calling The Departed The Departed. I wasn’t fucking around when I took that one on. I knew very well, as a writer, till then, of originals-only, that I was specifically taking on what Shakespeare specifically did, in Shakespeare’s specific profession. Nine-tenths of what he did was adaption and I’m sure that some asshole in the Mermaid Tavern told him that Romeo and Juliet was a piece of shit and the original was better. If I take on a foreign story I know very well the tradition I’m in and what the requirements are. I don’t belittle screenwriting, in the way that novelists do who can’t get on with it, and I won’t have it belittled. It’s the only popular literary form we’ve got left. Adaptation is a very traditional and honorable endeavor in writing for dramatic performance, and if people don’t know that it leads to a hell of a lot of originality and invention in the right hands, well, I’m not going to provide a reading list. Getting into English is, in a sense, making the grade. You might not like it: but that’s the truth, and it has been true since Chaucer.
You said in the press release:“This will be very American – and very unexpected,” says Monahan. “Park is a genius; it’s the Everest of adaptations and I’ve got blood in my teeth to do it.” Can you elaborate on how it will be “very American”. Do you see the film taking place in Boston?
Monahan: It absolutely won’t take place in Boston. Boston isn’t “American”. I think I’ve said before that the X-factor about The Departed was that it was Bostonian, which is different from American. Boston used to be what America was, and definitively—revolutionary, to begin with, with a high moral and intellectual culture, doing things like, for example, firing on British soldiers, and ending slavery while the rest of the country really didn’t care. Boston stopped being America when Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams for the presidency, and it was further rusticated when the literary center moved to New York, probably because the parties were better, same as today. Boston ended up analogous to a kind of Liverpool, except with Oxford and Cambridge in it, and it’s a paradox in every dimension.
I grew up talking about Jefferson with my grandfather as if he were still in office. So in Boston you lived in a fusion of the Yankee past and the Irish working class present. “America” was on TV. We saw America on TV the same way foreigners still see America on TV, like something beamed in from a retarded planet. You’d watch The Brady Bunch for a minute, these cyborgs cavorting on Astroturf, and then say fuck it and go upstairs and read. We’re disconnected and different, and to confuse things even further there isn’t one Boston you can put your finger on. I live on Beacon Hill now, and the single significant difference between Charles Street and Holland Park Avenue is the accents and the shape of the license plates.
The radical thing about Matt and Ben’s work on Good Will Hunting, Ben’s other Boston films, and the thing about The Departed is that the average non-Bostonian Americans watching these pieces are essentially watching foreign films without quite putting their finger on the situation. They are effectively watching British pictures about class, as British as black and white Schlesinger stuff. Ray Winstone thinks I’m fucking supernatural because I can write London as if I grew up there and I always say, well, I was over there from the time I was a teenager, etc, etc, as if there’s a material reason, and it’s true, but the real truth is that Boston is still England, and it shook Henry Adams to realize it a hundred and fifty years ago, and it shook me. It shook John Fowles when he came over to see his publishers in Boston in the 60s. If you ask me about Boston you get the whole nine yards because it’s a mystery I’ll be still trying to solve when I’m dead. But I won’t be trying to solve it in Lady Vengeance. Lady Vengeance needs to spread out into a more mythic, cinematic America if it’s to be done at all, but I’m not going to say how I’m going to do it.
When we last spoke, you mentioned that you hoped to be filming Mojave in 2012. What’s the status of the project and can you tell people what it’s about?
Monahan: When I said it was going in 2012 I was in a state of misapprehension about my schedule. It had to fit in somewhere between “invade Normandy” and “land on Moon”, and it couldn’t. I won’t say a word what it’s about, but I will say that it’s cast and going in the first quarter of next year. You’ll hear about Mojave casting within a matter of weeks, or next week.
Do you see yourself writing another book anytime soon?
Monahan: I am still a very serious novelist but then all this happened and I went dormant. For how long I don’t know. You have to have your life rigged properly and very specifically to be a novelist, and I’m not sure I can go back. All that went away when Ridley Scott said “Come to New York”. Months later I was standing on the battlements of Ridley’s Jerusalem, looking at the siege towers, thinking, Jesus, I wrote this in my garage. How do you go back to a book-party? You have to pick one thing and be it. Which way do you turn? I didn’t turn towards money, I turned to a bigger and more dangerous and relevant art form.
When you can do more than one thing you come to a point where you have to choose, but once within film, mercifully, careers within film can be integrated. You can be a writer, director, producer, actor. Paul Bettany is one of the greatest actors alive, and as it turns out, Paul Bettany is one of the best screenwriters in the world. You can integrate that. You can’t integrate writing novels and being a filmmaker with a company. William Goldman did novels and screenplays but I don’t think he was ever in the full affray as a producer or director. As for books, I’m definitely in film for the time being, but I should note that I am very happy that Light House [stet], is going to come out in an Odyssey Books edition very soon, with people like Evelyn Waugh and that on the list, which is a bit of a vindication. I don’t believe that my first publisher knew that they had an eventual “classic”, and I’m glad. Had they had the slightest idea what the fuck they were doing I’d be twelve books in, a visiting writer somewhere, up in Amherst with elbow patches, hitting the sherry, divorced from some sort of macrobiotic potter and upending undergraduates, so it’s all worked out for the best. After all that, yes, I will do another novel.
Finally, earlier this year I sat down with Monahan for an extended interview. If you missed what he said about The Gambler and Sin City 2, click here. And here’s Monahan and Colin Farrell talking about London Boulevard, what got them both into making movies, their favorite actors and directors, their first meeting, the script, how they found Farrell’s character, filming in London, rehearsals, and a lot more.