With director Rupert Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) The Gambler opening soon, I recently landed an exclusive interview with Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed). As most of you know from the trailers, the remake stars Mark Wahlberg as a literature professor whose gambling spirals out of control, affecting both himself and those around him. The film also stars Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and Michael K. Williams. As you might imagine with a script by Monahan, the film is loaded with incredible dialogue and tense, edge-of-your-seat sequences.
Over the past few years I’ve landed a number of great interviews with Monahan. While all the interviews were informative and insightful, I think the one you’re about to read is the best yet. Not only is it really in depth and candid, but he talks for the first time about his severe motorcycle accident where he almost lost his foot and discusses the process of writing The Gambler and how the project came about, if he ever had to make huge changes to a project and why, his approach to screenwriting, the inception and intent of a great scene from the film that sees Mark Wahlberg delivering a lengthy monologue about talent, his thoughts on the current state of television, why he avoids writing about the middle class, the status of other projects like Mojave, American Desperado, Tripoli, Blood Meridian, John Le Carre’s A Delicate Truth, The Throwaways, Becket, Vengeance for Charlize Theron, and so much more. If you’re a fan of William Monahan or simply interested in screenwriting, I promise you will love this interview. Hit the jump to read.
Collider: I don’t think many people realize you were in a bad motorcycle accident. What happened? What are you comfortable talking about?
WILLIAM MONAHAN: I had a bike in winter storage in Vermont and got on it without doing a thorough checkout. I thought something was wrong with the fuel, and then the front end was weird, but the instant I noticed that I was off the road and down. I was wearing a soft leather jacket, which was stupid, and it grabbed the asphalt and all my left ribs from sternum to spine broke in sort of an explosion. My ankle broke in an armored enduro boot, which is not easy. Had I not been wearing the boot I would have lost my foot. Had I been wearing armor I might have slid, but I was stupid and had on a soft jacket that grabbed the asphalt, broke bones, and then just catapulted me. I got airlifted and it was in the Vermont police notes, but “William J. Monahan, Jr.”, off my driver’s license, is like “John Smith”. “John Smith airlifted”. “James B. Connolly airlifted”.
It happened in May and I didn’t walk properly until September. You don’t want to do that twice. I had all this advice to get an electric bed and a chair that put you on your feet and physical therapy but I thought fuck that. I had an eye-bolt put in the ceiling and ran some quarter inch line through it so I could haul myself in and out of bed with my good arm. I was working within days of getting out of the ICU. I went off morphine and just dealt with it. The luckiest thing in the world, apart from me not hitting my head, which I need, was that the man behind me, who saw me crash, came up to where I was lying and said “I’m an EMT.” I had a collapsed lung so I couldn’t cry but I would have. I have a nine-year-old girl. What are the odds of an EMT being in the truck behind you in the middle of nowhere? I couldn’t tell the extent of my injuries, lying there, but I became very determined that if light appeared I was fucking well not going into it. I thought I died on the helicopter. It concentrates the mind wonderfully about all sorts of things when you think you have died, and then find yourself alive. I apparently woke up briefly at Dartmouth-Hitchock Medical Center and pulled my IVs out, and then I got my catheter out, which is not easy, but indicates what I was on by way of drugs. I got out of bed with a whole side of broken ribs and started walking on my broken leg to find my pants so I could get to work. That’s morphine for you. I was captured.
The red band trailer is loaded with great dialogue and visuals. When you’re writing a script, how much are you painting a portrait of the room and energy of a scene and how much is it a collaboration with the director?
MONAHAN: Thanks about the red band trailer, I really like it. I keep watching it and laughing. Red Band is great, isn’t it? Rupert is an artist and the actors are superb. You have “Yeah whatever did happen to dad?” and then the Goodman speech. I was just delighted. I think Irwin Winkler has said that The Gambler was shot from my first draft. Rupert Wyatt directed, brilliantly. I don’t have anything to do with locations or nuance or performance beyond anything that is maybe inherent on the page. I was never on set for “The Gambler,” except one day I visited to do an EPK and said the film isn’t about addiction. I don’t believe in addiction. I don’t want to give away the shop, but the film’s just not about gambling addiction. It’s about gambling used consciously for something else. I think that gambling is a synthetic experience and that if you have any balls you gamble with your life. I have. So can everybody else.
How did this project come about and was it a tough one to write?
MONAHAN: Initially, Irwin Winkler and Martin Scorsese called me at the house in California. I was still living in California. Perhaps I’d met Irwin alone first. I think I had read the script before the phone call. I hadn’t seen the entire Karel Reisz film and still have not. It came out when I was thirteen. Watching it would have been contrary to my process and maybe it would have capsized the process. I did “The Departed” from eighty pages of bad transcription and translation, and never saw the films, and that was my opportunity, and frankly
The Gambler was pretty much the same. They gave me a Toback script. I have no idea if it was the shooter or not. My job is to do my own thing, so I need as much ignorance of the original as I can contrive. I’ve read too much, not least Chaucer and Boccaccio, to believe in originals. You can believe in originals only if you just don’t know their context within literature. Certainly I believe in originality, but it lies with the teller, not the tale. Since the days we lived in caves there have been about 5 stories, about revenge or ambition or sexual jealousy, or whatever. There are damned few originals that I wouldn’t touch. Maybe Lawrence or The Searchers, or Ridley’s The Duellists, which is genius and has the clarity of genius. It is not just the debut of a serious talent but an example of a talent debuting fully formed. I love Cameron’s “Aliens” but I know what he nicked or homaged from Zulu!, nothing against him because I would have done it myself, you know, whereas Ridley’s Alien lifted nothing, zero. Space ship, life form, and go with it, and that can be the spirit of adaptation as well. I’d redo High Noon in a heartbeat because it actually blows. It’s another one of those classics that no one has seen, or can watch without falling asleep.
Gary Cooper is wrong, the fight is TV, the credit sequence is awful, and I don’t care how many cutaways to ticking clocks there are, it can be done better, and not left there in a state of disturbed incompletion. John Wayne was bullshit about High Noon and not because he differed with its politics. He differed with the way it presented frontier Americans as moral and physical cowards. He turned down the part. Americans are not moral and physical cowards now, much less on the frontier, then. The bank-robbers getting shot to pieces in Northfield, Minnesota is more of what would have happened in any real High Noon. So there was something wrong with it organically. Politics just have to stay away from the art, because if you try both you don’t get either. I don’t know if The Gambler was difficult to write. There’s a point at which you can’t say that difficulty is difficult. Writing is a pleasure. It’s what I do. Getting paid for it is a bonus.
With The Gambler and other film projects, what’s the furthest you’ve written and realized it’s not working and had to either start again or make huge changes? Has that ever happened to you?
MONAHAN: The Gambler was performed off the first draft. That is not to say that all of the script is on the screen. That’s a different creative issue. The question is pertinent as hell, though, because of the first draft thing. There are a lot of screenwriters—victims, really—being led through numberless redrafts by people who don’t know anything, and don’t have any money, don’t know anybody who has any money, and furthermore wouldn’t know a motion picture if it bit them on the ass. The thing about a shooter is you can tell instantly when you hold it in your hands. Maybe it needs a punch up, but you’d look long and hard to find anything improved by a seventh draft, or whatever. I acknowledge exceptions, but what I say is mainly true. You know a shooter when you see it. At least the creative people do. If a picture isn’t obvious in the first draft you’re kind of screwed. I can think of one thing that I had to change that was big.
In Kingdom of Heaven I had to lose the siege of Kerak, which took place during an Oultrejourdanian wedding, and I added the cavalry charge at Kerak, which was better, and one of the biggest moments in the picture, the way Ridley did it. I pulled that out of my ass because the script was too long, and a subplot about Humphrey of Toron had to go. I think the surgery took an hour as soon as I thought of it and it’s one of the best things in the film. If you’re going to lose Saracen ballistas hitting a castle during a French wedding party you have to deliver cinema. I think all that remains from the original is Brendan shouting “Visitors!” Sometimes things have to go. Redrafts can be very lucrative for me, but you must understand that if films go through many drafts or writers it’s because someone doesn’t want to do the picture and never will. I don’t mean to be the doctor that tells a writer he has cancer, but, man, if you’re on your 16th draft, without a director and a start date, dude, please, no one’s making the picture. When I was making big changes there were already bulldozers working in Morocco. Because Ridley. If you’re clutching your forehead about your 199th draft of a vampire film, let me be your uncle: they aren’t going to make it. They don’t even remember asking you for the big coffin scene. And they don’t have any money. They have their hats and their cell phones and they are trying to get laid at The Dime. You’d be better off getting the vegetables misted properly at Bristol Farms.
When Irwin Winkler and Martin Scorsese called you about the project, how much of what they pitched you is in the script versus you taking that germ of an idea and doing your own thing? How do people usually present you with a project? Is it “we’re thinking about doing this and what are your thoughts” or “what do you remember about The Gambler?” Just curious how you get pitched.
MONAHAN: I think the pitch consisted of “Do you want to do The Gambler”? Talk is talk and can go all over the place, but it’s often about the weather, because I get hired to do what I do, basically, and I never discuss much in advance what I’m going to do. I’ve still never pitched anything. I will hand you what you paid for, or better, but I laid a cordon sanitaire around myself from the start. Not like some megalomaniac jackass who won’t listen to anybody and has no talent, because I listen to everybody and can write a bit, but I came in as a screenwriter, not as someone who wanted to be a screenwriter, and it’s different. By the time I was 36 and got centered on film I was like a freakin’ assassin. If you need someone to come out of the sewer with a wire you don’t hire someone who needs laborious collective instruction. You let someone do his job, whether he’s a focus puller or a surgeon. I can’t focus a camera or stick your arm back on and other people can’t write. You see them try, often trying to use a writer as the literary department or a secretary and it’s like watching Laurel and Hardy move a piano.
People talking about movies without knowing anything about them is the funniest fucking thing on earth; but it’s also the saddest thing because you get such ruined shit. There’s always somebody knocking aside the expert. Most films go out like skydivers who have had their chutes packed by a committee of blind schizophrenics. Anyway getting the correct writer is simply like casting. You wouldn’t hire an actor in order to tell him how to work. He knows how to work, which is why you hired him. In feature writing I have had only one truly insane conversation in twelve years, and I don’t know where that guy is now, but he isn’t where he used to be. He may be selling cars in Ojai or geodes in Ridgecrest as far as I know, and I’m still a screenwriter. Irwin Winkler is a canny man who has made a lot of great pictures. He’s not going to think of me unless he wants me to do what I do. He made an absolutely terrific suggestion for the end of the movie.
When you write a script how much have you outlined and versus writing in the moment and seeing what happens without a clear end point? I’m always curious about a writer’s process and how it evolves as you tackle more material.
MONAHAN: I wrote an annotated table of contents for a book the other night because I haven’t been doing prose and wanted to get my thoughts straight, but that’s because I haven’t been doing prose, and wanted to get a perspective. In film, I don’t outline anything, ever. After you’ve written a script, cards are useful to get things straight in a production sense, but I black out when the cards go up. My mind doesn’t work that way. I wish it could but it doesn’t. A pre-writing outline is sort of unthinkable to me. Everybody is different, but to me an outline is a sort of step you take if you don’t see it all live in your head. It’s like outlining sentences at school. By the time the parts of speech came around I was already publishable so I blacked out then as well. I still don’t know what a gerund is. Some sort of African gazelle. When I was a teenager I could already do what I do now with dialog, but I had contacts in the industry, or marginally in the industry, who talked about it like it was the Ottoman Empire. You could do this, you’d never think of doing that, on your knees to the Third Assistant Vizier, and so on. I thought, well that sounds like complete shit, so I never got into it, when in fact the first time anyone responsible saw my dialog I was in the WGA a month later. Maybe what I have to say from experience doesn’t matter. My experience has been unusual.
Anyway, drama just comes together. It’s more like an alpha state than a process. All of a sudden I stop talking and go off to work and then I have this thing where a minute before there was nothing. It’s how I make my living with words and I don’t understand it, and I don’t understand this “block” thing that people get. It gets talked about as if it’s real. What it means is you either can’t write or don’t want to. The entire narrative about screenwriting is wrong in my experience. Writers are supposed to be these pissed-on wretches, lit on fire, and maybe they are in what Dr Larch calls other parts of the world, but what I see these days is directors being the ones who really get it in the neck, which is why the studios lean more and more to boys, really—malleable videographers, who will take a note and blow you for it. Oh please let me direct, Mister Man, I’ll do anything you want however stupid, otherwise I’m doing these toilet-wand commercials. Digital has been terrible for motion pictures, by the way. When you can have a cut on your laptop it’s utterly diminished and people make weird decisions about picture. I honestly see this as a pan-industry death-spin. It should be, no, you can’t have reels, you have to get on a plane and go to a proper theater, because the director and editor have spent all this time being right, and you have spent five minutes being wrong while watching porn in another window and punching the clown. If you want to watch the picture you’re renting a fucking theater and paying fucking attention.