On one notably bruising occasion at a screening, I was asked my name by the producer of the film that I’d written. ‘Who are you again?’ ‘I’m the writer. I wrote the movie we’ve just made. It was all my idea.’ Rightly or wrongly, the screenwriter is held in roughly the same regard as the composer, the production designer, above the caterers, but very much below the director and the actors. Which is fine, and perhaps even understandable. After all, the publicity tour is not a school-trip. The film company pays for the hotel suites, the flight, the parties, not because they’re lovely, lovely people but because they want to generate column inches, and when did you last read a movie review that mentioned the screenwriter by name?
Unless you’re Peter Morgan or Richard Curtis or David Hare, it’s unlikely that your working process will be of any particular interest to the Sunday supplements. British television is slightly different, in that it has a strong writing tradition and has always benefited from a number of outspoken, entertaining, eloquent writers. Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Andrew Davies - all smart, funny provocative interviewees and all far better known than the directors of their work. In cinema, the director is king. Who cares if the writer had trouble with the inciting incident, or if the voice-over proved problematic? Chances are there were eight other writers anyway. I’ve had a journalist turn the tape recorder off while I’ve been speaking. They smiled and nodded and discreetly clicked the tape recorder off and soon the conversation died away.
Not that I mind, or not much. I did mind when an actor claimed to a journalist that they had improvised something that I’d written (‘in order to fill the gaps in the script’). But to make a living as a writer, let alone have your work produced – is both a privilege and a tremendous stroke of luck, and it feels ungracious to complain, as I’ve just been complaining for the previous two paragraphs.
The truth is that, as subjects for journalism, actors inevitably tend to be more flamboyant, entertaining, outspoken, more attractive and better dressed than the whey-faced neurotics who put the words into their mouths. Acting is gossipy, it involves stunts and costumes, foreign travel, emotional outbursts, extra-marital affairs, money. Writing the script involved a lot of sitting down, some arguing, some moaning, perhaps some dozing, and who wants to read an interview about that? Screenwriting is a little less solitary than writing fiction, but it’s still pretty lonely, and screenwriters who stray onto the set are like parents at a teenage party; no-one really wants them there, they look anxious, they get in the way. I, for one, turn into an idiot within fifty metres of an actor. I either fawn or offend, I babble with a stalker-ish demeanour. Besides, catch an actor’s eye and chances are they’ll ask for a rewrite. Much better to stay at home.
But with a novel, you’re invited out simply because there’s no-one else to invite. Movies are collaborative; a script is a starting point, a set of instructions that has no value until it has been performed, photographed, very probably rewritten, edited, scored. A book is just a book. If it works, it is because of the author. If it fails, it is because of the author.
So the new novel will be published in less than a month and I’ll be attending festivals, readings, radio studios, signing each and every copy that comes near. I’ll be stripping hotel rooms of their toiletries and shaming myself at the breakfast buffet and I’ll be delighted to do so, if only because, as my nan used to say, it gets me out of the house.
I’ll write another time about what happens when writers leave their rooms, but for the moment I might also take this opportunity to add that I’m speaking at Hay Festival on 25th May,
just after actor, writer, presenter and national treasure Stephen Fry and at the same time as movie director Stephen Daldry. Please do come. I’m pretty sure there will be tickets.