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From Mrs. Brown to Charlotte Gray

From Mrs. Brown to Charlotte Gray

Articles - Screenwriting

Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett in Charlotte
Gray

Jeremy Brock had it coming. After cutting his teeth
as a writer in British television for over a dozen years, he vaulted
into feature writing when Miramax saw gold in his original script, Mrs. Brown. Harvey Weinstein and company lifted the project
out of TV land and ‘did the Miramax number on it.’ Assigning the
project to director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love), and
securing Judy Dench to star, they gave the picture a worldwide rollout.
Mrs. Brown was Brock’s feature debut, and it garnered two Oscar
nominations and won the writer a BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay.
For a film that started out as yet another project for television,
it was, in the Jeremy’s words, "a fairy tale."

With Charlotte Gray-his second feature-in release,
Jeremy Brock has returned to the big screen with another complex
and fiery heroine, this time played by Cate Blanchett. The story,
set in WWII, is about an ordinary young British woman who goes behind
enemy lines as a spy for her government, with the added-and secret-agenda
to find her lover, a British pilot shot down over France. Directed
by Australian moviemaker Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, My Brilliant Career), the picture also stars Billy Crudup
and veteran English actor Michael Gambon. A very busy man these
days, Brock is currently developing a script for yet another noted
Aussie director, Scott Hicks (Shine), and preparing for his
directorial debut, Jeremy’s Bible, which he also wrote. He
spoke with MM from his home in London.

Phillip Williams (MM): Could you start with
a bit about your background, and how you got into screenwriting.

Jeremy Brock (JB): I went to University and
studied English and Drama at Bristol. I graduated from that to writing
all sorts of terrible, terrible kind of shopping-list-of-grievance
plays that only your Mom and Dad see. Finally, after about four
or five of those, I got a break working for the BBC as a script
editor on some cop show and managed to set up a hospital series,
Casualty, that’s still running now, 16 years later.

I then wrote a few teleplays. Mrs. Brown was
always going to be a play for the BBC until Miramax, in the shape
of Harvey Weinstein, came along and saw it at BAFTA in London and
bought it lock, stock and barrel. That’s really how I got into films.
Before that I was doing mini-series and stuff at the BBC and ITV.

MM: How did your involvement with Charlotte Gray come about?

JB: Douglas Rae, who is the head of Ecosse
Films, approached me. We had been talking about various projects
since Mrs. Brown but none of them had been quite right for
me to do. He said, ‘Have you read this book by Sebastian Faulks?’
and I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Read it, cause it’s still in galley
proof." I thought it was wonderful and that it had a great
shape for a film. That’s one of the things I’m learning: there are
books that adapt and books that don’t. I went with Douglas and his
producer to a meeting with Sebastian and his rather wonderful agent
and we auditioned, I guess you’d say. I talked about what I felt,
and they were charming and incredibly open to the ideas that we
had. That’s basically how we signed the deal with them.

MM: How do you approach the work?

JB: The way I work is that I read the book
a couple of times and then write a detailed treatment, usually of
about 30 pages. It’s not a scene-by-scene breakdown, but it’s close.
That performs the function of taking me away from the book so that
it doesn’t become too reverential. I don’t wish to divorce myself
from the book, but one of the things I’ve learned is that if you
are going to try and own something you, at some point as a screenwriter,
have to separate yourself from the source material to the extent
that you can own it. With a book as vividly realized as Charlotte
Gray
, certainly in psychological terms, it was very necessary.
From that we did some development work and then I basically went
away for three months and wrote my first draft on my own. Then we
approached directors, and we got Gill, after some hunting.

MM: Both Charlotte Gray and Mrs.
Brown have very rich characters. When you are writing, how do
you get into the minds of your characters?

JB: I think my friends would probably say-and
this is kind-that I have a rich fantasy life, by which I mean I
don’t have a lot of trouble escaping into other people’s worlds.
To that extent, writing chooses you. I certainly do enact scenes
in my head and I certainly do see them as I write them; sometimes
close to how they are eventually realized, sometimes not. As you
are imagining yourself inside the skin of a Charlotte or Julian
or whoever, you are in a process of working out how that individual
character feels. And it’s another truism of writing, that there
are no bad guys. If you are Hitler, in Hitler’s skin you are not
a bad guy.

MM: Is this work with character-whether
you are adapting, as with
Charlotte Gray, or creating an
original story, as with
Mrs. Brown-is it just a an outgrowth
of your fantasy life or have you done any actual studying of psychology
over the years?

JB: I don’t think that you are analyzing it
in any deep or psychoanalytical sense, but you are in the business
of motive and subtext. Because the best writing rings with subtext-for
me anyway-you are always looking for layers. I particularly like
writing like Anthony Minghella’s, where, when someone says a line
there is almost always a kind of resonance under it. You are always
trying to find the man behind the man, the line in the silence.
I think it’s one of the pleasures of writing, one of the really
physical pleasures of writing. And when you see the actor deliver
it-with consummate actors like Cate Blanchett and Judy Dench-what
you are gifted is yet another whole layer of psychological insight
because they bring theirs to what you’ve offered up.

MM: How deeply do you go into the history,
whether for a film like
Charlotte Gray or Mrs. Brown?
Do you channel your inquiry in a certain way or do you want to know
what they eat and how they sleep?

JB: It’s a very good question. As a screenwriter
you are different from a historian in this regard: you want to know
more about their day-to-day life than any historian will ever want
to know. When I get a researcher on a project, like I currently
have on an original project I’m writing, the questions you ask them
to research for you are not the big ones, because you are reading
about those yourself. What you ask the researcher to do is to tell
you what they ate, where they slept, how they slept, what the pop
songs were, whether they joked, how they joked, what the in jokes
were. You may not use it all, but you need to feel that you know
it. The problem with history pieces is that, if you’re not careful,
they feel antique-they feel removed. What you are always endeavoring
to do is to somehow release it, so that it’s both anachronistic,
because it’s not entirely historical, but at the same time you know
you’re back in time. You are trying to play that game with the audience
where, as in pieces like Gladiator for example, the dialogue
is suddenly quite modern and it jars, but deliberately. Those sorts
of things come from knowing the details and then deciding to go
for something contemporary at that moment, because it feels right
to you.

MM: Creating atmosphere, or creating the
broad sweep of a picture can be easy and seductive at times, while
actually nailing down the relationships between the characters and
what happens between them is more difficult.

JB: And the truth is that in the end people
watch the movie for the relationship between the two characters.
You only have to look at any number of big movies that didn’t get
it right. It doesn’t matter how big the budget, if the central love
story or drama is not realized subtly enough or compellingly enough
then people just don’t buy it.

MM: Yet people sometimes go in droves for
some pretty terrible movies.

JB: Well that’s true. Sometimes those films
we’re talking about in that case, they just get the zeitgeist of
the times right, and they are comforts. They are a kind of warm
hug; sometimes a kind of warm, sticky hug.

MM: Can you talk a bit about what you’ve
learned about writing dialogue?

JB: To a large extent, writing dialogue is
the element of the craft that’s intuitive and has most to do with
raw talent. It’s just about having a tendency to enjoy being other
people and to some extent hearing other people and kind of copying
it. But I don’t think you can craft it in the way that you can craft
character arcs or structure, or teach those things. There is a large
element in screenwriting that you can learn and get better at but
I haven’t found that dialogue has much to do with that except confidence
and letting go. It’s the Zen aspect of writing; you have to not
think in order to get it right.

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