Jeremy Brock has a knack for depicting the intimate lives of the very famous. Whether it’s a grieving Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown or the infamous dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, Brock manages to create complex, larger-than-life characters who are still somehow relatable. But Brock has more than just one trick up his sleeve, as the diversity of his projects attests. In addition to The Last King of Scotland, which is already attracting a healthy amount of Oscar buzz, Brock’s first outing as a director, Driving Lessons, hit theaters this month. MM sat down with the BAFTA-nominated screenwriter to talk about the differences between writing biographies and autobiographies, creating three-dimensional villains and the beauty of collaboration.

Jeremy Brock
Jeremy Brock directs Driving Lessons (2006). Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Jennifer Straus (MM): You have two very well-received, but very different, films out right now: The Last King of Scotland and Driving Lessons. One is an historical biopic, the other is semi-autobiographical. How did the experience of writing these two films compare? Was one more difficult to write than the other?

Jeremy Brock (JB): Last King of Scotland was like the dark side of Driving Lessons. In an odd way, the two do have parallels. Both are rites of passage films in some form or other and so, somewhere, the experiences carried some familiarity. In other respects, they could not be more different. With The Last King of Scotland, I was dealing with the nexus between seduction and corruption—watching the “tourist” Garrigan be drawn into a web of power and paranoia. With Driving Lessons, the challenges were more to do with the fact that the work is based on my own childhood. Picking over those memories was sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding.

MM: Driving Lessons also marks your directorial debut. Did you always intend to direct this film yourself?

JB: I’d done a director’s course at the BBC 11 years ago. Following that, my screenwriting career began to pick up and I had a family. Eventually, when the money came together for Driving Lessons, I knew I couldn’t give it to anyone else. I had to convince people I was serious but, in the end, they saw that I wasn’t going to give up.

MM: Can you talk about how you developed the screenplay for Driving Lessons? The story is based upon your own experiences working for Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Did you develop the story over a long period of time, or did it suddenly occur to you to turn your experience into a film?

JB: The script took six years to develop. This was partly because I was writing on spec, partly because I was mining a story that was very personal and I wanted to disguise some stuff that was too close to life. The stuff between Evie (Julie Walters) and Ben (Rupert Grint) actually came to me pretty quickly. What took the time was working that story into the narrative of Ben’s home life.

MM: The Last King of Scotland is a fictional novel heavily based upon the real-life reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. What particular challenges did you face in adapting this work for the screen? How, if at all, was your approach to writing the Amin character different than that of writing the fictional Nicholas Garrigan, Amin’s personal physician?

JB: I never thought of them as different. My approach to Amin was the same as my approach to Garrigan. Although one is from real life and one is fictional, they both have to have the same three dimensions on screen. The particular horror of a man like Amin is precisely that he remained so seductive, comical and childlike. Once he was properly rounded and not a cardboard cutout villain, the challenge was to graduate the revelations of his paranoia, so that the audience does not get too far ahead of Garrigan. With Garrigan, the challenge was to ensure that his selfishness and naïveté didn’t alienate him from the audience. He is who we travel through the film with, so we must stay with him, even though we may despise his behavior. His human frailties are what bind us to the story.

MM: How did you get into screenwriting? Were you always interested in writing for film (and TV), or did you ever consider another writing profession, such as becoming a novelist, or even a journalist?

JB: When I left university, I wrote a few stage plays but my real passion was film. I never wanted to write books either. I like collaboration too much.

MM: Who are the screenwriters you admire or who inspire you?

JB: I.A.L. Diamond, who wrote with Billy Wilder. Great ideas, great dialogue and great structure.

MM: After working on Driving Lessons, would you consider directing another one of your screenplays?

JB: That depends if anyone will give me the money! But, yes, I am writing something else which I’d like to direct. I totally loved the experience. I cannot imagine never doing it again.