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Shrinking History

Shrinking History

Articles - Screenwriting

Jonathan Firth
Jonathan Firth in Luther.

Moviemaker Bart Gavigan is a rare bird. A writer-of-repute for
countless years, he is only now beginning to see his own name in
the credits. Luther, an epic tale about Martin Luther, the
16th century German monk whose reform movement split the medieval
Christianity and ushered in a new epoch of religious freedom, is
Gavigan’s first feature screen credit. It’s also only the latest
in a chain of pictures that have benefited from Gavigan’s august
input, either as a ghostwriter or consultant.

A much sought after script doctor, Gavigan
has been tinkering and sculpting behind the scenes for friends
and a steady stream
of A-list and independent clients almost as far back as his days
at Britain’s National Film School. An advisor at both Equinox and
The Sundance Institute, this soft-spoken, articulate English gentleman
has only recently begun to put his considerable talents–and daunting
network of friends and colleagues–to good use in the resurrection
of his long awaited professional screenwriting career.  

Phillip Williams (MM): What drew you to Luther?
How did you get involved? 

Bart Gavigan (BG): Originally when I was approached I couldn’t
do it because I was doing another project, but I agreed to help
structure it with Linda Seger. But as we got closer to shooting,
the producers asked me again to come on as a writer because they
felt that while there were really good things [in the script],
there were some things that weren’t working. There were a lot of
issues they wanted to settle before they went really deeply into
pre-production. It was strange because the project I had been working
on ended the night before. So suddenly we were plunged into this
process and it was great; they were very open to what I thought
I could bring to that.

How we started was a three-day meeting of the
money people, the producers, the director–everyone. And literally
what they asked
me to do was go through the script as it was then, to look at what
was missing and to talk through the whole process. What was startling
was that no one had ever done that for [the money people] before;
no one had ever shown them the reasons for decisions, or the reasons
that you had to change things, or what you needed to do. So, that
was a really good foundation for what then happened.  

MM: It’s interesting that Luther
starts out as a good Catholic and then becomes this reformer
who splits the Church.
Don’t you think that people like him often sort of stumble into
their destiny. 

BG: Yeah, I think that’s a very good way of putting it.
My vision of Luther is as a sort of self-experiencing religious
genius whose burden was to find himself at the vanguard of a reform.
His life didn’t really prepare him to be a leader in that way.
In fact, he was offered the leadership of the peasants revolt and,
I think quite rightly, turned it down; and then he was horrified
by what they did.

So the kind of questions in writing the script
for me are always in writing about people’s humanity. What did
it feel like for Luther
to have to carry that kind of burden on his conscious? His inner
journey and the outer world are colliding all the time. In another
era, he might have gotten away with just an inner journey, you
know? But he was never going to have that luxury. 

MM: Did you find, in creating scenes, because you are
dealing with such a sweep of history and there is so much rich
content to sift through, you end up creating scenes which are
essentially symbolic of the era and Luther’s life rather than
purely factual?

BG: Yes, you have to accept that film–whether you like
it or not–shrinks history. It’s a metaphor for history; you can’t
literally operate time scales in the way they operate. Because
even if you did, they wouldn’t feel [right] on film. Just having
the story on the cut will drive the film forward in a different
way.

But yes, I was both trying to stay true to the spirit of the history
but also, I was trying to look for human themes. If you look at
the theme of fatherhood in the film: Luther’s father is really
pissed off at him for going to this monastery and yet Luther’s
true father will become Staupitz, the friar who really lets him
stand on his shoulders…

In the first draft, you just work away with
out thinking too much about this stuff. But at a certain point
it becomes very clear
to you. You don’t want to stuff it in the audience’s face, but
it’s right there in the material. 

MM: It seems that whenever you do
a so-called "historical" piece,
the only thing that can make it work is when the creators actually
identity where the real human elements are. 

BG: I agree. The rule I would have for every script is:
you have to find the universal, human, flesh-and-blood, incarnational
place where people say ‘That’s my story,’ ‘I would feel just like
that’ or ‘What would I do?’ And that was one of the major tasks
in front of us: how do you make this man into a living flesh-and-blood
character.

When we did our initial three-day work on the
script, other would say things like, ‘How do we convey his theology?’
But I would say,
‘I wouldn’t worry about any of that. If we convey the man, all
these things will fall into place. If we get the flesh-and-blood,
it will be fine. But if we don’t, it will be useless.’  And you
just have to do it, warts and all; you can’t be afraid of it. You
can’t play down his role in the peasant’s revolt. It’s what happened,
it’s what he drags like a ball and chain forward into other conflicts.
He has a lot of blood on his conscience. 

MM: Obviously when you are doing
research, there are books about the period, books about Luther,
but how do you proceed
once you’ve reached the end of what they can tell you and there
are still questions? Is it a matter of imagination and inference? 

BG: One of things you realize is that
all the books reach that certain point: they look like history,
but all of them have
made that leap of imagination. You see that once you compare them.
I try to stay as close as possible to the facts, but there comes
a time when you have to make that leap in order to get inside the
character. How else can you do it without making an imaginative
leap? Because here’s the truth: someone else could take those same
facts and write a completely different movie and a different character. 

MM: You’ve said you’re now in a place
in life where you are more or less able to work on projects
you care about.
How did you arrive there? 

BG: There was no choice for me but to always be totally
open to the process of unity. I don’t care where ideas come from;
I only care if an idea works in the script. So part of the journey
has been a journey toward [being a] team; it’s been a journey toward
what you really want to do–what you’re passionate about–and somehow
then, people find you. Literally, I’ve never pitched in my life;
people have always come to me.

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