When an Oscar winning screenwriter walks into a room and says, this is not going to be about me and what I want to tell you, it’s going to be about you and what you want to ask me, that is not a common occurrence but is a revealing attitude of humility and thoughtfulness that was reinforced as Simon Beaufoy proceeded to answer questions for the subsequent hour.
The questions led us in many directions, much about his prior work and many about his approach to his writing and the industry. Coming from the background of being a documentary maker he said for him, it begins with character.
When he wrote The Full Monty he’d been made redundant from documentary filmmaking and so began writing about the people he was initially making a documentary about. I struck lucky with a simple story, he says. After about ten years I found my way back to simplicity.
The book of Q&A that was adapted into Slumdog Millionaire, however, wasn’t an easy book to adapt, as it was a collection of separate short stories at heart. It was during a trip to India that the thread that would hold stories together came to him and he found a way to adapt the book into a workable film structure. Most people you talk to have done something really extraordinary in their life but to them it’s just ordinary. He talked, as a documentary maker would, to the people in a slum he was walking through and asked what they would film if someone gave them a camera. He found the world of the story through their eyes and it pretty much wrote itself. Salmon Fishing In The Yemen too was a difficult book to adapt but he likes that because it makes the adaptation structurally interesting to adapt, plus it was a great story. On adaptations though he suggests that if you stay too tethered to the original material it won’t work. His process begins with the characters but everything else can change until it’s a film in it’s own right not a book transcript. And of course a lot of things make a film a success not just the script.
His writing style, he says, has changed a lot over time. “I always wish I was a more methodical writer but I’m not.” He says ruefully, “As I’ve got older the stories have become less naturalistic and more shaped more dramatic. “I think that’s because cinema has moved that way, you have to do something extraordinary to get people out of their house and into a cinema these days so things have become more dramatic. You can rebel but it’s a big business and you have to go with it.”
On his process he talks about how nobody tells you anything as a writer, you just have to learn. He thought for ages that he had to do all the notes he was given, and struggled with contradictory notes and it took time to learn that it wasn’t so much the given solutions that needed implementing but that there was a problem for which a solution was needed in a particular area of the script. He really doesn’t mind notes now. It’s always good to have someone you trust read your scripts too. In terms of script richness he says he’s learned to layer his scenes, often there are three things going on in every scene or they get cut. It’s a balance too of action and character. When the action dictates the character you have melodrama and that’s a problem. You need to match the two.
His own understanding filters the things that have happened to him and that’s how he approaches characters, through his understanding of them. Quite a profound statement in a session of pretty profound and honest talk about himself and his work and I think his thoughts will stay with me for quite some time.
Joining him for more talk in the Scriptchat I felt immensely grateful to have been able to hear his words today.