With a formidable body of work, William Nicholson joined us to share some of his experience, in his own words, “to try and be useful” to us with whatever he could share of the writing process. As it happens that’s a great deal.
The film he’s perhaps best known for writing on is Gladiator where he was brought in to begin a complete re-write of the screenplay just two weeks prior to shooting. The film had come about from a script that wasn’t working but Ridley Scott, who is a very visual person, had seen an image and felt he could make the story work, that there was something to it. Rewrites happened and the screenplay improved but still had problems, however Russell Crowe, who was not yet a star got on board to play Maximus. The script however continued to have problems and when Crowe walked out after a read through Nicholson was brought on board as a Production Writer, an unusual thing, to get the material ready for shooting on short notice and to continue to write as the shoot went on. Writing in a little trailer on the back of the set he spent some 15 weeks working on it in total. During that time and because of his proximity he became more involved in production matters than was usual for a writer as people would just knock on his trailer door and ask him questions.
Writing, William says, is about emotion, it’s the key to all great drama, and that the vehicle to deliver the emotion you’ve chosen is the character. Once your character is serving your emotion you need to add structure. Done the wrong way characters can become puppets serving the plot and that’s often the case where you see a film that you like but that didn’t move you. After we watch a clip of Commodus commit a heinous act against his father Marcus Aurelius he explains that even as we write an evil character doing unspeakable things we must find a way into that character’s moment, to understand them. This speech about virtues, where Commodus mentions the chief Roman virtues his father values but that he doesn’t have, explains there are other virtues and values, he’s really asking his father why he can’t see him, why he doesn’t see the value of his son. That was a way into Commodus’ point of view. The resulting action stems out of something we can more fully understand than if we’d just seen a violent act without that greater context. Similarly the opening entry into the film is of a man in a field, we see a man who wants to be a farmer not a soldier so before we see the entire Roman army just out of view, we already have a sense of who this character is. A lot of story, says William, has no spoken words at all.
The best writing, Nicholson thinks, comes from an authentic emotion in the writer. When he wrote Shadowlands, he was a vastly distant sort of person than his professor protagonist was, but at the time he was struggling with commitment issues. He was at root, frightened of being hurt, being vulnerable. That fear of loving is what Shadowlands is about. A lot of very powerful material comes out of heavy emotions like anger, humiliation, revenge etc. Writers, he half jokes, are neurotic failures who use the medium as their revenge on the world.
Moving on to talk about adaptation his he uses Life Story his TV film screenplay about the structure of DNA, to illustrate how his screenplay was not in fact an adaptation of the book but that he’d used the Juliette Stephenson character as a way into his own take on the story. She was the person he’d settled on because she was the tragic figure in the tale, she’d independantly done all the work and was just missing a piece of the puzzle, something she knew she’d missed and was trying to solve when her work was seen without her knowledge and then completed without her involvement. That’s a take you don’t find in the book. There’s a lot to be said, says William, about not doing too much research. You’re writing story not reality.
One very important point he makes about screenwriting is that what we do is not escapism. It’s a way to transmit values within a society. What we do is important. Many old westerns contain a lot of morality. Over time, the morality changes, being forthright enough to not hide and shoot but to stroll out in broad daylight and wait till the other person was ready before you shot them is not the morality of today, but there are still societal values imparted in the stories we tell.
Giving us his take on the industry his story sounds like it all happened easily, a job shooting little documentaries led him to follow into screenwriting when the opportunity was thrust at him, one piece of writing led to another and a while on from that he was being nominated for an Oscar. But in actuality he had first wanted to be a novelist and he’d done a lot of writing before anything really happened for him. A good way into the industry, if your work is not known he imparts, is by having an interesting subject. The subject matter is always more interesting than the pedigree of the writer. Time helps too, you can’t fabricate authority. Where does what you write come from? It comes from you and it comes more readily with age and as you accumulate experience. Everything that goes wrong in your life feeds your material. That also means that it’s never too late to have a breakthrough.
Certainly accumulating the experience of such an accomplished writer today did us no harm whatsoever.