Steven Knight: “Filmmaking is as close as you can get to a dream”

Screenwriter-director Steven Knight’s latest film, out now in theaters worldwide, is Sergei Bodrov’s “Seventh Son”, an action-adventure epic starring Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Charles Leavitt, inspired by the novel ‘The Spook’s Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch’ (2004) by Joseph Delaney. Mr. Knight’s 2014 films as a screenwriter include Lasse Hallström’s delightful “The Hundred-Foot Journey” with Helen Mirren, and the powerful drama “Locke” (also dir.) starring Tom Hardy. With his name attached to several other upcoming and noteworthy film projects with actors including Tobey Maguire, Emma Thompson, Bradley Cooper and Uma Thurman in the leading roles, Mr. Knight is one of today’s leading and most productive screenwriters who was a guest of honor at last year’s Film Fest Oostende in Belgium, attending the premiere of “Locke”.

Steven Knight 6 The Hundred-Foot JourneyIf somebody asks you what you do for a living, what would you say? Screenwriter or filmmaker?

I think I’d say writer. I’ve always written lots of different things: novels, for TV and screenplays. Whenever you write anything, you see it happening in your head and it’s perfect: it is perfectly made, perfectly edited, perfectly acted. Then you have to bring it into the world and you hand it to a director. He makes it better, or worse in some places, but it’s different. I think that, if you’re a writer, at some point, you have to think: how close can I get to that on the screen, because it’s often wildly different. It’s almost a challenge: I want to get as close to that as I can get.

So that’s the reason why you also started directing, with “Hummingbird” and “Locke” as your first features?

Yes, exactly. I have been lucky enough to work with really good directors who had done brilliant work, but it’s different to the thing I had in my head. But “Locke” was so contained, so controlled, very few things can vary from what you had in your head, so it’s as close as I ever got.

Steven Knight 3 LockeWhat was the idea behind “Locke”?

The idea was to look at a person who was the most ordinary person in Britain, with all of the characteristics: he’s married, he’s got two children, he works in construction, he’s dressed flamboyantly and has a very regimented way of living. But he has made one mistake and so, the idea was to join him at a point in his life when in that ninety minutes everything is going to change. I think everybody has those ninety minutes; also, if you drive by a construction site and you see the construction trucks arriving, you won’t think anything of it, but for the people working there, it is a heart-beating, pulsating thriller. And so I was trying to find a thriller where it wouldn’t get in the local paper, it wouldn’t make the local news, nothing is going to trouble the police, it’s just this man’s life. Then you have to see if that is enough for an audience, and also, my believe is, no matter what the budget of the film is, or no matter what special effects you use, the place on the screen where the audience is looking, is in the eyes of the actor. They want to know what is going on in the actor’s mind. So I stripped away anything else and all you get to see, is this actor having this experience. I didn’t know if that was going to work at all, but it seems to have worked. To me it’s more like returning to the tradition of storytelling: when you tell or read your children a story, they look into a distance and you know they are seeing what you are saying. This film requires the audience to do something similar. One of the nicest things people have said is that they forget that they haven’t seen the other characters. In fact, some of them think they have seen the other characters, which is great because they have made it up themselves. That’s what human beings do: when you hear a voice or when you hear a situation, you speculate – sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, that’s what happens.

What’s your favorite place to write and why?

It is very early in the morning and anywhere, really. It doesn’t make a difference. Once you start writing, after two or three minutes – as long as there’s no distraction – you forget where you are. It’s almost bad, because if you’re sitting in an uncomfortable position, you forget it and it’s not until you stop writing, you realize you have been sitting is this uncomfortable situation the whole time – it‘s really painful and you didn’t realize it. My theory is, whatever you use to write, a screenplay in particular, is the same part of your mind that dreams. Everybody dreams and if you look at the dialogue within your dream, it’s brilliant. The dialogue is perfect, in a dream, because people speak exactly how they would speak. The structure is all over the place, the story is surreal, but the dialogue within each moment is perfect. So there is something within everybody that is able to invent dialogue. If you can get to a point where you switch whatever else is switched on off and use whatever that bit is that dreams and just do it and the read it back, that’s when it gets good.

Do you also have some sort of feedback during the writing process?

No, not until it’s delivered. In my experience, the best thing you can do, is leave it alone for a couple of days. Whenever I start a new day, I go to the top, read it all again and then start writing so you’re constantly reviewing it. But I find that if you leave it for two days, certain things will fall away. If you leave it for a week, more will fall away. In other words, the longer you leave it, more and more things will seem wrong, because you’re getting more and more perspective. So if you got the luxury of working without a deadline, you keep in the bits that worked after you left it alone. That’s the only outside influence there is for me.

Do you, both as a writer and as a director, have carte blanche?

Pretty much, although it depends what it is. I mean, I also do commissions for Hollywood studios, big budget films. Studios have a structure that, in my opinion, is completely understandable and legitimate. It’s a business: they are investing money in your story and they want their money back. They need certain guarantees which you can’t have. If you are building a building, you know there is going to be a building at the end of it. Making a film is something completely different. So what the studios do, they look at what’s made money before and they’ll do it again and again till it stops making money – which is fine. And that’s why they have all the rules, like the character art, the journey of the character or the character must change, which is fine too: what they’re looking for, is a formula to make sure they get their money back and it’s perfectly understandable. So when you write for them, you stick to those rules. But every now and again, if you are doing something that is an original idea, you can just decide that the rules don’t apply – I don’t think there’s any art form where there are so many rules applied. If a painter paints a painting and thirty percent of the painting is blue, and someone then said, ‘For a successful painting forty percent of the painting must be blue,’ it would be ludicrous. But that’s sort of what happens with film where a precedent is set and then it is applied to everything. Hollywood is full of very good people who do very good work, but they need to make the money. So if you got a low-budget like “Locke” and you are free to do what you want, then that’s great too, because you can experiment. Also, you know, having the response I had with the film, I feel I might devote myself to making more films in experimental ways – not the same as “Locke” and not experimental for the sake of it – but films that are capturing performances primarily.

Do you rehearse a lot with your actors?

I used to believe in rehearsing quite a lot, but I don’t so much anymore. With “Locke”, it’s different. We sat around the table for five days and just read the script all over again. When we filmed it, Tom [Hardy] and the other actors had the script in front of them. The way I did it, was, we put three cameras in the car, put the car on the low loader, Tom had the script in front of him, I would say ‘Action’ and we’d shoot the whole film. Then we’d stop, have a break, and shoot the whole film again, beginning to end. The other actors were in a hotel conference room and stayed in touch with Tom in the car, so the conversations you hear are real. We did the whole thing as if it were a play. They had the words, they never deviated from the words – probably not more than five or six words in a sequence were deviated – but the performance was different every single time because they could. Halfway through I gave the other actors – other than Tom – different motivations. To Ruth Wilson, who played Tom’s wife, I said at one point, ‘Try to play it now as if you wanted to get rid of him for years. You want him to go, and this is your opportunity. You are annoyed, but you’re thinking, great, he’s got to go.’ Then we’d see how that plays out and it was possible to intercut the different motivations without any problem, really, because people can have many motivations in the same phone call.

Steven Knight 4 HummingbirdDo you always work the same way with your actors?

It depends. Another film I did, was “Hummingbird” [2013] with Jason Statham and Agata Buzek. Jason obviously is an action hero; he jumps, he shoots and he shouts. We sat down in a room with him and Agatha, we went through the script and talked about why the characters were saying what they were saying. He absolutely loved it, it was like a revelation for him and he really got into it. Everybody likes to do what they normally don’t do, and for him that was great. The whole process of filmmaking can be chaotic, but if you can have an enthusiastic cast, you’re pretty much there. You know, acting in a way is ridiculous. When you’re in a room actually shooting a film, the thing you’re asking an actor is fundamentally ridiculous because they’re doing something that isn’t of that moment. They’re pretending. And if they don’t believe in what they’re doing, they really start thinking about how ridiculous it is. But if the actor really believes in it, he can turn it off like that. So I’ve got so much admiration for actors, because they really do something difficult. I know I couldn’t do it – not in a billion years.

What surprises me is that you cast French actress and leading lady Audrey Tautou – fresh from her worldwide and five-time Academy Award nominated French comedy “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” [2001] fame – in “Dirty Pretty Things” [2002], her first English-language film, overcoming the language barrier since her English wasn’t that well, I suppose?

That was amazing, [director] Stephen Frears really influenced her. He had said, ‘Only cast faces, not acting abilities to speak the language.’ So he looked at her photo and he knew that was the face for that character. No one apart from [co-star] Chiwetel Ejiofor hardly spoke English at all, so the lines were done phonetically and were learned phonetically. But she was brilliant, she was really brilliant.

Steven Knight 1 Dirty Pretty ThingsHas there ever been in your life a decisive turning point from being a struggling writer to the successful writer-director that you are now?

Yes. I had written three novels, and the fourth one was ‘Dirty Pretty Things’. When I read it back, it felt like direction for a film, because I started writing in the present tense. There’s a very analyzed fact, in my opinion, about screenwriting. When you write direction, you write it in the present tense, he looks out of the window, not he looked out of the window. It makes you write differently. It feels as if, to me anyway, more possibilities of what could come next. So I then wrote ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ as a screenplay [2002], submitted it and it worked.

An instant success, as it turned out, because it was followed by an immediate and worldwide recognition, numerous awards, you were nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, etc.

Yes.

Before you started writing, was there anyone in particular who had inspired you or who had broadened your horizon to do what you’re doing now?

As a child, I wasn’t exposed to cinema much at all, apart from Westerns which my Dad used to take me to go and see. At the time I thought it was embarrassing, but now I am very pleased I did, because in John Wayne films like “The Searchers” [1956] and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” [1962], they were telling these fantastic stories. They were an influence mostly, and then I studied old English literature and modern American literature that influenced me even more. So in the end, it was mostly reading books rather than films that influenced me.

You are involved in several new projects, do you sometimes work on more than one script at the same time?

I always do. When you’re writing, if something comes quickly, it’s good and then you can’t get it done quick enough. It’s as if it’s already done and the business is to getting it written. But if it takes a long time, there’s a problem. Things that have taken me the longest time is because there was something fundamentally wrong and that’s what’s slowing it down. Now I’m also trying to do things about memory, where people remember things and try to look at the way things actually looked in their head when they remember things. When you’re a kid, you see a room which consists of the chair, the dark staircase, the fireplace maybe, and if you just have that, see how that looks and try to get somewhere close to the imaginary that people have inside their heads. Filmmaking is as close as you can get to a dream, I think. And everybody knows dreams.

How about your plans to write a screenplay of “Rebecca”?

I have written the script. If you had any sense, you wouldn’t try it, but then, I love the book so much. And [author] Daphne du Maurier [1907-1989], she is a film herself. There’s interest from particular directors, so we’ll see. I am working on other ideas as well. I would also like to do a story about the last day in the life of a ninety-three year old woman who’s got Alzheimer’s. But I don’t want to do it as Alzheimer’s as this terrible thing, which it is. My Mom had it and she used to look in the mirror and had conversations with people from let’s say 1935, or people she knew during the War or in the 1950s. When she was herself, she spoke really weakly and she was rambling, but when she was into this other world, she was back to normal, although talking to someone who wasn’t there. What I want to do is a film about a woman with her carer, reviewing her life with four actresses who play her. We see her in her twenties when she’s in love with this soldier during the War and he gets killed. After that she marries a really nice man, they have children but she doesn’t love him. So it’s a very ordinary life. But you have this ninety-three year old woman looking in the mirror, talking to the man she loves, and then this carer comes in and says, ‘It’s time for your bath.’ Which I think is what probably happens with people with Alzheimer’s, they’re in this other world, and then someone from this world comes in, and no wonder they’re aggressive, no wonder they resist. Why are you here, who are you? You get the opportunity to visit all these world that you’ve lived through and see it as a positive thing. And at the end, the man she always loves comes through the mirror.

Where do you get your ideas and your inspiration?

I don’t know, I really don’t know. I think it’s probably a certain way of responding to things. It’s a sort of speculation, probably beyond what you normally do. It’s a bit like playing chess: you speculate on six moves ahead where you imagine what would happen if something else happened. What would happen if ten of the things happened next? That’s just how your mind works, then one of these ten things is quite an interesting story and then you take it on a little bit further until you got a situation that suddenly seems to be quite worth following. But I also start with something ordinary. Suppose you’re in New York, you want to cross the street and the sign says ‘Don’t Walk.’ You’re waiting for ‘Walk,’ then you start to walk and there’s a woman across the street, you look at her, she looks at you – just briefly. And then you imagine, what would happen if we’d meet in the middle and we were completely in love with each other? What would be the reason for that? Okay, imagine she was a witch in Salem, she was burned in the fire and this man was her husband, he was burned too, but she had the opportunity to say to him, ‘We’ll meet again.’ And then you have this scene in the 21st century – It’s you! – and their lives fall apart, while they both got nice lives, each with children of their own. The question you can ask yourself, is, why would that happen? Why would they say in the middle of the road, ‘I love you.’ Then you have to look for possible explanations for that. Look in odd situations and try to explain backwards.

Earlier you talked about the Hollywood studios. Do you think you would have been able to do what you do now in the old studio system?

I don’t know enough about it to be an authority, but when I see the films that came out, it seems to me they had brilliant writers, smuggling brilliant ideas into a system that in fact wasn’t that restrictive of them – until the blacklist and all of that. But now also, that same system produces some classic films.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostende (Belgium),
September 18, 2014

FILMS

GYPSY WOMAN (2001) DIR Sheree Folkson PROD Justin Ackerman, Paul Raphael SCR Steven Knight CAM Witold Stok MUS Joe Strummer CAST Jack Davenport, Jack Warren, Neve McIntosh, Julian Wadham, Forbes Masson, Terry Bird, Corin Redgrave

DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2002) DIR Stephen Frears PROD Robert Jones, Tracey Seaward SCR Steven Knight CAM Chris Menges MUS Nathan Larson CAST Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sergi López, Sophie Okonedo, Benedict Wong, Kriss Dosanjh

AMAZING GRACE (2006) DIR Michael Apted PROD Terrence Malick, Ken Wales, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt SCR Steven Knight CAM Remi Adefarasin MUS David Arnold CAST Ioan Gruffudd, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai

EASTERN PROMISES (2007) DIR David Cronenberg PROD Robert Lantos, Paul Webster SCR Steven Knight CAM Peter Suschitzky MUS Howard Shore CAST Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jerzy Skolimowski

HUMMINGBIRD (2013) DIR – SCR Steven Knight PROD Guy Heeley, Tracy Rector, Paul Webster CAM Chris Menges MUS Dario Marianelli CAST Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicky McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014) DIR Lasse Hallström PROD Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Juliet Blake SCR Steven Knight (book ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ [2010] by Richard C. Morias) CAM Linus Sandgren MUS A.R. Rahman CAST Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Michel Blanc

LOCKE (2014) DIR – SCR Steven Knight PROD Guy Helley, Paul Webster CAM Haris Zambarloukos MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Tom Hardy; Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland (voices only)

SEVENTH SON (2014) DIR Sergei Bodrov PROD Lionel Wigram, Thomas Tull, Basil Iwanyk SCR Steven Knight, Charles Leavitt, Matt Greenberg (novel ‘The Spook’s Apprentice’ [2004, US title: ‘The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch’] by Joseph Delaney) CAM Newton Thomas Sigel MUS Marco Beltrami CAST Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, John DeSantis, Jason Scott Lee

PAWN’S SACRIFICE (2015) DIR Edward Zwick PROD Tobey Maguire, Gail Katz SCR Steven Knight (story by Steven Knight, Christopher Wilkinson, Stephen J. Rivele) CAM Bradford Young MUS James Newton Howard CAST Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Robin Weigert, Evelyn Brochu, Lily Rabe

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS (2016) DIR Sacha Gervasi PROD Beth O’Neil, Steven M. Rales, Ara Keshishian SCR Steven Knight, Sacha Gervasi, Sam Munson CAST Chloë Grace Moretz, Catherine Keener, Ansel Algort

(UNTITLED) (2016) DIR John Wells PROD Michael Shamberg, Erwin Stoff, Stacey Sher SCR Steven Knight CAM Adriano Goldman CAST Bradley Cooper, Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman, Sienna Miller

TV MOVIES

FRANKIE HOWARD ON CAMPUS (1990) DIR Ian Hamilton PROD Paul Lewis SCR Steven Knight, Dennis Berson, Mike Whitehill, Barry Cryer, Peter Vincent, Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, Spike Mullins CAST Frankie Howerd

CARROTT U LIKE (1994) DIR – PROD Ed Bye SCR Steven Knight, Jasper Carrott, Mike Whitehill MUS Keith Strachan CAST Jasper Carrott, Ann Bryson, Jonathan Clarke, Sara Crowe