Christopher Hampton, Oscar and BAFTA winning screenwriter of films such as Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement and A Dangerous Method had his first play on stage when he was just 20. In a lively and entertaining NFTS Q&A hosted by Kate Muir, former chief film critic of The Times, he looked back over his career. He advised students to embrace the odds of filmmaking with good grace - “Making a film is like taking your screenplay to a casino. And most days you lose. I’ve written over 50 screenplays and 17 have been made – and that’s pretty good, but some of the ones that weren’t made I feel are my best work. But you just have to accept it and hope for the best. And sometimes you strike it incredibly lucky.”
One of the times Christopher felt he struck it lucky was making Dangerous Liaisons, directed by NFTS tutor Stephen Frears. Christopher’s play, an adaptation of the French source material, had been a success in London and on Broadway, and studios were keen to make it into a film. But Christopher held out to work with a company which allowed him to retain some creative control over the film version. Christopher enjoyed working closely with Stephen Frears and they were both thrilled with the cast they secured, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. The film went on to win 3 Oscars, including Best Screenplay.
Christopher was nominated again for an Oscar for his screenplay of Atonement. He told students how he’d picked up Ian McEwan’s novel at an airport – “consequently I never got on the beach at all – I was so busy reading it!” he laughed. He asked his agent to put him forward to adapt the novel and was delighted when McEwan agreed.
Christopher told students how he’d worked closely with director Joe Wright on the script. He described a very early conversation they had – “Joe said ‘The script’s very good. But I think we’re going to have to start from scratch.’ So we did. And it was very exciting and much better with Joe’s input.”
One of the students asked about the distinctive use of typewriter keys as part of the score, saying they’d noticed it was written into the script. Christopher revealed this was a result of the collaborative writing process they had, arising from a discussion between Joe and composer (NFTS graduate) Dario Marianelli, which Christopher then put into the script.
Christopher talked about how he came to work with David Cronenberg on A Dangerous Method. Christopher had originally written it as a screenplay, spending about 5 years researching it, but when it didn’t get made into a film Christopher adapted it instead into a stage play. David Cronenberg read the stage play and contacted Christopher to ask if he could make it into a screenplay. So it came round full circle, taking about 10 years before it was eventually made into a film.
“It was a really delightful relationship I had with David Cronenberg,” Christopher recalled, “I liked him enormously. But he was tough – I asked him if there was anything he wanted from the script and he said ‘I like a script to be 87 pages’. I delivered one that was 103 pages and he said ‘it’s a bit long….’.” Discussing the script development process with the students he admired the notes he received from David – “His comments were so lucid I was able to amend it in a couple of days.” Then David edited it himself too, explaining he liked to edit before he shot, “and when he sent his version back – it was 87 pages!”, Christopher laughed, “and he’d done it beautifully.”
Christopher went on to talk to students about his experience of directing, as well as writing, Carrington. “I wasn’t sure I could direct it, but Emma Thompson [who plays the lead role of Carrington] phoned me up and said ‘oh, come on….’, so I did it and found I really, really enjoyed it!” It’s really exciting to sit on a crane and say ‘action’!”
Examining a scene from Carrington with the students he explained how on the page the scene was perhaps two paragraphs, but that it was such a key scene that it lasts about 5 minutes on screen. He encouraged students that “one of the things you have to do as a screenwriter is to point out to the director, as tactfully as you can, that ‘this’ is a crucial bit of the story.”
Asked by one of the students for advice on adapting novels, he said that they all need to be adapted differently, but that for anything to just keep asking yourself all the time ‘is this the very best way to do this?’
For more information about the NFTS Screenwriting MA, please visit www.nfts.co.uk/screenwriting