Quirky is possibly the best word to describe Emma Thompson‘s BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture, hilariously delivered tonight in London. It included a physical demonstration of her writing process; pearls of wisdom shared with the filmmaker attendees; and an anecdote about how a period sketch she wrote featuring a Victorian-era virgin encountering a penis led to her penning Sense And Sensibility.
The event, a Thompson-directed variation on a regular series of screenwriter conversations, continued a mini-season of high-wattage names visiting the British Academy, which started with James Schamus on Thursday and David Fincher on Friday. And Thompson tapped her acting and sketch comedy background to give the sell-out crowd a good show.
She was already on stage as the audience started filing in, dressed down in denim overalls and a thick navy coat so that few noticed her at first. She sat barefoot at a tiny writing desk, and in between scribbling on a notepad, she dabbed her eyes with tissues, mouthed lines to herself and occasionally stepped up to pace the stage, or practice a yoga pose on a bright purple mat. She then got a vacuum out and swept the stage before finally stepping out of the theater altogether, to laughs and applause.
When she returned, after the audience was played an episode from children’s classic The Magic Roundabout – a series written by her father Eric – Thompson explained that she’d been briefed to give an insight into her writing process. Her little piece of theater was her process, she said. “That’s how I write. I’ve got a purple yoga mat, and I have a little table about that size. That’s sort of what it looks like. I hoover; I find odd places to polish. Places that I haven’t seen in a long time; sometimes parts of my own body. And there’s a lot of crying in fetal positions.”
In conversation with Jeremy Brock, Thompson discussed her youth and the early days of her writing and performing career as part of the Cambridge Footlights sketch comedy group with talented comics like Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Sandi Toksvig. She showed The Magic Roundabout because, she said, it was important to note how much of an influence her father has been on her writing career. “I think it’s very interesting where your relationship with words comes from, and mine comes from my father, who was given these little French films by the BBC and was asked to write [English] scripts for them.”
Her writing career started in earnest in the Footlights, aged 18, inspired by Fry and Laurie’s talent. “The Footlights was quite male-dominated,” she said, “it was difficult to get in sideways because Stephen and Hugh were so wonderful. Sandi Toksvig and I did an all-womens’ revue called Woman’s Hour, though it wasn’t an overtly feminist revue. We auditioned women, because we were very exercised by the fact that people would say women aren’t funny. We’d say, ‘Yes they are, we laugh all the time.’ Then we auditioned quite a lot of women who weren’t funny at all.”
But Thompson reiterated many times during the discussion that she believed there was no fundamental difference between the sexes. “You get into that whole nature/nurture thing of confidence, really, because being funny is all about being confident,” she said. “The Venus/Mars thing is so awful and as writers we really have to come to terms with the fact that our brains are essentially the same.”
Thompson then performed a comic monologue for the audience, about a woman meeting a Vietnamese immigrant at an art gallery, and discussed the ill-fated BBC sketch comedy program she was given in 1988, Thompson, which she wrote and starred in. “It was, I suppose, the most important thing I ever did, because it was such a massive failure,” Thompson reflected. “There were all sorts of reasons for its failure, because like any other sketch show, some of it was good and some was bad, and it didn’t have a laugh track, which was quite extreme at the time. It was a violent experience and after that I never wrote another sketch. That’s really tragic, actually, because I really wanted to be Lily Tomlin. I wanted to be Jane Wagner.”
It taught her a lot because, “if you can’t fail like that you can’t do this job [writing].” And it led to her most famous piece of screenwriting, the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility. The audience saw a clip from the sketch show, in which Thompson plays a Victorian virgin trying to explain to her mother about a small, hairless pink mouse a man had just shown her. “Yep, it’s a sketch about a willy,” she laughed. “But Sense And Sensibility came to me because of that sketch. They showed that series in America, and my great friend Lindsay Doran was watching it and she thought, ‘That’s the woman I want to adapt a Jane Austen novel.’ Go figure.”
She’d never adapted anything, but followed advice she’d been given to dramatize the entire book and work from there. “Adaptation is both distillation and an imaginative invention that you have to use to create your own skeleton. I wrote the first draft and it was about 600-pages long.”
Thompson revealed that she always writes long-hand, and she brought along a box from her attic of her 17 drafts of Sense And Sensibility, scribbled onto the back of old script pages from her acting jobs. “If you keep rewriting by hand you will rewrite it naturally,” she said. “On screen you can been fooled into thinking it’s good.” The drafts get less messy as she goes on, as ideas crystalize.
She was brought to tears by a clip from Sense And Sensibility in which Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars proposes marriage to her sobbing Elinor Dashwood. “I wrote that speech early on and never changed it because it made me cry,” she said. “As we performed it, Hugh said, ‘Are you really going to do that? Cry through my whole speech?’ ‘I said, ‘Yeah, because it’s funny. It’ll work.’ He thought, ‘Oh God, alright.’ But of course he did it beautifully.”
Thompson imparted much wisdom in her time on stage, telling the filmmaking audience to think of the screenplay as the keystone in the arch of film. She stressed her love of good stage direction. “If they’re witty and well-written I know I’m in good hands. If they’re cursory or banal, I can’t be bothered to read the dialogue. Make your screenplay as beautiful as you can make it.” And she especially insisted on the use of a good editor to identify mistakes that need fixing. “I couldn’t write a screenplay without a decent editor.”
Westerns, she said, inspired Nanny McPhee, Thompson’s adaptation of the Nurse Matilda childrens’ books. “I worked out that Nanny McPhee is a Western,” about an outsider who comes to town to restore order using unorthodox methods before leaving again. The audience saw a clip, which spliced 1953’s Shane with Nanny McPhee to illustrate her point. She thought adapting a children’s story would be easy, “but it was hell,” and took nine years to reach the screen.
She identified with the Western hero, and wished women had more of those roles. And she identified an unlikely hero in Clint Eastwood. She related touring with him on the awards trail the year they won Oscars – she for Howard’s End and he for Unforgiven. “He was divine to me and my mum,” she said. “The night we won he said to me, ‘Well, we did it,’ and it was so moving. It was like being knighted.”
Thompson closed with a clip from the finale of 1960’s The Apartment – “probably one of the best screenplays ever written” – and a piece of advice from William Wyler: “If you want to make a good film, your screenplay needs to be all good scenes, no bad scenes and one great scene,” she quoted. “Billy Wilder understood that like no one else.”
In the film, Jack Lemmon has the line, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” She said that the screenplay ended with the line, “The End. Screenplay-wise.” “That’s what I mean by someone who knows how to write,” she reflected. “You know you’re in good hands with this person; this great artist.”