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Screenwriting: a forgotten art

At the BAFTA lectures, Nick Hornby explains why it beats writing novels

Nicholas Barber | September 25th 2015

The sixth annual series of BAFTA and BFI Screenwriting Lectures is now underway at BAFTA’s Piccadilly headquarters, a short stroll from the Intelligent Life offices. This series exists partly so that its prestigious speakers can share their insights into the scriptwriting process, and partly so that everyone involved can have a good old moan about how unfairly undervalued they are in the film industry. It’s every screenwriter’s favourite subject.

Indeed, it’s so routine for them to grumble about being mucked about by directors, producers, actors, or all of the above, that when Nick Hornby (pictured) took to the stage for this year’s inaugural lecture—more accurately, an informal Q&A session—his interviewer, Francine Stock, began by asking him why he put up with it. He was, after all, the bestselling author of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” before he wrote the scripts of “An Education”, “Wild” and the forthcoming “Brooklyn”. Why, asked Stock, would he venture into a world where he had to chop and change his work according to other people’s whims, all in the service of a film which might never see the light of day, or the dark of a cinema. 

Hornby, it turned out, enjoys screenwriting for those very reasons. There comes a point in a novelist’s career, he said, when you know for certain that your next book will be published—“unless you really, really screw up badly”—so it becomes difficult to know how good your book actually is. A screenplay, in contrast, won’t be filmed unless it fulfils countless specifications. It doesn’t matter what the writer’s name is or what their track record might be. They have to deliver what someone else wants. And, if they do, they can take pride in a job well done.

Taking pride in one of his novels, Hornby said, was much trickier. “I think you’re much more likely to be critical of it than to really love it. But the films that I’ve been involved in, even if I wince at my own work, I can take enormous pleasure in other people’s. Seeing ‘An Education’ or ‘Brooklyn’ for the first time, I felt very glad to have been a part of it without being entirely responsible for it.”

The sense of being part of a team only goes so far, though. With an Eeyore-ish air, Hornby said that he rarely visited film sets: “People usually seem very disappointed to see you.” And the director is more stand-offish than anyone else. “Usually, you’ve built some kind of bond in pre-production and development, which you know is then gone. They’re not interested in you anymore, and it’s kind of sad.”

The distance between writer and director can be especially gaping in some cases, he added. Having apologised in advance for employing the phrase, “There are two types of...”, because there are always more than two types of anything, Hornby declared that there were two types of director. One type is keen to shoot the script that they’ve been given, and they won’t ask for changes except to refine what is already on the page. The second type has their own separate vision for the film, and it’s up to the screenwriter to fall in line with it. The director of “Wild”, said Hornby, was in the latter category.

Stock’s final question was about the media’s habit of crediting a film’s director, not its screenwriter, as its primary creator. Hornby seemed genuinely befuddled by this convention. “I don’t really understand how it’s taken hold,” he said, to warm laughter. “The theory seems to have stuck that the director is the author—despite not authoring anything at all. I find it mystifying, particularly when it comes to reviews. Routinely, things are attributed to a director that you know he can’t possibly have done. The director did not invent these characters.”

At this point, it seemed obvious where Hornby was going. Given that he had talked so much about feature films being collaborative, he was presumably going to scoff at the idea of their having a single author. But, no. Hornby had a different view, and he was emphatic about it: “The writer is the author.”

The BAFTA and BFI Lecture Series continues at 195 Piccadilly and at the BFI Southbank in London until October 3rd. You can buy tickets here

Brooklyn is released in America on November 4th, and in Britain on November 6th

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