Terence - Tonight is going to be extremely informal so you are allowed to interrupt or throw money or anything. (laughter) Clifford is the centrepiece tonight, I'd normally like to dominate but I'll try to refrain. We are both screenwriters but Clifford has come up with an idea to talk about the process of writing, particularly cross genre writing because he's worked on fiction, non fiction, scripts and done everything. Incidentally, he has a new book out on Monday about Salvador Dali and is to be launched at the Dali Universe in Old County Hall, we aren't selling this tonight but we are taking orders! We'll start off where we usually start, with a little background.
Clifford - I started writing very young, I was a journalist for 3 or 4 years, then I went to India, decided I wanted to be a writer so I wrote a book of short stories and as that got published in the US I took off, like everyone else, to Hollywood to become a famous scriptwriter. I got a job tying ropes in the San Fernando Valley which was very successful (laughs). This marvellous job led me to meet Carol Wright, you'll remember her from Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow and I ended up writing her biography. I suppose that set me up as a writer and I've been writing books and short stories ever since.
Terence - Good. Briefer than I thought it was going to be Clifford! Could you start by telling us about cross genre writing, give some advice to people who want to write or talk about the process of writing to people who are interested like the producers or directors.
C - I'd say to anyone who is a writer here, that writing is really really hard, its a very lonely profession that involves sitting on your own every day, its physical and nothing comes easy. A lot of people here are making short films - when you have a script, don't rush into production but leave it in a drawer for 2 weeks. Keep working on it and refining it because scriptwriting is re writing, I can't emphasise that enough. I've only been writing scripts for 3 years and its a much tougher business than writing books.
T - Why is that?
C - Well books are about words and we'll all have that familiarity about words but screenplays are about actions and movement, its telling a story in pictures. You've got to be able to visualise every single picture in the film, you've got to think about what people are wearing, the expressions on their faces. You've really got to get to know the background of the people and why they are in this situation and that takes a great deal more planning, plotting and structuring than a book. With a book you can go off on tangents and still bring it back for it to be enjoyable but with a screenplay its all about cause and effect.
T - By saying that scripts are so difficult to write, does that mean that any kind of writing is good preparation for writing scripts?
C - It is unless you are writing an art house script. There is a start, middle and end, there's development of character, during the course of any story someone is going to change, that's the whole point of it. People are interested in characters and want to know what has brought them to this point of crisis, which is where most stories will start, and you then test your characters against various opposing forces and watch them overcome those crises or not overcome them.
T - How difficult was the transition, how difficult was it to do the first script?
C - The first I did was an adaptation of one of my own short story's. I had this pile of short stories and I realised that they all had a similar setting and background, I'm very interested in the Thames dividing different communities in London and how they interact. I thought I'd try to bring them together to have four of those different stories in one movie.
T - And what has happened to that script?
C - Its gone through fifteen different drafts. Its gone from 4 stories to one story, every 3rd or 4th draft one of the stories would get bigger and one would get dropped. The piece is now just about one story, its got a new title, a new producer, its got a new director on board and we are beginning to cast.
T - I'd read some of Clifford's notes earlier about boyhood inspiration and I think this is where we come into conflict. What are your comments regarding inspiration?
C - I'd typed out here, "don't trust an inspiration unless you want to be a poet." The first idea you get is likely to be a copy of all the other things you've ever seen. I don't think its a good thing.
T - Well I'd say exactly the opposite fortunately! (laughter) One of the rules I read very early on when writing scripts was that you must trust inspiration and that the worst scripts are the ones that you hack away on. So when you talk about writing fifteen drafts I feel the problem is actually a bad idea to start with. You mechanically came to the idea of patching together these short stories instead of having an inspiration.
C - Well Dali would work for 17 hours a day, that's why he produced such a volume of work, and he said that he never trusted an inspiration. I think that your inspiration comes from your work, everyone has that experience, however tough it is you are working on something and when you read back you can say, 'hey, that's good.' It comes from the work process, you don't walk through the park and think, 'what a great idea' and then go back and write it. You just write and write and write and the ideas just come through the writing. Its not inspiration its perspiration.
T - One of the rules that I think does apply is that you can't rescue a bad idea and that's why you must have a good idea to start with and it comes from inspiration. I do believe that the one idea that you wake up with in the morning is the one you should stick with.
C - Well the problem with my first screenplay was that there were 4 ideas and I had to realise which was the strongest, it took all those rewrites to find the story that was really right, when I found it then I had good material.
T - A writer that's having considerable success told me that you never write anything unless you know exactly what's going to go in, I never write a script until I have a very firm step outline.
C - Well I also think that this is the right way, my first was an anomaly because I had to learn how to write screenplays and I learnt the hard way. You need to structure first and you need that very definite outline of where you are going.