Adapting 'Atonement' puts Hampton back in Oscar race

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Adapting "Atonement:" In an Oscar race where each of the best picture nominees is driven by its own unique blend of strengths, "Atonement's" mix is clearly one in which its screenplay plays a key role.

Not surprisingly, the romantic epic's screenplay, adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan's best selling novel, has been recognized with nominations in all three major awards races -- the Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes. "Atonement" won the best picture-drama Globe and is a best picture Oscar and BAFTA nominee.

Hampton, an Oscar winner in 1989 for adapting "Dangerous Liaisons" from his own stage play, was in L.A. for a few days recently and I was happy to be able to catch up with him late Sunday morning to talk about the writing of "Atonement."

Directed by Joe Wright, the Focus Features presentation in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media is a Working Title production. Starring are James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave. It was produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster and executive produced by Richard Eyre, Robert Fox, Ian McEwan, Debra Hayward and Liza Chasin.

"It's about 350 pages," Hampton replied when I asked if McEwan's novel was a long one with much more material than could possibly fit into the screenplay for a two-hour movie. "It's one of his longer books added to which the book is a very sort of interior piece. It's all to do with the workings of the mind of the young writer (13-year old Briony Tallis played by Ronan, a best supporting actress nominee for her splendid performance). Ian has said that one of the reasons he didn't adapt it, himself, is that he couldn't think of any other way to do it except as a voiceover monologue."

Readers who haven't yet seen "Atonement" -- something I'd urge you to do, having placed it atop my Ten Best List for 2007 -- may want to be careful about learning too much about its ending from Hampton's comments about his screenplay. Those who have seen the film, however, are likely in the majority at this point and in our conversation about the story Hampton and I took that into account.

"It evolved through various phases," he told me. "When I first started it, it was probably a bit more conventional in the sense that I did the obvious things. I had a kind of framing device where you began with the old Vanessa Redgrave character (Briony near the end of her life) coming back to the house (and revealing what had actually happened to the couple whose lives she'd ruined as a teenager). And then there was her voiceover at various points during the (film). As we evolved, I just got rid of all that. I thought it would be great to try and do it without any voiceover at all, which is what we eventually managed to do."

That approach allowed him to introduce the wonderful twist at the film's end when Redgrave appears and reveals something we hadn't expected to hear. "That's right," he agreed, "which would not have been a surprise if I'd done it in the slightly sort of literary way that I first imagined."

How did he become involved in writing the film? "Well, I applied for it. It's very rarely happened to me before," he said. "I read the book. I was in Thailand looking for locations on a film that never got made (and) bought the book at the airport on the way out because I like Ian's work very much. I just got increasingly stuck into it and by the time I came back to England I called my agent and said could she find out whether there was anybody assigned to (adapt) it and all that."

From there he wound up meeting McEwan: "I had a lunch with Ian. I thought I was being auditioned, but he later told me that he was pleased that I wanted to do it and he decided that he wanted to recommend me anyway. But when I went to meet him, I kind of felt I had to pitch what I was going to do, which as often happens in the event didn't bear enormous resemblance to what I finished up doing. But, anyway, the meeting went well enough for me to get the job."

Was Joe Wright on board yet to direct? "No, this was in the first year and a half of the process," Hampton explained. "I was working with (the film's original director) Richard Eyre, who then left to do 'Notes on a Scandal.' I think there was a kind of moment where the whole thing looked (like it might fall through) in the balance (and) as often happens with movies, nobody's quite sure whether it's going to go ahead or not. I think they were quite nervous about it. It's quite a challenging subject."

As for how he likes to work while writing, he said, "It's really simple. I actually have a notebook. I spend more time thinking about it and making notes than I do actually writing. When I feel ready to start writing I try then to write the screenplay as fast as I can because I feel that the energy that you generate somehow is reflected in the writing. It's like gearing yourself up to putting your feet in the blocks and then running like hell when the gun goes off."

Does he outline or work with index cards to organize scenes? "No. I make notes which eventually coalesce into a kind of skeleton shape," he told me. "But I try not to plan in too much detail because then you sort of kill the spontaneity of the moment as you're writing."

Some screenwriters are constantly rewriting themselves as they go along, but Hampton's not one of them: "I don't. I spend a few minutes at the beginning of every session just looking over yesterday's stuff and making small adjustments, but I don't do any major rewriting until after I've finished the first draft. (Writing 'Atonement's' first draft took only) about six weeks. That's quite long, actually. I have occasionally managed to do them in a week. It depends on the subject. But, as I say, I just feel that energy is a valuable part of the process."

While there are screenwriters who write with actors in mind for the key roles they're creating, once again, Hampton's not one of them. "Not at all," he explained. "Partly because it's such a young cast. I didn't know Saoirse at all. In fact, I knew Saoirse so little that I met her first at the read through, listened to her at the read through, thought how good she was and then was astonished when she spoke to me in an Irish accent. I hadn't realized she was Irish because I'd just arrived at the read through and Joe had found her and cast her.

"Keira was somebody that Joe obviously wanted to work with again (after doing 'Pride & Prejudice' together) and that was fine by me. (As for) James, I had talked to Joe and I said, 'I hope James is very, very promising' and he was on a shortish list. So I was very pleased when he was cast."

Asked if he did any rewriting after the key roles were cast, Hampton said, "No, I didn't. Not at all. I did go on working right up to pretty much the read through and a little bit afterwards even, but once Joe starts shooting he doesn't want to change anything. Different directors have different modus operandi. When I work with Stephen Frears (as he did on 'Dangerous Liaisons' and 'Mary Reilly') I'm often on the set changing things on the day."

Looking back at adapting McEwan's lengthy novel, not surprisingly not everything in the book made it into the screenplay: "I think what got affected the most, probably, was the wartime section, which is sort of longer and more elaborate in the book and was longer and more elaborate in my original screenplay. But the combination of wanting to get on with the narrative and actually economic factors meant that we compressed that section quite considerably. I mean, I had started off by writing 'Panzer attacks' and 'columns of refugees being strafed by German fighters.'"

Hampton agreed with my comment that those certainly sounded like very expensive short sentences: "Yes, exactly. Exactly. I mean, the book recreates all the chaos leading up to what we've compressed into one shot, which is that bravura steadicam shot on the beach (that runs for about five minutes). What happened was it was a sort of montage of events that I'd written with the French soldiers killing their horses so the Germans wouldn't get hold of them and the wounded soldiers singing a hymn and all those kind of things.

"At a certain point Joe said, 'If we get a thousand extras, we can only afford to have them for one day. So I think I'm going to have to do all this in one shot.' And so we just put together several of the elements that the soldiers were supposed to encounter on their way to the beach and just combined them into one fluid series of events. It's a good example of restrictions bringing out people's creativity because we really just couldn't afford to do it any other way." As it turns out, the lengthy Dunkirk beach scene is one of the film's most effective and became its most talked about sequence.

Looking back at the challenges Hampton faced while writing, he observed, "Actually, there were a couple of things. One was a way of doing that thing where you show the audience what the little girl thinks has happened and then you show the audience what really happened so that you see scenes a couple of times -- the second time more fully delineated so you can explain (what actually happened). And that was surprisingly complicated to do. I think the other thing that was difficult was working out how to do that epilogue, that ending (where Redgrave as Briony confesses in a television interview what terrible harm she caused to the characters played by Knightley and McAvoy).

"She reveals at the very end that she is now old Briony (played earlier in the film at age 13 by Ronan and then at age 18 by Romola Garai) and she's written this book and she speaks directly to the reader. We needed a plausible way in which she would be giving out that information that she was dying and talking about her book. Eventually we hit on the idea of a TV interview. I mean, it's really based actually on the idea of the writer Dennis Potter ('Pennies From Heaven,' 'The Singing Detective') who famously gave an interview a few weeks before he died when he was struggling against deadlines. He went on television with a bottle of morphine that he was swigging from from time to time to kill the pain and explained how even though he knew he only had a few weeks to live the most important thing in his life was to finish his television miniseries. It was very powerful and moving and you got a sense of somebody who was finally completely able to tell the truth. So that was what inspired us to do it that way."

With "Dangerous Liaisons," Hampton adapted his own material to the screen. Asked if he preferred doing that or adapting someone else's material as was the case with "Atonement," he replied, "You know, it's more difficult in a way doing one's own stuff. I talked to Ian about this. (It's) because you're sort of more in love with your own stuff, I'm afraid, and so it's hard to have that necessary ruthlessness (to cut material out). In the case of 'Liaisons,' of course, the play was also based on a novel (the classic Choderlos de Laclos book) and really what I did with the movie was that I tried to forget the play and went back to the novel. So the movie is closer to the novel than the play is and it's more faithful to the novel than the play was."

Besides being a screenwriter, Hampton has, himself, directed three films. "Carrington," his 1995 biographical romantic drama about the artist Dora Carrington, starred Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce and was based on the book by Michael Holroyd. His 1996 drama "The Secret Agent" starred Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette and was based on the novel by Joseph Conrad. And his 2003 romantic thriller "Imagining Argentina" starred Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson and was based on the novel by Lawrence Thornton.

Does having directed films, himself, affect the way he now writes? "I think it has improved my understanding of what can and can't be done," he acknowledged. "I remember having the sensation of looking at my own script when I'm directing a film and thinking, 'How does this man expect me to do this?' I think I do (feel for the director a bit more)."

When I observed that in this case Hampton had given Wright some very good material to film, he countered, "Well, he was very good to work with, I must say. I found him very stimulating and very clear. That's always good for a writer."

With "Atonement" having already grossed nearly $43 million domestically, Hampton pointed out, "I'm really, really delighted that this film is proving so popular with the public because in a sense it's quite an esoteric subject." As for its good showing with Academy voters, who gave it seven nominations, and with BAFTA voters, who gave it 14 noms (way more than any other film), he added, "We shall see. The awards are icing on the cake, really. The main thing is that the film gets out there for people to look at."

As for his next project, he told me, "I wrote a screenplay about five years ago based on a French novel by Collette called 'Cheri' and we are planning to do it in a few months with Stephen Frears (an Oscar, BAFTA, DGA and Golden Globes nominee for 'The Queen') directing."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 24, 1990's column: "The continuing dialogue over whether or not the present X rating requires revision in favor of a new A rating for non-pornographic adult product has raised industry expectations that such a change will be forthcoming. Frankly, I hope MPAA president Jack Valenti holds the line and resists the mounting pressure to do so.

"Hollywood's creative community has been exceptionally vocal about the need it perceives for greater artistic freedom for filmmakers. Understandably, those who make movies always want as much freedom as they can get. The question really is, how much more freedom do they possibly need?

"After all, there already was more than enough artistic freedom for Spike Lee to make 'Mo' Better Blues,' a film some critics labeled anti-Semitic because of how it depicts two characters. There already was sufficient artistic freedom for Martin Scorsese to make 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' which made headlines when protesters insisted it defiled Christianity. There was enough artistic freedom for Zalman King to make the sexually candid 'Wild Orchid.' And there was more than enough artistic freedom for David Lynch to make 'Wild at Heart,' whose extreme and graphic violence and sex sickened some critics and moviegoers.

"The fact is that all of these films were made and distributed without the 'benefit' of an A rating. None of them were domestic theatrical boxoffice hits. Would they have been boxoffice successes if only they'd had that extra ounce of creative freedom to lay on a bit more sex or violence or controversy? Hardly. There isn't a broad audience that wants to see these films as they are now and it's unlikely there would be one waiting for them even if the floodgates were opened to allow filmmakers total freedom to show anything they wanted to on screen in the name of art ..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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