Marber hits high notes adapting 'Notes' to screen

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"Notes" notes: Adapting a book sounds easy because a novelist's already created the story, but that's not necessarily true.

In the case of "Notes on a Scandal," which has four Oscar nominations including best adapted screenplay, Patrick Marber made some major plot changes in Zoe Heller's novel in bringing it to the screen. As significant as those changes are -- a new ending, for instance, is one of them -- Heller is still happy enough with the film to have agreed to accompany Marber to Monday's Oscar nominees luncheon.

"Notes," a Fox Searchlight Pictures and DNA Films presentation in association with the U.K. Film Council and BBC Films, stars Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as well as Bill Nighy. Directed by Richard Eyre, it was produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox. It was executive produced by Redmond Morris. Besides Marber's nomination, "Notes" is an Oscar contender for best actress (Dench), supporting actress (Blanchett) and original score (Philip Glass). In the film Blanchett's character, Sheba, an art teacher in a school in a rough London neighborhood, is married to Nighy but is having an affair with a 15-year-old boy in her class, which Dench becomes aware of and threatens to reveal unless she ends it immediately.

Having put "Notes" on my 10 Best List in December, I felt Marber hit some high notes in adapting it to the screen. I was happy to have an opportunity to focus on the screenplay with Marber when he called me Friday from London as he was preparing to fly to L.A. Although Marber is well-known now as a screenwriter, he started out writing plays. His second play, "Closer," premiered in London at the National Theatre in 1997 before moving to the West End in '98 and then to Broadway a year later, where it was produced by Rudin and Fox. Marber adapted "Closer" to the screen for Mike Nichols and received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations in 2005. For "Notes" Marber received his first Oscar nomination as well as BAFTA and Globe nods and he and Heller were jointly nominated for the USC Scripter Award.

"I've known Scott Rudin since 1999 because he produced 'Closer' on Broadway and he had been saying to me for quite a long time that I should start writing screenplays," Marber told me when I asked how the project came about. "In 2001 my wife and I started having children and I thought I'd better start saying yes to some of these screenplay offers I'm getting otherwise people might just go away and think I'm somehow too snooty to be writing movies, which I'm not at all. I just felt I needed to get some plays written before I embarked on a whole other universe of writing.

"So the first thing that happened is that I wrote (the screenplay for) 'Closer' for Mike Nichols, who I'd met in '99. I really enjoyed the experience of working with him and writing a screenplay. And then Scott sent me this book 'Notes on a Scandal,' which had just been published in the U.K. and Scott had already acquired the movie rights. I read it in one weekend and immediately said yes to it. It was a straight offer and it was gratefully accepted. I wrote it over one winter really, the winter of 2004, and then Scott and I to-and-fro'd a number of drafts after that, by which I mean I would do rewrites, he'd give notes, I'd do some more writing. We did it for a couple of months and then we sent it to Judi and Cate. Richard was already on board (to direct) at this point. And they, thank goodness, said yes -- Cate immediately and Judi, I think, after having a lunch with Richard."

While it sounds like everything fell together easily enough, Marber observed, "I wouldn't say it was easy because the writing was extremely difficult. I then went and wrote another eight drafts after Judi and Cate had said yes. The film had changed quite a lot in screenplay form, particularly in postproduction. Because I'd used voiceover, it meant every time Richard recut the film I rewrote the voiceover. We'd agreed from very early on that we desperately wanted to use voiceover to magnify the story rather than simply describe the images and that was a very important component of what the voiceover would do.

"What I've learnt from it is if you want to get in and get out quickly on a movie, don't cut a voiceover in it because you can carry on working for another year, which I did. That said, it was really worth doing because it carries a lot of weight and Judi does the voiceover brilliantly. And I think we found a way of using voiceover that doesn't feel dated and doesn't feel like it's cheating. I think it genuinely contributes to the effervescence of the film as a whole."

Asked about adapting books to the screen, he said, "There's a very good tip I learned from William Goldman in the second book he wrote about writing screenplays, 'Which Lie Did I Tell?' (published in 2001). It's a brilliant book. He talks about a working method of just reading the book and marking up passages, lines, scenes in different colors with each read so that any paragraph that seems to have five different colors attached to it clearly resonated each time he read it. So I just used that method really. If you look at my copy of 'Notes on a Scandal' it's kind of a vandalized text. This is ironic because I'm always telling my children not to draw in their books, but I draw in mine."

After reading the novel the first time, Marber recalled, "I thought, 'This is a really funny, interesting book.' The first time it was read for pure pleasure. The second time was business. And for the third, fourth, fifth, sixth it becomes work. But I have to say -- and I've told Zoe this -- that it never ceased to amuse and enchant me. I never got bored of it. I haven't read it for a long time now actually because at a certain point you have to say goodbye to it because you get confused (in writing the adaptation). At a certain point I find that once I've made some key decisions, I don't want to be endlessly querying them. So I stopped reading the book probably in about May or June 2005, a couple of months before we started shooting the movie."

Does he write the way many screenwriters do by breaking scenes down into individual note cards and posting them on walls? "I've done that with plays," he replied. "That's actually how I composed 'Closer.' I wrote maybe 20 or 30 scenes that could be in the play and then eliminated (some), decided what I liked best. The shape emerged through cards that were pinned on a pin board. With this one, I built it around the structure. I might have written the last scenes first, but I kept the shape (of the screenplay) in my head the whole time. It's a very odd feeling. You walk around carrying a shape and changing it and fiddling with it in your head. But I never wrote notes for this one really, which is odd because usually I do. I just wanted to hold it in my head. And also because I live in London not far from the streets where the film is set, I just did a lot of walking around. The novel is set in north London in an area called Highgate. The school is in a rougher area. We set the school in a rough (part of) Islington. I live about a mile or two from the environs of the film.

"I was conscious that I was looking at 'Barbara's' in the street and how they conduct themselves. They're a lot of them about. I was consciously looking to see how boys behave because I felt I don't know that many 15-year-old kids. I wasn't lurking around playgrounds, but I was conscious on buses or underground trains that I was interested to see their mannerisms, the way that they are with each other. I'm always like that. I'm writing a screenplay at the moment of Ian McKean's novel 'Saturday' (published in 2005). It's set in London and I'm very alive and alert to the things that are in that book. I'm looking for locations. I'm sort of (making a skeleton) of the script in some strange way, but it's a very nice feeling because everything you see or experience is potential material. I like that feeling. It's a very alive feeling for a writer."

As for how he actually does his writing, Marber explained, "I use Final Draft and I write right onto the laptop. I write at night and I correct and rewrite in the day. So I'll print out the previous night's work first thing in the morning and I'll hand correct it and I'll read it aloud and then I'll put it back into the computer so it's a constantly evolving ongoing first draft. But unfortunately the big work, the rock breaking work, gets done between 10 o'clock at night and 2 o'clock in the morning. So it's quite exhausting. That's always been the case. I've always found, from being a student onwards, that my most productive time is at night in sort of the dead of night. It's quieter and I like the feeling that the city is putting itself to bed but I'm up and grappling with this stuff. I don't know -- there's something romantic about it and it appeals to me."

At this point, we talked a bit about the film's ending and how it differs from how Heller's novel ended. If you haven't already seen "Notes," you might want to skip over the upcoming comments about the ending and return to them after you've caught up with the movie (which is so good you owe it to yourself to see it).

When did Marber know that he wanted to change the book's ending for the film? "Quite late," he answered. "We shot an ending where Barbara was left alone and just sort of contemplating her misery and Sheba went back to her husband and knocked on the door, but the door was never answered. We left her on the doorstep. We didn't know whether the door would ever open. We didn't know whether her husband would let her back in. And that was in the first cut of the film. And then we all looked at it and debated it and felt that there was an uneasy sense of lack of resolution here and lack of movie conclusion.

"It wasn't as though anyone wanted to wrap it up in a neat little bow, but we just felt we've gone on this big journey with these two women and we all felt collectively -- myself, Richard, Scott, Robert Fox -- that we just wanted to know what was going to happen or, rather, what happened next. So we just projected a bit more into the future. And I sent Sheba to jail and I projected even further into the future. I had Barbara in a kind of weird denial that she'd ever known Sheba and here she was lurking around and possibly finding another victim. So we sort of committed, I suppose, to something which I believe to be truthful, which is that the Barbara's of this world don't spend the rest of their lives grieving over the one they've lost. She certainly doesn't grieve over Jennifer Dodd, who was the previous victim. They go into a process of denial and they find someone else to fixate on."

Another change that Marber made in adapting the novel was to make Sheba's husband, played by Nighy, a more pleasant fellow than he originally was. "The process was that I decided to make the husband a more sympathetic figure because I thought that would make what Sheba does even more shocking and more complicated than if the husband's a jerk and she's seeking a bit of fun elsewhere," he pointed out. "I thought that made it too explainable. Zoe was quite resistant to this at first and then (changed her mind) when I explained to her why. I said, 'Look, it's a risk because the audience might just simply be repulsed by Sheba for doing this, but it seems to me more interesting.' Cate agreed. When she read it she liked the fact that she was going to have a nice husband. And then it became a question of who should that husband be?

"Everyone agreed that Bill Nighy was absolutely first choice and we were very happy to get him. I think it pulls the film into a more complicated territory because the book is complicated and very subtle. You can't do full justice to all the layers so you pick which layer you're going to excavate and this is one where we felt on film we could do something that the book hadn't done, which is give her quite a successful family life, which we could achieve very quickly with a few scenes, and therefore make the shock that she's having an affair with a boy more shocking and, therefore, potentially more interesting in a movie."

The film and novel also differ as to when it's revealed that Sheba's having this affair with her student. "It's known from the first paragraph (in the novel)," Marber said. "I made the decision that this isn't a novel with a great deal of plot in it and it seemed to me very clearly that one of the story points I've got here is that one of the protagonists is having an affair with a kid, which seemed to me a big deal, and we should delay this revelation or, rather, make it a revelation. And it then seemed to (make sense) that we would find out at the same time as Barbara. I mean, I could have revealed that Sheba's having an affair, but not reveal it to Barbara. But I wanted the audience to feel some kind of identification with Barbara. When Barbara finds out, she's shocked, we're shocked.

"We're a bit less shocked than she is because we've read the prepublicity for the film. I thought it would be interesting to constantly be forcing the audience to collude with Barbara and then it is at this point in the story that Barbara is going to veer off into a very strange direction and cease to be the reliable person we thought she was. The second she decides to keep Sheba's secret she's clearly crossed some moral line and this seemed to me very interesting because the film was always going to pull the audience in all kinds of odd directions in terms of sympathies. And we thought this is a very good opportunity to do this."

There also are differences in terms of how much the audience knows versus what Barbara knows: "Obviously, what happens next in the story is that Sheba betrays Barbara. Sheba says she'll end the affair. We think Sheba's going to end the affair and then we see that she doesn't before Barbara (learns that she hasn't). It's the first time in the story where we know more than Barbara does. What I'm announcing by that is that from now on the story is told equally from Barbara's point of view and Sheba's point of view.

"Once I've shifted from it being entirely Barbara's perspective it then becomes Sheba's perspective for a bit in a kind of looping flashback in her narrative of how the affair began (which) she tells Barbara. And then they're kind of pedaling equally. All this took many drafts to figure out and it was difficult. It seems very obvious that this is a very simple and effective way of telling this story now, but it was very tough to get to something so simple."

After Dench and Blanchett were cast, did Marber shape their characters more to fit them? "No," he told me, "because I was writing it for them always. They'd been sent the novel just after I was sent it and were told that I was going to write a screenplay. They both expressed interest in it, but they hadn't signed up for the film. So I was writing very much for those two actors. Obviously, in rehearsal lines of dialogue changed a bit. But not a great deal. To me, one of the luxuries of being a writer on this film is that the actors were so insistent that they would try and make the script work down to the last comma.

"I mean, with Judi, watching her rehearse, she would observe the difference between a semicolon and a colon and a comma. She's a writer's dream. She really plays attention to exactly what you've written because she gives you the respect that you spent time on it and there's a reason for everything. So whenever Judi had an issue with anything in the script you knew it was very much worth listening to. But she didn't have many concerns."

Marber also makes a point of tipping his writer's hat to Heller: "My relationship with Zoe Heller throughout this has been fantastic. She really has been a brilliant 'adaptee.' We met in 2003 when I took the job on. I want to pay tribute to her because I've committed an act of piracy on her book. But I've walked her through every stage of it and I'm very pleased that she's very honest with me about what she likes and doesn't like in the film. And in general she really loves the film. I'm taking her to the nominees lunch (which took place Monday).

"We've become great pals throughout all this. That's been one of the most exciting things about this -- getting to know the novelist and having the novelist's approval. Listen, she was a lot easier to work with than I was as the adapter of 'Closer.' The playwright (Marber, of course) was impossible to deal with whereas Zoe has been exemplary. You know, her father was a quite famous screenwriter -- Lukas Heller, who wrote 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' among other things (including, 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte,' 'The Flight of the Phoenix' and 'The Dirty Dozen') -- so she knows what screenwriters do to books. She's still talking to me."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 9, 1989's column: "Unlike several of this holiday season's boxoffice hits, MGM/UA's 'Rain Man' was not an easy winner to predict before its opening.

"'If you had asked me when the movie was first finished what kind of prospects it had at the boxoffice, I couldn't have told you,' Mark Johnson, who produced the Barry Levinson film starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, told me when he was my guest Sunday on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series...

"'I knew that 'Good Morning, Vietnam' had a good shot,' he explains, 'and this one, as proud as I am of the film, I had no idea how the public would receive it.' 'Rain's' rewards are already considerable. It had grossed about $45 million as we taped our show last Thursday and distribution sources expect it to do over $100 million domestically...

"'When we agreed to do the film, we were handicapped by a Christmas release we'd agreed upon and, more importantly, a threatened IA strike. The film had to be finished in principal photography by the end of July. Backing into our schedule, we realized we had to start shooting eight weeks after we had agreed to (do) the film...In many respects it turned out to be a blessing in disguise in that, I think, the discussion was over with -- not just the discussion with the director and the actors, but with the studio and everyone else involved. Everybody had to say, 'Listen, we're starting as of today and we start shooting eight weeks from today...

"'Luckily, by that point, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise were so tired of preparing this thing and discussing it (for at least 18 months) they were ready to go. They were on board for three other directors -- first Martin Brest, then Steven Spielberg and then Sydney Pollack. So they were, I'm sure, a little desperate to get this movie made."

Update: "Rain Man" was a huge hit for MGM/UA. It wound up grossing $172.8 million domestically, making it 1988's top film, and it did another $182 million in international theaters. The R rated drama reportedly cost $25 million to make. It received eight Oscar nominations, winning for best picture, director, actor (Hoffman) and original screenplay (Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow).

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