Playwright Jez Butterworth Spills All His Secrets in 'The Ferryman'

Jez Butterworth-Publicity-H 2019
Matt Frost

The Tony front-runner talks with The Hollywood Reporter about crafting his three-hour rural family epic from his own experience and why it has captured New York audiences.

Jez Butterworth has a small caveat for this interview: He doesn't think his work wants to be talked about. The writer is nominated for his second Tony Award for best play for The Ferryman, a vigorous family epic set in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the Troubles. The production opened on Broadway in the fall to rave reviews, after a successful run in London's West End, where it won the 2018 Olivier Award for best new play. But Butterworth worries that if he talks about his plays, he won’t get the opportunity to write another one.

"It's like a private thing between the theater and me," says Butterworth, who has a parallel career as a screenwriter, with eclectic credits ranging from the Tom Cruise action sci-fi Edge of Tomorrow to the James Brown biodrama Get on Up, from the Whitey Bulger true-crime saga Black Mass to the 007 thriller, Spectre. "I can feel them, by them I mean the plays, just going, 'Shut the fuck up. We're not going to give you another one.'"

But Butterworth won't listen to the negative voices today. "There's so many other elements involved in a production like this. So to give it life and breath, I've got to say something about it," he says. "So my approach is to be completely unguarded and just say whatever I feel is true about it, because if the plays have a problem with that, then fuck 'em."

Sitting at Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel, Butterworth looks like a distinguished hipster, with his dark t-shirt and blazer combo and fedora-like hat. He strokes his full beard and swirls his glass of Johnny Walker Black (on the rocks) as he talks.

He's in town for the week with his partner Laura Donnelly, who starred in The Ferryman in London and on Broadway — she also landed one of the production's nine Tony nominations for her performance. The plot is partially inspired by Donnelly's family; there is a disappearance at the center of The Ferryman, just as Donnelly's uncle was disappeared by the Irish Republican Army in 1981.

"There were two really good reasons not to write this play," says Butterworth, who was previously nominated for best play in 2011 for Jerusalem. "One of them is that I'm English. And the second one is that it dealt specifically with the subject matter of someone who's close to me, and I've never done that before. So I tried as hard as I could not to write it. Until it became impossible. And it was a little bit like trying not to vomit. I can tell when I'm full of a play and that it's going to come. And it was about this sort of 'don't go there' calamitous kind of subject matter. I'm not sure that I even asked Laura."

Butterworth remembers discussing the idea on a drive upstate when the two were in New York for his play The River, which Donnelly also starred in on Broadway opposite Hugh Jackman and Cush Jumbo. "She didn't balk. And by the end of the evening we'd come up with the plot of it," he recalls.

The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Butterworth to discuss his writing process, working with director Sam Mendes and how The Ferryman haunts him.

You've been thinking about writing a play about the Disappeared and the Troubles for a long time. When you first started mulling over the idea, did you know about Laura's uncle?

No. I'd wanted to write a play about a big family, and to set it at harvest time. The plan to write something set in that kind of atmosphere or that kind of turning of the year predated even meeting Laura. I always need one half of a story to clip onto the other half of a story before it works. I could write 20 plays set in a kitchen at harvest, but they wouldn't mean anything. You need this other element. The whole thing with disappearance affected me way more than it affected Laura, I mean just emotionally, in terms of it haunting me.

Do you remember where you were at the time of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes??

I know exactly where I was. I remember the whole unfolding of the deaths of the 10 hunger strikers so clearly, I would have been 11 years old living in Hertfordshire in a very small house with seven people. And each time a hunger striker died, it was an event. It was noted.

Did you talk to Laura's family when you were writing the play?

Talking to the Northern Irish about their feelings is an extraordinary experience because, for my money, it involves so much reflection and so many attempts to avoid the conversation, but then as soon as you get going it won't stop.

Was your intention always to write the play for Laura?

When we worked on The River, I thought that Laura was an extraordinary talent, and in a really specific way. For me, all drama is about dignity. I don't think we really care whether people live or die; we care about their dignity as such. As soon as that's the case, then you really look through your fingers. It struck me really early on that Laura is a bellwether for dignity. She can communicate to the audience when she's trying to hang onto it, when she's losing it, when it's gone, when she tries to get it back. The best actors do that, and it seemed so clear that that was what she was capable of doing. So I was hungry to write something for her where she got to do all of that. But, and this is from the heart, for my own selfish reasons, that she was the right person to play the part I had in mind. No one gets a free ride. And had she been not right for it, and had I not been right about her, we wouldn't be having this conversation. No one would care. It's all what she's been able to do and show on the stage. We very rarely talk about it. We've probably had about four conversations about this play ever.

You also mentioned you were nervous about writing this play because you're English.

Not nervous, like sort of psychotic to attempt it. I mean why would you do that?

People write about experiences that aren't their own all the time.

That's been my excuse from the beginning. If Shakespeare had to stick to plays set in Stratford-upon-Avon, we would have been swiftly bored. It's just the political thing. It's just the fact that if there is an Irish situation, it's the fault of the English. Just as simple as that. We've actually encountered very little choppy water on that, but it's available as an idea. If someone wants to think, "Why is this person writing that, they're barely half Irish."

Do you have Irish heritage?

Three of my grandparents are Irish. My mother's name is Shena Malone. And there was an extended family situation that I've based the entire story on. I mean there isn't really a thing that happens in this play that isn't based on stuff that happened to me or around me as I was growing up. For me, plays are part confession and part cries for help. And so what better time to say, "This happened and this happened and this is what I'm afraid of. This is the source of my shame."

What are some of the parts that are your own?

All of the names of the young girls in it are the names of my mother's sisters and my mother. The grandmothers are both named after my grandmothers. My grandmother slowly stretched out in the corner of our kitchen for years and so she would phase in and out. Once I get going and write, it's a bit like a bonfire that you can just chuck stuff on and watch it blow up.

Most of your plays happen over a short, fixed amount of time. Is that a structure you like?

I don't like to do any of this. For some reason, a play for me happens in one place. I think almost all seven plays that I've written all happen in one place. And over about 24 hours. I mean that's the way they used to do them.

It's from Aristotle's Poetics.

Yeah, it is. And without trying to obey that rule, it obeys that rule. And I kind of feel that if you can do that, do it. Because I think that there's a power in the form. I'm a massive fan of the simple forms. I love the blues. I love the fact that it's so simple. And I kind of feel with plays that if I wrote something that had 41 scenes in it, I could write movies. Nothing about that strikes me as theatrical. Someone else might be able to find absolute theatrical gold in that. I'm not judging it as a choice. I can't make that choice.

You have a 21-person cast plus a baby and animals. Was that always the plan when you were writing?

Yeah. Once I began, the kids just kept showing up and it sort of felt like when I was growing up. It was like, there was always another person coming down the stairs, and you had to fight for your bit of bandwidth to be able to be heard. And so it's not really a choice. And I remember thinking a sort of a glow of gleeful anticipation of what it would be like being in the theater where there were that many young people.

At what point did the baby come to the page?

It was the very first idea I had. The first image that came to me was lights up and baby alone on the stage, with an old lady sitting in a chair over there, and it being sunset. And that ended up being the start of the second act rather that the start of the play. For my taste, it works just aesthetically rather than narratively. Coming back from your interval to find a baby abandoned on the stage is a great way to just make people forget what they've seen and just, to worry about that child.

Around any theatrical experience is the chance that it's going to go wrong. And I think to embrace that and use it adds to your presence in the theater. The illusion but also the collusion between what's going on on the stage and what's going on offstage. If that baby throws a fit, everybody's in the same situation. They're going, "The baby's throwing a fit." No one's going, "The baby's throwing a fit, I want my money back."

Has anything gone wrong?

All the time. The goose has laid an egg into the hand of the actor that's holding it. It's shat all over the stage. The babies have vomited. The rabbit doesn't want to come out of the pocket. All of that stuff has happened, and I imagine that those are among the most fun nights to attend the show.

You worked with director Sam Mendes on Spectre, but this is your first theatrical collaboration. Did your work together on film help prepare you for this project?

Yeah, it did. Sam ran the Bond writing experience like we were putting on a play in a village hall. It was just me, Daniel [Craig] and Sam. There was never anyone else in the room for four months. And Sam just had an iron grip on what could have been a runaway train, and so we learned in that room that we worked together really, really well.

When did you start talking to him about this play?

I'd written about nine-tenths of the play, and he and I go to the football together. We go to see Arsenal together, and our seats are next door to each other. And I'd more or less finished it, and uncommon for me, I had a paper copy of it. I can't remember why. But I rolled it up and put it in my pocket and I took it to the game, and at half-time was like, "Take a look at that." And he called me up that night and was like, "I'd love to do this."

Do you think you'll work together again?

I'd like to work with him dozens of times. I'd like to set up a theater with him, I'd like to have a building with him where he puts on stuff that he wants to put on, with some of it mine. He's got two things. He's got a capacity to organize that I simply don't possess, but he's also got a brilliance, and a kind of a maverick spark that I've never seen anywhere else. So it's like the two at once is unmissable.

Do you ever think he would make The Ferryman into a movie?

If we ever did, it would be because Sam could see how to do it. I think that plays don't make good films. But if anyone could find a way to make that work, it would be Mendes.

Were you ever nervous that American audiences wouldn't embrace the play in the same way West End audiences did?

Yeah, really worried… The play is being done here exponentially better than it was ever done in London, because Sam got to come in again and direct everyone again. We all understood it better and we all knew the show that we put on here walked all over the show in London, which I thought was brilliant. Look, if they like theater in this town, then this is our best shot at it, three hours of something that you could really get your teeth into. And I honestly think that if it had been baffling or boring to a U.S. audience I would have understood, and I would never come here again. Because what would be the point? That's the best I can fucking do, do you know what I mean?

Is your playwriting process different than your screenwriting process?

Movies are the most fun, and I feel like I've just started. Even though I've been doing it for 20 years. I get so excited about it. It's like Pokémon. It's like, let's play this game, how does this work? How does that work? It's a completely different way of using one's narrative technique. They're different sports; it's like baseball and football. They don't resemble one another at all, but I love playing both of them. And I've also found that I've got the energy to spend all day on a play and then all night on a film.

Do you sleep?

In the little bit between.