Tom Stoppard on Adapting 'Anna Karenina,' Writing for Harrison Ford and Sean Connery

Anna Karenina Film Still - H 2013
Focus Features

Anna Karenina Film Still - H 2013

The WGA West's Laurel Award recipient talks to THR about wrestling with Leo Tolstoy and winning an Oscar for "Shakespeare in Love."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard, 75, has been turning out provocative, challenging plays since his first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in 1967. But he also has found time for a second career as a screen and TV writer. His latest project, a five-hour adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's World War I-centered Parade's End, debuts Feb. 26 on HBO.

The Hollywood Reporter: Historically, a lot of playwrights have approached screenwriting as something they do for money while viewing themselves primarily as playwrights. What's your own view of the screenwriting you've done?

Tom Stoppard: I've never written an original piece for film; all the original things I've done are for the stage. I began writing for theater, and maybe because of that I've always thought of myself as a theater writer who does work in film sometimes. As for the money, the answer is yes and no, I suppose. It's nice to get most of it upfront [for a screenplay], but really the answer is no because a play that works well and is done quite a lot -- I've never done the math -- but it's probably more remunerative than a movie. The main answer to your question is that I really enjoy working on adaptations. It's not so much that I enjoy screenwriting, though mostly I do, but the difference is, with adaptations, somebody else has done the hard part -- made up a story, provided the characters. Dialogue is something else. I enjoy writing dialogue; it comes naturally to me. So screenwriting is the best of both worlds. However, it's probably unprecedented for a filmmaker simply to take the writers' script and treat it as the instructions on the package. What really happens is you pretty much suppress your own instincts -- and your own views on the matter -- and write things the way filmmakers would like to have them, though the filmmakers often don't know what they want. They can only find out by reading what you do.

PHOTOS: The Russian Splendor of 'Anna Karenina'

THR: How involved are you when one of your films is being shot?

Stoppard: A writer doesn't really have much of a function on a movie set. It's nice to visit the set and say hello to people and be made a fuss of for the moment. Sometimes one is working with friends, and it's a nice thing to do. But normally, even if you're on the set for 12 hours, there may be only a moment or two when you are actually useful. Parade's End was an exception. I think I showed up for half the shooting days, and that was because I felt strangely proprietorial about that script -- I had been living with it for three years. But I really love being in postproduction. First of all, it's all quite self-interested: You can protect things. Sometimes people are so close to the material, they miss an important cross-reference. You can't drop this line because half an hour later, it affects that line. And the writer is the person who knows that immediately.

THR: Your plays are so verbal, and you delight in wordplay. But because film is visual, do you find yourself cutting back on dialogue?

Stoppard: I try to. My scripts are possibly too talkative. Sometimes I watch a scene I've written, and occasionally I think, "Oh, for God's sake, shut up." But I have to go with what I do, and what I do has more to do with what people say to each other than telling a story through images. Of course, you're trying to do both. And there are some people who are brilliant at it, but I don't consider myself to be particularly good at it. My mind gets into a verbal mode.

STORY: Tom Stoppard to Receive Writers Guild of America, West's Laurel Award

THR: You've also occasionally worked as a script doctor. Why take on that role?

Stoppard: One of the nice things about the world of filmmaking is that you make friends in the business. Sometimes directors feel a script needs something, but they're not sure what it is, so they show it to a friend; if the friend is a writer, he ends up kicking around with that script for a while. With Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they asked Sean Connery if he'd play the father. My understanding is, he said he would if they got me to rewrite the father's lines, and then Harrison Ford said, "Well, if he's rewriting Sean's lines, then he can rewrite my lines," so I ended up doing a lot of work on that film. On the other hand, I did some work on Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. I had never met Ridley, but I completely revere him and wanted to work with him.

THR: Which of your films do you look back on as an especially satisfying experience?

Stoppard: Shakespeare in Love was a particularly happy film. First of all, [director] John Madden wanted to shoot the script. Secondly, he understood that the film ought to be more romantic than merely funny. I was quite good at looking after the funny, and he was very, very good at looking after the romantic. I think the movie worked because it was romantic, not because it was funny. Anna Karenina was a happy time, too. What you want to have happen is to write your first draft because for a writer, it's not a first draft -- it's it. It's only other people who tell you it's a first draft. Although one keeps working, of course, right through postproduction. Essentially, [director] Joe Wright read the first draft and liked it very much. That's always a good start, isn't it?


2013 Writers Guild Awards Honorees

(WGA West and East ceremonies occur simultaneously Feb. 17)

WGA WEST, JW Marriott at LA Live


Television Laurel Award


Morgan Cox Award


Valentine Davies Award


Paul Selvin Award for Lincoln


Jean Renoir Award

WGA EAST, B.B. King Blues Club, New York City


Ian Hunter Award


Richard B. Jablow Award