Christopher Hampton could be considered the king of adaptations, having brought the words of writers as varied as Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, and now Colette to the screen. He won an Oscar last time he wrote a screenplay for director Stephen Frears, 1988's Dangerous Liaisons, and now he's working with Frears again on Cheri.
At last weekend's press junket for the movie, we asked Hampton about his process of translating a book as sexy and specific as Colette's Cheri, which tells the story of an affair between an aging courtesan and her friend's young son in glamorous turn-of-the-century Paris. I'll bring you our roundtable talk with Hampton, but first he talked about a few of his upcoming projects, including a new screenplay of John Steinbeck's East of Eden for director Tom Hooper, and plans to bring last fall's New York stage version of The Seagull-- starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Carey Mulligan-- to the screen. Read about it all below.
Are you working while all this is going on? Are you actively involved in other projects?
I am. I just delivered a screenplay based on East of Eden. East of Eden is one of my absolute favorite films, however, it only deals with the last sixth of the novel. I mean, James Dean doesn't turn up until page 500 of the novel. The book is mostly about the parents, Raymond Massey and Jo Van Fleet in the film. It's completely different from the original film. So I just delivered that. I'm trying to do very quickly a Dogma type version of The Seagull, from our production. Our production that we did here last year, with Kristin Scott Thomas. Me and Ian Rickson the director and Kristin and I would like to find a house somewhere and shoot it next spring, very sparsely, and just preserve as many of those performances as we can. Because it was a phenomenal production.
You would have the whole cast back for that?
As many as we can get. I mean, Carey Mulligan is a big star now. Who knows? It would not really be changing anything much, but just compressing and overlaying with images, the play. An impression of the play. Much as Sidney Lumet did in the 60s.
What was the hardest aspect of your adaptation of Cheri and The Last of Cheri?
Well first, I should say it was surprising when I saw the credits and it said it was an adaptation of Cheri and The Last of Cheri, because it's actually an adaptation of Cheri with one sentence form The Last of Cheri. I don't know who did that, and I've asked Stephen and he doesn't know either. I had no idea [the adaptation] was going to be as difficult as it turned out to be. Because I hadn't realized that Colette is so deceptive. She writes in this completely sort of impressionist way, either in extreme close-up, where there will be literally a 20-page dialogue scene, or in extreme longshot, where she'll skim over something rather important in a couple of sentences. I was amazed to discover when I finished the first draft, it was longer than the novel. After that I had to cut it down quite drastically, in order to fill out all the nuances in the novel. I found myself with a script much, much longer than I'd expected.
Colette has a very distinct flavor to her writing. How do you approach translating that?
Well we just had endless conversations, Stephen and I, about how to get that quality. It went on all the way through the shooting. Every day I was working on the script, changing things, just touching it up, adding bits and taking bits out. It was all with the idea of trying to get the cinematic equivalent of that strange, individual style.
So you were constantly tuning the script? Or was there improvisation going on?
Not really. We didn't quite work like that. There's no rehearsal, for sort of geographical reasons as much as anything else. We read it, and we plunged straight in. it was much more a question of modifying scenes that had already been shot. You'd say, oh, we already sort of said that, we don't need to say that again. On the other hand, there's something, maybe omitting a scene that is there on the page that we could back, we have all these drafts around.
That's a more hands-on approach than most writers employ. Is that something you prefer?
That's really more Stephen. In his process, he insists on the writer being there all the time.
Is it an adjustment when you go back to working with him, as opposed to other directors?
I love working that way. In Atonement I worked very closely with Joe Wright right up until a few days before shooting, and then he sort of waved goodbye. I went on the set as a courtesy a couple of times, but you sort of lose touch with it. Because that was what he was comfortable doing. Stephen is not comfortable with that. The one film I worked with Stephen on, which was Mary Reilly, when I couldn't be on the set, he got pretty annoyed all the way through. I was shooting my own first film as a director, and I would totter home from a day of shooting to find faxes saying 'Can you please rewrite this scene? Now.'
Did you have any actors in mind as you were writing this?
No, not this time. I do sometimes, and it really doesn't matter if you get them or you don't them, because they've done their work, which is to provide you with inspiration. But in this case, no, I didn't really think of anybody until I'd done it. But pretty soon after I started talking to Stephen, he said Michelle, and it seemed like the obvious answer.
What are the challenges of writing something set in a period like the Belle Epoque?
If you have a period like in Cheri, you need a certain kind of voice, in which all sorts of period influences creep in. There might be Oscar Wilde or French writers of the period. What's liberating about working from French and not from English-- if you were writing an Oscar Wilde story, you have to use Oscar Wilde's dialogue. But if you're adapting a French story, you use your own language, whatever is suggested by the French.
How did you translate the erotic, earthy flavor of Colette's language?
That's a matter for the director and the actors. I tried to put it into the script as much as I could. But then you have to capitalize on the strengths of the people you're working with. And Michelle is not that sort of substantial, earthy figure.
And Lea is kind of motherly.
Yes. So you think, well, you ought to get that, so you compensate, moving another way. What Michelle's great at is showing the wisdom behind the exterior. She looks as if she's not taking things seriously, but you always say that she is.
When you decided to adapt Cheri, did you ever hear any talk about Colette biopics? Her life is so fascinating.
I wanted to do a biopic, that's how it started. I worked with an American producer called Lester Persky, who was negotiating an option on Judith Thurman's book about Colette, a film about Colette in her 20s. Then various things happened-- Lester got ill suddenly and died. And at the same time the French announced an enormous miniseries about Colette on television. Talking about that with a French producer, it was that conversation out of which arose the idea of doing Cheri.
Would that still happen do you think?
I don't know. She was a fascinating woman. That relationship with her terrible husband, who published all her books and pretended he'd written them. And then her life in the music hall as a striptease artist, it's pretty interesting.