A Conversation with
"This would make a terrific movie" is not the first thing one says after reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It's not even the second or third thing. But in 2007 the story was made into an acclaimed film, directed by Julian Schnabel, and that's due in large part to Ronald Harwood, who adapted Jean-Dominique Bauby's extraordinary memoir for the screen. The book describes Bauby's life after a stroke that left him completely paralyzed, except for the ability to blink his left eye. He died in 1997, two days after his book was published. In 2008, Schnabel's film won two Golden Globe Awards (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director), and Harwood was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay.
Harwood has been writing scripts (and books and plays) for a long time, and it shows --- in a good way. In addition to the Diving Bell screenplay, he adapted Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, won the Oscar for The Pianist, wrote the script for Polanski's Oliver Twist, and, over the years, has crafted the screenplays for Being Julia, Cry, the Beloved Country, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Browning Version and The Dresser, the last of which was based on his experience in that profession. He also wrote the scripts for Australia, the Baz Luhrmann film starring Nicole Kidman, and The Girl in Melanie Klein, based on his own novel. His book, Ronald Harwood's Adaptations: From Other Works Into Films, came out in December 2007.
One of Harwood's earliest screenwriting projects was A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), directed by the late Alexander Mackendrick, whose other pictures include The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers and The Sweet Smell of Success. After Mackendrick, known as Sandy, left directing, he became the dean of the school of film and video at the California Institute of the Arts. Coincidentally, as a film student nearly 40 years ago, I was Sandy's teaching assistant one year. As Harwood and I began talking, I mentioned that I'd known Mackendrick.
"A High Wind in Jamaica was my first big film," Harwood said. He taught me a hell of a lot. He was a lovely guy." We went on to talk about the Schnabel film, though Sandy came up again later.
Did you read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly when it came out in the '90s, or did you first read it when you were offered the project?
I read it in 1998. My wife read it first and told me to read it, and I always do what I'm told. I loved it, but it never crossed my mind that it could ever be a movie. I don't read books for that purpose. I put it aside, remembered it, and then five years later Kathy Kennedy [one of the film's producers] asked me if I'd write the screenplay, and I said yes --- without rereading it, which was a pretty rash thing to do. I'm not sure I'd do that again.
Anyway, we made the deal and I went to Paris, where I have a flat, and I read it again and I thought: I'm absolutely insane. There's no way this can be filmed. And eventually, after two or three weeks of absolute frustration, I came up with this idea that the camera should be him, the camera should do the blinking. And once I had that idea, I was away. That was the breakthrough.
There were several reasons that one couldn't begin otherwise. I didn't want an audience to look at him in that state for two hours. It would be unbearable. So, doing it subjectively also gave an opportunity, perhaps, for the audience to experience what he was experiencing. It worked very well from my point of view as a writer. And I hope now from the audience's point of view in the cinema.
Do you usually know immediately if a project is right for you?
Yes, I do now. It's taken me quite a long time, but I do. I'll give you a little metaphor if you have time. Years ago, I watched a television interview with a cardinal. I'm not a Catholic, but I was watching the interview. And the interviewer asked him, "How do you know right from wrong?" And he responded, "Well, it's the way you inform your conscience." And the remark stuck with me because a writer can only write about those things with which he has informed himself. There are certain worlds that belong to me, or belong inside me. I'm sorry to sound highfalutin'. But I know when a subject fits into my world or not. There are topics, such as the Holocaust, I now think I've exhausted. But the theme of human triumph always moves me. I don't know why, but it does. And The Diving Bell certainly belongs in that world.
Once you've started a project, what are the first steps you take in beginning an adaptation?
First of all to decide what the story is in the book. What is that story? Then to decide if that story can be translated to the screen, because that's what film writing is about, I think --- telling the story. And then I have various techniques. I always make an index of the book as you would of a nonfiction book. That's my way of learning it; I think I have to learn the book and take it inside myself.
The index also serves as a quick reference when you're working.
Yes, it's a marvelous method. I underline everything that interests me: a line of dialogue or a description or a situation that might only be hinted at [in the screenplay]. And funny enough, Sandy Mackendrick taught me this thing of postcards.
Oh yes --- deconstructing a scene with notes on 3 x 5 cards, and then sticking them on a board.
And now, you know, you get them [postcards] on the Final Draft screenplay program. There's a kind of postcard basket.
We probably have Sandy to thank for that.
I guess we do. Anyway, it works very, very well, and that's what I do. And then I discover what I'm doing, actually, by writing. I never write treatments or step outlines. I just start writing as I would an original play or a book.
Do you ever get off track, that is, pursue one approach for days or weeks, then realize it's not right and you have to backtrack and start again?
Not for weeks, but sometimes for days, yes. The English playwright Alan Ayckbourn said, "If you're stuck, it's because somewhere you've told a lie." I thought that was very good. And you have to go back and find out where you told the lie, untell it, and then [the writing] flows again. Of course you can go off on the wrong track and think it's wonderful, you know, and then realize it's absolutely off.
I remember reading an interview once with Elmore Leonard and he was asked a similar question. He said, "If I get stuck I shoot somebody."
[Laughs] I had another marvelous piece of advice when I was a young writer from Graham Greene, the novelist. He said,"Always stop when it's going well." It's difficult to obey, because, you know, you're in the middle of a scene and it's going terrific and you think, "God, I'll go on." Just stop, go to bed, or take time off, and when you next come to your desk, the thing is still alive.
The Diving Bell must have been especially difficult to translate into a visual medium as it's a story that takes place almost entirely in Bauby's mind.
Well, except that he does have these memories, he does imagine things. When I read the book there were certain things that appealed to me and certain things that didn't. I mean, there's that thing about horses and racing, which I'm not interested in and I didn't think anybody else would be. You can make an arrogant decision like that. But there were other things --- the journey to Lourdes, for example --- that I knew would have to be there. Stuff with his children, I knew would have to be there, and with the father. That was the key thing in my adaptation, and I think [the father] is wonderfully played by Max von Sydow.
In terms of its difficulty, how did The Diving Bell compare to other adaptations you've done?
Once you've done it you've done it, you know? They tell me women don't remember the pain of childbirth, and I think it's rather like that. You can't compare it to other adaptations.
In a newspaper article you wrote for The Guardian last summer, you cited the importance of always being true to the original author's truth. That strikes me as being much easier said than done. When you're doing an adaptation, do you sometimes have to remind yourself about that?
I do, yes. And it's a question of the original author's integrity and your own. You have to marry the two. I'm not very keen on people who've taken original source material and turned it into something of their own. That doesn't seem to me what adaptation is about. If you want to do something of your own, then do something of your own. And so I try to be true to it. I'm not sure everybody admires that, but I can do it no other way.
You've said you're too arrogant to get writer's block, but you must have days when things are not quite buzzing happily along. What do you do when you're stuck or your enthusiasm for a project recedes? What do you do then?
I bathe a lot. And I used to go for long walks, but I hurt my ankle in a tennis accident, so I can't do that as much. But I used to find that very helpful. And I play a lot of solitaire, and sometimes it unlocks. But I don't have that kind of writer's block where I don't know what to write next. I've not had that.
It's very fortunate, believe me.
I know that on The Pianist you worked very closely with Roman Polanski, the director. But on Diving Bell you didn't work that closely with its director, Julian Schnabel, correct?
I didn't work with Schnabel at all. Schnabel was sent the screenplay, said yes, and then developed the movie from the screenplay. I think he thinks he changed more than he did. Certainly a lot of the imagery he invented. I didn't put in Marlon Brando, I can tell you. But he's done a wonderful job of it. I have to give him that.
Had you seen his other films?
I saw the one with Javier Bardem, Before Nightfall. I liked it very much, but I thought it was too long. That was my only criticism of it. I thought it went on a bit. But Schnabel's a very gifted man.
Is there one book in particular for which you'd like to write the screen adaptation, but you haven't had the opportunity?
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth, one of the great writers of the last century. The story is [about] the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it's absolutely wonderful. If you haven't read it, you're in for a treat.
Are there books that should never be made into movies, that should exist only as words on pages, and the images those words make in the minds of readers?
That's a difficult question. I guess there must be --- some books are so literary. I suspect Ulysses by James Joyce is one. But of course there are books that are only to do with words. I think it's truer with plays where the language is so important that you probably couldn't keep it at its length in a movie. I've adapted two of my plays for films --- The Dresser and Taking Sides --- and one of someone else's, The Browning Version, by Terrence Rattigan. It's difficult to do.
If, when doing the adaptation, you could have asked Bauby one question, what would it have been?
I'd ask him if he'd been telling the truth all the way through. There were certain things I doubted.
Well, there are all these relationships with women and I wanted to know the real matter of that. I didn't always trust him. And I think there's something interesting about Bauby. I think if he hadn't had the stroke, he wouldn't be such an admirable person. I think there was something too glittering and surface about him, but his true fulfillment --- it's a terrible thing to say --- came after having this massive stroke. He'd always wanted to write a book, he never did it. But he did when he was paralyzed. He loved his children, though he left them and their mother, but that mattered to him when he was paralyzed. It's rather fascinating. I would have asked him about how truthful he was in all his confessions.--- Douglas Cruickshank