Emma Thompson on Failing to Fail Well, What Makes a Western and What Connected Her to Ang Lee
“Most people think of Emma Thompson primarily as an actor. What they may overlook is that in 95 she won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense & Sensibility.” I’ll add to BAFTA Series Curator Jeremy Brock that Thompson was first a stand-up comedian/writer before slowly moving to becoming an actor/writer.
In the half-hour discussion you can watch below, Thompson looks back at her writing career, that has been anything but linear or conventional, and shares many bits of wisdom.
I highlighted a few moments that felt particularly compelling and interesting to me, but before, a note about her process that I found quite fascinating:
Emma Thompson writes everything by hand and works like a sculptor. She puts everything down in the first draft and then takes out, takes out, takes out, until only what needs to be left is. She wrote 17 drafts over 5 years for Sense & Sensibility, worked 9 years to get Nanny McPhee out, and got several other screenplays passed on and buried.
#1 – On Failing to Fail Well
It was a terrible experience, and I tell the story with great purpose because I think if you can’t fail like that, you can’t do this job.
“I was commissioned to write a sketch-show in the mid-eighties, 85-86, and did so. With lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it was, I suppose, a kind of signal and, perhaps the most important thing I ever did, because it was such a massive failure.
And what is interesting and important about it is that after that I didn’t write sketch comedy anymore. I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch.
And I think that’s quite tragic actually. And it was a terrible experience, and I tell the story with great purpose because I think if you can’t fail like that, you can’t do this job.“
I think there’s something very important here Thompson is sharing. To me the lesson here is that you will fail, but you can also fail at failing. That’s something I’ve learned recently myself after it took me years to decide to actually learn from my biggest failed project, instead of just keeping it as a failure.
What, I believe, Thompson says is that there will be a lot of failing for those who go on the path of writing -or any other collaborative and creative path. But if you close yourself up after your first failure so you won’t fail again, then it’s lost.
#2 – On Connecting With (Then Unknown) Ang Lee Over One Shared Sentence
“[Elinor] is very very simple, she is all about duty and honor, I mean she is honor personified. And what was so interesting about finding Ang Lee as a director, because he wasn’t famous then at all, was that he had just written Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, which is all in Chinese and had one line in it where the older sister turns around to the younger sister and says: What do you know of my heart?
Which is exactly what Elinor says to Marianne. And that we’d both written the same line in two different countries, separated by what? Well, clearly, not very much.”
For those of you who ever wondered how Ang Lee came to direct a Victorian drama as his first International film, here is what it comes down to: connecting over a sentence conveying a universal emotion.
#3 – On What is a Western, and Why Nanny McPhee Belongs to this Genre
The vital thing is that he must leave or be killed. He cannot stay. He can’t become part of that world.
“I worked out, some time ago, that Nanny McPhee is a Western. The Western is the Anarch basically, or the cowboy, whoever it is when it’s a guy, which we just have to live with.
He comes into a situation where order of some kind, order has broken down, and he restores order using unorthodox method, and then must leave. The vital thing is that he must leave or be killed. He cannot stay. He can’t become part of that world. What’s important is that he’s the outsider.
When I was doing the thinking about Nanny McPhee I realized that I was placing the elements that I had learned as a young child of the Western and I had domesticated them and put them into it.”
Western and Noir are those blessed genres that have very clear journeys for their heroes, but it was interesting to me that Thompson transposed the genre’s codes to adapt a children book that had, in appearance, nothing to do with Westerns. Food for thought.