William Monahan writes before the sun rises, goes about his day, and then writes some more. The 55-year-old screenwriter’s credits include Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed, Body of Lies, and recently The Gambler. In 2010, he not only wrote but also directed London Boulevard, and is doing so again with his latest film Mojave.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with him about his career, writer’s block, post-production process and writing for actors.
What led you into screenwriting?
I wanted to be a screenwriter from the minute I learned movies were written. I was watching a movie and it occurred to me, “Wait a minute, somebody wrote that!”
I had the good fortune to grow up in a house with a lot of books and I went hunting around until I found a screenplay, which happened to be Dylan Thomas’ The Doctor and the Devils. I read that, which is in itself complete as a literary work as well as a shooting document.
So even in the early days, I never thought that screenwriting was separate from literature.
I was a very prodigious reader and there’s almost nothing that didn’t affect me one way or another. I was a Robert Louis Stevenson freak when I was very young and I remember being irritated that there was no good film version of Treasure Island. Surely everyone was missing the point doing it with a piping lad and a fucked up cartoon pirate?
You see something wrong and you start to wonder about doing it right, and also wonder what the hell’s wrong with people? That’s been the start of more than one career in more than one profession. I’m considering going into film finance now because I just can’t believe what they’re up to in that department.
I was very much into Hamlet, and always bring it up, but Romeo and Juliet was the music that got me first. I was into English playwrights, among whom I hold Oscar Wilde in the first rank, regardless of his Dublin birth. I liked Joe Orton very much. I still laugh so hard I’m nearly going to cry or expire when I look at what he and Halliwell did to library books. I adore Stoppard. I haven’t much time for Pinter. I think Shaw was a pedant and crank and not an entertainer and not all that bright and certainly not verbally adept.
I never had a screenwriter that I admired apart from Dylan Thomas and Robert Bolt, because apart from them there was not a screenwriter who was using the form to practice dramatic literature that could hold its own on the stage or in any circumstance outside the form. There are very few screenwriters who have ever been absolute singularities, and one of the reasons I came into film is that I wanted to defy the idea that one could not be singular, or that the form was not literary.
You run into conflict, I can tell you that, and you would not have wanted to be the man who advised me how television was done, but by and large I think I’m pretty happy to say that I slipped singular stuff past the goalie simply by doing my own thing as an artist, when intrigued, and never forgetting that scripts are literature, or a performance in themselves, and not just the basis for a performance.
Remember though, that if I mention a dramatist my exposure to them was in the context of exposure to every other kind of writing. There was no close study. Just regular awareness of the stuff that hit a standard of excellence, which would be astonishment, and stuff that didn’t.
Where did you get the idea for Mojave?
I was out in the Los Angeles. It was before The Departed but I was already firmly established as a screenwriter and feeling a little uneasy about the transformation. All of a sudden, I appeared to be at the top of screenwriting and this was before I won an Oscar. So you start to have a little bit of an existential crisis about that sort of thing or at least I did being from Boston, where I had the advantage of being both Irish Catholic and Puritan, which makes me question everything and see-through most of it.
I just suddenly had to get out of Los Angeles so I drove out into the desert. I was sitting alone by a fire in the middle of nowhere when I started to think about the possibility of someone walking into the camp. It’s all fiction obviously but that was the original throb—as Nabokov used to say, about the inception of anything—that moment of just being by myself in the desert.
So in a way, this film is ten years in the making?
Yes! Well, I’ve been a little busy, but I finally got to it with the right actors.
You’ve recently made the shift to Director with Mojave and London Boulevard. Has this move changed any of your writing habits or your perspective of filmmaking?
It doesn’t change anything. I write as if I’m describing a film I’m seeing in my head anyway. I’ve always been highly visual and if there’s any argument to why I’ve been successful, it’s probably because I’m so visual. If you read my screenplays, you can at least see “a movie,” even though it’s not “the movie.” I think that’s why people have signed on to them and why they’ve been made.
In response to your earlier question about when I wanted to do it, that first screenplay that I read was a highly visual document and the visualization was inseparable from anything else. It was a complete work. It was compelling, rhythmic literature. It was a whole piece of work and the vision was part of it.
Sometimes people think of screenwriting is some sort of budgeting sled with dialogue that someone else is going to visualize. Sometimes that can be the case, but a writer can kick the project further ahead by creating his or her own vision.
In my situation, because some of my work can be a little verbal, there’s a tendency to think that a person can only do one thing. I mean you can’t be doing everything right? But if you read my screenplays, you’ll see that they are extremely visual and that’s really how I got into all of this.
Once you’re passed the research or conception phase, what kind of time frame are you actually writing and what are some of your writing rituals?
It depends. When the screenwriting thing happened, I started having to write in hotels and on location—things like that. That’s all been good because it gets you out of your shell and it’s another outlet versus going out and having a fistfight after you’ve done your eight hours.
I’ve always been an all-day writer. All-day. All-night. I’ll wake up sometimes and write 2,000 words before I even make coffee. I get somewhat obsessed with it. I still do that. I even write while I’m directing. I’ve done it twice now.
After The Departed came out, you had several movies in pre-production. Did you already have these films written or were they projects that arrived afterwards?
I was actually pretty big before The Departed. I’d come in and Ridley Scott was going to do Tripoli and then I got Kingdom of Heaven. There were many other projects that hit because I came in pretty heavy at the beginning, so I was well embarked before The Departed.
What led to all of that initial success? Was it your background in short fiction and prose?
Well I wanted to be in filmmaking and I knew that the writing had to be given its due. I was a literary writer and I won a Pushcart Prize for short fiction and also somewhat of an iconoclastic essayist in New York.
One thing led to another so I became an editor. I started doing book reviews and comic pieces, trying to avoid work in journalism. I knew I was a novelist and a dramatist but when you’re working in a field, you come competitive within that field. Picture yourself a journalist in Manhattan and all of sudden, you’ve become famous—just a little bit—as a journalist, in Manhattan, pre-Internet. But saying someone is only famous “in Manhattan” is like saying they were only famous in Imperial Rome or Tudor England or Renaissance Florence.
So you’re in New York and everybody knows who you are. You end up on page six for going to a party for God’s sake. So even if you don’t wish to pursue it, you start to become ambitious in it. I lost a good bit of time before I realized I didn’t want to be an iconoclastic essayist or an editor. It was somewhat of a been-there, done-that thing.
Then, Spy Magazine failed, which is the best thing that ever happened to me. I went back up to North Hampton, Massachusetts to get cracking on fiction again. My novel Light House was bought by Penguin Putnam and Gore Verbinski purchased the screen rights and hired me to do the screenplay. So that’s how all of this started.
It was a bit of surprise at the time. Everyone seemed to be thinking, “Can this guy do screenwriting, coming from his background as a journalist and novelist?” The usual questions, but the fact is that the answer was “Yes.” I already had Tripoli in a drawer. I wrote it when I was 29. I re-wrote it obviously, but that was the screenplay that ended up making my career.
What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?
I don’t know. Sometimes when you get asked a question like this, you want to invent some type of difficulties just to be a regular guy about everything. “Oh yes, I chew pencils,” or something. “I go for long walks” or “ I have this terrible block!” But, it’s like “No, if you’re a writer, you just write.” Like ducks swim.
The other thing is that it’s pleasurable or else you don’t do it. It’s pleasurable for me to write and it’s never stopped being pleasurable as long as it’s autonomous.
Do you write every day?
Yes I do. Always have.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
If it’s well conducted as the story that it is. A story can be anything as long as it’s well done. There’s not one type of story that’s any good. You can have a great action story or you can have a Joseph Conrad-thing with elements of adventure or you could have a story about a 67-year-old woman working in a post office in Holland and her relationship with her parrot. That can be a good story too. It’s a matter of how it’s managed.
That’s something that people forget too often in the arts. In movies, when people try to put together movies algorithmically, or tailoring them by genre for certain markets, they always get it wrong. A movie gets trimmed in post production in order to be reverse-engineered into a genre-project that they never were and that’s terrible, terrible group-think, which drives the project itself away from where it should be. It should just be an individual piece of work. It should operate on it’s own rules, it’s own terms, for it’s own effect.
Going back to Mojave, you mentioned your original idea, but how did the remainder of the story come about?
Like anything else, it’s intuitional. You just start, and all-of-a-sudden, you have it. There’s no process other than sitting down to do it. Something occurs to you and then you follow that. If it works, it’s in. If it doesn’t work, it’s out.
But Mojave threw itself together very quickly. Like most films, it was 120 pages when it went to the shooting floor. Then, like most independent films, it was coming out at 90 minutes. Each page represents a minute of screen time, so Mojave was originally longer.
These actors have emerged rather recently as household names, but do you ever write characters for specific actors?
No, I didn’t. I don’t find that actors ever want you to do that. Instead, like any of us, what they’re interested in is something new. You want them to see the part, find it to be original and then make it their own.
Is there any advice you wish you had when you were 29 and first starting out as a screenwriter?
Well I wish someone had told me that I could have sold the script and I didn’t have to put it in the drawer with the other scripts I had been working on. I didn’t know that I could have started earlier, but I do think that I started at exactly the right time. I was out there as a novelist and a published writer. People had been chasing me for novels since I was 22-years-old, so it wasn’t like I lacked things to do. Essentially I entered screenwriting at about the right time.
Is there anything else you would like to share about other projects you have in the works?
I mentioned novels. I am working on another novel in my part time and on weekends because I can’t leave that lying on the ground forever. I’m 55-years-old and there are things I have to do in that form and I’m going to do them.
I do have another directorial project that I’m thinking about and I’m considering my screenwriting as usual. Working on one thing doesn’t preclude working on another.
What’s your day-to-day schedule like? I know you’re writing and promoting at the moment, but what’s your schedule this week?
I think I’m mainly doing phone stuff this week. That’s about it. There is a dimension of business these days as I’ve made certain observations about the way films are made and financed, and there seems to be improvements to be made. So I’ll be starting a production company soon. It’s something that I haven’t really explored before.
But today, I woke up at four in the morning and started writing and when I’m done with my phone calls, I’ll start writing again.
This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.