Monday, January 25, 2010
Q&A: Toby Finlay
Toby Finlay made his screenwriting debut with the recent adaptation of Dorian Gray. Toby's a former script reader for all the major companies in the UK, and one of his spec scripts, Canyonland, made the Brit List in 2008, ensuring his place in the spotlight as one of the hot emerging writers in the UK. I asked him a few Qs to get an inside flava to his background and approach to his career. ** Minor spoilers for the film Dorian Gray ahead **
Going back to your earlier years, how did you get into script reading?
Largely by accident. After I graduated, I taught English in Paris for a while and when I came back to London I found myself needing to get some sort of job. But I didn’t know what job – and any job felt like it was just a means to an end because what I really wanted to do was write (although at that time I was more interested in writing a novel than a screenplay).
I happened to know someone who was script-reading for all the big guns – Working Title, Pathé, Miramax etc – and he suggested I give it a go. So I wrote a couple of sample reports and sent them off and pretty soon I’d been hired by Working Title and Pathé. Those two companies (or rather some particularly excellent executives at those companies: Rachael Prior and Berenice Fugard) gave me my break. And afterwards I picked up work from all sorts of other places.
Did script reading affect your approach to your own writing?
Enormously. In fact I only started seriously considering writing film once I’d been script-reading for a few months. I was so bored of the material I was seeing that I decided to write the kind of script I wanted to be reading, in a bid to keep my mind from total atrophy. And of course when you read that many submissions you see the same kinds of mistakes being made over and over, so you attempt to avoid those mistakes. Which is not to say I did avoid them, but at least I knew what the mistakes were.
Also, I should add that I did a lot of reading for acquisitions departments as well as development – which is a lot more interesting, because the stuff you’re reading is by high-end writers and often already in production. For instance, I remember reading things like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Man Who Wasn’t There… and you think to yourself, okay, this is what a REAL screenplay looks like.
(photo: Bitter Script Reader)
What do you think are the most common mistakes that appear in the spec script pile?
There are various technical deficiencies I’d see a lot, particularly weakness of structure and character – but those things can almost always be developed and refined if there’s something worthwhile in the story and the writer has some talent. The real problem was that the scripts were very often conceptually feeble – generic, uninspired, no individuality, no stature – and you’d forget about them the moment you turned the last page. But then I could level exactly the same accusation at a lot of scripts that actually get produced.
How many spec scripts have you written?
The answer to that question is either two or none, depending on how you define spec. Back before I’d written anything, one of the executives for whom I script-read – Karen Katz – was planning to leave her company and strike out as an independent producer. She knew I was thinking about writing and, because she liked my general sensibility, said she might be interested in producing my material. I had the idea for what would become my first screenplay, called Patience; and she gave me a small amount of seed money to write it, out of her own pocket. It was a token sum, but when you’re starting out, it makes a huge difference when someone in the business has that kind of faith in you. Huge. So I wrote it, and very quickly we set the project up at Working Title with the much-missed WT2 division (happily enough, under Rachael Prior) – and that was the end of my script-reading days because I switched to writing full time. What ultimately happened to Patience is another story – and a very fucking bleak cautionary tale at that. But the next thing I wrote was called Canyonland and Karen also paid me a small option fee to write that, based on a very vague idea indeed. So on both the original scripts I’ve written there was interest from a producer from the start, which maybe makes them semi-specs or not spec at all.
Your script Canyonland made it on the 2008 BritList (the top unproduced screenplays in the country). What’s the script about (i.e give us the pitch!)?
I hate pitching. It reminds me of having to write loglines for scripts back when I wrote coverage. Canyonland is essentially a kind of buddy-movie cum love story and I suppose I’d couch it as somewhere between The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and Out of Sight. If that sounds interesting to anyone reading this then there’s a sort of pitch paragraph on the Coded Pictures website (Coded is Karen Katz’s company) which is at codedpictures.com.
And the positive industry reaction from Canyonland got you into a position to pitch for Dorian Gray, is that right?
No, when I got the Dorian gig I hadn’t finished the first draft of Canyonland. I got Dorian off the back of Patience because Sophie Meyer (the Head of Development at Ealing) had seen that script and admired the writing in it.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting the material, especially as the story is no stranger to the big screen?
The problems come from all sides, really: it’s a tough book to adapt due to the nature of the story; and as you say plenty of people have already had a go, to varying degrees of success. As far as the other versions were concerned: I watched as many as I could, but it seemed to me that the only one of genuine worth was the famous Hurd Hatfield movie. There’s a great deal to admire in that film, but some of it felt dated to me and I hoped that I could offer something different.
The real problem with adapting the book is that it’s essentially a novel of ideas and a lot of it is not immediately dramatic. It’s telling that Wilde, no stranger to stagecraft, elected to write the story as a novel rather than as theatre. So you find yourself cutting out swathes of material, lengthy sequences where people sit on divans of Persian saddlebags and mediate on the relationship between art and life… which works in the novel but would die horrendously on the screen.
What I instead homed in on is what always interested me most about the book: the fact that Dorian, under Henry’s encouragement, adopts the aesthete’s life to such an extreme that he becomes to all intents and purposes a sociopath. Though a century separates the two novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a response to an era of delirious excess in just the same way as American Psycho; and there is a fair amount in common between Dorian at the height of his indulgence and Patrick Bateman. This, I would argue, is the most dramatic and character-centric aspect of the book and therefore the one it made most sense to me to focus on in an adaptation.
Did you consider explaining or exploring the supernatural phenomenon regarding Dorian’s picture? There’s a brief visual moment in the film (the burning of the petal with Dorian’s reply as to whether he would trade his soul), did you write that?
That moment with the petal was in the script, yes. The supernatural element was something I thought about a lot. In the book Dorian just makes his wish and that’s that: it happens, and there’s no supernatural apparatus at all. I didn’t want to get too caught up in hocus pocus but I was interested in the Victorian fascination with the occult, the Order of the Golden Dawn, Crowley and all that. But when I tried to play with some of these ideas, they seemed to overpower and smother the world of the book. So those ideas got pared down.
Eventually their only vestige was an occult black mirror which Dorian found amid his grandfather’s possessions, and there was an intimation that this mirror was a magical object which accounted for Dorian’s wish coming true. But then it became apparent that even this was superfluous apparatus, and it was better to do it Wilde’s way and not raise the question of “why” at all, because it simply isn’t important. The image of the petal was written not so much to flirt with the supernatural as just to touch again on the motif of flowers that runs throughout, flowers of innocence and flowers of evil.
How different did the film end up compared to what you wrote?
The film is pretty much as it was written, although there was more scope to Dorian’s debauchery (ie not just sex) which got defanged because the distributors wanted a 15 certificate rather than an 18. Also a few scenes were cut which deprive characters such as Sibyl and Campbell of additional screen time. I objected to some of those cuts, but they were made in the interests of pace. I think some of those scenes are on the DVD. The biggest cut was made not in the edit but in pre-production. After Vane comes to Dorian’s house and attacks him, Campbell carts Vane off to Broadmoor – and there was a sequence in the script just after this where Dorian went to Broadmoor to see Vane, supposedly becalmed by now, with a view to burying the hatchet and releasing him. But in fact Vane is more rabid than ever and tries to kill Dorian again, whereupon Dorian tells Campbell to lock him up for good. It was a big set-piece: all the horror of the Victorian asylum; and a crucial step on Dorian’s shift from good to bad. It was cut for “financial reasons”, and I suppose this sort of compromise is a fact of life in film unless you’re James Cameron. But in my opinion both the arc of Dorian’s transformation and the force of Vane as a nemesis suffer for it.
Now you’ve had the full experience of seeing your script go from page to screen (and after all your years of script reading/consultancy), have you learned anything new about the process (or about your writing)?
I don’t know what I’ve learned, other than that I’m a control freak who hates compromise. But this is not new news. You just have to hope that with every script you manage to complete you get a bit better at making stories. And of course seeing your work produced helps you identify where your dialogue fails or where a scene clunks. I am very critical of my own work at the best of times.
Any favourite TV shows/films at the moment?
The problem with shows like The Wire and The Sopranos is that they just make everything else seem shit. Actually I don’t watch much TV at the moment. I find a lot of things that are really hyped and lauded just don’t do it for me. I like Mad Men though, and 30 Rock, and of course Curb. I also have a soft spot for Weeds, which has some brilliant writing in it. And as for UK television: I hardly watch any drama but I love Peep Show. In fact if there’s one thing on UK TV at the moment I wish I was writing, it would be Peep Show.
Film-wise, the most recent things I’ve seen that I thought were properly excellent are Where The Wild Things Are, District 9, and most of all A Serious Man.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully getting Canyonland made: there’s a very good director attached to it now so we’re going to try to get some cast. I’m also working on something with Pawel Pawlikowski, which is exciting. Other than that, I’d like to move into directing my own material. And I keep telling myself I should try writing a novel as some kind of release from the horrendous Sisyphean ordeal of trying to get films produced.
And finally, what was the first film you saw at the cinema?
I think it was ET, though my earliest and most treasured cinematic memory is watching a video of Yellow Submarine at home. I was utterly transfixed by Yellow Submarine and that movie remains for me a timeless and luminous delight. I recently read that someone is planning to remake it, which makes me want to cut my own head off and weep an ocean of tears that would drown the world. Possibly not, for practical reasons, in that order.
THANKS Toby, great stuff! Dorian Gray is available to buy on DVD.