Joe Penhall – the interview Part 1

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Pic: Simon O’Dwyer

He’s the son of a dentist and physiotherapist who once startled the Queen while working as a cub reporter in West London.

But JOE PENHALL (above) is also well known for writing plays Blue/Orange, Some Voices, Pale Horse, Haunted Child to name a few as well as adapting novels Enduring Love and The Road for the big screen. The multi-award-winning playwright, screenwriter and director also wrote TV series Moses Jones and adapted The Long Firm for the BBC.

More recently he penned long-running Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon and has just completed David Fincher’s new FBI series, Mindhunter, for Netflix. He’s currently working on Night in Hatton Garden, Working Title’s movie about the infamous London diamond heist set to star Michael Caine and Ray Winstone.

Be warned, this interview is a monster in 3 parts. Forthcoming blogs will include insights into Joe’s film and TV work, his experiences as a journalist as well as exciting news on some new stuff he’s working on.

So get that brew on and enjoy our first chat about… tons.


Let’s start with the early days – tell us a bit about how you got started and how you knew what you were doing?

I was very lucky. Before I was a newspaper journalist I worked in a pizza bar and one of my customers was an actor and director and taught at Central and he said I like your plays, you should try and get them on in a local theatre and I’ll direct them.

So Wild Turkey he originally directed a reading of that at the White Bear and then when I wrote Some Voices he looked over it and he advised me on re-writes and did a great reading of it at Battersea Arts Centre. And then I was involved in the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre so I knew who to give it to and gave it to other theatres.

I didn’t give it to the Court because I was pissed off with them for not doing the burger bar play [more of this later]. Eventually I gave it to the Court and Stephen Daldry [then-Artistic Director] was really grateful.

But what happens is, every few years you come a cropper, every few years you do a play that isn’t that well received. You have to remind yourself there is a real world out there. That it’s not the end of the world – it feels like the end of the world when your play gets rejected… but it’s really hard.

Birthday [about a man who gives birth] took 6 days to write, infact it took 3 days to write – I wrote it day and night and didn’t stop. And then I gave it to director Roger Michell who said I really like it but the second half, does the baby have to die? I was like look man, I’ve been up all night for about 4 days drinking brandy! I could give it another 3 days, I’ll see, I dunno. So I went back, rewrote the 2nd half, the baby didn’t die, gave it to him. I think it’s shit but you’re the boss, and he loved it.

I sheepishly gave it to Dominic [Cooke] at the Court. I said Roger really likes it but be honest cos it took 3 days to write. He loved it as well and he said I’ll put it on on condition you don’t change a word. But that’s really rare.

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Stephen Mangan as Ed in Birthday at the Royal Court Theatre (2012)

The difference between someone saying I love it and want to put it on next month and somebody saying I think you should leave it in the drawer and you’re probably better as a journalist, the difference is nothing, it’s a thin line between success and failure.

Some Voices – lots of people read Some Voices and were like I don’t get it, what’s it about? And then you give it to Stephen Daldry and he’s like well this, I just think this is extraordinary, we must put it on as soon as possible!

You quickly get a radar for who gets you and who is going to give you the proper devotion. You have to find people who will read it devotedly and thoughtfully.

One of the things about the boom in writing is that there is just no time to read all these plays and no time to find a product they all have to find now and those theatres are turning into sausage factories and so plays get read really quickly and writers are in or out really quickly.

How do you plan your plays, what’s your writing process?

I don’t write any kind of formal plan. I don’t write any outline for a play. I will for a TV or movie because they require that generally but with a play I might jot down literally what happens next, next he goes to the bathroom or next he resigns his job.

I’ll start with an idea that occurs to me, think about it for a bit and then forget about it and if it keeps re-occurring and it keeps accruing details then it’s probably a good idea. I go through a long and rigorous vetting process because I have lots of ideas and I know only one or two of them are going to be any good. You kind of want to make sure you figure out whether it’s good or not before you start writing.

One way is to talk about it with friends and if they’re engaged you can tell. It’s a bit like telling a joke, you know if it’s funny or not. One way is if you just can’t get it out of your head. Another good way is to just start writing it but you have to be a bit careful of that because once you start writing it, if you’re like me, you get a bit obsessive about it, you’re like a dog with a bone and you’ll write 80 pages before you realise it’s not good enough.

How do you form your characters?

Characters have to be pretty intuitive, you’ve got to have a nagging voice in your head or a nagging character.

Haunted Child – that was a pretty intuitive piece of work. I didn’t really know where that play came from. I just wrote it at a time I was a little bit troubled, not in a major existential way. I was just fucked off. I was trying to sell my house and just in general I was not very happy.

I’d done The Road [film adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel] and I really wanted to write about a father and son. I always wanted to write something very simple that erupted from a very personal kind of obsession of fathers and sons and I did a very raw version of it and that idea collided with… I was really interested in cults.

I went to Japan to see a Japanese version of Dumb Show and when I was there I got interested in the Aum cult which had gassed the subways and one of my favourite writers Haruki Murakami had written a book about them. It seemed a bit like jihad but it was all middle class, suburban, educated people who had joined this cult of technology. They were these engineers, scientists, journalists, ordinary people who were bright and you wouldn’t imagine them joining a death cult. So two ideas collided.

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Haunted Child at the Royal Court Theatre (2011)

Often my plays are two ideas colliding. When you’ve only got one idea it’s not going to go anywhere but when you’ve got two then it’ll have offspring. So I did a version of it that was utterly humourless and bereft of any trickery or craft or indeed any fun whatsoever and not much emotion either, it was just a grind and I put it in the drawer for a bit and about a year later it still wouldn’t go away so I changed it and made it about a mother and a son and the father was the ne’er-do-well who had gone away.

And it had always been mysterious about why he’d gone away and then I imported this idea he went away to join a cult and then I had it. Once the cult thing joined with the other thing I had it.

Why did you stick with it?

I think I did start other things and realised this was the best thing. I usually have 3 or 4 things going on at once and I know one of them will be good and will stand the test of time. And the other things will be try-outs or I’ll use bits of them somewhere.

It’s quite painful because sometimes I’ll write a whole play and it’s not good enough to put on but it’s a try-out so Blue/Orange I had written 3 plays that were earlier versions of that, that were sort of unrelated until finally it all coagulated and I realised exactly what I needed to do.

And I found that out by directing a version of Speed the Plow by David Mamet, a 3-hander, and it was so neat and it just seemed to do everything I needed to do and I reconvened all my ideas as a 3-hander and then it suddenly leapt into life.

Is that generally your writing style?

I’m still perfecting it. I still haven’t got a pattern but you’re looking for a theatrical vehicle that will hold all your ideas like a vessel. The right shaped glass to hold the drink, the right shaped dish to hold the meal. Until you find that you can be fucking around forever, you can go up all sorts of blind alleys and indulge yourself in all sort of weird ways and while you do want to be as free as you can and not be restricted by Aristotlian conventions or 3-hander conventions, they can be incredibly helpful to help you find a form.

Look at a song. A song is a great vessel for a lot of things. You might not appreciate a great guitar solo until you hear that guitar player doing it in a song. Someone just free-ranging endlessly can be really boring but a really concise, well-structured, organised, rehearsed solo can make that guitar player sound like the most inventive, magical guitar-player. And I think it’s like that with a play.

Once you’ve got a structure and you look after it and you make sure it’s economical and it’s doing all the right things and all the right beats are happening in the right places and the right exposition is there and the right amount of humour. Once you look after all those things it starts to look after you in a weird way so you go oh this thing that pops up later is really good but if I follow convention and foreshadow it, just plant an indication it’s coming earlier, it’ll be really satisfying. Or this joke here’s good but if I elaborate on it later it will be twice as good. It’s very often about finding good structure and the form of the play.

You tend to have just 2 or 3 characters in your plays. Is that accidental?

It kind of is. I haven’t figured out why. I’m working on a play at the moment and it’s another fucking 3-hander! I got really self-conscious about it a few years ago and when I wrote Birthday I managed to squeeze in a fourth character. But I could have boiled it down to 3 – given half a chance I would have but thought I’ve got to try and write more.

There’s something about the argument, the counter-argument and then the catalyst. Or the argument, the counter-argument and the neutraliser. I’m really interested in the way people connive and betray each other and form loyalties and then sabotage them and the best way to do that is with 3 people.

If you’ve got 4 people then you’re needlessly complicating it but it can be satisfying and if you’ve only got two it’s not enough but you can do it with 3. It’s a bit like being in bands. I used to play in bands and they used to be 3-piece bands. Just enough to prop up the things, there’s something really thrilling about 3 people.

How do you approach redrafting?

I always liked to do a radically different rewrite. I kind of would throw the baby out with the bathwater and start all over again with the rewrite and what I learnt over time was that’s not the way to do it.

The way to do it is to incrementally rewrite it a very little bit at the time and do many, many rewrites that are small, incremental improvements. Never throw the baby out with the bathwater unless it’s just no good, in which case, just throw it out, don’t rewrite it.

Pale Horse and Blue/Orange. How many versions did you write?

Not many. First I wrote a play set in America with about 8 Americans in it for Blue/Orange which was about a group of homeless schizophrenics in care and one of them was black and had all these delusions. I did a reading of it and it worked quite well but not well enough so I put it on the back burner and then a few years later I got this idea about this guy who’s in a mental hospital who thinks he’s an alien from another planet and I did 30/40 pages, couldn’t make it work. This movie came out that was like it so I put that on ice.

Another couple of years later I directed [Mamet’s] Speed the Plow and suddenly realised that my original American idea, if I condensed it and set it in London and had just 3 people in a room it would work. So I wrote that draft, basically a new play and it worked and I did a reading, refined it a bit, maybe a couple of drafts.

Roger Michell came in and said it needed a twist in the 3rd act, and another twist at the end, and a reveal here. I thought this is all pretty prescriptive but I really admired Roger so I did it and it was done and then on press night the actors dried and dropped the three pages of twists and did my basic version before the re-writes had come in, they forgot the new stuff!

So I’ll sometimes write a play, realise there is something not working so I just put it in the drawer and I’ll come back to it and try and reconvene it.

I particularly love Pale Horse. How did that develop?

I wrote a rough, raw play about a young guy my age whose girlfriend had died and it didn’t quite work and about 6 months later I started all over again with what was Pale Horse. And the version that went on was that first draft of the new version.

The original version was stupid – she was from Manchester and he goes up to Manchester and he gets in a feud with somebody and he has a baseball bat and everything goes wrong in one day. And then I grew up a bit and a year on wrote this version about this man whose wife had died and he goes everywhere, he goes to God, he goes to his best friend, various agencies, the criminal underworld and he tries to assuage his demons.

That was the first draft and the Royal Court got hold of it and went, this is fantastic we’re going to put it on right now which almost never happens and I said no, no I need to do more work on it and I did a 2nd draft that was significantly different and they said you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, we want to do the first draft.

The difference was the girl that he meets, Lucy, that he becomes obsessed with, in the 2nd draft she didn’t kill anybody, she did something stupid in the bar and hit somebody with the baseball bat and there was a big scene and then she ran off and self-destructed, ran under a car and he goes and spends his time visiting her in hospital and it’s like what happened to his wife.

And obviously with his wife you realise there was some big scene and she had some kind of accident and he was culpable. It was a lot more internal and a lot more tricksy and the Court just loved this, it was the mid-90s, this kind of Tarantino-esque proposition of this cute girl who killed somebody and what are you going to do about it.

It was the same year as Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, it was really in the air. And I think they were probably right.

Funny things happen with plays. Because they are drama you sometimes have to have a fairly straightforward piece of drama to carry off lots of complicated ideas and that’s why film works and film genres like crime work because sometimes it’s a straightforward murder or robbery.

If you can find a plot that’s one idea that you can say in one sentence, and you can hang on that characters you can make as complex and multifaceted as possible that’s a good way of looking at it. With Some Voices my thing was it’s about a guy who gets let out of a mental hospital before he’s ready: disaster. Pale Horse: a man whose wife dies suddenly and he goes into a spiral of self-destruction. Blue/Orange: a man who appears in a London mental hospital claiming to be the son of Idi Amin.

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The movie version of Some Voices (2000) starring Kelly McDonald and Daniel Craig

They’re all one sentence but spun in a complex way. And I’ve written plays that take ages to explain that don’t ever really work. The play I’m working on now is a really simple five-word sentence. It’s about a guy who loses everything to the taxman, he gets in trouble with a crooked accountant and loses everything. He goes through all the stations of life, having a really nice apartment on the river, having a great career to living in a doss house and his accountant goes from being a successful accountant, all the way to jail.

It’s really simple but it’s about the machinations of those complex financial frauds and the kind of characters that perpetuate them, and the morality of it. The central idea of somebody losing everything and going all the way to the bottom and ending up in a poor house and the other idea of somebody who is clearly of dubious morality and is clearly able to cheat financially in a grandiloquent way, seeing himself as a Robin Hood but ending up in jail.

There was something about that that really resonates. It’s a 3-hander (ofcourse). I did a reading with Alan Rickman last year before he died and it was good but it wasn’t great. But he was incredible. He smoked, the room; just sucked all the oxygen out. I knew the play was way too long and needed a lot of crafting and then Alan died and I just couldn’t approach it and now in the last few months I’ve gone back to it because it seemed like a stupidly simple idea: a fraud that costs somebody everything. But it’s the complexity of their approach to it.

And also doing the diamond robbery film it made me realise I’m good at crime, at devious, duplicitous people. The theatre loves things that are in the air.

I’ve got 4 plays in the drawer at the moment. I know they’re good but I don’t know if they’re good enough. And that’s a funny place to get to as a writer.

Writing dialogue – it’s about keeping it open to interpretation but how do you avoid losing your angle on it if it can be interpreted in different ways?

In the first part of my career I was much more neurotic – it had to be done in exactly the way I had envisioned it. Now I like the mystery of it being reinterpreted. People used to say it’s like hiring a dog-walker and you give them your Labrador and it comes back a Poodle and you have to get used to that, you’re handing it over, just get used to handing it over and they’d drum it into you. I hated that.

But now I like the idea you give them this thing and it comes back hopefully better or more interesting. I’ve been really lucky in that by and large it has come back better than I’ve envisaged.

But a serious thing is you need a really good collaborator to interrogate you properly but I think it’s a special kind of hell to have a director foisted on you that you don’t get on with and they want to do their own thing and that’s increasingly the currency.

Increasingly, as theatre becomes a product made by theatre-makers and you get people taking credit for devising and co-devising and it’s taken away from the writer, that kind of collaboration is dying where you have a director that’s devoted to the writing but also devoted to their craft.

It’s quite an old-fashioned idea that we’re all here to serve the play, from front of house to costume to the director. That idea is gone, it’s archaeology, you will not find a director in town that wants just to serve the play, or you will but they won’t be a careerist director. The directors who want to build a career are all trying to find ways to put their stamp on it and reinvent it.

What’s your secret to longevity as a writer?

Refusing to go away! Some Voices – I was totally expecting them to say it was rubbish and when Stephen Daldry wanted to do it… – the National had turned it down, the Bush had turned it down, the Hampstead turned it down – and Stephen said yeah, he called me up at the paper and it was wildly successful and I hadn’t really thought about if it hadn’t been.

Has working on Sunny Afternoon influenced how your writing’s developed?

Yeah because that was a big story so I’m interested in doing big stories. That’s quite messy and sprawling but spans 2 continents and covers a lot of ground, and characters who are only there for one scene and then walk off so I’m interested in that – the exact opposite of a 3-hander like Blue/Orange so I am interested in doing what I haven’t done before.

I always squeezed in my plays between films, I always had the things jostling and always written under pressure. If I had an idea I had to write it fast. And I think that has been a good thing because I’ve never got close to writer’s block. I’ve got the opposite, I’ve got loads of plays and loads of ideas, I just don’t have time to finish them.

You can do a lot of navel-gazing. Since having kids I think it’s a minor miracle anyone can write if they’ve got kids. I’ve talked to other female playwrights who are contemplating having kids and don’t want to because they’re worried about what effect it might have. And I talk to Simon Stephens a lot about kids, he’s got kids too, and it’s a big, big, big, big thing and it’s very hard to find the time and headspace but it does a thing to your brain, to your soul and your consciousness, it bestows upon you a wisdom and an ability to see what you couldn’t see before.

Birthday was a straight autobiography. It was me, my wife in labour for 17 hours fighting tooth and claw. I made it [the protagonist] a man to make it more interesting.

Simon [Stephens] and I are in agreement about this. That old quote from Cyril Connolly [literary critic and writer] about the pram in the hall being the enemy of creativity is nonsense. It fires you up. You work everything out: your morality, your sense of what matters, what’s happening to the world. Until you have kids your don’t feel it viscerally. You feel it instantly, viscerally and overwhelmingly in a way you’re removed from prior to that so it doesn’t affect you. I don’t know whether it will come out in the writing but it certainly feels like it.

Do you have any writing exercises you can recommend?

In the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre we did this thing where you take a newspaper story and see if you can write a play or scene out of it. I loved it because I was in newspapers. I still do it all the time. I go Sean Spicer: where’s the play in that? There’s a play in Trump. There’s a play in Tony Blair. There was a story a few years ago a clinical psychiatrist diagnosed him with hubris syndrome. There’s a great play in that. I’m sort of thinking about it.

It’s more about what’s happened to me or someone I know in some form or another. Or a newspaper story that I go wow that’s a great story.

Would you ever want to write something different like sci-fi, for example in Ali McDowall’s style?

I really love Ali and I know him quite well. One clever thing about being a writer, one trick, is don’t try and be other writers. So I thought yeah I’d love to write a play like Pomona but it’s probably wise to not try.

My plays tend to be linear but I’ve written another play that I’m still waiting to produce, that goes back and forth in time and doesn’t have scenes. It did have scenes but I chopped it all up and now it’s like a documentary. You’ll hear this person talking and then you’ll zoom over to this person, then you’ll get a bit of music and I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to do it with.

How do you deal with rejection?

You have to always become yourself. You have to become the person you were before you started, not worry about any of these bruises. You have to remember how you were when you first started and when you finished your first play and how proud you were and how indefatigable you were. It’s quite hard to do.


In next month’s Writerly, Joe tells us the latest about his new diamond heist movie, writing David Fincher’s Mindhunter, and the good, the bad and the ugly of his cowboy period drama.

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