Joe Penhall – Part 2

FBI drama Mindhunter – set to air this autumn on Netflix

JOE PENHALL’s new flick Night in Hatton Garden, based on the infamous diamond robbery, is due to start filming in May, while his David Fincher/Charlize Theron FBI series Mindhunter debuts on Netflix in October.

Here in Part 2 of his interview with Writerly, Penhall shares his experiences for writing for film and TV.

We resume where, in Part 1, Penhall said having just 3 characters in a play offered a thrilling dramatic dynamic…

How does it work in movies, like your film The Road [adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel]?

It doesn’t really apply to films. If that was just 2 people in a room it would be really hard work but because the third character is the environment and various figures that appear from the environment and impact on those two it kind of does that.

But the beauty of film is that you’re not as bound by structure and form and convention, you can be a lot more freewheeling and the film I’m working on at the moment – the Hatton Garden diamond robbery – has five people all betraying each other. And it’s great fun because it just goes on and on. And every time you think one person has become loyal to this person he turns round and betrays him and forms a relationship with another person.

It’s a gang of these 5 old men. Everybody knows what they did – they robbed this place – but no-one really knows what happened after that. I mean, they hung around for 6 weeks in London just in the pub and didn’t make their getaway so the first half is leading up to the robbery and the second half is speculating what they did. I think what they did over those five weeks is they bickered and betrayed each other in a Shakespearean way and fought over the loot and kind of fought for dominance and one by one betrayed each other and eliminated each other until there was very little loot left and very little left of the gang and they were pounced on by the cops.

I’ve got this great ensemble of my favourite actors starting with Michael Caine playing all these old, bickering bastards. I met one of them, the one who’s out now. He didn’t participate in the robbery but he was done for handling stolen goods and I had a long lunch with him lasting about 4 hours.

Did the filmmakers ask you who you wanted to star in it?

Yeah. They don’t have to do that. In America, David Fincher [for Mindhunter] never really asked me. He consulted me a lot and I looked at all the audition tapes – hundreds of audition tapes.

But with the diamond film it was unusual that [director] James Marsh would always ask me who was my first choice and we have ended up with pretty much my first choices, and it was his first choice too but there was a few actors he wasn’t sold on that I persuaded him because I had experience with them but you’re very lucky if that happens because the writer tends not to be involved in those things.

What stage is the diamond film at?

I’ve finished about the 5th draft of the script and it’s out to casting. I got a nice note from Ray Winstone and I hope he’s in it. [Since the interview Winstone is on board, as is Tom Courtenay] I remember him in a thing called Fox in the late 70s, it had a really big impact on me.

It was about a South London family with 3 brothers and the oldest brother is a crook that gets banged up and the middle brother can’t decide which way to go and the baby is Ray Winstone who is a promising boxer and he’s straight but his brothers are leading him down this crooked path.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 16.00.55
Ray Winstone in Fox (1980)

So when I did my first play at the [Royal] Court and Ian Rickson [then-Artistic Director] suggested Ray I was so excited. I’ve always wanted to work with Michael Caine and it looks like I’m going to. He’s one of my great loves. And I always wanted to work with Fincher.

The funny thing about my career which is really weird is that I have ended up meeting or working with all my heroes. I really adored The Kinks and Ray Davies and always wanted to do that. One of my great heroes was Muhammad Ali and when I was a local reporter I got to meet him. I’d quite like to work with Paul McCartney but I think he’d be quite high maintenance.

How do you start something like Night in Hatton Garden in terms of planning and figuring out your screenplay?

We sat around talking about it for a week and we had a production assistant and she wrote everything down and by the end of it we said let’s agree on our rough beats, had a page of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, up to 20-whatever and then I took off and did it.

We didn’t have to go through the whole histrionic notes pinned to the wall, scratching your head and all that shit you see in the movies. I never really do that. It’s kinda ’cause it’s all in my head. I write a scene and then I might get an idea for the next scene or I’ll know there’s a collection of 20 great scenes.

Like the Kinks thing, Sunny Afternoon, I knew that story well and I knew the 20, 25 scenes we really wanted to have in there so it was just a question of organising them and deciding what I was going to have.

With a play you might write a speech or write an idea and then just leave it as a spare part and you’ll come and use it later. I’ve written a scene where something’s happened between anonymous characters and then I’ve reused it, I’ve written a play later and gone ‘what I need is a scene where this happens’. And I’ve got one. And I’ll import it into the play or a version of it.

And for your BBC TV series Moses Jones compared to Mindhunter?

That one [Moses Jones] I did write a treatment for so I wrote 10 pages or so.

[For Mindhunter] that was a 75-page Bible so beat-by–beat. It was like giving birth, it was just insane. They wanted 5 seasons; you need to write a Bible, it’s like a novel and you get paid for the Bible as well.

And with a TV show or a movie they tend to want an outline or a treatment unless you’re very lucky and you’re working with a director and producer who know you and respect you and they say go, just do whatever you want to do, which is very rare but it kind of happened with the diamond film.

What was the writing process like for Mindhunter?

You are supposed to have a writers’ room and one of the writers goes and covers set. I didn’t really have a writers’ room. I chose three other writers that I loved and offered them an episode each and wrote the rest myself and then went through rehearsals and when they went to shoot it in Pittsburgh I asked one of them to cover set ‘cos I didn’t want to do it – I’d been in America a long time and was sick of it and wanted to go home.

You’re planning the whole thing, that’s the vertiginous thing about it. If you’re ever going to get involved in one of those things there are pros and cons of getting involved. It is a monster. I wouldn’t recommend it for writers who want to write plays, or want to do anything else with your life because they own you every minute of the day – that’s why you have a writers’ room because if you’ve got 10 people in the room then you can take it in turns. But if you’re the only person, and I was the only person, they own you. It was really hard and that’s why you need a writers’ room because yeah frankly you need people to defend you, sometimes you need other people to take the flack, sometimes it’s just too much work.

Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford in Mindhunter

[The situation] was complicated. HBO offered me a creator/exec producer deal which means they would pay for me to go and live in America and run a writers’ room. They said [Penhall puts on Hollywood accent] do you want the whole pie, do you want a slice of the pie, do you want an iddy bit, what do you want?

And I said I want the whole pie.

[Fincher] wanted me to hire English writers and I couldn’t find English writers that I liked enough to do it or to get their head round it. He’s one of those, he likes the English, he’s an anglophile, he thought it was much better I was able to look them in the eye when we were working.

It ended up much better for me to get LA writers. The women that I wanted were all from LA and lived 2 miles from the office it turned out. They were very classy writers, they’d written Mad Men, had Emmy awards. They couldn’t really be part of a writers’ room and be bossed around and paid a pittance and made to rewrite these 25 times. I commissioned them, I got them to do 2 rewrites and then after that I had to do it.

It’s shot now and we’re waiting to come out. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of season 2, 3, 4 and 5 because that model is probably unworkable. Me writing 7 episodes and 3 Emmy award-winning writers writing the other three, it’s high maintenance.

Hollywood works on a room full of up-and-comers who are good but will do anything for a pittance.

You’ve adapted books for the screen such as Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What’s your approach?

Roger Michell, the director of Enduring Love, had done Blue/Orange. He approached me and said, look I’ve got this book I think you’d do really well. It was a bit like one of my plays in that it was about a couple and had someone come between them. My play Love and Understanding, he thought it was a bit like that and he wanted to make a film but it hadn’t panned out so he said why don’t you do that with this, make it all about the couple and the stalker is a bit like Richie coming in and detonating everything.

He was quite frank – he was like the first chapter is great, it’s the best bit, the rest we can throw away a bit which is a bit high-handed and certainly Ian McEwan didn’t agree but I knew I was going to have to invent quite a lot.

We got to a point in the middle where he said we need about 7 pages of Love and Understanding, we need you to just do that thing because Ian hasn’t got it in the book and just relationship stuff, intimate stuff, just them in their apartment alone together. There was also a lot of stuff about love and marriage that Roger wanted to explore that wasn’t really in the book so there was a lot of fiction in there, a lot of my stuff.

And then The Road was different because we all agreed we loved the book and the book was pretty much perfect. There were a few things for production reasons we just wouldn’t be able to film but most of it we wanted to do really faithfully.

The Road’s Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee

Cormac is a film buff. He started out as a screenwriter. He only started writing novels because he couldn’t get anywhere as a screenwriter so the dialogue in his book is very spare and lends itself to cinema, it expands with the performance. So it was a different approach in finding a way of translating it to screen, I didn’t have to invent anything.

Funnily enough in the diamond robbery film, James [Marsh, director] said he wanted a playwright and they suggested screenwriters that were just screenwriters but he said no I want somebody that can really do dialogue and when I had the early meetings I had all these great ideas and saw it as great cinema.

It was clear he read my plays and he was interested in the theatrical quality of it. But he also said to me at a later date is what I like about you is you can write screenplays and you think like a screenwriter, you think visually, which I do. My first love was film and I wanted to make films before I wanted to make plays so I’m very happy writing a film that’s very visual and not derived entirely from dialogue, you know, I am thinking about the environment, the location, the landscape all the time.

You’re unusual as a successful playwright but also screenwriter.

Yeah that’s really rare, I know it’s rare. I really worked at it. I failed over and over again. The film of Some Voices I re-wrote 20 times, and I went through several directors. It was originally going to be directed by Peter Cattaneo, who directed The Full Monty, then there was talk of getting Bertolucci to direct it, then Jean-Jacques Beineix who did Betty Blue and then eventually it got the director it got.

But I talk about plays in the drawer – for every screenplay that’s been made there are about 4 that didn’t get made and I also think with my theatre career I didn’t have many massive commercial successes, they’re all quite cult-y so I kind of had to try and be successful in film.

And because I love film and studied it and wanted to do it right from the start I was able to do it and now I’m pretty established. There are people in the film business that don’t know I’m a playwright.

Have you ever thought of doing a period drama?

I wrote a movie set in 19th century Kansas about cowboys that Sam Mendes was going to do. It was a good script. It was based on a great novel about buffalo hunters [Butcher’s Crossing by John Edward Williams]. Sam brought it to me and said I think you’d be perfect for this. I wrote it.

There was a syndicate of financers that had optioned the novel it was based on. When it came time to renew the rights so Sam could go and get it made, [one of the syndicate] offered the estate triple what Sam had offered, then wrote it himself. It never got made.

What about doing more directing yourself?

I like to direct because it’s fun but my problem is I work with great directors. I’m like that with films. I won’t make a film unless I know that someone fucking tasty is going to direct it. The best work emerges with collaboration.

In the final instalment, Penhall recalls his frustrations as a local reporter – including his treasonous encounter with Her Majesty. He pitches his new play and suggests how best to approach writing about things that matter to you.


This article was edited October 2017

2 thoughts on “Joe Penhall – Part 2

  1. Never heard of Penall. Started watching Mindhunter and wondered if the story is true. Just wandered into your interview. Expanded my mind for a few seconds.


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