The Notes On A Scandal screenwriter discusses sex, obsession and Bill Nighy
How did your involvement come about?
I was sent the book by the producer, Scott Rudin. We'd been talking about doing something together for a while; he was one of the exec producers on Closer and I've known him a long time. He said, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Yes please.” So it was very simple. It then took a year to do the deal, but the offer and acceptance was very quick.
Did you meet Zoë [Heller – author of novel] during this time?
That was the first thing I did. I said to Scott, “I'd love to do it, but only if Zoë is okay about me doing it.” So I met with Zoë in New York and I said, “Look, do you secretly want to write the screenplay yourself? Because I'll step aside” and she said, “No, no, I don't, I genuinely don't!” Her dad was a screenwriter, her husband was a screenwriter, I don't think she wanted to be a screenwriter. She knew Closer; she'd been to see the play - this was before the film came out - so she approved of me.
What was the writing process like? Was Scott heavily involved? Were there many drafts?
He was, and we shot the twelfth draft.
He was quite keen that it not be a parochial English film… Did you know what he meant by that?
I didn't quite know but it became clearer. It was really about making sure that the emotional stakes were high between the two women; it was about getting the most juice out of their scenes together. That was his big concern.
He never said, “Let's relocate it to upstate New York,” never any of that. He was just encouraging me to perceive it as an emotional story. He felt that if we got two good enough actors - and we hoped from early on to get Judi and Cate - he felt that would be the thing of it. Two brilliant actors in two brilliant roles knocking the shit out of each other. That's the pitch!
What about the angle with the school kid - did that change a lot?
We just cast an Irish kid because he was the best. The boy in the book is 15. You only hear about him from Barbara's point of view. Well, Sheba says he's gorgeous and lovely and Barbara says he's nothing, so you're never quite sure how good-looking or what he is.
But Zoë seems to think the boy we've got, Andrew, is about what she'd imagined. We were very determined - and this was very brave of the studio - they said, “Go ahead, cast a boy who looks 15. Don't cast a 20-year-old who's going to act like a kid.” So it's totally authentic in that respect. He's 16, actually. When we looked at 18-year-old boys, they were too old; they had a maturity that a kid doesn’t quite have. So that was important.
He's not a heartthrob, is he?
No, and that was part of the point. We thought it was too obvious if we cast some hunk; there's no story. It's much more intriguing if Cate Blanchett has an affair with this… well, I think he's handsome… but he's an ordinary boy.
It makes you question what is driving her.
One of the biggest changes I made was the Bill Nighy part, because in the book he's a real bore and he's myopic. He can hardly see; he's got these big, thick glasses and he's this nerdy academic type who drones on and on. We thought, no, let's give her a nice sexy husband to make it more amazing that she's strayed. We thought it would give Sheba more of a darker undertow. The marriage is kind of okay but there's something in her that's seeking some other thing that she doesn't quite understand.
What do you think that is?
That other thing? Some kind of danger, some kind of excitement, some kind of risk. I think she got married too young; gave up her youth to have this marriage and kids, and is in her mid-30s thinking, “Where have I gone? Where is my life going?” But I wouldn't want to define what it is.
Is she supposed to be silly or foolhardy?
She's supposed to be a bit of a silly person, that's part of the story, that she has a naiveté. The kid isn't naïve; he understands what's going on. She's naïve, a posh girl who's never had to truly think for herself. That makes her vulnerable to the kid, but also to Barbara.
There'd be no story if she were a sophisticated woman who totally understood the ways of the world. And part of Cate Blanchett's brilliance is to take this rather fluffy person on the surface and have a kind of weird depth that she doesn't even understand. Cate is such perfect casting because she's not a ditz; she's playing a woman who is not fully in communication with herself, she's not centred.
What's your take on Barbara?
I love her. I adore her, of course! She makes me laugh, I feel sorry for her, I disapprove of her at times… I think she's a big movie character. You love her, you hate her, you laugh at her, you despise her… I want the audience to feel all these things about her. And at the end she endures, she goes on, we don't quite know what she's going to do; whether Annabel is the next one or not, but she's not going to be… She's bloodied and beaten but she's not gone under. I like that!
Was that enjoyable, deciding what bits of the diary to keep in the film?
Well, it's not written as a diary. It's a journal that she keeps after the scandal has broken; she writes an account of everything that happened, and we're never quite told why. And possibly, we suspect, she's going to sell it, or possibly it's for her own purpose. We don't quite know. It's one of the creepy things in the book. I decided to make her a constant diarist, a woman who'd always kept a diary from a very young age, which is why one of the first shots in the film is that pan across a shelf full of her diaries. I wanted early access to her, I didn't want the journal being written after the event. I needed it to be written while all this stuff was happening.
But that contains some of the funniest lines in the film.
Yeah, and sadly I couldn't use as much of Zoë’s book as I wanted to. There are some brilliant lines in the novel that I just couldn't fit into the screenplay. I managed to steal a few but not as many as I would have liked!
Was Zoë involved when you wrote the drafts?
I sent her the third draft. She liked it, she was generally approving. She always felt that Barbara was a bit too bonkers, more bonkers than she is in the book, and I take her point. But I don't think Barbara's bonkers. I think the compression of time that occurs in the film - the film's set over six months, whereas the novel's set over a year and a half - there's less time to show Barbara going more and more loopy. It's a given, now. Zoë did a big publicity trip with me to New York and LA, so she's into the film, she's coming out for it.
I read that you actually changed the football team that the character supports…
That's right. Brian Bangs, in the novel, supports Arsenal, and I didn't want the jerk to support Arsenal. I wanted him to support the other team!
What about the scenes between Andrew and Cate? They're pretty restrained.
There are laws about what you can and can't show. You can't show an underage person having sex.
Is that just in America?
I don't know. I didn't really get involved in all that. I do know that even if we'd wanted to, and we didn't, we couldn't have had nudity. I always think sex is sexier when you don't see it. I'm a bit of a prude about sex in films.
You never see any in Closer, either, and I think it gives things a bit more of an edge and a danger that you don't… As soon as I see an actor without any clothes on, that's all I can see. I'm not listening to dialogue, I'm not following the story, I'm just looking at their body. Which I'm perfectly happy to do.
It's not even prudishness. I just think it's better storytelling to cut away. Or you've got to find some brilliant way of shooting a sex scene that no one's thought of. You've got to do what Nic Roeg did in Don't Look Now, you've got to find a way of doing it that is not just churning bed sheets and grasping hands.
Did you spend much time on the set while the shoot was happening?
A lot, yeah. I like to think it was because people think I'm such a lovely chap and they wanted me around. But the producers wanted me there, Richard wanted me there; it was the way we all worked on this project. Scott and Robert and Richard and me; were the kind of team, I guess.
What were your observations of Cate and Judi?
Well, they just had massive respect for each other. Both very conscious of each other's talent and brilliance and wanting to give each other the space to do their work. Very respectful, very quiet. They didn't go out getting drunk together. They were very amiable, very professional. But I think, because we shot the meltdown scene late in the shoot and they both knew it was coming, they kept themselves primed and ready for that. They got on famously.
Were you there for the meltdown?
Yeah, it was shot in a studio. All of Barbara's interiors were shot at Elstree on a built set. They were both dreading it because it was really difficult - difficult to learn, difficult to act. They knew they were going to have to do it a load of times - it took a day to do. It was tough, but we got there.
What about the scene with Cate having her breakdown? Was that in the book?
No, I invented that. I wanted to push the character. In the book she ends up as Barbara's prisoner, she ends up living in a flat - not Barbara's flat, the brother's flat - and I wanted to push it further. One of the reasons Cate wanted to do the part was that scene, because she felt that it strips Sheba back to some animal core of what she is. She just goes fucking crazy. She liked that, she felt it was the catharsis of that character. It's the end of all the madness.
It must have been amazing, writing two scenes like that for two such amazing actresses.
It's very exciting when you're writing for particular people and you know that you can throw anything at them and they can do it. It's been like that with this play, writing for Rhys Ifans, when you've got some comic genius waiting to read your script, it's very inspiring.
I've been very, very lucky for most of my career that good actors have wanted to do my stuff. It's one of the reasons I'm still making a living as a writer. For whatever reason, they seem to like these parts I write. It's the only way I can stay in the game, really. If you can make commercial movies, you need the commercial talent to want to do that.