An Interview with John Hodge
John Hodge is an Academy Award nominated screenwriter known for Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Trance and The Ipcress File. I spoke with John about writing his first script, collaborating with Danny Boyle, his process for developing characters, Trainspotting 2, and advice for aspiring screenwriters.
Your background is in medicine. How did you first get involved in screenwriting?
It was something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager. I’d dabbled in writing a little bit while I was at university. I was working as a doctor and I’d done my post graduate exams and I thought I might as well give this a go and see what happens. About a year later I’d thought of the premise for Shallow Grave, which wasn’t startling original, but it was confined in terms of location, personnel and so on. So, I thought it might be viable, which it was as it turned out. So, I just started writing and I didn’t know who I was going to approach or anything like that.
Then I met Andrew Macdonald, who was a friend of my sister’s and he was working as a location manager for Scottish television on Taggart. He wanted to be a producer. I didn’t know anything about film production and he didn’t know a great deal either. I rewrote the script and there was no money changing hands at this point, but we got it into the hands of David Aukin, the head of Film 4, and he liked it and asked to meet us. He said to Andrew that he should go find a director as they’d like to make this. With that goodwill in his pocket, Andrew wanted to meet new directors and one of them was Danny, who he liked most. It was very easy and I thought it must be very easy all the time, but I was totally wrong!
You frequently collaborate with Danny Boyle. What’s the process like working with him?
I do frequently collaborate with Danny and we are working together on what we hope will be a feature film. It’s a very outdated idea, the idea of making a piece for cinema. We’re probably doomed, as cinema is on its back really and probably has no future.
It has been a journey for me and an appreciation of Danny’s craft. Over the years, I’ve been very impressed with Danny’s vision, but the thing that has really struck me is his leadership, which isn’t often commented upon with directors. Everyone can envision the film, but somebody has to say ‘it’s going to be mine, let’s do it for better, or for worse.’ Then, instil that into everyone and make clear decisions and be involved in everything, so that vision permeates everyone. So, then everyone knows what they are doing in a creative sense. It’s really important, but Danny really understands that and I’ve seen what happens when it’s lacking and it is just chaos and not a good way to make a film. A good director, like Danny, is someone who just takes on the challenge and gives it everything they have got, which he does. It’s great to work with him. He gets a lot out of me the writer, the actors and the crew. It’s your best chance.
Is that what you look for in a director, and why you continue to work with Danny?
Yes, I think so and we get on well. Never underestimate that. I also like the films he makes, the performances he gets from actors, and the actors he attracts to work with him is very impressive.
Are there any screenwriting theories you religiously follow?
I think I would have been far more successful if I had! We are all manipulating the pieces and the characters, roughly in the same way. Everyone is always trying to find a slightly different way to do it. I think if you stick to the stuff that is too prescriptive, then it will be lacking in something. At least that’s my theory. Sometimes you see it with TV shows, when they are doing season 3, 4 or 5 and you can see it becomes formulaic and there is a sort of deadness to it. Everyone is going through the motions. Actors tend to rise to the challenge when things are slightly off kilter.
Save The Cat and those kinds of things are lighting upon something people do anyway and turning it into a theory. I go back to William Goldman’s theory: “nobody knows anything.” If anyone had the magic formula, there would never be any duff films. It’s a miracle any film is ever made really. Maybe it’s laziness on my part. Syd Field is really respected and a lot of the stuff that he says makes wonderful sense, nice kind of rules and guidelines. I can’t really disagree with any of them and he really seems to know what he is talking about. It’ll advance you in the process because you will learn some of the things really not to do and so you won't waste your time creating something that people just don’t want to read. But sooner or later, a kind of magic has to come from somewhere. You can’t prescribe that. By following the rules, you can create a situation in which you can apply it. I think that’s the truth. To make the difference between words on the page and something that comes to life, you need a creativity which is not prescriptive.
I suppose it can become formulaic when you follow one of those structures…
That’s the problem, isn’t it? I can see how it works to follow the structure to get you into the general area of writing a good script, but sooner or later, you are going to need to apply something that’s a bit more special to elevate it. That has to come from you the writer, from your inner world.
Do you find adapting stories more challenging than creating original scripts? What are the biggest differences?
Most writing tends to be adaptation because producers like material that already exists. Obviously, books vary enormously, in length and complexity and so on. I did The Ipcress File, for television very recently. James Watkins, the director, and I spent a lot of time bouncing ideas back and forth, to take this quite slender first-person novel and turn it into six episodes, with other characters given more space than in the novel. Television demands more characters and story. That novel adaptation process, from novel to six episodes of television, was heavily collaborative with James and very fruitful. Where would we like to be, in a geographical sense, in terms of the characters’ lives and backgrounds? Where would be interesting to us, as fans, to go? Which is a nebulous thing, but it gives you something to start with. There is a section of the novel where they go to an atomic test on a pacific island and we thought we’d like to do that. We wanted to do different things there from what happen in the novel, but we do want to go there. So, there are those kinds of decisions. But what do we do with it and how does it vary? It’s a gradual process, I think. You build one brick on top of the next and have this general idea of where you want to get to. If there are bits of the novel you don’t like then you can deviate from that and go another way. It’s a very haphazard process.
I remember adapting Trainspotting and I was just reading the book over and over and taking down all the bits I thought should be in the film. There wasn’t so much of a story there, so you can afford to be slightly more random in its creation. Different processes for different material.
What’s your process when it comes to structuring a script? Do you outline?
I do an outline. Then, at a certain point I try to be free-floating and have ideas I hope to use. Then at a certain point, I try to write a list of scenes and that might be ten pages long for a 90-minute film, or a 60-minute show. That really helps me to imagine the film. I’ll actually write the scene heading for the exterior/interior part and then maybe a one-line summary underneath of what roughly might happen. Then, I can scan down that and see the film. Sometimes it is full of problems and sometimes it feels right, but if it works then I’ll start expanding that. I’ll write a scene that is easy to write, or whatever. I’ll write then, so that list is getting bigger as the stuff in it is getting bigger and that becomes the script really. Try and see the whole film in list form and then expand into what it is.
What’s your process for developing characters? Is there a plan you use, or is it a natural evolution as you write?
I wish I had a plan. I feel narrative and character are inextricably linked. I try and imagine the person and try and get inside their head. Their foibles, their desires, what excites them, makes them angry. To write the character and try to inhabit them, I think. That’s the way I approach it, rather than thinking methodically how do I create a character? That’s my theory.
If you are doing an adaptation of a book, then sometimes the characters are already there. With The Ipcress Files, the characters were there, but they were very sort of thin as the book is first-person. There’s a character called Dalby, who’s a senior, a boss. We met Tom Hollander to discuss the part. He was interested and said, ‘I don’t just want him to be a man behind a desk.’ I thought that was a very interesting comment. It tuned into a couple of things the protagonist in the novel says about him, about Dalby being a hooligan. That became two things: Dalby the hooligan from the book and Tom coming up with the idea of him not being not just a man behind a desk. So, it took me on this journey with Dalby, which ended up with him being this quite active agent which in the end was very satisfying, I think. That character came off the slender amount that was in the novel and expanded into something quite rich.
How did you approach the script to Trainspotting 2? What were your initial conversations with Danny?
We talked about doing a sequel for years. We went to Edinburgh and thought that might inspire us to meet people and talk and speculate where the characters' lives could have taken them. I agreed to have a go at writing the script. I was quite nervous about it because I couldn’t imagine what would have happened. I had no idea what the events for the characters would be. I’d committed myself to the script informally and we went our separate ways. You just sort of chip away at it. What would Begbie be doing now? Where has Renton been? What happened to Simon, or Spud? There is no great plan for that. Maybe Renton has been unhappy in love and it didn’t work out and so has come back and maybe Simon is bitter and he’s running a pub. Begbie is in jail; he’s got to be.
Those characters are so strong because of Irvine’s creation, but also because of the actors’ performances 20 years earlier. I talk about getting inside the characters and inhabiting them and that was so easy once it got started. I was writing the scenes with Begbie and his lawyer, for example and I almost felt like someone else was writing because I was just a vessel through which Begbie was writing his dialogue. It was really strange because those actors’ voices were in my head so strongly and eventually that was doing a lot of the work. It slowly came together. Trial and error. It sounds chaotic and I think it is and it should be. Eventually you end up with something that looks proper. Where it comes from, who knows!
What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?
It’s a hard life. I’ve sat in so many meetings with producers and directors who say this is great and what X and Y wants to do, but we don’t have X or Y. Once cast is involved then finances will flow. It’s all about cast. It’s a tough lesson to learn because you might have written a great script, but if it doesn’t catch the eye of the necessary actors at that particular time then it’s not going anywhere. The script is to attract the director, the director to attract the actors, and the actors to attract the finance. By in large that’s the harsh algorithm. I don’t know if it’s so much advice, but an important lesson.
Are there any screenwriters you admire, or have influenced you?
When I was really young, I remember watching Network and Hospital on television and discovered they were both written by the same writer, Paddy Chayefsky. He is rightly revered as one of the great scriptwriters of modern age. I also liked David Lynch’s writing as it was so unusual. I like to watch a lot of comedies. That’s a supreme achievement, to be able to craft something that is funny. That’s a wonderful talent.
I’m always glad to see the flaws too. Even in the very best scripts there is fudging, even in The Godfather. For example, when Al Pacino says he can kill the police commissioner and get away with it and they can discredit him afterwards. Has nobody else thought of this? I never believe that. But I like it because you can see the joins.