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An Interview with screenwriter Olivia Hetreed

Olivia Hetreed is a screenwriter and editor known for Girl with a Pearl Earring, Wuthering Heights, Birds Like Us and Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. I spoke with Olivia about pursuing a career as a screenwriter, screenwriting theories, her process for developing characters, and her advice for aspiring screenwriters.

Was screenwriting a career you always wanted to pursue?

I didn’t even know it was a career you could pursue. I thought I wanted to work in the theatre and at University I got to try out lots of different things. I did a little bit of acting and I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. I tried directing, stage managing, producing and all sorts of things. I enjoyed all of it but none of it really grabbed me. But through that I got to work on a student film and I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to do. I apprenticed to be a film editor and became an assistant editor, a really sort of traditional pathway into the business. I did that for a long-time.

Editing is a brilliant skill and such an interesting way of discovering what’s in your story. I think it’s very akin to writing. A lot of the same things you need as an editor, are the things that you need as a writer. Because film writing in particular is so much about good structure, having an editorial head is quite useful.

How did you get your break in the industry?

I edited quite a few shows for a producer called Alan Horrox, who did a lot of children’s TV. Alan had a couple of drama slots for school’s television and he asked me if I had any ideas. He chose one of them and I wrote it and it got made. It was so easy and simple and nothing has ever been that easy or simple again of course. I didn’t really understand how fortunate I was until later on. I had a produced TV half hour drama and on the back of that I was able to get an agent. It was a combination of being lucky, knowing the right person and being in the right place but also being ready for it. You get the opportunities and the luck, but then are you ready to take them? It was a good combination of all the things you need.

Are there any screenwriting theories you religiously follow?

No. I studied English, so I had done a lot of literary theory and deconstructing of narrative and thinking about voice, but in the classic literary field. There were probably Syd Field and Robert McKee, but there weren’t a great many technical screenwriting books out there. One of the reasons that I loved film, was that it’s so practical and I loved being an editor because there were all those technical skills to it. I’d been reading scripts for 15 years and taking them apart in the cutting room. That was my theoretical background, which was a much more practical approach. I’ve taken the engine to pieces on the kitchen table and now I know how to put it back together again. Later on, I read some books and I found them most useful if I’m having a particular problem. I’m much less anti-theory than I used to be, but my continuing frustration is that I think quite a lot of books are analysis rather than constructive theory. Analysis is a really different thing. How does this script work is not the same thing as how would you write this script. It can be easy to confuse the two and if you start on that process you start with the wrong bit of your brain. You start with the analytical deconstructive bit, rather than the creative playful bit.

Do you think people starting out focus so much on structure, as opposed to story?

I think reading American students, or people starting out writing screenplays, you do tend to feel that they have all come from the same factory and people have just stamped a label on them. I don’t feel that so much in Britain. There’s quite a lot of emphasis on individual creativity here. I think that means a lot of people here have unsaleable scripts, but they are not so conformist. Perhaps there is a middle ground where you have learnt some of the tough lessons of ‘this is what sells’ on the one hand and you are holding on to your creative instincts on the other.

What’s your process when it comes to structuring a script? Do you outline?

Yes, I do. I’m a big planner. I’m very impressed by and envious of people who just start writing and see where it goes. That’s not me at all. I have to know where it is ending up and know those steps along the path. I’ve tried much more free range. It isn’t helpful to me. I get very lost in that. I do quite a basic outline and a detailed treatment. I then literally put that treatment into the final script that I’m writing. Each time a scene is completed and the paragraph that it replaced is deleted from the treatment, then I know where I’m going next.

What’s your process for developing characters? Is there a plan you use, or is it a natural evolution as you write?

A bit of both, I would say. The characters are functionally coherent. I would know what I need to know about them before I start. I wouldn’t expect them to spring major surprises on me but I think one of the pleasures of script for me, is that sense of discovery and finding out this person is a lot more fun and wittier than in the treatment. Treatments are not very fun and witty. So, it’s very nice when you get to the script stage and your characters can be more individual.

Has your writing process changed since you first started out?

I guess each time I make mistakes, but I try to not make the same mistakes again so I hope there are fewer mistakes. There are still very much the same steps. Outline, treatment, script is always how I approach it. I am more interested in collaborative work, working on a story that is the director’s story that they want to tell. I like the collaboration of wanting to work together on something and that is a very different way of working. I’ve also done one writer’s room which I really enjoyed. To find the opportunity is difficult because the timing is always very tricky with writer’s rooms, they crew up quite late in the day and I never have that much flexibility in my schedule. I would like to work with other writers on something as well. If you enjoy collaboration, then screenwriting is a great place to be. If you are very protective of your story, then you should probably write a novel or a play because with a screenplay everyone will want their fingers in your pie.

Is it ever difficult if someone doesn’t like your idea?

Yes. It’s not like I’m always happy and thrilled that people don’t like what I’ve done. You get tougher about it and you learn better to separate your effort and work and professional output from yourself and your ego. That’s probably a thing that has changed. The fact somebody doesn’t like what you have written, doesn’t mean they don’t think you are a good writer, or that they don’t like you personally, they just don’t like this thing you’ve written. Sometimes they don’t say that very well. Some people give great notes and even though they are telling you the work is terrible and isn’t fixable, they make you feel good about it. Some people might actually be giving a much smaller note and somehow contrive to make it really depressing. When people try and give you solutions that often doesn’t turn out to be very helpful, but when they can articulate their problems very clearly, that can be extremely useful.

You’ve worked on a lot of adaptations. Is that something you look for in projects?

I love adaptation. I think it’s a really interesting puzzle to work out. It probably does interest the editorial side for me. The adaptations are quite various. I’ve done lots of true story stuff, not a lot of it has got made, but I’ve written lots of scripts. If it’s somebody’s life or a piece of history, it presumably has interesting and dramatic instances in it which is why you’ve chosen to do it, but they are not necessarily in the right order or involve the right people, or the right period of time. There are all those questions of what you can change and what you can’t change and what’s morally acceptable and what isn’t. What works dramatically and what hierarchy of those priorities should be. If something is better dramatically, but simply not true then is that okay to do? As soon as you dramatize anything you are being untruthful to the original story. Even if I just tell you what happened, I’ll tell it to you in a slightly different version to how it happened. Adaptation is also more commercially viable because there is already a project people can wrap their head around as the story already exists.

When you are starting to adapt a story where do you begin?

I try and read the book without thinking about the adaptation. It can be difficult, but it’s rather like watching a film without having your critical hat on. It’s lovely if I’ve read the book before it comes to me as an adaptation and that’s a real bonus. Then, I start to read it again very specifically and forensically going through it and thinking what the story is about. What is the feeling of it? What’s this particular character? What is it the person commissioning me sees in it? That might not be what I see in it and it’s really important to go through that in the first instance and make sure we are all trying to do the same thing. Which is another reason why I think outlines are incredibly important because it’s so clear at that stage. I will then write down what I think the film story is, or the TV story is, just in the barest bones. Where do I think it starts? Does it start where the book starts? How does this material become a screenplay?

For example, when I looked at Wuthering Heights again. I think this is a story about teenagers, which is very unusual in classic literature. I think it’s a story about a black boy, suddenly finding himself in a white world and a bunch of white people suddenly finding a black boy in their midst. When I look at the other film versions of this, I don’t see that story, but then I look at the book, that’s the story I see, so I would like to tell that story. Then we all have a really clear sense of what we are aiming to do. Everybody knowing what you are getting into is important with any screenplay, but it’d super important with adaptation to understand exactly what version we are trying to tell. When they suggested to me to adapt Wuthering Heights, which has been done so many times, I thought, why on earth would you want to do that? It was only when I read it, I felt quite strongly about doing it. I had a very definite view of what I wanted the story to be. That really helped. Sometimes I’ll read something that’s interesting or perfectly good, but I don’t know how to tell this story and it doesn’t say anything to me. Someone else could do it better, or has done it better. Quite a lot of it is in that choosing stage as well.

Are you selective of what you chose to adapt?

People approach me and then it’s a question of me choosing between various projects. That’s largely down to the material and partly down to the people. Sometimes there is a book I’ve read and I’ll go out and pursue it. I have a production company with my husband and partner, who is a producer. We will pursue a book or a story. Then, you are pitching to agents, the author, or somebody, to try and persuade them that you are the right person to handle their beautiful work.

Are you ever unhappy with the final product?

Yes. I’ve mostly been lucky and had really good experiences and positive collaborations. When you are shooting, especially now, it’s so fast that sometimes things go wrong. It’s one of the reasons that I think it’s great when writers can be on the set. I don’t expect films to be created exactly the way I wrote the script. It’s more when it hasn’t helped the story, or whatever changes clearly isn’t intentional, it is just a mistake or an oversight. Then, I guess there is the bigger thing of when a collaboration itself doesn’t work and that’s more difficult. I’ve only had one and a half experiences that were extremely painful. If they made it better that would have been much more bearable, but when you see that it’s not better that is frustrating.

Filmmakers I suppose can take liberties with the script…

Yes, and the thing that always makes me laugh is when they make it a trade announcement. Before anybody has done anything, it says director Joe Blogg’s adaptation of this. This is not the director’s adaptation of this. This is the director directing Olivia Hetreed’s adaptation of this. How can they be so careless and ignorant to say this? Most people don’t care who the director is, we only care who is starring in it, so why would it hurt to actually tell the truth that more than one person was involved in every single decision that was made in this film? I don’t blame the public, but I do blame the film press for not making any effort to think that through. People have different roles. When you go and see an orchestra, the fact that there is a composer, as well as a conductor, doesn’t confuse the audience. They understand that they are doing different jobs and both are contributing.

There are a few screenwriters who write things that are very overtly personalised, or very clearly in their particular style, someone like Charlie Kaufman, or Aaron Sorkin, but they are exceptional. For me, a great screenplay is when you don’t even think that there is a screenplay, you just think that story happened and it’s incredible. I would love for the ordinary person to believe that there was no script, but to believe that the story was brilliantly told. I wish that the people who should know better knew that there was a script and that it was a story brilliantly told by a writer.

What advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters?

Read and watch lots and do the analytical work. Go to the cinema and watch a film. How did that work? What did it do? Where did it go? What worked and what didn’t work? Break it down and go see it again. What changes on a second viewing? How did they tell the story and how did they engage me? There was a very unsympathetic protagonist and yet I was completely hooked on their story. How did they achieve that? What did they do to make me connect and care for them?

If it’s an adaptation, then read the source material if you possibly can before you see the film. What would you do? Which slice of that story would you take and tell? Then go and watch the movie and maybe they did something completely different, or maybe that’s exactly how you would have told the story. Things that are very well done but don’t quite work are incredibly interesting and instructive. For example, Cold Mountain. Minghella was the king of literary adaptations. Cold Mountain is a fantastic book and yet, the essence of it was really antithetical to adaptation because the plot is not the driver, it’s all the stuff around it. What you ended up with on screen was too much plot, pushing you from one place to another with no obvious reward. So even someone as brilliant as Anthony Minghella didn’t always get it right.

Everyone should watch The Apartment once a year.

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