On his writing process with Baz Luhrmann
The process has of course evolved and grew up organically but it does stem back to our NIDA days and our actor training because the thing that you’re doing as an actor, you know, if you’re studying the Stanislavsky method is that you’re saying ‘What is my objective? What is my character trying to do? What does my character want? What’s the obstacle to them getting what they want? What actions are they going to play to get what they want? And that’s what makes drama and what makes a scene active. So you sort of do the same thing when you’re writing but you do it for all the characters, plus you think about the overarching themes and what you’re trying to say.
We’d work out the structure, you know, we’re always very big on structure. And of course, movies are structure, to a large extent. And we’d always be big on charts. We’d make, you know, CHARTS! We once even took a piece of cardboard to France from when we were writing Moulin Rouge! so we wouldn’t waste time buying cardboard in France! That’s how insane we were. And you know, we’d write up, on the bit of cardboard a line, a hundred lines, however long a movie is, and we’d go each little bit on that line represents a minute and so we’d go okay, well, what happens in the beginning, what happens now? Then they all become scenes and we’d scribble notes, and then the horrible moment comes when we’ve actually got to start writing. And we'd try and delay that for as long as possible! And then you know what it’s like, you actually have to go and write a scene, and it’s like, I’d rather go and stick razor blades on my tongue…
It’s great to have a partner in crime and a fellow traveller and someone to share the pain with. So eventually we go, you write this scene and I write this scene, and we scurry away with this horrible little deadline hanging over our heads and it’s kind of like ‘meet you back here in three hours’. And we kind of write a scene and come back. We used to burble on for about fifteen minutes saying ‘okay, well, it’s not really, but, you’ll see,’ but now it’s just, like, usual excuses, and we read the scene to each other. So I’ll read my scene with Baz and he’ll give me notes and I’ll you know, argue back and forth a little bit and then he’ll read his scene and I’ll do the same thing. And then quite often we’ll go away and rewrite each other’s scenes. And that process goes back and forwards, back and forwards and the script builds out and out and out. We really try and blur the line of okay this is my scene, this is genius, you can’t touch it, you know, we try and make the scene a third thing that exists between us. We can’t remember who wrote what and we don’t care and it’s not important. And then as soon as we’ve got a big enough chunk that will tell us something we’ll read the scripts aloud. It started off as us both reading it aloud but it’s just evolved that now I just do it. Cos I’ve been doing it for so long I’ve got really good at it!
On the next step in translating the story to the creative team
So the first person we generally get in is CM, Catherine Martin, his wife, genius production designer. And often Anton Monsted, who now runs Bazmark, Baz’s company, and then you know, progressively, people who are working on the creative team. And it’s very instructive both for us as writers, because as soon as you have an audience in the room, it might only be an audience of one, you immediately see the work more objectively, and stuff that you thought was okay you think, ‘that was totally not okay, that was terrible!’ And also people tell you, they give you really constructive notes. They make suggestions. CM can kind of see what we’re thinking and so she can start to evolve her design, she can feed back to us and go ‘hey, what about blah and blah and blah and blah,’ and it really shares it with the group, kind of in the way that you would with a theatre company. And eventually I’ll read it to the studio heads.
On writing Romeo + Juliet
We wrote the first draft in Miami. We originally set the world as a heightened version of Miami, so it was Verona Beach. Cos we said to ourselves okay, what did Verona mean to Shakespeare? Shakespeare had never been there, but for a Shakespearean audience, Verona was this hot, sexy, violent, Catholic place, and you know, Catholicism for a Shakespearean audience, whoa, they were all kind of, out there, you know, and strange and weird. And so we thought what could our Verona beach be? What could our Verona be? And we thought, well okay, Miami. So first of all we broke the play down, before we even got to that point, we read the play aloud to each other in American accents, because we consciously wanted to break all the preconceptions that people had of Shakespeare. I mean, we wanted to open it up for a younger audience, and one of the ways of liberating it was an American accent. And indeed when we did research, we found the way that people spoke in England then was more like American, that rolling R sound. It wasn’t that very, you know, received, BBC, Oxbridge kind of thing, that was a later invention, that was only invented at the beginning of the 19th century, kind of as an affectation of the upper classes. So we thought that had validity. And then we went to Miami in summer, whenit’s like really, really too hot, and Miami’s bonkers and crazy and wonderful and out there, and we wrote the first draft there in Miami. And then we retreated back to Australia and Baz always thought that Leonardo always would be an incredible Romeo. And he was a star, but he hadn’t done Titanic so he wasn’t a massive massive star. But Leonardo’s always very considered about what he does and he was even back then, when he was really young, and so Baz, Leonardo was like ‘oh, I don’t know.’ So Baz was like, so come down to Australia and do a workshop with us and convinced him to do the part. And so he came down and the script was pretty bonkers at that point, you know, the priest was a heroin addict, you know, Capulet and Montague were running for mayor, and we had all these adverts in it, trying to explain why people were speaking in Elizabethan, because we didn’t trust, we were trying to work out, okay, how can we create a world that feels modern – people drive cars and shoot guns and wear suits but everyone’s speaking a 400 year old language?
On the influence of drama school on his writing
When you’re at drama school you’re reading the great writers, you’re studying Ibsen, you’re studying Chekhov, you’re studying Shakespeare, and then working as an actor you’re reading a lot of scripts, you know, and you read a lot of bad scripts. At first when you’re a young actor you’re like ‘Oh I don’t really get what’s going on here,’ and then you see the film and go ‘No, actually, it just wasn’t very good!’ And so you sort of start to develop a feeling for what works and what doesn’t.
On his writing routine and schedule
I do treat [writing] like a 9 to 5 job, I mean it’s never 9 to 5. But I go to the office every day.
I think you have to treat it in that structured way, otherwise you know, nothing gets done. You just have to keep giving yourself deadlines. So generally I wake up, and also because I’m now executive producing Will, generally I wake up and tend to look at all the emails that come in from overnight from the UK or the US or wherever and deal with that business stuff and when I’m done with that I actually do the writing. But I’m basically in the office, like any other working person every day, 6, 7, 9, 12 days a week.
I give myself hours more than word counts but if the deadline is approaching I’ll do a schedule like ‘I’ve got to get this done by this day, I’ve got to get this scene by this day’, I’ve got to get to page whatever. Then the hours get much longer as you approach the deadline inevitably. At the beginning of the process it’s more hours because a lot of the time is thinking time and you know, sometimes you’re just stuck on something so you have to go for a walk. Sometimes if I’m feeling really kind to myself I’ll grab my board and go for a surf, and often the solution to the problem does come to you when you’re not thinking about it in the forefront of your brain, it sort of comes from your self conscious. So I think it is important not to get too locked in and when you’re stuck, just do something else for a while. I think all writers and creative people live on that sort of knife’s edge of prevarication versus procrastination. Because prevarication, as this crazy friend of my dad’s called Lester once told me, who’s this South African alcoholic I’m sure, Asperger’s type genius, prevarication is the positive form of procrastination. It’s where you’re putting something off for a good reason.
On his advice to writers
Work on your craft. Because writing – obviously you have to have a talent for it, you have to have a facility for it, but it’s also a craft, and you can really get better and better and better just by doing it over and over and over again. Listen to people’s notes. Don’t necessarily do every note that everyone tells you but people are often responding to something when they give you a note, because there’s something not working. They generally don’t have the solution, but really listen to what they’re saying and think why are they saying that, is there a problem there, and really be brave enough to rewrite. Writing is about rewriting, it’s about doing it again and again and again and every time you do it, you just make it better.
Read great literature and great playwrights. Because it’s considered great not because it’s just on the syllabus or whatever, but because people love it through time and geography, down through the ages, people come back to it. And there’s probably a reason why they have, there are lessons there in that great material that all writers, that I, everyone continue to learn from.