May meeting: William Nicholson

Notes from William Nicholson’s talk at the May meeting

William Nicholson Talk SPC May 7th 2017

William Nicholson rushing in from new York started as soon as he landed at SPC. beginning with his early feature-writing at university (Cambridge) he talked with aplomb, engagement and certainly no notes of his aspiring novel-writing, thwarted for a time despite picking up an agent at university. Each was rejected. One was finally revised and published much later. He returned to his first love, novel-writing, much later but made a breakthrough in 1972 with a radio play and thought he’d made it. Not quite, not yet.

Authors’ careers are studded with false starts. you should also never study others’ success, he added, declaring the more successful authors and dramatists he knows are still obsessed with someone higher up the perceived ladder. That way depression lies. Even David Hare’s sensitive to failure and he’s a lovely man.

He found early success in work at the BBC in the mid 1970s with features in BBC2’s Everyman. This involved him in scripts and finally colleagues’ badgering him to write a short narrative that could be used as a feature play.

It was in 1984 that he was persuaded to return to an unpromising story of C. S. Lewis, and he finally saw his way through a story not generally known, that of his late marriage, a sudden joy and then having to release his wife and grief to death. Story’s the most important thing of all. No drama can exist without it. The most famous line now irritatingly attributed to Lewis is ‘you read books to feel you’re not alone.’

Hollywood in retrospect was something he’d not perhaps do now. Too much creativity wasted. Though it did discipline him as a brutal lesson in being told to rewrite and rewrite. You need to tailor yourself to the director’s vision and nothing works unless they like it. It’s not even a question of being precious that’s taken for granted. Too many scripts are never actioned and you have of course no rights to them or to reuse unless heavily doctored. SJ asked if they could be recycled and though that’s possible, they’d not notice, it’s best to start afresh.

He now regrets the ‘false’ happy ending of his next film Nell, from 1994, the wild girl speaking her own language of her mother’s stroke-speak; he suggests she’d have been hauled off to an institution.

William returned to his first love, novels and is successful but never enquires to sales, he knows that would be fatal. They clearly break even and that’s enough. He talked too of his new film Breathe. Many actors have been mentioned along the way, and this with Claire Foy, Andrew Garfield, Hugh Bonneville is just an example. He’d only just left Anne Benning to meet us….

Rob Cohen asked about Gladiator and we were treated to the original idea but bad script by David Franzoni, the work of John Logan to bring it to an infinitely finer place, but still short and his rewrite which succeeded as they went along using actors and feedback to shape the narrative the humanizing of the main character was cardinal to him, he has no interest in vengeful warriors, hence the hand gliding over wheat at the beginning a man in touch tenderly with land and soil, people.

Other questions focused on getting scripts to agents and rights over treatments. There are none. As we know. J K Rowling was lucky in part with a publisher Bloomsbury who didn’t have a film clause package, being quite small. But if your story is treated they want to make it as successful as they can. they’ll not take out the story, why bother? You have to agree that they want to do the best for the fundamental narrative locked in the story you’ve sold on. A humane witty self-effacing major screenwriter. 29 people attended. This kind of direct, wholly informal but immensely fluent and engaging narrative is just what we need.

Notes by Simon Jenner