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 Q&As with The Libertines Stephen Jeffreys, November 2005
jeppody
Posted: Jan 6 2007, 02:49 AM


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Let me start by thanking Mr. Jeffreys for his patience with me and his sincere and gracious replies. He rocks! And we are very grateful!

Please remember that this is property of JohnnyDeppReads. Please do not repost this info anywhere, but link back to JDR to share.



JDR THE LIBERTINE was first published and performed a bit over ten years ago.
Did you ever see the property one day being turned into a film? And what was it like adapting your own play into a screen play?


SJ I hadn’t thought about the play being a film until John Malkovich sidled up to me in the second week of rehearsals in Chicago and said “Do you want to make a movie out of this ?” It’s the sort of question which doesn’t require an answer, although if I’d known it would take almost ten years from that moment to get the film onto the screen I might have said no. Every single phase of the film seems to have been dogged by ill luck. We lost Johnny a couple of times and financial backers came and went. Worst of all, on the very day that we had the read through of the script, the UK government changed its laws on tax refunds for film financing. It looked to me as though we were dead in the water, just a few hours after hearing Johnny Depp reading my lines. Fortunately Malkovich, in his producer role, pulled some strings and we rescheduled to the Isle of Man which has different tax laws. The Isle of Man film people were incredibly responsive and helpful.

When you adapt a play into a screenplay you have to go back to what made you want to write the play in the first place and try to put the play out of your mind. But with a biographical subject, you are, to a certain extent, stuck with the key events in the life of the person you’re writing about and it’s hard to re-write them without being aware of what you did before. So I went through a process of trying to shed material and then finding it working its way back in.



JDR Since you began the play with the "you will not like me" admonition,
after all the research you did on Rochester, did you end up liking Rochester?


SJ I was interested to read your discussion on the website about these lines. I’d been researching Rochester for a few months and working on the shape of the play and it suddenly occurred to me that audiences would be repelled by him and find him an unsympathetic companion for a journey through a play. So I decided on a strategy: I figured that if I told the audience they wouldn’t like him, then they would. Audiences don’t do what they’re told. They listen to Rochester giving them that line and say to themselves “Hell, I’m not going along with that.” That was the starting point. Then I realised I could keep this idea in play and bring it back, on (I hope) a deeper level at the end.

Of all the books I read on Rochester, the most useful was Jeremy Lamb’s book SO IDLE A ROGUE. I met Jeremy (who died around three years ago and was a complete Rochester fanatic) and talked with him about the Earl. Jeremy was a recovering alcoholic who saw Rochester’s behaviour as completely conditioned by his relationship with drink. Broadly I followed this line and recommended the book to Johnny. When I visited him in his trailer on set, the only object on his table was Jeremy’s book, worn through with constant re-reading. I bring this up in answer to your question because there are huge problems in ‘liking’ alcoholics. You can love them, but there are times when they will be very hard going indeed: a sudden mood swing will bring in its wake very unattractive and obnoxious behaviour. So with Rochester, I would have appreciated his company when he was being witty, but when he turned a corner and became dangerous I would want to be somewhere else. But you can’t pick and choose with alcoholics: you have to take the rough with the smooth.



JDR Is there any evidence that Rochester really did propose marriage to
Barry and consider divorcing his wife?


SJ Divorce was very difficult at the time, but for a friend of the King’s it would have been possible. I think I made this up . I wrote most of the original play in 1993 so I’m no longer entirely sure of the line between fact and fiction. But the scene required a concrete action: offering marriage is about as far as you can go in a scene such as this and Rochester always went as far as he could go.


JDR How close to the play were you able to stay when writing the film's
screenplay?


SJ I didn’t want to stay close to the play. Stage and screen are very different and I wanted to create something filmic. For instance I didn’t include the play’s opening speech which is very theatrical in the first draft of my screenplay. But Russ Smith, the producer, was very emphatic that it had to be in. He showed me the long speech at the start of PATTON and convinced me it would work. Similarly I cut down the two long scenes between Rochester and Barry in the Dorset Gardens Theatre. But Johnny and Samantha Morton got hold of the play and said “You can’t possibly cut out this line. Or this one. And I have to have this line” until they became quite long scenes again. Johnny’s favourite line is the one which begins “Life is not an urgent succession of ‘nows’” I cut it out of the screenplay but he liked it so much it went back in and he had some tee-shirts made up with this line on the front. For me the juxtaposition of filmic sections and longer theatrical scenes is very satisfying. But there will be critics who’ll see the credit at the end ‘based on his play’ and lazily attack the film for “betraying its stage origins.” Actually the most ‘theatrical’ scene, the speech to the House of Lords, wasn’t in the play at all.


JDR Why did you choose to have the characters break the fourth wall?


SJ It’s a technique which works well in plays where you have to change the scenery. Rather then have the audience watch a bunch of guys in black sweaters shifting stuff around, you put an actor at the front of the stage with a speech and use the time more creatively. It’s also something which works well at the Royal Court where the play was performed in London. I noticed Timberlake Wertenbaker having some success with this technique in a couple of her plays and followed her example.


JDR Congratulations on September's production of I "JUST STOPPED MY TO SEE THE MAN." Did you know that Johnny Depp is very fine guitarist a huge fan of
southern blues artists such as Robert Johnson, And that he performed Johnson's "They're Red Hot" in his film "CHOCOLAT"?


SJ Yes. When we were filming on the Isle of Man and waiting in Johnny’s house there for him to change and come out for dinner, I got the chance to play his guitar which was fun. Johnny told me that doing the long scenes in THE LIBERTINE had made him want to do a play, so I gave him a copy of I JUST STOPPED BY TO SEE THE MAN. He would be great in the role of Karl, but the chances of getting him to do a play would be remote, I think.


JDR We found it interesting that John Malkovich has had the opportunity to
portray both Rochester and Charles II. Having worked with Malkovich before,
did that affect the way you were able to adapt the part of Charles for
Malkovich?


SJ John has very distinctive vocal mannerisms . The way he arranges clauses in his sentences is complex. He loves to construct long sentences conveying subtle shades of meaning and then deliver a real knock-out punch right at the end, often offering some outrageous and provocative opinion as a conclusion. It was very helpful to have his voice in my head when writing the role of Charles. Charles was extremely intelligent and had, in my view, the same ability to assess the delicacy of a question and then be very decisive. I was pleased with the scene right at the start of the film when Charles’s advisors are throwing all sorts of questions at him and he keeps coming up with quick, deep replies. I think it shows that Charles was good at running the country. That scene wouldn’t have been possible without the contribution of John’s intelligence.


JDR Did you ever envision Johnny Depp playing Rochester? As the
screenwriter, what was it like working with him as an actor?


SJ I didn’t really have an actor in mind when I wrote the role. John Malkovich was brilliant as Rochester on stage but he was always doubtful about playing the Earl on film. He felt he wouldn’t be able to do the physical decline of the character. John always looks physically strong on screen. But when it became clear that Johnny was interested – which happened way back in 1996 when he came to see the play in Chicago- it was hard to envisage anyone else. No-one else on the planet can appear so flamboyant and attractive and yet be so eager to embrace physical decay.

Working with him as a writer was a complete joy. He’s always alert to what’s going on and he’s incredibly quick and responsive. In the House of Lords scene when he has a speech which (before cutting) was eight minutes long I realised I needed to change a couple of words around. When I suggested this, he immediately agreed, but then pointed out that this would entail changing another word two pages later. The speed of his thought processes in working this out was alarming. We had some very good conversations about Rochester, but I always felt he was more on the case than I was. By the time we came to shoot the film, my research was a long way in the past while his was fresh in his head.



JDR Congratulations on all the many BIFA award nominations that THE LIBERTINE has gotten. We suspect that these are just the beginning of nominations and awards for this work this year. As a long time, established author, was this
ever a dream of yours when you first began writing?


SJ Yes. It’s nice to win awards. But you have to learn – and I admit it’s been hard for me to do this as I’m quite competitive – that mostly such things will not come your way.


JDR In retrospect, is there anything you might have changed, left out or
added to the screenplay for THE LIBERTINE that you did not?


SJ Quite a lot of material ended up on the cutting room floor – which will, I hope, make for a very interesting out-takes section on DVD when it eventually comes out. But I had a close relationship with Laurence Dunmore the director and was generally very happy with the choices he made. I’ve done two different versions of the stage play, a radio version (where the role was played by Bill Nighy) and several drafts of the screenplay. After all that you simply accept that there are so many choices and that there can’t be a perfect version of Rochester’s life. So no: no regrets. It’s wonderful to have the film out there and for there to be so much interest in it.


After seeing the film , I asked Mr Jeffreys a question and here is his reply

JDR While watching the film, I realized that there was no "smashing of the sundial" and yet it appears prominently earlier in the film. So I emailed to ask about it and hoped he could tell me. This is what I got back from him. Thanks go out again to him for his constant interest in us.


SJ Regarding the cutting of the scene where the sundial gets smashed there was a problem with that
particular day's shooting (which happened at Blenheim Palace). We spent a
lot of time shooting the very short scene where they're playing Pall Mall.
There was a great deal of aircraft noise and we had four burners belting
out smoke the whole time to get the misty atmosphere you see in tht scene.
(In fact there was so much smoke it showed up as a forest fire on a weather
satellite and we got an anxious call from the Metrological Office!) Getting
the right levels of smoke without any aircraft noise meant an awful lot of
waiting. This cut into the time allotted to shoot the sundial scene, which
was another set-up. We didn't actually get rolling until around twenty
minutes to midnight and, since we could only do one take (as the sundial
really had to get smashed and the cast and crew had to go home), it was a
bit hit and miss. In the end we weren't really satisfied with the result
and it seemed sensible to cut it. It's a bit of a loose end because the
sundial is set up so carefully earlier in the film. I was especially
disappointed because our historical researcher Mona Adams had managed to
dig out the designs of the original sundial, something no-one had managed
before. Still, these things happen when you're on a tight schedule and we
had such a great crew that we mostly avoided problems like this.


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