Looking at William Monahan’s body of work, it’s hard to determine which is more impressive, what he’s already done, or what he has coming up. “Kingdom of Heaven” was his first produced screenplay, and that was followed by Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winner “The Departed” and Ridley Scott’s Middle East opus “Body of Lies.” He has a number projects in the works after the release of his directorial debut, “London Boulevard” -- starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley -- which arrives in theaters this weekend, and those include writing duties on “Sin City 2” for director Robert Rodriguez and “The Gambler” for Scorsese. The Playlist caught up with Monahan recently for a conversation about “London Boulevard,” and he offered a detailed, no-holds-barred portrait of his creative process, examining the film’s influences, artistic aspirations, and even some of its shortcomings. Additionally, he discussed the film in the context of his increasingly eclectic career, and talked about how he wants to continue to wear multiple hats as a screenwriter producer and director.
What was it about this book that you connected with and particularly wanted to adapt as your feature directorial debut?
Well, the book was and is very interesting. [Author] Ken [Bruen] did it as sort of a pastiche of "London Boulevard" with the older actress desiring fame, and my own experience of the world was knowing younger actresses who were in flight from it. So I thought it would be much better if I did it that way and put a new twist on the pastiche, make it a little more realistic in terms of celebrity culture. But the main thing, of course, was to just make it as a film. I think I was 18 years old standing in London and I imagined doing a film there, opening with a riff from [The Yardbirds'] “Heart Full of Soul.” And I think my life since then was probably a search for exactly the piece of material to manage to put that effect in. And I think it was deeply in the grips of “Blow-Up” when I was thinking about doing a film at all.
As far as conventions in “London Boulevard,” the main convention I wanted to avoid...was that I was determined very early on that I wasn’t going to do a conventional British class drama. It was impossible that I was going to make Mitch truly South London. It was impossible that I was going to put him in a shell suit, and I wasn’t going to make him some awkward, workey vomiting on his shoes at the thought of being in the same room as a posh rich woman. Because it simply doesn’t happen like that anymore. That was a fight that I picked in Britain, and to some extent I got my ass kicked for it. But it is more reflective of British society now than the formula class stories which still exist to gratify the self-opinions of essentially the lower middle class who need an “other” to sort of look down upon. So “London Boulevard” was subversive on a class level. I was never going to do “The Hireling” with Robert Shaw, if you’ve ever seen that – where he starts screaming with a front tooth out, dribbles out of hopeless love for an upper class woman, Sarah Myles. So I was never going to do that and I didn’t hit that template intentionally. Everybody’s become habituated to this sort of Guy Ritchie gangster film, the sort of “mock-ney” thing, which plays up to this same expectation of how one actually deals with class in Britain, and I wasn’t going to do that either. There was a little bit of, “Where’s the fucking Guy Ritchie template? We just settled down for a nice class drama – now where’s the class drama?” I could overstate very easily the case for “London Boulevard” being subversive in England, but I think it was.
How did you develop what the music and visual aesthetic of the film was going to be?
Yes – well you know, ‘60s film is what made me, stylistically. I first thought of doing a film when I was 18 years-old standing on a street in London and under the dual spell of London itself and Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” “Blow-Up” is referenced in the film to a huge degree. If it wasn’t obvious, I used the same Rolls Royce and shot in Pottery Lane! But to a large degree the style was dictated by a desire to not be frenetic – to be highly visual but not move the camera around a lot in a sort of “Look Ma, I’m directing!” way and to keep it very stable. I wanted to get that ‘60s Technicolor look, which we got in a digital intermediate and also in camera. London has a particular light, the way the light falls on bricks is simultaneously flat and kind of luminous. It’s a hell of a place to shoot. London really influences the way its shot, and has been in a lot of pictures including "The Ipcress File” which was a tremendously important movie to me when I was a kid. Even other things, like Stanley Donen’s “Bedazzled,” which is seldom seen now but really shows a tremendous London. One thing I didn’t want to do was, I made one pretty extensive move to get a shot in which the reverse wouldn’t contain Tower Bridge. It was very important not to have Tower Bridge and all the tourist London. I wanted backstreet London.
To address the issue of the ending, I know – I’ve gotten ample evidence and reactions – but to have changed the ending would have made it a more positive experience for people. But I just pursued what was written. When I think about it now, would it have killed me to have changed the ending? [SPOILERS] To let Colin live? Or even take the knifing and get back on his feet, which I was interested to see in a more recent film that had a couple of similarities to “London Boulevard,” as a matter of fact…[END SPOILERS] It wouldn’t have killed me to change the ending. But the ending was what it was, and I pursued it that way.
How accurately do you feel "London Boulevard" reflects your creative impulses as a storyteller and filmmaker?
I don’t know. Sometimes you want to do “War & Peace” and sometimes you want to do a sonnet. Every form is interesting, every way of approaching something is interesting. I always thought if ["Kingdom Of Heaven"] came out [in the director's cut] on Christmas Day, the history of that picture would have been very different. But it was put out in the truncated version as the summer blockbuster that it never was, because it was more or less a picture about ideas and paradoxes in some cases.
Directing has become very important to me. I was very pleased to see I was able to do it as a practical job, having taken onboard what I’d observed, and to be able to go on the floor and keep it spinning along, keep it moving. Of course it’s artistically hugely interesting, but you also want to prove to yourself that you can go out there and get the warship around the horn, as a practical person or as an adventurer. Writing is always going to be what I do for my living; directing is probably more like writing novels – what I have to do for love and a pay cut. [Laughs]
Is there more or less appeal to something when you’re coming into something with an existing story. For example, “The Departed,” or “Sin City 2” which your name is linked to? Is one more difficult or easy than the other, or more fun?
No, it’s about the same. They are what they are. I just said this to somebody the other say, that writing drama from the beginning has almost always involved reviving old plays with new actors and having a new writer take a run at it. So I don’t have any fear or loathing of remakes, because you come from a position where Shakespeare only did one original, and that was questionable, yet never did anything that was not original. It’s all about the talent not to reason for its exhibition. “The Departed” was interesting because at the time I was thinking about doing a novel about Boston, and strangely enough I saw in this remake of a Chinese thriller the chance to do something autobiographical. So you never know where it’s going to take you. But I’m not afraid of pre-existing material at all.
I always get asked about it and I always say, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” I think the way I’ve conceived it would be that all the characters would come back because the story would happen before, during, and after the action of the original film, with the middle part being what’s offstage in the first movie. That’s the only way I can make it interesting for myself – to make it something incredibly complex! Who the hell’s going to write a check for me, Marty, and all those actors? I don’t think it’s going to happen, but when people ask me a question, I answer it. “What would you do?” So I told them. But do I think it’s going to happen? No. I don’t even know if I’d say yes to doing it.
What will you be tackling next?
I’m starting “The Gambler” tomorrow, as a matter of fact. That’s my next job. Hopefully I’m going to be clear in March to direct an original picture, an original thriller called “Mojave” which is set in Los Angeles and which I’m very interested in doing.
Well, the great thing about having worked with those guys is I’ve seen it done. You still might go about it entirely your own way, but you have seen it done at the highest possible level. You can’t overestimate how important that is, to have worked with men like that and to have seen how they do things. And it does embolden me. Whenever you get into anything that is generally regarded as difficult or impossible by most people, you find out that it is possible. And in a way, if something is impossible it’s the only thing worth doing. You couldn’t not be emboldened by working with artists at that level, who have also managed to work at that level of commercial success which is, of course, unique in history. No art film has ever made as much money as motion pictures, even in relative terms, and it’s the art form that contains all the other arts. All of the muses converge…sometimes. [Laughs]
How do your muses converge? Do you find constant discovery in different sources of inspiration?
No, at this point it’s just coffee and cigarettes, same as it was during term paper time. I’m just glad to not be working in hotel rooms as much as I used to be earlier in my career. You do three months in a hotel room working on a project, and it’s no way to live. As you come along and get older you start to figure out the ways to live and the ways to work -- how to more properly tend your garden and only allow certain things to grow in it, you know?