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Screenwriter John Logan Talks Writing 'Coriolanus' With Swagger & Dreaming Up The World Of 'Hugo'

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by Todd Gilchrist
January 18, 2012 11:56 AM
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It’s no small thing to collaborate with Gore Verbinski, Martin Scorsese or Ralph Fiennes. But to work with all three in the same year, on separate projects, is a truly remarkable accomplishment. And that’s exactly what screenwriter John Logan did in 2011, crafting screenplays for “Rango,” “Hugo,” and “Coriolanus” as a sort of hat trick for a career that’s already been full of spectacular efforts, including “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” and “Sweeney Todd” among many others.

The Playlist caught up with Logan late last year for a lengthy conversation about his collaborations with these great filmmakers, as well as a discussion about his approach to screenwriting, be it adapting an existing work or creating something original.

Just to get started, how in a year can you go from writing “Rango” to “Coriolanus” to “Hugo?” Is there a thread at all, or is it just a matter of timing?
It’s totally a matter of timing. As you know in these sort of instances of when and how movies come together, you never know when things are going to actually achieve critical mass and come out. I mean, the only thread is that I try to look for things I haven’t done before, and I challenge myself to do things I haven’t done as a writer. And I think variety is important.

Well, talk about how you work with directors, especially in cases like these where they obviously have a very specific vision.
It’s a very, very collaborative process. The most satisfying artistic relationships of my life have always been with directors, whether it’s in theater or in film, and part of the excitement I get is sitting with Marty Scorsese and talking about “Hugo” and talking about that world and how we bring it to life, or teasing out the story of “Rango,” with Gore Verbinski. Or sitting down with Ralph [Fiennes] and sort of acting out sections of “Coriolanus.” For me, it’s very collaborative – there’s a lot of discussion, sort of different approaches, different attitudes. I'll come in with, “here is my take on the material,” get their response and then it goes into the usual process of just going away and writing, which is I just have to shut the door and turn off all of the opinions and try to produce something with some virtue. And then the collaboration continues.

Can you think of an example of an exchange between you and one of them that helped change or shape a film in some specific, positive way?
Well, I mean it’s certainly all positive. Working with Marty on "Hugo" was a very interesting process; Brian Selznick’s book is a fantastic book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which I was lucky enough to get to adapt. There was a lot to it and it was a very complicated book and the movie is very large as well, but there are a lot of areas to explore. There is early moviemaking, there is France in 1930, there is the world of the train station, there is the message from Hugo’s father, there is figuring out the secret of the automaton, but at every point what Marty and I talked about was it’s got to be a story about that boy and his face. And Marty referenced “The 400 Blows” all the time, and I referenced Dickens, so when we talk about “Hugo Cabret” we talked as much about Truffaut and “The 400 Blows” and little Nell and Pippin in “David Copperfield” and “Oliver Twist” as we did about “Hugo Cabret.” And definitely he knew right from the very beginning that if nothing else, Hugo had to be a story that was about emotion, that was about this child. So at every point he kept sort of like pushing me, shoving me back toward the essential story, which is that kid’s face.

How do you make sure that as you’re trying to evoke a certain memory of something, be it “The 400 Blows” or “Oliver Twist,” you’re not just making a reference, but creating a palpable emotional connection between that reference and the story?
It’s the fact that you can’t be glib about it. It’s not a question of agility with cross textual references, it’s a question of internalizing the idea behind it. Take Dickens; take the character of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist in relation to Hugo Cabret, and the essential lesson that Dickens teaches is that you don’t fall into a happy ending, you make a happy ending. The reason Oliver Twist earns his happy ending is because he works for it and he has to go through hardship to get there, so that to me is very much the lesson of Hugo in “Hugo Cabret.” He doesn’t find his home because he simply deserves it, he finds his home because he works for it. So at every point when there is discussion with a director about a particular resonance to something else, like with Ralph Fiennes in talking about “Coriolanus,” in talking about embedded reporters in Iraq and how we could utilize that sensibility in those troops, you just have to internalize that stuff very deeply. You can’t just use it glibly; it has to mean something to the story you’re telling.

In terms of “Coriolanus,” how did you figure out the rhythm of the language and the storytelling so that even if the audience didn’t quite understand every single line of dialogue, they still knew what was going on?
“Coriolanus” was about creating a context, a cinematic content or a narrative context for the language so that it was imminently understandable what was happening in the scene. For example, the climax for the movie is when Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, comes to him on bended knee and begs him to take mercy on the city of Rome. And that’s the action of the scene, so everything I did in adapting the screenplay was about making sure that action was clear. And “Coriolanus” is Shakespeare’s second longest play only to “Hamlet,” so it is a deep, murky, complicated, thorny patch of a play. So I always felt what was necessary was some muscularity about it, because the reason I'm a writer today is because of Shakespeare, and there is still no one who inspires me more, but “Coriolanus” has been around for 400 years and it will be for another 400 years and there is nothing I can really do to fuck it up. So I think that gave me a certain amount of swagger going into it that I wouldn’t necessarily feel with something like “Hugo Cabret” or “Sweeney Todd,” something that is more recent and people have more direct references to the original work. With something like “Coriolanus,” it’s a classic text and Ralph Fiennes and I never wanted to be overly deferential. We wanted to make sure the movie felt in its core like the play and at no point were we sort of betraying Shakespeare’s language or intention, but we just wanted to make it completely our own.

How much did you have to streamline the language or even remove whole passages in the adaptation process?
We cut about half of the play, we just had to, because uncut the play runs almost four hours and so we just had to bring it down to proper movie scope. And with any adaption, “Hugo” just as much as “Coriolanus,” the question for me is always what is the organizing principle - how are you going to organize the choices you have to make about presenting the work? And with “Coriolanus,” it actually was the same choice, between “Coriolanus” and “Hugo,” which was focus on the central character, focus on the protagonist, because I think what cinema does very well is tell one person’s story - and especially a complicated story. Because we can look so closely into their eyes, and whether those eyes are Peter O’Toole’s playing Lawrence of Arabia or Jack Nicholson playing Jake Gittes or Ralph Fiennes playing Coriolanus, the complexity of those characters I think works very well in cinema. So with any adaptation I ever do, I sort of try to find the way into it, and the two examples this year were just about honing down to the central protagonist.

How much do you initiate these projects yourself, and how much do you undertake them via the collaboration with the filmmakers from the beginning?
It can be both. There are things that are sometimes projects brought to me, sometimes I bring projects to other people, sometimes I just go and write things. It can be anything; there is no one road to Damascus. There are many ways to get there.

What other stuff are you working on right now?
I'm writing a new play, which is taking up a lot of time and I'm working with Patti Smith on “Just Kids,” which we’re writing together. And then I'm in the process of setting up my next few years of movies, all of which I cannot tell you about.

Gotcha. Is it easier to adapt something than to create it from whole cloth, or how are those two disciplines different from one another?
People I think assume that one must be more or less challenging than the other, and I've certainly not found it that way. Because I have such a respect for other writers and I truly believe in a brotherhood of writers, I approach something like Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” or Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” or Brian Selznick’s “Hugo” with a great deal of respect for their work, and so I always feel a sense of responsibility to a brother writer, which I don’t feel when I'm writing something original. When I'm writing something original I feel only responsibility to myself, and there is a certain amount of freedom and liberation to that. But at the end of the day it’s interesting; as I say, I wake up every morning to the same thing, which is just write lines for actors, and whether it’s an original or an adaptation, it’s all kind of the same job for me.

How often do you conceive ideas with a specific filmmaker in mind?
All the time, almost all the time, because directors excite me so much. And either directors I've worked with, directors I haven’t worked with and admire their work, it’s always exciting to think about working with a new vision.

But how much as a screenwriter can you think about the way that something will be visually interpreted?
You can think about it entirely, I mean you have to; part of the job is telling a story and describing it. And I think there is no screenwriter I know who doesn’t visualize a complete, 360-degree world. How much of that you choose to put on the page just depends on the rhythm of how you want to tell the story, but you sort of have to live it; you sort of have to get in there and sort of muck around a bit in the world. Now whether the actual movie turns out to be anything like what you envisioned, that’s another question, but I think you have to sort of build that dream cathedral in your head to describe it, to make it seem real to the reader.

Are there any filmmakers who you would especially like to work with that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
Well, I certainly enjoyed working with Darren Aronofsky [on the forthcoming "Noah"]. I think he’s a genius. Stephen Daldry, I admire endlessly. Clint Eastwood is someone I've always wanted to work with. But there really are there are tons of great directors.

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