Oscar-winning screenwriter, playwright and film director Christopher Hampton was in feisty form at a masterclass in Qatar earlier this week as part of Doha Film Institute‘s Qumra talent incubator event (March 10-16).
Hampton, who won Academy Awards for the screenplays of Dangerous Relationships and The father and Oscar nominee Atonementurged aspiring screenwriters in the auditorium to try to maintain some sort of control over their work and creative vision.
“I would advise anyone to try to get at least some kind of associate producer credit to keep a firm grip on the material and you have to fight… fight a lot of people,” he said. “They don’t want to give it to you. They don’t want to give you those powers, but I always argue that since the writer is the source of the piece, they deserve respect.”
“Don’t be unreasonable because there is a very strong possibility that other people’s ideas will be as good as yours but there will come a moment when your original idea is changed.”
Hampton recalls pushing back against Sydney Pollack over changes to his script for the 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet Americanwhere the latter is an executive producer.
“The notes I got had the effect of shifting the character a tiny, tiny bit every time we did a revision,” he recounted. “I told him, ‘I just realized that you keep doing this and you end up with a character facing the complete opposite direction that it was in the first place. You make so many little changes to the character that it’s not the same. character.”
“Only you the writer knows what the character means, and small changes can compromise that vision, you really have to fight all that stuff but stay diplomatic.”
In an example of why maintaining some control is important, Hampton regaled the audience with an account of his race to bring his adaptation of the 18th-Century French novel Dangerous Relationships on the big screen in the face of stiff competition from Miloš Forman.
The screenplay was drawn from Hampton’s 1984 stage play based on the novel. Hampton toyed with the idea of adapting the novel from the early 1970s but received pushback from commissioners who could not figure out how to transfer the epistolary framework where the protagonists never meet to the stage.
When the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) offered Hampton an open commission in 1984, he jumped at the chance.
“I thought there was no better opportunity, so I went and wrote the play, which they were not entirely pleased to receive. It was commissioned for the big new theater at the Barbican, but they decided there was no audience appeal, and it was dropped at the 150-seat studio theater in Stratford,” he recalls.
Hampton said it was the first in a series of “amazing strokes of luck” because the game worked so well in the smaller space.
“It attracted enormously positive reviews and then we were in helter-skelter finishing the film. A lot of very lucky things happened along the way. One of them was my decision not to sell the rights to any of the big studios. Unlike my work, all the big studios bid for it.”
Instead, Hampton decided to go with the smaller, independent company Lorimar because it allowed him to maintain more control over the project.
“I do not know [Lorimar] was sliding towards bankruptcy,” he said.
Hampton’s push to develop the production in a smaller independent company did not go down well with the RSC.
“I had a fight with the Royal Shakespeare Company because they were supposed to be paid a percentage of whatever I was paid and they weren’t happy with me doing it with an independent company, which of course could afford to pay less,” he revealed. “With everything else going on, there’s that, too.”
At the same time, director Miloš Forman, who is on a roll in Hollywood behind his Oscar Best Picture won for One Flew From The Cuckoos Nest and Amadeusannounced that he would make a film based on Dangerous Relationships.
“Which was kind of annoying because I knew he’d seen the play four times,” Hampton recounted. “That’s why I became determined to fight it.”
Hampton said his next piece of luck was to persuade Lorimar to accept Stephen Frears, who hadn’t directed a large-scale production at that point, as director.
“I met all kinds of great directors like Polanski, Alan Pakula and Louis Malle. While I was talking to these people, they would get a call from Miloš saying, ‘You’re not doing this, I am’. Stephen is the last man standing.”
The couple went to New York to meet with Lorimar head Bernie Brillstein to discuss the production.
“He said, ‘We’re in a race. I’m not going to let you make this movie unless you guarantee it will come out before Miloš Forman,” Hampton recounted. “He said to Stephen, ‘When will you be able to work?’. Stephen took out a little diary and started looking at it, he looked at it for a few hours, and then looked up and said ‘Tuesday’.”
Hampton has already cast Glenn Close and John Malkovich for the lead roles of Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont.
“Normally, you wait for the director but we were in such a rush as I was meeting with all the other directors, I thought I could try and find the right actors on my account and hopefully the director would agree,” Hampton said.
He reeled in Malkovich by standing outside the stage door of the Broadway play the actor was playing at the time and stuffing the screenplay into his hands as he walked out.
“It’s amazing now when I look back. First of all, he was alarmed. Then I said who I am. He had heard about the play and in fact, it turned out that Steppenwolf, his company in Chicago, had a reading of one of my earlier plays. He took the game away and then he called me at noon the next day to say he was going to do it.”
“We started shooting at the very end of May 1988 and got the movie out in theaters before Christmas because we knew we were breathing behind this monster.”
In the meantime, there was one final moment of drama when Lorimar went bankrupt during the first week on set, bringing production to a halt.
“We thought it was, we were done for but luckily Close’s agent got in touch with Warner Brothers who did a quick calculation and thought it was a cheap movie, we didn’t risk too much on it . They came in and funded the whole thing,” Hampton said.
The film grossed $34M against its $14M budget and went on to win Hampton his first Oscar for best-adapted screenplay and also nabbed Academy Awards for Best Production Design and Best Costume in 1989.
Forman’s rival image Valmontstarring Colin Firth and Annette Bening, came out in November 1989 in limited release, grossing just $1.1M behind an estimated $33M budget and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Costume in 1990.
“As is often the case in the movie business, there was a series of miracles that were necessary for the movie to be made in the first place,” Hampton said. “It’s an unpleasant business we’ve gotten into.”
Hampton is among five cinema-established cinema names to attend this year’s DFI Qumra event as one of its so-called Qumra Masters.
The extensive masterclass, moderated by Richard Peña, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, also touched on Hampton’s directorial credits Carrington and Thinking of Argentina as well as his collaboration with Florian Zeller on The father.
The writer also revealed details of her upcoming project with French director Anne Fontaine about iconic feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nelson Algren’s transatlantic affair as well as hopes to bring her play White Chameleon on the big screen.