La Grande Comedienne
Have you ever seen Emma Thompson? I don’t mean to ask if you have ever seen her in a film – with her extensive portfolio of classics that is surely a given – but I wonder if you have ever seen her talk live? She did a screenwriter’s talk at the British Film Institute this week and she contradicted all my expectations. I imagined her to be like the boring mum she plays in Love Actually or the haughty big sister in Sense and Sensibility, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Emma Thompson is the most hilarious woman I have ever met, probably the only comedienne who has got me to laugh out loud throughout the entire evening.
She’s completely natural, that seems to be her secret. She says exactly what she thinks, but does that in a beautifully regal British accent, much like a younger Vanessa Redgrave. Her eyebrows move along with her sentences to give an extra emphasis where needed, and her subtle pauses reinforce her perfectly timed punchlines, but do not force a laugh upon the audience. She is one of those lucky people who does not only understand the magic of humour, but who has an innate feel for body language and physical comedy.
Tonight she is talking about her experiences as a screenwriter, which according to her isn’t an easy job. Some scripts take years of work and even then they sometimes end up in the rubbish bin. Next to her seat tonight she has a box with folders, the sixteen drafts of Sense and Sensibility. The first five are written by hand, because only when she thinks she won’t change much anymore she starts typing them up on the computer. “It’s because when you copy an earlier draft by hand, you never plainly copy it, you always do some rewriting. While if you read over a digital draft, you might get fooled into thinking it’s actually a good text”.
When the aspiring writers in the auditorium ask her for tips, she has got more bleak advice. She warns them that getting anything published requires a lot of perseverance and stamina, and you might have to cope with many rejections. The only option is to just get your work out there as much as possible, and if it doesn’t get any attention perhaps you should look at it critically a second time, as “sometimes it’s just not really good”. From many mouths a comment like that might sound like an insult, but Emma’s encouraging face shows she is speaking straight from her heart. Many editors will come up with easy excuses for rejection – “due to the large volume of submissions…” – but Emma is keen on speaking the truth and helping (and slightly scaring) us with real advice.
Emma is someone who will never call her work ‘final’. She loves the editing part and is very severe on herself too. Her strategy when adapting a novel is usually to adapt the entire book into a screenplay – ending up with over six hundred pages – and then cutting the bits that “don’t work”. The translation from novel to script is therefore a rigorous one, but that from script to film can sometimes be even more important. “You might think a certain scene in the script is completely crucial for connecting the pieces of the story, but once you film the scene, you realise you actually don’t need it. Sometimes a film scene already visualises the information you were going to explain in the next, whereas in a book you actually need to explain many things because people can’t always read them into it. It makes adaptation across different media a very interesting task.”
When asked about her greatest hero, Emma mentions her mother. “She has been my editor since I first started writing comedy. I would do my sketches in the kitchen, and she would edit them on the spot.” Her home must have been a good environment for a young actress, as her mum, dad and sister are all actors too. One of the most hilarious sketches Emma has written in the past is part of a series called ‘Thompson’, in which her mum and sister feature alongside her. Emma comments on her husband’s ‘mouse’ and its most peculiar characteristics (see the first four minutes of this video). After showing the sixteen year old clip to the 2014 audience, she comments: “I’m so happy you laughed, this could have been really awkward”. She has just explained that failure has been part of her curriculum vitae at various points in her life and that this scene was actually part of one of those depressions, but clearly the audience doesn’t believe her. A woman that funny surely must turn any awkward joke into a loud applause. And after her talk that’s what she gets, a loud standing ovation.
— You can listen to Emma’s BAFTA Screenwriter’s Lecture here. The next lecture in the series will be on 29 September and features Steven Knight. You might know him from Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Amazing Grace (2006), Hummingbird (2013) and Locke (2014).