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Don't Read This Great Interview Until You've Watched CROUPIER

I have interviewed hundreds of writers, but the one below with Paul Mayersberg is my favorite. It is...

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Don't Read This Great Interview Until You've Watched CROUPIER

  1. 1. Don't Read This Great Interview Until You've Watched CROUPIER I have interviewed hundreds of writers, but the one below with Paul Mayersberg is my favorite. It is best enjoyed and understood after you have just watched the DVD of Croupier. Here, Mayersberg frankly and fascinatingly explains what he was setting out to do in that great movie. The World Seen Upside Down After 60 scripts, a British screenwriter living in Cannes hit big with Croupier-an art film shot in Germany Written By Alan Waldman Suggested pull quote: "I learn the most from films where the expected not only doesn't happen, but isn't even considered."-Paul Mayersberg The 30-year career of English screenwriter Paul Mayersberg has consisted of critical successes- 1976's The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and 2000's Croupier- separated by long, lean periods. In his highly acclaimed Croupier, directed by legendary lensman Mike Hodges (after his own long layoff), Mayersberg threw Robert McKee's sacred rules of screenwriting out the window and wrote everything upside-down or backwards-with the result that the film made the Top 10 lists of more than 100 U.S. critics and grossed a hefty $6.2 million in North America. Mayersberg was born in Cambridge, England in 1941, to a British mum and a Hungarian Jewish refugee engineer who became a glassblower. He had a middle class upbringing, and spent ages 10- 18 at Dulwich College-the "public" (private) school that produced Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Michael Powell (The Red Shoes), P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler.
  2. 2. Mayersberg won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1959, but didn't take it, going to work instead at the BBC, writing broadcast criticism. He was one of the first film reviewers on British radio. His first review was of Joseph Losey's The Prowler-the picture's only review in England. In 1961, Mayersberg talked his way into a job in Paris with Jean-Pierre Melville (whom he had interviewed for the Beeb in schoolboy French)-as a gofer on Le Dulos (Finger Man), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. A year later he co-founded and co-edited the film magazine Movie (which still exists). He was Losey's assistant on the classic 1963 film The Servant, scripted by Harold Pinter. A year later he turned another of his BBC interviews into a job-as assistant to Roger Corman (and second unit director) on The Tomb of Ligeia (written by Robert Towne). Next Corman paid him £500 (then worth about $1400) to write the screenplay of The Portrait of Annabelle Lee, which was to star Vincent Price. "Corman's Poe series was running out of steam by then, however, and it was never filmed," Mayersberg recalls. Corman and the BBC split Mayersberg's airfare to Los Angeles in 1965, where he turned a series of BBC interviews (with directors such as work from home ideas Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer and George Cukor) into his first book, Hollywood the Haunted House (1967). Over the next nine lean years, the eager young Brit wrote 38 scripts (most of which were optioned but none of which were produced) and did film journalism and TV reporting for very little money. After the long dry spell, Columbia Pictures and Nicolas Roeg came to him and commissioned his 39supth/sup script, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which came out in 1976, and ultimately became a cult picture. "It did not do well at the time, although it had some good critical response" Mayersberg remembers. "David Bowie was fascinating in the lead, but he didn't sing and people were mystified by the movie-although it was much liked by dope heads of the period. Everyone knew the title." Mayersberg wrote the 1977 thriller The Disappearance, starring Donald Sutherland and Christopher Plummer, but it did little business. Six years later he wrote his favorite screenplay, Eureka, starring Gene Hackman, which also bombed. Also in 1983, he wrote Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which was a big hit in Europe but not over here. "Again, David Bowie didn't sing," Mayersberg mentions. "U.S. audiences were baffled by a prison camp movie where nobody tried to escape. (Clint or Charlie would have been out of there in no time.) Fortunately, it was much liked by writers and studio execs, and I was asked to direct three of my own scripts." The first two-the political kidnap thriller Captive (1986) and the low-tech sci-fi flick Nightfall (1988)-flopped, and the 1990 South African film The Last Samurai was seized by tax authorities and not released in theatres. Understandably, directing lost its charm for Mayersberg, who then turned to fiction and returned to
  3. 3. writing scripts that failed to sell. He penned the moderately successful 1990 novel Homme Fatale, and did a couple drafts of an erotic thriller based on it for HBO, which ultimately decided not to make it. He wrote another novel, Violent Silence, which was not published in U.S. Mayersberg's career remained in the doldrums until April 2000, when Croupier was released in the U.S. "It was a classic word-of-mouth hit, running over six months in some theatres" explains Eamonn Bowles, president of Shooting Gallery Films, which released Croupier in North America. "I don't know of a film that did as much at the box office with such a limited ad campaign." Croupier was filmed in 1998 and completed in the middle of that year, by Britain's Film Four. They released it in the U.K., with only one print in June 1999, at one screen-with no ad support. Bowles reports that it also had fairly limited release in Germany. "In 1999, I heard about a new Mike Hodges film and went to private screening for distributors and critics in New York-and we decided we wanted to distribute it," Bowles remembers. "Due to an unfortunate technicality, it is ineligible for Academy Award consideration. The Academy has a rule that it can't have played anywhere in the world more than a year before its U.S. release (April 2000). It turned out that it ran for two weeks in Singapore in late 1998. The Academy voted unanimously to grant it a waiver. Then we learned it had also played on Dutch TV in 1998, so the Academy unanimously voted to rescind the waiver. They were adamant about it. I believe that is unfair, but what can you do?" From his home in Cannes, Mayersberg recently discussed the creation of Croupier, his influences and his (decidedly radical) ideas about structure, dialogue and scene construction-in a long phone interview with Alan Waldman for Written By. Alan Waldman: I consider Croupier to be the best screenplay and the best movie of 2000. How did you go about writing it? Paul Mayersberg: I had been impressed with Jean-Pierre Melville's film Bob the Gambler, and around 1980 I wrote an unmade script-in a couple of versions-about a casino robbery that went wrong (because the mastermind inside the casino won all the money before the raid took place. Years later, the gang wants their money back.) I did several spec versions, but no one wanted to make my movie. Clint Eastwood read it and was interested, but he declined, explaining "I don't die in films; when I do I lose money." Anyway, I took a look at it again in the mid '90s and felt that I never got it right. There was a croupier character who was kind of in on it-a completely anonymous guy, without a single line in the original film. And I thought, "No one ever looks at the face of a croupier. What would his story be? Nobody knows how they live. They work at night. How do their days go?" I began to talk to London croupiers. I wrote some lines and then went to see head of drama, David Aukin, at Film Four. I told him the idea and he said," OK, I'll commission that-for a budget of £1 million [$1.7 million]. That was the fastest fuckin' deal you ever made." It took 28 minutes. So I
  4. 4. wrote a couple of treatments and then three drafts of the script. There were no producers, actors or directors involved at this point-just David and me. We found an English producer with German co- financing, Jonathan Cavendish of Little Bird, who agreed to put up another £1 million if we would film in Germany, where he could get tax concessions. There was some French money too. Because so much of the film was set in the casino or involved night shooting, it was possible to shoot in Germany without you knowing. We did most of it in a studio outside Cologne, although the country house and the casino exterior were shot in England. AW: One reason for the film's success was the excellent work by long-absent cult filmmaker Mike Hodges. How did he get involved? PM: David wanted a director he could trust. I suggested my friend Mike Hodges, who had done some great films a long time ago, including Get Carter, Flash Gordon, Black Rainbow, Pulp, Terminal Man and A Prayer for the Dying. His career, rather like mine, had languished in the '90s, but I thought he was perfect for this. I didn't want to direct it myself; I felt the writing was enough. We needed another voice, and fortunately Mike was acceptable to Film Four and the producers. AW: What about the cast? PM: Mike did casting tests, and I looked at them. Clive Owen was the only actor in the tests who figured out that you had to act differently, because there was a voice over in the film. It was two performances-not one. In his test, Clive left gaps which looked wrong for the scene but right for the voice over. The voice over made or broke the film. AW: How many drafts of the script did you write? PM: I'd done 3-4 drafts before Mike came and another 5-6 afterwards. Budget and time were limited- six weeks plus and about $4 million-so we had to pin everything down, resulting in drafts that were quite detailed. It's a lot to do, but you don't want to worry about things while you're shooting-and you can't afford to do scenes over and over. Mike is not a spender, and I like planning. Once shooting began, I had nothing more to do with it, and all decisions were his. AW: What were the major challenges you faced in writing Croupier? PM: It's a strange case, because it's a first-person story. My first treatment was like a 50-page, first- person novel. That was the easiest way to get started. I never touch a typewriter. I either write by pencil or-as, in this case-speak it into a tape recorder and then have it transcribed. So I looked at the treatment and saw that it clearly had a lot of novel scenes that weren't film scenes. I began to pick and choose the film scenes and discovered that they were the ones I liked least-because they all dealt with some kind of action. And I came to realize that this was a film where you could forget the plot and throw out everything that wasn't character-oriented. It's about a heist but we don't see it or the heist figures. It's really about a minor character. A bystander. A nobody. AW: A bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. PM: Right. It's about someone who's around crime. All our lives touch crime one way or another and all these characters are touched by crime. The casino is a kind of hospital for crime; people go there to recuperate-by getting rich. The three women all connect with crime. Jack's girlfriend is an ex-cop store detective. The mysterious femme fatale setting him up is part of his father's criminal activity. And his co-worker, Bella, the lady croupier, was a prostitute who was busted for drugs. Everyone has a touch of crime. Jack doesn't like criminals. He doesn't want to cheat. His character was developed
  5. 5. out of some of my own feelings about crime. Do you have to cheat? Is it not possible to get through without it? Crime is all about shortcuts-something for nothing. Getting rid of your wife so you can marry someone else. Jack won't take shortcuts. He'll report criminal activity. He drinks and smokes but feels bad about it. He wants to be pure, and the only way to be pure is to have a system of values you adhere to. You mustn't break the rules. Most people don't break rules, fearing the anarchy that follows from doing so. Anyway, the film deals with the tension between the two men in him-the writer and the croupier. The writer is fascinated by rule breaking. But the Croupier is apart from things-so he's not terribly sympathetic. I'm not interested in sympathy or us wanting him to win. I wanted to create someone you understood, but need not like. That was a dangerous, subversive thing to do in a low-budget film. Jack's not full of human kindness; he's a bit of an asshole. AW: Well, that certainly breaks one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting. So how did you create an unsympathetic character that the audience would still be interested in? PM: The way I dealt with that was through the voice over. I made it amusing. When you are amused by someone, it's hard to hate them. Billy Wilder believed you could have a negative character like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment if he was amusing. Billy Wilder is a huge influence on me. Look at Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity. He's a terrible person, but you watch him. Wilder knows that when you get low in the gutter, everyone understands your behavior. People don't understand high-mindedness. So in Jack, I had a high-minded character in the gutter-which is incomprehensible. He's mad, like Hamlet. No one identifies with Hamlet or Othello, but we still find them fascinating. Most films are predicated on your wanting to be the protagonist, but here the humorous voice over helped me pull off the subversive attitude. AW: The primary rule of screenwriting structure says that you need a protagonist who wants something. You broke that one too. PM: Guilty. I wanted a construction that in a way defied the basic film narrative logic. Jack is a protagonist who has no aim. He doesn't want to do any of the things he's doing. He doesn't want to go back to the casino or write a book. He would like a little money, but he has to sell his car and take a job top 10 home based businesses he doesn't want. Nothing conventional happens. He doesn't defeat the mob or get the girl. He does nothing that is intentional. It's rather like a night at the casino. You go to win but expect to lose. If you win two in a row, you think you are doing well-and then you are down again. I wanted to convey the casino life in a man's life-to take coincidence and turn it into plot. And to take plot and intention and undermine them, so they become trivia, marginal. The real plot of this is not that they're going to get the money, but that they fail. It goes against film construction theory. AW: Were you intentionally setting out to turn all the rules on their heads? PM: Yes, my challenge in this film was to do everything the other way round. I learned this in Japan. The emperor's chair-and his lavatory-face south, but the compass faces magnetic north. Everything's dictated by the sun, which makes perfect sense. So in Croupier, everything about the voluptuous lady who comes to sleep with Jack is reversed. Her life is all lies. She knows all about him and takes him in. She comes out of the bathroom naked and puts on her clothes. She doesn't sleep with him. Everything's reversed with other characters too. Bella comes to Jack's girlfriend's door and says, "Your boyfriend came to my flat fucked me, smoked my dope and shopped me [turned me in]." That's not the way people usually talk. Usually the girlfriend would go to co-worker. Every scene is upside down, but you don't notice it. This kind of thing doesn't usually appear in film. I did it because it's
  6. 6. realistic. That's what happens. We live upside down. We believe there's a system in the world-a casino system where you can win. There isn't. We're in a random universe. AW: What was another of your objectives in this script? PM: Another objective was never to know when it ended. Most films don't have very convincing endings. Many film directors I like a lot have no idea how to end the film-or they want to select different endings. They get confused and put them all in. Bertolucci can't end a film-possibly because he doesn't want to. I find it fascinating that writers who are responsible for all this shit can't figure endings. So I decided to put all the endings in-at one part of the film or another-creating a kind of conflict. There's an ending where Marian dies. And one where Jack's a success. I've got one where he discovers the plot with his father. And one where he ends up with the girl he belongs with. Another is in the casino, where we began-since the film is all a flashback. If you start your endings early enough, they're not endings. It's another stage. It's not over. Like the turn of another card. When he meets the black girl in a Greek restaurant (back in Africa, where he started) she has bought the car he sold in Reel 2. In a casino you start attributing meanings to wins and losses, but that's all crap. Coincidence is sentimentality. We are in a random universe, but it can be interesting. So what I regard as one of the most important aspects of this film was that it defy conventional arcs and structure. Every scene can be an ending. Antonioni's Eclipse begins with an ending-of a relationship-so you have nowhere to go. Hitchcock provided an ending-she's dead-in the third reel of Psycho. That was what I was looking for-in a more reserved, aesthetic (but not arty) way. AW: Did Croupier come from personal experience? Did you have a gambling problem? PM: I never had a problem with gambling, but when I was younger I loved going to the casino. About two years ago, however-like Jack-I gave up casino gambling. AW: What of value have you learned from other writers? PM: Fritz Lang realized that every single human action has a correlative. If you raise your arm, you have to lower it. In his American films, if you do something good, it will result in something bad and if you do something bad you may get away with it. AW: That's another cardinal rule of screenwriting theory-reverse, reverse, reverse. PM: But in the chilly world of the casino, there's no escape from anything. You just don't realize it. That's not a very American attitude. The finest example of the alternative to this was Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, which I thought was a masterpiece. It shows that crime can be got away with, because it mostly is. The best American director of the past 40 years, Cassavetes, wrote The Killing of Chinese Bookie, which I would have given anything to have devised. A disreputable person has to do the crime, and he gets away with it. That goes against all the rules. I learn the most from films where the expected not only doesn't happen, but isn't even considered. American films usually express themselves in crime or comedy. Mrs. Doubtfire, which was not a good film, impressed me, because it wasn't really about wanting to get your children back. Like the original novel from Scotland's Anne Fine, it was about someone who primarily wanted power over their family. AW: Who is another influence, and what did you learn from him or her? PM: Anything by David Lynch, but especially Lost Highway, because it has a unique concept of where the camera is. Camera angles are not the writer's job, but what's fascinating in Lynch is that the camera is never ever in the place it ought to be. It's either on the garden hose, looking at the
  7. 7. wrong character or looking at the ceiling. The angle is invariably disturbing. Where the camera is pointing is actually the writing in Lynch, not what the characters say. It almost never points at anything strictly relevant to the scene. A bird on bush with a worm in its mouth. Everything's wrong. The fourth wall's not quite there. The music's often inappropriate. That's useful for a screenwriter, because it teaches you that a meeting doesn't have to be two people sitting down. Film is the art of the simultaneous. You are watching this and looking at that. You can't do that in a book or onstage. Jim Abrahams is a master of violating the cardinal rule of comedy and telling two jokes at once. Lynch knows that people in a scene are not just thinking about the scene; they're also thinking about something else. So his camera looks at what's unsaid. Actually, there are not that many words in Lost Highway, and those that are are mundane. AW: What Advice would you give to beginning screenwriters? PM: The main thing is the ending. Think about the ending first, or you will never address the substance 10 best home based business of it. You will always be thinking "We could do this or that." Usually after 30 pages, you should go straight to the end and work backwards to the middle. Films waver because you did not know where you were going. You are juggling the ending. You don't have to keep the ending, but write the last five pages, and it will feed you. AW: How about another tip? PM: Always write the dialogue first. Description is worthless. The camera does that. Only through dialogue do you know the scene's intention. Why does he say it? Dialogue is everything. It doesn't have to be theatrical. Its important because it makes you think about motive. Writing cinematically means you don't give a shit about motive. Dialogue is people structuring people. AW: Royal flush. You've just recommended violating the fifth of Robert McKee's five unbreakable rules of screenwriting. He says you must concentrate on structure until you have created every beat in every scene, and only then should you go back to write the dialogue. PM: The formula of "structure first and dialogue later" is television thinking. For me dialogue is paramount. It's easier to write and to read back to see if it makes sense. Write dialogue and then come back and see what it means. Structure is useless, because it doesn't come from character. It's imposed from outside. Structure is the easy way; that's why most studio execs and development people are always talking about it. It's the only way they can think, because they are not writers. Ultimately, however, the guy who gets the job is the one who writes the great characters. Writing the dialogue first is how you discover the character. Otherwise you have two characters talking in the same voice. Mamet does that in The Spanish Prisoner, and you don't know who's talking. I have been watching original Fugitive episodes here in France, and they are brilliant because they are all character-almost like a Victorian weekly serial, but nothing to do with structure. On the other hand, the Fugitive movie was all structure-and less interesting; it had no real characters-except for the outsider played Tommy Lee Jones. The way to get to character is not via structure; it's through dialogue. AW: Any final bit of advice? PM: Always look at a scene from the POV of a bystander, like Croupier did. When two people are in a café, how does the waitress see what's happening between them? Be aware of what she thinks, and then come back to it, because what she thinks is what the camera sees.