INTERVIEW: David Nicholls (ONE DAY, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD)

David Nicholls has adapted numerous books for film, from his own best-selling romance novel ONE DAY to Thomas Hardy classic love story FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, which comes out May 1, 2015 and is directed by Thomas Vinterberg.

THE WGAE Write On Blog spoke with David about his writing process for adapting books.

What attracted you to adapting Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD?

I was actually hesitant to begin with. I had just adapted Thomas Hardy’s TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES, which is one of my favorite novels, as a miniseries for the BBC and the FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD came to me immediately afterwards. I was weary because I knew John Schlesinger’s 1967 version of the movie so well. It’s such an admired movie. I read the book again and was really taken by the story of Bathsheba [Carey Mulligan]. When people think of the original film, they think of it as a love story between Bathsheba and Troy [Tom Sturridge], but they’re misremembering the novel, which is absolutely about Bathsheba and Gabriel [Matthias Schoenaerts], who both appear on the novel’s first page and last page. They both grow throughout their journey together and I wanted to tell that story, with a focus on Bathsheba. The novel has shifting viewpoints. It’s a crowded novel with many subplots. I wanted this film to be a love story with Bathsheba and Gabriel at the center of it. That was my motivation for taking it on. It was my belief that there was something new to be found in the book. The thing that is really compelling for a screenwriter about Hardy’s book is that he writes such incredible set pieces, filled with extraordinary series of events and big, thematic twists and turns. Moments where you really go, ‘I can’t believe this is going to happen.’ That’s exciting to adapt.

What is your process for adapting a book into a film or miniseries?

With TESS, we had four hours and that’s a good amount of time. TESS also has a clear through line. It’s absolutely Tess’ story. You’re with her the whole time. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD leaps through many storylines. Lots of the book is illustrating country life, is full of melodrama and there are borderline implausible events. As a writer, you have to go with it, find a style that makes it work and remain true to the story. It can be really hard. The hardest thing is always cutting it down. Cutting, cutting, cutting. Cutting when you write the script. Cutting when you edit. That is the thing I don’t enjoy. There are some extraordinary scenes in the novel, which we didn’t have the time for in the film. Amazing confrontations between Bathsheba and Troy. A wonderful final scene between Boldwood [Michael Sheen] and Bathsheba. The other thing is that each scene can be quite big and Shakespearean. You can’t cut all the scenes down to four lines, or none of them would work. You have to sit in the scene and let it play out over five or six minutes so you’re not just summarizing the whole of the material, but rather telling the story well.

Where do you do your writing?

I have a little office I go to every day. With scripts, there are a lot of meetings, but with fiction it’s just me sat by myself, which is very solitary. Its one thing I actually really love about scripts. If I’m adapting something, I’ll read it without a pen, then listen to the audiobook, go for long walks and listen to it all day. Then go through the book and highlight the passages that are absolutely essential and then dramatize and see how long that comes out. I alternate. I write fiction in the morning and scripts in the afternoon. Its different parts of the brain. There is something about adapting that feels quite editorial and structured. Whereas a novel is going to be part of you and be about self-expression. That’s how I divide up the working day.

When you’re adapting a book, how do you feel about changing the story to fit the script or do you feel you need to stay absolutely faithful to the book?

It varies from project to project. On one end of the scale, I did an adaption of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING for the BBC that was a retelling of Shakespeare. It was more like using the play as a springboard for new ideas. Then there is middle ground like AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?, which is a wonderful memoir, but it doesn’t have the shape of a movie and you need to invent a lot more and come up with things that are not in the book. With a classic, a book that is known and loved, you really do have a responsibility to be faithful. I tried to use as much of Hardy’s dialogue and as many of Hardy’s scenes as I could, but inevitability there is a scene that isn’t there and you have to make it up and try and sounds like you’re not pastiching. It’s difficult when you’re writing original dialogue in a period setting, you have to make it not sound too formal. If I do write anything new with the dialogue, I tend to make it more colloquial and informal, so the movie doesn’t feel too stuffy. There is a stereotypical notion of how period drama should sound. I try to dodge that and allow the actors to sound like real people.

Do you write towards the actors playing the part or do you write character as you imagined them written in the book?

I keep it in my imagination, but if you already know the actor, like we did with Carey Mulligan, you try to find that voice on the page. And she’s such a great actor. You want to draw stuff out of her that you wouldn’t normally see in her performances. There is definitely some tweaking to the script when the actors come on board. I sat in on the rehearsals and the actors were largely improvising and tweaking dialogue, not hugely, they say what they’re given, but I love working with actors and finding those tweaks. My biggest frustration as a screenwriter is often you’re kept at arm’s length for very good reasons.

Do you feel it’s beneficial for writers to sit in with the actors?

It is. Their improvising are more about them finding their own voices and toying with their relationships with other the characters. It’s more about physical manners and tone of voice. I’m happy to be involved—and it does inform the script. As a writer, you realize when you see it performed how actors shape a role. You see what’s needed and not needed. Actors fill in the gaps and do a lot of work for you. You see places where you don’t need dialogue, because it’s already there in the actor’s performance.

Was there a scene that you felt translated well from the page to the screen?

The scenes between Bathsheba and Boldwood. I love those scenes. I love them in the novel and I love Carey and Michael’s performances. It’s a kind of etiquette, a back and forth in the dialogue, that’s really brilliant. All the dialogue is so well acted. The opposite of that is that I love the non-verbal scenes that are a celebration of the landscape of rural life. Like the scenes where they’re washing sheep or harvesting, the midsummer party with singing. There is nothing of my writing there. It’s all about the world, the environment and the atmosphere. It is great to see, what was likely only two sentences in the script, come alive in that way. It’s one of the pleasures of working with Thomas Thomas Vinterberg, who I think is an excellent director.

What films, movies or books do you recommend?

I love doing adaptions but I’m trying to get back to the real world, the modern world. I am thinking about writing an original television or movie or a new novel. I’m trying to step away from the 19th century. I love Jill Soloway’s work. TRANSPARENT is a truly fine piece of writing. It has great production, great performances and a lovely feel. I don’t do the binge watching thing, but the tone—funny and sad—I was hugely impressed by TRANSPARENT.

If you could write a new story for any fictional character, whom would you pick?

I love Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. It’s on the edge of the Sixties, the world changing. I would have loved to explore Jack Lemon’s C.C. Baxter character more, but I guess that’s exactly what MAD MEN does, so I guess I’m eight years too late to that idea.