On the occasion of the release, on 18th April, of the film The Sea, based on Irish writer John Banville’s 14th (Man Booker Prize winning) novel of the same title, our film critic, Joyce Glasser, interviewed Mr Banville (68).
The film, which stars Ciarán Hinds, Sinéad Cusack, Rufus Sewell and Charlotte Rampling, is the directorial feature debut of Stephan Brown working from Mr Banville’s script.
MT: What is the difference in approach in writing a script, say, for Albert Nobbs or the Last September and one of your own works.
It’s very simple. With The Last September, I adapted an Elizabeth Bowen novel, adapting The Sea, it’s my novel, I did it. Adapting Albert Nobbs, I was collaborating with Glen Close.
Glen Close wrote a lot of it – she would say all of it! I love collaboration; I love working in the movies. When I was young, I used to go to the pictures – never the movies, the pictures – and it was a marvellous dream, every now and then connected with reality.
I love the B movies. The B movies were always much better than the A movies. The A movies always had someone like Doris Day and Rock Hudson, those paragons of good behaviour.
What is it that Elaine Stritch said about Doris Day? ‘I knew Doris before she was a virgin?’ The B movies expressed something of the reality of American life. They were in black and white. All those men in hats walking around: even indoors they wore hats. And they caught something of the grittiness and the hard life that the poor and the lower middle classes had in America.
They made poetry: a sublime achievement. And it was done without meaning to; they were just making movies. Get it done, get it done within budget! The scripts were never realistic yet in some particular way they found the truth about American life. That’s pretty far away from Albert Nobbs…
MT: Is your love of movies the reason why you were in Berkley in 1968?
I was in San Francisco and I met my wife at a party
MT: Like Max, in the Sea met his wife at a party.
JB: Yes, exactly. She said, ‘I live in Berkley, come over and see me tomorrow, and I went and saw her and I came back three months later and we decided to stay together.
MT: So it wasn’t to become a screen writer that you were in California?
JB: Oh, no, no, I never had any notion of doing that. It’s funny you should ask. I never had any notion that I would write a screenplay until someone came to me in the 1980s asking me to do something for Channel 4, [Reflections, 1984, an adaptation of Banville’s The Newton Letter] and then I fell in love with it.
MT. What is it about writing a script as opposed to a novel that you like?
JB: In a novel, the line of dialogue has to carry all the weight because it’s just words on a page. A line of dialogue in a movie – actors are going to speak it, directors are going to direct it; cinematographers are going to film it; lighting directors are going to light it. So you must write flat.
MT: But, there are trade-offs, surely, because a passage from the novel that that I found so much meaning in [Banville reads the passage], didn’t make it into the movie. Isn’t there some temptation to want to put gorgeous words like that in the script?
JB: You couldn’t do that. It’s a completely different kind of poetry. It’s a poetry to do with images, with a glance. When you are watching a movie it’s happening in time; you can’t slow it down. You can’t say, that’s a beautiful sentence I’ll go back and re-read it! It’s like music that happens in time. You have to accept it.
MT: It’s a different language. But you have had the ‘chutzpah’ to write a film script from a novel that is essentially an interior monologue– and you have admirably resisted the temptation to use narration.
JB: If you’re going to have a narrator, don’t make a movie. It’s a different language. That’s having your cake and eating it – that’s actually having your cake and stubbing out your cigarette in it.
MT: Yes, I think the audience sometimes groan when they hear that opening narration go on and on.
JB: Of course, who wants to hear it! It’s telling you what you are seeing. You have to be able to see it. Beckett always regretted that movies became talkies.
If you look at the movies of Bresson [French Director Robert Bresson, 1901-1999], they were almost always without dialogue; they’re so expressive. Images on the screen are so much more expressive than words. I would love to make a move – write a movie– without dialogue.
MT: Well, why not?
JB: All I have to do is find a director.
MT: Finding the director isn’t the hard part. Finding the money might be!
JB: Not a pastiche like ‘The Artist’. I would love to make a movie that had no dialogue but that people came out of imagining that there was dialogue.
MT: What would your movie be about?
JB: I don’t know, it could be about anything.
MT: A simple question: who is that person who is walking on Max’s grave?
JB: Oh, that’s confusing because it’s an Irish phrase, ‘someone is walking on my grave.’ But of course, it’s Anna. All the book is about his grief, his loss, his devastation.
Losing someone that he didn’t realise how much he loved until she was gone. But there’s also the doubt in his mind. ‘Did I just imagine, now that I am grieving for her, that I loved her more than I did?’ Human relations are infinitely complicated.
MT: You made them a bit more complicated by introducing the Chloe character. In my interpretation, he has to go back to grieve for her, which he was too young to do at the time, in order to grieve for Anna.
JB: Chloe is all the little girls I was in love with when I was a little boy. All those summers when I fell in love. Then I fell in love definitively when I was eleven at the seaside, with a girl whose family used to come [to Ireland] from England.
We would only see each other 3 or 4 weeks in the summer, but we were in love from the ages of 11 to 17. And we would write to each other…I remember the perfume of her letters, no the smell…Chloe was her and all the girls. Nothing was as heart-rending as those first loves because they were practically sexless.
Kisses were equal to full scale sex. That’s what I think the film has caught — and also the cruelty. Chloe, the little girl [actress Missy Keating] is so wonderful with that sulky mouth and that dismissive air. And the mystery of the twins; what were they up to?
MT: You don’t know?
JB: I just wrote it that way, and they filmed it that way. I don’t know what’s happening. Do they drown themselves, do they drown by accident?
MT: I understood it better, and the impact of the tragedy as well, in the book, but what I thought was handled very well in the film was the fluidity of the time changes, where you switch back and forth between past and present and between Anna and Chloe.. It’s often annoying in films. You do it beautifully in the novel, but it’s also done well in the film.
JB: I think they do a beautiful job with the camera filters. Such a simple device, but it works very well because the childhood scenes look like that kind of tawny sunlight that we remember from our childhoods.
Childhood is a very strange time. Every experience is for the first time. When you’re there, it’s very odd and very eerie and uncanny. Remember those night terrors that we used to have? Those long periods of loneliness and solitude? We impose those on ourselves, really. What was all that about?
We left those behind but we didn’t grow out of them. We didn’t transform ourselves into adults. The more I think about it, the process of becoming an adult is one of putting things aside, leaving things behind.
As Wittgenstein says, is the old man on his death bed the same person as the babe in arms?
MT: That’s fascinating…
JB: My answer to that is that we are a new person every instant. We become a new person every instant and that’s what makes life so fascinating.
MT: That would be a good theme for your non-talking movie.
JB: Yeah…[pauses]. That’s a good idea….
MT: What about the character of Bun? She is omitted from the novel. One of her functions was to show another side of Max, that self-doubt. [Bun is described as ‘This fat person, however, had taken the measure of me, and, I was convinced, saw me clearly for what I was, in all my essentials.’] Max is so afraid she can read him somehow and say ‘you’re a phoney’.
JB: Everybody feels like a fraud at times. There’s a wonderful line in Samuel Butler’s diaries where he writes that every night I fall to my knees and I say thank God for letting me get through another day without being found out.’
MT: But something had to go and it was Bun.
JB: Oh, sure, lots had to go. The movie is only an hour-and-a-half.
MT: Well, you managed to get in all the other characters…
JB: That’s true. But she would have been too much. She would have weighed the thing down.
MT: As an art lover, I am interested in all the art and artists who appear in your novels, and in this case, Pierre Bonnard. Did you have him in mind before you started to write The Sea?
JB: It’s a great enthusiasm of mine and I wanted to get him into a book. I had been to see that great Baigneuses [Bath] series, I think it was in Philadelphia. There are about eight of them I think and I wanted to get it in the book. In fact I was half-way through the book when I realised that was what I was doing with Bonnard and Anna’s bath scenes and it fit in.
MT: Really, you were half-way through the novel?
JB: Yes, that’s the strange thing about writing, see, you don’t know what you’re doing; you work in the darkness.
MT: With Bonnard, and other references, there’s a lot in the novel that the reader is told [the novel includes a lot of detail about Bonnard, his marriage and how he used to paint his wife in the bath] but the audience is asked to fill in. We see Anna in her bath in one scene, but we, the audience, don’t have the benefit of having read all about Bonnard and his wife in the bath. Only those who know about Bonnard will make that connection.
JB: That’s the nice thing about movies. I like to imagine couples coming out of the cinema and saying, ‘what did you think about that film? I didn’t see…’or ‘did you see that…’ I like to think they go have a drink, go home to dinner…the last thing I want is for someone to say, ‘that was nice.’
It’s the same with novels to some extent, but they are more comprehensive. Films are poetry, but they’re pure poetry and you always ask questions about pure poetry.
MT: That’s a perfect note to end on. Thank you.