EZ: Having started in the theatre, what brought you into the world of cinema?
SCH: I’ve always loved cinema. I was never taken to the theatre as a child, and my father enjoyed going to the movies. I was brought up in Egypt, and we would go three times a week. On the other hand, starting out as a writer in the sixties, the theatre was hot. So, I wrote this play, casually, and I had no idea how to get it on. Someone recommended the famous theatrical agent, Margaret Peggy Ramsay, and she liked it. That was in March 1966, and by June it was in the theatres. It was astonishing. The play was successful, and I got a healthy check on my 21st birthday.
EZ: Cinema might be more the said, theatre is unsaid, the silent moment.
SCH: That was the problem with the script. It was a play, and hadn’t been reimagined in terms of a film. It took me a while to learn how to do that. I had a couple of films made in the 70s, the first of which was a version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. That was very cheap. My producer said I could only have two exteriors. So we have a beautiful one in Norway, and the rest is in the studio. But after 10 years of playwriting with the RCT, I wanted to teach myself how to write for films. I still find them harder to do. What I did was find five scripts published by [Harold] Pinter, adapted from novels. I bought the novels and the screenplays, and studied how he translated it over.
EZ: Oh, which ones?
SCH: Three with Joseph Losey: The Servant, The Accident, and Go Between. Then a spy film and The Pumpkin Eater. What was interesting is that he made these sorts of value judgments. He stayed close to the novel for The Go Between, but in the case of The Pumpkin Eater, he made changes to give it dramatic shape.
EZ: What was the biggest realisation that came to you?
SCH: That I made a big mistake in thinking writing films was an easier place to start. I thought there was complete freedom, but there isn’t, because anything can happen if it doesn’t matter what happens. I started working with David Lean on an adaptation of Nostromo. He died six weeks before its release. I learned so much from him, and of course a year on, I wrote Dangerous Liaisons.
EZ: What was the experience with him like?
SCH: He used to say that every film is anything between six and twelve chapters, and there has to be a rope going through it. Each scene had to be strung like a necklace along this rope – you start and stop with the next section. He believed the most important thing about a film was how the final image of one scene and the first of the next responded to each other. Should it fade or dissolve? He would even ask me.
EZ: You also worked with Fred Zimmerman at a young age.
SCH: Yes. I had written a film that was never made: The Last Secret about the rounding up of Russians after the Second World War. We decided to write about a single day, where fifteen-hundred people were handed back. Fred was only interested in the sort of narrative juggernaut. He couldn’t be persuaded to be sidetracked like other directors. The opening image of the film was supposed to be fifty-thousand Cossacks, who sided with Hitler, crossing the Dolomites. He said to me, “Where do you put the camera?” and I said, “Over the hill. Looking over Italy.” He replied, “It’s a pretty view… So what?”
EZ: It really teaches you a lot about writing. These directors shaped how you approached setting and emotion.
SCH: Also, these lessons were imbued with the personalities of both directors. I went with Fred to see Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and by the end he was so angry. He said: “It was so beautiful…I couldn’t concentrate on the story!”
EZ: Great answer.
SCH: That was his standpoint. Lean came at it from a different way. I learned more from him. I am more disposed to those big gestures that happen in his films. But I never forgot the importance of narrative, and how you have to press on without distraction – which I got from Fred.
EZ: I saw The Father on stage in Paris. What changes did you make for the Florian Zeller film?
SCH: We had to find a visual equivalent of a device in the play, where as each scene goes by, somehow there is less furniture on the stage, until it is bare apart from a hospital bed. It works well in the play. In the film, Florian would finish shooting on Friday, and repaint the apartment a slightly different colour. Not so different, but enough so that the next week, you would return on set and feel unsure about something.
EZ: Producers sometimes have issues with characters that are angry, or nasty, or unlovable.
SCH: Ramsay, my agent, was like my mother. When I wrote the play about Rimbaud, she liked it but the critics did not. It got terrible reviews, and I was very upset. She said: “You shouldn’t be depressed, because the reaction from the critics is that they responded to this painful, ugly thing in the play… which is the truth.”
EZ: Do you think there is less freedom in the industry today?
SCH: I think the pressures have changed. When I started, there was censorship in the theatre. But it was easier to get around it. Today, though, you wonder whether something is going to get cancelled or whatever. I think it’s inhibiting. Everything should be said, however brutal or cruel. Because otherwise, what’s the point of art? It’s not something everyone should agree with.
EZ: Do you think mass media, the likes of Marvel cinema, is denigrating the medium?
SCH: It’s fine. People like it. But what’s really harmful is when it invades a different sort of film. A certain kind of producer will say, “Does he have to say that” or “Does this scene make him unsympathetic?” Of course, there are those who never gave these comments. I’ve found that if a producer asks whether we need a scene, that’s exactly the one we have to hang on to.
EZ: As an actress, I feel the same. So many times, I get told: “Oh, I don’t think we should say this.” Even before shooting it. And I’m like, “that’s not going to happen. It’s a bad sign.” Do you think it’s the same for television?
SCH: I think television sets the tone for a lot of work now. But it’s a very difficult medium for writers. When I wrote for TV in the seventies, there were lots of freedoms. Now, there’s a showrunner that needs to ensure everything is balanced to please everybody. I wrote a pilot for a series a few years ago, and they said, “you know, there are rules for the first episode, how it starts and how it ends.” I thought, a story has its own imperatives. It starts where it needs to start. So, I left [laughs].
EZ: It has to come from something visceral. As an actress, do you identify with every character you write? When I take on a role, even if they are awful, I become close to the character. It can be the worst woman in the world but there’s a reason we’re close. Sometimes, you can learn to know the character more than the writer because I am eating it after.
SCH: Yes. My experience is that if you work with really good people, they add an extra dimension to what you have imagined. I have met writers and directors who don’t like actors. I remember one day when David Lean was complaining about Alec Guinness. He said: “He’s wonderful, but my heart sinks when the day starts, because if you have a scene where he’s got to sit down, he always stands.”
EZ: It’s an exchange with the writer and director to make things happen.
SCH: I’ve been very lucky. Florian, for example, wants the writer to be on set the whole time. Stephen wanted me there in case we changed something. There’s a scene in Dangerous Liasons near the end, when Michelle Pfeiffer is dying. He devised a camera movement and he said, “It needs a line.” He said: “I had forty minutes!” The line is: “I’m dying because I wouldn’t believe you,” and he was right. It needed that line.
EZ: It’s true. As an actor, sometimes I feel like I’m missing a step to go further – some food and feeling to complete this feeling. Do you feel when you read a line too much, can you hear the dialogue?
SCH: You don’t want to hear the writing too much in the cinema. In the theatre, it’s fine. If the play is a big success and they make a film using the same actors, it’s hard for them to transition to the screen. For The Father, we kept shaving lines out of the speeches. It wasn’t a long play, but we cut a lot of it, and replaced it with relevant images. I have to say, it is Florian’s film. He wrote a screenplay in French and sent it to me. I translated it and rewrote it and sent it back. He did a draft in French, and I in English. I went to Paris and spent more than three or four days with him, and by the end we had a fifth draft, which is what he shot. I left the final choices to him. It was his piece. My role was more of a technical capacity.
EZ: Is there a different way the French and British approach theatre? There is the popular ‘auteur-director’ now, and even if they can’t write well, they still do it. It seems different in England.
SCH: The younger people here are more to the model of writer-director than there used to be. Largely speaking when I started, the theatre was the writer’s medium and the director was there to serve the director. And slowly, starting in Germany, this thing emerged called the “Director’s Theatre” where their vision is as important, if not more important, than the play itself. Sometimes they are brilliant, but for me, it gets in the way in the play. I want to see the writer’s work.
EZ: Do you think that stifles great writers coming up?
SCH: One of the reasons we have a flourishing theatre tradition in England is because they are respected by their directors. In France and Germany, it seems young writers are terrorised or bullied into directions they wouldn’t want to go. It’s a generalisation, of course. But it’s a tendency we’re trying to keep on the other side of the Channel.
EZ: Can you tell me about your experiences with David Cronenberg on A Dangerous Method?
SCH: Every piece of work has its own destiny. I wrote the piece originally for another production company, and then that stopped. But I didn’t want to leave the script. I spent five years researching, doing a sort of crash course in psychoanalysis and I didn’t want to waste that work. I thought that maybe I could turn it into a stage play. And as I was doing that, I realised the main character was not Sabina Freud but Jung, although he was the character I felt least sympathetic towards. So, I wrote it again and called it the Talking Cure. It was on at the National Theatre and went pretty well. And three or four years later, I got a call from David Cronenberg, who had read the play. He said, “Do you think it could make a film?” I thought that was funny, because it was originally intended to be one. But he still believed the play was better, so I started again with him and we titled it A Dangerous Method.
EZ: What was he like to work with?
SCH: I liked him enormously. It turns out he had directed my Rimbaud play when he was a student. I asked for special advice, and he said, I like a script to be 87 pages. He was the most efficient director. My first draft was 103 pages, and our conversation about the script lasted less than an hour. He was so clear. He knew what worked. I came back to England and did everything he asked. He sent me an email saying, “I always like to do the editing before I make the film than after, so I have made a few cuts,” he said, “don’t panic.” Naturally, I panicked [laughs] and he sent a script of 89 pages. He shaped it well. My only criticism of the film was that because of those cuts, the very first few minutes go too fast. Sabina is a patient in a terrible state and suddenly she’s cured. Whereas the first third of the play is that whole process. He was more interested in what came next, but it was the perfect collaboration in my mind.
EZ: When everything is written, is there space for improvisation?
SCH: If the director has prepared very carefully, that gives some space for improvisation. But what doesn’t work, and I speak now from experience as a director, is if I have a clear idea of what I’m going to do. I can’t let people change that. Of course, sometimes an actor says something quite interesting and you have to be open. It’s different as a director, of course – far more collaborative for film than in theatre. You have to think about the actors’ vision, but also the editor, cameraman, costume designer…Each must have its own relationship, like being a serial monogamist. Making a film is a fragile thing.
EZ: Are you thinking of returning to the director’s seat?
SCH: Yes. I have written a film about my childhood in Egypt. When this current batch of work is over, I’ll pick that up again. I had to leave Egypt because of the Suez Crisis when I was 10 years old, and it was all rather exciting. We were on the last boat out of the country before the invasion. Then, we were brought back to England and my world had changed. It’s a good background for a writer. In Egypt, I was very, very happy. But I was English and in someone else’s country – the only Brit in my class. So I was an outsider there. And then in England, I felt unhappy, and very much of an outsider there too. I tried to make myself more English to fit in. If you talk to a lot of writers, most have these sort of anchors; alienating experiences in youth which causes them to feel as though they’re standing outside a window, rather than inside.
EZ: So you had a feeling you wanted to write when you were young?
SCH: I started when I was eight, writing plays. There were no books in the house. My parents were rather more interested in sports. There’s a photograph of my father [he points to a picture of a handsome young man jumping from a diving board]. He was an engineer, but he played tennis all the time, and took a small boat to sail around Egypt. What was unusual was when I said to my father that I’d like to be a writer, most men would’ve said, “come on” he said, “well that’s great – start now.” He was very encouraging.
EZ: I remember speaking to [playwright] David Hare and he said you had studied together.
SCH: When I was 13, I took an exam, won some prizes, and got the chance to go to Lancing College where I met David. My father reminded me that it was terribly expensive, and so I won a scholarship. But although we were there at the same time, our experiences were very different. I was really happy. It was a liberal school where we wrote plays, and the teachers were actually inspirational. He was unhappy. It was a religious environment, and I suppose he was trying to work out whether he believed in it or not. I didn’t really believe in anything [laughs].
EZ: When did you feel like you became a ‘Writer’?
SCH: I knew I wanted to be a writer. I never imagined I would make a living out of it. I believe I’m still the youngest person to have a play in the West End. You know, I’ve been so lucky, and it all came so easily. Clearly the play had something about it, but I felt I didn’t know what I was doing. I wrote it when I was 18.
EZ: Was there something about your environment that helped you creatively?
SCH: I think specifically it was being a part of the RCT. I graduated in 1968. Two months before I took my final exams, I went to see a John Osborne play, and William Gaskill, the artistic director, took me for a drink after. He offered me a job at the Royal Court, and so I was able to often watch these great rehearsals. I was the literary manager and resident playwright. Well, Bill [Gaskill] said to me, “We’re calling you the resident playwright so we can get a grant from the Arts Council.” He said, “We’re going to make you do everything,” and so I did. In fact, I didn’t even have time to write my own play. He said I could find someone to work for a pittance to assist me, and it was David.
EZ: You must have learned so much.
SCH: It was more valuable to me than university. I was there for two years before David took my place. But it was a good time, because of the quality of writers and productions. The place was run by three different directors with varied styles and priorities and sensibilities. They were fighting all the time, which was ideal for creativity. At the time the Royal Court was the centre of the theatrical world, so plays done there were done all over Europe, Broadway…Olivier came there, Paul Scofield was in one of my plays. The best actors wanted to work at the Royal Court. My first play was directed by a young Scottish director called Robert Kidd. And I only found out after that his first project was my play. That was good about the RC, he was an assistant who read my play and asked for the opportunity. He wound up running the theatre several years later.
EZ: Where do you find your ideas?
SCH: Some writers have lots and lots of ideas, but I’m not like that. Occasionally something sticks in my head and doesn’t let go, and I have to write it out. I have no way of explaining why. The Egypt story, for example, is one. It is unusual because I’m not an autobiographical writer, but this is a completely autobiographical piece based on my memories of the time. I was at the screening of Belfast, and I spoke to Kenneth Branagh afterwards, and he said, “You know, it’s like your Egypt story.” I just have these memories of my childhood and I want to explore them and have dialogue with them.
EZ: What kind of emotions do you want people to feel as they watch these memories unveiled on screen?
SCH: That it was a particular part of my life that coincided with learning everything that people believed in England was not quite right. Politicians told a lot of cynical lies, and the event turned out to be a fiasco. It was an important stage toward the end of the British Empire and being caught up in that as a child. Similar to how it was for Kenneth at that time in Belfast, the film would be an interesting sidelight to a moment in history. Perhaps, I would argue, it’s more relevant now than before.