Emma Thompson discusses her personal writing process
Back in July, we mentioned to you that Emma Thompson (Sybill Trelawney) would be appearing at a BAFTA-run event in London to discuss her career as a screenwriter. The Screenwriter’s Lecture, which took place recently, saw crowds flock to view the actress talk (to a sold out venue) in great detail about her own personal process to gear herself up for writing.
To begin with, some of the audience members didn’t realize at first that it was actually Thompson on stage before the lecture had started, pottering around in overalls and a navy coat.
She sat barefoot at a tiny writing desk, and in between scribbling on a notepad, she dabbed her eyes with tissues, mouthed lines to herself, and occasionally stepped up to pace the stage or practice a yoga pose on a bright purple mat. She then got a vacuum out and swept the stage before finally stepping out of the theater altogether, to laughs and applause.
When the lecture began, she explained to the audience that what she had been doing on stage was not meant as a theatrical performance but rather that this was the exact process she goes through when about to start write:
That’s how I write. I’ve got a purple yoga mat, and I have a little table about that size. That’s sort of what it looks like. I hoover; I find odd places to polish – places that I haven’t seen in a long time, sometimes parts of my own body. And there’s a lot of crying in fetal positions.
When speaking about her influences as a screenwriter, she explained that she thought it “very interesting where your relationship with words comes from, and mine comes from my father.” Eric Thompson is best known for his work writing the scripts and narrating the children’s animated television show, The Magic Roundabout, an English adaptation of a French Le Manège Enchanté; before she returned to the event stage, the audience was shown an episode from said children’s classic.
Her career started at just 18 when she was part of a group called Footlights, which included other famous British faces such as Hugh Laurie and narrator for the British versions of the Harry Potter audiobooks, Stephen Fry. Because she thought that Footlights was mostly male-dominated, she and another member of the group (Sandi Toksvig) decided to try their hands at their own project.
Sandi Toksvig and I did an all-womens’ revue called Woman’s Hour, though it wasn’t an overtly feminist revue. We auditioned women because we were very exercised by the fact that people would say women aren’t funny. We’d say, ‘Yes, they are; we laugh all the time.’ Then we auditioned quite a lot of women who weren’t funny at all.
She also went into detail about a sketch show she wrote back in the late ’80s, one that unfortunately wasn’t well received when it aired on BBC:
It was, I suppose, the most important thing I ever did because it was such a massive failure. There were all sorts of reasons for its failure because like any other sketch show, some of it was good, and some was bad, and it didn’t have a laugh track, which was quite extreme at the time. It was a violent experience, and after that I never wrote another sketch.
Although the program wasn’t a success, she viewed it as all part of her writing career and experience because “if you can’t fail like that you can’t do this job.”
She spoke of her adaptation of the famous Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility – a film that won Thompson awards for both her screenwriting and acting – and how the job came to her because of a sketch program that she starred in beforehand. She brought the many drafts of the script (17 in total) to the lecture and told the audience that she wrote it long-hand, saying that “if you keep rewriting by hand you will rewrite it naturally.”
After showing a clip of the 1960 film The Apartment, a screenplay which she very much admires, she gave a piece of advice from the words of director William Wyler:
If you want to make a good film, your screenplay needs to be all good scenes, no bad scenes and one great scene