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ArtsFrom Page to Screen - Christopher Hampton

From Page to Screen – Christopher Hampton

Award winning screenwriter Sir Christopher Hampton speaks to Fergus Byrne

Now in his sixth decade working as a playwright, screenwriter, translator and film director, Sir Christopher Hampton could quite easily have filled any of the From Page to Screen slots with powerful films from his own repertoire. In fact, with films such as Dangerous Liaisons, Mary Reilly, The Quiet American, Atonement, A Dangerous Method, The Father and most recently The Son under his belt, a festival of just his films would have been a titanic event. So it’s no surprise that his vast experience and prolific work in the industry has produced an incredibly powerful series of films for Bridport’s much anticipated From Page to Screen film festival in April.


Christopher was born in Faial, Azores. During the Suez Crisis in 1956 his family fled Egypt to England where he went on to read German and French at New College, Oxford, graduating with a starred First Class Degree in 1968.


Speaking with him recently I said no one would be surprised at the French influence in his choices; he is after all the go to person to translate anything from across the pond. However, the depth and range of films that he has lined up for filmgoers this year even surprised him a little. Right from the first film of the Festival, Le Feu Follet, the line-up offers a roller-coaster ride through emotional turmoil and tackles many challenging subjects while introducing the audience to some of the major shifts in the development of cinema over the years.


‘There are basically four strands of films’ explains Christopher. ‘The 11am strand is European New Wave films. The afternoon session is new Hollywood 70s films. The 5 o clock session is adaptations from stage plays and/or films that have subsequently turned into stage plays. And then in the evening we have the new films.’ The release of his most recent film, The Son—the screenplay another collaboration with the French playwright Florian Zeller—has kept him busy over recent weeks. Showing at The Electric Palace on April 28th it has been described by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian as a ‘laceratingly painful drama of familial fear and loathing’. He goes on to say that it is ‘about the middle-aged generation’s fear of and incomprehension of the young.’


A follow up to Zeller and Hampton’s Oscar winning film, The Father, it has had mixed reviews that Christopher found somewhat bemusing. He describes it as being ‘very roughly received in America’ because they ‘don’t like to be told that this is an intractable problem which we can all try to solve—but might not be able to. I don’t think this chimes with American “can do” philosophy.’ He says that ‘some of the reviews are quite angry—which was interesting’ and feels it has been ‘more temperately received’ in Europe.


But what is serious writing and cinema if it doesn’t make the effort to challenge audiences? ‘I like to leave the audience with some work to do’ says Christopher. ‘I don’t like to spoon feed them or tell them what to do. Or moralize in any way. That’s always been one of my principles in choosing material.’ That is certainly the case with many of the films in this year’s Festival. The morning and afternoon sessions feature stories that encourage the viewer to confront issues that range from racism to sexism, misogyny to religion and mental health to violent confrontation. Directed by Daniel Petrie, A Raisin in the Sun features a young black family where Sidney Poitier struggles with what he has not yet achieved in his life. ‘I am a volcano’ he cries at one point and the audience is left in no doubt that an eruption could come at any time. The theme of disillusion carries on with Rock Hudson in the extraordinary film Seconds on April 26th.


Talking about what he describes as the European New Wave films, Christopher says he picked them because they were at a very formative moment in his life. They represent something that he believes is no longer available to the cinema going audience. ‘I was in my late teens and early twenties when these films came out’ he says. ‘And in a way that doesn’t happen now at all. Those of us that developed an enthusiasm for film early on had this range of very interesting and challenging films to grow up with. It started in France and also with people like Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni and so on, and then it did spread across the channel and we had a new wave of our own.’ He has chosen John Schlesinger’s A Kind of Loving and Jack Clayton’s The Pumpkin Eaters, not just because he knew both and had worked with Clayton on The Tenant before it ‘got hijacked by Polanski’ but because ‘both films tackled subjects that had been absent from drama.’


Christopher describes cinema and theatre as both being in a ‘state of comfortableness’ in the mid-fifties until ‘these boys came along and blew everything out of the water. And then, very much influenced by these films the same thing happened in Hollywood in the early seventies with what Billy Wilder called “The kids with beards”’. Coincidentally, Christopher’s latest project has been working on the screenplay for a film loosely based on Jonathan Coe’s novel Mr Wilder and Me which he hopes will be made in the Autumn with Stephen Frears directing. It will be their fifth film. ‘We generally try to do one together every decade’ he laughs.


Christopher remembers exactly the moment when studios decided to refine their output. ‘I was in the middle of writing a film for Universal based on East of Eden.’ His story was based on the whole book ‘the James Dean character doesn’t come along until about page 400’ he says. He wrote and delivered the script but then Universal rang and explained they had made the formal decision not to make drama films of this particular budget range. ‘They were going to make films up to five million dollars that were contemporary or comedies, and they would make films over a hundred million dollars that were super hero films and so forth.’ The budget range had been finely tuned. Oddly, it seems the emergence of streaming came to the rescue. ‘Of course, in a way, the streamers are much maligned by filmmakers in various ways with various axes to grind, but at least the streamers brought back the possibility of the mainstream drama which is what I was working in—which was an endangered species about ten years ago.’


This leads to thoughts on another of the powerful films in this year’s festival, A Dangerous Method, one of only two of Christopher’s own films in the line-up. Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, the film deals with the birth of psychotherapy and the complex relationship between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. Originally commissioned by Julia Roberts’ company in the late 80s, Christopher wrote a screenplay called Sabina about Sabina Spielrein which eventually ended up in what he describes as ‘development hell’. It was never made. But he had done so much research on it that he decided to rewrite it as a play and change the main character from Spielrein to Jung. Director David Cronenburg picked up a copy of the play in a bookshop and asked Christopher if he might write it for film.


Christopher cites ‘an enormous unwieldy book’ called A Most Dangerous Method written by an Irish academic named John Kerr as being the original source material. However, the relationship between Jung and Sabina only really came to light later. ‘What I was interested in was this woman who in her way was as innovative and interesting as Jung and Freud, much younger than them but she was very original, and in fact became a pretty famous child psychologist later on in her life. She’s highly revered in child psychological circles. And she was completely forgotten and sort of ignored by both of them. Freud behaved a little better. In a couple of footnotes in some of his writings he acknowledged that some ideas had come from her. But Jung, who in a way derived a lot of his thinking about archetypes and the anima and all of those sorts of things from her in a way, never acknowledged it. So I was quite interested in rehabilitating this figure.’


After over 50 years in the industry, a conversation with Christopher Hampton will inevitably bring up names that have left a huge imprint on the history of culture. The final film of the late afternoon sessions Best of Enemies is about a series of televised debates between Gore Vidal and William Buckley. Seen as a debate between the political left and right, Best of Enemies was noted for a series of on-air insults that, although now tame compared to the poisonous comments that can regularly be seen in today’s online forums, has been called a ‘harbinger of an unhappy future’. Knowing Gore Vidal over the years Christopher was fascinated by him and this documentary.


‘People now just howl at each other’ says Christopher. ‘The Buckley Vidal debates, which were brought in by ABC to bridge a gap, astonished them by being so popular. I mean they hated each other and it did finally explode. But the level of debate between them was infinitely higher than you’ll find anywhere today I think it’s fair to say.’ Although the internet has much to offer it has also wrought havoc with its ability to drag people into an echo chamber. ‘I deal with it mostly by ignoring it but there’s no question that it’s had a not entirely positive effect on everybody’s life. Apart from everything else, the whole notion of having invested something designed to save time which then proceeds to consume all your time, is paradoxical.’
The final session of films in the evening slot throughout the week is given over to recent films including a gala opening of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry starring Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton on April 26th. Writer and Director Frances O Connor will join Christopher for a post screening Q&A about her film Emily on Thursday 27th. A part-fictional portrait of English writer Emily Brontë, Christopher contributed some French dialogue saying ‘I was comfortable doing it because it’s French spoken by English people, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.’


A screening of Christopher’s film The Son closes the day on Friday 28th with a post screening discussion led by Francine Stock. The following day’s films finish with the excellent She Said, the incredible true account of the New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein. The film is an adaptation of the 2019 non-fiction book of the same name by writers Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. Christopher describes it as ‘one of the better films from last year, and I really admire the writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz who did a marvelous film called Ida a Polish film that Pawlikowski directed a few years ago.’ Explaining that he is ‘a sucker for those kinds of films anyway’ Christopher is pleased to be in discussion with Rebecca Lenkiewicz after the film.


As if there weren’t enough highlights in an already spectacular selection of films and special guests throughout the week, Christopher will be joined by Director Richard Eyre following the screening of Allelujah on Sunday April 30th. A deeply moving adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play of the same name, Allelujah features a cast that includes Judi Dench, David Bradley, Jennifer Saunders and Derek Jacobi.


With two Oscars, two BAFTAs and a Cannes Special Jury Prize already on the shelf, Christopher Hampton is a spectacular curator for this year’s From Page to Screen. With endearing humility his thoughts on curating a Festival that is so relevant to his skills says as much about him as it does about the complexity of the industry he works in. ‘Adapting for the screen, whether it be a novel, a stage play, a biography, a historical event or a newspaper article, presents its own particular problems’ he says. ‘Perhaps more technical, but in no way less intricate than writing an original screenplay. I’ve spent decades ruminating on these issues, without necessarily having reached any firm conclusions, though I do by now, I suppose, have a few tentative suggestions. I’m delighted at the opportunity to visit Bridport to be able to kick some of these suggestions around.’

Bridport’s film Festival From Page to Screen runs from Wednesday April 26th to Sunday April 30th, 2023. For full information visit www.frompagetoscreen.info.

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