The screenwriter of Drive and Snow White And The Huntsman talks about his lengthy career in this excerpt from FilmCraft: Screenwriting.

Screenwriting book cover

The following is an excerpt from Tim Grierson’s Screenwriting, the latest in Ilex’s FilmCraft series of books (more info on the book here). The book’s other interviewees include Stephen Gaghan, Guillermo Arriaga, Caroline Thompson, David Hare, David Webb Peoples and Jean-Claude Carrière. Grierson is also a film critic for Screen.

Born in Iran and currently residing in London, Hossein Amini initially thought that he wanted to be a writer-director after helming a few shorts while at Oxford. But once he started making a living as a writer on other people’s projects, he discovered that he enjoyed focusing on screenwriting. His career began with television movies, The Dying of the Light (1992) and Deep Secrets (1996), but even then Amini knew that his interest was in features. A chance encounter with director Michael Winterbottom at the BAFTA awards in the mid-1990s led to their collaboration on the feature Jude (1996), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure that starred Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet. Amini’s next adaptation was The Wings of the Dove (1997), based on Henry James’ novel—the film went on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Soon after, Amini signed an exclusive overall deal with Miramax Films, working on the independent company’s diverse projects like Gangs of New York (2002) (for which he didn’t receive a credit) and The Four Feathers (2002). After his Miramax deal ended, he was approached by Universal Pictures to work on an adaptation of a book by crime author James Sallis about an enigmatic getaway driver. The project, Drive (2011), was eventually independently financed and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, receiving rave reviews in competition at Cannes. Though Amini has primarily written for indie and art-house films, he has recently been involved with some major studio projects, including Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and 47 Ronin (2013). Currently, he’s directing The Two Faces of January, his adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, which stars Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst.

“So many writers stop at an early age because they’re not given encouragement. I was lucky to have parents who were willing to support me for a few years after school until I finally got work. Most Iranian parents want their children to be lawyers, doctors, architects, or engineers—filmmaking is the last thing you’d want your kids to do, because there’s no money in it. But luckily, my parents were very supportive—I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. So much writing talent is lost because people can’t afford to stick around doing it for long enough. I had friends that I started out writing with who eventually had to get a proper job—they became estate agents and this and that—and they were just as good, if not better, than I was. I was lucky enough to be able to do it for longer than they were.

When I was a child growing up in Iran, Bruce Lee movies were my earliest film obsession. My dad was a bit of a film buff, so we had one of those small projector screens, and for my birthday we’d get a Bruce Lee movie. In Iran, there were a lot of outdoor movie theaters—not drive-ins, but just various clubs or whatever that would show movies outside because the weather was usually so hot. But my interest in movies increased when we moved when I was 11, after the Revolution. My parents were separated, so I’d go and stay with my dad in Paris. He didn’t know what to do with my brother and I, so he’d take us to movies—he put us in a two o’clock showing, a four o’clock showing, and a six o’clock showing all along the Champs-Élysées. Initially, it was the Hollywood action movies that hooked me, but later I went to Oxford, and there were these two fantastic cinemas that showed older movies. I’d sneak off and see two movies a day sometimes.

They’d have a Fellini week or a Tarkovsky week—all on the big screen. In Paris, I remember seeing Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—to see a black-and-white film noir on the big screen was just such a mind-blowing experience. Those are the things that made me fall in love with film, and that hasn’t gone away.

I grew up watching European and American movies rather than British television, which is the traditional thing here in London. So when I started out writing TV movies, that was a problem I had: I was always thinking big-screen. I worked on this docudrama, The Dying of the Light, which was about an aid worker in Africa, but it had very little dialogue and it was set on this enormous canvas. I arranged it like a movie, but I didn’t realize I was working with a TV budget—I was dreaming of David Lean and trying to write to that scale. While I was working in TV, I met Michael Winterbottom, and he mentioned he wanted to do a film of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. He asked me, “Is that something you’re interested in? Do you know the book?” And I lied and said I did know the book, which I hadn’t read at the time. I very quickly went and read it as soon as I could—luckily, it was a book I loved, but honestly, I would’ve done anything in film. I was excited about working in TV, but the chance to work in film was just a dream.

Michael was pretty vague about how he wanted to approach the adaptation—he knew he wanted to concentrate on the modern aspects of the story. But for me with Jude—and I think it’s true of all adaptations—you have to have a love affair with the book. You feel like you’re the first person to have read this book and this is how you want to tell your friends about it. Also, I tend to fall in love with one character initially. With Jude, it was obviously the Jude character. I was attracted to the idea of how life defeats you, which is a theme I’ve subsequently always been interested in. I’m intrigued by people who start off with noble intentions, but then life somehow conspires to turn them into something other than what they wanted to be. The Hollywood version of Jude is “He’s this guy who comes from nowhere and rises to the top.” But what I loved about this book was that it was the guy who comes from nowhere, has these beautiful dreams and ambitions, but eventually life drags him down. I find something very noble about defeat—which is probably not great for Hollywood blockbusters, but goes back to the Greek myths, the ones where the characters rebel against the Gods, but ultimately fail. Something about their failure is so heroic and so human.

In movies, what’s always really interested me are the reaction shots and what the person is thinking. Again, it’s that big-screen experience of seeing someone’s face in a close-up with all that emotion. I want to keep the dialogue as real and conversational as possible—as opposed to using heightened dialogue, where it really is about what people are saying. The favorite scenes that I’ve written have all tended to be the ones where the dialogue is setting up the best reaction from the actor. I love trying to find the simplest way to say something with the maximum impact on the person who’s listening to it. Quite often, the dialogue is almost like background noise, and what’s really important is setting up the silent emotions on the faces of the characters.

What tends to happen is a production company has a book, and your agent says, “They’re thinking of you for this. Read it, and then go pitch them.” With The Wings of the Dove, I got to the end of the book, and I had no idea how to do it. But then I got to the very last scene, which is the breakup scene, and then it was really easy to go backwards and create a story out of that. I’d always been a film noirbuff, so it all clicked into place. My pitch was that this was film noir—the only difference is that they don’t literally kill each other; they just break the other girl’s heart and kill her that way. Period movies back then were defined by Merchant Ivory—and in
a very unfair way to Merchant Ivory, because a lot of their films are classics. But at the time, Merchant Ivory had almost become the cliché, so we were all going, “How do we subvert Merchant Ivory?” And by thinking of The Wings of the Dove in terms of film noir, it became a really exciting new way to do a period drama.

After the success of The Wings of the Dove, I didn’t get overconfident, but I think I was naïve about the business. I’d grown up on Hollywood movies, and I wanted to get to America very quickly and do those movies. But when your early films are relatively well-received, it’s a dangerous thing—it doesn’t go to your head, but you want to say yes to everything and everyone. You spend so long not getting anything made, and then suddenly you’re getting offered all this stuff. Part of me wishes I’d spent the next seven or eight years trying to make films like Jude or The Wings of the Dove, because I think I would have gotten a lot more made, and I would have probably had a lot more control. But those are mistakes you make—people can be very persuasive when they want you to do something, and the money can be very persuasive, too.

When Jude went to Cannes, I had to pay for my own flight and stay with my wife in this really, really cheap hotel, which was still very expensive because it was Cannes. But while I was there, I got introduced to Harvey Weinstein. Literally two days later, he flew me out on Concorde to meet him in New York to discuss doing stuff for Miramax. His idea was, “Come and work for me.” I ended up doing it a couple of years later after The Wings of the Dove—it was an overall deal where I’d be writing stuff for Miramax exclusively. It was great in some ways, not great in others. They were making wonderful films, but what I didn’t realize is that, as a writer, it’s better to be freelance because then you have access to lots of places to take your ideas. The problem was I was slightly at the mercy of what Miramax wanted me to do and what they were interested in. I ended up doing stuff that I wasn’t particularly suited to.

Pretty quickly after I signed up with Miramax, there was an opportunity to work on Gangs of New York—that was the carrot. I thought, “If my career at Miramax is working with people like Martin Scorsese, why not?” I did one draft with Scorsese in New York before it got green-lit, and then I came in and did about three or four weeks’ work in Rome just before they started shooting. It wasn’t enough to get a credit, but it was an amazing experience. Unfortunately, I was rewriting The Four Feathers at the same time. Gangs of New York was the one I really wanted to be writing, and The Four Feathers was the one I was struggling with. But being the Miramax rewrite guy meant sometimes not necessarily working on the ones you wanted to work on, but instead the ones that they needed work on. It was an odd time: At one stage, I was flying between Rome for Gangs of New York and Morocco for The Four Feathers. The Four Feathers was very troubled from a very early stage—I felt caught between a director who had one vision and a studio who had a different vision. So I had this experience of going from the set of Gangs of New York—where everyone was really happy and there was real excitement—to this very troubled production where people were arguing the whole time.

I loved the way Drive was received in the sense of the reviews and the awards, but I think everyone else was disappointed with the US box office—it became about the fact that it didn’t make the money that everyone was expecting. But I’m really proud of the film. With Drive, I was going back to Jude and The Wings of the Dove where I felt, “This is what I really want to write, and this is who I am, and this is what I should be writing.” I’d done some big rewrites of things that haven’t got made or were made badly—movies where I think back and wonder, “Did I feel passionately enough about it to do it?” There’s a struggle with integrity that I definitely feel as a writer, and I think every writer in Hollywood would probably say the same thing. Sometimes the movies you’re drawn to and the ones that pay you the best are very, very different. With Drive, I was reclaiming some of that integrity. Before Drive, I’d never been offered one of those types of films—this dark, Western-type contemporary film noir. It was what I would have done if I had been offered them at the time of The Wings of the Dove—I just wasn’t being offered those movies. But Drive was certainly where my cinematic passions lay, much more than in period films.

The moment I read James Sallis’ book Drive, I was absolutely desperate to do it. Le Samouraï (1967) had been a huge influence on me, as had Shane (1953). I loved those “man with no name” Westerns—the idea of the silent hero. And I just loved that whole LA mood. I had gone back and forth from LA a lot for various studio assignments, but I don’t drive. But you’re more fascinated by LA if you don’t drive—when you’re on the street, you’re so aware of the fact that you’re the only person walking. I’ve always loved LA as a city, and I read a couple of books about the city’s downtown history, which I thought was just amazing. And Chinatown (1974) was a movie I’d always loved—there is something magnetic about LA as a film city. So as I didn’t drive, the studio got someone to drive me around everywhere, and it was fantastic just going into all these places. I got this big map of LA, and I constantly thought about having the characters going from one place to another—I was always looking at maps trying to figure out getaways.

For a few years now, I’ve been putting together a film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, which I’m going to direct. The character of Chester that Viggo Mortensen plays is a con man—everyone looks up to him and loves him. But gradually through the course of the movie, that’s stripped away, and he ends up completely defeated. A movie like that, you have to do it on a smaller budget. It’s like Drive or The Wings of the Dove—in a sense, they’re not commercial movies. The things that I’m drawn to aren’t commercial. I don’t particularly like happy endings, and I like people who are ambiguous and have contradictions and vulnerabilities—I like my heroes being slightly fucked-up. The period when I was growing up watching films, the blockbusters were The French Connection (1971), or The Godfather (1972), or Chinatown. I mean, Chinatown has the down-est ending. But those were the blockbusters, and those were the movies that were making lots and lots of money. And the problem is because I grew up on those movies, those are the big Hollywood movies that I’d love to make.

I think Snow White and the Huntsman made more money in its opening weekend than anything I’ve ever done put together. It’s an interesting conundrum. As writers, we’re desperate for everyone to love and go see what we write. But then I think, “Well, maybe I’m just not a very commercial writer.” I mean, I’m intensely proud of Jude, and nobody went and saw that. So, sometimes I think, “Well, I can’t have both—you can’t get good reviews and get good box office.” There are so few films that achieve both.