Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature! TIFF Books on Film: Acclaimed Screenwriter Allan Scott on Don't Look Now

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Don't Look Now

Allan Scott's career as a screenwriter has spanned multiple genres and more than four decades. He's managed to avoid the spotlight even as he built an enviable résumé, working on movies that range from cult classics to beloved children's films. If that weren't impressive enough, he also did his homeland of Scotland proud, fitting in a 20-year stint as Chairman of Macallan-Glenlivet (names you'll be familiar with from the shelves of the LCBO).

Scott has tackled adaptations of works by classic authors, including Roald Dahl and Daphne du Maurier. His adaptation of du Maurier's iconic story "Don't Look Now" into a film of the same name (directed by Nicolas Roeg), is what brings him to Toronto, for TIFF's Books on Film series.

Don't Look Now (1973) features Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the lead roles as a husband and wife grieving the loss of their daughter. Renowned as an innovative psychological thriller, the film was praised by du Maurier, who was famously picky about adaptations of her work (one of the only other adaptations she endorsed was Hitchcock's version of her story "The Birds").

On May 11, 2015, TIFF's Books on Film series will screen Don't Look Now and feature a conversation between Scott and CBC's Eleanor Wachtel. Tickets are available through the TIFF website.

We're speaking with Allan Scott today about revisiting his adaptation after more than forty years, his advice for young screenwriters and the greatest sin a filmmaker can commit.

Open Book:

Tell us a little bit about how you came to work on Don't Look Now and what the experience of adapting du Maurier's work was like for you.

Allan Scott:

My writing partner, Chris Bryant, and I were approached by a producer working in London. We wrote a first draft script which immediately attracted a director with whom we travelled to Venice to expand on the screenplay. That director didn’t stay on the project but he did pass on one legacy. He suggested that we needed a more thrilling opening. So on our next pass we devised the child drowning (in the book she dies in hospital) so as (a) to rattle the audience into paying attention, (b) introducing the whole theme of grief which the movie develops and (c) to establish John Baxter’s second sight so that it isn’t introduced as a deus ex machina at the end. Some things just happen in movie making. The scene in the church where the scaffolding collapses? We added that when we felt the script was getting a bit dull in the middle! To then incorporate that whole sequence into the themes and subject matter of the film was what we needed to work on, once the idea had been launched. And this connected us into the Bishop who, at a crucial point, holds out his arms as if to catch the falling body.

OB:

Don't Look Now is so unique as a thriller or suspense script, touching on themes of grief and loss as well as the building dread that haunts the film. How did you approach writing the grief of losing a child while keeping the suspense of the script so tight?

AS:

The greatest sin a filmmaker can make is to bore their audience. Don’t Look Now is mostly written in brief scenes, each delivering its point before moving on. It’s quite dense. When Nic Roeg came onto the project, the script existed, but we spent weeks with him tweaking each scene and each idea. He once brought two heavyweight religious books to a meeting and said: “Here, read these, they might give you an idea for her dialogue line in the scene we were talking about yesterday.”

There’s a scene where the sisters are walking in a Venice street and Nic said: “Can you give me a line, just a line of dialogue?” Well, we spent days discarding ideas and eventually came up with the blind sister saying “John Milton loved this city.” Milton, author of Paradise Lost, was blind and if ten per cent of the audience understood the reference, that was going to be just fine.

It makes writing a lot easier if you have a simple mantra or theme in your head relevant to your subject matter. We liked the notion of “nothing is what it seems” and once you have that, you can play with it. When John enters the policeman’s room, the cop is reading a book so that he has to look around it before we can see his face.

Writing suspense is, to a large extent, about creating and sustaining an atmosphere of uncertainty. The most important liberty we took with the original short story was — aside from the opening sequence — to give John (Sutherland) a job actually working in Venice where in the short story, they are visiting on holiday.

OB:

What is it like to re-visit this film now? How do you view its role in your writing career?

AS:

The nice thing about seeing the film now is to see how little it has aged. Venice, of course, is eternal and that helps. But the grammar of the film, the storytelling style, the brisk editing were ahead of their times and therefore seem quite relaxed and contemporary when viewed today.

Audiences are much quicker than film makers, who are essentially conservative. When Alain Resnais made Last Year at Marienbad he had a couple walking up the stairs in their day clothes and instantly walking down in evening dress. Today that’s easily understood but at the time it was called outrageous. And then we began to see commercials with housewives putting wet food in the oven, closing the oven door, then opening it to take out a beautifully cooked cake. What Resnais was doing had become part of the grammar of film. We no longer need an exterior establishing shot, then a medium shot where we see someone get out of their car and approach the door etc. We get it. Right there in the room!

I think Don’t Look Now was innovative with its intercutting, flashes forward, montage of memory and the rest. The love scene, entirely created by the director and the actors, was in the script as: “they make love.” But the brilliant notion of intercutting between their love making and their getting dressed was something new at the time.

OB:

You've written films in such a wide variety of genres. Do you enjoy the variety of moving between genres? Would you recommend aspiring and emerging screenwriters learn to do the same?

AS:

Yes, I think a film writer should tackle whatever comes down the pipe. I spent years as a highly paid script doctor in Hollywood and differing genres was what kept you from boredom! I spent a lot of time working on “Dante’s Peak” with the director, Roger Donaldson, getting into hilarious arguments with the studio: “If you let me kill the dog, I will keep the grandmother alive….” But at the end of the day, you’re making entertainment and it comes in so many forms and guises. I offered this advice to my sons (who are not in the industry!): “Become a specialist at comedy. There are so few good comedy directors, so few people with a sense of comedy, if you can get there you will never ever be out of work.”

One of the last words of my (Canadian) friend Peter Simpson were: “You know that old line about dying is easy, comedy is hard? F*ck it.”

OB:

In Don't Look Now (and also The Witches, for example), you're adapting an iconic writer's work. How do you balance bringing the best of a novel or short story to the screen with bringing your own creative input to a narrative?

AS:

My own technique is to read the source material 3 or 4 times, making notes of the moments you like, the ideas you think worth following, the story arcs that work best. Then throw the material away.

Oddly, two of my favourite adaptations — The Witches and Regeneration — both ended up extremely faithful to the source material. All the good stuff remained! I once wrote a script of The Man who would be King which was, I regret to report, made by other hands altogether. It was extremely close to the Kipling story because the story was so strong and so beautifully developed.

OB:

Tell us a little bit about your writing environment. Do you have any rituals or habits when you're working on a script or are you able to write anywhere?

AS:

I think all serious writers, professional writers, should train themselves to work anywhere. I know successful writers who write something 365 days a year. It’s one of those professions which you do because you love to do it. And if you don’t, give it up now!

OB:

What are you working on now?

AS:

I’m working a lot in the theatre at the moment, trying to premiere a big Broadway play called Sophie’s Choice. I have a co-written a thriller called The Conjuror which opens late this year and is aimed at London’s west end and beyond. I’m working with British producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor etc) on an original story set in WW2. My personal passion project is a script I have written many times, adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, called The Queen’s Gambit. I have worked on it with Michael Apted, Bernardo Bertolucci, Tom Tykwer and many others. Its last incarnation was with a lovely man and a fine actor called Heath Ledger, who would have been directing his first film. Tevis wrote The Hustler, The Man who fell to Earth, The Color of Money and others, so there is a pedigree. All we’re missing is production funding!


Allan Scott is a screenwriter whose credits include Don't Look Now, The Preacher's Wife, In Love and War and The Fourth Angel. In 2006 he created the stage musical adaptation of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. He is the producer of the UK/Canada co-production and BAFTA-nominated Regeneration, based on his own screenplay, and is currently preparing to produce David Rintel's adaptation of Sophie's Choice on Broadway.

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