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Laurence Coriat on screenwriting: concepts, beliefs & philosophies

Published in IndiVision News April 2008.

Laurence Coriat is the acclaimed London-based screenwriting collaborator of Michael Winterbottom. Her writing credits include Wonderland, which was selected for competition at Cannes in 1999 and won the Best British Film Award that year. She also collaborated with Winterbottom on A Mighty Heart with Angelina Jolie, and co-wrote Me Without You, which was selected for Venice in 2001. Laurence has also co-written Winterbottom's latest two projects, Genova, starring Colin Firth and Catherine Keener, and Seven Days.


Laurence Coriat: As you know I am French, so I was brought up with the French New Wave, which I think in a way is the precursor of low-budget filmmaking because they decided to make films in the streets without extras, without lights, on the fly. And that gave them the freedom to do the films they wanted to make. In that sense they found a new language of cinema by doing that. So the constrictions of having no money was actually what you express in your philosophy about IndiVision - it is a creative way of making films. I was very much wanting to make films in that way. That was in the 1960s of course. More recently there has been a new, revived way of doing these things from Denmark, for instance Zentropa. Lars von Trier said, "I want to make films and the way to make films is to do it that way. I am not going to wait five years to find the money."

I am a scriptwriter originally but there is no sense in writing the script if it doesn't get made into a film. What is exciting is making the film. So in that sense, I have been very lucky that I have been working with Michael Winterbottom who is very prolific. I have also written a lot of screenplays that didn't get made. I don't know if it is necessarily because they are higher budgets but there is a kind of philosophy of development in England - I don't know so much about Australia - where you end up writing and writing and the more time you are writing the more the script changes and gets done to death in a sense. And then you get frustrated because five years later you have got a script that hasn't been made into a film, so it is not very interesting. Also you don't learn as a scriptwriter, you don't learn how to get better, because what is interesting is to see your words in the script and how they translate into a film. I have been lucky because I have been working with Michael... thinking of ideas that are feasible, which is what I am interested in.

As I said, I like the French New Wave - for me when I wrote the script for Wonderland it was this idea. I know we are going to shoot in London and to get a sense of the city - I wasn't really interested in recreating scenes with extras. So it would have to be done in the street, filming in real location. And of course Michael, that is exactly what he wanted to do.

He made A Mighty Heart the same way as he made Wonderland in a sense, even though it is a studio film and there is a big star in it. They were shooting in Pakistan and the way he will do it is he will go out with the camera guy and he will film like you shoot a documentary, going certain places. He films a lot - it is his method. It is not right for everybody. There isn't one way of doing things. But for him, it is the way he does things. He will film a lot and then make the film in the editing also.

With Wonderland, because again the film is an ensemble piece, I think the way I approach writing is a bit unusual - it is not very structured. The ensemble piece is a different structure and I like different structures. It is almost like a symphony and Wonderland has a very strong musical score - to me it was very much about rhythm and motif and writing it like music. So there were scenes with ideas at the core, an emotional thing happens, and that is what Michael would start the actors with - what was written - and then they would improvise into the scene and out of the scene. Some actors love improvising and so some of the lines I didn't write. Somebody like Shirley Henderson is great. They just love riffing off and some of their lines are fantastic. Gina McKee, for instance, she doesn't like improvising, so she stuck mostly to the script. A friend of mine was the sound guy on the film and he had those mics, so in between the takes the three sisters would be sitting and still be in character. I don't think they used any of that. I am sure sometimes Michael would film things without people knowing also. With this idea of improvisation people think, "Oh, you improvised", but you don't improvise out of nowhere. Shirley was very nice because when I talked to her she said, "You gave me so much on the page, that is why it was so easy. An actor needs something." To me what is interesting is getting the emotional sense of a scene. I am not the kind of writer that writes words that has to be definitely this word. The word is so weighty; it is more to do with the character and how they speak and how they appropriate themselves with the character. It is fantastic as a writer to see an actor finding it inspiring and going off.

In terms of character, somebody asked me that question, I can't remember who it was, about whether I did a lot of work on the characters and actually I don't. I kind of write organically. I will maybe write a scene about a situation and then suddenly the character will come out. The problem with writing is that you can be so stereotyped if you start thinking you know. What is hard to do is to get the layers of a character and I guess that's why an ensemble piece is so exciting for me. Some people say it is really hard to write. For me it is easy because you can put a character in a situation with one person and they can be a certain way, and then with another person they reveal another side of themselves. So it is quite a good concept to get a very layered idea of somebody, not a one-dimensional thing. To me it comes quite naturally in that sense. I don't know if the writers here will relate but the secondary characters are always easier to write, they come out really quite strongly. With the main character it is much harder to give them flesh and to give them this real point of view, for me anyway.

In terms of point of view, in an ensemble piece you have all these points of view and the trick is following all of these. There are interesting things going on with point of view where the point of view is not necessarily followed through in the most powerful way. There is the point of view of the character - and then there is the point of view of the writer, which is the democratic thing. The point of view of the writer, the director, it is kind of like the tree of life - that is what you are following.


Watch the video of Laurence speaking at the Lab.

Screenwriter Laurence Coriat gives her opening address at the IndiVision Lab 2008.


Wonderland, written by Laurence Coriat.