Jon Ronson interview: Okja, books, The Butterly Effect, Jason Statham
Jon Ronson talks to us about writing Okja, writing films, his upcoming projects and Jason Statham...
This is the second time that Den Of Geek has had the pleasure of interviewing author, screenwriter and broadcaster Jon Ronson. The occasion this time was the release of the film Okja, that he’s co-written. The first time? Well, that seemed like a good place to start this interview…
I did always wonder how I’d start a conversation with you, given that the last time you and our website crossed, it nearly brought down Den Of Geek altogether…!
You know what, I’ve got a memory of this. But my memory’s so shit, you’re going to have to remind me!
You touched on it in the early passages of The Psychopath Test. We interviewed you ahead of the release of the film The Men Who Stare At Goats, and there was a conversation about a man in that, that led to a significant legal threat. This was at a stage when we were a very small site, and we were very close to closing as a result [obviously, I can’t go back through the exact details here. It was not a fun experience for us or for Jon].
So my question to you: what’s your next trick?!
[Laughs] I’ve got nothing! I try and keep away from particularly problematic people these days! Life is too short!
I’ve been reading a lot about your own writing approach, and your Raymond Carver influences. How the precision of a full stop, or a piece of punctuation, can have such a dramatic effect. I find it interesting when people go from articles and books to screenplays, given that scripts are generally described as the most popular thing that nobody will ever read. When you approach screenwriting, how do you translate that?
Film writing is a lot more of an ego-less endeavour! I’m really interested in this stuff. Bong [Joon Ho] has already written the first draft of the film, but he wanted an English-speaking writer to collaborate with after that. He sent me this draft that was already brilliant. So I was wondering what do I do? Do I try and overwhelm his points with mine? No, that would be stupid. Stupid because his stuff was already so brilliant. What I wanted to do was try and give him my best version of his voice.
Right from the beginning, it’s ego-less. And then I’m not on set, so if an actor of Bong wants to change the lines on set, that’s just what happens. It’s fine. Film is like a casserole. Everybody is thrown into a pot, and we’re all in it together. But Bong is really brilliant, and one of the things he’s most brilliant at is allowing people to put their own stamp on something while always being the leader. He was very much the leader, always knew exactly what he wanted. It’s totally Bong’s film. But he wasn’t like an autocrat. He was always open to other people’s ideas.
What this means when you’re writing a film is unless you’re a writer-director, or an auteur, you’re throwing ideas into the pot. I was offering Bong my best version of his film, some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t.
Bong as director is incredibly precise. I saw him move an actor’s arm up an inch for a shot. But as a film writer, I think you have to relinquish that need for precision and control. You just don’t get it with films, which is fine. I get that with every other thing that I do. With film, it’s a completely different thing.
Bong’s precision is well known. But then also, he approached you. I can’t believe that a filmmaker that precise picks you to be an echo chamber for his ideas. There’s a reason that he’s picked you precisely?
Yes. The specific reason was that he really liked Frank! And then he read The Psychopath Test as well! And I think he likes the melancholy humour of Frank, and thought that I could bring some of that to Okja. But what’s really interesting about Bong is the way that he’s very precise, and he’s always in control, but at the same time he is really open to other people’s voices. Tilda [Swinton] was really involved in how this film feels. I had my input into that, the director of photography did. The man who designed the animal had a huge influence on the film. It felt like a perfect combination, working for somebody totally in charge, but still really open to other peoples’ ideas. It was a very happy balance.
He gets to where he wants on people’s shoulders, rather than their backs?
Yeah. It was perfect. I think there were some of his ideas in the film that were utterly brilliant, too. I was thinking about them this morning. I was so lucky to be working with a man who’s that brilliant. I don’t think films are always that happy an experience, but this one was.
You seem to be going against the old cliché then that the happy production tends to lead to a less satisfying film. The reaction here has been a lot more positive already.
Yeah. I didn’t see any unhappiness.
You know how Twitter works. Do you want to make up a story of a punch-up or something?
[Laughs] I was only on set for four or five days. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. I have massive respect for Tilda, for Bong, for everyone I worked with on it. Tilda gave me notes too that helped influence the script.
You were having Skype chats with her, I read!
Yeah. And I had various meetings, and sent me emails that were really, really helpful. That’s why I bring Bong and Tilda up particularly, because they were the two I was the most collaborating with.
I always sense of you a love of film. If I’m reading this story right, Netflix gave the film a sizeable budget – $50m-ish…
I think it was a bit more than that, but there were some tax breaks too that brought it down to that figure.
They also coupled that with giving creative control for Bong. The trade off being, though, that most people will watch Okja on a mobile phone or an iPad. What’s your view on that?
Honestly? When was the last time… what you have to remember with Okja is that it’s a big budget film. There’s CGI, there’s crowd scenes, things get destroyed. When was the last time that studios gave idiosyncratic people like Bong total big budget control? There are a few exceptions, like Harvey Weinstein with Quentin Tarantino. Other than that, I can’t remember this kind of thing happening routinely since the days of The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider and stuff. For people of our age, those were the best movies of our lifetime. Netflix and Amazon are recreating that kind of golden age of cinema.
Okja I don’t think would have been made if Netflix hadn’t made it. That to me is a much bigger thing than whether someone watches it on a big screen or a phone. Because it simply wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
The closest example I can get to it was Colossal. A film that had to be crowdfunded effectively to even get a small budget together in the first place.
Right. There’s a few lucky people. With small budget films it’s an easier deal. For a movie that’s $50m, or even $20m, I don’t think – unless you’re Tarantino, Kubrick – I don’t think the films are going to get made. If the old studios are worried about Netflix and Amazon, then should act more like them, and give money and control to these great outside voices like Bong.
I showed my children the animated version of Animal Farm the other week. It always reminds me that if you want to get a flavour of the history and politics of a period, read as much fiction as you do fact. The majority of your writing is fact-based. When you move over to fiction, are you keen to inject your work still with a factual sense to it? Something that resonates about the period in which the piece in question was made?
I think Okja is a film that does that, but I think an awful lot of that came from Bong. What I think was a really lucky coincidence was that a lot of the themes of Okja are things I write about a lot. Cognitive dissonance, and corporate greed, and also the internal politics of fringe groups. Okja, a lot of that stuff came to me from Bong, and then I added some stuff to it and so on. It felt like it was always there anyway.
You’re juggling a whole bunch of things when you write a screenplay. When I worked with Peter Straughan on Frank, he would like really hammer into me things like the narrative has to constantly move forward. But in future projects, I’m hopefully going to start to work on something new imminently, I’m just waiting to see if I’m allowed. Part of the fun of it is to juggle all of these things and move forward. Character and plot are I think the most important ingredients in a screenplay, but then trying to add some of those moments that offer a window into where we are today.
I’m guessing in terms of film adaptations of your other work, it sounds like we’ll never see the Mike White script of Them!, that Edgar Wright was interested in directing?
It sounds like a great script.
I think I’ve got a copy of it at home somewhere. It was very thin. He did it on small paper, and I think it’s hidden between a couple of books! It’s maddening, because it was really good. Really fucking good.
Is there anything you can do with that? Does it just die now as they’ve not made the film?
Yeah. Actually, the rights reverted back to me. There was something in the contract that said if they didn’t make the movie within seven years – I think it was seven years – then the rights to the book go back to me. I own the rights again now.
Is that my exclusive then? That you’re going off to make the film tomorrow? That’s kind of you to say.
[Laughs] I wish. If somebody came to me with a really good idea as to how to make Them! work… A lot of the people in that rule the world now.
How about The Psychopath Test? I read that a film version of that was in the hands of Jay Roach, but there’s not been any fresh news on that for a year or so. Is that still out there?
Yes, yes. To my knowledge that’s still going. Kristin Gore is writing the script, with Scarlett Johansson attached. To the best of my knowledge, that’s exactly where it still is. There’s hope!
There’s hope for your audio series The Butterfly Effect too, it seems, that’s been your coming soon project for… let’s go with ‘a fairly long time’…! I gather the end point is near.
[Laughs] It’s all finished.
Nobody believes you!
I made my last creative decision on it about four or five days ago. There was a little bit of music that was a little too loud. The reason that it’s not going to come out until July is that I think Audible want to give it the best push they can, and they wanted to give it a bit more time to put that into place. Nothing to do with the storytelling at this point. It’s all finished, they just wanted a good launch!
In fact, they’re even thinking about season two of The Butterfly Effect now!
None of us are going to live long enough to see that, surely?!
[Laughs] That’s the problem with me. Marc Maron can go off and interview somebody, and interview them for an hour and a half, and they have such a moment between them and that’s basically the show. They might cut out ten minutes or so. But I not only not do that, I don’t really want to do that. If I interview somebody for an hour, I’m looking for four amazing minutes.
You’ve called it sculpting when describing it before.
Yeah, it’s a much more labour intensive thing, which means the stuff I do takes a lot longer than many other people, it’s more expensive to produce but hopefully – if it works – it’s more rewarding. It lasts longer, and hopefully people enjoy it more. There are moments with The Butterfly Effect where I’d fly to Los Angeles for two days and we’d end up with 45 seconds that we could use in the show. But that’s just the way I like to do stuff. It’s why I take so long.
I’ve got to say I love it. I’m very happy with it and proud of it. I think it equals any of my books, and I think it’s the best audio I’ve ever done. There are a couple of ‘Jon Ronson On’s that I really love, but I think this is the best audiobook I’ve ever done.
The plan is that it’ll be exclusive to Audible and Amazon Prime for three months, then after that, it goes out on iTunes and places like that.
If I can end with my fanboy question. I thought So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was an incredible piece of work. To find the human beings in the midst of some very unpleasant stories, without getting sidetracked by the technology and the noise. It’s been a couple of years since the book’s been published. But I’m curious: what’s the resonance of it in your day to day life, or do you think that the likes of Twitter are just worse now?
I think it goes through waves. You know what? I actually think these days things are a little better. You definitely still get spikes of outrage, but hovering over them are the lessons learned, just in a less school-teachery way! You do have these rages, but I think they’re imbued with a greater knowledge of what these means. The book, Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk, Glenn Greenwald. We haven’t stopped shaming, but I think when shaming’s happen, people are a little more cogniscent of things.
One last question, then. What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?
Oh my god. I think I’ve only ever seen one Jason Statham film.
It was a good one?
Yeah! It was the one where he made fun of himself.
Yeah! It’s my favourite Jason Statham film and the only Jason Statham film I’ve ever seen!
Jon Ronson, thank you very much!
Okja is on Netflix now. The Butterfly Effect is released next month.