William Monahan interview: The Gambler, Oblivion and more

Writer and director William Monahan tells us about his latest film, The Gambler, the changes made to Oblivion and more...

With his screenplay for The Departed, William Monahan took the bones of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and gave it new flesh. His ear for melodic dialogue and the nuances of its Boston setting earned Monahan an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the film was a critical and financial hit for director Martin Scorsese.

The Gambler is another remake for Monahan; this time, of the 1974 film of the same name, originally written by James Tolback. As with The Departed, Monahan takes the raw materials of an earlier story – that of a college professor who’s also a self-destructive gambling addict – and gives it a new slant.

Mark Wahlberg’s in the title role, while such heavyweights as John Goodman, Michael K Williams and Jessica Lange all get to curl their tongues around Monahan’s velvety dialogue.

With The Gambler out in the UK this week, here’s Monahan’s take on writing the movie, his memories of working with Ridley Scott on Kingdom Of Heaven, its brutal theatrical edit and its acclaimed directors cut, and his thoughts on Oblivion – the sci-fi film for which he wrote the first draft screenplay.

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When writing a remake like The Gambler, is it a case of finding your own angle on an established story?

I wouldn’t do anything unless I had my own angle. I find myself often realising with astonishment how few people realise that writing’s always the teller and not the tale. You merely have to look at Shakespeare to know this. Stories are a dime a dozen and everybody has them. More fiction gets told to therapists or the police or in court or the newspapers than ever got laid down in a Viking longhouse. There was a previous Hamlet, but not now there isn’t.

Were you concerned about making a central character, who’s both privileged and saddled with an addiction that many won’t have first-hand experience of, relatable to the audience?

I don’t believe in addiction. Everything is voluntary. There are substance dependencies but those are also voluntary. If you look at an addiction, so called, you always find self-indulgence or wilfulness.

Just because people have careers saying otherwise doesn’t make it true. We also still have vicars on salary. That doesn’t mean they’re doing anything but talking into a hatbox. As for Jim being “privileged,” rich people can be and are as unhappy as anybody else. In fact they have more latitude for full-bore existential crisis.

When I was a young man and had no money I thoroughly enjoyed myself and appreciated things more. If you have to choose between guitar strings and a bag of rice you know exactly where you are and what you have to do, which is work. That is not the case with wealthy people, who can be very unhappy and complicated indeed.

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Most literary art is about aristocrats with problems or working class people with ambitions. The middle class is deluded, vain, and boring. It only sparkles with life when people rebel from its blandishments and Christmas letters about Billy being at Harvard and Suzy being at Smith.

In America especially, people with ordinary jobs and two week vacations try to think they’re Lord and Lady Bumfodder if they have a tartan dog bed, a fake Mayflower chest, and a house and car that actually belong to the bank. The only way out of that is bohemianism, with the trick being you have to be an artist or an intellectual who can make a living.

It’s not enough to live in a yurt and believe in polyamory. That’s just another kind of conformity, and conformity is what Jim is trying by any means not to have. 

To what degree does Jim Bennett’s lecture about needing to be a genius to survive as a writer reflect your own opinions?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to be a genius, does it? No one would ask a similar question of an athlete, and there’s possibly a problem in that.

Did you feel a duty to retain a semblance of similarity to James Toback’s screenplay, given that it was partly based on his own experiences?

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No. Everything anybody writes is de facto “based on his experiences” even if you’re doing a space opera. The present script is based on my observation, interests and, by a lesser argument, experiences, much more than it is on the earlier film. Had I not done my own thing no one would have ever done the picture.

The original film was often regarded as being a retelling of Dostoyevsky’s story of the same name, while your screenplay introduces a lecture about Camus’ The Outsider. What was your thinking behind that?

That actually came from reality. I had the idea at school that Camus’ character reserved the last bullet for himself. It seemed to work in the story. Jim had to talk about something and have a history as an academic person.

How did the process of writing The Gambler compare to The Departed, which was a far more loose remake?

There was no difference in process and The Gambler is in fact not less loosed from the original. Perhaps that’s more visible with text, but no one provides texts.

Does it take a very specific type of writer to be a Hollywood screenwriter, and see your work change in subsequent drafts?

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The Gambler was shot off the first draft. The issue one normally has is that a script times at a page per minute. If you write 120 pages and shoot it, you have a 120 minute assembly when a 90 minute film will be asked for. So balances and nuance can come out that are essential to the whole and it’s usually not artists doing it.

Those missing bits are inevitably ascribed to “the script”, meaning the writer, when of course he is the least responsible party. You have to be made out of very cold steel to periodically undergo global abuse for someone else’s decisions. That’s all part of being a big boy and being worth anything in this profession. 

What’s that experience like, to work on the first draft (or several drafts) of a screenplay, and see it head off on a different trajectory as it goes through different hands?

Sometimes drafts are the way things go to make the shooter, and sometimes you shoot the original, after draft work. Draft work is always an interesting learning journey if one has a master collaborator. You learn things about physical production, the business, and the world, not just the art on the page.

How did the version of Oblivion alter from your draft, for example?

It differed enormously. I’d written something I think very good, perhaps a science fiction classic, which I imagine got the film greenlit, and then it was turned by subsequent writers into cannon fodder, despite Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman and Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko, all of whom I love. There’s nothing left of me except drone behaviour, some story, the seawater collectors, and Horatius at the Gate. I never tried for credit. The director and the studio made their bed and they can have it. Not taking credit probably cost me a significant amount in royalties, but I don’t care.

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With Kingdom Of Heaven, it must have been frustrating to see the film edited so heavily for cinemas. Was it a relief to see the Director’s Cut emerge to much greater acclaim?

Oh yes. But the studio made its mistake, which is more intelligible to me more now than then, though it was still a mistake, and it can’t be taken back. Had Kingdom Of Heaven come out at full length in December it would have swept the Oscars and made much more money theatrically.

There’s no point in being bitter. This is a one-shot business based on one-shot productions and one-shot releases and people inevitably make their mistakes. A playwright can do another production, but in film you have your production and that’s it. A lot of things and people and material have to whirl together for a film to be made, and nobody’s going to give you a second 200 million dollars.

In the paperwork, the studio is The Author. That is a very old contrivance originally intended to deny writers the power and money they had and have in the West End or on whatever remains of Broadway. Regardless of that, film is a literary profession at its core. With no script, there’s nothing else.

What are your memories of Kingdom Of Heaven’s making?

Magic. Imagine being on your first produced movie and it’s not only Ridley Scott but the set of Jerusalem is the largest in history. We stayed in old monasteries in Spain and had a marvellous time. I visited the Lawrence Of Arabia location in Seville, and I bought my novel back from its publisher. It was gestural but it meant that I was where I intended to be.

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It seemed like only moments before I had written “siege towers” in a Massachusetts college town, and then there they were in Morocco, siege towers, and there were a hundred guys with bags slung over donkeys picking up stones to get a better surface for the cavalry. It was dazzling. It still is. I have one of the swords on my work table and always will, which actually leads to a story.

One day there was a knock on my trailer in Spain and the sword-masters said they’d been over and over a fight and couldn’t make it better than the one I’d written in detail and they wanted me to know that. Top men, to say that. To make a point of saying that. I can’t imagine anything finer than the best English sword-masters saying “We’re doing yours.” I don’t think I’m prouder of anything. I watched and learned everything I could and enjoyed it more than I can say, in more dimensions than I can say.

However, during that period I was ill and didn’t know it. I started to get fat even though I ate and drank normally. I felt like shit and I survived on coffee and tea. It took ten years before I was told I had the worst metabolism‐destroying sleep apnea in the history of the Mass General neurology department and was lucky to be alive.

That I was a “high achiever” and maintained my schedule was regarded as a miracle. I was drowning every night. Apnea really gets you. I not only got fat without apparent cause, I started to react horribly to the sun in North Africa, when I’d spent a lot of life at sea and had never had a problem. There was obviously something wrong with my body, all through that period, but I was too busy to look into it and just kept going.

I directed a film while unwell and nearly dead and never missed a mark. I don’t know how I did that. Now I sleep well and wake up feeling fine. It’s a luxury I never knew for most of my adult life. It’s interesting to get fat when you’ve been heedlessly fit, and perhaps vain. You learn a lot about people and yourself and vanity never resurfaces. 

Did working with directors like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese prepare you for your work as a director?

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Yes, inevitably, in an observational way. But I didn’t process that they had more power than me, the most vital thing, until London Boulevard was cut to pieces and got badly reviewed because of it. But my education in taking precautions was not complete. I do gamble. I never get stabbed in the front for various reasons, but my back looks like the cutlery department.

How did working with Rupert Wyatt compare with the other directors you’ve collaborated with?

Rupert is a very great director. He has great focus and intensity of a kind I have seen before. He is a born and brilliant director. There was a 100% division of labour. I wrote the script and he went off and shot it. I was doing something else. I visited the set only once and he was sitting there alone on a folding chair eating lunch in a puffy jacket, thinking about the next thing in his day. I didn’t bother him. I’ve been there.

Might we one day see your screenplay of Blood Meridian become a film?

I don’t think so. I think it has too much money “against it” for anyone to pick it up. It’s one of the best scripts I’ve done. It is also very violent and I don’t think that can be stomached at the budget necessary. I wouldn’t want to see a version that pulled punches.

Do you think it’s a bit unfortunate that some screenplays are never made into films, but also remain out of sight for most of the public, too? Would you publish a collection of your unfilmed screenplays if you could?

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I do intend to do a volume or three called First Drafts one of these days. It’s not unfortunate that some films are never made, so much as it’s merely the case.

William Monahan, thank you very much.

The Gambler is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd February.

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