Careers – The Scriptwriter

After studying English at Cambridge, Don MacPherson became a scriptwriter,
and now writes scripts for famous names like Martin Scorcese, Terence Malick, and Mel Gibson. Converse
interviewed him about his time at Cambridge and how he became a scriptwriter.

Don MacPherson

Why did you choose to study English at University?

I’d always enjoyed history at school. Then during my last two years, I’d read Marlowe, Coleridge, Blake and Milton, and they set off a spark. In the early 70s, Romantic poetry seemed tied in to the times – writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge experienced the same spirit of change that we felt nearly 200 years later. You can still hear those voices in ‘The Prelude’ or ‘This Lime Tree Bower.’, as if they’re standing next to you.

Why did you choose Cambridge?

I didn’t so much want to be taught, but to have time to read and find out for myself what I thought. I wasn’t interested in finding the ‘right’ way to read, so I wasn’t attracted to the new universities’ modules. I’d heard that Cambridge was more traditional and yet more radical, and so it turned out. Our world was ‘turning upside down’ (as historian Christopher Hill wrote about the 17th C). So we were looking at a similar breakdown in Elizabethan times with Marlowe, and looking at Modernist poets like Ezra Pound, the Imagists and the legacy of Victorianism. I was particularly interested in how language took part in change.

What was it like when you arrived?

Before I started, I was sent a reading list. I started at the beginning and read A and B – which, by chance, was Jane Austen and William Burroughs. So I read all of their books, alternatively. Pride and Prejudice followed by The Naked Lunch. And that pretty much summed up my time at Cambridge, a sort of radical clash of styles. At the time, there were huge divides in the faculty. There were traditionalists and radicals – poets like J.H.Prynne, structuralists, psychoanalysists – then Leavisites and the liberal critics. No one faction yet dominated the faculty, so there was always debate and dissent, which meant that only die-hards insisted that there was only one way to think. I suppose it’s still the same now.

What did you get from the course?

A great sense of freedom in reading. The best teachers were full of enthusiasm matching your own. You could read everything at once – if you were reading a 19th century novelist like George Eliot or Dickens, you could read Freud or Derrida alongside, thinking about them in entirely new ways. I also discovered writers I’d never have studied, like Pope, Defoe or John Clare. I was always more interested in drama and poetry than the novel. We would look at T.S. Eliot’s politics, how anti-semitism affected his use of language. But paradoxically, the old traditions were at the base of the new freedoms. Practical criticism and close analysis of language permitted this freedom in stretching interpretations. And this underpinned the wildest ideas. Burroughs particularly interested me – a novelist who was stretching the limits of language. What gives a poetic image currency? How does metaphor create meaning? At what point does poetic language become meaningless? It was like travelling – the best teachers didn’t give us a map with the correct routes already mapped out; instead, we’d head off to the furthest shores of China, but they’d shout loudly to bring us back if we got lost. Working with actors has made me realise how reading English isn’t the only way to do this. Actors are trained to explore texts very differently, but know how details of a comma can be vital clues to character and emotion. So the downside of studying English is that you can read language to win arguments like a lawyer or a theorist, rather than as a writer or creative person alive to the language. That’s why you need debate in a faculty, to keep different points of view alive.

What did you do after you graduated?

I’d always been obsessed by film. When I was a student, I watched movies all the time – 20 a week. I wrote the film reviews for Broadsheet and Varsity, the student newspaper. This was before videos, so you had to get a projector and show them at night – which meant that early morning lectures never really happened. When I left, I went to London in 1976 during the punk summer. I got involved with a movie theatre, became a journalist for Time Out and then became a film critic. I freelanced for The Sunday Times, I worked for the BBC on the ‘Arena’ programme. Then finally I stayed in the house for 3 years and lived off potatoes, until I finished my own first scripts.

When I left, I went to London in 1976, which was an incredibly exciting
time. I got involved with a movie theatre, became a journalist for Time
Out and then became a film critic. And finally I stayed in the house
for 3 years until I finished my first film script.

How did you get into writing screenplays?

I started submitting ideas to the BBC. I eventually got commissioned, did some original plays. Then I got a costume drama to do. Basically, you have to write your own screenplays, for which you don’t get paid – but if you get noticed, you can get lucky and get commissions. It’s a risk, a gamble, not to be recommended. I wrote a script which the actress Jodie Foster bought, and she recommended me to others. I got work at Warner Bros. That brought in lots of work in America, though I’ve always been careful to stay living and working in England.

What’s it like writing screenplays?

The nature of the job is to spend a lot of time on scripts that are never produced. I spent 2 years doing an adaptation of Tale of Two Cities for Terry Gilliam, but the budget soared. I spent a year on a Spielberg project called Spares, before he went off to do A.I. instead. So since I started, I’ve written lots of bits of scripts – for Possession, Godzilla, The Avengers, and Alien 3 for example – but scripts for films can get cut up and messed about. Writing for TV can be much more immediate – but cinema is more of a passion. Now I write about two scripts a year, all freelance. I’m currently working on an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter for Martin Scorsese, and by coincidence just did an adaptation of Brighton Rock for Terrence Malick. I’m also working on an original project for Mel Gibson.

How did your degree help you in your career?

I still go back to the most unexpected things: the Tragedy paper, or maybe Malory or Tourneur. Recently I was discussing the poet Thomas Traherne, which is an odd shared passion with Malick. Most importantly, my time at Cambridge gave me the confidence to trust my own instincts, but it also gave me a critical intelligence I needed to become a journalist and critic. On the other hand, I had to lose that critical way of reading when I began to write for myself. To be able to write well, you can’t just be smart, basically you have to find your own voice.

Who are your favourite writers?

Well, I seem to be going backwards. This year I discovered Sir Thomas Wyatt. And Ovid. But some of the modern writers who are the most exploratory are slightly off the academic map. I do think the success of English as a discipline has caused huge self-consciousness in the literary world. It means the battle for the tradition and the set text has become a reviewers’ game. I see people like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes or Salman Rushdie hailed as great writers. But, frankly, if you wanted to figure out the 60s, you wouldn’t read Larkin. I probably prefer Iain Sinclair, J.G.Ballard, Angela Carter, James Kelman or Irvine Welsh – people who are slightly on the margins of the literary world. In my opinion, Amis and McEwan may be great writers, but not great novelists. They fulfil a need for polished ‘literary prose’ which can become sterile and middlebrow, writing a place for themselves in the critical establishment. I’m uneasy with that feeling of a national park or game reserve for literature, fenced off from life. Often, I find Commonwealth and American writers have more engagement with language and modern experience of upheaval. They have more of a sense of ‘sod the tradition, I’m going to write this my way’. It seems to me that those voices can have much more roughness, unevenness, and general immediacy, so maybe if you were looking for a new Shakespeare, you’d probably now look to India.

Thanks very much, Don! It was great to talk to you.