BY JON MEYERS — As you, my readers, know well, my favorite film of this summer was Ben Elton’s Three Summers, which I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June. After posting my review online, Ben’s wife, musician Sophie Gare, made Ben read my review (usually, he notoriously avoids reviews at all costs). Ben sent me an extremely gracious Thank You letter — and after I responded, he even more graciously agreed to the interview you are about to read.
Ben Elton is a film, theatre, and television writer/director. He is also a best-selling novelist, a stand-up comedian, an actor. Born in Catford South East London in 1959, Ben became an Australian citizen in 2004. He and Sophie have three children and live in Fremantle Western Australia.
Best known in the US for The Young Ones (BBC 1982/4, MTV 1985) Writer (with Rik Mayall and Lisa Meyer), Blackadder 2 (1983) Co-writer with Richard Curtis, Blackadder The Third (1987) Co-writer with Richard Curtis, Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) Co-writer with Richard Curtis — and currently Upstart Crow (2016/17/18) Writer. Ben also wrote Mr Bean’s “exam” episode. As far as feature films go, he has worked on at least a dozen, but is best known for Maybe Baby (2000) Writer/Director — and of course now, Three Summers (2017) Writer/Director.
THE BEN ELTON INTERVIEW
JON MEYERS: Thank you so much, Ben Elton for giving me this interview. Before we get to Three Summers, a rare gem of a film, for certain, I’d like to ask about your process, the nuts-and-bolts of your screenwriting regimen. Tell me about your typical sequence from initial thought to logline to first draft to shooting script.
BEN ELTON: Just to start I should say that I am very much a ‘writer’ as opposed to a ‘screenwriter’. Some writers specialize in screen I know, particularly in America where you have such a massive and vibrant industry. Such a selective decision would be more problematic in the UK (or Australia) where we don’t really have a movie industry as such but just make some films sometimes. I started in TV and moved on to theatre and novels before I had a chance at making a movie and then it was seventeen years before I made another!
JM: How detailed is your initial outline?
BE: Not very at all, be it for a TV show, novel, play or screenplay. I begin with an idea perhaps with the big broad scope of where it might take me vaguely in my head. Then I begin. Just trying to get stuff down. Pushing ahead, making notes as I go along as to where it might go (and new places it might start). Only when I have wrestled my way into it by simply writing to I begin to consider the detail of the plot. My process of writing is like that EM Forster quote. How can I know what I’m writing until I can see at least something of what I’ve written.
JM: Do you notecard?
BE: I don’t know what note card is. I scrawl notes on bits of paper and open numerous hopeful ‘word’ documents to try and collate my thoughts. Once when writing a series of a sit com with multiple plots I did write bits on different coloured cards and blue tack them across the book shelves, but only once.
JM: Does it start longhand then at some point you start typing, or is it typing all along?
BE: Teaching myself to type was the best think I ever did. All my early work was in long hand. I actually built up a horrible callus on my pen finger that got infected (too much information?) and then nobody could read it anyway. Then when I could type I got an electronic type writer and within a year on the suggestion of Stephen Fry I bought a Mac Classic that was in 1985. I started word processing and have scarcely written a word in long hand since. Word processing has been incredible for me. All my scripts prior to that were covered in stuck on additions and pasted instructions to see attached rewrite.
JM: Do you use Final Draft or something else?
BE: I use Final Draft and have done since the late 90’s. I wish they wouldn’t upgrade it, I really only need what they had at the beginning but I guess they have to create product to sell. It’s quite brilliant and I should like to say thank you to whoever designed it. For prose (novels and stand up routines) I use Word.
JM: Now that we know your typical process, did Three Summers vary in anyway?
BE: No all my writing is the same. An idea occs to me and I begin to improvise with it on the page. When I have something I think worthy of sharing I bring in the relevant colleagues, Producer for a movie or TV or Publisher for a novel, get their notes and keep working.
JM: Realizing you knew all along you’d be directing yourself, does that affect the number of drafts?
BE: No I don’t think so. A movie always takes more drafts because the stakes are so high, even a little movie like mine was 3.5 million dollars, that’s a lot of money which means a lot of stake holders so a lot of notes. But I don’t mind, I’ve never had a note I didn’t like (after swallowing my initial anger!) even the ones you think are wrong tell you something and are a spur to further thought.
JM: Your answer to my very first question at the start of this interview, that you are a ‘writer,’ as opposed to a ‘screenwriter,’ reminded me of something Neil Gaiman said recently. As you know, Gaiman writes for multiple platform just as you do. I was at a Q&A with him, and someone asked him if his initial story idea is usually immediately coupled with its eventual platform, or does the idea have to develop a bit, before he decides “This would make a great novel,” or “This would make a great film script?”
His answer was that usually the story immediately dictates the platform. He has had a story end more hopeful than expected, causing him to rewrite it as a children’s or YA book — but other than that, he usually sees the shape of the work simultaneously with the idea.
How about you? Working in so many mediums, does the initial idea usually end up on the platform you expected? Was that the case with Three Summers? There are so many stories and themes so expertly woven together in that film. Was each component always a part of the whole from the start, or were any of the characters/storylines originally part of a separate work?
BE: I can’t think of a time when I started writing a story in one genre and switched as it developed. If I start a novel for instance it stays a novel. The same for a play or a sit com. I think it’s possible that with the novels some of them might have been started as screenplays if I lived in a world where I had a better than average chance of getting one green lit. But no such world exists we all know that Movies are so hard to get going, you have to absolutely focus on them and keep pushing sometimes for many years. I am impatient so I I have a good idea for a big sweeping story I’ll write a novel because I know I can get it published. Three Summers always had to be a movie, it was inspired by a specific event in a specific environment and I never thought of doing it as a comic novel. I absolutely wanted to make that film from the moment the idea occurred to me and so I went through that long and tough process of development to get it made. It was a mission for me. The multi character/story element are crucial because it’s set at a music festival over three years and the whole point of the various narratives is how they interconnect and affect each other. Most of the characters and components were with me from very early on because they were inspired by a real place and real experiences (not that any of it is based directly on anyone). So no, I didn’t cherry pick from previous ideas, the screenplay was very much a specific endeavour entirely of itself. I’m pretty practical in my approach to my writing, if I decide to write a sit com then it’ll be a sit com, same for a play, a stand up routine or a musical. With Three Summers it had to be a movie, that was it’s reason for being in my head and I was so excited at the idea that I decided it was worth going through the ordeal of development Hell to try and get it made.
JM: Interesting viewpoint, and practical indeed. You seem to be such a positive person, so I can see why the story had to be worth going through the ordeal of development in order to pursue it. I personally appreciate that you did so — because Three Summers is outstanding. The way you interwove so many storylines, and tied them all up by the end was masterful. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so bear with my vagueness.) And the concept of watching these people over the course of three summers was a brilliant way to compare and contrast their personal development as characters. Brilliant.
You mentioned that most of the characters and components in Three Summers were there from the beginning, which is the perfect lead-in to my next question. I write ensembles as well, and I once wrote an entire feature filled with a dozen disparate characters so I could tell a reoccurring joke about picking a safe. In my case, my joke was there in the beginning.
In your case, however, even though Three Summers has its fair share of reoccurring jokes (the theramin/Tannerin/Beach Boys thing, to name just one), unlike my safe cracking jokes, your jokes are expertly woven into the characters. The jokes aren’t just the frosting; they are baked into the cake. Every line spoken matters. Share a little about that process. I’m familiar with your comedic tone (A reoccurring joke in The Young Ones played a small part in one of the ways I craft my own writing actually — a story for another time.), but everyone in Three Summers has their own identifiable comedic tone. Each character’s humour is organic to themselves. Please share a little bit about how those pieces fall into place.
BE: I’m glad you feel the humour is organic to the characters because I certainly don’t think jokes are ever just frosting (or if they are they will not on the whole be very good jokes). For me comedy comes from truth and in the case of characters that means the jokes develop from within. I did have a broad idea of many of my characters at the start but as I already mentioned, for me everything is an improvisation, things grow as you write. The characters develop through successive drafts and with them the humour, sometimes you have to discard good gags because they are no longer true to who the characters have become – which of course means they are no longer good jokes! It’s painful but you have to let stuff go if it’s no longer honest. In the case of one story thread in Three Summers the truth only finally emerged in the edit! The two VW campers couples were actually written as much less cheerful people, my idea had been that they were in deep denial about the stalled nature of their lives and that their good spirits were forced and slightly desperate and that their wine-soaked dinners were punctuated by slightly grim silences. But working with the actors on the day (I cast them from tapes, met them all that morning and we did every single one of their scenes in a single day) I improvised the parking scene with the traffic cones. It turned out so funny and and their characters so lovable that in the edit I decided to use the more upbeat and cheery takes of their dinners, cutting the sad sighs and empty moments and making them less downbeat, still stuck in a rut but not so downhearted about it. Drinking more out of gentle boredom than actual desperation. They turned out so lovable and it made for much gentler and more positive feeling comedy. I was actually only originally going to use the ‘cone’ parking in the first year but I ended up using it for all three, you’ll notice they are wearing exactly the same clothes across three years! That’s because they’re all the same scene, I just stretched my luck in the edit.
JM: I did notice the VW campers had the same clothes on, but I just thought that was part of their yearly sameness in-rut-stuck deal — the way certain people wear the same rock t-shirt every time they go see their favorite band. I mentioned your positivity earlier in the interview, so I love that you shifted the tone of these four in the edit. Had they remained downbeat, it would have stuck out as less Ben Elton-y (which is odd because you were the one who wrote them in that original way.) I love that you were able to save their upbeat gentleness in the edit. There can be comfort in routine.
I’m glad you brought up these four, because their inclusion is indicative of the fact that — just as there are no wasted lines in Three Summers — there are no extraneous characters. You already know about my love for feminist folkie Diamond. Every single character, no matter how little screentime they get, serves the story.
So, let’s tie those two together, character and story: Three Summer deals with some pretty big issues: racism, family dynamics, Aboriginal rights, alcoholism, artistic pretension, commercialism, so many more. And yet the film handles these themes — much like in your answer about its humour — organically within their representative characters. It is never preachy – not even close. Were there certain themes you knew you wanted to address prior to the writing – or did these themes come forth, evolving, from the characters as well?
BE: Despite my interest in politics and current affairs I try not to be too polemical in my work because I very much want the ideas to feed the story telling and not just use he story as a vehicle for the ideas. Having said that the most important socio political themes were definitely in my mind from the beginning and I knew they must be found a place. That is the story of the refugee story and the issue of Aboriginal title. The stories themselves came later but I absolutely knew I would be including those themes. They are to me the most pressing issues facing Australian society today (leaving aside the global catastrophe of climate change). The last three general elections have been fought with refugees being used as a political football and right wing governments have been returned having shamelessly played the race and refugee card. As to the nightmare imbalance of the Aboriginal experience, there can be no better example in the refusal to accept that European invasion was a genocidal crime and although it can of course never be righted we will never even begin to heal until a settlement is made and the rights of the original Australians acknowledged. All of the other themes you mentioned developed along with the characters as I began my improvisation with the page.
JM: Finally, there’s one theme, which I don’t even want to name because it will come too close to spoiler territory. So let me just say that the moment of Roland’s realization, quickly followed by his presentation of that realization to a more-than-uncertain Keevy, quickly followed by the expression of her face when she understands what has transpired – is now one of my favorite sequences, if not my ultimate favorite sequence, in all of movie history. As a viewer, I viscerally felt it all. As a screenwriter, I get goosebumps that anyone could have written that and pulled it off. I wish I could say more, but I did not see that coming. That turn was so beautifully well done, almost like a volta between an octave and a sestet of a sonnet from the pen of a master poet. How satisfying was it to direct what you had written and see it unfold in such an impactful way?
BE: Well it’s very encouraging that you thought it worked so well. I was lucky to have such superb actors. I was certainly very happy with it when I began the edit. At the time of shooting the restrictions of time, budget and weather, made any self congratulation impossible, we were grabbing what we could as most movie makers do. Having said that it was also a joy, when you’re lucky enough to be writing and directing and you see the pieces falling into place it is of course the greatest feeling. I love working with actors and never cease to be amazed at where they find the emotions they are able to summon up on the shout of action. I am so grateful to them and to the crew who facilitate their work which often involves exploring and exposing their own vulnerability
JM: Your gratitude is genuine and palpable. This entire interview has been a delight. Thank you again, Ben Elton.
BE: And thank you Jon.
JM: My final question is really up-to-you. I’ve read all of interviews you’ve done over the last year. I’d like to use this last question as an opportunity for you to correct the record in a case or two where an interviewer miscast what you meant — or to use this as an opportunity to answer a question that was never asked. In other words, tell us something — anything — you’ve been dying to say, but haven’t had the chance!
BE: Well Jon, I’m afraid that having thought quite hard about this there is no great thought that I am burning to share. I think that the reason for this is that I put all my thoughts and passions into my work. My opinions and principles too. That’s where you’ll find what I have to say. I’ve never been an introspective person. I don’t think in the abstract. Of course, I’ll answer questions when asked but I don’t seek out platforms to pontificate. I only do press when I have work to publicize (this interview is a rare exception).
JM: Believe me, I realize that – and appreciate it so much.
BE: I could offer one of the few pieces of advice that I feel confident enough to give when asked about writing. And that is the advice Polonius gives his son ‘above all to thine own self be true’. That doesn’t mean be arrogant and always presume you’re right. But be honest. A writer should write to please themselves, not what they think might please others. If they do that then perhaps they will get lucky and please other people too. If they don’t, while they might get some short-term success, in the long run they’ll fail both publicly and personally.
JM: I love that. Be honest, is right. When I teach, I remind my students continually to stay true to their story, because ‘No one can argue with your story.’
As we close out this interview, what’s next for you? What are you currently working on?
BE: The third series of Upstart Crow is currently showing on the BBC with a special Christmas episode to come. I am currently working on my sixteenth book which if I can wrestle into shape will be published next year. My last couple have been historical stories, but this one is a return to the more contemporary comic satires of my early work. The times produce the novel!
JM: More truth. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure, Ben Elton.
BE: All the best to you, Jon. Do keep telling people about my movie!
Photo Credits: Three Summers Official Press Kit