Safe harbour: David Hare on Turks & Caicos

Britain “finest living dramatist” reflects on moving between the stage, cinema and television, the perils of improvisation and the mutual benefits of working with American actors.

Adam Preston

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Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy in Turks & Caicos (2014)

Winona Ryder and Bill Nighy in Turks & Caicos (2014)

Best known for his screen adaptations of The Hours (2002) and The Reader (2008), David Hare is a highly respected playwright and a director who made television films in the 1970s, three features in the 80s and recently a trilogy of films for the BBC starring Bill Nighy. The three films, which examine the role of the security services and big business in the War on Terror, began with Page Eight (2011), and when I met Hare recently at his Hampstead writing studio he had just completed post-production on the last two, Turks & Caicos and Salting the Battlefield.

Hare credits the sheer dullness of his upbringing in Bexhill-on-Sea for inspiring him to write: “I was in a suburb that was incredibly boring. so I was thrown back on my imagination.” His Scottish mother’s emphasis on education and her drive to give him “a life she did not have” also spurred him.

Though his father, who worked on P&O liners, was often absent – Hare describes him as “anti-Semitic and racist” – he rejects the notion that avowedly political and left-leaning direction of his writing has been a response to his father. “There was a lack of love in our family,” he says, “and there was a sense that it was incomplete, and when my father did come home he was totally uninterested in us.” Hare found solace in the cinema, catching every film shown at the Playhouse Cinema in Bexhill, but he was also regularly seeing his mother perform with an amateur dramatics group that boasted a young Julie Christie among its members.

“Very precocious” by his own estimation, Hare won a scholarship place at Lancing College and he has said that he had to alter his accent to fit in. When I suggest that nobody writes about a certain kind of English ruthlessness like he does (take, for instance, Ian McKellan’s speech about how to rise through the ranks of the Foreign Office in Plenty) he assigns this to his time at the posh private school.

Hare directing Bill Nighy on location for Turks <span class="amp">&</span> Caicos

Hare directing Bill Nighy on location for Turks & Caicos

Studying Literature at Cambridge, he embraced an art which many professors dismissed as ‘stupidity’. “In the 60s cinema wasn’t just at the cutting edge of art, it was at the cutting edge of thinking. The people I loved – Louis Malle, Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, and Godard – were the great thinkers in Europe.”

Hare helped set up the radical Portable Theatre Company, embarking on a career that has led to the Guardian calling him “the finest living British dramatist”. But things might have taken a very different turn. After leaving university, director Tony Richardson offered him a job as fourth assistant director on a forthcoming biopic of Che Guevara – a project that collapsed. “You needed luck,” he concludes, “and I didn’t have any luck.”

It’s a surprising admission from someone who might be thought of as primarily a creature of the theatre, but Hare adores the cinema, though he is certainly not complacent about the difficulties of directing and is candid about past failures. Regarding his film Strapless (1988), he observed that film directors’ careers are often U-shaped, adding that the film represented, for him, “the bottom”. “The question will be ‘will you ever climb back up the other side?’ and so I went 20 years without making any films.”

Turks & Caicos catches up with MI5 agent Johnny Worricker (Nighy) in the aftermath of Page Eight as he flees the UK after exposing a document that proves tacit British government approval of torture in the War on Terror. The drama’s title gives away Worricker’s destination, and in that tropical tax haven he soon encounters Christopher Pelliser (Christopher Walken), an American who may or may not be a CIA agent. Pelliser introduces Worricker to what seems like shady company and much that is rotten in corporate and governmental affairs becomes exposed.

Christopher Walken in Turks <span class="amp">&</span> Caicos

Christopher Walken in Turks & Caicos

Your work is never just a distraction: you always engage with meaty issues.

The thing that’s important to me is the subject matter. The American actors in Turks & Caicos would say, “In America this script wouldn’t be possible.” I said, “I thought American television was meant to be living through a golden period,” and they said, “Yes, stylistically, but not in terms of content.” So there’ll be a series about what it’s like to be Vice President, but it won’t be about what Vice Presidents are dealing with in the real world, and in particular the moral dilemmas that come out of the War on Terror are just a no-no.

It’s very privileged position of being able to move between film and theatre…

The reason I wrote Page Eight was that I finally had the courage to spend a year writing something that might or might not be made. If I write a play I know it will go on. As I get older, I get scared that I’m going to waste time on something that doesn’t get made. So I finally said, “I’m going to have one last throw of the dice and I’m going to write an original film.” I hadn’t written an original film since Strapless.

When you sat down to write Page Eight, you really didn’t know that it was going to be made?

I showed it to Christine Langan, who was running BBC Films, and Christine said “You can either now spend two or three years with us, raising the money, and you having to listen to the views of all the partners, or if we do it for television we can be filming in six months time.” So I made what I call an actuarial calculation and decided to be filming.

Directing Helena Bonham Carter for Turks <span class="amp">&</span> Caicos

Directing Helena Bonham Carter for Turks & Caicos

I wanted to ask about how you develop characters.

When I started writing, actors struggled with the idea that my characters were different people according to who they were with. In other words, I’m a different person when I’m dealing with my mother, when I’m dealing with the bank manager, when I’m talking to actors. It seems to me clear that we’re all many people.

When you’ve decided on your subject and who your characters are do you then start to create a storyline or do you start writing scenes?

I start writing scenes. If I’m adapting something then I will work out what the story is and then I will hang the dialogue on at the last minute. But with my own work, I want the freedom to go where the work leads me.

So for you it’s essential to let the characters live and speak?

I had a brilliant script editor [on Turks & Caicos]. I need somebody to talk to. I don’t in the theatre, but in the films I do and you have to be able to argue out where they’re going.

Now, obviously, when I work with Scott Rudin [the executive producer on Page Eight], Scott is the person I do that with because I think he’s the most brilliant developer of a screenplay alive. I don’t think there’s anyone to touch him.

Bonham Carter and Ewen Bremner in Turks <span class="amp">&</span> Caicos

Bonham Carter and Ewen Bremner in Turks & Caicos

When you’re directing your own screenplay do you give yourself more rehearsal time and use it as a writing tool?

In an ideal world, the writer should plainly be there at rehearsal because the minute you have a great actor they will show you what you need and what you don’t need and so why would you not go to a Meryl Streep rehearsal? Or a Christopher Walken rehearsal? Because the minute Chris says your words, you know what you need and what you don’t need and he’ll say to you, “I don’t really need that because I can imply that,” and so the craziness is not to be at the rehearsal.

But if you’re only the writer it’s a very tiring way of life because you basically have to go out to bloody Pinewood at eight o’clock in the morning, attend the rehearsal and your day is ruined.

I find the changes that you make on the day the most satisfying part of filmmaking. I love it. Or when an actor comes to you and says, “You know, I feel I should have something in this scene where I…” Those bits that you write on the spot are deeply satisfying, they’re lovely, you know you sort of go, “I woke up without even knowing I’d have that idea and now it’s in the can and it’s perfect because an actor brought it to my attention.”

The acting styles of the British and American actors in Turks & Caicos mesh together beautifully. I wondered what your attitude to improvisation was.

I am very aware that two of the most conspicuous films of this year, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, are both plainly improvised by the actors. And when people say the Wolf of Wall Street has the word ‘fuck’ 520 times, I know, from experience, that when you ask actors to improvise they tend to use the word, and that’s why it appears 520 times.

Clearly that kind of acting is the very opposite of the kind of acting that I admire. So I’m very deliberately not using those American actors who come to the set and expect to improvise and say something close to the line. I’m insisting that the actors say exactly the line because I want the whole thing to be an ensemble and I want the English to belong with the American.

Directing Winona Ryder

Directing Winona Ryder

I admire improvisation as a technique. If you spend six months, as Mike Leigh does or John Cassavetes did, that will achieve an effect of style that is very satisfying, but if you throw an actor onto a film set and say, “Can you please just say whatever comes into your head?” – that belief that if the actor makes the line up on the day it’s going to be more real – also leads to a very generalised kind of acting that is not precise.

I don’t really know how to say this tactfully, so maybe I won’t say it tactfully, but I think some of the worst acting I have seen this year is in American Hustle. I think they’re four very bad performances. And I’m absolutely astonished that they’re nominated for Oscars. Because they’re all very good actors who are in my view are doing their worst work.”

There’s talk now of cinema breaking into two, because the $200 million blockbusters are such big spectacles that it’s seen as ridiculous that you pay the same price to go and see a film that cost two or three million. Do you see any danger in that?

It’s silly to say the game is up but certainly the properly financed serious film is now an endangered form. We made The Hours and The Reader. Both of them cost $20-25 million, both of them did what you dream of, which is you break out – you get out of the arthouse, although they are arthouse subjects, and you go into the mainstream and you take over $100 million. So everyone takes home $50 million, but the studios have now decided that that’s not enough and they’re only interested in taking home $300 million.

There was a ridiculous thing in the newspaper where a film writer said, “It’s very hard to understand why David Hare, who can do anything he wants in theatre or film, is wasting his time on television,” and you just go, “This person doesn’t get it.” They haven’t noticed that the world has changed over the last 25 years and I think for good – and I don’t mean for better, I mean for ever.

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