Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Donald Williams
An interview with the screenwriter, Diane Johnson
An Interview with Diane Johnson
Screenwriter for Stanley Kubrick's film, THE SHINING
by Donald Williams
Diane Johnson published her first novel in 1965. In addition to novels she has written essays, short stories, literary criticism, biography, and screenplays. Diane recently finished a screenplay adaptation of The One True Story of the World for Lizzie Borden, and she is now writing an original script for Francis Ford Coppola.
Forum: I read your recent novel, Health and Happiness, but I haven't had a chance read an earlier one, The Shadow Knows--I heard that it would make a good film.
Diane Johnson: I've always been sorry that nobody has made that into a film. I did a script for it once, and various people have also optioned it at different times but somehow it's never.... Once Faye Dunaway optioned it. Warner Brothers optioned it, and once United Artists optioned it. I wrote a script for Warner Brothers. It's just very capricious, the whole thing.... Lots of writers will do a script of their own book on spec. I wouldn't do it. I'd rather write another book than a screenplay of a book that I've already written. The thing I'm writing now is an original screenplay--it's the first one I've done.
Forum: I understand it's in development for Francis Ford Coppola. Would you mind talking about it?
Diane Johnson: It's about AIDS and about the scientists involved in the search for a cure but also about the politics. That's the title Francis Coppola envisions, Cure. He wanted a story with a positive, upbeat regard for science. We thought of films like Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, these great inspiring movies about what science and the human brain can do. That's more the subject than the terrible global situation. The main protagonists are scientists.
Forum: How did you find your characters?
Diane Johnson: One of the ways was to talk to real AIDS scientists and that was extremely interesting. The characters that I came up with were composites obviously but I talked to a lot of the people at the Center for Disease Control, maybe a couple of dozen in all. And then some AIDS activists, people who treat AIDS patients. And having talked to all these people, certain characters suggested themselves. We also came up with caricatures in the kind of medieval way of characters who have to represent qualities or political positions. So we call them sometimes by the names of their qualities, like Ivan Riesman who is one of the protagonists. "IR" is for "Idealistic Researcher." There would have to be some characters with AIDS, some from Africa, some from the U.S., some would have to be gay, some straight, and some would have to shoot drugs so that all the groups in the patient population are represented. I don't know why we have to represent them all actually but we wanted to. Because it's such a big subject and a real subject, it's only responsible.
Forum: How did you come up with a plot? What did you go through?
Diane Johnson: Plotting is always a mysterious process. It's one that interests me a lot. I think that some plots start from some wonderful idea, some gimmick, like perhaps The Grifters started from that denouement. Other kinds of "sting" movies you can imagine started that way. But novels don't normally start that way. Some writers begin with a denouement in mind or some people want to write a novel about such and such, and you just have to begin to particularize this.
Forum: So if I understand, it's a little arbitrary. Plot comes out of your personal equation, your personal way of imagining a story, and it means that you go on thinking about these....
Diane Johnson: ...you just go on thinking about the thing and eventually you think, "What if he did such and such?" Or I would hear little stories. I don't know if you've ever read Henry James' prefaces but James talks about the germ of a novel, and it might be that he just saw someone sitting at a table in a room as he passed by an open door. But it might also be a story that he heard. I listen for stories. I would hear about different AIDS drugs and the things that happened around them...not being tested, falling by the wayside, or not panning out. There are a lot of stories around AIDS drugs which I have used.
Forum: So you just keep paying attention to everything you hear....
Diane Johnson: Yes, I just keep paying attention and trying to fit it all together like a jigsaw puzzle. You also have in mind certain structural elements. It's fashionable with screenplays to think in terms of three acts, so I'm thinking in three acts. I don't know that I always think in three acts. I think in chapters basically, being a novelist. But you know it has to build, to resolve.... I think Cure will have quite a classical form. It's a big film with a lot of characters.
Forum: Do you find any particular screenwriting books helpful? Diane Johnson: I haven't read too many manuals about how to screenwrite but I have read a couple of the more famous ones, Making a Good Script Great, and then there's one other one, what would it be called?
Forum: There's Syd Field, Michael Hauge...
Diane Johnson: Syd Field, yeah, the classic one. I have read Syd Field and Linda Seger. I find that although they are very helpful because they point out formal things, things you have to be reminded of, they seem completely out of touch with my experience of writing.
Forum: How would you describe it?
Diane Johnson: There's something beyond that which they don't quite seem to get at. But I think, in fact, that those books are very helpful; at least they've been very helpful to me.
Forum: How would you describe how you work?
Diane Johnson: How I work? I guess it must be like dreaming or something in that afterward I never can quite account for how I work. For instance, when I've finished a novel, it's very hard to remember having written it. It's very strange. I can't possibly imagine that I put in all those hours because it goes by very fast, and yet it's taken a couple of years. It's very seldom that I sit down and put in eight hours so that I get up from the writing table tired. What I do is, I wander around the house and I think of things and I sit down, so that it's such an amorphous process. All I know is that these things get written. And probably if I sat down more, I would write more. As it happens, I have a large family, and I'm sort of fidgety and I can't sit still very long. Well, so I don't know how I work. But I cling to anything that will make the process seem easier. So now I'm pinning the little cards up on the wall. Francis Coppola had this wonderful bulletin board put all around, and I'd heard of writers having these famous bulletin boards, so now I've got one and these index cards. It's something for me to cling to, a way of shaping these little narrative sequences, scenes and reels. So, so before I knew it, there was the thing laid out. Perhaps in doing it this way I eliminated some wonderful alleys and backwaters that I could have explored.
Forum: It may also be that we regularly need different ways of working just to keep us...
Diane Johnson: ...yeah, interested.
Diane Johnson: Well, that's the other thing, especially true of novel writing but a little true of screenplays. The biggest, most challenging thing is to devise a narrative that won't bore you in all the time it's going to take to write it.
Forum: That's right, you're talking about a year...
Diane Johnson: Yes, a year or two. Not that long in a screenplay maybe, but certainly in a novel. So for that reason it has to be very intimately related to your own psyche, and I guess that's what I was starting to say, that the writing manuals don't really describe...that whole interaction between you and it, and how it's going to change your life, how it's going to alert you to things in the environment that you might not have noticed before so that there's a constant interaction between you and your work and the world which not only changes you and changes your work but changes your relation to daily life, yeah....
Forum: You have this thing that occupies so much of your time and your thought and feeling, and it's bound to affect...
Diane Johnson: ...the, uh, everything that happens. Nobody ever talks about that when they talk about creativity or artistic process.
Forum: When you wrote the screenplay for The Shining, how were you affected?
Diane Johnson: Did I find scary things all around me?
Forum: Did it bring up things, for instance, from the past? It's a very psychological novel....
Diane Johnson: No, because it wasn't my past. That was Stephen King's psyche, not mine. But as a parent I certainly understood the underlying hate that was going on with the child and his father, the father and his child. So, I think my life experience helped me to understand what that film was about. That was the sort of thing I talked about with Kubrick. We talked about the dynamics of family life and also about what makes things scary. And we read Freud...I can't remember the name of Freud's essay, the one where he describes how eyes are scary and mechanical objects that suddenly move, or dolls and puppets, things like that. That was all very interesting.
Forum: In the novel, as I recall, Jack types his play, but in the film he's typing over and over...[Laughter--In the film Jack Nicholson types hundreds of pages and every line of his manuscript reads: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."] Was that your idea?
Diane Johnson: Yes, that was mine or Stanley's.... It came out of one our sessions, it wasn't King.
Forum: That was brilliant.
Diane Johnson: That was the best bit, wasn't it? We thought so too. Of course, it came out of my experience but probably Stanley's too. It captures the feeling the writer has of typing. And then we tried out various phrases, I do remember that.
Forum: Do you remember any contenders?
Diane Johnson: I don't but they were all sort of like that...you know, "A stitch in time...," that kind of thing.
Forum: How about some of the visual details?
Diane Johnson: You mean in The Shining?
Diane Johnson: I wasn't really responsible for those.
Forum: Like the elevator doors and the blood.
Diane Johnson: I don't think I'm very visual anyway, and a lot of the visuals were already underway when we started the script. We were writing the script in the morning while the set was being built and the second unit was being shot and there was a whole lot going on. The art director was in place, and we would listen to music in the afternoon for the soundtrack. I guess that's the way Kubrick works, or at least he was working that way then.
Forum: So you were writing the script...
Diane Johnson: He and I would work for a week, say, every morning, and then I would go away for a week and write, and then we would work together again.
Forum: And meanwhile...
Diane Johnson: And meanwhile all this other stuff. And in the afternoon he would involve himself with all the other aspects of the film. It was very impressive.
Forum: Where was it shot? I can't remember.
Diane Johnson: It was shot in England on the set. Those were sets.
Forum: So you were in England the whole time?
Diane Johnson: Yes, I was there for about six or eight weeks.
Forum: There are a lot of things in the film that are close to the novel but there are so many crucial things that are different.
Diane Johnson: Well, we felt at that time that there was a lot in the book that was gratuitous to the central theme.
Forum: How about Dick? He survives Jack's assault in the novel but not in the film.
Diane Johnson: Halloran? Why did he get killed?
Forum: Yes, was that your choice?
Diane Johnson: I made the decision with Kubrick. We decided that somebody obviously had to die because it was a horror film.
Forum: The sacrifice.
Diane Johnson: Yes, exactly. So we just discussed who it should be. At some point I know that I thought it should be Danny, the child, but Kubrick was much more tender hearted than I and said, "Oh, no, impossible." I thought it would be good. Suddenly it would all be over and then there would be a little body line traced on the floor. But then we would have let him join the girls among the shades in the hotel. I still think that might have been alright.
Forum: There's very little talk of the girls in the book, but in the film they're important. And Danny never plays with them; he's only frightened by them. Diane Johnson: That's right, so in this other ending they could have been rolling a ball, playing, laughing.
Forum: How did you get involved with The Shining? Had you written screenplays before?
Diane Johnson: I had dabbled with a couple of screenplays. But I got involved because Kubrick was thinking of making The Shadow Knows but he never went as far as optioning it. He was considering it along with the Stephen King novel, and when he finally decided to do The Shining, he said he would like to work with me on the screenplay adaptation. We had a lot of conversations, and I guess he decided that we would get along, and we did. That was fun. I've been lucky in my screenwriting life because I've always had these very impressive directors to work with. So even though several scripts that I've written have not been made, there's been this interesting collaboration. So I've had an inside look at the way several directors work--Mike Nichols and Kubrick, Sydney Pollack, and now Coppola, and who else? I feel that I'm leaving someone out....
Forum: Did your involvement with screenwriting come through Hollywood interest in your novels?
Diane Johnson: Uh-huh, I think so. And then after The Shining, I think I automatically was allowed to write some screenplays before slipping back into the non-screenwriting mode of my normal life, only to come out again recently with this movie. Cure is the first original screenplay, and I am finding that it is rather like a novel. Before that I had always done adaptations.
Forum: When you develop a character for a screenplay or a novel, do you go back and work out the character's history?
Diane Johnson: Not in a formal way with it all written down. No, I would have to say no. I'm asking myself now what I know about Ivan Riesman. Well, I could make up his history because I know him, and therefore I know where he went to school and where he got his Ph.D. I probably know what his apartment looks like, and so on. But I haven't written these things down.
Forum: Ivan Riesman is modelled on several people?
Diane Johnson: He's a composite scientist of a certain kind. He's idealistic, rather single-minded, and probably a little naive, that kind of thing.
Forum: People talk about writer's block...does the concept make sense to you?
Diane Johnson: It's doesn't actually.... I've never really had it. It's a very Freudian idea that I don't believe in. But if I set aside the idea of a psychiatric condition, then writer's block usually means that you haven't got a good idea or that real life problems are pressing on you more. We all know what that's like. There are explanations for writer's block that aren't very mysterious.
Forum: I agree. We need more discipline or we're stuck because we haven't found the next idea...
Diane Johnson: Or there's some artistic obstacle, and your block is telling you that it's there and that it needs to be solved. If you have a bad week and can't write, it's often because you've got the wrong character or some comparable problem, and eventually that becomes clear to you. It's a way of working...
Forum: Part of being professional.
Diane Johnson: To understand this process, yeah. Yes, it is, definitely, and that again is the part that doesn't get talked about so much. Part of being professional is understanding your own psychological processes in relation to this work. Most writers, for instance, will talk about how they rely upon and trust the things that they are thinking about as they come up out of sleep. This is a time when solutions often present themselves. You set yourself a problem at night, or for a couple of nights before you go to sleep, and when you wake up, very often you have the answer that was not accessible to your conscious mind. And that's just a trick of the trade.
Forum: It's not magical....
Diane Johnson: There's some process that has to continue a little longer.
Forum: So you develop a kind of tolerance for that...
Diane Johnson: ...for that suspended condition.
Forum: And a trust in your own psyche.
Diane Johnson: I also think there's a writer's temperament, an ability to keep involved in an artistic process, to focus on other things, to believe in this rather foolish occupation that seems to other people like play. I've taught creative writing at UC Davis...I was a professor of English for awhile, and so I also taught a creative writing class. There were sometimes wonderful writers but somehow I knew in advance that they would never get their novel finished or get it published or get their stories out there. It had nothing to do with talent, it was just something else, something about their character.
Forum: I'm curious about the writer's temperament that you're talking about.
Diane Johnson: Well, real writers will get their writing done probably before they get the housework done and the non-writer won't. God knows, there are plenty of excuses for not writing.
Forum: It probably helps to have, at critical moments, someone else who is really interested in your work.
Diane Johnson: I think that's right. I have been struck by young men and young women at the same stage. The men typically will have had a lot of encouragement because there's an existing pattern of the male writer. The women will be carving out this profession from the expectations of the world, expectations that they should be doing something else. It's very easy for women to tell themselves that they will write when the children are bigger, and instead you have to be a little ruthless and not so guilt-ridden.
Forum: How did you do it?
Diane Johnson: Well, I happen to have had the temperament, and alas, it was probably a temperament that valued writing more than childrearing. I can't say that I had a lot of encouragement but I must have had some along the way. Some of that early encouragement must have carried over. Also, having a harmonious, enabling relationship makes a lot of difference. For Christmas my husband got me a pen, one of those big phallic Montblanc pens and a bread baking machine. And I'm using both of them with great pleasure.
Forum: Writing is hard enough to begin with, so we need down-to-earth, useful support and not too many impossible obstacles.
Diane Johnson: You can't carve out a writing life, an interesting life, if you're starving or having to struggle to feed your children or whatever.... Solvency makes a lot of things possible. So I've been lucky in that respect.
Forum: How far are you from completing the script for Cure?
Diane Johnson: It's pretty close to the beginning. I've just done about twenty pages. Still in the first act.
Forum: Are you aiming for a particular deadline?
Diane Johnson: I'd like to get the first two acts--if we can speak that way--finished by the time I go to Amsterdam to the world AIDS conference in July.
Forum: The trip is one of the consequences of this project.
Diane Johnson: Yes, I'm going with Francis Coppola. If our plans don't fall through or something, it'll be Francis, me, and a helper, and the three of us will go and hang out with the people there. It should be interesting. We haven't been working together very long but so far he has a very nice quality which is to be extremely supportive. He tries to be encouraging and sort of inspiring and to give very positive, upbeat criticism.
Forum: What do you think of when you think of your favorite films?
Diane Johnson: I guess I think of films I saw as a child or as an adolescent the way we all think of books we read at that period too. And it could be any old Bette Davis movie or an old Cary Grant film. I admire films today but I don't cherish them in that special way that I do the early ones. I don't know why that is.
Forum: Any favorite novelists? Ones you would read again?
Diane Johnson: Oh, the ones I'd read again are 19th century novels, Jane Austen kind of novels, Trollope.... I was actually trained in Victorian literature. I tend to love long Victorian novels but also rather elegant small works. I'm very fond of French novels, of Robbe Grillet, for instance. Who knows why one gets these tastes.
Forum: How do you explain to yourself that you became a writer?
Diane Johnson: I have no idea. In one obvious way I think it is because I was very nearsighted as a child and nearsighted children tend to become bookish. I was the only child of older parents, so they talked to me a lot, and I had a lot of early verbal development. Then I discovered that I got praise and admiration for my stories even as a little child just the way people do for being funny or pretty for some early quality that wins them attention. And then I married young and had a lot of children, and writing is something you can do as a cottage industry.
Forum: How many children?
Diane Johnson: I have four children which I had in my early twenties very close together. But I don't know, I just always have been a writer.
Forum: How early did you start writing?
Diane Johnson: I wrote a fairly long narrative when I was 9 or 11. I can't tell from the internal evidence how old I was.
Forum: I'm impressed with the diversity of your writing. You've written novels--very literate novels, then book reviews, biographies, essays, and screenplays. They're all very different forms. That's not usual.
Diane Johnson: I know it. People have asked me about it. I don't write poems. I don't know. I enjoy them all. Probably if you focus on one thing you do it a little better. Well, I don't know that that's necessarily true. Maybe that's just a conventional way of looking at it.
Forum: It seems to me that when you have a good mind, you just like to use it.
Diane Johnson: You like new challenges. You like to see if you can do something that you haven't done before. And so I've just been writing these travel stories, and I've never written short fiction before and haven't written travel pieces either. And I've greatly enjoyed it. I think I'll do some more of it--it's easy and fun and sort of instant gratification. This will be out in a book.
Forum: Where have you travelled?
Diane Johnson: My husband's a lung specialist, and he works with TB--Third World diseases--and so we've been to Africa, Asia, South America.
Forum: By the way, haven't you also worked on a script for Lizzie Borden?
Diane Johnson: Yes, I just finished a script for Lizzie Borden. I forgot about Lizzie Borden. That's because we only talk on the phone. We've met about three times. I adapted a novel for her, The One True Story of the World by Lynne McFall, a first novel I think. I don't know who's producing it. Well, Rudy Langlais, but there's somebody else behind it, too.
Forum: What's it about?
Diane Johnson: Well, it's kind of a female road movie. The woman character is a difficult, screwed up girl. She leaves one relationship after another and kind of ends up in motels and Greyhound buses and in the process grows up a little. It's kind of an ambling structure but she's a sympathetic character. She was in the novel anyway. She meets a guy, Lucky, and they almost make it work, and then they break up rather gratuitously, and that's kind of the center of it. Both go off on their own slightly screwed up travels again. I think Lizzie Borden liked the fact that this young woman took her own chances, made her own mistakes, and then set out after each new adventure essentially by herself, on her own.
Forum: How did you get involved in this project?
Diane Johnson: I don't know exactly how it happened. I was going to write something else for Rudy Langlais, I forget what, and then Lizzie Borden optioned this novel, and I was just going to do it in my spare time for the minimum money, and that's what I did. We'll see what happens.
Forum: I haven't seen her documentary on women filmmakers but I'd like to.
Diane Johnson: Uh-huh, Calling The Shots. I'd like to see that.
Forum: And now Love Crimes has come out.
Diane Johnson: I can see why writers, if they get really involved with film, want to become the director because it's the most dynamic role. I wouldn't mind being a film editor, I think that would be an interesting job because there you would also have some structural power, some artistic power, and I've often felt that I could recut a film and make it much better and transform it.
Forum: And editing is a lot like writing.
Diane Johnson: I change the parts of a narrative around a lot. I have this theory which I've never been able to articulate, so I've never been able to make anyone else understand it. It's about narrative: The relevant or salient thing happens, and it's not Event A or Event B but it's in the space between A and B, or it's in the logical relation or the spark or however one wants to imagine the psychological impact of knowing about the two events. And that is what is so hard to figure out, and that is what the artist does. Okay, it's about words, too, but it's very important to get the synapses. It's all in the synapse--I guess that is the best metaphor. I hadn't thought of that before. And, okay, maybe I have explained it. So a lot of the writing is figuring out the synapse. So sometimes you get a bigger spark, to continue that metaphor, by changing the sequence.... Instead of it moving from A to B, you put C first. And somehow you know when you look at it, you know it works.
Copyright 1992 Donald Williams. Originally published in the Freeland Screenwriter's Forum.