“The Danish Girl” screenwriter talks killing characters, theater vs. film and disruptive childhoods.
“Do not be late. Lucinda Coxon will be in front of the National Theater at 10 am so don’t be later than that,” the communication office of PriFest instructs, highlighting the busy schedule of the prominent British playwright and screenwriter.
With a simple elegant look and a casual updo hairstyle, Coxon approaches the theater 10 minutes late, unnoticed by the bystanders; as is so often the way with writers, she is virtually anonymous to the eyes of the public. Although most of Prishtina’s citizens wouldn’t recognize her name, many of them recognize the name of “The Danish Girl,” the popular film for which Coxon wrote the script.
She apologizes for being a few minutes late, before making herself comfortable on the couch inside the theater’s hall; despite having a flight a couple of hours later, she seems in no hurry to rush away as she talks to K2.0.
The 2015 British-American drama film “The Danish Girl,” which depicts the marriage and work of Danish artists, Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, as well as Lili’s journey as a transgender pioneer, was screened last year at PriFest. This year, Coxon herself was invited to give a masterclass and be a jury member for the European Film section.
“The Danish Girl” was adapted from a novel by David Evershoff, a common trait of her screenwriting work, which mainly consists of novel adaptations, including with films such as “The Heart of Me” and “Happy Now.” But, she also produces original writing in the theater world, with many of her plays, such as “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” “The Ice Palace” and “Wishbones” having travelled from the UK to different European stages.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
K2.0 sat down with Coxon to discuss creating the perfect character, watching Shakespeare plays in Japanese and the husband vs. lover nature of playwriting vs. screenwriting.
You studied English literature. How much is educational background important for a professional writer?
Well, I think you get an education if you go to the theater a lot. You watch a lot of material and that is an education. The thing you get that is different with the kind of training in those kind of areas is first of all that you get a more solid understanding of what you are doing, so you will go faster, you don’t keep making the same mistakes. But also you get a community, so I think that’s what I didn’t have when I left university. But I didn’t have a community of people who were making theater, who were making films, and it took me a long time to find a community and people to work with. That’s why I am jealous of people who went to drama school who studied writing in more vocational college, because you have your team.
What about life experiences? How much do they play a role in becoming a writer?
An unhappy childhood is the key… [Laughs]. I do think it’s interesting that a lot of writers have quite similar backgrounds somehow. It’s always a joke with writers that the best thing you can have as a writer is an unhappy childhood. But, often they have childhoods that were disruptive in some way, where they had an illness, or they had a parent who was ill, an alcoholic, or who had mental problems, or it was a bad marriage, or they were moving around a lot, something that makes you an outsider. Something that makes you stand back.
If your family is unpredictable, or if you have a parent who is unpredictable you become hyper vigilant, so you are always kind of watching. You try to guess what’s happening next, and that’s very similar to the writing process. Could it be this? Could it be this? Which of these things is going to happen next? And I know so many writers who have the same thing in their backgrounds that has made them hyper vigilant and very good observers, and also need to preserve some distance, they want to be on the outside.
So that’s why I think I wrote for the theater. I love the theater, because you have all that emotion but it’s completely under control. It’s in a box, it starts at seven thirty and ends at nine. That’s the drama. When it’s done it’s done.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
What brings you your ideas for a script or play? An anecdote you hear? An interesting character you meet? A particular event?
It’s a very good question and it’s a very difficult question to answer. I think some strange things happen, when you develop… kind of without really knowing it, you become attracted to a particular kind of frequency. And then you start to… there is something you are interested in, and it is not necessary a subject, maybe it’s like an emotional calling, or some idea and then you start to collect these experiences.
For me the play, the character, arrives maybe with one line, one thing to tell you, and you think, ‘Who’s this?’ and you find out. So it’s not a straightforward process, and I very rarely know how the play will end. When I begin I don’t know where it’s going to end usually. Sometimes I know about the final image, but i really don’t know much about the journey.
For many writers the writing comes in one go after a long period of story processing in their head. For others it comes gradually. Where do you stand?
I think I’m probably in the first category where I kind of gather the material in my head and then I write.
It’s different really for film because… for the theater I wrote original material, for film I mostly write adapted material. So, it’s slightly different, but it’s not so different, because I still like to… even when I’m adapting a novel that I know about, that I know very well, I like to live with it for a little while, so I’m always happy to have a project in the future so I can live with the book for longer, I can live with the material. Not really working but having it in the back of my head and then I work faster when I come to it.
"If I watch Shakespeare in Japanese I can see the patterns in the play because I’m not worried about the words."
You mentioned in your masterclass that you usually adapt scripts from novels, and plays are your original work. Do you feel more of an author as a playwright than as a screenwriter?
Writing a play is so much harder — writing an original one is harder. But also writing a play is hard because you don’t have any tricks. You have a team of people of course, but a play is not performed just once by one theater company. You need to be able to send it out to the world. So anyone can perform it and it has to be very robust. It has to have a very robust structure. I wrote a play called “Happy Now,” which is about the difficulties of being a working mother, which is something that I know about. And that was performed all over the world, but was very popular in Poland and the Czech Republic for a long time.
Whereas with film it’s different, because you work with the director, you can shape it. They shoot the film, you can be in the edit, you can shape it again, you can keep working with it and you decide which version of the film the public sees. Because of course in editing you can make 10 different films out of material, but with a play it has to be perfectly judged.
Have you had a chance to see your plays staged in a non-English language?
I really regret not going to see my play in Prague, but at that time I was working on something else and I couldn’t see my own play. But I’ve seen my work in Portuguese, I’ve seen it in Lisbon. It’s fun because you know the shape of the play very well and you can translate it in your head.
Actually I really like watching plays — this is slightly eccentric — but I like watching plays in a language I don’t speak. Shakespeare for example, you know Shakespeare is Shakespeare and we know a lot of his plays and you know him from school and he is brilliant, but sometimes if you go to see “Hamlet” for example, you’ll see many productions of “Hamlet” and you are waiting for the big speeches that you know very well. So what I love is to go and see Shakespeare done by a Japanese company, so if I watch it in Japanese I can see the patterns in the play because I’m not worried about the words and it is a very interesting exercise.
Being a working mother is an experience you have had yourself and that has been embodied in one of your play’s protagonists. But if you write about a taxi driver or a theater technician, do you have the tendency to spend a lot of time with them for the sake of the research?
I research for film more probably, and I researched a little bit for a play that I’ve just finished. It’s a play about… in a sense it’s a biographical play, not completely true. It’s very fictionalized. I’ve just finished it. It’s about a Dutch art forger, an amazing guy called Han van Meegeren, who forged a lot of Vermeire paintings in the early 20th century. I did quite a lot of research for that. But, yeah, usually I don’t. If I have a character who has a particular kind of job that I really need to know, then of course, to know what the rhythm of the day is. If somebody is a violinist I would learn a lot about playing the violin. So, I do research, but maybe not as much as for film.
Why don’t you write original scripts for film? Because it’s easier with characters and plots that are already made by somebody else?
That is certainly the case. I wrote original material for a long time and then I started writing adaptations after my daughter was born. I think partly you want a little privacy, actually, that’s what I felt after I had a baby, I felt I didn’t want to investigate my own life too much and also I was tired [laughs] and so it was easier.
But there is a much bigger market for that kind of material, it’s difficult to get original material made now and I think also I would write original material, if I also directed. But I don’t, and film is really a director’s medium and there’s no way around that and so you are always giving the material away. And I think as a writer you lose your voice if you don’t also direct, so I think for me it’s better to stay in the theater with the original material because then I can control it for longer in a sense — protect it.
There is an ongoing criticism that movies made out of books usually aren’t as good as the books.
I think that’s not true. I think sometimes the adaptation is better than the book. I think it’s a kind of cliche that movies aren’t as good as books. I think some books really benefit sometimes from being streamlined, from being concentrated. I can think of many films, certainly with my own work, I’ve had people saying it was better than the book. Mostly what they mean is it’s shorter and easier.
"You know, sometimes the husband is horrible and you want to spend some time with the lover and then you get bored of the lover and you go back to the husband."
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Is the process of killing off so many characters and subplots from the original material of the book a hard one for you?
I love it. It is such a relief when they’re gone, because you don’t have to worry about them any more. When you’re thinking, “How can I make the brother into a good character?” and then I say, “I’ll kill him,” it’s a relief, and you go and make a cup of tea and forget about it. I mean when you are adapting you are shaping it in a different kind of way and I’m always like, “Make it simpler, make it simpler,” and sometimes screenplays are very different from the book.
My first film adaptation was… I wrote a film called, “The Heart of Me,” which is adapted from a wonderful novel by Rosamond Lehmann, who is a wonderful English 20th century writer. And it is a very long book, a complicated book, lots of different time schemes and in the end I tried all kinds of different versions, and in the end I just cut one huge strand, maybe a third of the book, and a whole time scheme. I just focused on a particular relationship and over time it seemed like a different film.
It was too much in one film, and in the novel it’s different, you kind of move back and forward in time and you’re happy to do that; there were lots of characters who were very important only for two scenes. And in the novel it’s fine, but for film it’s just frustrating and so I was focusing on relationships. I think it’s always my instinct to feel what works for you and to get closer and closer and get rid of anything around the edges.
In the masterclass you made an analogy of playwriting and screenwriting with a wife and a mistress. What do you exactly mean by that?
I feel very annoyed at those terms ‘wife’ and ‘mistress’ because there isn’t a male [equivalent] … ‘husband’ and ‘lover’ I guess. It’s nice to have a husband but sometimes not so much, and you think, “I’d like a little…,” you know, sometimes the husband is horrible and you want to spend some time with the lover and then you get bored of the lover and you go back to the husband. You say, “I’ve had enough excitement and I want to go home.” It’s nice to move between the two I think.
They’re both quite challenging jobs and also they’re both jobs that involve a lot of rejection, a lot of failure. Inevitably anybody who’s talking to you about a film’s success has had a huge amount of failure also, and you are writing sitting in a room every day failing by yourself a lot of the time. So sometimes it’s just nice to go and do something different, but I think also I miss the theater. That’s how I came into writing for screen, it was through the theater.
And I love it, I love to sit with the live audience watching live actors in a big theater, or a tiny theater, I enjoy that. It’s like watching a magician. You know, you can watch a magician on TV, but it feels like a trick, you watch a magician like this and it’s thrilling. And you are part of it because you make it happen. Because the magician takes your eye over here and you are part of the act. And that’s the thing with the theater — the play cannot happen without the audience, so it’s much more a kind of religious experience for me.
Do you have a daily routine? Like spending hours writing in the morning or evening?
When I first started to write I would write late into the night and get up late in the morning. But then once you’re living with other people and they’re on a kind of more conventional clock you have to adopt a slightly more conventional timetable, so I’m pretty disciplined when I write.
I work every day, more or less, and often during the weekends also and I don’t read very much anymore. I discovered I find it very hard to read and work. There are too many stories at the same time. Usually I don’t work in August and I read all day every day, and during the winter I might take just a week or two and just read. And the rest of the time I’m reading for work — that is a different thing. Reading for pleasure is a different thing.
When it comes to reading, do you go back to classic masterpieces or books by new novelists?
It’s kind of a mixture of things. You get into the habit of reading for work and so almost everything I read, you know, I say, “Will this adapt? Is this a project?” That’s why it’s better to read when I’m on holiday, when your mind is quieter, because you give me a newspaper and I’m like, “Let’s make a story out of it.” So it’s a mixture of contemporary and sometimes I read plays and screenplays that interested me.
"So what is it that generates that intensity of emotions? It means a very intense character, or sometimes it means a character who leaves enough space for you to be intense."
August is approaching, what would be first on your list?
I had this very close friend, who was a brilliant playwright, Snoo Wilson, who was famous in England in the 1970s and 1980s. He died a few years ago very unexpectedly. It was awful, a horrible shock, but three months ago I had a dream where I met him in the street and I said, “Snoo you’re dead, why are you here?” And he said, “I wanted to talk to you, and I told you to read the “Hare with Amber Eyes” [by Edmund de Waal] and you still haven’t read it.”
So I woke up the next morning and I’m like, “I haven’t read that book, he told me to read that book,” and I went straight out and I bought it, and that’s my first book to read in August, it’s sitting by my bed.
And there’s a wonderful British tenor singer called Ian Bostridge. I really don’t know very much about classical music. I didn’t grow up with it and I have very limited knowledge of it but I am kind of a fan of this singer and it’s great because I go and see everything he does. I know all the music he sings, and it makes it very simple for me, that’s my kind of education. And he is famous for singing Schubert’s “Winterreise,” and so he has written a very brilliant book about “Winterreises” so sometimes on holidays I take this book and I listen to it during the night, and read and listen together and that’s so great. So I will be doing that again.
What are the most important aspects of building a great character?
I suppose in the end it’s kind of simple. There are lots of books that will tell you to have obstacles, challenges, reversals, and I don’t really think about that and maybe I should. I think it’s truth, but with a kind of intensity, I think that’s what people want, a kind of intensity of emotion for the audience. So what is it that generates that intensity of emotions? I think that’s for me what I want when I get to the theater and sometimes it means a very intense character, or sometimes it means a character who leaves enough space for you to be intense. It means all sorts of things, but I think kind of intensity of experience is the simple answer. Someone who has that and gives it to you also.
Who would be a character from plays, novels or movies that has that intensity of emotion that first comes to your mind?
Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois [from “Streetcar Named Desire”]. She’s an extraordinary character. Do you want to live with her? No. Do you want to spend time with her in a room? Yes. She’s extraordinary. Her journey is extraordinary, she’s mysterious, she’s terrible, she’s beautiful, she’s human. So I think those kind of iconic roles are iconic for a reason.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
What would be your work that you feel most proud of today?
Well, I suppose with the “The Danish Girl,” which was here in the festival last year, with that I went to Copenhagen last year and one of the characters in that story was a woman called Gerda Wegener, who is a Danish portrait artist and she was not very celebrated in her lifetime. And last year was the first time ever that a very big contemporary art gallery in Copenhagen called Arken made an exhibition of her paintings. And it’s the first time in Denmark that an exhibition of her paintings was that big and the curator said, “I was trying to do the exhibition for so long and it’s only because of the film that we were able to do it.”
And I felt very emotional, I felt like I’d done something good. I’m a female artist and I made this female artist visible again. I contributed to making her visible again after a long time. That was very moving, but that’s different from being proud of the writing.
During your masterclass you sounded as though you aren’t a big fan of writing for TV?
You always have to be careful because you say, “I don’t want to write for television,” and then the next day a very brilliant project comes along and you say, “I do want to write for TV.” Now the trend is for long-form TV, you go with the idea and they say, “We want three series, 15 episodes per series,” and I couldn’t do that. It goes back to the intensity of the experience, that’s what I’m interested in. A very intense kind of two-hour period.
I don’t watch a huge amount of TV but I watched every episode of the “Good Wife.” I find it very relaxing, the writing is very consistent, that is my soap when I have a glass of wine. And it’s really satisfying and admirable, but I really don’t want to do it. It’s not what I do.
Somebody yesterday asked If I would write a novel and, I was like, “Why would I do that?” It’s not what I do, and long-form television feels more like writing a novel to me. It’s time-consuming and I’m not very interested in plotting stories in that way. It’s got to be plots plots plots, events events events, and those things are fun to watch but don’t interest me to write them at all.
"People became a bit more aware of transgender actors, and that there are these actors and that they should be working."
“The Danish Girl” among other things focuses on the journey of a transgender person who decides to have sex reassignment surgery. Do you think transgender visibility is becoming better in pop culture?
It’s definitely much better than it was, but it’s not better everywhere. So, it’s easy to imagine because I live in London, but if you are in a Western democracy and a big city it’s easy to have a conversation about transgender. But I think there’s still a great deal of difficulty for that community. It’s still a very difficult process. Some of that is internal, not societal. But a lot of it is societal.
And I think it’s the same for ciswomen, it’s the same for all LGBTI people, it’s the same with racism, there are a lot of divisions and suspicions. I think I get very bored with identity politics because I know it’s important to kind of brand your identity and it’s part of feeling secure but it’s also a way of excluding people so I’m always trying to kind of make work that is more inclusive I suppose.
What I think is really important about “The Danish Girl” is that it’s a film about a transgender pioneer but it’s also a film about a marriage. Very simply it’s a film about a marriage and I think a lot of people watched it who were kind of surprised by how easy it was for them to accept the transgender storyline; people who maybe would not want to go to see a very gritty film about the trans experience, because the film was beautiful, it’s also about painters, and it’s set in the past and maybe it’s easy to accept if you have, not prejudice even, but just if you’re ignorant or you feel like it’s not your world, it’s a film that welcomed people in.
And you can’t watch that film unless you identify with that character. It’s impossible to watch the film unless… the story requires you to identify with that character. I think that’s very useful.
Actually one of the really good things that came out of the film was that there was a lot of anger that Eddie Redmayne played that role because he’s not transgender. I think it’s great that we had that big debate about it. I think it’s also important that Eddie Redmayne played that role, but it’s good to have the debate, and it meant that people became a bit more aware of transgender actors, and that there are these actors and that they should be working, but that they’re not very visible and that we need to have more of them in mainstream films. So I think it was very useful for raising that issue. K