Standard Talks

How This View Inspired 'Shame' Co-Writer Abi Morgan

Our BAFTA New York In Conversation Series at The Standard, High Line has turned into quite the little Oscar hotbed. Were we the reason Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch were nominated and definitely the good luck charm that cinched the win for Eddie Redmayne? You can’t not say it’s true. Not that we care so much about statues, but as accolades do make for nice introductions, the BAFTA Award winning screen writer, Abi Morgan is the latest talent to join our auspicious ranks. 

A veteran stage and television writer, Ms. Morgan is best known to American audiences as the screenwriter for The Iron Lady (which earned Meryl Streep a Best Actress award), Suffragette, in which she teams up again with Ms. Streep and Carrie Mulligan, and finally, the 2011 noir masterpiece Shame, co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, which prominently features The Standard, High Line. Before we get to those infamous window scenes–those fictious window scenes–we invite you to close your curtains and focus on something much more vital.

Standard Culture: What makes good dialogue?
ABI MORGAN: When you’re not aware of the writer. Most of what I do is take lines away. I write a lot and I constantly pull out, and pull out, and pull out. In normal day-to-day speech, you don’t often talk in full sentences and have a complete linear through-line. And so I just try and focus on something that feels authentic and sometimes quite ragged. 

What are some of the boxes that you check when you’re putting a scene together in terms of structure and style?
I always find it strange when people ask you to deconstruct how you write, because it’s very instinctive, but I guess I look for a journey. So, I make sure that the character is in a different place than they were at the beginning of the scene. Even if it’s that they’ve finally drunk that glass of orange juice. So, I’ll always check that we’re moving the story on–that’s definitely part of my television training. And then I try and conceal that as much as I can, because you want the scene to be more than just a moving story. You want it to have an emotional life, so I check that it has an emotional life. And then I’m trying to get rid of any clichés or anything that feels received. Then I have a kind of instinctive pass where, “I think that feels familiar,” or “I’ve used that line before,” or “That character doesn’t quite sound true to who they are.” So I have a series of checks, but when I write, I write quickly and instinctively. 

Have you ever been tempted to write prose?  
Well, the process of writing treatments and outlines and pitches, to me, has an element of prose writing. There’s a huge journey from the script that raises money and pulls in actors to the shooting script. 

"...It's a honeycomb of lives. Hotels are fascinating places. They’re kind of a metaphor for fleeting temporary exchange, aren’t they?"

Nora Ephron once compared screen writing to the making of a pizza, where the script is an uncooked pie and then the director comes in and adds the toppings and puts it in the oven. Does that analogy hold up?
Well, I tell you, if you don’t have the pizza base, then you’ve just got goop haven’t you? Nora Ephron was a complete goddess to me, so anything that spills from her lips I tend to think she’s got a pretty good basis for it. I think most writers are frustrated pizza toppers. We’d like to be adding on a bit more cheese and tomatoes ourselves. But yeah, I’ll take that. We make the dough.

Is it true you decided to be a writer instead of an actor because it has better job security?
I grew up with actors and, well, it was two things. First, I was a terrible, terrible actress – my mother came to see me and just said straight away, “You just can’t act.” God bless her for telling me that when I was 17. And second, I just wanted something I could have some control with. What’s hard about being an actress is that you can’t really do anything without an audience there. Whereas if you write, you can do it completely on your own.

Is it difficult to hand over your stories to a director? How much do you leave for them to figure out?
All of it. Ultimately, the director is the captain of the ship. The director is the one who’s going to completely inflate it and bring it to life. So, I give them as much as they need, and then I just watch as they transform it. You’re always working to the director’s vision. I might’ve created a whole script, but when the director comes in, it really becomes about making that script work for the film they want to shoot. I’m not going to be the one who gets up at five in the morning and shouts at actors and gets crews into shape and freezes in the cold and works out how to shoot a scene in hardly any time with no money.   

Are you interested in directing?
I am if I have a glass of wine and I get too big for my boots. When I sober up the next morning, I think, “Who am I kidding?” I think I am interested in trying it out just so I can shut up talking about what it would be like. But the truth is I’d be a pretty dismal director. I’m too antisocial. 

"...Most good art is a process of failure."

FACTOID: Abi once was a cater-waiter and served crudité to Baroness Thatcher. So be nice to your servers. You never know who will be writing your bio-pic.
Historical biographies have been taking something of beating by the critics lately. I am thinking of Stonewall and Steve Jobs. Stonewall in particular had a similar task to Suffragette insofar as a composite character was created to tell a historical civil rights story and, um, it didn’t go over too well. So what’s your secret? How does one find the guardrails of historical license? 
Well, I haven’t seen Stonewall and I can’t comment, but it’s very hard making a film. There’s lots of good ideas and very few good executions. I think the desire to create this composite character for Suffragette was to create an every-woman that we see travel and collide through time, and to draw focus to the foot soldiers of that movement. 

When I’m writing–particularly when it’s period–I’m always looking for its contemporary resonance. We’re in a time now where militant activism is everywhere and there is such a demand for change, and certainly we’re still dealing with questions of inequality, and I wanted to create a character who I felt carried the voices of these turn-of-the-century women into the 21st Century. Never at any point did I think, “Oh, right. So this is the woman who wears a corset and she is from another time.” I’m just trying to think about those universal truths. And I’m sure that’s what anyone should try to do–try and write something that feels truthful and present and resonant. 

Someone loves Suffragette; someone hates Suffragette. Critics are never going to love everything. Actually, most good art is a process of failure. So the fact is that you’re privileged enough to do these things, and to be an artist is to make big mistakes and to have that privilege to make mistakes and just take it on the chin when it happens.

My goodness, that is a very good attitude. 
Well yeah, it’s very painful, but, how lucky am I? I mean, that’s part of life, isn’t it? It’s true what they say–you learn everything from failure and nothing from success.
How do you find your characters’ voices, especially historical characters? For The Iron Lady, did you start with lots of research and plot details and then go from there?  
When I worked on The Iron Lady, I started with a very simple premise: I wonder if Margaret Thatcher ever goes out to buy a pint of milk? I had sort of quietly tracked her growing up and I knew that she was certainly in a stage of dementia because that had been written about. And so, I was fascinated by the idea of a film which was about a woman who was facing the loss of power and the power of loss. 

What I try and do is find something that is curious to me. Someone like Maud in Suffragette, I tried to think about how far would I go to change the course of my life and what would I sacrifice. “Would I sacrifice my job? Yes. Would I sacrifice my home? Well, that gets harder. Would I sacrifice my child? Oh, my god. I don’t know if I could do that.” So, it was about that desire to know if I would be the same as her. 

How did the script for Shame come about?
Shame really came out of a meeting with Steve McQueen. We thought we would just sit for an hour and have a polite cup of tea and three and a half hours later we were still talking. We talked about the 21st Century and how to maintain intimacy in a world where everybody uses the Internet. How do people connect now? How do people date now? How do people hook up now? We started to talk about the incredible currency that sex has–that sex is a currency in its own right. And then we started thinking about a character who really had become addicted to that form of currency. 

And so, literally, we were staying in The Standard when we first came to talk about and research the movie. And while we were here, this incredible view started to really pervade and we thought, “What would it be like to create that character and place him somewhere like this hotel?” And so, this place ended up having a really organic involvement. 

It’s nice to hear we weren’t just a list from a location scout.
Well that’s why we use it in the film. I mean, it was absolutely essential to the story. 

Sorry if I’m blushing, but the infamous shagging-in-the-window scene was filmed right here. That really took on a life of it’s own, much to the chagrin of our poor P.R. department.  
That was Steve. He said, “Come outside and have a look.” We certainly didn’t see anyone shagging, but what we did see was this amazing kind of Woody Allen Manhattan-thing. It’s a checkerboard or it's a honeycomb of lives.  Hotels are fascinating places. They’re kind of a metaphor for fleeting temporary exchange, aren’t they? 

André [founder of The Standard] loves to talk about how people become a different version of themselves because they’re freed from their day-to-day. 
Totally. And also you’re infantilized in way. You can be like a child again because everybody cooks and cleans for you.

One of our favorite scenes is when Carey Mulligan sings New York, New York at The Top of The Standard. It’s so beautiful and so devastating.
Well, it’s tragic. It’s tragic because New York is everything, isn’t it? I mean, it’s the place of dreams. I mean, the American dream is such an extraordinary, brilliant concept. But there is a sort of tragedy to it as well and something very painful in it. 

What do you love most about entertainment–about the product and the experience of consuming it?
It can transport you. It can change the way you view the world. And it can allow you to feast on the gamma of your emotions and yet still walk out of the cinema and it’s only your mind that’s been affected, while the world, somehow, is the same. 

Fanboy questions be damned. What’s it like working with Meryl Streep?

It’s gorgeous. I mean, it’s like working with the most intelligent, intuitive, warmest, funniest, and nicest girlfriend ever. That’s what it’s like.  

(Top photo: Abi Morgan at The Standard, High Line, October 2015, Photo: Christopher Leaman)


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