The First Draft
I knew the moment I’d finished Lynn Barber’s wonderfulautobiographical essay in Granta, about heraffair with a shady older man at the beginning of the1960s, that it had all the ingredients for a film. Therewere memorable characters, a vivid sense of timeand place – an England right on the cusp of profoundchange – an unusual mix of high comedy anddeep sadness, and interesting, fresh things to sayabout class, ambition and the relationship betweenchildren and parents. My wife, Amanda, is an independentfilm producer, so I made her read it, too,and she and her colleague Finola Dwyer went off tooption it. It was only when they began to talk aboutpossible writers for the project that I began to wantto do it myself – a desire which took me by surprise,and which wasn’t entirely welcome. Like just aboutevery novelist I know, I have a complicated, usuallyunsatisfactory relationship with film writing: eversince my first book, Fever Pitch, was published, I havehad some kind of script on the go. I adapted FeverPitch for the screen myself, and the film was eventuallymade. But since then there have been at leastthree other projects – a couple of originals, and anadaptation of somebody else’s work – which ended in failure, or at least in no end product, which is thesame thing.
The chief problem with scriptwriting is that, mostof the time, it seems utterly pointless, especially whencompared with the relatively straightforward businessof book publishing: the odds against a film, any film,ever being made are simply too great. Once you haveestablished yourself as a novelist, then people seemquite amenable to the idea of publishing your books:your editor will make suggestions as to how they canbe improved, of course, but the general idea is that,sooner or later, they will be in a bookshop, availablefor purchase. Film, however, doesn’t work that way,not least because even the lower-budget films oftencost millions of pounds to make, and as a consequencethere is no screenwriter alive, however establishedin the profession, who writes in the secureknowledge that his work will be filmed. Plenty of peoplemake a decent living from writing screenplays,but that’s not quite the same thing: as a rule of thumb,I’d estimate that there is a 10 per cent chance of anymovie actually being put into production, especially ifone is working outside the studio system, as everywriter in Britain does and must. I know, through myrelationship with Amanda and Finola and otherfriends who work in the business, that London isawash with optioned books, unmade scripts, treatmentsawaiting development money that will neverarrive.
So why bother? Why spend three, four, five yearsrewriting and rewriting a script that is unlikely everto become a film? For me, the first reason to walkback into this world of pain, rejection and disappointmentwas the desire to collaborate: I spendmuch of my working day on my own, and I’m notnaturally unsociable. Signing up for An Educationinitially gave me the chance to sit in a room withAmanda and Finola and Lynn and talk about theproject as if it might actually happen one day, andlater on I had similar conversations with directorsand actors and the people from BBC Films. A novelist’slife is devoid of meetings, and yet people withproper jobs get to go to them all the time. I suspectthat part of the appeal of film for me is not only theopportunity for collaboration it provides, but theillusion it gives of real work, with colleagues andappointments and coffee cups with saucers and biscuitsthat I haven’t bought myself. And there’s onemore big attraction: if it does come off, then it’sproper fun, lively and glamorous and exciting in away that poor old books can never be, however hardthey try. Even before this film’s release, we have takenit to the Sundance Festival in Utah, and Berlin. AndI have befriended several of the cast, who, by definition,are better-looking than the rest of us . . . Whathas literature got, by comparison?
I wrote the first draft of An Education on spec,sometime in 2004, and while doing so, I began to seesome of the problems that would have to be solved ifthe original essay were ever to make it to the screen.There were no problems with the essay itself, ofcourse, which did everything a piece of memoir should 4do; but by its very nature, memoir presents a challenge,consisting as it does of an adult mustering allthe wisdom he or she can manage to look back at anearlier time in life. Almost all of us become wiser aswe get older, so we can see pattern and meaning in anepisode of auto biography – pattern and meaning thatwe would not have been able to see at the time. Memoiristsknow it all, but the people they are writingabout know next to nothing.
We become other things, too, as well as wise: morearticulate, more cynical, less naïve, more or less forgiving,depending on how things have turned out forus. The Lynn Barber who wrote the memoir – a celebratedjournalist, known for her perspicacious, funny,occasionally devastating profiles of celebrities –shouldn’t be audible in the voice of the central characterin our film, not least because, as Lynn says inher essay, it was the very experiences that she wasdescribing that formed the woman we know. In otherwords, there was no ‘Lynn Barber’ until she hadreceived the eponymous education. Oh, this soundsobvious to the point of banality: a sixteen-year-oldgirl should sound different from her sixty-year-oldself. What is less obvious, perhaps, is the way the sixty-year-old self seeps into every brush-stroke of theself-portrait in a memoir. Sometimes even the dialoguethat Lynn provided for her younger version –perfectly plausible on the page – sounded toohard-bitten, when I thought about a living, breathingyoung actress saying the words. I had been herebefore, in a way, with the adaptation of Fever Pitch. Ina memoir, one tries to be as smart as one can aboutone’s younger self – that’s sort of what the genre is,and that’s what Lynn had done. In a screenplay, however,one has to deny the subject that insight, otherwisethere’s no drama, just a character understandingherself and avoiding mistakes.
The other major problem was the ending. LynnBarber nearly threw her life away, nearly missed outon the chance to go to university, nearly didn’t sit herexams. And though lots of movie endings derive theirpower from close shaves, they tend to be a little moreenthralling: the bullet just misses the hero, the meteorjust misses our planet. It was going to be hard to makepeople care about whether a young girl got a place atOxford, no matter how clever she was. Lynn becameJenny after the first draft or two; there were practicalreasons for the change, but it helped me to thinkabout the character that I was in the process of creating,rather than the character who existed already, theperson who had written the piece of memoir: I couldattempt to raise the stakes for Jenny, whereas I wouldhave felt more obliged to stick to the facts if she hadremained Lynn.
Some stories mean something, some don’t. It wasclear to me that this one did, but I wasn’t sure what,and the things it meant to me weren’t and couldn’t bethe same as the things it meant to Lynn: she hadfound, in this chapter of her life, all sorts of interestingclues to her future, for example, but I couldn’tworry about my character’s future. I had to worryabout her present, and how that present might feel compelling to an audience. It would take me severalmore drafts before I got even halfway there.
The first time I had a formal conversation with outsidersin the film industry about An Education, itdidn’t go well. Somebody who was in a position tofund the film – because Amanda and Finola, as independentproducers, do not and cannot do that – hadexpressed an interest, read my first draft, invited usin to a meeting. His colleague, however, clearly wasn’tconvinced that there was any potential in the film atall, and that was that. This reflected a pattern repeatedmany times over the next few years: there was interestin the script, followed by doubts about whetherany investment could ever be recouped. Sometimesit felt as though I was in the middle of writing a littleliterary novel, and going around town asking for a£4 million advance for it. Our belief in the project,our conviction that it could one day become a beautifulthing, was sweet, and the producers’ passion gotus through a few doors, but it didn’t mean that weweren’t going to cost people money. Another problemwith the film’s commercial appeal was beginningto become apparent, too: the lead actress would haveto be an unknown – no part for Kate or Cate orAngelina here – and no conventional male lead wouldwant to play the part of the predatory, amoral, possiblylonely David, the older man who seduces theyoung girl. (Peter Sarsgaard, who responded andcommitted to the script at an early stage, is a properactor: he didn’t seem to worry much about whetherhis character would damage his chances of gettingthe lead in a romantic comedy.)
The good people at BBC Films, however, sawsomething in the script – either that, or the desperationin our eyes – and funded the development of AnEducation, which meant paying me to write anotherdraft, and giving Amanda and Finola some seedmoney. The meeting we had with David Thompsonand Tracey Scoffield went the way no conversationsof this kind go, in my experience: as we talked, theirprofessional scepticism was replaced by enthusiasmand understanding. This is supposed to be the pointof meetings, from the supplicants’ point of view, anyway;but in my experience (and probably in yours,too, whatever your profession), nobody who was previouslydoubtful is ever really open to persuasion orsuggestion. The fact that the thirty minutes or sospent talking to David and Tracey wasn’t a waste oftime is more remarkable than it should be.
I didn’t need money to write another draft of thescript, of course; I am well paid in my other profession,and there’s very little to be earned in Britishfilm, especially at this early stage. But money has asymbolic value, too. We all needed some indicationthat others in the industry felt as enthusiastic aboutAn Education as we did, otherwise we could be prettysure that any future energy poured into the projectwould run right through it and down the drain. BBCFilms gave us a sense of purpose. They were not in aposition to fund the film, but they could help us getthe project into shape so that others might want to.
In the original piece, and in the film itself, our herione’sseducer produces a banana on the night hewants to take her virginity, apparently because hethinks it will result in ease of access. It was a strangeand revealing detail that I wanted to keep, because itindicated something of David’s gaucheness.
At a BBC script meeting, David Thompson, thenhead of BBC Films, started to muse aloud about thisparticular scene.
‘The banana,’ he said hesitantly. ‘Could it . . . Wouldit work?’
He directed the question at Amanda and Finola.They shifted uncomfortably in their seats. There wasa silence.
Jamie Laurenson, one of the executive producers,cleared his throat.
‘I don’t think . . . I don’t think it would be a peeledbanana,’ he said.
‘Ah!’ said David. ‘Unpeeled! I see.’
We moved on, gratefully.
It helps to attach a director to the project, too, forexactly the same reasons. Beeban Kidron read whateverwas the most recent draft, liked it, met to talkabout it, and then worked with me on the script forthe best part of a year. (These years slip by, so it’s arelief to remember that other things were happeningwhile An Education wasn’t being made. I wrote myyoung adult novel Slam, and my third son was born;Finola was off making the HBO drama Tsunami. Wehave something to show for that time.) I loved workingwith Beeban, who lives round the corner from myoffice and could therefore meet within five minutes ofreceiving an email, if she was around; it was throughtalking to her, thinking about what she needed fromthe script as a film-maker, that I made several importantimprovements to the script. Certainly Jenny’scomplicity in many of David’s deceptions, her willingnessto manipulate her parents, came out of mywork with Beeban; we took as our cue Lynn Barber’sadmission, in the original piece, that when she witnessed‘David’ stealing the map, she didn’t do anythingabout it. The decision we made during that timemade the script more morally complicated, and thefilm is the richer for it.
Beeban and I had a cloud hanging over us, however.She was attached to another movie which, likeours, had spent a long time in development. Eventuallyit became apparent that she couldn’t do both,that they were going to clash, and reluctantly (I thinkand hope) she decided to go with the project whichhad predated ours. We were back to square one.
We talked to several more directors after Beeban’sdeparture. Most wanted to develop the script further,which was fair enough; the trouble is that no two directors could agree on the route we should be taking.One young director even wondered whether thewhole 1962 thing was a red herring – had we thoughtof setting it in the present day? No, we hadn’t. I wasparticularly keen to work with a woman director –yes, I had female producers to keep a watch on Jennyas she developed in the script, but the value of awoman director who could work with our youngactress on set would, I felt, be incalculable – and whenLone Scherfig, the Danish director of Italian for Beginners,expressed an interest in making the film, we allwanted to listen to what she had to say. Lone turnedout to be smart about the script, endlessly enthusiastic,and with an outsider’s eye for detail; after she’dtaken the job, she set about immersing herself in thelook of 1962 England, its clothes and its cars and itscakes. We were lucky to find her.
So then we were four: Amanda, Finola, Lone and I.And, for some time, we’d been talking to casting directorLucy Bevan. I’m quite often asked how much inputI have in the various processes of film-making – ‘Doyou have a say in the casting, for example?’ And thoughI’d like to claim credit for just about everything, thetruth is that I simply don’t know enough about actors(or directors, or editors, or designers, or composers) tocontribute to these decisions in any meaningful way.How many young actresses did I know capable of playingthe part of Jenny, for example? None at all. What about male actors for the part of David? Well, therewas Colin Firth, of course, who I knew from FeverPitch. And John Cusack (High Fidelity), and HughGrant and Nicholas Hoult from About a Boy, and theguy with the haircut from No Country for Old Men;which I’d just seen, probably, right before I was askedfor my opinion . . . OK, not one of these was right, butthey were all I could think of. Lucy Bevan’s job is toread a script and come up with scores of imaginativesuggestions for each part, and she’s brilliant at it. Onthe whole, it’s best that the casting director, rather thanthe writer, has a say in casting.
Every now and again I’d say, ‘Oh God, you can’task him.’ Not because the actor in question was bad,or wrong for the part, but because it seemed to meinsulting and embarrassing to offer it to him. Lucy,Amanda and Finola were ambitious for An Educationin ways that I could never have been, which is why weended up with Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper andRosamund Pike, rather than, say, me, my friend Harryand my next-door neighbour.
We were helped immeasurably by Emma Thompsonagreeing to play the headmistress at an earlystage: she gives any project an aura of authority andpotential excellence. It was Lucy who knew aboutCarey Mulligan, of course – she’s been in Bleak Houseand Pride and Prejudice, and those who had workedwith her all talked of her phenomenal talent. Butwhen I was told that they were thinking of casting atwenty-two-year-old as sixteen-year-old Jenny, I wasa little disappointed (my exact words, Amanda tells me gleefully, were ‘Well, that’s ruined it all’); it would,I thought, be a different kind of film, with an olderand as a consequence more knowing girl in the leadrole. But when I saw the first shots of Carey inher school uniform, I worried that she looked tooyoung, that we were involved in a dubious remake ofLolita. When Carey’s mother visited the set, shetold us that Carey had always cursed her youthfullooks, but here they worked for her: I cannot imagineany other actress who could have been so convincingas a schoolgirl and yet so dazzling after her transformation.And, of course, she can act. This was ahuge part for any young actress – Jenny is in everysingle scene – but I don’t think one ever tires ofwatching her. There’s so much detail, so much intelligencein the performance that it’s impossible to getbored.
My only contribution was a small panic when I’dwatched her audition on DVD – she was so clearly,uncannily right that I was concerned when I heardshe hadn’t yet been offered the role. And yet this smallpanic, expressed after producers and director andcasting agent had seen the audition, and long aftershe’d been cast in other high-profile productions, iseasily enough for me to claim that I discovered her; soI will, for years to come.
‘Oh God, you can’t ask him,’ I said. Well, they’dalready asked him, and he’d already said he wanted to play the part of Danny. Arrangements were made forthe care of his dog.
A couple of weeks before shooting, I was asked totalk to him about a couple of lines in the script. Hecalled me at my office and told me that, much as headmired the writing, he wouldn’t be able to play thepart. He hoped we’d be able to work together onsomething else. Confused, I called my wife and toldher that, as far as I could tell, Orlando Bloom had justtold me he wouldn’t, after all, be playing the part ofDanny. Amanda spoke to his agent.
‘No,’ she said. ‘There has been a misunderstanding.’(It was clear, I felt, from the tone of her voice,who had misunderstood whom.) ‘He just wanted totalk to you about the script.’
I replayed the conversation in my head. We alreadyhad a wonderful cast lined up, but Orlando Bloom’sfan club would, it was felt, help the box office of asmall British film no end. How had I managed todrive him away, in under three minutes? What had Isaid?
‘He’s going to call you at home later,’ she said.Don’t mess it up, she didn’t say. But that’s what Iheard anyway.
He called that night, and we had exactly the sameconversation. I strode around our kitchen, listeningto Orlando Bloom talk about his regret and sadness,while I made throat-chopping gestures at my wife. AsI wasn’t doing any of the talking, she could see andhear that I wasn’t doing any of the damage, either. Ihave no idea what any of it was about – why he’d turned us down, why he’d said yes in the first place,whether he’d ever intended to do it, whether it reallywas Orlando Bloom I’d been speaking to.
Incredibly, the brilliant Dominic Cooper steppedin almost immediately.
In the strange world of independent cinema, everyone –director, writer, cast, producers – proceeds on the basisthat the film will be made, even though there is still nomoney with which to make it. If it’s not make-believe(after all, we were all being paid to pretend, which childrenaren’t), then it’s a particularly committed form ofmethod acting: we were inhabiting the bodies of independentfilm-makers, thinking their thoughts at alltimes in the hope of convincing someone that this waswho we were. And eventually somebody believed us.The American financiers Endgame Entertainment likedthe script and the cast and the director; this, togetherwith the not insubstantial contribution of the BBC, wasenough to enable the film to happen. So suddenly wewere all sitting around a table, reading the script outloud to see how it sounded. (I say ‘we’ because I read,too – Alfred Molina couldn’t make it, so I played thepart of Jenny’s father, Jack. This I did by shouting a lot.)I have been to a few read-throughs, and if they go well,as this one did, they are completely thrilling, not leastbecause this is the only time that the script is read frombeginning to end in its entirety, so it’s the only chancethe writer ever gets to listen to his words in the right order, in real time. The film isn’t shot that way, andscenes get chopped, or never shot in the first place . . .For the writer, the read-through is the purest, most fullyrealised version of the script, before the actual filmmakingpart of film-making gets in the way.
At one point in the afternoon, Matthew Beard, thebrilliant young actor who plays Jenny’s first boyfriendGraham, got a laugh from the word ‘hello’; there wasno such laugh in the script, and you suddenly see thepoint of a cast – while at the same time, of course,slightly resenting their talent.
I wasn’t there much, so don’t ask me. I had juststarted a book (Juliet, Naked, available now in allgood bookshops), and wanted to make it longer; andin any case, being married to the producer of AnEducation played havoc with childcare arrangements.Some directors like to have the writer on set, butLone didn’t seem to need me much, not least becauseshe was so gratifyingly determined to be faithful tothe script as it was written. And in any case, any questionsshe might have had could always be asked viaAmanda, who could pass them on, quite often late atnight or over breakfast. Lone was always perfectlywarm and friendly if I did show up, and actors arealways interesting people to waste time with. Butthat’s what filming is, time-wasting (even, most ofthe time, for a lot of the people directly involved);past experience has taught me that there is really no other way to characterise it. Our budget was tight, soeveryone had to move fast, but this still meant thatseveral hours a day, literally, were spent moving lightsaround, or re-arranging furniture. In the words ofHomer Simpson: ‘I’ve seen plays that are more interesting.Seriously. Plays.’ All a writer can really do ismarvel that an activity so solitary, so imprecise and soapparently whimsical, can result, however many yearslater, in the teeming humanity of a film set.
I was struck, in Lynn’s original piece, by ‘David’ comingto find her in Oxford; it seemed like an appropriateending for the film. And yet any event that happensafter the main timeline of the script’s narrative wasalways going to seem more like a coda than a climax – Ican see that now, but it didn’t seem so obvious duringthe writing nor the shooting of An Education. We shotthe scene, and included it in all the early edits, but itnever really worked: it didn’t give the actors enough todo, apart from restate their positions with as muchvehemence and/or self-delusion as they could muster.The actors, meanwhile, had effectively found their ownending. The bravura performances of Carey and AlfredMolina during the emotional climax of the film, inwhich Jack talks to Jenny through her bedroom door,and reveals that he and Jenny’s mother had learnedthat the trip to Oxford had been a con trick, wereenough, we felt; that, plus Jenny’s smile to herself whenshe receives the letter from Oxford (a moment that wasn’t scripted – it was something cooked up on thephone during the shoot). It all works, I think. But ifyou needed any further proof that film is a collaborativemedium, here it is. That ending was created byLone, Carey, Alfred and Barney Pilling, the editor. Andme, I suppose, although not in the way I had intendedto create it.
1962 was, I think, the last time that British youthlooked across the Channel for inspiration, rather thanacross the Atlantic. The Beatles and the Stones existed,but hadn’t released any records when Jenny met Peter;and yes, we could have used music by Little Richardor Elvis, but pop had no kind of cachet among theyoung, clever middle classes, not yet. ‘I want to beFrench,’ Jenny says – because she loves French music,French films, French food. London was on the vergeof swinging, but only a select few could have felt thefirst sensation of movement; London right at thebeginning of the sixties still bore more than a passingresemblance to its wartime self. It is strange to think,for example, that Jenny would have experienced theprivations of food rationing for the first half of herlife. This was one reason why the UK needed interpretersof American music like Lennon and McCartney,people to transform it so that it made sense:American rock’n’roll, with its cars and girls imagery,was a product of American post-war affluence, butBritain had been ruined by the war. An English teenager waited in the rain for a bus. Jenny’s daddy didn’thave a T-Bird – nobody’s daddy did.
We wanted to give a sense of the uniqueness andthe difference of this time aurally; that meant no electricguitars, no blue suede shoes. Jazz, chanteuses andclassical music would all help place Jenny precisely inher cultural context. This didn’t, however, make themusic any cheaper.
Well-known songs can command in excess of£10,000 each for publishing and recording nights, andthese sorts of sums are almost never within reach of anindependent production. We lost one song by JulietteGreco because of the publisher’s high demand; andwe were only able to licence our final choice of Grecorecordings – at a rate we could afford – after Lone andI wrote to the singer herself for permission.
Mostly this was music I knew very little about – it’ssalutary to be reminded that what one thinks of aspersonal taste, an aesthetic that has taken years toachieve, is actually little more than the inevitableproduct of being born in a certain place at a certaintime.
So, was it worth it? Yes, as far as I’m concerned,emphatically so. I am as proud of An Education as ofanything I’ve ever written – prouder, if anything, ifonly because it’s so much easier to take pride in otherpeople’s work. Whatever I think of the writing, I lovethe work of the actors, and Lone’s direction, and Andrew McAlpine’s beautiful design, and John deBorman’s camerawork, and if nothing else, I can takeenormous pleasure in helping to create a structure inwhich this work was possible. ‘You probably can’twait to start another one,’ somebody said to me afterthe Sundance Festival, where An Education wasreceived well and won a couple of awards. It shouldwork like that, of course. But the simple fact of thefilm’s existence, let alone any quality it might have, ismiraculous, a freakish combination of the right materialand the right people and an awful lot of tenacity,almost none of which was mine. And how many miraclesdoes one have the right to expect, during theaverage working life?