It’s a truism that playwriting and screenwriting are profoundly different tasks. Yet in one way, at least, Patrick Marber says it’s very much the same.
“For me it’s the same hard work, and it’s the same set of problems: It’s how best to tell the story and how to get in and get out as effectively as possible,” Marber says.
He made a name for himself writing both the stage and screen versions of “Closer” and is now nommed for “Notes on a Scandal.”
The biggest difference, he says, is that in a play he knows his dialogue will carry the story, where a film is told with images.
“You can watch pretty much any film and understand what’s happening with the sound turned down. That ain’t the case in the theater.”
Marber calls the ability to cut away from a scene, even without having to justify the cut, “the best thing that ever happened to me as a screenwriter.”
“Many are the times that I’m stuck in a scene in a movie, and I think, ‘Well I’ll just cut now, we’ll deal with that problem later in the story,’ where onstage you don’t have that beautiful solution to the problem.
“The toolbox feels magnificently rich for screenwriting, whereas with theater writing it’s the same old nubby pencil and, more relevantly, the eraser.”
Onstage, he says, a scene has to come to a logical ending. Not so in film.
“You can just use the last line of the preceding scene to get you with some momentum into the next, and worry about the logic a couple of scenes later. Or maybe come back. So it’s that easy magic, of getting from one period of time to another, and then getting back again and looping around. It’s fabulous.”
Marber looped around quite a bit in “Notes on a Scandal.”
Zoe Heller’s novel is told entirely as diary entries by Barbara (played by Judi Dench in the film).
In the screenplay, Marber tells most of the story from Barbara’s point of view, but he diverges into an extended flashback sequence when Barbara’s fellow teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett) reveals how she came to have an affair with a teenage student.
The script is basically a two-hander and gives these two premier actresses plenty of chances to spar, building their confrontations to a knock-down battle — literally.
Marber says that he’s certainly proud of writing a good line of dialogue, especially when he sees an actor of the caliber of Dench or Blanchett excited about speaking it. “One of the great pleasures of being a screenwriter is when you know you’ve turned an actor on. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Yet he says coming up with a good image is just as exciting.
“Because you’ve plucked the thing from the air, that you kind of feel in your bones is going to be the shot. That’s just as satisfying in its way.”
In the end, though, Marber sees a fundamental distinction between screenwriting and either playwriting or writing novels.
“If you write a novel, the novel is the thing. If you write a play, the play is the thing, but so is the first production of it.
“But if you write a screenplay, the screenplay is not the film. The film is the film. The screenplay is the screenplay. It’s a very odd distinction.
“The published screenplay of ‘Notes on a Scandal,’ it’s a nice document to have published, but it ain’t the film. It’s just what we made the film from. And that’s quite an odd feeling.”