Joe Penhall reckons he didn’t really crack screenwriting until he adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” for director John Hillcoat.
Born in Britain but raised in Australia, the scribe has enjoyed success as a playwright since 1994, when his debut, “Some Voices,” was staged at the Royal Court, London’s legendary crucible of new talent. His subsequent plays, including “Love and Understanding,” “Blue/Orange” and “Landscape With Weapon,” met with equal acclaim.
His experience in movies, starting with the bigscreen version of “Some Voices,” has been more mixed.
“The shift to film was really big, an enormous task,” Penhall admits. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, and if you watch ‘Some Voices,’ you can tell I didn’t.”
He spent six fruitless years working on “The Last King of Scotland.” “I went to Uganda, met Idi Amin’s henchmen and victims, but then the producers brought on other writers, and I took my name off it because I couldn’t really see much of me in it.”
He had a happier time adapting Ian McEwan’s novel “Enduring Love” for Roger Michell and Jake Arnott’s gangster novel “The Long Firm” for TV. But it was only when producer Nick Wechsler asked him to work on “The Road” that he really felt it starting to click.
“Theater is a verbal medium, it’s all about words, and my characters tend to be very loquacious. But ‘The Road’ taught me that minimalism, subtext, atmosphere and suggestion are far more potent.”
Hillcoat, on the other hand, argues that Penhall’s theater background is one of his strengths. “His experience with relationships and dialogue that comes from his plays makes him a cut above most screenwriters. Sometimes playwrights don’t have the visual and structural imagination of cinema, but Joe has that as well.”
Penhall recently directed his own short, “The Undertaker,” and hopes to helm his own original script “Mood Swings.” “Directing is the most fun you can have without breaking the law,” he jokes.
Shepherd: “My hero. He wrote wild plays you can do with three people in a pub, but became a real Hollywood player, too,” Penhall says. And British scribe Hanif Kureishi.
Favorite unproduced script: “Mood Swings,” about a sweet, bookish woman who suffers frontal-lobe trauma which changes her into a raging harpy.
Next up: “Moses Jones,” a dark three-part drama for the BBC about African gangsters, directed by Michael Offer.
Reps: Agents: Nick Marston at Curtis Brown in London, Philip Raskind at Endeavor