Simon Beaufoy, who won the adapted screenplay Academy Award for “Slumdog Millionaire,” tells what went into writing See-Saw Film’s “A Special Relationship,” which depicts how Elizabeth Taylor’s close relationship with her assistant inspired her to become an HIV/AIDs activist.
Where did the initial idea come from for the script and how did it evolve?
From [Taylor’s] estate. … Everybody focuses on the tempestuous relationships, the many marriages, the whole Richard Burton love story, but nobody really knows what she spent over 30 years doing, which is raising money for people who had HIV and AIDS. She started at a time when it was a deeply unpopular thing to do, and received a lot of negative press for doing it. She didn’t care at all, of course, being the sort of woman she was. She saw a huge need to raise awareness and raise money for people who were in a terrible state.
Where did you start?
I didn’t know how to tackle it. You have to be really careful with icons like Elizabeth Taylor. You need a way in, somehow. I didn’t want to do a hagiography that said how wonderful she was because she did all this great work. It just it didn’t strike me as a film. I dug around in the archives and talked to people and discovered this amazing story very few people know about: the extraordinary [platonic] love affair she had with her assistant, Roger Wall. … And the two stories came together suddenly, in a really poignant and amazing way.
What’s a big takeaway from your research?
Part of the story is about how she forced Ronald Reagan to step up and acknowledge AIDS and HIV as the hugely serious problem that it was. … She was a friend of his from her filmmaking days, and got him to come to a fundraiser where he gave the keynote address, which was an amazing thing to do, given that, before that, he pretended the whole disease didn’t exist. She was really instrumental in raising awareness about the illness as well huge amounts of money.
What else did you learn from your research?
She actually knew all about the science [behind AIDs and HIV]. She read all the documentation about it. Once she decided to be involved with it, she talked to all the doctors at the forefront of research to find out exactly what this disease was, what it did, how you caught it —and at the time people were unsure. She was right up to date with the research.
How did writing about real people impact your writing process?
It’s a delicate tightrope when you’re writing about real people who’ve done real things. You have to shape a story, but at the same time, you have to remain true to the essence of what they’ve done. There’s a line, almost literal, in my head that I walk all the time between saying, “I need this to happen for the sake of the drama,” and “it didn’t happen so you can’t do it.”
There’s a key moment in the film that makes very little sense to me as a screenwriter, and I’ve had to keep it that way because that’s actually what happened: Despite Elizabeth being the most vocal supporter of people who had HIV, Roger left his employment with her and didn’t tell her he was HIV positive. It makes no sense to me.
There’s beautiful novel written by Michael Ondaatje, who wrote “The English Patient,” called “In the Skin of a Lion,” which I’ve adapted. We’re trying to find a director for that at the moment, so I hope that’s up next.