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"The Arts: Getting Mojo working" by Jez Butterworth
As `Mojo' hits the screen, Jez Butterworth describes the relish with which he demolished his award-winning play about Soho gangsters in the Fifties and rethought it for film|
The Sunday Telegraph; 6/28/1998; JEZ BUTTERWORTH
I WENT to see a film the other afternoon, at the National Film Theatre. It was a film of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross. The film is well performed, but very much a stuffed bird. Half way through I looked round to see that I was the only one there.
It struck me that were this a play, I would not only be disappointed by the turn-out, I would be embarrassed. I would spend the next two hours hiding behind my programme, or else feel I had to outwork the actors in grimaces and guffaws, to show their afternoon wasn't entirely wasted. That's because they're in the room with you, I thought.
I wrote the play Mojo in Wiltshire in 1994, when I was 25. It was staged at the Royal Court in the summer of 1995. It was my first full-length play, and I was shocked and happy that, with some wonderful acting and a wonderful director, it was well received. The play is set in 1958 in a rock-'n'-roll club in Soho in London. It concerns the attempts by a group of men to control the career of a young rock-'n'-roll performer, Silver Johnny. It's a fairly simple story of envy, desire and retribution.
As the play sold more and more tickets, people started to say that Mojo might make a good feature film.
Sidney Howard, the playwright and screenwriter, said that novels make better films than plays. He said, "The screening of a play requires expansion, which is bad for a work of art. The screening of a novel requires contraction, which is apt to be good."
And I agree with this. Practically all I know about writing plays is that the chief tension lies between what's on stage and what's off. It's what's left off that ignites what's on. This is the first and best trick of the theatre, its chief virtue born of necessity - that is, we can't afford that many actors and we can't keep changing the set.
In a good play the audience doesn't only accept this convention, we wouldn't have it any other way. Godot's non-arrival isn't a confidence trick ("Honey, he wasn't even in the goddam programme"); rather, it forces us up against the convention, and we suddenly exist in two places at once - our old, ticket-holding life and this tantalising new life in the midst of the characters in the stage.
(N.B. People sometimes note that film is closer to real life than theatre. I think this is wrong. The on / off convention is the very crux of human being; we are the on-stage characters, the off-stage ones being the gods and the dead. Film has no on and off. You can show what you like, you can See It All. There is no convention of absence.)
Because the best, most gripping, satisfying play is likely to be one most tightly bound in this on / off convention, it follows that it will most likely make a bad film. Everything that makes it work in front of you on the stage will hobble it on the screen. It can still be entertaining (Glengarry is enjoyable) but it can never be more than a play behind glass.
Producers know this. So they tell you to "open it up". Walter Matthau gets off a plane, takes a taxi into town, rides the elevator up to the suite where the action begins and remains till he catches a cab to the airport at the end, chastened, wiser, but, let's face it, not that tired.
I went to meetings all over town where people talked about "opening it up". It sounded as if all that was needed was to show the bits you can't see and you have a film. If you adapt a play just by showing what was going on off-stage, I suspect you end up with a string of dramaless events. The point surely is this: the things happening off are off for a better reason than that the theatre couldn't afford to stage them. This "opening-up" red herring is what Howard describes, and was afraid of each time a play for adaptation landed upon his desk.
I believe that, on the whole, plays don't make good films. Yet I went ahead and adapted and directed Mojo, spent two years of my life on it. Why did I do it? The reason is, actually, for the money, but not in the sense you might think. Let me explain.
BACK in 1993 I was flat broke. Me and Tom, my brother, had had one thing on telly, but things were not looking that pink. I heard that my friend, the writer Crispin Whittell, had just been given money to write a play. This sounded strange and wonderful; I'd written a couple of short plays before, and really fancied having a little money, even if it meant I had to have a crack at a full-length one.
The problem was that I had no ideas. I had one film idea about a rock-'n'-roll manager and a singer, set in the Fifties. It seemed nothing like a play. But I was that broke that I went and pitched it to Andre Ptaszynski , the Man Who Gives You Money to Write Plays. It turned out I had it all wrong. Andre commissioned musicals, not plays. I did the only thing I could. I pitched Mojo-the-musical. He bought it, literally.
The point is, there was nothing about the story of Mojo which absolutely suggested it would best be told as a play - indeed at first it seemed very much not to be one. But I wanted to write a play and this was the best story I had, so I was going to do everything I could to turn it into one.
I spent a year writing that story until it started to work. This was of course largely about learning what to put On, and what to put Off. Three of my main characters ended up Off, including the manager and the singer. Eventually, the convention became the very soul of the piece and, in that same second, I suspect it became a play.
When it came to writing a film of Mojo it seemed that the best way would be to demolish the play and start again. I should say, though it goes without saying, that this won't work for every play. Some of the best plays don't start with a story but with a simple on and an off. Nor can it be denied that different stories often naturally suit different forms. But in the case of Mojo it seemed very possible and exciting to tell this story again, this time as film.
The finished film, Mojo, is, I think, highly visual. I was very pleased when Janet Maslin, the New York Times reviewer, among others, praised it for this quality.
But despite all my well-honed stage-vs-screen theories, it's chilling to reflect that the most riveting scene in the film is a single shot of Harold Pinter and Hans Matheson, which lasts for six minutes. It's the most "theatrical" scene in the film, and the most filmic. It was never even in the play.
For anyone hoping to adapt a play for screen, the first and most valuable tip is to forget the phrase "opening up". Your keyword is "demolish". If you're lucky, you may still find your story battered, dusty, but alive among the rubble. But if you can't find it, it probably means your play was a real play.
The film of Mojo, written and directed by Jez Butterworth, opens in London on July 10
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