Interview: William Monahan Talks ‘London Boulevard,’ Real Tough Guys, and The Rat
Writer, now director, William Monahan crafts a unique brand of hard-boiled men. The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven screenwriter never follows a guy who’s gonna throw-down and flex at any chance he gets. His protagonists are flawed, paradoxical, and in London Boulevard, even kind of feminine.
Monahan’s adaptation of Ken Bruen’s novel features a sensitive lead with no interest in being a gangster, an antagonist who’s more interested in kissing the Farrell character than killing him, and every other so-called mobster in this film could not be more incompetent. Unlike The Departed, Monahan has written an anti-gangster picture.
Here’s what writer-director William Monahan had to say about vulnerable men, the current state of exposition, and why the last shot of The Departed still works, even if you didn’t get it:
I’ve seen the film a few times now, and I think it works better each time. When structuring the script, did you know it was going to be one of those types of films?
Yeah, I’ll tell you, it was never going to be a picture for everybody [Laughs], and I knew that going in. It’s kind of elliptical. Some of its effects are a little subtle. And some of its effects kind of amuse me. So, I don’t know.
[Laughs] I found your cameo pretty amusing.
Am I mistaken, or is that you at the bar reading a newspaper?
Yeah, that is me. I just had an insane woman on the phone claiming I cameod as the psychotic paparazzi. I was like, Jesus, I haven’t gained that much weight, have I? [Laughs] You are talking about the the guy holding the newspaper, right?
[Laughs] I am, yes. It’s interesting seeing you take on directing where you’re basically at the height of the game in your writing. What compelled you to take on this project, versus taking more writing gigs and definitely making more money in that period?
Well, the first time I ever wanted to make a film I was about 18 years old in London. I imagined the opening of a film with the roof from “Heart Full of Soul” on it, and ever since then I’ve been searching for the right material to allow me to that opening. Well, that’s trivializing it. It was real important to me to make London Boulevard. I wanted to break out of the United States and I certainly wanted to break out of Boston. I wanted to do an international European film.
I think what distances the film from The Departed is that it’s a film about a gangster trying not to be a gangster. Did you see it that way?
The thing is, what a lot of people have been missing about the movie is that nobody is what they’re supposed to be in the film. They say, if you read the usual coverage of the movie, that Colin Farrell is a South London gangster who goes to work for a famous actress. The thing is, as you know having seen the film that many times, number one, he’s not from South London, which is why he has a sort of middle-class estuary grammar school accent. Number two, he never goes to work for her. He becomes her friend and then becomes her lover. If you noticed, he pays rent for the flat and he tells her at the country house he hasn’t taken the job. We don’t even know if Gant is a real gangster; he could just be a property developer with real mental problems. I mean, the guys who work for him aren’t the toughest or smartest henchman in the world.
[Laughs] And you’d think a big gangster would have more than $60,000.
[Laughs] Right, exactly.
With the love story, you acknowledge a big convention, about how the girl always gets the tough guy to open up. During the writing process, do you always try to subvert conventions?
You always want to be paradoxical, don’t you? That’s the only thing that’s really interesting. You know, Colin’s character is certainly paradoxical. He’s a gangster who isn’t a gangster, while she’s a film star who doesn’t want to be a film star. They may, at times, approach being individuals. [Laughs] I suppose that conversation at the table came from the conversations you have in script meetings. You’ll have somebody in the script pick up a gun and shoot somebody with it and an executive variably says, “Well, I buy this since he probably has some special forces training in his background.” [Laughs] Dude, any man can do anything at any time.
[Laughs] That plays into one of Mitch’s lines, “I’ll hurt someone if they try to hurt me,” and most of your leads generally stick with that code.
There probably is a thread through most of my guys. There isn’t one that isn’t paradoxical. Anything from Kingdom of Heaven to Billy in The Departed, who I named Billy just in case anyone got the wrong idea it was autobiographical. [Laughs]
You’re known for writing these hard-boiled men, but you write slightly feminine guys. Do you think that “tough guy” schtick is a misconception about you writing?
On a personal level, yeah [Laughs]. Well, I don’t think the leads are “feminine.” There’s a sort of rounded-sense to these people that have the complexities the rest of us have, in which film characters aren’t usually allowed to have. [Pause] I’m sorry, I have nothing to add.
[Laughs] No problem. How do you perceive your female characters?
Well, I’ll tell you what, I write female characters as real people, which is less common than you might think. I was in a certain sense recently where you write a woman as imperfect ‐ in some way, and sometimes, in an attractive way ‐ and a lot of people have this Madonna “whore” mentality, where they don’t look at women as rounded individuals. Being out in the world among them, it’s hard not to look at them as rounded individuals. [Laughs] I suppose this is one area where experience will tell.
Now most women are either butch heroes or just passive damsels.
Yeah, exactly. You know, it’s equally unrealistic in both directions. You have a 5'2" woman doing a flying back kick and taking out a row of 300 pound guys in body armor, and that’s typical of movies these days. Or women are sort of simpering simpletons on the other hand, and you’re quite right about that. You don’t get a terrific complexity of character in most Hollywood films. If it’s initially in the script, it’ll get boiled out eventually.
Have you ever gotten a note saying, “Let’s make her a little more sexy”?
No, not really. I tend to go in pretty sexy.
How do you usually deal with notes?
I think the main thing you do is pretend you acknowledge them. [Laughs] With notes, sometimes they can be incredibly useful. I’ve found in my own experience that what they can be is a suggestion that wants you to do it differently, and not do it in a way that is proposed in the note, but sort of use your ingenuity to come up with a third way that is better than your original way and the suggestion.
You mentioned how you didn’t study screenwriting in college, so where did you learn the basics?
I think I’ve said this before in print somewhere, but the first screenplay I ever read was Dylan Thomas’ The Doctor and the Devils, which is basically pure visual poetry on the page. It’s just an absolutely fantastic piece of literature. I never thought screenplays were a lesser art form, I just didn’t know. I was surprised at one point to find out screenwriting is considered third-handed work. I’ve always approached it full-throttle.
So you never felt the need for a screenwriting course?
No. In those cases, when you’re good, you kind of learn by anthesis. Again, the negative response to a note or an instruction is often the portal to discovery. You have to find your own way to do things. If they don’t like the way you do things, you’ve got to impose it. As far as writing is concerned, if you read Hamlet attentively and observe the effects, you can write anything in the world.
When you write for directors like Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott, who are visionaries, do you write knowing their style or do you write your own way and let them interpret?
Well, I’ve never written for Marty. The Departed was done when he came on to direct it.
But you’re working on The Gambler for him, right?
Yeah, but I haven’t started that yet. That’s a thing in the future. I think he would want me to take my own run at it. We won’t talk about anything until we’re at the first draft. We’ve had a preliminary conversation, but that’s about it.
What about Ridley Scott?
The technique between Ridley and I, historically, was I would go off and do what I was going to do. Then we’d go head-to-head and start collaborating on making it into a shooting script, or I should say the script he wanted to shoot.
You’ve seemed to develop a good relationship with both of them. What would you say the backbone is to a good writer and director collaboration?
Well, if you’re both excited about the stuff. We’re all doing this because we love movies. In a form like this, it’s kind of like being in a band with somebody. If it works, it works. You can always tell immediately, if you’re playing music with somebody, if it’s not working out.
Has that ever happened when writing a script?
No comment [Laughs].
[Laughs] I’ll take that as a yes!
[Laughs] No, I’ve been very fortunate with the people I’ve worked with.
That’s good. While writing London Boulevard, were you more or less detailed knowing you were going to direct?
I’m usually pretty detailed, but in the case of London Boulevard, I could carry a lot in my head. Also, improvise. The first thing you learn is that you can write a lot of detail, then have people scurrying around the symbol mentioned on the page or you can just go to the locations and see what you’re actually going to need in the physical locations and what you’re going to shoot. You know, you might make a costume change because the London stock brick behind a character is a particular color. You can use as much detail as you like, but everything is subject to change.
Are you very precious over your words?
I’m very open to the spontaneity of it. I think I’m pretty spontaneous. I like going out to where I’m going to shoot and figure out how I’m going to shoot it. You know, it’s a different kettle of fish. It’s still writing, but you’re writing with this gigantic 200-person apparatus. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You’re even still writing in editing too, right?
Yeah, it is, if you stretch the definition of editing and stretch the definition of writing. You’re just making something; it’s all just a matter of making something. When you’re in editorial, you’re pushing colors around, pulling music over things, and it produces different effects and becomes its own interesting universe.
Can you think of any spontaneous moments you found on London Boulevard that ended up working out great?
Yeah, actually, I went back to London to shoot a plate across a river. I wanted an effects plate, so I could put a picture of Keira up over the location. At that point, you realize, wouldn’t it be nice if it was one long steadicam shot of Colin walking along the river and then land on the big picture of Keira? So, that’s what we did.
Did you storyboard heavily?
Yeah, then when you get to location you throw it all out. [Laughs]
[Laughs] But, when you get to set, you don’t think, “That was a waste of time”?
No, I’m pretty good at not wasting time these days. You get better, better, and better at it, and you realize that’s the total secret of life. You know, you realize there are people you talk to and people you don’t. I think in any art a disaster is over-preparation for a project. What you do is prepare yourself in general and have a certain skill set that comes into play when you need it.
Have you found instances where a line reads great on the page, but doesn’t have the same effect once it’s spoken?
I can’t think of too many occasions when that’s happened. The thing is, when you’re writing drama, you’re projecting yourself into the characters. You’re either saying the words aloud when you write them or imagining them being said aloud on some sort of stage in your mind, and it kind of works out that way. There’s very little that has to be combat-tested, you know? One thing I like to do is a table reading with the actors and any sort of defect usually turns up really quickly. You replace it with something that works.
I describe the film as sort of a minimalistic epic, where you have to fill in the blanks and get to imagine other characters’ stories. Was that a tough structure to find?
[Laughs] I did always want to be minimalist and elliptical. You know, some of the dialog scenes were intended to be longer. The film starts to suggest the way it’s going to go, with the music, the transitions, and things like that. They sort of unmoor themselves from the script and you start to deal with it as film. It was really important for me to be visual, too, because I’ve usually been thinking about films for a very long time. The last thing you want to be is a writer-director who just sets up the D.W. Griffith camera and lets people jabber and think that’s a film…
[Laughs] Which a lot of directors do.
Yeah, yeah. And sometimes they get away with it. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So you always like to keep the camera very controlled and present?
Controlled sometimes, loose other times. Whatever works.
What type of scenes do you think call for that loose approach?
Something representative of when you take a loose approach is the scene in the parking structure, the building site. It’s where Ray and Colin go nose-to-nose. Your job at that point, where two actors like that just launch and light off of each other, is to keep the camera spinning around to capture it at all. They really are doing a performance, and your job is to record.
You brought up the use of music and transitions in the film, and they’re basically used as exposition. Is that your way of avoiding traditionally spoken exposition?
Yeah, you kind of take your lumps for not having over-exposition. At this point, in the history of film, over-exposition is generally considered exposition. Unless you’re not hammering someone in the face with bits of information that have nothing to do with the mood of the piece or the real sense it’s making. You know, poetry is sound and sense, right? It’s fused in one thing ‐ film is sound and sense, and visuals are fused as one thing. I’ve sat through movies where I think, “Well, shit, I didn’t really need to know that. Enough with the backstory, just give me the figure and the landscape. Let me see what he is by what he does.” That’s all I think about.
Do you think critics or audiences are now accustomed to having their hands held in that regard? [Laughs] I’m sure that sounds very snobby…
It is kind of snobby [Laughs], but it’s appropriately snobby. Christ, everybody approaches everything in a standard way, don’t they? The only distinction in the world is when you don’t. A lot of things are ordinary, and there’s no reason to add to the pile.
To wrap up: Ever since The Departed came out, there’s been a very divisive reaction to the ending, the final shot in particular. What’s your stance on that?
Yeah, that was intentional. Some people get it, some people don’t. Even the people who don’t get it would’ve had a lesser experience of the movie if it had not occurred, because it’s very traditional in tragic drama, especially the sort of “everybody dies” tragic drama. In Elizabethan and Jacobean convention, after everybody is dead on the stage and the pity and horror and effects of tragedy are in play, the clown would basically come out on stage and show his ass and do an obscene dance. It’s a little nonsensical touch to dispel the mood that descended on the theater. You can understand the rat, you can not understand the rat, but you certainly benefited from the experience of the rat, whether you know it or not [Laughs].
London Boulevard is now available VOD and opens in limited release on November 11th.