Arts: Audience with the invisible man: Christopher Hampton writes plays, films, and now the play of the film - Lloyd Webber's 'Sunset Boulevard'. It's the first megashow from a writer whose maxim could be: if it's difficult, do it. And make it look easy

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DURING THE technical rehearsals for Sunset Boulevard, the hardest time for any new musical, Christopher Hampton will slip off to Mexico. A master of exits, the man who has written the book for this year's biggest buster of blocks will be looking at locations for an entirely different project. Nostromo, Hampton's adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel, is scheduled to start filming next May.

When Hampton returns from the heat of Mexico, he will be thrown into the glare of publicity that surrounds the opening of any show by Andrew Lloyd Webber; if this one runs to form, it will see in the new millennium. Then Hampton will be meeting up with another director, Oliver Stone, to discuss the screenplay of A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan's indictment of American policy in Vietnam, which Stone will direct. Joseph Conrad, Billy Wilder and a Vietnam historian: how wide can a writer spread himself?

A lot wider than that. There's a film with Michelle Pfeiffer, a film with Emma Thompson, and a film with John Malkovich and River Phoenix. This last one, Total Eclipse, is adapted from the play Hampton wrote when he was 21, which is itself running at the moment at Greenwich, and is about to be revived on Radio 3, the last in their '1968' season.

Twenty-five years on, Hampton sits on the large sofa in the flat where he writes, making a guess at the number of screenplays he has written. 'About 20.' And how many have been produced? There is a pause, possibly even, if this was a stage direction - the playwright on a sofa contemplating an awful fact - a silence. It can be very quiet in this part of Notting Hill. Hampton lived here for 20 years, but now he uses it as his office. It's light and airy, and there's a secretary down the corridor to field calls. 'Six,' he decides. So how does he feel about having so much of his work, well . . . 'Invisible?' he offers, pre-empting the question. Well, yes, invisible. 'Cross.'

Other people who have won Oscars for screenwriting would be seriously angry. Hampton has had plays on in London since he was 18, with a West End hit starring Alec McCowen when he was 24. But Hampton's tone is ironic, understated. His conversation is full of modifiers, sort ofs, kind ofs and rathers. When he disagrees with something, he shifts gear a couple of times, before saying he wouldn't necessarily accept that. Calmly, he rationalises the situation: it's a gamble. Most screenplays don't get made, so every time you have to convince yourself that this one will be the exception. 'That it will be irresistible to producers and backers.'

This is where he makes life hard for himself. Total Eclipse is the story of the volatile homosexual affair between two poets, Rimbaud and Verlaine. Carrington is about the Bloomsbury painter Dora Carrington who lived with Lytton Strachey and committed suicide. Then there's Nostromo and A Bright Shining Lie. Try hawking these round the swimming pools of Bel Air. 'If you're attracted to the kind of films that are quite hard to finance, then you're slightly cutting your own throat.' Slightly.

EACH DAY Hampton sits down at his wide, tidy desk in this wide, tidy flat - his awards on the mantelpiece, though not the Oscar, that's at home - and steels himself for the lonely slog, knowing there's a 70-per-cent chance that what he's doing won't see the light of day. That he is writing in invisible ink. And this is one of our most gifted playwrights. 'The self-deception,' he says, 'has to be at a very high level.'

Not surprising, then, that on some projects he has turned producer, committing 'a fair amount of time' to meetings, lunches and putting people in touch with people. After the success of Dangerous Liaisons - for which he won the Oscar - he assumed it would get easier. It hasn't. Today he stands most chance with something written in the mid-Seventies and something written in the mid-Eighties. His soft, urbane voice warms to his own defence. 'It's just that, as with Liaisons, it's so wonderful when it goes right. It's like a drug.'

It was very different early on. At school (Lancing), he wrote a novel which was rejected by 'every publisher in London'. So, before going up to Oxford, he decided to write a play, for no reason except that the novel had been rejected. 'It suddenly felt much more natural. It came much more easily.' He adds, with an amiable lack of modesty: 'I do think it's a much more difficult form.' While novels can be discursive he thinks a good play requires a fantastic amount of energy. 'It's to do with not letting people go for a minute.'

The play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, was performed at Oxford, praised by the Guardian, taken up by the agent Peggy Ramsey, and sent to the Royal Court. It went on to the Comedy Theatre, and New York. It was, in retrospect, more of a success than it deserved to be. Hampton prefers to think of his next play as the start of his career. 'Quite inaccurately.'

But his first play turned what had been a fantasy - a career as a writer - into a likelihood. In his year out from New College - on the way to a First in modern languages - he lived in Hamburg and Paris and wrote Total Eclipse. The play was a way of figuring out what he might be doing for the rest of his life. He was asking himself basic questions. 'What does it entail to be a writer? What are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to provide?'

One answer, 25 years on, is rewrites. Typically, one of his unmade scripts judders back into life, a director is appointed, Hampton meets him or her, the director asks for changes, Hampton divorces himself from whatever it is he is working on and does the changes in 10 days. 'But it's all foreplay, the movies.' There does come a moment when a film is actually going to be made. When the dates are fixed. Until then, 'it's oh, all right, I'll do this bit for so-and-so. In a sense it's not quite serious.'

There is no shortage of offers. 'Some of them quite tempting.' How does he choose? Perversely. Only Hampton could have had the idea of turning a 19th-century French novel, written as a series of letters, into a stage play. 'Just about everybody thought it was a ludicrously pointless thing to do.' The result, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was one of the most skilful and acclaimed plays of the Eighties.

He no longer analyses his job. 'The task is to polish up your instinct, to be attentive to the things that seem to explode with the loudest pop when you first think of them.'

But where in all these plays, screenplays, TV plays, adaptations and translations do we find the writer? After Total Eclipse, he wrote The Philanthropist, a light comedy which made Hampton's name with the line: 'I am a man of no convictions. At least, I think I am.' After light comedy he wrote Savages, inspired by 'Genocide', an article by Norman Lewis about the extinction of the Brazilian Indians. It starred Paul Scofield, as the weary diplomat West ('It's been a very long time since I expected anything'). After translating A Doll's House in 1971 he turned the story on its head. In his own bitter Treats, the woman lets the man come back ('Question is, why did you allow me to treat you so badly?').

How did one play lead on to the next? 'I decided around the time that I was doing Total Eclipse that the one thing I really didn't want to do was a consistent body of work.' Very Hampton, that: casual but acute. 'I just tried to use hitherto unused portions of the brain.' His autobiographical play, set in his childhood home in Alexandria between the Egyptian Revolution and the Suez crisis, is called White Chameleon. The child is attacked by the Egyptians for being pro-British, and by the British for being pro-Egyptian. Is he then the Macavity of playwrights? The invisible man? 'I suppose if I do it right, this task will fail. There will be some thread of consistency. But that has to do with something I can't quite understand.'

IT'S NOT what you do, it's the way that you do it. Hampton can be found in his tone, the cool objectivity, the spread of sympathy, the elegant balance of discriminating dialogue (where he is at his wittiest), and the sudden shocks with which he can ambush an audience. The opening scene of The Philanthropist, in this respect, is a gem. These are the formal qualities of a classicist. He writes very slowly and several plays are sitting in notebooks, half developed. 'They're like coral formations, they're there for years, then little pieces get added to them.'

When Hampton was resident dramatist at the Royal Court, form was considered to be 'rather a decadent concern'. But it has always been a preoccupation of his. Discussing the three-hander Treats, he refers to the 'mathematical rigours of its construction'. His aim with Sunset Boulevard was to be faithful to the film but not rely on filmic devices: to construct proper theatre-length scenes, while sticking closely to the original, on the basis that 'you'd be insane to try and improve on it'. When Hampton began on the musical he didn't know if there would be any actual dialogue, but there is. 'I think Andrew has been quite intrigued by the business of people chatting to one another on stage.' They share an interest in structure. 'He's very canny about echoes.'

Hampton thought of doing Sunset Boulevard when he was researching Tales from Hollywood. He wrote to Billy Wilder, who said that as the writer he had no rights and Hampton should approach Paramount. Later Hampton was lunching with Lloyd Webber, whom he has known 'for ever' (Hampton was at school with Tim Rice, and David Hare too), and they found out each other's great idea.

The bulk of the story takes place in the theatrical setting of the movie star's home. But that isn't to say there are no headaches. I suggest two to Hampton: the New Year's Eve party, and the car-chase. He tried to drop the party - it meant jumping from one place to another - but now he runs it side by side with Norma alone at home. 'You allow the two scenes to reinforce one another.' The car- chase is in the hands of Trevor Nunn and John Napier. 'It's being translated, we hope, into a theatrical tour de force by our director and designer. We rather dumped it in their court.'

Hampton spent a year adapting Nostromo for David Lean. It was a year's apprenticeship - Lean's script sessions included discussing lighting plots with cameramen - that paid dividends. The next screenplay Hampton wrote was Dangerous Liaisons. As an editor Lean was most interested in the way one scene fed into another. If there was a break in mood, feeling or logic, he would start again. 'He imagined the film in great ropes of continuous action.' The storyboard artist would do three pictures. One of the final image of the first scene, one of the first image of the next scene, and one of the dissolve to see if Lean would rather dissolve than cut. 'People don't work like that any more. In such detail.' In the end the perfectionism was too much and Hampton quit. There's a storyboard by the sofa, of a night- scene from Nostromo. But this isn't Lean's. Hampton has gone back to the beginning and written a new script for Hugh Hudson.

His relations with Hollywood are summed up by the what has happened to Carrington. Hampton had lunch with a man from Warner Brothers. 'They used to come over and do these raids.' The man said there's all this stuff about Bloomsbury in the air, is there anything in this? Hampton had read Michael Holroyd's biography of Lytton Strachey and suggested the story of Dora Carrington. The man from Warner Brothers went away and the next thing Hampton knew about it was the contract arriving in the post. So he spent a year writing the script, by which time the man had vanished. The studio read the script with mounting disbelief. They were, apparently, perfectly polite. 'But they said, this girl falls in love with a faggot and kills herself. How do we market that?' Not easily. So Hampton has reacquired the rights and is setting up the film himself. Emma Thompson will play Dora.

While Hollywood asks for 'the silver lining' Hampton offers them the complicated relationships of Bloomsbury painters and 19th-century poets. There's something rather British about the endeavour. 'I am an optimist, I suppose,' he says, in the corridor on the way out, 'I can't think why, but I am.'

'Total Eclipse', Greenwich Theatre (081-858 7755), to 29 May; Radio 3, 23 May. 'Sunset Boulevard', Adelphi (071-344 0055), previews 21 June, opens 29 June, booking to 18 Dec.

(Photograph omitted)