David Hare: 'The sort of films I write have collapsed'

David Hare has written intelligent and accessible drama for both screen and theatre. Here, he talks to Clemency Burton-Hill about the state of the arts in Britain and the loss of support for radical new work

Sir David Hare – playwright, director, screenwriter, provocateur – is lounging on a sofa at the British Film Institute on London's South Bank with a glass of champagne in his hand and an inscrutable look on his face. He has just delivered a tour-de-force lecture about screenwriting, the first in an ambitious series organised by Bafta, and I have challenged him on his central point, namely, that he "doesn't know how to write a screenplay". With screenwriting Oscar nominations, Bafta awards and numerous industry plaudits to his name; and having experienced, by his own admission, "lunatic success" in the aftermath of The Hours, surely he is being a little disingenuous?

But he is adamant. "Nobody knows how to write a screenplay. Or even make a film," he insists. "Film is the most uneven of art forms. Show me a director or screenwriter you admire, I can point to an absolute dog they have made at some point in their career. We all make bad films; it's the nature of the form."

Unlike stage plays, where "after four weeks in a box rehearsing you at least have a sketch of what the thing will come to be", filmmaking is by its very nature "speculative"; a "collective delusion", as he describes it. "It is an experimental art, because you can't build the prototype until the moment the camera starts to turn. At which point you've got 150 people who all thought they were making the same film realising that they see something completely different."

It is almost poignant, Hare's description of the "disappointment" that is unleashed as soon as a screenwriter delivers a script. "There is a terrible moment at which a film they dreamed of as everything suddenly becomes something," he explains. According to Hare, the screenwriter, consequently, is almost always "the fall guy"; the "idiot in the room who has to speak first"; the "first person to put up a vision of what this film might be, against which everyone else tests their vision".

Given Hare's masterful grasp of the theatre, where his career has spanned four decades and produced some of the most important plays in the dramatic canon – Plenty, Racing Demon, The Blue Room and Amy's View to name but four – you might think he would steer clear of filmmaking and the "profound insecurity" it generates in him. As he tells horror stories of the director Robert Altman boasting that he "rips up screenplays on day one of the shoot", makes jokes about producers thinking that film is basically "visual storyboards whose lips move occasionally", and bemoans the fact that "the actual business of writing dialogue is not thought of as a craft", you wonder why it's even worth it for him.

But Hare has been drawn to film since he was a boy growing up in coastal East Sussex, and to this day it exerts a powerful hold on him. "I started going to the cinema seriously when I was about 13 or 14," he recalls. "I used to come up to London with my friend Nigel [Andrews, now the Financial Times's film columnist] in the morning and go to the 9.55 screening at the London Pavilion. Then there would be another film at lunchtime, and one at teatime. Then we'd get on the train back to Bexhill."

His sense of love and wonder at the medium was laid touchingly bare at the Bafta lecture as, despite his protestations of knowing nothing, he outlined five key "beliefs" about screenwriting learned "painfully, from experience". Hare employed movie clips to illustrate his points: 1) That the best movies are "endloaded", more about outcome than proposition; 2) that a principle of "Who is the third who always walks beside you?" in any scene will heighten tension and complexity; 3) that film is a verbal as well as visual medium and therefore telling, not showing, is acceptable (whatever film school preaches); 4) that the process of filmmaking is inherently collaborative; and 5) that the screenwriter ought to be present on set and in the editing room until the movie is complete. As he did so, it was impossible not to be swept up in his boyish enthusiasm and appreciation for Orson Welles, Carol Reed, Graham Greene and – yes – Mad Men, of which more later.

Of all those beliefs, the one that seems most compelling to Hare and his work is the "Who is the third that always walks beside you?" principle, which he illustrated with a stunning scene from Reed's The Fallen Idol, whereby two grown-ups in a tea-shop having a deadly serious conversation are ruptured by the sudden, discordant presence of a child. Hare has always been preoccupied by the sense that life is untidy, that plot lines hang, that lots of things happen all at once.

"As human beings," he points out, "we are all not conducting just one narrative but many narratives all at the same time. Anything that charges the scene with a complicating factor means it begins to feel like life." The "Who is the third..." technique is not a trick, he insists; rather, "It is what makes a scene feel real. The more the screenwriter brings in those other narratives, the more it charges each scene with what's been going on elsewhere." It takes great courage, Hare reminds us, to distract our attention or withhold information in this way, which is perhaps why most commercial features tend towards the "bell jar" approach, where each scene obsesses only around its own particular themes – "with a kind of furious, exhausting dullness", as he has put it.

The most "perfect illustration" of this subtle layering of nuance he finds in the television show Mad Men and a moment in season three. "It's taken Betty Draper three series to confront [her husband] Don with the fact he is a fake," Hare marvels. "You've been waiting for that scene for three series, and now there's another woman waiting outside, in Don's car!" That devastating combination of tension and irony creates a whole new frisson of anxiety for the audience – and, presumably, for Draper – and reveals, Hare argues, something about the man without Draper himself having to do anything. The mere existence of that woman outside is "wonderfully eloquent about his character", and the scene is, wonderfully, more like real life.

Hare's outspoken admiration for Mad Men has led him to state that, "The future of American film lies on television." I ask him how he feels about the fact that the golden past of British film was on television, but that, with a few bold exceptions – Sherlock springs to mind – our own televisual landscape now appears rather dispiriting?

"In those days, the early 1980s, TV and film were interchangeable," he agrees. "Stephen Frears made something like 25 films for television. Jeremy Isaacs went to found Channel 4 and decided that to make the channel distinctive he needed a policy of enlightened patronage. David Rose, his head of drama, came to people like me, Mike Newell, Stephen Poliakoff, Derek Jarman, Stephen Frears, Richard Eyre, and said: 'We won't have a channel unless you make films for us – we'll finance them and show them on TV'."

Hare remembers "a spirit, which was everywhere then, and isn't now". His first feature film, Wetherby, starring Vanessa Redgrave, which triumphed in Berlin in 1985 and will be re-released on DVD here next week, was borne precisely of this spirit. "Wetherby was made on a huge wave of enthusiasm; you had people like Judi Dench and Ian Holm playing parts which were insignificant compared to parts they could have played on stage, TV or film, but they did it because everyone was excited about British film. They saw it as something important. People are much more calculating now. That spirit has gone."

Is there any hope it might come back, I wonder? What would it even take? "If a great impresario came along..." he muses. "Maybe. But look how Channel 4 has been punished for making Slumdog Millionaire. They were hugely commercially successful, so their money was immediately cut!"

Does he think there is anything on British television worth watching? "These days there is some good mainstream work," he concedes, "but very little radical work. If you ask the BBC, what is the cutting edge, then the cutting edge seems incredibly blunt. People aren't pushing at the boundaries, and those who would are not being supported."

To Hare, this lack of support is a dereliction of duty. He believes the license "exists to protect and develop certain art forms. And just look at the Proms!" he exclaims. "Roger Wright proved with the extraordinary season this summer that people will listen to avant-garde music. He's moved the centre of gravity in British music from the 19th to the 20th century. The programme was crammed with figures who were supposed to be unpopular, yet audiences were huge. Sadly, there is no such enlightened patronage for the avant garde in television."

More worrying even than the lack of patronage for radical new drama is a perceived trend in the opposite direction that seems to be gathering momentum. Hare is dismayed by what he sees as a "lack of faith in the importance of fiction" among commissioners. "Television is more and more a factual medium," he laments. "Fiction looks expensive, unwieldy, uneven. And so the amount of investment seems disproportionate to those who think Jeremy Paxman brings truth."

Hare, who has said that our "curious times deserve curious art, in both senses of the word", reminds me, gravely, that "the truth is more likely to come to you from fiction than from fact. But those days are gone. Even the sort of films I write have collapsed."

He is talking, he says, about works such as The Hours or The Reader: "I mean, $20m art films that cross over into the mainstream. Well-budgeted, human stories with proper acting. That's what you dream of but can we point to many of those in the past few years? No." He tells me that "the most exciting moment in my life was on Santa Monica boulevard after The Hours came out and driving past a multiplex and thinking, I cannot believe that a film about lesbians and suicide is playing in four screens!" Now, he reckons, Hollywood believes it's not worth investing in those kinds of films for the "pitiful" sums of money they make. "The Hours and The Reader made over £100m each, worldwide," he adds.

With the abolition of the UK Film Council and the imminent slashing of the culture budget, I wager that he can't be feeling optimistic about the future of the British film industry, either? He sighs, as he admits he declined an invitation to meet with David Cameron to discuss the arts in Britain in the belief it would be futile.

"I knew what would happen," he says. "The Conservatives would come in and destroy public subsidy because they are profoundly antagonistic to the arts. Thatcher was, and Cameron is." I mention the campaign that was launched recently, making the case that there is no fiscal argument for drastically cutting the arts because they return considerably more to Treasury coffers than they extract.

"Of course," Hare sighs. "You can prove that the injection of public cash is value for money. But you see all the spooks being rolled out on TV again. Tebbit, Lamont, all these ghouls, coming out of the grave like the beginning of some horror movie. It's just a campaign to conduct unfinished business. The economic situation is the perfect cover but I have no illusions about their agenda. The narrative has been seized by the Tories and this is what they've wanted to do ideologically, forever. Look at Obama. What is he doing? Pouring money into public works. What are we doing? The opposite."

Jeremy Hunt's putative cuts will do more than threaten a few regional theatres; the ramifications will be felt across the sector and into the future, in ways unpredictable. "By and large, everything that is good in British cinema has grown out of our publicly subsidised theatre," Hare maintains. "Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Richard Eyre, Sean Connery, Danny Boyle... British cinema is characterised by us all having come from the stage. It's what gives it such distinctiveness. We all learned to do what we do in the theatre, so if you threaten that...".

Might he be tempted to bash out an urgent, state-of-the-Con-Dem-nation drama for the National? No, he tells me: he is going to concentrate on a low-budget film he has written and plans to direct next year. "Which I suspect will be jolly good for me." It has been a while since Hare has directed on film, after his 1980s trilogy of Wetherby, Paris by Night and Strapless. "Yes. Each one was worse than the last," he deadpans. "But I believe I've learned a lot, over the years." I notice a gleam in his eye, and I can see that 13-year-old boy jumping on his train to gobble up a triple-bill at the Pavilion. "When film works, when it really works, it is heady," he murmurs. "And glamorous. Theatre is not glamorous; there is no point in doing it but for the thing itself. But there is a glamour about film."

The man who has spent two decades married to one of the world's leading fashion designers, Nicole Farhi, and still cuts a dashing figure today at 63, does not bother to clarify this statement: it is obvious he is not referring to movie stars, red carpets and statuettes but to something more ineffable. He looks thoughtful. "Finding your way in the dark," he muses. "That's what film is about. It's fantastically exciting. You really feel you're... living." As we get up to say goodbye, he pauses. "I always think of something that the screenwriter Frederick Raphael once said," he smiles. "For eight weeks, he said, you forget you're going to die."

'Wetherby' is released on DVD on Monday. More information on the Bafta/BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series sponsored by JJ Charitable Trust at www.bafta.org

Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes