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

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