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 & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
books50 Shakespeare phrases still in use, to mark the bard's 450th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Bear Grylls’ latest television show has been labelled sexist by female survival experts

TV
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams as Arya and Rory McCann as The Hound
TV
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    The Poles who brought prosperity
    Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

    Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

    The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

    Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
    Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

    Sam Wallace

    Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

    Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
    Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

    Through the screen

    British Pathé opens its archives
    The man behind the papier mâché mask

    Frank Sidebottom

    The man behind the papier mâché mask