My close call with Hollywood

His intimate portrayal of infidelity was a hit on stage, but when a top director wanted to put Closer on screen, Patrick Marber was afraid of commitment. Here he explains his change of heart
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The Independent Culture

The inspiration

I began writing the play Closer in the summer of 1996. The specific inspiration for it was Steven Soderbergh's film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which had been released in 1989. I thought it would be fun to do an arthouse film on stage about love, sex, jealousy and relationships. But I hadn't found a way into it.

Then, in the summer of 1996, I was in Atlanta, Georgia, with the National Theatre, who were touring with a production of my play Dealer's Choice. One night, some of the cast said that they were going to a lap-dancing club. I was told that Atlanta had a large number of quality lap-dance clubs, but I still had an expectation that it would be very seedy and nasty. It wasn't. It was very elegant, almost like a casino. The girls were very beautiful and there was seemingly nothing seedy about it at all. I was struck by the power of the relationships at play. The men paying the women. No touching, that's the rule of lap-dance clubs. We didn't have them in England at the time. There was Stringfellows, but it wasn't like it is now. The mid-Nineties seems like another time. It was pre-Blair.

I got talking to this girl, one of the dancers at the club. She was gorgeous and very powerful on stage. Unlike most of the other girls, she hadn't had cosmetic work done. She looked like a student and, in fact, was a student. I was struck by the difference between the power she had on stage and her everyday offstage persona. She was the kind of girl that I had gone out with in my twenties.

I went back to my hotel room and wrote a version of the scene that takes place in the private room of the lap-dancing club. Much of the dialogue I wrote that night was in the play and is now in the film. I had found my way in. I didn't know how the scene was going to fit into the play but I knew I had this bit of dialogue, which excited me. I had called the characters "Man" and "Woman": I wanted to know who this guy was, who the girl was, and the play really came from that. From there I invented his wife and her boyfriend. That was the starting point.

The play

I felt that it would be quite original to write a relationship play. There hadn't been one for a while, and they certainly weren't fashionable. It was wide open. This was before the days of Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I hadn't seen anything that was about fucking. There wasn't anything about people in relationships that seemed to be caustic or true. I don't know why, but that conversation was not being had.

Nowadays the whole of society is fixated on fucking and who's fucking who and why. I think one of the things that has changed since 1996 is that sex is on the cultural agenda: the availability of sex, endless sex, celebrity sex. What celebs are doing. What Blunkett is doing. Journalism has crept ever more steadfastly into the bedroom, and into the bed, and between people's legs.

But at the time I delivered my play to Richard Eyre, who was then artistic director at the National, it was a precarious little play and no one knew how it would go. It was very rude for the National, and some scenes were very shocking. We had no idea whether audiences would respond to it. But actors responded to it and wanted to be involved and that's always the first indication that you might be on to something. And that gave me a little bit of hope.

The original cast was Clive Owen, Liza Walker, Sally Dexter and Kieran Hinds. In the first previews we played it really dark, not for laughs at all, and then I re-directed it, and made the first four scenes much more accessible and light in tone. It wasn't really until after the reviews came out when critics said, "This is really funny and a kind of a comedy as well as a drama", that's when people really started laughing.

The director

Mike Nichols came to me via John Calley, who used to run Sony Pictures. I met John in the winter of 1997, en route to Sydney where I was going to see one of the first overseas productions of Closer. John Calley had read the play, liked it, and wanted to make a movie of it. I told them I wasn't ready to sell it yet - I was still in the thick of it as a play. And then a couple of years later, I was in New York directing a play on Broadway. Mike Nichols, who's a friend of John Calley, got in touch and said he'd seen the play and he was really into it. We met for breakfast in Mike's apartment. Mike and I talked about it, and Mike said he wanted to be involved with it. He said he'd quite happily produce it if I wanted to direct it, or he would happily direct it if I wanted to write the screenplay. He was open to everything, which was extremely flattering.

I still wasn't 100 per cent sure I wanted to turn it into a film. I knew that if I ever did, there would be nothing I'd like more than for Mike to do it. I instantly fell in love with him. He's a genius. He has an amazing ability to unlock actors and get very relaxed performances. He's a phenomenon, a legend. And he's incredibly funny and incredibly honest.

Annually, Mike's agent would call and say, "Mike's still interested", and after a couple of years, I said I'd do it. I can't honestly remember when I made the decision, but I remember it took a year to do the deal with Mike and the studio. There was nothing but agents talking for a year or so. And then when the deal was done, Mike and I got together and finally started talking about what kind of film it would actually be.

In the very broadest sense, the play is a comedy of manners about the way people behave in the grip of passion and the funny things we do to each other, and the film is a drama with some funny bits in it.

Mike always said he wanted the film to be lifelike but simultaneously like a dream. We were trying to put our finger on that strange haunting feeling you have when you're in love or falling out of love, that the world doesn't exist any more. That you're completely isolated, that the sound's been shut off. That it's just you and the other person.

The cast

When we talked about casting, Mike said, "I want Natalie. I want Jude and I want Cate Blanchett." I said great. When we talked about who would play Larry, I suggested Clive Owen. Mike had seen Clive in Croupier and Gosford Park, and immediately said great and offered him the part. Of course, as it turned out, Cate got pregnant and couldn't do the film, and instead we got Julia Roberts on board, which I was obviously very happy about.

Whatever Mike wanted, I would agree with. I didn't think there was any point in working with Mike Nichols and wanting it all my way. I wanted to support his vision. It wasn't until I saw the final cut that I realised what he was up to.

The business

I was on set more than most writers. But that's Mike's way. He likes the collaboration with the writers, and that was one of the reasons I worked with him. I didn't want to feel excluded. But I don't think I was actually much use, and to be perfectly honest; being on set was extremely boring. It's only interesting when the actors are there. You might shoot a minute or two minutes of dialogue a day. You inch forward. It's so radically different from rehearsing a play, and yet we managed to maintain a little troupe. It was an atmosphere that Mike tried to encourage and generate.

The actors behaved impeccably. Everyone just got on with it. It was a very happy ship. Ditto the relationship with the studio. I'd love to tell you that it was a struggle and that the studio was always trying to stop these movie stars saying these dirty words. But they'd read the script, they knew it was Mike, and they wanted to make this film. It wasn't how it's supposed to be at all. I've had bad Hollywood experiences, which I couldn't possibly talk about. I've done re-write jobs, and I've written a script that's currently still dead on a Hollywood studio shelf. All the soul got developed out of it.

The meaning

The material is still potent and relevant. It could have been written in the 17th century. It's about things that are always the case, about men and women falling in and out of love with each other. There's a lot of talk critically about the cruelty of it, but it's no crueller than Restoration comedy, or Jacobean tragedy.

European people perceive Closer as a hot-blooded passionate play, whereas American audiences and critics perceived it as misanthropic, cynical, cold-blooded. Those who didn't like the play just don't like the play, which is fair enough. But the purpose wasn't to shock. There's something that pisses Americans off ethically. Most mainstream American films are about redemption: the hero goes on a journey, and becomes a better person as a result of their suffering or experience. I never felt like Closer ever had a particular message. I'm not that kind of writer. I was just telling a story that I hoped would hold the audience's attention for a couple of hours. No one improves, there aren't great moral lessons to be learnt. The people who don't like it perceive it as a slab of nihilism.

When I watch the film I find it full of gentleness and softness and tenderness. It's quite a clinically cool film, but its soul is hot. Mike Nichols can't make a cold film, he's a warm-blooded animal. But he's not sentimental. On principle he won't push the buttons that some people need pushed.

The future

I'm adapting Zoë Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal. I'd love to write another play next year, but it's just so damn difficult.

Patrick Marber was talking to Ed Caesar