Playwright Joe Penhall describes how he juggles the demands of Hollywood, stage and TV

From lunch with Cormac McCarthy in New Mexico to read-throughs in Kingston upon Thames...

I spent the best part of two years in America making a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. We shot it during a sub-zero winter in Pennsylvania, in the Rust Belt and an ashen Mount St Helens, where it was so icy and cold our trucks were sliding sideways off the tarmac. When it was cut, the director and I flew down to New Mexico to spend a day with McCarthy, showing him the film, getting his advice and having the longest lunch I've ever had. We talked about writing and what constitutes a good film idea and what makes a great book, and lastly, we talked about The Road, the movie, which he liked, saying it was "like no other film I've seen". He drove us to the airport and next day faxed through four pages of notes which were a model of frankness and precision.

I was asked to write the screenplay partly because I was the only writer out of several considered who didn't want to change anything. I felt it was important to trust McCarthy's story-telling and not be tempted to reformulate it. The producers thought this was an excellent idea and a novel approach. During filming, I spent a week rehearsing with the actors and, along with McCarthy, popped up on set from time to time. I was usually referred to as simply "the writer." The director and the actors were called by first names. People would say things like "the writer says..." or "the writer thinks..." when I was standing right next to them. I could never tell whether this was a mark of respect or whether they'd just forgotten my name. Sometimes they'd speak extra loudly or enunciate especially clearly for me, as if talking to a person who was deaf or mildly retarded. I think this is normal. In Hollywood, writers are the ghosts at the banquet. They are the poor relations of the talent. They are the only ones who truly understand the script and it freaks everyone out. But with The Road I was channelling McCarthy, with his blessing, so I was afforded unprecedented respect and cut a lot of slack.

At the moment I'm writing a film for Mike Nichols, a genius, a comedian and one of my favourite ever film directors. I've been flying back and forth to LA for meetings and writing stints. The pressure to write a screenplay as good as The Graduate is ameliorated by the fancy villa, the enormous pool, the sunshine and the great Mexican food. Two of the valets at my hotel are aspiring screenwriters and go out of their way to help me with things and daily come and find me to chat about their work. In LA most people are working on a screenplay.

I love West Hollywood: the architecture and the light and the subtropical climate, and am always struck by the generosity of Los Angelinos. I mean the real people, not movie people. Although a few weeks ago I ran into a studio boss from Warner Brothers eating sushi on the Sunset Strip and she generously said, "If there's anything I can do to help while you're here, do let me know." I said that I needed help finding a good Cookie Monster for my little boy William. The next day she dispatched her chauffeur to Toys R Us and a fine example was duly selected and FedExed to William. It's the nicest Cookie Monster I've ever seen and he adores it. I now owe her a lunch, or at the very least a muppet...

There's a lot of money and power in films. The weirdness, egomania and pressure increase in direct proportion to the money at stake. The Road cost five times as much as your average British film and was five times the hassle. After sunny LA, coming back to wintry England was like climbing in with the frozen food at Sainsbury's, but when I took my South-West train to Kingston for the first read-through of my play Dumb Show, I was oddly relieved. Listening to a cast of clever theatre actors reading and rehearsing it in a friendly, collegiate way, I felt suddenly proud. Here were people who were doing it just because they liked it. Just because they'd read the words on the page and liked them. Just because it would be fun and they would be good at it.

Dumb Show is about celebrity and confessional culture, and our endless love affair with those things which grows ever more passionate by the day. It's a reminder that celebrities and the tabloid press are in collusion, together performing a complex sleight of hand, as delicate as keyhole surgery. While I was writing it, I interviewed the notorious "fake sheikh", News of the World "investigations editor" Mazher Mahmood, about his elaborate stings involving hapless celebrities. I was struck by how much he enjoyed his work; he didn't do it for money – he did it for the love of it. He told me he got butterflies "just like an actor" before each sting and it was an incredible buzz when it came off. Inevitably he himself is a celebrity now, with his own website and book.

The odd thing about my life is that I have three full-time jobs and none of them really mix. In the theatre I'm known as a playwright. In Hollywood I'm known as a screenwriter. At the BBC I'm known as a writer of "quality TV drama". None of the people I work with know who the other people are or care. It's like bigamy. I have three jobs which I try to do all at once and it's sometimes hard to explain to people why I might be busy in LA or New Mexico or Shepherd's Bush next week, and therefore unavailable. In my house in Somerset where I write, I don't have a phone, TV or the internet. It's annoying, I admit, and it drives people crazy, but I just don't have the time.

'Dumb Show', 1 to 17 April, Rose Theatre, Kingston (0871 230 1552; Rosetheatrekingston.org)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week