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)

Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

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

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
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.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines