INTERVIEW / The only script, the only writer: The writer Mary Agnes Donoghue talks to Sabine Durrant about Hollywood, French and Saunders, herself and Mamie O'Rourke

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The Independent Culture
The man at the stage door hadn't heard of Mary Agnes Donoghue ('try across the road?') and the company manager said she wasn't there. But the writer and director, whose play, Me and Mamie O'Rourke, is being talked about as 'a vehicle' for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, had slipped past them both unnoticed. She was already in the theatre, perched up in a Circle box, watching the set being trundled around and talking to a man in the Stalls.

'She's so corseted she almost won't look like Dawn,' he was saying. 'My God, how's she going to stand up,' she was saying, 'that's going to be hard . . .' Then she caught sight of me, left by the company manager to wait for her in the Upper Circle, and looked suddenly depressed. 'Couldn't I do the interview from over here?' she asked.

Mary Agnes Donoghue likes to keep her distance. French and Saunders have been publicising Me and Mamie O'Rourke all over the shop, but Donoghue prefers to stay at home. Her biog in the programme is almost self-insultingly curt ('was born in New York City and now divides her time between London and Los Angeles . . .') and she had trouble finding a photo to go with it ('I only had ones taken at cocktail parties with my mouth full of food'). 'People going on about their lives. I just hate doing it, I really do,' she said, when finally cornered in an ante-room. 'My life is so uninteresting.'

Some might disagree. Donoghue who, despite her slightly fluffier Glenda Jackson looks (cascading grey / blonde hair, generous mouth and forceful blue eyes) is apparently 'hundreds of years old', displays an unusual combination of shyness and stridency. She's a rare creature in Hollywood: a woman and a screenwriter (two major disadvantages in the film business) who calls her own shots. Even when she was first starting out - 'about 2,000 years ago' - doing temporary secretarial jobs to pay the rent, she had things under control. 'It was amazing; if you weren't completely stupid and you turned up on time, they were so thrilled. It got so, if I needed work, I'd ring up and people would create jobs for me.' But it was only after she'd written The Buddy System - which starred Richard Dreyfuss and was more of a half-hearted tap than a major hit - that she got really tough.

It all began with Beaches, the bitter-sweet film about friendship starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, which Donoghue wrote and Garry Marshall directed. During filming, Marshall wanted Donoghue to add a couple more sugars to the script. Donoghue said no. Marshall sacked her and hired a team of comedy writers from New York. That's the sort of thing that happens all the time in Hollywood, but the next bit isn't. Donoghue, 'very upset', went to the head of the studio. 'He said, 'You think they can write a better script?' and I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Well just wait, just wait.' He gave them three weeks and at the end of that asked to see the new script and apparently it was horrible, like really, really bad and Bette was hysterical and everyone was frantic and he said, 'Right, that's it, Mary Agnes's is the only script and Mary Agnes is the only writer,' and suddenly I was in a wonderful position.'

She still didn't much care for the final film - 'far too sentimental; Garry Marshall chopped away at the details, the script was actually quite tough.' So from then on, she determined to do without other people altogether. She co-produced Deceived and she directed Melanie Griffiths and Don Johnson in Paradise, her own remake of Jean-Loup Hubert's Le grand chemin. It was quite a risk, she admits now, biting her lip. 'Has there ever been a Hollywood movie that doesn't have its share of Hollywood egos, its battles?' she says. 'I was a first-time director and I was asking particularly Don to do things he'd never done before, that didn't feel right. Why should he trust me? But I stuck to my guns and he did do the moves and they worked.' Paradise was critically admired in England, but didn't do well. 'I think they thought, 'Oh God, not Don Johnson playing a fisherman in a small Southern town]' I mean they'd go to a cartoon first. But it was the best performance, the most restrained performance, he's ever given.'

Call it clout, or luck, or cleverness, it's not surprising that when Donoghue had an idea that she felt would only work on stage ('I wanted it to be intensely contained'), she should be rewarded with a West End opening. It might have been Broadway, but the British producers got there first and, as Donoghue and her English partner (the writer Christopher Robbins) live half the year in Hampstead, the idea didn't feel too 'alien' to her. The play is about two friends who shore up the ruins of their lives with elaborate fantasies and it's based 'loosely' on an old relationship of her own; hiding behind her hair, she admits the character of Bibi is based on herself, though 'in a very, very, very exaggerated version'. She's not directing it, and though she did think about it, 'for a couple of seconds', she says she feels 'relieved not to have that anxiety too'. She and the director, Robert Allan Ackerman, have known each other for a long time, and are 'on the same wavelength' so that's alright.

Donoghue didn't know much about French and Saunders when their names first came up, but after meeting them and looking at their work on video, she was shocked at how perfect they were for the roles (some of the dialogue does, uncannily, seem to have walked straight from an F and S sketch). 'It's strange. I didn't write it for them, but suddenly you could see their style in it, everything. It was just a perfect sort of match. There is a heightened reality to the play, a tricky thing to hit, and it's as if the characters are almost a parody of themselves. If you get anybody who's got their kind of timing, that kind of sensibility, they can take what you've done - without changing it - and take it further than you ever imagined it could go.'

Note that 'without changing it'. 'Yes, at first I was a bit nervous about the fact that they write their own material and I thought this might get sticky,' she says. 'But usually they know when something's wrong, when something goes on too long or doesn't quite hit the note. And I welcome that.'

This almost sounds like mellowness, and Donoghue admits she's feeling settled at the moment. She's loving the theatre-work, she's happy to be in London, and she confesses to feeling a certain power within herself. 'I don't mean power with things about you, but that you've somehow come to terms with who you are and what you are and it gives you an incredible strength, you don't spin your wheels. You don't waste your time on self-loathing and self-doubt. I mean all that's there, it never goes away, but you know that it's a waste of time. You start thinking, 'get on and do it'. When you're as old as I am, bravery gets easier.'

The interview over, Donoghue grimaces as if she's come out of the dentist and says, doubtfully, 'well, that was painless'. For a minute, she's a lamb again, but on the way out through the theatre the music for 'Three Little Fishes' (sung in the show) blares out from the stage speakers, a horrible toot-tooty pub organ version. Donoghue looks quizzical. 'It's a bit tacky-sitcom isn't it, that?' she says, smiling. Then she stops, halfway down the stalls, and turns round. 'I don't like it . . . No, I don't think I'm having that.'

'Me and Mamie O'Rourke' is at the Strand Theatre (Box office: 071-930 8800)

(Photograph omitted)