The current set, a rather less imposing courtyard and stable, is for Black Beauty, adapted and directed by very nearly the only American on the premises (the others are the producer and the horses). Her name is Caroline Thompson. She wrote the screenplays for the hits Edward Scissorhands and The Addams Family, but this is her first time in the director's baseball cap.
The dilemma for Thompson, as for all writers who are given the chance to direct their own work, is this: 'If you're driving a car and there's a bunch of pedestrians cramming the street, you holler at the pedestrians. And when you're a pedestrian and the drivers are all behaving like maniacs, you holler at the drivers.' So what do you do when you're both? She is, she says, respecting her own script far less than would any other director. 'People have told me: 'Next time somebody else directs something that you've written you'll be easier on them.' I say: 'Absolutely not.' I'm perfectly capable of hypocrisy.'
Thompson was here last year for the filming of her adaptation of The Secret Garden, which was directed by Agnieszka Holland. A critical hit in America, it opens here this week. After that, 'Warner Brothers asked me if I would do an adaptation of Black Beauty and I said that I would love to if I could direct it.' They took their time but they said yes, bringing Thompson into the swelling sorority of big-time women directors.
If you take her career as an accurate guide to how to write scripts, be successful and stay sane, it would seem that all you have to do is ask. The Harvard degree in ancient Greek is strictly optional, the formative visit to Disneyland at the age of eight perhaps less so. She was born in Washington DC, 37 years ago, the daughter of a teacher. By the time she moved from her native East Coast to Los Angeles she had under her belt a spell in journalism and a gothic novel about a mother who is revisited by her aborted foetus. Penelope Spheeris, who has since found fame with Wayne's World, wanted to direct it. 'I said: 'You can have an option on the book for a dollar if you let me write the script with you so I can learn about that.' So that's what we did. She never did make it, but it attracted attention.'
In a town full of writers who make a living from projects that never reach the screen, Thompson had undergone that dispiriting experience for the last time. Two more of her scripts are in the can, both full-length cartoons, Homeward Bound, which comes out in a fortnight, and Nightmare Before Christmas, produced by Tim Burton, which is featured in this month's New York Film Festival. Thompson was first teamed with Burton by their agent in the days when his CV largely consisted of Pee Wee's Big Adventure. They hit it off.
'He had an image from a drawing he had done at high school, and a name, and the name was Edward Scissorhands and the image was of a guy with scissors instead of hands. Instantly, I understood the metaphor and went home and wrote the script in about three weeks. He went on to do Beetlejuice and Batman and I was sure he would never come back to do Edward but he did. We asked for very little money up front but complete control and it worked. I never had a studio meeting. We made the movie we wanted to make.'
She has found having total control something of a culture shock. 'I'll be there sitting and thinking and talking to myself as I do at my desk at home and I'll turn around and there's 150 people behind me. I spent the first few weeks red in the face. I've been in my room alone for 20 years.'
It is tempting to draw an analogy between the figure she cuts - under that cap and copious night-shoot clothing, she has a brittle, waif-like appearance - and the characters she has been writing about. 'Stories that I love are always about the outsider, and it can be an absurd outsider like Edward Scissorhands, it can be a child like Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, it can be a horse like Black Beauty. I mean the world isn't made for these creatures and I'm very moved by the creatures for whom the world is not made.
'My stories are essentially all the same and I think that's true of any writer. It's only in retrospect that you realise it, of course. It's not as if you sit down and say: 'How am I going to tell the outsider story this time?' One finds oneself in the middle of these adaptations thinking 'Why am I doing this?' and then I realise it's this tale again - the innocence of going blindly into the world like Edward Scissorhands did and discovering the grubbiness underneath.'
Her success excludes her from any comparison with those of whom she writes. One group, though, from which she is a voluntary outcast, is her own sex. Doesn't she feel she bears a torch for women in Hollywood? 'I don't carry a gender banner, much to the disappointment of some of my sisters. I think it's a great advantage being female in Hollywood. The skills required for survival in Hollywood are the female skills - manipulation, cunning and flexibility. It's the men I feel sorry for. I think they're completely at sea, but for us it's a perfectly natural arena.'
'The Secret Garden' (U) opens Friday at Warner West End (071-437 4343) and around the country.
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