How a nod and a wink changed a writer's life for ever

Christopher Hampton, the playwright and translator, recalls how film-directing made him an easier person to live with, but gave him a few nightmares as well.

It was terrifying - but directing changed my life. When Mike Newell, with whom I had worked on the script for Carrington, backed out of directing the film at the last minute, my name was put forward. Reluctantly I agreed to think about it. By coincidence - or design - Emma Thompson [the film's star] phoned me a couple of days later and made the same suggestion. I was terrified of messing it up and not doing justice to the actors or the material.

The honeymoon of Carrington and Ralph Partridge, whom she married under pressure from Lytton Strachey, took place in Venice - in fact all three of them went on honeymoon together. For logistical reasons, it was decided to start with two days' shooting in Italy. At five in the morning, the boat arrived to take me to the set. I felt a curious mixture of terror and exhilaration: something was about to happen that would fundamentally alter my life.

I began my directorial career lying in the bottom of a gondola, shouting at the camera crew and at a real-life gondolier. Lytton's line, as he flirted with this handsome gondolier, was: "I shall spend all my honeymoons here." I wanted the gondolier to wink back at Jonathan Pryce, who was playing Lytton. Unfortunately, my Italian was non-existent and the gondolier didn't speak any English. Finally, I discovered that the Italian for a suggestive wink is occhiolino. It was explained that, at the right moment, I would shout the word and our gondolier would wink at Jonathan. So, at just the right moment, I shouted "occhiolino" but he took absolutely no notice. I shouted it again and finally a third time and still nothing. I cut, and when we arrived at the landing stage, I got the interpreter to discover whether the problem had been my pronunciation. After a lengthy confab in Italian, he returned and told me: "He doesn't think it's in his character!" I gave up on the wink, and it wasn't until somewhere around the second week of shooting that I actually began to believe I could be a director.

The famous banal observation is that it is fabulously boring to visit a movie set. But the only person who isn't bored is the director, because they're being bombarded with questions, suggestions and problems - 15 hours a day. That is as far removed from my job as a writer as could possibly be imagined. For 25 years I have sat with a bit of paper, which is very lonely. You might imagine that directing is the most active profession you could possibly take up - on the contrary, you are a reactor. Although you have your script, which is your blueprint, there are an enormous number of people discussing it with you. If you are open to all that, it is tremendously enjoyable. One of the benefits of being older was not to be afraid of saying: "I don't know, what do you think?"

All that negotiating with my colleagues made me easier to live with. When I was working with Stephen Frears on Dangerous Liaisons, I went to France for 10 weeks because he likes the writer to be on set. I became so obsessive with the project that I ceased to exist outside of it. I became less and less communicative, only relating to Stephen. I would return home at weekends and my friends and family found me very difficult and remote. When I was directing Carrington, I was equally obsessed but in a different way to when I was on set as just a writer. Directing helped my self-confidence a lot; I'd been rather diffident in the past. I've always wanted to be liked and people who are indifferent to the feelings of others are not tremendously attractive to me. My instinct was always to let people have their head and to play the good policeman, using the director to enforce what I wanted. My principal lesson, that day in Venice, was the need to overcome my fear - to hold my nose and jump.

Since starting to direct, I have a new type of nightmare: a couple of nights ago, I dreamt that I was on set for the first day of shooting and I couldn't remember what the film was about - a new set of anxieties along with the pleasures. Yet it has made me feel good about myself and has been extremely liberating. I'm now even more open to new ideas.

When Carrington came out, I told people I couldn't possibly direct anything but my own scripts. Now I'm finding myself quite tempted. What's more, I could possibly learn something. You should never stop learning - that's when the arteries harden and atrophy sets in.

I think Carrington saved me from the famous mid-life crisis and invigorated me - because 48 wasn't too late to start something new and 65 won't be either.

Christopher Hampton's version of Ibsen's `An Enemy of the People' is currently in repertory at the Olivier, Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252)

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