Martin Carr chats with Man Up screenwriter Tess Morris…
Nestled away just off embankment in London sits Whitehall Place. Amongst the opulence and heritage sits ‘The Corinthia’. A hotel for which the phrase ‘five star’ was invented and also where I met Tess Morris. Diane Keaton fan, When Harry Met Sally expert and lover of Duran Duran. Someone who is funny, knowledgeable and above all screenwriter for new rom-com Man Up.
MC: So in terms of your writing do you have a writing routine… so when you wake up in the morning and, you know, apart from your ablutions?
TM: Apart from my ablutions which are obviously very important…umm..not really I think I’m supposed to say yes, but I don’t really have like a sort of set routine. I think it would probably help if I did but I tend to work quite well like very early. So, sometimes like in that before everyone’s up and the internet is awake, and people are out and about you know. I’m quite good at sort of 7 to 11. I always lose concentration about three o’clock when most people do, and I quite like a night shift. I’m quite good on a night shift, but really it just depends on what deadline I’m on or what I’ve actually got to do, do you know what I mean? So basically no, I have no routine at all.
MC: You see I’m horrendous, I’ve been told that I must not talk too much, because I talk too much…
TM: Well, you know, that’s easy, that’s better cos you can stop talking but actually finding a routine is much harder.
MC: Next question. So irrespective of the medium, whether it’s film or books or whatever, what writers have inspired you?
TM: Nora Ephron obviously… a lot… I used to watch When Harry Met Sally quite a lot when I was younger, mainly because she just sort of has that ability to, not to – she writes men just as well as she writes women, so I think that’s really important.
MC: I agree.
TM: So that’s really important and so definitely her. I like Nancy Meyers as well a lot cos I like Something’s Gotta Give, which I think is a very underrated rom com.
MC: And of the course the Nicholson thing as well.
TM: I know people don’t talk about it enough, it’s a good one…and who else…Woody Allen…just for his general voice and how he manages to maintain it after such a long time. And that’s really probably my main sort of those three particularly… probably more recently… it’s all film people really. Book wise I guess the novels that I read don’t tend to be romantic or comedic novels, because there aren’t really many romantic comedy novels. Although Silver Linings Playbook was a book originally, but I never read the book I just saw the film.
MC: No I haven’t seen it either, or read the book, shocking…
TM: Oh you haven’t seen the film, the film is brilliant. The film is a really good modern rom com you should definitely see it. I haven’t read the book, but maybe do one or the other…just choose, just pick. But I would say overall if I had to pick one inspiration I’d pick Nora. Nora over them all. I also like her essays as well.
MC: Did she write for The New Yorker or something like that?
TM: Yep she wrote for The New Yorker and various other publications and then also just wrote her own books as well. She’s got one called ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ and various things like that so yeah, she’s my favourite.
MC: For you in terms of story, and this is more like a question from me as I like to write stuff, is it the dialogue that drives your characters, or the character that drives the dialogue, as in drives the story? Because your dialogue is exceptional.
TM: Thank you very much. It should be the characters driving it really, but often obviously you create a character from how they talk and who they are as a person. So, I’d probably say it’s a little bit of both.
MC: A little bit of both, because you can’t dive in without structure but at the same time you can’t let the structure…
TM: No. I mean structure’s different because structure is what your actual story is, but your story should be coming from your characters anyway and driven by what they are doing or and what they want to do. So, I think it just depends really on how I approach, like for my main characters obviously it’s very important that they are fully rounded people, that have their own way of saying things, and their own way of being, and then for supporting characters I always try and give them something a little bit different about their personality so they’re not just supporting characters.
MC: They’re more three dimensional rather sort of like background.
TM: Yeah. But I love dialogue and write walkie talkie movies, and I write way too much dialogue, and in all my drafts that’s what always gets cut.
MC: I watched Man Up a second time and I sort of paid attention but there’s background noise and distractions, and then I saw a screener yesterday, and I was able to actually pay attention to the dialogue, and it’s the little things that you miss first time round, you know, which are… I’m just like that’s really clever…
TM: There’s lots of stuff and it’s not to get people to see it twice but I realised it myself even as I’ve seen it…I’ve probably seen it fifteen or twenty times now…I didn’t realise as I watched even in like the first few viewings, but I started to realise that it builds and there’s more layers – obviously I intended those layers, but the first time round you can be a bit [makes high pitched squeak], loads of stuff is happening and second time round you can go ahhhhhh yes.
MC: Exactly and I wanted to watch it a third time but, I was given one time, I went onto the website and it was like ‘you have exceeded your maximum viewings. I’m like ‘what do you mean I’ve exceeded’ I’ve watched it once…
TM: Well you’ll have to go to the cinema!
MC: I’m going to be a little more film specific. So Jack and Nancy’s relationship plays around with like the conventions of the genre in my opinion. As a writer how many of those choices were organic, as in terms of you came to them instinctively, and how many were predetermined according to structure?
TM: The structure is very much genre based. I love romantic comedies, I love the structure of them. I read a book called ‘Writing The Romantic Comedy’ by a guy called Billy Mernit who I am obsessed with and mention in every interview. I think he thinks I’m kind of insane now but his book breaks all romantic comedies down into seven beats and it unlocked a lot stuff for me writing wise when I read that book, because all romantic comedies do have those seven beats. It’s just how you choose to do them. So how you choose to do your ‘cutemeet’, you choose to do your end of act two… so once I definitely had his structure I then thought there’s those beats I need to hit, but how do I want to hit them in my own way? Which is what you should do in all writing, you shouldn’t be going back to the genre and saying, well I’m going to do exactly what everyone else has done, you try and make it your own. So, it was a very conscious decision, and from a very early stage, and it’s how I write now, generally whenever I write a romantic comedy, which is all I write at the moment. I always start with a graph, I don’t start with words. I start with a graph which has my seven beats…or Billy’s seven beats rather from the book on a page, and then I make sure I know I have all of those set before I even start to turn it into an actual script.
MC: I remember when, in relation to Simon, and the way he writes, or at least stuff I’ve heard in interviews, himself and Edgar Wright actually applied Syd Field’s screenwriting book, and that’s how they applied his rules and flipchart thing to ‘Shaun of the Dead’.
TM: Yeah I think he used… there’s a Syd Field one which is called like a workbook or, because a lot of screenwriting is obviously a combination of creativity but also science. And it’s hard to get the right balance. And some of the books are terrible and some are absolutely useless… I think this one is called ‘Four Screenplays’ where it breaks down Thelma and Louise and Alien and Terminator 2 and that’s a great one to get. But some of them, I don’t like a lot of those books, because I think that some of them make your head explode.
MC: The ‘reflex scene’. So it’s so clever and I could waste all my time explaining why I think it’s so clever, and flattering you immensely, but can you expand on it and let me know how it came about?
TM: Well I knew that I wanted them… it’s a very important moment in the film it’s when he actually tells her some home truths, because the whole way through the film she’s kind of got her theories she got all her kinds of stuff. Then it becomes, ‘come on a minute stop having a go at me, and I’m actually going through something here’, and it’s her time to Man Up, and then she doesn’t subsequently again, and they both go off and then they don’t, but they finally do. So I wrote the scene. I think in the first draft it was just the conversation on the dancefloor. And then when I came to further drafts I realised, oh hang on a minute I’ve put them on the dancefloor, so I should put some music, and then I started to think why don’t they have a dance fight essentially. And you’ve got the actions… The problem we had was we had a really great choreographed dance to it…they got too good at it. So when we shot it, it was an amazing dance routine and everyone was really into it, but when we got in the edit, we actually realised that it was too choreographed, and we actually needed to make it look like they were just casually dancing so our very clever editor Paul Machliss did a version where it meant it wasn’t so choreographed. And then I wanted it to be a song that wasn’t trying to add on anymore themes.
MC: And wasn’t trying to emotionally influence your audience, its background and disco, pop….
TM: Yeah, but it’s also got enough rise and fall in it as a song to mean that they can do the flex, flex, flex.
MC: And it means something which is inherent to the story.
TM: And also I think, you know, it’s sort of nice to have – music’s very important to me anyway, so I wanted to have some memorable moments in the film, like the Whitesnake song at the end. I wanted have some songs that people would then associate with the film, which is always nice.
MC: So, for you, what makes Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally such perfect examples of the genre?
TM: They are. I think because particularly with When Harry Met Sally which I’m probably more of an expert on, cos it’s about something. And, and I like a rom com which has a central axiom which is asking you a question and then answering it through the film. So obviously When Harry Met Sally can men and women be friends without the sex part getting in the way, etc etc? For me it kind of crystalizes everything; you start the film on this emotional journey can that happen, and then you go with these characters the whole way through, work out whether they can, and at the end they can…and Annie Hall is different, because they don’t get together at the end…
MC: See we have this argument in my house where my missus says it’s not a romantic comedy, and I’m like, it’s the best example of a relationship comedy.
TM: One hundred percent a romantic comedy…and Simon Pegg is a big fan of Annie Hall we debate this a lot. He’s a very big fan of it; when he first read the script for Man Up, he said to me about the scene where Ophelia’s character when he’s on the second date with her, that’s, that’s your lobster scene… and at the time I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about…
MC: He’s absolutely right…
TM: And then I realised, I woke up in the middle of the night and went OH THE LOBSTER SCENE! But we talked, we had quite big debates about it, because for me, it’s the one thing in the film… I want them to get together at the end. I’m a bit of a romantic like that with films. And every time I try and write romantic comedy where they don’t get together at the end, I kind of… and it’s so sad at the end but he doesn’t find it sad, which is great.
MC: I must admit I’m the same. I find it sort of encapsulates the whole thing.
TM: It’s one of those films, it is so unique Annie Hall. Probably more unique because it is a Woody Allen movie where he is essentially sort of playing this role of the man, this character that we all kind of associate with him, and obviously he does it in Manhattan but particularly I think in ‘Annie Hall’ where he has the ability, it’s more refined, and Diane Keaton is just incredible in it. I think they are like the subverted version of, you know Sally and Harry in the best possible way. If they all went out for a drink it would be neuroses versus neuroses. But I think again it’s about something, ‘Annie Hall’ it’s about…how do we make a relationship work, when both of us have all these issues?
MC: You talked about the smaller roles and I wanted to ask…you say you like to make the smaller roles more three dimensional. So in terms of the character actors you’ve got in those roles, it’s like ‘The Big Lebowski’ you know with the carpet and it brings the room together… it ties everything together, and they all serve their purpose, you know especially Ken Stott…
TM: Ken Stott is amazing.
MC: He was amazing. Anyway my question is, how much tailoring did you do to the dialogue in terms of casting the actors, when you cast the actors, or did you do none at all?
TM: Simon and Lake…they just nailed everything, particularly, cos’ Simon came on board first and it was really amazing hearing him say the lines…and I was suddenly like how could any other actor have ever said any of these lines? It was great. And Lake likewise brought so much to it. She’s got a really good physical comedy as well. Whereas with the other characters what was amazing was, it was a kind of a little sequence of events where I got a phone call saying, oh we got Ken Stott for the dad, we got Sharon Horgan for the sister, and I’m like ‘what really?’. I would say Ken in particular really nailed the dad.What they all gave to it which is really important for those supporting roles is they all really put some warmth into it.
TM: They didn’t just phone in a performance. You could have ended up with versions of that which may not have had the kind of heart and soul they put into it, and it sounds like such a cliché but on set we were this quite lovely big happy family, so when we were filming it there was this real sense…We were in this house in Ealing filming the family, and we’ll all sitting around. There’s cake around, and food and nibbles and whatever, and everyone was on the same page, they all really liked the script, which I think obviously helps matters, and they’d come over and Ken would come over and say ‘can I say that line like that?’ and I’m like ‘you’re Ken Stott.’
MC: Thats amazing. Cool. So not a lot of tailoring at all really…
TM: I would say, I rewrote quite a lot on set and we did two weeks of rehearsals as well which was great. And when we were rehearsing, if I heard them say something a bit differently which I thought was better I’d then rewrite it into the script, and often they’d add some lines in, and I say that’s good that’s good… like we workshopped her porn star speech, when she ended up doing the kind of fake whatever… so there were things like that, I would be on set the whole time, so I could actually be there to go, ‘oh yeah, let me just fiddle with that’, and you want to let them do that, they’re actors, they’re brilliant at it.
MC: It’s a case of not being too precious.
TM: Oh my god, you can’t be too precious as a writer.
MC: I have the Woody Allen documentary at home and he is quoted as saying that he was able to write women better after he was in a relationship with Diane Keaton. So my question to you is: what epiphanies have you had that have made you a better writer; doesn’t have to be personal, just anything really…
TM: Well I think probably finding my actual ‘voice’ in my early thirties because I think I’d always written in a certain kind of way, but I’d written mainly sitcom and soap opera and stuff like that, and so it was only when I sat down to write a film that I realised I had quite a lot to sort of say about life, and just I had been recently heartbroken and things, and that was a quite a big sort of turning point. I suddenly was in a situation I didn’t think I was going to be in in my early thirties. So that was quite a major sort of epiphany. I thought right I just need to, I’m going to use a horrible phrase, I just need to throw everything up.
MC: Sort of a cleansing sort of experience… Right I am coming to the end of my time now so I’m gonna have five questions now…
MC: Quickfire questions, right.
TM: I’m ready…
MC: Tall or short?
MC: Intelligent or handsome?
MC: Sweet or savoury?
MC: Knew you’d go for both. John Hughes or Nora Ephron?
TM: Oh, I can’t answer that…
MC: I’ve done my research, come on….
TM: John Hughes. Hughes for his entire …oh god, I don’t know…I don’t know…Rob Reiner.I ‘ll have Rob Reiner.
MC: And last one… Diane Keaton or Annie Hall?
TM: Diane Keaton.
MC: Oh you went for the actress, not the character. Ok that’s it. I’m done
TM: (laughter) Brilliant.
MC: Thank you so much for that.
Man Up is on general release across the country as we speak, or you read and I type, whichever way you want to look at it really. Tess Morris is hard at work on various projects and remains an avid advocate of Twitter as a medium of communication. Read our review of Man Up here.