Screenwriter John Logan's Very Good Year

John Logan is the pen behind three big films of 2011: Martin Scorsese's Hugo, Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, and the animated film Rango. Host Audie Cornish chats with Logan about the secrets of his screenwriting success.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. And in this part of the program, we're going to talk to writers at the top of their game. In the world of music, Ryan Adams has been one of the most prolific balladeers on the road. We'll hear from him in a moment. But first, screenwriter John Logan. You'll be forgiven for not knowing his face, but you're bound to recognize the names he's helped bring to the silver screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE MONTAGE)

RUSSELL CROWE: (as Maximus) My name is Gladiator.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Ladies and gentleman, Howard Hughes.

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Rango) Name's Rango.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What's your name, boy?

ASA BUTTERFIELD: (as Hugo) Hugo. Hugo Cabret.

RALPH FIENNES: (as Coriolanus) My name is Coriolanus.

CORNISH: "Gladiator," "The Aviator," and last year's "Rango," "Hugo," "Coriolanus." And soon Bond - that's James Bond. Logan helped write the next Bond installment. For "Coriolanus," based on the Shakespearian drama, he kept one fact in mind while writing.

JOHN LOGAN: "Coriolanus" has been around for 400 years and it's going to be around for another 400 years and nothing I can do is going to mess it up. So, going into it, I felt sort of very free to look at it as a filmmaker does. And "Coriolanus" is Shakespeare's second-longest play, only...

CORNISH: And we should say it's sort of a political drama about a general in Rome who sort of falls from grace.

LOGAN: Yes, and has a very intense relationship with his mother. So, you know, there's a psychosexual, neurotic, domestic core to it. That is really what the heart of the play is, I think. And, you know, any adaptation - and I've done three in my career. I did "Sweeney Todd" and "Hugo" and "Coriolanus." It's important to find what makes it a movie as opposed to just a film presentation of a stage play.

CORNISH: And we have a great example of that. There's this scene where there are essentially talking head, TV pundits, talking about the main character.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CORIOLANUS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Consider you what services he's done for his country?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Very well. I would be content to give him good report for it but that he pays himself with being proud.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) David, speak not maliciously. He hath deserved worthily of his country.

CORNISH: Easily recognizable language in an election year, I would think - the language that you took from the roles of sort of citizens of the play.

LOGAN: Right. Yeah, I mean, all through he was trying to find modern parallels. And it just seemed evident that if Shakespeare were writing today, I think he would take advantage of cell phones and talking heads on TV and radio in every possible way to show the political media interface.

CORNISH: John, you started as a playwright in Chicago, right? And what's the difference between writing for the stage and writing for the screen to you?

LOGAN: Cinema is a visual language and you're always looking for visual metaphors for things. You know, if I was writing a play about Howard Hughes, I could have him give a monologue about how he's terrified to touch a doorknob. But on screen, you know, working with Marty Scorsese in "The Aviator," that became the series of images that told a story. So, for me, although I wake up, you know, whether I'm writing a play or a movie with the same job, which is to write lines for actors and to write scenes that inspire directors and producers and designers, mostly I think what I'm thinking and sort of cinematically I'm thinking visually in terms of sweep and spectacle and trying to find a little nuanced observational objective details you can show an audience.

CORNISH: The biggest criticism that you hear about the movies these days, I feel like, is that a script will be written by a committee. What exactly does that mean in a realistic term, and what does that look like on a practical level?

LOGAN: Realistically, it's the great truism that screenwriters are fungible, that at the end of the day a studio is not going to want to fire a movie star. And they're really not going to want to fire a star director because the director has the hand on the tiller of a ship. So, in a nervous-making situation, big movies are very nervous-making because there's so much money at stake that frequently a fallback position is, well, let's bring in a new writer, let's bring in a fresh voice. And someone else comes in, you know.

CORNISH: And they call him a script doctor, right?

LOGAN: And sometimes they're script doctors and sometimes they are just other writers. You just learn to take pride in your work to realize you're part of a team. And if you want to be something that's not part of a team then write a novel, you know, or paint a picture. Being a dramatist means collaborating with other people. The job definition is you hand your work over to actors and directors and producers and then you all bring it to life.

CORNISH: Is there a line from a movie that you consider the greatest ever written, that you wish you had written?

LOGAN: Yes. There's a few. Certainly, I think my favorite movie line is in "Laurence of Arabia" when Anthony Quayle asks Peter O'Toole why do you like the desert, and he says: It's clean. Two words like that. Just, it's clean. 'Cause that says everything about who Laurence is as a character. It's a simple, beautiful, straightforward line. My favorite line from all of drama is - and I think it's imperative to what we do as creative artists in the theater and movies - is Paulina from the end of the "Winter's Tale" before this incredible act of enchantment where she brings a statue back to life. She says: It is required you do awaken your faith. And I think that's a beautiful sentence. In fact, I have that over my computer; that what we do in writing movies is an act of enchantment. And in a way that's why I'm so very proud this year of "Hugo" because I think "Hugo" is a movie about the enchantment of cinema and creating art. Because...

CORNISH: Was there any particular scene that you remember writing that you enjoyed seeing once you were sitting in the theater?

LOGAN: Well, you know what, with a movie like that, you know, everything's enjoyable. But I know my favorite scene with the two kids. Hugo and Isabelle go up in one of the clock towers and they talk about the purpose of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HUGO")

CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: (as Isabelle) Is that your purpose, fixing things?

BUTTERFIELD: (as Hugo) I don't know. I thought I did.

MORETZ: I wonder what my purpose is. I don't know. Maybe if I'd known my parents, I would know.

LOGAN: Two 12-year-olds talking about what are we going to grow up to be, you know. And one of them feeling I don't have a purpose and the other feeling that they do was a challenging and sort of moving scene to write.

CORNISH: "Hugo" is a sort of family film. And I think about huge blockbusters like "Gladiator" and "The Aviator." And you've really danced around a lot of different genres. Are there any left to tackle? Are there any that you totally have no interest in?

LOGAN: Yeah, there are absolutely ones I have no interest in - no interest in comedy and no interest in romantic comedy.

CORNISH: What are you doing to me, man?

LOGAN: I know.

CORNISH: What am I going to go to the theater for?

LOGAN: It's not my swing serve, you know...

CORNISH: We need you.

LOGAN: I know. I'm just drawn toward - I'm a tragedian at heart - I'm drawn to the big series themes. But, you know, to me, it's what makes my job exciting is the dynamism of going between those things. Not doing the same thing over and over and over again. It's like if you were to interview the same person every day of your life, it wouldn't be much of a life. But to get to explore ancient Rome and Sweeney Todd's Victoriana and Hugo in the 1930s and now James Bond in London, you know, it makes it a very exciting life.

CORNISH: John Logan. He's a screenwriter for lots of movies, including "Rango," now on DVD, "Hugo" and "Coriolanus," both now in the theaters, as well as the next James Bond movie. He's joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. John, thanks for chatting with us.

LOGAN: My pleasure.

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