Interview with Christopher Hampton

November 1995


Malcolm Lawrence talks with Oscar-winning screenplay writer Christopher Hampton (for 1987’s Dangerous Liaisons), director/writer of Carrington and writer of Total Eclipse.

Christopher Hampton was born in the Azores in 1946 and lived in Aden, Egypt and Zanzibar as a child. In 1966 he went to New College, Oxford to study German and French and graduated with a First Class Honours Degree.

He became involved in theatre at Oxford University and moved on to become the youngest writer ever to have a play performed in the West End in 1966. He continued to write for the theatre throughout the 1970s with such plays as Total Eclipse, The Philanthropist, Savages with Paul Scofield and Tom Conti, and Treats (all at the Royal Court), as well as a number of translations of such classics as Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House and Moliere’s Don Juan.

During the 1980s, his stage writing was also combined with television work. For the theatre, he penned Tales From Hollywood in 1982, Tartuffe for the Royal Shakespeare Company Barbican in 1983 and, most notably, in 1985 he adapted the Choderlos de Laclos novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the RSC which ran for nearly 2000 performances in the West End. His most recent theatre work was the stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard for Andrew Lloyd Webber, which has thus far been produced in London, Los Angeles, on Broadway and will open in October 1995 in Toronto. He won a Tony Award this year for Best Book of a Musical for Sunset Boulevard.

Mr. Hampton’s television screenplays include The History Man for the BBC, a television adaptation of Tartuffe and Hotel Du Lac in 1986, which won a BAFTA Award for Best Single Television Drama, as well as The Ginger Tree and Tales From Hollywood for the BBC in 1989. A separate production of Tales From Hollywood also aired to great acclaim on the PBS American Playhouse Series in 1993.

His film work includes A Doll’s House in 1973, starring Claire Bloom and Tales From the Vienna Woods, directed by Maximillian Schell in 1979. In 1984, he completed The Honorary Consul, based on a Graham Greene novel, starring Michael Caine and Richard Gere, followed in 1986 by The Good Father, based on a novel by Peter Prince. In 1988 he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (from his own play) for Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears and starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. He also won a BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay.

His screenplay adaptation of his play Total Eclipse about the lives of French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, directed by Agnieszka Holland with Leonardo Di Caprio and David Thewlis in the leads, opens in early November. His screenplay adaptation of Mary Reilly, based on the Valerie Martin novel about Dr. Jekyll’s housemaid, directed by Steven Frears and starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich, opens in December of 1995. Mr. Hampton recently reprised the role of screenwriter/director on The Secret Agent. Based on the Joseph Conrad short story, the film stars Gerard Depardieu, Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette and was shot on location in London. His next project, as he explains in the interview, is to film the W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon & Sixpence, a fictionalized account of the life of Gauguin.

I had a change to talk with Mr. Hampton on a Tuesday afternoon when it was teeming with rain outside, stultifying his plans to do a little sightseeing before he was to catch his flight back to London. We sat in the lobby of the Alexis Hotel in downtown Seattle and discussed the two films bearing his name currently: Total Eclipse, the film about the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, whose screenplay he adapted from his own stage play; and Carrington, which he not only scripted, based on the biography of Lytton Strachey by Michael Holroyd, but also directed—his first time with a megaphone.

ML: Early on in "Carrington," Dora Carrington proclaims that she wishes that she’d been born a boy, and I was curious if she ever did have any female lovers.

CH: Yes, she did. When I first wrote the screenplay I included just about everything and the screenplay was about four hours long, so one of the things I’ve done over the years is sort of whittle away at it. It seems to me that at that stage, three quarters of the way through the film, you have to start moving quickly, you have to make a real choice about what you’re going to put in. But she had a very, very experimental life towards the end. She had a six month affair with the daughter of the American ambassador, Henrietta Bingham, and had a great time. And at the same time another lover of hers was a sculptor, Steven Thomley, who ended up being a lover of both of them: Lytton’s lover as well as Carrington’s, while she also was having the affair with the guy who owned the boat in the film (Beacus Penrose). She also had an affair with the sister of Augustus John. So you see there was a danger of the whole thing becoming ludicrous, although in the first draft I did have Henrietta Bingham AND Steven Thomley and dealt with that whole polymorphous period. But I felt that the sack just wouldn’t hold it. So I thought that the important relationship was this enigmatic fellow and what happened with that.

ML: It could have ended up as a mini-series rather than a feature film.

CH: Which was seriously discussed when I first finished the script. But the difference is that television just doesn’t have a life. Even things that the BBC has done just a few years ago, you can’t find them, not even on videotape. Television is just disposable, as opposed to films which get revivals all the time. Many well known English directors actually do begin in television as a way of getting into film.

ML: I think one of the best things about Lytton’s and Carrington’s relationship is that it was a very agreed upon yet unspoken bond they had which was able to last for, what, twenty years?--

CH: --seventeen years—

ML: --seventeen years. Despite all the other physical relationships they each had, they were always there for each other. I think that’s one of the strengths of the film is being able to portray that as a successful bond, especially now, after the OJ Simpson tragedy and the current state of miscommunication between the sexes.

CH: Yes. It is a very successful model of a relationship.

ML: What made you decide on Jonathan Pryce for Lytton Strachey? I didn’t even recognize him until I looked him up and realized it was the guy from Brazil and those Infiniti car commercials.

CH: He was brought on board by Mark Newell who was originally going to direct the film.

ML: I was going to ask why Mark Newell decided not to do the film and I assumed that he got called to do Four Weddings And A Funeral instead.

CH: Other way round, actually. He had just FINISHED Four Weddings And A Funeral and decided that he didn’t feel like doing two "little England" films in a row, so I decided to direct it. And I must admit that when you’re in one of those machines, one of those cherry-pickers and you’re zooming all Orson Welles said "It’s the best train set you could ever wish for." With (the casting of) Emma Thompson...there’s been quite a bit of animosity towards Emma in the English press. Everybody’s been asking ‘why did you pick her?’

ML: Because she’s perfect.

CH: Exactly and we never REALLY wanted anyone else even though we were supposed to have had a few other names in mind. But, you know what the English are like: you can’t be too good or they’ll knock you right back down.

ML: I was just reading that the Barbican is currently presenting a retrospective show of Carrington’s. Has this film had any influence in reevaluating her work in the context of the Bloomsbury group?

CH: Yes, even though there really isn’t an awful lot of her work which has survived. I mean, as far as the actual artwork of Carrington, we didn’t have a lot to go on because not a lot has been preserved, which is why we chose to have a succession of her pieces at the end, during the credits. Because where else are you going to see them, really?

ML: She seemed to not really care whether or not she was actually a part of the Bloomsbury set and seemed much more content to just make her immediate surroundings more vivid, what with all the murals in the rooms and on the sides of the bathtubs. More of a domestic artist than a public one.

CH: Yes, and we really didn’t have anything to go on as far as the murals were concerned either, so we all just...did our best as far as what we thought they would be like.

ML: One of the things that really struck me about was the film was the effort to make a few of the scenes seem as much like paintings as possible. Specifically the scene on the coast of Wales where Lytton talks about his marriage proposal to Virginia Woolf.

CH: (laughs and adopts a mock French accent) Ah, yez, ze to-bac-co feel-terr. I decided that if I was going to make this film that I may as well use the people whose work I really admired, rather than having to audition everyone. I was on the jury at Cannes five years ago and one of the films was the Bertrand Tavernier film Daddy Nostalgie (These Foolish Things) and there’s a technical award that they give out to the film that is the most beautifully photographed and I took them all aside and said "Let’s give it to Denis Lenoir because what he’s done with some of the things in there are incredible." And, of course, they gave the award to someone else that year, but I decided that I really wanted to work with him on Carrington, so I called him up, he flew over to England, and turned out to be a very nice man to work with.

One of the things we did in Carrington is known as flashing, where you deliberately expose some of the film while it’s being developed, it was used in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and one of the things we did was start off with 40 percent of it exposed as the film begins, then 35 percent and 30 percent as the film goes along so by the end of the film it’s just shot normally so there would be this very subliminal look of everyone getting older which doesn’t really register consciously, but everything looks ‘harder’ at the end of the film. More tragic. I would explain this to Denis and he would always say ‘Ah, yez, ze to-bac-co feel-terr.’ (laughs)

I told Denis before we started that I wanted him to shoot a few scenes where it was obvious that Lytton and Carrington were the happiest they’d ever been in their lives. Like when they’re sitting by the lake and Lytton is trying to explain to her that two people who are in love should never live together. And when they’re reading the newspapers together. For the costume designer I really wanted to use the woman who did Shadowlands, Penny Rose, which, as a film I’m not particularly fond of, but the costumes were just incredible and I think she was really able to get a feel for the costumes of the time—that lived in feeling.

ML: I’ve always loved the work of Michael Nyman’s from Peter Greenaway’s films. And I think his score is very appropriate and evocative. Did he enjoy working on the film?

CH: Yes he did, but he’s so busy that I couldn’t get him to work on my next project. So I got Philip Glass instead. (turns away and raises his eyebrows)

ML: Oh, well, he’s no slouch. He’ll do.

(CH laughs)

ML: I think one of my favorite shots in Carrington is the scene at Ham Spray House where Carrington is on the lawn peering into the windows as she sees both Partridge and Lytton with other lovers, the music starts to swell, and she suddenly realizes the extent of the algebraic patterns surrounding her.

CH: That scene took two nights to film. That was the only part of the film that was storyboarded as well. I said "Let’s get a storyboard artist in for this scene." What we did was have the lights go out in the room on the left which just happened to be the exact same time that the table tennis game finished right in the next room, so we had the panning shot, and just kept going really. And all the time cutting back to Emma, then the next night we did the upstairs pan and topped it all off by having the cherry-picker come all the way back and around to where you see Emma from behind.

ML: How long did Carrington live after Lytton died?

CH: Six weeks. I took a drive up to a farmer’s house in Oxfordshire to have a look at the very last diary she kept, up until her suicide, and document. She just...couldn’t go on anymore.

ML: I think that’s one of the most eerie parts of the film, when she comes back with the rifle and has to convince Partridge that "it’s for the rabbits" even though he knows what she plans on really doing with it. Then she has to convince him that she’ll be okay because she’s already booked a flight to France. You know, "Don’t treat me like a child," but still...he knows.

CH: Yes, that sort’s just intuition at that point.

ML: Thinking about Carrington, Total Eclipse and also Wolf at the Door, your 1987 film about the life of Gauguin, one of your motifs seems to be about the struggles the artist has trying to fit into society.

CH: Yes, with Carrington as a successful model of how it can be done and Total Eclipse as a model of a destructive one. I think that Rimbaud and Verlaine ultimately had a very destructive effect on one another’s lives, and in the end neither of them ever recovered from those two years they were together, but at the same time we wouldn’t have the work that they gave us.

ML: How old were you when you wrote Total Eclipse?

CH: I was twenty one when I wrote Total Eclipse. When I was eighteen and had just left school I took off for the continent for a couple of years without anything. I was so into the whole mindset of Rimbaud that I literally had no money. Ended up in Paris sneaking vegetables out of the stalls at night in the gutter, two years later I went back home and...wrote the play.

ML: Did you want to play the part of the judge in Total Eclipse or what that Agnieszka’s idea?

CH: That was Leonardo’s (DiCaprio) idea. In the early stages it was just the four of us sitting around reading the lines to see how it would sound, and I filled in for the judge and Leonardo said that I should do it. I shan’t do it again, though. The nerves you go through are, I shan’t do it again.

ML: I think one of my favorite lines from Total Eclipse is where the judge asks Verlaine if he denies that he is a practicing sodomist and he corrects him by saying "the word is sodomite."

CH: That’s from the actual court transcripts.

ML: It is?

CH: Oh, yes. But I think a better line is my follow-up in the film "well, whatever it is you call it we don’t do it here in Brussels." Having the contempt to actually say that to a judge is probably what actually got him thrown into prison for two years.

ML: One of the reservations I have about the film is that it really doesn’t deal with the actual poetry of either of the men and I was curious if that was a conscious decision on Agnieszka’s part.

CH: Well, yes, she cut quite a bit out of the play because she really just wanted to tell the story with images, but that’s also me as well because when I was writing the play originally I decided that I didn’t want to deal with the actual works of either of them. I wanted to instead get inside the minds that produced those words. Werner Herzog originally wanted to make a film about Rimbaud and Verlaine. He wrote a twenty page outline years ago, but never got around to doing it. I met Herzog finally, just recently, at Telluride this year, when Total Eclipse was going to be screened for the first time. So neither he nor I had seen it yet. He thought it was very sweet, but I’m sure that had he had his chance to tell the story

(CH laughs, which prompts the interviewer to imagine just how differently Herzog would have dealt with Verlaine and Rimbaud, and, finding the vision contagious, laughs as well) if would have been completely different.

ML: Both Carrington and Total Eclipse begin with steam trains approaching stations, I noticed. Were you aware of this?

CH: (laughs) No I wasn’t. Actually the very first scene of Carrington as it was written was when he goes in to meet the tribunal (where he has to defend his stance of being a conscientious objector during the First World War), but I thought that might be too much too soon.

ML: What projects are you working on now?

CH: I’m planning on making another film about Gauguin with myself directing this time, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel The Moon and Sixpence. But The Moon and Sixpence is more angled towards what really happened to Gauguin, but maintaining a fictional character. It’s in the very stages right now, with a French producer. So we’re working on a first draft right now.