Interview: Writer David Hare Talks About My Zinc Bed
David Hare is the Oscar nominated screenwriter of ‘The Hours’, in this interview he talks about his latest project ‘My Zinc Bed’ starring Uma Thurman.
What would you say are the central themes of My Zinc Bed?
My Zinc Bed is really a study about the arguments about alcoholism. I suppose I knew a lot of friends who were in AA [Alcoholics Anonymous], and because of that I was interested in those arguments about whether alcoholism is a genetically inherited condition that you can do nothing about, and in which you have to surrender your will and treat it as one would treat any other disease – and the argument of AA of rational recovery. AA is an organisation that believes that only by mastering your addiction by willpower can you live a fulfilled life. This seemed to me an extraordinarily interesting argument and that’s what I wanted to write about.
I was also interested in the question of why addiction is such a contemporary subject. We hear about it all the time now – be it addiction to shopping, dieting, alcohol, drugs, work – it seems very much to have replaced belief. Addiction has taken the place of ideology. When I was young people discussed what they believed and what their ideas were – those ideas were the ideas which shaped their lives. Now young people discuss the things to which they are addicted. So the whole subject of addiction seems to me quite contemporary and near the bone.
How did the television version of the play come about?
It’s often said of my stage writing that it’s filmic – a series of fast-moving scenes that are physically realised – and when we did the play at the Royal Court Theatre in 2000 it seemed obviously filmic.
At the time that I wrote the stage play it was very much the cusp of the internet, and the arrival of all that new cyber business – but that stuff over the years seemed rather too dated. So there was a way of looking at it a few years later – to focus on the basic fable, about whether you can ever be in control of your own recovery, indeed whether anybody can really be in control of their own life, that seemed to become much stronger.
It was actually my agent Jenne Casarotto who proposed to HBO the idea that it was time to try and regenerate the single film a little on TV again, and that maybe some plays from the theatre could be adapted once more for television. There’s a quite extraordinary experiment going on at the moment in France whereby a major television channel regularly transmits plays live from Paris theatres, and contrary to all conventional modern broadcasting thinking they’re getting huge audiences and massive success with these transmissions. This is a small-scale experiment I suppose, to try and get some individual films specially made on the BBC.
It’s nice to remind people that it’s possible to do interesting things, and particularly if you’ve got very very good actors like Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman, Paddy Considine. You know Uma Thurman doesn’t do many television plays – she’s doing it obviously because she thinks there’s something interesting about it.
How did you go about adapting your stage play for the screen, were there any particular challenges involved?
It was incredibly easy, and it’s very rare that you say that! I normally hate adapting my plays for the cinema, and I’ve done a few adaptations of my plays for cinema. By and large I refuse to do them, mostly because I find it very difficult to reconceive things for new medium. But this has a very strong story about how a rather indigent poet gets picked up by a couple of rich people and spends a summer with them, and then gets passed aside by them. Films adapt more easily when they’re like short stories, and in a way it took me back to the plays that I used to write for television in the Seventies like Licking Hitler and Dreams of Leaving, which were very much like short stories, novellas almost – and that’s a beautiful form for television.
Can you describe the three characters?
Victor is an entrepreneur who is an ex-communist. Like a lot of people of that hippy generation he then became a businessman and swung all the way from the left-wing ideas of his youth to playing at capitalism with immense success. So he’s someone who both has a philosophical hold on capitalism but also is a player within the system. He’s picked up, if you like, by capitalism, made rich, then stripped of his money in the course of the drama.
Victor’s wife, Uma Thurman’s character Elsa, is an alcoholic who is trying to recover through rational recovery. The young poet Paul, played by Paddy Considine, is an alcoholic who is trying to do it the other way, through AA.
Victor claims to be the only person who isn’t an alcoholic in the film but by his behaviour you might think he’s as much an alcoholic as Elsa and Paul are.
What research did you do for the original play?
I went to some AA meetings, I a read a lot of the stuff about it. AA meetings are very welcoming and open. I know when the play happened at the Royal Court it was much discussed by AA meetings – a lot of people at meetings in London were saying ‘have you seen this play, it’s really interesting because it’s a philosophical discussion of what our problems are and what the problem of addiction is’. So it came out of that. I did do a lot of research but truthfully it was more through watching the agonies of some friends of mine.
Were you involved in the casting process at all?
Jonathan Pryce was sort of self-selecting! He’s always been one of the foremost actors of my generation. I first worked with him in 1973, and he’s just an exceptional film actor – you can’t imagine anybody better to play the role.
Paddy I didn’t know at all, he came to the film, as he put it, never having had to speak long lines before. He’d always appeared in films where he was required to be violent, or moody, and has created a really extraordinary body of work. With my plays there is always a sense immediately whether the actor can say the dialogue or not because I write a certain kind of dialogue that is quite technically demanding and is not naturalistic. Paddy took to that like a fish to water, and I think surprised himself by the ease with which he could play the role – mainly because he’d never been asked to play that kind of part before. He’s a writer as well so therefore was a wonderful person to play a poet.
Uma I’ve known since she was 18 or 19, I first saw her work when she began a film about Dylan Thomas in the late Eighties. We’ve always known she was a very good actress but again she might say she hasn’t always been required to show that side of her.
How do you think the finished piece of work differs on television than on stage?
I have changed it a lot. As a result of concentrating on the theme of alcoholism and much less on the new world cyber business, which the recent play was partly about, I’ve actually decided to change the text of the original play. So now there’s a new version of the play which I’m hoping will be ready for next year. I learnt a lot by writing the film so for me it’s been great!