Jake: I’m here with Linus Roache, a Golden Globe nominated actor that you probably recognize from Homeland, Vikings, Law and Order, Batman Begins, Chronicles of Riddick, Priest and a ton of other features and TV shows.
Linus was just in Mandy with Nicolas Cage, so we’re going to be talking a little bit about that movie. And Linus is also a writer in his own right, so we’re going to be talking about his projects, what it is like to walk the line between being an actor and a writer, and how those
processes are similar and different.
Linus, after a whole career in acting, how did you come to writing?
Linus: Yeah, well I think I’ve always had an idea or an ambition to write at some point. Even as a child, the idea of being able to write your own movie– everybody wants to write deep down, I think.
And I’ve always had a great appreciation for writers. I have a theatre background. I love playwrights. I did all the classical work of Shakespeare, so I’ve always had a great love of writers and what they do. I’m slightly in awe of them, and I never felt that I’d really be able to write. I could get a script and see what I didn’t like about it and try to change dialogue and things, but I could never really craft anything.
But eventually, at a certain point as an actor you do realize that you’re just a piece in a big, big puzzle, and you don’t really have that much power, ultimately (unless you’re an A list actor who’s controlling everything like Tom Cruise or something like that). And I’ve just reached that point where I’d like to be more creative. I’d like to bring more of the stories I want to tell to life.
And, as you know my wife, Ros, who I co-write with, had a passion project that we wanted to turn into a screenplay. And I knew there’s no way you can just sit down and write a screenplay without some help. So, we looked around, and, you know, there’s all the usual suspects out there. And I think Ros came to see you doing a one-off little seminar and then we did Write Your Screenplay 1, 2 & 3 and then Pro-Track.
You know just to say Jake it has been an invaluable two years that we spent doing that with you. Because, for me, for someone who has read– I don’t know how many thousands of scripts I must have read! And I can immediately tell you what’s a good one and what’s a bad one. But I couldn’t tell you how to make a bad one good or why something necessarily is that good. It is like taking the back of a Swiss watch and understanding how it all actually works.
And it was the most humbling two years of work I think I’ve ever engaged in. In fact if I had known it was going to be that difficult I might not have done it! But I’m so grateful that we went on the journey and have learned something of the craft; it is a craft you never stop learning.
Jake: Like acting.
Linus: Just like acting, yeah.
Jake: Movies get made when they’ve got great actors in them. And I think one of the thing that’s top of mind for all of our writers is, “What does a great actor look for in a script?” If you want a Linus Roache in your movie– what do you look for when you’re looking at a role?
Linus: Well, it might be different things at different times but ultimately you’re looking for a journey. You’re actually looking for a journey of transformation that’s believable. You want to feel as you read like you’re being carried through that journey.
In a sense what happens I think when you read a good screenplay is you do see the movie. And for an actor it is almost like what I call “N.A.R.– No Acting Required,” because it is actually being, in a sense, almost done for you on the page. Of course you’ve got to show up and you’ll bring nuance to it, but when something is really well written, your job is to be a conduit and get out of the way and allow the story to guide you.
I’ve often ended up in a situation where someone gives me something that’s “kindof good,” its heart is in the right place, there’s a lot of good things about it, but the character isn’t quite believable. And I’ve ended up joining in and trying to help shape things. So when you feel like you believe that journey, you go on that ride, and you know an audience is going to follow you, you’re like, “Oh I don’t have to make stuff work! It works and I can deliver it.”
Jake: Yes, and you can also deepen it too, right? It gives you the opportunity to play against the line or to find a moment of nuance that wasn’t there before, because you aren’t building that primary structure. You’re playing within it.
Linus: That’s right. I think that word you just used, that’s been the big takeaway for me in terms of what I learned spending time with you learning to write: I learned more about structure.
As an actor, I tended to be very subjective. You work on your scene, your moment, you make things real in the subjective point of view of your character, and you aren’t really given the opportunity to stand back and look at the whole structural piece and get involved. It isn’t your movie, not my duck, not my bottle. You know it isn’t your movie and that isn’t your job.
But there are very few actors that actually think structurally. I’ve met one recently. I worked with one and it was fascinating. We were on a TV series together and he actually just inherently had the ability to see structure and he would take things we were doing in a season and say, “What if we did this? What if we did that? What if we did this?” And it would up the stakes for the journey of the characters.
In long form TV right now, that’s a joyous ride to go on. But for most actors I think your role actually, your function, is to think subjectively, and actually sometimes come to the writer and the director and say, “No my character wouldn’t do that. That isn’t true.”
I was on a little indie– I came back from Boston yesterday– and in the end I spoke out and said, “This isn’t true, what we’re doing isn’t real.” We were getting this actress to do something and it just smelled of bad writing. And the irony was, the writer was there and he had actually written it first time round beautifully. But he couldn’t help himself. He just had to further mess with it. It was already good, and he just felt like he had to be doing something, and he actually destroyed his own scene.
Jake: I should probably do a whole podcast on that! How do you actually know when your script is done so you don’t overbake it? It is just a big and challenging question.
Linus: It is a really great question. I think a good example, I did Season 7 of Homeland and the writing on that show is superlative. My analogy is it is like getting on a Mercedes E class after driving an old Citroen Deux Chevaux.
You know they’ve thought it out in the writers’ room. They’ve worked out what they need, what the wants are, what the points of view are. So when you actually hit it, it isn’t restrictive to you as a performer. It actually helps you. You’re very clear.
So, I would occasionally think, “Maybe we should say ‘Da-da’ instead of ‘Da-da-da’” and they would normally come back with, “No, no there is a…” they had actually thought it through already. Because it is, in a sense, deeply personal– that it is the story you want to tell, you need to tell. So they knew when that writing was done.
Jake: Yes, I think really that’s a really beautiful way of looking at it. And, in a way, the
same when you’re playing with a performance, right? “I’m going to try this, I’m going to try that, I’m going to try this.”
Jake: Like an early draft, and then there’s this moment when you start to realize what it is. And you start to go, “No, I know intuitively it has to happen here.”
Linus: And I think with great writing, when you’ve actually got it in place, it isn’t rigid. When you come to it each time, it is actually fresh. If you truly find it, as an actor and performer and it is well written, you can do it 100 times. You don’t get bored of it. Because it is always alive, because it is true, it is real. It is accurate to that moment with
Jake: So many writers get sucked into is this idea that they’ve got to write the commercial thing or write the hooky thing.
Jake: And that works really well if you already have a career, right?
Jake: If you’re a famous writer and you just made $100 million from your last movie, it is a lot easier to have a good idea and let that be attractive. But in early phases of a career, you have to distinguish yourself from all that stuff that’s “a great concept” but only okay execution. To get somebody to invest in you, you have to give them that thing that’s already complete.
You want them to read your script and think, “Hey, this might be a hard project or this might be a new writer, or there might not be another famous person attached right now, but I see how this can work and this is so much better than anything else I’m reading.”
Linus: Right, and I think that comes down to one of the things you spoke a lot about– really, you know, it is true of any art form– finding your voice and being willing to commit to your voice.
Jake: Of course.
Linus: And if you have the courage to pursue that– I mean, you have to dig deep for that sometimes! Some people just have a voice and others of us have to actually fish around, and fight, and struggle and look, “What are these themes that are coming out of me, I don’t really understand them yet?” Then you have to curve them into something that translates and impacts people.
When you tell that story that is deeply personal, that it is the story you want to tell, you need to tell, I think that does have impact. It finds its way through a lot of generic stuff, or a lot of people trying to write formulaic stuff, or trying to fit into the existing structure of Hollywood.
I mean, I think the films that I admire, and the films that seem to make it through, they have an individual voice. That’s what you’re always listening for.
Jake: A lot of people think of voice as “talent,” right?
Jake: And then we get like that talent trap, “Do I have talent, do I have enough talent?” But it’s almost like what you’re talking about with acting. It’s telling the truth, right? It is actually being able to strip away all those layers of masks, to just be like, “This is actually the truth of this character, this is the true line, this is the true moment.”
Linus: Right, right.
Jake: So I want to talk to you a little bit about Mandy. Talk about an unlikely movie, right?
If you haven’t seen Mandy yet, Mandy breaks really almost every rule. It doesn’t do any of the things that you’d normally expect in a film.
You start and Nick Cage is in what seems like a traditional relationship. And it feels like we’re going to watch a relationship movie about this couple that lives in the woods.
And then it looks like you’re going to watch, your character, Jeremiah who becomes obsessed with this woman. And it looks like we’re going to watch a relationship develop between them.
And then it shifts and becomes a revenge movie.
And it’s all kind of happening on like a kind of metaphorical spiritual plane where there’s kind of no pretense that this is naturalism at all. We’re purely in the world of metaphor.
So, I think it’s a great example of an unlikely movie to get made– then suddenly Nick Cage is involved, suddenly Linus Roache is involved, suddenly all these great people want to be a part of it.
Jake: So, talk to me about like how you came to that project and what was compelling about it for you?
Linus: It’s a funny story, really ,because I was all set up to do a little indie film and all the money fell out of it. “Okay well that’s it, that’s my summer free.”
And then I got this phone call saying, “There’s interest in you for this script, Nick Cage is attached, Andrea Riseborough is attached, do you want to have a look at it?”
So I went and sat down, and I always give everything the benefit of the doubt. You look for “what’s the reason behind the film?”
I did a bit of a sort of actor’s read: it was a bit like, “Okay I get it, what’s this?” And there were demons on motorbikes, and crazy cults, and the Horn of Abraxas, and chainsaw fights and… and I was like, “I don’t know what this is! I have no frame of reference for it!” I couldn’t really relate to it. I had no connection to it.
And I came out of the room, and I said to Ros, my wife and writing partner, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t understand it.”
And she said, “Well at least explore it.”
So I watched his previous movie Beyond The Black Rainbow, and for fans of Panos Cosmatos they’ll know that film. It’s a cult film in its own right. It’s almost like the precast of Stranger Things. Very strange, very weird, quite dark.
But, he had spell. What I call “spell”– the ability to hold you in his spell. And I thought, there was mastery in this filmmaking.
Then I went back to the script and I started reading in the lens of having seen his movie, and I started to see it in terms of the role he was asking me to look at.
Jeremiah was this full display of the male ego. Like really as a metaphor from soup to nuts, from the enlightened ego down to the most pathetic Gollum like character. He created a masterful journey. So, I thought, “Well, this is interesting. I’ll have a chat with him, and as long as there isn’t a sort of 20 year old kid in the end there going, ‘Yeah man we’re going to…’” I thought, you know, it will be interesting.
And what I met was this very large man with a long beard and this great sense of humor. Very thoughtful, very considerate– the opposite of what some of the images in this movie are.
We started talking, and I started talking about what I was perceiving about Jeremiah and we just clicked. There was this connection. And I got off that call thinking, “Oh my God I hope he offers me the role!”
And he did, and it was a great journey to go on. I didn’t really realize the quality of the filmmaking until I got there and started filming it and we were all in this strange red light and it was very surreal to be in. But as a creative partner he was wonderful because he allowed me to contribute too. I didn’t need to do much because he was the author– it was his vision. But there were bits within the story, particularly in Jeremiah’s story, that I felt, “Well, I actually understood something about this… maybe even he didn’t quite that…” And I’d mention things to him and he allowed me to contribute to the writing of few little key scenes. So that made me feel even more engaged.
Now, I just think the man is a genius and I’m so proud of the film. And it isn’t my genre! Fantasy, horror, revenge—that isn’t what I do. But I just find it beautiful piece of cinema.
Jake: It isn’t even your typical performance, right?
Jake: In this film, it’s like Spinal Tap. “All of our dials go to 11.”
Linus: Yeah, I had to push an edge for it. I haven’t been pushed like that as an actor for a long time. And it’s a joy. You know, often you end up getting a little type-cast. You play a lawyer, they give you another lawyer and you’ve got more legalese to do… and, you know, you try to find the edge in everything you do.
But occasionally, a project comes along and you’re given something and you have this experience– I have this experience as an actor going, “I know I can do this. I just don’t know how I’m going to get there.”
And that was my constant experience making it. I felt like I had to dig so deep inside of myself to make this personal and real. And it would exhaust me. I’ve never been exhausted by a role like that. After days filming, I would crash. And luckily my days worked out I had like four days off to rebuild. And it was just perfect how it worked out. But I had to dig really deep. And I love digging deep.
Jake: It’s so similar to the writer’s journey, right?
Linus: Yes, yeah.
Jake: Sometimes we’ve this urge to write the movie that we can write. And we went through this– we’ll talk about Teilhard later– but we went through this developing Teilhard, where we had to push, not to write the script we can write… but to write the script that we can’t write yet but that we wish we could write.
Linus: Yes that’s right, yeah.
Jake: And I think it’s interesting, while we’re on Mandy, because it isn’t a perfect film. The film is problematic in so many ways. And it’s interesting because your first reaction to this was like, “Oh I can’t do this.” And sometimes as writers we have this urge to soften our rough edges, right?
We’re like, “Oh well, let’s see, the character doesn’t go on a traditional journey, and the point of view shifts and you know we’re more in the world of metaphor than we’re in the world of reality…” and we might have the urge to rewrite the whole thing, “Okay, I’ve to make this naturalistic and I’ve to tone it down.”
And that’s one way to handle it when that kind of metaphorical writing comes out.
But another way to handle it is, “What happens if I turn up the dial to 11?” What if I double down on the magic, if I double down on the metaphor? What if the traditional storytelling actually wasn’t important at all?
And some people are going to run from that. Tut the right person is going to think, “Oh this is the role that I could never play, this is the role that nobody else could ever write!”
Linus: Panos said this beautiful thing when we were in Sundance. He was talking about the current era that we’re in, particularly mainstream cinema. He called it “the tyranny of perfection.”
Everything is micro-managed within a millisecond of its life. And then you see a movie where there isn’t so much manipulating of what you’re supposed to be feeling and experiencing, and you know the beauty of things that aren’t perfect. There’s a beauty in that, there’s rawness, a rough edge. And that’s what’s real.
And in this movie, he allows that.
There’s this one scene in Mandy where Nick Cage– after his girlfriend Mandy is killed by Jeremiah– he has this one scene in the bathroom. It’s one shot. It’s just Nick Cage in a bathroom for maybe two minutes responding. You don’t see that in cinema very often.
Jake: Never, never.
Linus: And it is awesome. You laugh because it is unbearable. And it’s funny. And then it’s tragic. And you go through Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona and all of his movies in two minutes– and it is genius. To just let that happen that takes guts.
And why that happened, just to say, is because of Elijah Wood, Josh Waller and Daniel Noah at XYZ. They have a company and they love these weird indie movies, you know horror fantasy movies, that’s their thing. But their mandate is they go to directors that they love and they say, “What’s the movie that you want to make that no one else will make, that everyone else is running away from? That’s the one we want to make.”
Linus: I love that about them. And occasionally you’re going to get a little diamond like Mandy is going to come out and really break through.
Jake: Sometimes you think that everyone is looking for commercial– and look like everyone likes to make money– but the truth is, there are so many different niches.
I just met with a guy– we’re going to hopefully next year start teaching a class on fundraising– so I just met with a guy who has raised over $1.6 million on Kickstarter, which is incredible! And we’re hoping to actually arrange for him to start teaching some classes here, because wouldn’t that be nice for our students?
And one of the things that he said which was really interesting was, “to succeed on Kickstarter you don’t look for the niche that’s being served; you look for the niche
that’s not being served. You look for the people who wish there was a movie like this, they wish there was a series like this– and you go after that niche.”
And another way of saying that is, you go after yourself.
You go, “What’s the role I always wanted to play? What’s the film I’ve always wanted to write?”
Your film about Teilhard is the story that everybody else overlooked. That you just needed to write.
Linus: Right, yeah.
Jake: All movies have what I call friction points. The friction point is why somebody is going to say “no.”
And one of the hardest lessons to learn is, when you feel that friction point, when someone starts to say “no,” you have to ask yourself, “Would changing this friction point actually make the script better? Or would it take away what makes the script specific and what’s eventually going to make somebody have enough crazy passion for the project that they have to do it? That they can’t say ‘no?’”
Linus: That’s right, that’s right! Compromise is essential in certain areas, but it can be death to the inner voice and to the whole reason for telling the story.
Having written a project that I now want to get made, one of the things I have taken from Mandy— seeing somebody just stay true to their vision and hang in there gave me a lot of confidence.
If you really have something to say and you really believe it and if it is speaking to something that hasn’t been spoken to before, if you stick with it, you stand a very good chance of fulfilling it.
But if you keep bending and twisting and fitting in, what was chicken soup is going to be just a whole lot of noodles on the floor.
So that willingness to do that– you can’t be arrogant about it, I mean you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to respond.
I love your analogy of a “friction point,” because it is. And it could be creatively a good point; maybe it is going to be something that will take it into being more marketable.
Jake: That’s really interesting with Mandy, because if you get on the internet and you read the reviews, there are people who hate it. But there are also mainstream people who are flipping out about it. Rolling Stone has an incredible review of it, New York Times, Roger Ebert. So what I think is really incredible is that this is a movie that you might imagine to be for a niche audience, where we’re going to run right at every B fantasy, Sci-fi element that you’ve ever seen, we’re going to run right towards that kind of cultural reference and the kind of self-awareness of that world. We’re going to have a pace that’s like– I don’t know if you’ve seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives?
Jake: It’s this little Thai movie, but similar to this film, not a traditional pace. And what’s really interesting is it’s built for a niche audience, but it actually ends up crossing over. And you’ve major mainstream critics saying, “Hey you guys showed me something new! Actually I’m into this.”
Linus: Panos has a vision. He was actually dealing with the death of his parents. These two movies are about the death of his parents, and one, Beyond The Black Rainbow, he calls his inhale.
And if you look at the movie it’s very blue. It’s quite cold. It’s an inhalation.
And Mandy is red. It’s an exhalation. It’s bloody and it’s cathartic and it’s release.
And that’s what he was doing. I don’t think he was saying, “I’ve got a bunch of fantasy horror nerds that I’m going to entertain.”
And interestingly when it was screened in New York, I had a bunch of friends come who I knew this isn’t really their kind of film, and they loved it! And they started seeing things in it that I hadn’t seen. They thought it was a blue wave movie because Nick Cage is wearing 44 Obama, going after the blonde head narcissist.
Jake: Oh yeah.
Linus: So there’s a whole catharsis– all these layers and levels to the story and I think it’s– I don’t know if it’s a shame because I’m a bit old school because I don’t know how things work these days in distribution– but this thing had theatre and VOD same day release and I feel it’s a shame they didn’t keep it to art house cinemas for a few months and build more of a momentum. Because it is a cinema movie. And it isn’t my role to say, but I think that’s a waste, I think they chickened out.
Jake: I really like what you were saying because it reminds me like how personal screenwriting is. You know, nobody, nobody outside of you and a few really brilliant people might go, “Oh isn’t that interesting, it’s an inhale and exhale? It’s a guy dealing with the loss of his parents through metaphor.”
But when you’re clear, when you as a writer or you as an actor, you as a director, you as an artist, you’re like, “This is what I need to make sense of here…” And like the way you described your character, “he’s the embodiment of the male ego,” right?
Jake: The way that Panos described his process, “I’m going to write a movie that’s the inhale, and I’m going to write a movie that’s the exhale.” It’s a much more interesting way of thinking about theme.
Jake: But when you know what that thing that’s guiding you is, then it becomes much easier to make those choices and to go, “Oh no, this needs to be like this,” or, “I don’t care what you say, it has to be like this,” or, “Actually that’s a good note, this is going to help solve that theme that I’m dealing with.”
Linus: Yeah that’s right, that’s right. And I find it extraordinary when you have a writer/director that’s that clear with their vision and yet able to collaborate.
It isn’t a dictator saying, “Da-da-da…” he brought so much collaboration in, he invited you to be part of it. He isn’t the most articulate man on the set in terms of telling everybody everything, but you felt everybody wanted to serve this vision. You had this inherent sense that somebody has got a vision and everyone is trying to meet it, and was giving everything to that end.
And that’s beautiful in terms of the creative ensemble of filmmaking, because in the end, as a writer, you’re alone with your script and your pages. But in the end you’re going to be part of a big thing with lots of people involved. And it might start off as a fish and end up as a bicycle, but it was a bicycle in the beginning that you really wanted to see… maybe it gets better because of the input.
Jake: I’ve always had this experience, no matter how unlikely the project, when you’re doing the thing that you need to do suddenly these angels appear and help you.
Linus: That’s right, that’s amazing.
Jake: And when you’re doing the thing that you aren’t meant to do that you think is the smart thing or good for your career or whatever, it’s like every obstacle in the world will appear.
Linus: It’s very true.
Jake: I really liked what you said about the collaboration because when you really know what you’re building it becomes so much easier to collaborate.
And when you’re insecure about what you’re building, when you haven’t actually done the work, when you don’t actually know, “Oh it’s a breathe in and a breathe out,” then it becomes very hard to collaborate, because the ideas can confuse you or feel like they are knocking you off course or make you wonder if you have what it takes.
And I think, in a way, the collaboration you described is very similar, I think as writers we’re actually collaborating with our characters. We have this vision for what we want to makem and then our character shows up and we think they’re going to say this, and they say that.
And it’s almost exactly like working with an actor. We think the actor is going to say this, but then the actor goes, “Actually, that doesn’t feel true to me I think it’s going to be that.”
Linus: That’s fascinating. I mean this connects to this lesson that you taught is great, the one big lesson: be prepared to write badly. You know, “good writers write badly more often.”
I think that that basic tenet– don’t inhibit yourself to be perfect before you’ve even let your voice out– because you don’t even know quite what’s going to come out of you, and what needs to come out of you.
And, therefore, with your characters we tend to be always limiting, wanting to get to the end result rather than actually going through the process of allowing stuff to be freed and released.
And it’s very much the same with the craft of acting. A lot of the time you’re just expected to turn up and deliver. And I’ve got very good at doing that, so I can earn a living from it.
But it isn’t really the same as being allowed to find something, co-create something, build something and play with something. Play, in film, I think is so important. There’s very little time for play. It’s all about deliver, deliver. There’s money, there’s pressure, you’ve got to deliver.
Whereas a lot of great stuff came out of the moment when you slightly got it wrong, or things went slightly different in the scene and you did something that surprised yourself. And it wasn’t from the known mind. It’s coming from that deeper place.
So as a writer you’re being pushed towards—it’s a fascinating thing isn’t it? Because you’re being pushed to release that intuition, but you’ve got to give that form and structure.
Linus: There’s that ‘yin-and-yang’ that balance between the two which is really challenging.
Jake: I remember many years ago I studied with a Mike Daisey, who is a brilliant monologist, and I was interested in working with him because what he does is so unique. He shows up, he’s a very large man and he sits in a black shirt at a black desk, no sets, no props, no lighting cues. He comes in, he just sits there and he’ll have five pages out of a yellow pad which he never looks at. He kind of sits in there at the desk and every once in a while he flips the page and he just tells you a story.
But the stories he tells are so incredibly complicated, and he’ll weave all those stories together in ways that you’re like, “How did this man do it?” So I wanted to learn from him, and so I took this class with him, and one of the things he talked about was the idea that a great story needs to be broken in some way. That if you’re able to wrap it all up and tie it together with a bow and make it perfect where it doesn’t have any flaws, what it really means is that you didn’t wrestle with the issue fully because there’s nothing that we can fully understand.
So if it isn’t broken in some way, it means like you didn’t look at the other side of the coin, you didn’t look at the counter argument, you didn’t push yourself to that place where you weren’t sure how you’re going to pull it all together.
So what he does, he’ll start in the way that Panos starts, with ‘a breathe in’ or ‘a breathe out’ or he’ll as you started by going “the character is the embodiment of the male ego.” He’ll start with a simple idea, and what he does is sets a title, he comes up with a title that he finds intriguing and he doesn’t do any work until—he does research but he doesn’t do any preparation until the day before his first performance.
He stays up all night, he makes a five page outline, which is what’s on those yellow pads– and he never looks at them. But what he has done is basically give himself what I call The Me Draft. He gives himself this process to wrestle and look and explore. He gives himself a general shape, so he has a sense of where he’s going. And then what he depends on, and this is another really brilliant lesson from him, is he depends on truth. He says, “If you just keep telling the truth eventually the stories are going to come together. If you just keep pushing on the truth, even if you don’t know how it is all going to work, eventually these stories are going to come together.”
And when he’s talking about truth he’s talking about the emotional truth. He actually got himself into a little bit of trouble he did The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and he told the emotional truth of that story but he messed up a couple of the literal truths and they came after him really hard– he definitely made some mistakes there.
But it’s interesting when you think about, what happens if you just follow that true line of the truth? What happens if you just actually push yourself to tell the truth all the time? How much easier structure becomes. How much easier taking notes becomes. How much easier it becomes know what to fight for and what not to fight for.
Linus: But also you went out with something, which is what I believe Mandy is– is something, in a way, you can’t argue with. Whether it’s perfect or not, it is what it is. It is true to itself, it is consciousness.
I think of films as visions. Basically they’re like dreams and visions. And have you got the tenacity, the courage, the guts, the wherewithal to take your dream and go through the process of getting everything you need to turn that into two hours of film?
That’s a big deal to do that. But in the end, they’re visions that have been put up there for others to watch. Your dream is going to be seen. And if it’s a true dream, who’s to say whether it’s on the moon and it’s suddenly down in a café and an alien walks in and sits down– who cares? If it has got truth, in terms of its integrity, of the journey of your consciousness, of the consciousness of the story, it can’t be argued with.
And that’s what I love, that’s what I think is courageous writing, acting, film making. It is standalone. Whether you like it or not, you can’t argue with it.
Jake: Which brings me to Teilhard. Talk to me about this script this has been such a passion project for you and Ros. Talk to me about how you came to that story and what that story means to you?
Linus: Well, Ros and I were both very interested in the spiritual life, and particularly we came across this character Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest in the 20th century who died in 1954.
And because, I suppose, of his vision of the future and his ability to go beyond the Catholic church and embrace science and evolution, and his willingness to put these two world views together and synthesize them, he paid a terrible price. He was exiled to China and silenced. And we just thought, “Well, we live in a world where not only is there still a schism between these two world views, there’s very little narrative for anything in between.” And we were fascinated by his life and his story and we thought it would be a great challenge to give him the platform, the stage, that he never had really in his lifetime.
His books were published and they’re actually quite challenging books to read, but he became a hero after his death I suppose but he has never really had the platform to speak to the common man. And we thought, wouldn’t it be great to give him that opportunity and have a dialectic with this theme.
We live in times that are deeply challenging right now, so deeply challenging that we don’t even know what planet we’re going to be on, in the next 12 years with climate change. We’re under the tyranny of Trump, we’re seeing wars in Yemen and it’s just almost unbearable to hold it all. And we can’t. I defy anybody to really hold it all.
But he provides a context I suppose or at least some space to say, “This world we’re in is in process, and who is to say on which side the balance falls, on that of pain and suffering or joy and creativity? How can we bear it all, how do we?”
And it provides at least some framework for that.
I suppose that’s the theme of the film, without being pollyannaish or saying you know, “Spirit first… we’ve synthesized and we’ve got the answer”– is saying, “Underneath all of this we’re in process, the world is moving and we do move through these turbulent times and find a way forward, and it’s kind of on us to find our way.”
So, it was a very challenging story to tell, as you know, Jake, as we’ve sat in this room for many hours debating how to do it, because an interesting life doesn’t necessarily a movie make. Learning how to translate that into drama and create the necessary journey for him was deeply challenging. And we also had particular ideas of how we wanted to tell the story and we wrestled a lot creatively: you, me and Ros about what can work and what can’t work. But in the end, I think that was the digging we were prepared to do and we’ve come up with a script which is starting to get a response now it speaks for itself. So I’m very proud of what we did.
Jake: One of things that I think is interesting is you how the script captures the beginning of the culture wars, right? It’s like it’s the moment we’ve a Jesuit priest who is trying to find a synthesis between science and faith. And neither side wants to synthesize.
And so in that way it asks a profound question that I think is really relevant today which is, “Can we actually come together and realize we’re trying to do the same thing, or is our fear of beliefs that are different from ours eroding our belief? Or is our fear of having to deal with the truth and that truth complicating what we believe, is that going to get in the way of us actually finding a place of peace?”
Linus: That’s right.
Jake: And I think this is a really beautiful spiritual framework for the piece, but you also have like an adventure story, of this guy who is trying to find proof of man that evolved from apes. And you’re watching a priest whose church believes that even to think about evolution is sin.
You’re finding a priest go on this journey of truth but who doesn’t want to let go of his church or of his view of G-d, and this is all happening against political and social upheavals.
Linus: Two World Wars.
Jake: Two World Wars, and wars in China and warlords and all this. So what I think is really cool is we have this incredibly spiritual journey in this action filled dramatic script and this kind of marriage of a beautiful little character driven story with this kind of epic sequences in the film.
Linus: Right, right, that’s true. You know, what it takes to do that still amazes me. The amount of digging and rewriting and restructuring and understanding of narrative and structure, it just was a revelation to me. And hats off to Ros my writing partner because she took on the heavy work, because in the end we wrote different parts of the story, which is interesting being a writer team. We took on these two different timelines. But in terms of bringing it all together, it needed one voice and Ros was the one that took on the job of weaving the two timelines together and creating the one voice.
And then I think my skill as an actor– I was the one that came in and refined a lot of the dialogue in the specificity of the moment. So, it’s a good collaboration, but that wasn’t always easy. Writing with your life partner is also—there’s no break from that. But it was wonderful to do, and she’s on to her next project now.
Teilhard at this point actually we shared with one of the producers of Mandy, this Belgian company, and they’ve offered to take it on. Which means it has got a funding base. It doesn’t mean they’ve provided all the funding, but they’ll match what comes in and they’ll provide the infrastructure to get the movie made.
And they also put it within a reasonable budget, which is great because we didn’t write this beginning with, “We’re going to write a film that we know we can get made because we’ve tailored it to fit a budget.”
We wanted to write what we wanted to write, tell the story we needed tell, and therefore it takes place over a period of 50 years turn of the century and it’s in Paris, it’s in Rome, it’s in China and it’s expensive, it’s period and it is global.
But in this day and age it is amazing what can be done now on that scale, with some clever manipulation you can actually do something that I thought was probably even a $60 million movie– now it can be done for six.
But we’re on the next stage of our journey, and just to share with you, I don’t know if Ros has told you, this but we’re moving towards the fact that we might need to be the directors of this, because we can’t quite see anybody being able to transmit it. And that’s even if we had our dream list of like all the great directors, we almost feel
like we’ve written this to the point where we’ve done the shotlist so we might have to do a proof of concept.
Spend some money and sho0t a sample, you know, do what Damien Chazelle did with Whiplash or something, and build something that can show that we can do it and also show what the story is. But I think we’re going down that road now.
Jake: Yeah I think one of the really wonderful things about working with you guys is the absolute refusal to compromise. And it was for me it was an exciting challenge, you know, but you are artists and you knew what you wanted this piece to be. And what was really fun is we were really able to push on each other and influence each other–
Linus: It was great because you really also you weren’t frightened to push, which is your function. I call it creative tension. It isn’t conflict, it’s creative tension. Sometimes you actually need that to get anywhere. Because we had this– I remember with our draft one we came up with this epic 180 page sprawling thing– and to us it all made sense. And I think if you were Darren Aronofsky you’d get away with it because you’re Darren Aronofsky.
But it didn’t translate, and you were telling us that and we were like, “He doesn’t get it, he doesn’t get it!” But you were just pointing to the fact that if we were going to do this thing in different timeline, we have to really work at how you can have an integrity of continuity of each timeline to move between them. And that took us I think six months to even start to get that properly.
Jake: What you did structurally is so hard because you have two stories– one happening in Teilhard’s past– pre World War 2. And the other happening in the “present day” of 1954 New York. And then there are other flashbacks happening from Teilhard’s childhood– so you actually have three different structural time periods that are all speaking to each other.
And the easy way to tell the story, if you wanted to get rid of the friction points, would be to pick one of these timelines and cut the others out.
But thematically it was so important to Linus and to Ros, this was part of what it was about: it was about the idea this is the same cycle and the same questions getting asked again and again and again and again.
Linus: One breath, one life, one lifetime, one moment, it was all one sort of thing, but you needed the spectrum of the whole– from globalization even to the beginning of evolution of time and everything. You needed to see a whole life to have it all resolve in one day, one life, one day, one breath.
Jake: And there’s that simple idea again: one life, one day, one breath, right? It is that one thing that guides you that then allows you to make all those decisions, and know when you’ve to fight and when you’ve to push.
A lot of people think structure is like some kind of formula like, “What happens in Act Three,” or “What should happen in Act Four?”
But really where structure come from is saying, “I want to create this feeling of one breath, one day, one life… how do I do it?”
All the structure is doing is serving that one simple idea.
Linus: That’s it, that’s it, beautiful. I remember us going over that in that room next door, you were saying to us, “What are your themes?” And we were like, “Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?” But you just kept pushing for us to get clearer and clearer, and you don’t know sometimes until you’ve actually done it, until you’ve written it and you’ve exorcised it.
And there’s a lot of killing your darlings and the beautiful scenes and the moments you’ve written, but when you actually do get clear about what your theme is, and you do get clear about what you’re doing, you don’t mind losing a scene, you don’t care. That beautiful scene you wrote is no longer necessary—it isn’t a beautiful scene because it doesn’t serve the whole, and you’re happy to let it go.
Jake: Yes, and I think that’s so much what it is about, it is about as you start to really learn what it is about and what matters, you say, “This, this isn’t important, this I won’t let go of I don’t care how hard it is.”
Linus: Exactly, exactly.
Jake:This was a fabulous interview thank you so much for being here.
Linus: Thank you.
Transcript edited for length and clarity