I am in a screening room somewhere in the suburbs of Paris, waiting
for the film of my novel Intimacy to begin. A few months
ago, during the shooting, I saw some of the rushes, but I have seen
no cut material. Now the film is almost finished, with most of the
scenes in their definitive order and a good deal of the music in
place. The only missing scene is the final one, where the characters
played by Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance meet for the last time.
French director Patrice Chereau sits somewhere behind me. There is a
handful of people present, the editor and others connected with the
film. But the room is big; people seem to disappear into the plush
velvet of the deep seats. I forget they are there.
Although Patrice and I worked closely together at times, and the
film was shot in English, the script was written by his own writer,
a woman, in French. I had decided I'd spent long enough with the
material and lacked the heart to look at it again. Nevertheless, the
film will be something that a number of us-- director, writers,
actors, editor, cameraman--have made together. And after all the
talk, I have little idea what it will be like; evaluating a film
from the rushes is like taking a few sentences from a novel and
trying to work out the plot. So it is my film but not mine. I made
the characters and most of the story, but Patrice transformed, cast
and cut it; and, of course, his style and voice as a director are
Patrice arranged to come and see me in London a couple of years ago.
He was shy, he said, and didn't speak good English. My French is
hopeless, but it seemed better to meet without an interpreter.
Whether or not you want to spend a lot of time and energy working
with someone you barely know is something, I guess, you can realise
Patrice explained that he wanted to make a film of Intimacy,
which he had read in French. Also, he said he liked my stories,
particularly "Nightlight," collected in Love In a Blue Time.
In this story a couple who run into each other by chance begin
to meet once a week, on Wednesday afternoons, to make love. Somehow,
they never speak; after a while they are unable to.
that time I did not know Patrice's work in the theatre, opera and
cinema as a director and occasional actor. I had seen neither of the
films for which he is best known internationally, La Reine
Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and
had no idea of his impressive reputation in France. This made it
easier for me to see him without enthusiasm or dismay. After we'd
looked at one another for a bit--not unlike the couple at the
beginning of the film, about to embark on something big, neither one
knowing the "little things" about the other--I said he should take
what he wanted from my work and make the film he wanted to make.
was easy to say. I didn't quite mean it. Nonetheless, it seemed like
a good way to start, and I knew, at least, that I did want to start.
Later I thought, what can these two strangers, a gay Frenchman and a
straight British-Indian make together, if anything? What is possible
between us and what impossible? How far can we go? What will this do
to me? It would be the first time I'd worked with a non-British
director. Would there be anything particularly "French" about
Patrice, or, for that matter, "English" about me? My instinct was
that the French have a better visual sense than the English, though
less narrative grasp. But this was really only a prejudice.
Patrice is, I suppose, ten years older than me and about the same
size, with similar back problems. He is gentle, unpretentious and
willing to be amused. He is modest but not unaware of his own
ability. He is certainly less impatient and bad-tempered than me. He
goes out more than I do. He is more decisive. I noticed that we
tended to dislike the same things, which is always a comforting
the end, I am not sure what it is that my imagination likes to do
with him, but just looking at Patrice, or hearing his voice on the
phone, cheers me up; he makes me want to try to be a better artist.
He respects me, and I him, but not too much.
When I first started to write, as a teenager in the suburbs, I
wanted to be a novelist. I thought that writing books in a room on
my own was all I would do. The work was self-sufficient. For me, as
a young man, that was the point. There were no intermediaries or
interpreters--the reader just read what you wrote. Some people, I
guess, become writers because they're afraid of others or addicted
to solitude. Perhaps they read a lot, or drew or watched television
alone as children. Being with others might be the problem that
isolation can solve.
However, when you are writing at last, the same questions appear
repeatedly. Why am I doing this? Who is this for? Why write this
rather than that? I'm sure people in other professions don't have an
existential crisis every morning. It's as if you are seeking any
excuse to stop. You can, of course, grow out of these questions, or
tire of yourself and your own preoccupations. Or you can hope that
collaboration will push you past them. A director will have
different doubts and fears. You want to see how others work,
and--why not?--be changed by them.
first professional project was a play called The King and Me,
produced at the Soho Poly theatre in 1980. It was about a
woman's infatuation with Elvis Presley, and was directed by Antonia
Bird, who I knew from the Royal Court. Her enthusiasm, and the final
production, made me feel that what I'd written had some objective
merit. A couple of years later, working with the theatre company
Joint Stock, I collaborated with the director Max Stafford-Clark and
the actors we selected, to "make" a play for the Royal Court--Borderline.
I discovered how enjoyable it could be to write for specific
actors. Writing new scenes and lines in the rehearsal room, it was
possible, almost straight away, to see whether they worked. After, I
found it difficult, and depressing, to return to my room and, alone,
begin to generate material from scratch.
Since then I have collaborated with more than a dozen directors.
Most of my work, including the prose, has passed through others'
hands before it reaches an audience. If being imaginative alone can
be difficult enough, I am both scared and intrigued by what others
will do with what I have started.
will you think or say if you free associate, if you let your mind
run without inhibition? There are plenty of anxieties there. What,
then, will it be like making mistakes, saying daft things, having
strange ideas, in front of someone else? Will you be overwhelmed or
forced into compromise by the other; or vice versa? Will you feel
liberated by them, or will new fears be aroused? Which fears might
challenge of collaboration is to find a process where both of you
can be fearlessly foolish; to see whether your union will be a
dilution or expansion of your combined abilities. You want to be
surprised by the other, not limited by them. Neither of you wants to
waste time pursuing an idea that is uninteresting.
However, collaboration is like friendship or like writing; you can
only start off with a vague idea of where you are going. After a
bit, if you're lucky, you begin to see whether or not there is a
worthwhile destination ahead.
artists with a distinct voice soon develop their area of
interest--the characters, scenes, moods --which they will work on
for most of their lives; and most artists, like most lives, are
repetitious. A collaboration is an attempt, then, to enlarge or
multiply selves, to extend range and possibility. You might make
something with another person that you couldn't make alone. Whether
the purpose of this is the final product--the film--or the intimacy
of partnership, the pleasure of meeting someone regularly, to talk
about something that excites you both, I'm not sure. Probably it is
all of these things.
of the many directors I have worked with in the theatre, television
and cinema has been interested in sponsoring a different aspect of
my work. There was a particular thing the piece said to them, that
they wanted to emphasise, or to say through me. Then, once the work
commenced, I began to write for them, for their idea of the project,
and to their doubts and strengths. This process makes you become a
different kind of writer--a different person, to a certain extent--
with each director.
can think of scores of good collaborations. The ones that come to
mind are from dance, or theatre, or music. I think of Miles and
Coltrane; Miles and anyone; and of Zakir Hussein, John McLaughlin
and Jan Garbarek; of Brian Eno and David Byrne. The list could be
would be a mistake to put the purity of isolated creativity on one
side, and collaboration on the other. In a sense all creativity will
be collaborative: the artist works with his material, with his
subject and with the history of his chosen form.
well as this, most artists, I assume, relish a certain amount of the
unexpected, of chance and contingency, of something odd but useful
that might just turn up. What did you see, hear, say, yesterday? How
might it be incorporated into the present work? Something going
wrong in the right way can be fruitful. Another person could be the
"contingency" that helps this to happen. Maybe all artistic activity
is a kind of collage, then, the putting together of various bits and
pieces gathered from here and there, and integrated into some kind
of whole. How are the elements selected or chosen? I don't know. It
has to be an experiment.
Which isn't to say that all attempts at collaboration always work. A
couple of years before I met Patrice, I was asked by a director to
come up with an idea we would then develop into a script.
Together, he and I sat in an expensive rented room every weekday
afternoon, for a month. Most of the time he seemed to have his head
in his hands, while I made notes on various stories I was writing,
and then put my head in my hands. What we could never do was put our
heads in each other's hands. We would go round and round, and back
and forth, but rarely forwards. Occasionally we'd have an idea we
liked, or break into laughter, but we remained mysterious to one
another, too guarded and too respectful. I expected him to take the
lead, to tell me what he wanted. Or maybe he expected me to take the
lead and tell him what I wanted. The project disappeared into a
miasma of misplaced politeness. After these sessions, on the tube
going home, I would become claustrophobic, thinking I would go mad
or start screaming. The work became like being at school, or in a
hated job. I suspect the problem was that we were both trying to do
the same thing, write, and were inhibiting one another.
There was little hesitation in Patrice; he didn't lack tenacity or
appear to doubt that this was a film he wanted to make. A film never
leaves you alone, even when you're not with it, and there is always
more you could be doing. A film, a project beginning in a room with
a couple of people saying "why don't we try so-and-so," ultimately
involves scores of people, a huge amount of money and, more
importantly, an enormous store of hope and belief.
Patrice and I started to meet regularly in London. We decided early
on that Intimacy was too internal, and, probably, too dark,
to make a film--a conventional film, that people might watch--on its
own. It could, though, function as the background to, or beginning
of, another film. We needed something else "on top"; more stories,
showed him a collection of my stories in manuscript, Midnight
All Day, to see whether there was anything in them he fancied.
Some of the material from the story "Strangers When We Meet" went
into the film; parts of "In a Blue Time" were utilised, and,
possibly, ideas from other stories; I forget which.
During our meetings we improvised stories; we gossiped; we talked
about the theatre, literature, our lives, our relationships with
parents. If our age seems "unideological" compared to the period
between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s; if Britain seems pleasantly
hedonistic and politically torpid, it might be because politics has
moved inside, into the body. The politics of personal relationships,
of private need, of gender, marriage, sexuality, the place of
children, have replaced that of society, which seems uncontrollable.
we talked about bodies, about death and decay; about Lucian Freud
and Bacon, and the hyper-realism of some recent photography and how
close you could get to the face without losing the image altogether.
We talked about how many contemporary visual artists are interested
in the body and its needs: the body rather than the mind or ideas;
and the body on its own, in relative isolation. The history of
photography and painting is, among other things, the history of how
the body has been regarded.
talked about what bodies do and what they tell us. After the 20th
century it is, it seems, a culture of disgust and of shock that we
inhabit, in which humans are reduced to zero, the achievements of
culture rendered meaningless--a stance often called the human
condition. Yet this kind of fastidious despair can become an
aesthetic pose, creating its own cultural privileges and becoming a
kind of vanity.
talked about my character Jay, about London and the speed with which
it is changing into an international city, about the couple who meet
without speaking. Why don't they talk rather than touch? What is the
terror of communication? If you speak to someone, what might happen?
If you don't, what other possibilities are there? To what extent are
people disposable? What do we owe them or they us?
Patrice seemed interested in the power of impersonal sexuality, in
passion without relationship, in the way people can be
narcissistically fascinated by one another's bodies and their own
sexual pleasure, while keeping away strong feeling and emotional
complexity. We talked about what sex enables people to do together,
and what it can stop them doing. Impersonality frees the
imagination, of course; but, in the end, the imagination isn't
sufficient when it comes to other people. What we usually need is
more of them and less of us. We have to let a certain amount of them
in. But that can seem like the hardest, most frightening thing,
particularly as you get older, particularly when you feel you have
Patrice wanted was to capture the desperation of Jay and Claire's
lovemaking. These intense sessions were called "the Wednesdays" and
would punctuate the film, being different each time.
are, of course, fascinated by what goes on in other couples'
privacy. Their bodies, thoughts and conversation are compelling.
They were for us as children and continue to be so. However, I can't
help wondering whether sexuality is better written than filmed.
Looking may be more erotic than reading; it is more immediate. But
looking may also fail to capture the intricacies of feeling; it
won't necessarily increase our understanding. In fact all it might
do is make us embarrassed or conscious that we are watching a
choreographed sexual act; it might merely make us feel left out.
Perhaps this is because of the way sexuality is usually portrayed on
film. Patrice and I talked about keeping the camera close to the
bodies; not over-lighting them, or making them look pornographically
enticing or idealised. It will be a sexuality that isn't sanitised,
symbolised or bland, that isn't selling anything. The point is to
look at how difficult sex is, how terrifying, and what a darkness
and obscenity our pleasures can be. Patrice will, therefore, have to
make a sexually explicit film. To a certain extent the actors will
have to go through what the characters experience, which will be
difficult for everyone.
will, initially, I guess, seem shocking in the cinema. Not that it
won't take long for the shock to wear off, and for the act to seem
common. The kiss between the boys in My Beautiful Laundrette
seemed outrageous and even liberating, to some people, in the
mid-1980s; now you can hardly turn on the television without seeing
boys snogging, particularly on the sports channels.
Interest in sexuality takes different forms at different times: it
might be paedophilia, perhaps, or miscegenation, gerontophilia,
lesbianism or fetishism. But there always seems to be some aspect of
desire that is of concern. It's the one thing that never goes away,
or leaves people's minds. Perhaps desire never stops feeling like
Shocking people, however, can be a mixed blessing. It can be amusing
to disturb but there can be no guarantee that you won't be resented
for the annoyance you have caused. Recently someone gave me what
they considered an "important" novel to read, warning me that it was
"shocking." The novel was as they described--it did offend and
displease me--mostly because it was violent. The violence kept my
attention even as it horrified me. Not that it was a good novel. I
was no better off after reading it than I was before. I felt, in
fact, that the violence was partly directed at the reader. I had
been shaken awake by someone who had nothing to tell me.
conversations between Patrice and me would fertilise the film rather
than determine it. I generated ideas for him to use, alter or throw
away, as he liked--trying not to become too possessive of them.
Certainly, Patrice had his own interests and preoccupations which
intersected in some places with mine. He is not the sort merely to
find a style to fit the writer. What we tried to do was find a
starting point in order to help one another.
long after a series of these talks, the French scriptwriter began
work. Scripts started to arrive regularly at my house. They got
longer and longer. It is always like this and it always seems
endless, the continuous sifting of material. Patrice moved to
London, looked for locations and began to see actors for the main
parts. Almost all the male actors we met were terrified of having
others see their bodies: there was no way they would strip for the
camera. The women seemed to expect that this would be required.
the film went into production I was less involved. Some directors,
like Stephen Frears, enjoy the writer being around--it is, after
all, something of the writer's world that has to be captured.
Therefore the creative work continues on the set, and during the
editing. Other directors can become quite paranoid about writers,
feeling them to be critical, cramping presences. After the initial
meeting, the next time they want to see the writer is at the wrap
party, or the premiere. The writers can seem to have too much
authority over the material. On the other hand, it can also be
traumatic for the writer to acknowledge that the director will need
to change the script in order to possess it, to feel it's his.
Writer and director can become jealous of one another. Not that
Patrice is like this. He has worked with many writers.
me, the writer can have one crucial function. Directors,
particularly after they have made a number of films, can become
over-involved in the technique of film-making. Writers, too, of
course, can become over-interested in language, say, or in certain
technical problems only of interest to them. Perhaps decadence in
art is like narcissism in a person--there's no one else in mind.
audiences, I like to believe, look "through" the film-making and
even the performances, to the story, to the characters' lives and
dilemmas. They require a human truth, in order to examine the
violence of their own feelings. If they cannot see something of
themselves in the story, they are unlikely to see anything else. It
should be part of the writer's job to remind the director of this.
The writer's detachment from the film-making can be an advantage:
like the director, he will have a sense of the whole film, but can
also function, at times, as a stand-in for the needs and desire of
During the filming Patrice sometimes dropped by in the evening for a
drink. I could see on his face how stressful and difficult making a
movie is. On top of everything else, Patrice was making a film in a
foreign language, with a mostly English crew, in a city he didn't
Unsurprisingly, most film directors I know are a walking bag of
maladies. They want you to know how tough their jobs are. What
exactly is tough about it? I suppose it is hard wanting something to
be so good; it is hard to care so much about something which could
so easily be dismissed, a mere film when there are so many films.
Fortunately, Patrice mostly shot what he needed and was pleased with
the actors' performances.
the almost completed film rushes at me. The camera moves quickly;
the cutting is fast and the music loud, in the modern manner, but
not only for effect, as in videos, but to show us the force, speed
and impersonality of London today. Perhaps it takes a foreign
director to make London look the way it feels. This seems like the
city I live in. The method of filming represents, too, the wild fury
of Jay's mind.
the end of the screening my mind and my feelings seem to be going in
all directions at once. I try to clear my head. What do I feel?
Relief, confusion, excitement, dismay, delight! Bits of criticism
surface. I have to try and say something coherent. My mind feels
crowded with important and irrelevant remarks. As always Patrice is
patient; he listens; we talk and argue. I am laudatory, critical and
apologetic at the same time. I have ideas for cuts, changes,
rearrangements. There are several things I don't understand, that
don't seem clear. I keep saying that I have only seen the film once.
He tells me that that is the number of times, if we are lucky, that
the audience will see the film. More screenings, he says, and you'll
be too sympathetic; you'll understand too much.
is right; my compliance will do him no good. Most directors have
plenty of that as it is. If we argue, both of us, along with our
friendship, will survive.
the end, when finishing the film, I know he will go his own way,
which is all he can do. That is what I would recommend; it is what I
would do. For me, it is enough that what has been accomplished was
worth the effort and a pleasure. Whether anyone else will agree is
another matter and up to them.
Hanif Kureishi's forthcoming novel, Gabriel's Gift, is
published by Faber and Faber on 4th March.