The last time we spoke to William Monahan we got him in a bit of Internet trouble. The author and filmmaker, who won an Oscar for writing “The Departed,” slammed ’70s movies for their lack of craft, saying things like John Cassavetes films were just he and his friends springing “a 16mm camera around an apartment while making up crappy dialogue.” Some, as you can imagine, were displeased.
Monahan remembers this, and he says he was joking. “Got to watch out for that,” he tells us. “Because I’m always ironic and everyone always take me seriously. Unless I say otherwise, I’m always being ironic.”
So take at least some of what he says here with a grain of salt. We’re talking again, this time about “Mojave,” the second film he’s directed after 2010’s “London Boulevard,” in addition to those he’s only written, like “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Body of Lies” and “The Gambler.” His latest follows a young Hollywood player (Garrett Hedlund) who, during a drunken trip into the desert, encounters a stranger (Oscar Isaac), who winds up tormenting him after an accidental murder.
Some of my friends were angry about what you said the last time we talked. Do you tend to get involved with social media?
I weened myself off of any kind of online warfare and commentary when I was in my 30s. I just had to stop. I realized, “How much time am I spending on this? Fighting with an associate editor at some jackass magazine, dealing with the topics of the day.” So I stopped doing that, and the next thing I knew I had a novel and a film career. Any fans of Internet activity should remember that one.
How did this come about?
I was in Los Angeles. This was before I’d written “The Departed.” I was feeling a little uneasy on having recently gone from a guy who’d just adapted his own novel to being — apparently, as far as I can tell — Hollywood’s top screenwriter. [Laughs] So I drove out to the desert. I was thinking, “Do I really want to stay in film? Should I just write novels and write one screenplay a year? What am I going to do with myself?” Major existential moment.
I was lying on the hood of my car, in the desert all by myself, and I turned my head, and I looked up at the mountain, and I thought, “Well, that’s a pretty f—ing good camera position.” [Laughs] And then I was sitting by the campfire. It’s frightening out there. I imagined, “What if there was somebody standing out there, outside the circle of firelight? And what if he came in? What would happen next?” And what I imagined happened next is what “Mojave” is.
“Mojave” starts off as a kind of Western, then turning into a kind of noir, with a bit of Hollywood satire peppered in. Why did you want to mix up genres?
Because I hate f—ing genre. [Laughs] My point of view of genre is if you’re doing genre, what are you doing? You’re not holding a mirror to nature. You’re just doing a pattern. Genre can be like coloring in a coloring book. Who the f— wants to do that? I didn’t want to do that when I was five. I don’t want to do it now.
During your Oscar speech you cited “Lawrence of Arabia” as the reason you got into movies. Do you see directing an epic of that scale?
I don’t think epics of the kind I like, like “Lawrence,” are going to happen anymore in this climate. My only hope is they’re done in serial form on cable television. As far as theatrical epics that are both intelligent and expensive, especially brainiac historical stuff, I think that “Kingdom of Heaven” may be the last example of that. And that was cut by an hour before it went into theaters, with significant effort on the overall reception.
Can you talk about moving into directing from writing? It must take a different skill set to think visually having worked in the printed word.
We all grew up with film, so we all possess that language. Visual is sort of a native tongue. We all know how motion pictures are put together. I personally started wanting to make movies before anything else. I came out to California when I was 19. The way people were describing the film business to me was as though it was the Turkish Empire: You had to go do this, go on your knees to the third assistant over there. I went, “You know what? I’m not going to do that.” Meanwhile the writing thing I was doing was pretty much out of control. I’d had people after me for novels since I was 22 years old. The writing had to be given its due. Then I worked back towards film. I came back to it pretty strong and pretty much on my own terms.
What about directing actors? That’s another skill set.
It’s 100 percent in the casting. You’re not there to fiddle with peoples’ performances. You’re there to be as interested in what they’re doing as the audience hopefully will be. You have a document between you, which is the script, which is what they signed on to do. When you’ve cast properly you don’t have to do anything. Anyone who says they have to manipulate actors in any way has either grossly miscast or they’re not telling the truth. They want to make the process seem more complicated than it really is, to elevate their stature. The fact is we all know the script, and everyone just comes in and does it. Your job is to just photograph them and make sure everyone’s having lunch at the right time.
You make directing sound so easy.
The directing part is easy. There are other parts that aren’t easy. [Laughs] Getting your music budget when you need it — that might be a different issue.