How to write Slumdog Millionaire

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Simon Beaufoy is the writer of Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty and The Darkest Light, which he co-directed and I loved, although I think I’m the only person who did. He’s one of our most passionate and committed writers, and has a rare ability to tell highly political stories without sacrificing character and story to polemic. From a terrific recent interview, here are five points that particularly stand out:

  1. I always think [The Full Monty] is only as funny as it is because it’s as sad as it is. And I think you need both poles to be working really well, to make that switch between funny and serious work. You need to kind of extend yourself at both ends.
  2. I always start from character, partly because of my documentary roots. It’s the people that interest me first, then the place, then the story. And they obviously all intertwine, but the place is key to everything I do really.
  3. An old documentary question that I was taught which has been the most helpful thing I’ve ever learnt was to ask people: If you had a camera what would you make a film about? And you get very interesting answers back. Jamal’s backstory [in Slumdog] isn’t from the novel but from stories that people told me in the slums.
  4. The crazier your idea the lower the budget. It’s really, really simple. When we first budgeted Slumdog Millionaire – which is with hindsight not a crazy idea, but at the time everyone thought was an absolutely crazy idea – we had subtitles, it was set in a weird place, it had torture scenes in followed by dance scenes… It seemed like a very unlikely scenario. We originally budgeted it at about twenty million dollars, and no one would touch it. It was a crazy idea that was too expensive. You cut five million dollars off that and suddenly people were going all right, it’s a crazy idea but it’s not so expensive, so it’s within our parameters of possibility here.
  5. I’ve done a few book adaptations, and what I tell the author every time is that I will change everything but the soul of it. And if I keep the soul of it the same then I feel I’ve done a faithful adaptation of their book. If you do a literal adaptation of a book I think you’re destined to fail. If you do a faithful sort of transliteration from book to screen, they’re nearly always a disaster. You have to take what the book’s really about, throw the rest away and rebuild it into something else.

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One thought on “How to write Slumdog Millionaire

  1. That last point is, I think, pivotal. It’s the soul of a story which transcends the medium in which it’s told. Never thought of it in quite those terms before. I’ve always tried to describe it as ‘finding where the thing lives’, but soul is a far better and more elemental way of putting it. Thank you, JW.

    BTW – you are not the only one who loved The Darkest Light. A very good little movie which was sold very badly. The same goes for his other picture that year, Among Giants.

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