Bruce Robinson started out his industry life as an actor. Having trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and acted as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ he found himself broke and living in a house with one light bulb which he would take from room to room and mostly use while sitting by the oven, the only heat in the place. With time on his hands and enduring very real hardship he found himself one snowy day down on his knees in his ‘big room’ begging the gods to save him from his terrible predicament of being an actor who couldn’t get an acting job.
The absurdity of his desperation was not lost on him and he then and there began writing a fictionalised account of the life of himself and his friend Vivian (MacKerrell) on an old Olivetti typewriter. The story, initially intended to be a novel, got passed around friends and one person with a wealthy relative who suggested it could be a film. It then took years to get made. In the meantime, he was sent along to David Puttnam who thought he could write and got him a writing job that paid eight grand a year. One of the things he wrote was award winning adaptation, ‘The Killing Fields’ which scooped him, among other trophies, an Oscar. Meanwhile ‘Withnail and I’ was still popular and passed around by his broader acquaintance until it finally got made, it’s charm eventually becoming the cult legend we know today. Sitting down to watch the film with us he shared his memories and his process about this much loved work and creation in general.
Writing Quotable Dialogue
Rewrites on Withnail, Bruce tells us, were a pain but having been paid, he had to get on with it. The easiest part for Bruce is the dialogue, he finds structure much harder, but dialogue, he says, is still hard. As many writers do, he goes through things he might say in a scenario and then adjusts it and other dialogue to make it all work better. The tea room is one of the oft quoted scenes, he tells us, and was one of the few times that even the actors laughed at their own lines. Richard Griffiths also corpsed a bit on the ‘toilet trader’ line. Watching the film in the room with Bruce he charmingly laughs still at jokes he must now have heard thousands of times, the contagious wit of the lines working their magic even on their creator.
Making Scenes Visually Relevant
The Uncle Monty seduction scene is tremendously visual and what Bruce calls his ‘stage directions’ in this and his other films he writes to be as detailed as the dialogue. He doesn’t like the ‘we see’ type of screenwriting or ‘technical crap’ he suggests leaving the camera to the director and focusing description to reflect the tone of the scene. Don’t squash funny lines with dull description he tells us, find a good way.
Breaking Rules if it Works
‘Withnail broke all the rules, it’s a five act structure, Bruce tells us but from the enduring popularity of the film, it’s clear that it worked for the journey of these characters. The ending Bruce says was adjusted from the original to be less harsh than the initial suicide scene that was intended. The character identity was an actor so having him play Hamlet was more moving and he in fact changed the Hamlet lines because Withnail only really loved himself.
Working on It
Bruce yaks and yaks to himself until he hits on something that sounds alright, might be dialogue, might be story ideas. He researches. He worked with a professional researcher for his Jack the Ripper book who got him material that he couldn’t have found alone. He strongly recommends that if we get a chance to work with a professional researcher we take it. He’s interested in getting things right and wants the truth on the page. His work is visceral to us perhaps because he brings a truth to the screen whether that’s the truth of his conviction or because he’s telling the truth of life. The scene where Withnail drinks lighter fluid was a scenario that happened for real which was not amusing at the time. Vivian went blind for two days. The seduction scene with Uncle Monty was loosely based in his experience acting as Benvolio when Franco Zeffirelli took an aggressive shine to him but he wanted to make Uncle Monty very sympathetic and that’s a different sort of truth rooted in who that character was.
Watching ‘Withnail and I’ in any room full of people is always a great pleasure but watching along with Bruce Robinson was an experience to treasure. A born entertainer who tells decades old stories as if he were divulging them for the first time. Under his coat of genuine charm is a consummate professional who values his own learning and experience and doesn’t take his gifts for granted. If he gave us one valuable thing (he gave us many) by visiting the festival it was to encourage us to work on our own value as creators. Thank you Bruce Robinson for sharing ‘Withnail and I’ with us.