John Gay and Terence Rattigan at Separate Tables
Drama as inference and inference as drama
by Scott McConnell
John Gay is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who has had dozens of his film and TV scripts produced. His films include The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Hallelujah Trail, No Way to Treat a Lady, Run Silent, Run Deep and Soldier Blue. In television he is especially known for his adaptations of classic novels, such as Captains Courageous, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Miserables and Ivanhoe. In 1958 he co-adapted Terence Rattigan’s classic play Separate Tables for the screen. He has been nominated for an Academy Award, five Writers Guild Awards (won three) and an Emmy Award for his writing. Mr. Gay is still writing.
SCOTT MCCONNELL: How did you become involved with the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables?
JOHN GAY: Separate Tables was my second film. I got involved with its producers, Harold Hecht, Jim Hill and Lancaster Productions (HHL), because I had a television play directed in New York and HHL brought me out to Los Angeles because they liked that play. [HHL was producer Harold Hecht, producer James (Jim) Hill and actor Burt Lancaster.] HHL had a World War II book, Run Silent Run Deep, which I adapted as a movie. Burt Lancaster had wanted to do this submarine story, so he and Jim Hill got Clark Gable to star in it. After I finished with that book, they wanted me to go onto another project they had. That was Separate Tables. Jim and Harold were in London and saw the play and liked it. The play was actually two separate one-act plays where the two lead actors played a different role in each play.
I was told Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were attached to the movie. He was going to direct it and both were going to act in it. I think Olivier, similar to how it was done in the plays, was going to play two roles, the Major and John Malcolm. But according to Jim Hill, United Artists sent word down: we want a star. Apparently what then happened was that Burt [Lancaster] thought: why don’t I play the Olivier part of John Malcolm. Not only did Burt want to play that part, but it evolved into Jim Hill wanting his wife Rita Hayworth to play the other lead of Anne Shankland. Since Olivier wasn’t going to be playing the lead or directing, Olivier and Vivien Leigh were gone.
MCCONNELL: How many writers worked on the adaptation?
GAY: There were two other writers on the movie. Terence Rattigan and a writer called John Michael Hays. I never knew that John Michael Hays was involved or how. I just saw his name on the Internet at IMDB. I never worked directly with Rattigan, though I did meet him later on. I worked with the producers, director and actors on the script. I had never adapted a play. I had written for live television in New York.
Jim [Hill] and especially Harold [Hecht] were unsatisfied with the script they had and Rattigan was done with it. He didn’t want to work on it anymore. Then I read the plays and loved them. I saw that there had been some changes to the plays in the original script. The script had some of the simultaneous action of the two plays joined together, where the same actor would not be playing both parts.
MCCONNELL: What was your reaction when you read the script of Separate Tables?
GAY: I loved the script. I loved the characters and I loved the plays. But I don’t have Lawrence Olivier. I don’t have Vivien Leigh. But I have two replacements, Burt and Rita, who are not what you call ordinary replacements.
So I’ve got two issues. One is that I’ve got a play that was originally written as two separate one-act plays, and a script that brought them together, so that the four leads of the plays are now going to be four different actors. And how do you weave together while playing the two stories concurrently? And the plays have English characters, whereas two of the movie’s leads are now American, Burt and Rita. And so I’m thinking: how am I going to go about this and make it into an American situation, and would that work the same? There were other problems, but the two biggest ones were Burt and Rita, who were not only American characters but also not the ideal people you would think of to play those parts. Now mind you, the rest of the cast was a dream cast. All of them were wonderful.
MCCONNELL: How did you solve these issues?
GAY: Somebody had made an outline or script pages in which it wasn’t two separate plays—where they were joined together. I worked with that. I was struggling with Burt and Rita: how is this really going to work? Wait a minute, when these two people are not together on stage in the play, but now they’re together on the screen, you’ve got to put one on top of the other. A solution was to have all four leading characters in the play appear together on screen at various times throughout the drama.
MCCONNELL: What other changes did you make?
GAY: I also worked on the changes that Jim, Harold and Burt wanted. They weren’t happy with this, and they weren’t happy with that. So I would try and do things in a way that they would like that line or this situation better. And then Del [Delbert Mann the director] had his problems. This was one of his first features. Del liked little changes, little things here and there, but he had one main change which was very good for the script, and which was really inherent in it anyway: keep it claustrophobic and keep all the action in the hotel. In my draft, I was going to the Feathers bar and outside places like that. In movies you try to open it up a bit; it’s a motion picture. Del was insistent about not going outdoors.
Del liked the idea there wasn’t a happy soul in the hotel… that they were all in wretched stages of their lives. As I wrote in the preface of the movie, normally a hotel like this was in the summertime—the beach is there, the sun is out—but no, we’re setting the movie in winter. I think it was Harold who wanted that preface to give it that dour feeling right away. Del built a replica of the hotel at the studio. It was fantastic. You could go in there and get the feeling of wretchedness, which was really good dramatically.
As the director, Del would come at me with all kinds of issues: “Now listen, when she comes in through the doorway there and she goes up to the front desk, I want you to put another paragraph here.” Or he would tell me to stop writing, because he doesn’t have enough space for his camera in that location. Directors do that. Writers don’t pay attention to those kinds of issues, but there was a lot of little stuff like that.
MCCONNELL: Were there any other ways the set or filming influenced your writing?
GAY: Del did something that ordinarily directors do not do. Because Del respected the work, and I respected the work, he had rehearsals. The actors, especially, wanted to rehearse. A lot of actors don’t want to rehearse; Frank Sinatra is famous for being against it, “I’ll lose my spontaneity.” That’s a major thing for many actors. And on a motion picture they often don’t do it. Rehearsing costs money because actors have to get paid extra for it. So I would go down to the rehearsals and get whatever script changes they wanted.
MCCONNELL: Tell me about David Niven at the rehearsals.
GAY: Niven was always sort of timid about it at first, because I think he had the feeling, “Oh, my God, I am replacing Olivier. How can I walk in those shoes?” And so those rehearsals were really good for him. They got him ready, and they got him set with that cast. As it turned out Niven got better and better as we went along, and by the time they started shooting I just thought he was wonderful, wonderful. And Burt did a good job in the film.
MCCONNELL: How much of the final shooting script was you and how much was Rattigan?
GAY: Oh, I would say mostly Rattigan. You’ve got a situation, right from the beginning, in which Rattigan wrote the plays for God’s sake.
MCCONNELL: Did you get any feedback from Terence Rattigan about what he thought of your work on his story?
GAY: When the script was turned in by HHL to United Artists, it had both of our names on it, Rattigan and Gay. And I thought: Well, it’ll be sent to Rattigan who will make a contest of my credit and say, “Wait a minute.” So I waited to find out, and one day Harold came up to me and said, “Well, we got the word from Rattigan.” Yeah? “He’s fine, there’s no problem. No objections at all.” As a matter of fact, according to Harold he was quite happy with the way the script turned out.
MCCONNELL: What is your opinion of Rattigan as a writer?
GAY: I don’t want to call Rattigan a genius, but he was supreme, he was so good. I love the way he instinctively knew that less is more. You don’t have to hit them on the head with it! And he wrote about contemporary issues; he brought up subjects that are not talked about much.
MCCONNELL: Tell me more about this principle of “less is more.” Rattigan once stated that “Drama is inference, and inference is drama.”
GAY: Inference is important. Inference is if something is extremely sad and you don’t cry—it’s hidden, you imply it, but you don’t do it. Any time you hit something on the head, it doesn’t sound right. You have to imply something and it sinks in more deeply to the audience. You can be in a tragedy and not have any tears—you imply it and it’s far deeper and more important.
I think you have to be very careful when you do those Burt and Rita characters in Separate Tables so that you don’t get into melodrama. It is better if you know that it’s their past and know that they’re hiding it, but it’s there. It’s the same principle in acting. Little is more. As an actor you don’t do much to get a lot of reaction in comedy and in drama. You indicate or you imply and let the audience do some work, and you’re far more effective. For example, in Separate Tables, the Major is being so tight within himself, so hiding, with his horrendous secret. Now, if he were trying to do that outwardly, it’s very on the nose. I think Niven was just wonderful in the way he underplayed the Major.
MCCONNELL: Let’s look at an example of implication in the dialogue. In one scene, Miss Cooper tells John Malcolm that Anne Shankland is taking drugs to help her sleep. Malcolm says, “Why does she do it?” Miss Cooper replies, “Why do you go to The Feathers?”
GAY: So there you are. She could have said anything then, but she doesn’t come back at him and say, “Well, you go to The Feathers, don’t you?” She doesn’t hit him, she just throws it back to him. That’s good writing. She could say, “How could you say that? Didn’t I see you drunk the other night?” and so forth. That’s what you don’t do! Because it’s too obvious, it’s phony, it doesn’t seem real! Being too obvious is bad writing. It’s just a simple line, “Why do you go to The Feathers?” Don’t you see how that says so much more? Because it says the same thing only it says it without attacking him, and it hits him much harder. This line is far more effective. It’s inherently more important the way it was written. That’s why he’s Rattigan.
MCCONNELL: You and Rattigan were nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay based on material from another medium. Tell me about that.
GAY: He didn’t go to the ceremony. I went with my wife, Barbara. And it was like another world. I mean, one day I’m in New Jersey, the next thing I know I’m in Hollywood writing a submarine movie for Burt Lancaster, and the next thing I’m going to the Oscars.
Although Rattigan didn’t go to the Awards, he did send me a cable before it. I’ll read it to you. From the top it says: “From Terence Rattigan sent to United Artists New York from Hong Kong. March 27, 1959. To JG: Gay, belated mutual felicitations on nomination. Unhappily I can’t be there, so you must bear the brunt and meet those Kipling imposters, Triumph or Disaster, with a gay smile and a thought for your proud and grateful collaborator.”
MCCONNELL: How did you finally get to meet Terence Rattigan?
GAY: I only met him once, after the movie was finished. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I came over to Harold’s house in Beverly Hills, and Jim Hill was there with Rita Hayworth. Harold said, “Oh, I’ve had this yacht now for years, and she is magnificent. We’ll get down to San Pedro docks and meet Terence Rattigan there. Wait ’til you see her!” And he just raved about the yacht all the way there.
So we got down to the dock, and I looked out the window, and I saw this magnificent, magnificent yacht. It was just gorgeous. I don’t know how many feet high. It was parked over to the left, down the dock a little ways. But that wasn’t Harold’s yacht and I’m saying to myself: where the hell is Harold’s yacht?
So Rattigan arrived and got out of his car and sees the magnificent yacht. If you would have seen the look on his face when he saw it, and he says, “Oh, Harold, I had no idea it was that great. She is beautiful! I can’t wait to go out!” And Jim and I are looking at each other. We knew immediately that Rattigan was looking at the wrong yacht. And Harold just kind of shrunk and said, as a matter of fact, “Mine is over here.” The great line Rattigan said to me was, “Oh, it’s that one, Harold?” Rattigan being the way he was continued, “Oh, yes. Oh, of course. Oh, this is lovely, Harold.” He would just try to save the situation, but he knew he had made a mistake.
When I met Rattigan I was in awe, and I was wondering if I could get him in conversation about the script. On the yacht we went out for probably an hour or two, just taking a little sail around San Pedro, and then came back to the dock. But Rita and Jim were always with Rattigan and they never got into it about the movie. Rattigan didn’t seem to want to talk about it: Been there, done that, and don’t want to go into it anymore. That’s what I got from Jim. And we came back to the dock and nobody told me he was leaving, and he was gone. I think the next day when I talked to Jim he said that Rattigan had left Los Angeles. I never got to see him again. He was very quiet, very gentle, handsome, just a lovely man.
MCCONNELL: What was your reaction to the finished movie?
GAY: Considering all the things the production went through, I think it went far better than I thought it might. I was really, really proud of that.
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