Luke Davies, Screenwriter Talks “Catch-22,” “Lion,” & “Beautiful Boy”
Screenwriter Luke Davies credits his writing career to the discovery of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. “This is what I want to do with my life,” he said at the age of 13 while reading the book. “I want to affect other people the way this book just affected me.” Soon after, he read the book, Catch-22.
Davies studied the novel in high school and then got the chance to see author Joseph Heller speak for the English Department at Sydney University. Afterwards, the author signed Davies’ copy of the book. Around 35 years later, Davies got the chance to start working on his own adaptation of the iconic story.
“I loved this book when I was a kid. How come no one’s done an adaptation of Catch-22 in 40 years or whatever it was since the Mike Nichols (1970) and that’s how it began. The phrase is so deep in the public in the popular consciousness, but it’s one of those things where a lot of people may or may not have read it.”
Once they locked in a deal with Paramount (who still had the original rights to the story), they started on a nine-month development deal to write the mini-series. “We were trying to find a way through the craziness of the novel, to make choices about what would be a clear narrative that made sense and had an emotional journey for the characters.”
“The book in the way in which the book was very kaleidoscopic, but in a very literary way. Personally, I think that’s partly why the original film is sort of chaotic and messy, but not in a great way. Because I think in a sense, Nichols is imitating that kaleidoscopic chaos of the book.”
“That was the journey of writing. It was just gradually getting rid of a lot of the clutter that was literary and finding the stuff that was very cinematic, that would make the story hold together. And in the end, that turned out to be six hours we felt would do justice to it to telling the story properly.”
When adapting such a classic literary work, there are fears around the responsibility of bringing something epic to the screen. “Those seeds of fear are real and it really is a ‘face your fears’ kind of momentum. It’s about trying to have clarity about what to retain from the master, Joseph Heller.”
The goal was “to retain the great scenarios and the great dialogue, to take from Heller and run with it and expand. A lot of the stuff that is new in the series is not completely invented. But there’s a lot of sections and sequences that come from a single sentence, or paragraph, that Heller deals with quickly in an abstract way.”
Literary Versus Visual
Cashing in and expanding on these dramatic moments helped the writers ring out the drama from the book. “You have to tell a story in a different way. In, in your in the literary part of your brain that reads a novel, you can take in a big chunk of information that covers a transition, that is a period of time and you can accept it.”
“But in your gut, when you’re watching something on the screen, you can’t accept that if it’s just a leap where the leap was not fleshed out for you.” For example, the writers compressed 40 characters down to 10-14 characters, which meant combining elements of the characters into less major characters.
By examining and expanding shorter sections in the book, Davies was able to expand on ideas of war and capitalism. “The deep underbelly of the message is about the insanity of war. I also think it’s something we are all experiencing right now in our daily lives, which is a sense of frustration and powerlessness.”
“It is fundamentally a black comedy, but it’s but definitely a dark comedy or black comedy. The expression that I would use is a satirical comedy. It’s certainly lighter than Candy, the first film I wrote,” said Davies. “In the face of our relationship with every single bureaucratic structure that we deal with in the world that is nonsensical, irrational, and drives us all crazy.”
For fans who have seen the trailer for Catch-22, Davies’ Hulu version has somewhat of a lighthearted marketing angle, similar to the Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading or Clooney’s war film, Monuments Men. It certainly appears lighter than some of Davies other films, like the Oscar-nominated Lion, Life, Beautiful Boy, or Candy.
In Life, Lion, and Beautiful Boy, Davies created character pieces that are mainly playing off one another. For Catch-22, those properties exist, but it’s also about a group of men fighting a larger structure. “I think an interesting difference is that Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) is trying to figure it out would be the level of desperation that exceeds that of all this.”
“In the novel, Yossarian’s psychology is the deepest psychology that we get access to. But that’s the great thing about film and television is that the minute you’re seeing an actor on the screen, even in a smaller role, you have access to that active psychological interior.”
“In other words, if a novelist chooses not to spend time telling you what Major Major or Colonel Cathcart is thinking, then you don’t get that access. But in a put on the screen, just by having an actor on the screen, you’re getting that access to what is going on for them. I love that the beautiful richness and I’m really excited about writing dialogue for actors and seeing what they do with it emotionally.”
In this particular story, many of the problems are “fundamental life and death problems” due to the seriousness of battle. Davies added, “You get the feeling that his buddies a bit more accepting of their powerlessness and Yossarian is not accepting of his powerlessness.”
Writing for Hulu
As for the writer’s room, Davies and company treated the work like a six-hour movie, more so than a series. “At the same time, we absolutely knew that it had to be a six-hour movie with six climaxes. That was a new experience for me. Working out how many episodes will there be? And then the very next question, following on the heels of that was, what is the climax of this so-called cliffhanger and why?”
Many of the cliffhangers revolve around deaths or missing soldiers. “Yossarian’s journey is a journey of loss, as well as a journey of panic, fear, bewilderment, frustration, anger. I’ve always looked at the whole series is that your journey is about lost continual loss. He just keeps losing all of the people who have made something to him in his life, one after the other, including the flyers.”
Davies continues to take on greater and greater responsibilities as a screenwriter. Candy was a personal memoir on addiction. Beautiful Boy followed this same path, but was based on two memoirs by a father and son. Lion is an equally powerful journey about a long lost son in Calcutta.
“If I’m able to have the good fortune to have some power over my choices – and it doesn’t always feel like that– it just feels like my career has really randomly tumbled forward, but I respond to films and I want to make films in which you experience an emotional journey.”
Described as “emotional weight,” Davies wants to create stories that move people and move characters. The characters should be “transformed in some way, by the circumstances of the story.” For the screenwriter, this involves investing a great deal of time and anguish into each story.
“I always feel that I put my heart and soul into the stuff I work on through many, many drafts and through the very interesting and intense process of feedback loop with the other people in a project. I feel like there’s that sense of when it’s really over and it’s out of your hands. There’s that sense of satisfaction. I feel the satisfaction of having done hard work and now it’s out of my control. I like that feeling.”
As a poet and novelist, Davies spends a great deal of time on each word of the screenplay, but also with his treatments. “I like to believe that some of that stuff is instinctive about my background as a poet and about seeing the dialogue in terms of rhythms. I take care to make my screenplays read well, or even my treatment, that you want to give yourself an extra chance of moving getting a project happening.”
“So it helps if your treatment is a very readable story that the reader can get lost in for 20 minutes. Whereas a screenplay is absolutely just this kind of strange blueprint document, like almost a technical document for a whole lot of other people to make sense of – not just directors and finances and producers, but production designers and costume designers, and obviously, actors.”
Discipline and Rest
Over the years, Davies said his writing process has changed. “I’ve gotten better at the more disciplined. I had a more restless relationship with my writing in my 20s, and even in my early 30s, like a real hot-cold, on-off switch, which felt out of my control. But I have come to realize it’s not really it’s the on-off switch thing when it all starts, I learned to deal with my resistance and self-sabotaging mechanisms.”
“So the solution that I learned the hard way, was about setting up that just really methodical discipline work structures, where I just do two things. One is I just worked really solidly kind of like the office job. I try to be measured about it not crazy and not burn the candle at both ends.”
“And the second thing is, I’m really, really big on deep preparation. I don’t leave things unexplained and I don’t write short treatments that are four bullet points. I really try to flesh out the story, because I find that when you’re actually writing the script, and you’ve got this detailed framework, it frees you up more in the creative space to actually write and to actually find exciting discoveries.”
We talk a lot about disciplines, but rest is equally important. After Beautiful Boy, Davies took a short break from writing. “When I do manage to carve out that space. I love that. It’s that sense of reward. I’m going to switch my brain off for a while. A month would be beautiful, but I try to get back to Australia every year for Christmas and I just jump in the ocean several times a day.”
The recovery also allows Davies to let go of things. With his film, Life, for example, he felt envious of a similar film called The End of the Tour. He also felt Life’s director, Anton Corbijn (The American), had an interpretation of his screenplay that was different in a manner that took away from the original story.
“It’s a nice experience when you let it go, but of course, there’s also that anxiety of, I hope they understand this. I think that’s just par for the course. I think you just have to make peace with that. Everything moves forward and you keep working and you look forward to the next thing if the last thing didn’t work out.”
This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio version HERE.
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