The Iranian-born screenwriter explains how he came up with his most compelling scene for the film Drive.
Hossein Amini: how I coped with adapting the book Drive for Hollywood
Taking books from the page to the screen is one of the hardest tasks in cinema. Screenwriters are often overlooked when they adapt a popular book: if the story is good then everyone presumes it's because the book is good, whereas when it's bad, it's the fault of the screenwriter or director.
One of the best exponents of the art is Iranian-born writer Hossein Amini. Throughout his distinguished career, the London-based writer has adapted Thomas Hardy's Jude, The Obscure, Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, AEW Mason's The Four Feathers and Elmore Leonard's Killshot for the big screen.
This year he surpassed all his previous efforts with a stunning adaptation of James Sallis's book Drive. The resulting film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and opening in the UAE today, stars darlings of the moment Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan and wowed the critics when it played in Cannes earlier this year. The success has made the heist thriller one of the most talked about movies of the year, but as Amini revealed during an interview with The National near his home in London, Drive took years to get made.
The story begins several years ago when Universal Studios sent Amini a copy of Sallis's book to read.
"Normally, the studios tend to send you blockbusters," says Amini. "They sent me a book that was bleak and dark, it jumps back and forwards in time, it's not a straight narrative and read like a film noir. It was unlike anything that landed on my desk at the time. I was thinking, am I going to get a studio fee for something as dark as this novel?"
Yet getting a gig as a writer is not as simple as saying you want to do it. Amini reveals that there is actually a competitive bidding process that happens almost every time a studio has a novel that it wants to adapt.
"If you express interest, there is normally half a dozen other writers who want to do it," he says. "Then you have to pitch. I pitched to Hugh Jackman, who was a producer at the time, and Mark Platt. There were four people on the phone with me. I outlined my vision of what the book should be. I said the film needed a straight storyline so we can keep the main character silent."
In one of the most remarkable performances in his career, Gosling, whose character is only known as Driver, hardly ever talks, even when he befriends his beautiful neighbour Irene, played by the elusive Carey Mulligan. When Mulligan's husband is released from jail, Driver, who works as both a stuntman and a getaway driver, agrees to help him rob a pawnshop to repay a prison debt.
Things, however, don't go so smoothly.
Once Amini had been commissioned to write the screenplay, the research phase began - and one of the first things the writer did was ask the security guard at the Universal lot about car chases.
Drive begins with one of the best bank robbery escapes ever committed to celluloid.
"We went to see the head of security at the Universal lot, who was a former policeman, and I said we had the idea of a cat-and-mouse chase involving a helicopter. He said once a helicopter comes in then that pretty much means the game is up for a driver, as there is no way of losing a chopper. We realised then that we needed to take him to a crowded area, which is where the whole idea with the game occurred.
"A lot of writing movie scripts is all about talking to the right people," Amini says.
The writer was on board the whole time as producers and directors came and went. Jackman left the project, and so did Universal studios. The Descent director Neil Marshall was attached to the project at one stage.
Then Gosling came on board and the final choice to direct came down to Winding Refn. The Danish director, best known for Bronson and his Pusher films, wanted to keep Amini's involvement high. "He was very demanding right up to the shoot. Once he had what he needed - the intent in the scene - then he was happy."
Ironically, Amini, who moved to London from Iran at the age of 11, cannot drive and neither can Refn. With so much time spent in LA, it was a hindrance that allowed them a lot of time to work together on the script. The results are fantastic and Refn deservedly won best director at Cannes.
The awards buzz has ensured that the film is opening like a blockbuster movie. It's a strategy that fills Amini with trepidation.
"They are opening in America, terrifyingly wide," he says. "A big, wide audience is going to think they are going to see a mainstream picture. It's great in some ways, but I think there is inevitably going to be a backlash, as it is still very indie.
"The first 45 minutes, which I love ... if you are going to see Drive thinking it will be like The Fast and the Furious, you are in for a disappointment."
Amini's own career has seemingly been one success after another. He says his secret is that practice makes perfect, rather than relying on textbooks to provide a magic spark.
"I used to read a lot of scriptwriting books before, but it becomes instinct. I think almost what is not said is more important than what is said. The look on the face is the crucial thing. I have not found many of those books that go for that approach; they go for the big speech. The closer to a silent movie a film can be, the better. You obviously need lines of dialogue to engage with characters. But maybe it's because I can't write those big fantastic speeches. The Jerry Maguire speech I could never do. For me, it has to sound real, but sometimes heightened realism is better when writing scripts."
Drive opens in cinemas across the UAE today.