Interview: 'Mojave' Director William Monahan Isn't As Unkind As His Characters

"I need the truck," is the first line in the script for Mojave. It comes on page five, and not until page 17 does a real conversation emerge. There are a few lines here and there in the opening, but screenwriter William Monahan introduces Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) purely through action. The artist, struggling with success, drives out to the desert to reflect, which Monahan once did himself.

What if someone like Thomas or Mr. Monahan, but far worse, was also in the desert? That's when Jack (Oscar Isaac) appears, a highly educated and highly dangerous drifter. Thomas and Jack's war begins with a conversation about the politics, the human condition, and Ahab's missing leg.

And we dive into the details of Mojave during our conversation with Monahan, which begins after the jump.

The dialogue is dense and rich, but not all of it made it into the final film. The meta thriller still embodies much of the script's spirit, but according to Monahan, simply because of how the business works, he had to meet a running time, which he also experienced on his directorial debut, London Boulevard.

The screenwriter behind The DepartedKingdom of Heaven, and The Gambler is still quite pleased with the final result, though. Monahan was kind enough to discuss the script, the finished film, and more with us. Here's what the refreshingly candid storyteller had to say.

Looking at those first 20 pages, it's rare to read a script that lets us understand character through action.

Yeah. That was a very important thing to me and to us. And then, of course, if you look at the picture, you see that initial material may not all be there. It was certainly shot. I'm glad to talk to somebody who's read the script.

Why did the opening shorten in post-production?

Well, it's everything...It's just a situation in the industry. There are two things happening to films now. Studios are making fewer films and taking less risk with them, going on the sort of algorithmic model. You know, hitting all the quadrants, etcetera, shenanigans and bullshit they get up to.

So the studios are making fewer and safer movies, while independent pictures, by their very nature, generally have to come out at 90 minutes. I can't tell you why. I don't f***ing know why. But it seems to be the case.

You've read Mojave and you know also that most films that cast up and finance and go to the floor are at 120-odd pages. And each page in the script is a minute of film. So what you are looking at usually on screen with an independent picture is 90 pages of what you shot. You shot the full two hours. That's what you were all there to make. Then it becomes to certain market forces and things like that and running time concerns. That's just the way it is.

I'm sure it's slightly painful losing those pages, but it seems like you just accept it for what it is. 

Well, you have to. Remember, the first reduced film I was ever involved in was Kingdom of Heaven, which was an original screenplay. That was one of the biggest sort of smart epics ever made. And it came out with an hour missing from it. You have to wear that. There's no way around it. Because when people see a film, they think it's how it was written and shot intentionally and don't realize that decisions were made, rightly or wrongly, in post-production.

And so, the writer and the director are presumed to have intended to have done exactly the film that people are watching. Of course that's one of the most naïve mistakes and criticism, but it's one of the most inevitable. We also had the experience of Kingdom of Heaven coming out later in the full director's cut. People generally reacted as, "Oh, shit. This is a f***ing masterpiece."

It can be a problem. Somebody like Orlando [Bloom] in Kingdom of Heaven calibrated his performance to the whole piece. You work on the whole piece. You don't expect it to be reduced.

Right. It alters the performance.

Yes. And also, a film can become a little bit of a different thing, because quite apart from anything else, what's most important about a movie, part of the structures of nuance that aren't always visible to everybody. I mean they completely affect the movie. They make a movie work as a whole. So if you start taking odds and ends out for one reason or another...

I've seen, not in this particular case, but I've seen beautiful sections of photography come out of a movie simply because it was viewed without music on it. And no one could understand it as cinema unless it had music on it.

Now, you as writer or director, you hear that score in your head. But you can't really convey it to anybody else when they are looking at dry picture. It's important to remember that you are dealing with kind of increasing low attention span sometimes on films and people watching them on devices and stuff like that and being used to more flash and bang and that sort of thing, and occasionally being more used to simplicity. You have to watch out for that.

One of the ways to recover from what may be an inevitability in this business may be the decision to write it in 90 pages. At least that way nothing can come out.

Mojave Tribeca review

Hearing you discuss the business, it makes me think Mojave is really about filmmaking: this artist goes to the desert to find something pure, and then ends up literally having to fight for both his life and a movie.

I don't know. You might be on to something there. [Laughs] He certainly comes to grief in the desert, doesn't he? Mojave about because...I was explaining earlier it was before The Departed. I'd already been working on Tripoli and Kingdom of Heaven and had done just about every other giant job that was available in that era. People think The Departed was some sort of watershed for me, but I was really into heavy operations long before The Departed.

I was sort of explaining that when you have that kind of success as an artist, you can be thrown into a state of mild existential crisis. Because as I've said sort of elsewhere, you can end up with sort of a survivor's guilt like you are the only guy who walked away from a plane crash. I mean we all come out of college, post-college everybody wants to do something, some kind of artist. And then, all of a sudden, you are the only one who has.

It kinda sucks, unless you are an incredible narcissistic moron. You start to have a moment of guilt and wonder, really. And so, I was out in California and I just jumped in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and just launched out into the desert into a state of full existential crisis, just thinking that, "I am going to get out of film. I'm just going to do one screenplay a year because I love it. But I'm also still going to write novels and stuff like that. Just one a year."

Then, of course, I get out to the desert and I'm just sitting by the campfire and I think, "Well, what if there was a guy out there?" And, "That's a goddamn good camera position." That became Mojave.

Usually in this scenario, there's an average joe and the villain, and the former has to stoop to his antagonist's level. In this case, Thomas and Jack are equals, and I like how you don't explain why the artist, Thomas, is this dangerous.

Oh, yeah, because shitty backstory is the primary curse of motion pictures. My set piece story about that is I was once at a script conference. By the way, I give script conferences a good going over in Mojave, too, in the Ahab's leg speech [Laughs].

I was sitting at a script conference once and in the script this guy punches somebody and beats him up or something, just physically overpowers someone. And one of the notes that came in from one of the junior executives sitting there was, "Well, I'd believe he was capable of sort of this thing if he had some military training." I said, "What are you talking about? Have you ever been out on a Friday night anywhere in the world? Were you at Sidwell Friends until yesterday?"

One of the things in Mojave which is pretty good, it's something I always wanted to explore—presenting a guy with no backstory whatsoever. And they are, as you say, what they do, which is what film is supposed to be all about. These characters are what they do. They're not what they are as they are developed in some sort of f***ing add-on later conversation with their girlfriend, which is something I actually also attacked in London Boulevard.

Yeah, absolutely. The whole speech about the girlfriend archetype making the male hero vulnerable.

Yeah, which is to say, "Tell me about your interesting f***ing childhood." Because, no, you are absolutely on it. It's supposed to be someone is illustrated by their actions. If there was one thing I would change about Mojave right now, it would be that I wouldn't have the opening at the house in Los Angeles. I would have just opened and put him into the car. However, not a lot of people are going to stand for that.

Is that frustrating? 

Well, the thing is this is a collaborative medium in certain respects. You write autonomously. You direct autonomously. But then there becomes a point where it comes into a group think simply because of the amount of capital investment involved and risk. So you end up having conversations that the whole team is responsible for the film.

That's just par for the course. That's what it is. But the fact is, you might not be surprised to learn that someone who knows what they are doing, if they are left to their own devices are better at reading the market as it were than a team of wannabe experts.

They're not too hard to run into in LA.

Yeah. There's a famous story. The Beatles were in the studio at Abbey Road. Brian Epstein made the fatal mistake of punching the intercom button and saying, "I don't think that sounded quite right, boys." Lennon immediately said, "Stick to your f***ing percentages, Brian. We'll take care of the music." [Laughs] So there's that.

Part of the problems with films now is they are, as I said, they are on these quadrant algorithmic models and people are underestimating the intelligences of audiences everywhere and have lost sight of the fact that artistic and commercial scores come from an intuitional grasp of what you are doing. Sometimes leaving the entire picture intact, because, as I said, it is a structure of nuances. It's not a component structure.

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With The Departed, you said you called him Billy instead of William so people wouldn't assume it's autobiographical. Then you look at The Gambler, you have Bennett who wrote a book that they said should have been an indie film, which you could say about your novel, "The Lighthouse: A Trifle." And in Mojave, he's an artist that struggles with success, clearly something you have experienced. And he also wears that leather jacket and smokes, like you do. How much do you feel like these characters are an extension of you and your own experience? 

I don't know. I never put real people into anything. That especially includes myself. However, if you are a writer, what you are doing is, while you are writing you are improvising these people. You are inhabiting them in the same way that an actor does when they come along to it later. You do have to become those people while you are writing. And odds and ends of yourself do turn up in every character because of the nature of this job.

It's only the most naïve and primitive writers that use any sort of fiction in the sense of the usual first novel where the protagonist is obviously a projection of the writer. It's just absolutely ridiculous. You have some geek first novel and all of a sudden his protagonist is an expert fist fighter and he's always saying the right thing at the right times. He's just absolutely fascinating and women love him.

This can operate at very high levels in literature. James Joyce did nothing but self-projection and narrative restoration. He was out to get people in Dublin. He was out to look better than he was when he was there. And that was the entire MO behind his fiction.

Hemingway always was a hero of everything he wrote. And he brought real people in. He used fiction as a conversion device to diminish, absorb, and dominate the people he met in his regular life. If you read Evelyn Waugh, you see that almost everything he ever wrote was revenge against his first wife, who had ran way with the progenitor of the fictional John Beaver.

So everybody is using fiction to fix insults and slights and control their own narrative. I've never done that. I actually wrote a paper when I was in school talking about the immorality of putting real people in fiction. So I've never done it. But are there some...am I sometimes in my guys? Yeah. I suppose so. I can do a couple things and...I even used to, in the very distance past, been photogenic [Laughs].

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[Laughs] I know my time is running short with you, so I have to ask, do you plan on writing more novels?

Yeah. I am going to write more novels. I've been concentrating recently on original scripts and some fiction. That's what I've been doing lately apart from the nine other things I'm doing. I've hit the point...I hit 55 in November. So you start to really think about what you want to do next. At this point you've done all the experimenting that you want to do. You want to make sure you are writing what you want to leave behind you.

What's your relationship with success now? Do you feel good about it?

Well, the whole thing is I'm not anymore successful now than I was on day one when I first got hired. I've had an interesting relationship with the idea of success, because I was having people after me for...when I was in college I was sort of offered the earth in math in academic circumstances. Then I went off and became a journalist and I was immediately made an editor. I was famous in New York when I was in my late 20s and early 30s. I was taken aback by that as well, because that's another situation where the world is at your feet.

So I mean being a guilt ridden man from Boston who is half-Irish Catholic and half-Yankee Puritan, which, believe me, is a f***ing gold mine. If I could add being Jewish I'd be the complete package in the guilt department.

But you think about these things. And I've always very closely examined things and I usually see through them for the sort of tenement of dust they happen to be, because that's sort of my nature. This attitude does turn up in my work from time to time and it is personal.

I think I just had a conversation with somebody about an hour ago and it was the same old thing about asking: Why do I sometimes have characters who are rich but are unhappy? We know it's a political idea that this isn't possible. The audience won't accept a character who is rich and unhappy.

It's kind of like, "Listen, f***er. Have you ever looked at Hamlet? The guy is pretty much solid as the next in line to the throne of Denmark. And I'm sure he has a few bucks. But he has these f***ing problems." Let's say nobody above the level of middle management is allowed to be unhappy anymore.

Mr. Monahan, thank you so much for your time, sir. I really appreciate it.

Yeah. Well, you are very welcome. You know, this is the end of my day. If you've got anything else, feel free.

Thank you. That'd be great. What lessons did you learn from London Boulevard that informed your approach on Mojave?

Well, I mean it was different because that was a bigger budgeted film with a British crew. And a British crew does make a difference. Let's be frank about that. Mojave was an experiment of mine because I don't do things the way other people do them. I shot Mojave for what I could have sold the script for, almost exactly in a budget sense. The budget of the entire film was what I could have gotten for the screenplay had I sold it.

We were on a very short schedule with not much money. It was very run and gun, a lot of problem solving, and a lot of sand, including vehicles sinking in it and people stroking out in the desert and that sort of thing.

One of the greatest things in the entire film was when you've got a crew at great distances and you are shooting a certain way, and, all of a sudden, there's one guy standing a quarter of a mile away in your shot and he's got his radio turned off. And you are losing the light. And you don't have the money to take him out in post. If you've got enough money, you can always just assume, "Well, I'm going to replace that sky. I'm going to do this, that, and the other thing." But we were shooting Mojave at $3 million. I just didn't have the people to wipe out the footprints in the sand and that sort of thing.

And what do you do about the guy who's got his radio turned off half a mile away? And he's on his cell phone, so you can't even beep through to his cell phone. And what's he doing? God knows what he's...he's talking to somebody about taking his dog to therapy or something.

Anyway, it was interesting. It was really primitive filmmaking. Just rough and ready filmmaking with also a two week pre-shoot, which Garrett and I and the camera crew, and Don Davis, the DP, went out into the desert with the 68 Toyota Land Cruiser, which I actually bought myself, and we went out there and we shot for quite a while, running around on alkali flats in the desert canyons, some really rough driving.

But what was really illuminating about that was the realization, and we all had it while we were out there, we realized while we were doing this that we should have brought backpack sound with us and actually shot a good chunk of the movie. Not just beauties and pickups and driving stuff. But we could have actually gone out and shot some of the movie without all the apparatus. And that's something you really do file away in your mind procedurally for later.

I know you're a big fan of Lawrence of Arabia, so there must have been days in that desert where you were thinking about that film.

Yeah, I did. I think I put it in the lens—I wanted the Lawrence lens, the huge one from the arrival of Omar Sharif through the...I wanted to shoot an ore truck coming down that road where Thomas walks out of the desert. I wanted to get a long shot of the ore truck going through mirage after mirage with all the ore floating in the air behind it, or borax or whatever it is they mine out there. But, of course, in the end we didn't have the ore truck. Apparently, that lens is worth something like $17 million or something. [Laughs] I don't think our insurance would have covered it.

But we did shoot on old Todd-AO lenses. You'll notice flare here and there in the movie, the blue and colored flare that you used to see in old westerns.

Were you happy with the lenses?

Oh, yeah. I was very happy with the lenses. They can get a little wonky around the edges. But still, old lenses are better than any new ones.

My last question for you, Tim in The Lighthouse and Bennett in The Gambler, they both believe the line, "If you are not a genius, don't bother." Do you share that belief?

No. Well, I mean it helps to have talent at something, doesn't it?

Absolutely.

Yeah. It certainly does. I would never approach anything in that way personally. I'm not as unkind as some of my characters.

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Note: Mr. Monahan was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions following our phone interview. The rest of this interview was completed via email.

There are certain themes, especially regarding identity, that tie some of your work together. Do themes tend to evolve out of the story? How much do you consider theme while writing a script?

It's all of a piece. I'm not sure that "theme" has any currency outside poetics or classroom learn-to-write exercises of a kind that don't exist any more. It's just one of those words or concepts that got into play outside of its actual job-description. Nobody can tell you what a theme is, and my feeling is that in general usage it has for a long time been a way to say "subject". If a theme, traditionally, is not your subject, but your relationship to your subject, or your idea about your subject, what then does subjective mean? And what came first, your subject, or your object, or the objective, that made the subject your object—subjectively-objectively. If you do have a theme, subject, or object, it then goes on to be subjectively processed by an audience or critics, and it is interestingly in criticism that we see actual themes, in which you have a case of relationship to a subject, but then the word one is looking for, and I say this as a former critic, is not theme but "pathology". I am interested in identity, call it subject or object or theme. I can't imagine a work that doesn't consider identity or existence as open questions, I don't even know if it's possible above a certain level of intelligence. An actor must consider identity as his primary subject even if the writer hasn't. If you're not having an existential crisis or examining life every minute of the day you may not be actually alive and you're most likely dangerous. Going through life in a state of incuriosity about life is possible, you know, if you're prepared to believe any cosmological proposition as settled science, but it's why children are being beheaded in Syria. There's a giant battle going on between identity, which is individual, and collective identity, which is religio-cosmological bullshit. With this going on, "Identity" is an extra-credit subject? I don't think so. It's the only subject.

What are the toughest days as a screenwriter?

I've been extremely fortunate as a screenwriter and there's some argument that I've carved out my own place, not only because I came in as slightly unusual material, but also absolutely because I was encouraged and protected by a lot of people. There is more than one man who would kill for Ridley and I'm one of them. The Departed was protected as a piece of writing by Martin Scorsese. And now I'm working with Michael Mann. One of the greatest luxuries you have as an individual artist is to luck into associations in which you are humbled and amazed. If I dropped dead right now I have worked with greatest people alive, including directors I've not mentioned, and I have also done work that I suspect has reverberated beyond the usual confines of screenwriting. Which, I assure you, is exactly what Mojave is doing now, between the orderly high praise, which is at the career-making level, and the hysterical execrations. What could I possibly have to complain about? I wrote Kingdom of Heaven in my garage and in a hotel room in London and suddenly I was on the battlements of Jerusalem. What bad days could I really have? If I'm sometimes irritated by being The Departed writer in every single article, or consistently being viewed through the filter of one single picture, well, a lot of other people weren't that writer or any other kind of writer, and I know full well that my going into film as the formed writer I was rather than as a submissive aspirant had pretty good result and is still having it. If I could wish for anything now it would be for anonymity, to get myself some sea room, so I could just work on a film and do different things in writing without obstruction because I am throwing a shadow and no one seems to know what kind. I would like to do uncredited work so I can move and groove but I don't see how. Unsurprisingly this is also about identity, isn't it.

What are the most challenging days as a director?

As with screenwriting there's nothing objectionable in the work itself. The hard thing about directing is never the shooting, or the decisions, it's always the peripheral shit that crops up, like some f***er trying it on by cancelling the B camera because in his judgement you don't need it, based on some movie he made where I guess the director would not rip his f***ing head off. Mojave was shot literally for the sum I could have gotten if I sold the script, and frankly this got me into logistical issues that I probably didn't need, though they were exciting, and part of the reason that directing's an attractive job. Directing is the best thing, ever, because of the challenges, but as a general note you have to really think about doing it in the independent system, before you go there, these days, because we do run into unavoidable problems. The floor's fine, but when you're off the floor, and into post-production, on a film funded by foreign presales, allow me to tell any person laboring in a state of darkness that when you've done your assembly it's not your film any more. If you've done a flying robot movie it was never your movie at any time by general agreement, and that's cool, and if you're Bergman on your island it's your movie and only your movie, and that's also cool, but in between those two things there's a gray area in which almost all movies are transformed. Almost every feature movie is shot at 2 hours, or 120 pages. And then when you see the movies come out you are looking at a 90 minute running time. Which is 90 pages of script. So, what happened to that thirty minutes? We had to f***ing take it out because that's the way things are, and it doesn't make sense, because any independent picture is going to have its market based on its individual distinctions, especially in these digital days, and that's that, so if you f*** with a picture, you get the same sale you'd get with the longer smarter picture, you just lose either a proportion of the reviews, or all of them. Why do we do this? I don't know. I'm part of the system, too, because I eventually cut, in these circumstances, because they are the circumstances. Maybe some directors can throw a chair or lie on the floor like a child, but if I threw a chair it would f***ing kill someone and go through the wall, and if anybody saw me go into full artistic integrity mode at my size, I'd be tasered in the neck. This morning I've just woken up with very good reviews from the New York Times and the LA Times, and it's just a f***ing pity that no one knows that the film was at one point a fully logical art picture that anticipated its criticisms and just needed its music finishes. You don't get me and Oscar and Garrett and Walton showing up for a script with missing bits detectible to any asshole off the street. So anyone in search of illumination should look at the system. Nine tenths of the directors I know find out in post that they've made Withnail and I, but foreign has sold The Manchurian Candidate. And it's nobody's fault, you just have to realize that this is the way it is.

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We talked about your relationship with success, but when it comes to the finished films, how do you define whether a picture is a success? Is it based on the audience's reaction or your own feelings regarding the work?

Chicago is superb and the LA Times review is good and so is the NY Times. And that's pretty good for a three million dollar picture with thirty pages pulled out as is de rigeur in independent film and nobody's fault so long as they are operating in that system. So among professional critics with jobs and no pathologies I'm doing great. However, the burden of the nonprofessional reviews are pretty confused. Mojave is relaxed and unpretentious, you know, it's just the way anyone you want to sit with talks at dinner, and I'm getting "pretentious". A pretentious person, as we know, is someone who knows more than you do, just as a narcissist is someone better looking, and an alcoholic is a person you don't like who drinks exactly the same amount as you do. What am I supposed to do? There are some people out there festering all year long because they are not me and they don't understand that film is not like music, where amateurs concede their amateurism. They really think they could get up and do writing and directing, and are just writing on a website because God hates them, or they are still working out their issues, I don't f***ing know.

Part of my job is to stand there and get attacked without making a reply, but criticism is weird. And I'm glad to have these extra questions. If you look at what's happening to Mojave right now I could not be more pleased. It is being praised as the first great film of 2016 on one hand, which is true—even with 30 minutes of work gone it's a f***ing daring and original picture with a lot of good comedy—and it's solid in the LA and NY Times—and then on the other hand everybody who kinda obviously wants my job is throwing my entrails around the room without actually naming what their problem is, and I will tell you what their problem is, because I used to have it. Criticism under a certain professional level, and there are very few professional critics any more, is a bizarre sociopathic kind of ritual intended to exchange the status of critic and subject. I caught myself doing that, once, a long time ago and stopped. It's identity work, sort of a magical trick well known to savages, where you acquire the virtues of someone by eating them, or hitting them with a stick in battle as the Comanches did, or doing a kind of pageant or rite that reverses actual hierarchy. In South America there are events in which campesinos dress up as bishops and lords and bourgeois and caper and strut, and a campesino thinking he's righting the personal injuries the world has inflicted on him by parading in a papier mache top is the nearest f***ing thing I can think of to a critic with a non-earning personal website. I'm in Los Angeles looking at reviews and we were just falling around the room in tears whenever anyone called Mojave pseudo-intellectual. It has a character who has ideas about himself as an intellectual. It's a character, Sparky. It's a character I wrote that Oscar Isaac put in your brain forever. It's not the author. There's a character obsessed with Jesus and Captain Ahab and his own bullshit, and it's supposed to be me? I'd like to say that I don't get it, but I do get it, and I've been gaming the naïve confusion of author and character for a long time. I did it in Light House, if you've read that, I did it when I was doing essays by not using a pseudonym, when everyone else would, and I did it in Mojave. I once cold-bloodedly allowed people to think I was a heroin user. I have no trouble warming up the bats in a critic's belfry, and I almost always do. It's part of what I do, and if anyone wants to stuff it up their ass, it's a post-Joycean necessity, it's historically correct in literature, and I'm doing it in feature films, for f***'s sake, though not all the time, certainly not in anything historical—and dudes, if some of you are confused, and the film exceeds your frame of reference, I know! I did it. This movie is not for you. It is not for screenwriters in AA who haven't read anything, believe in bullshit, and can't write and won't learn. Have a nice day. Oscar's Jack became immortal on Friday. Some berk gives me one star and characterizes a film as what he needs it to be in his brain, rather than what it is in reality or context? It's got nothing to do with me. This is between him and his f***ing therapist. If you don't like the movie, don't like it. But don't tell me I'm "trying" to do this or that and falling short when you're looking at 90 pages of 120, though you don't know that, and I don't care, because I've still registered something outside the scope of ordinary motion pictures and whether it's a line, or an effect, or an entire movie, I always do, and if you run at me, I know what you are doing, I know your real proportional relationship to your subject, and so does your wife, and everybody around you, and so does the f***ing universe. No one has ever read Rex Reed without knowing he has nothing to come out of him, ever, except the emanations of a old embittered f***ing paraliterate asshole who at one point probably thought he was going to be Alain Delon. Do you want to be that guy? Nobody wants to be that guy. And if you write immoral criticism, in any sense less hard to do in its own proportions, within the project of criticism, than the work you are criticizing, you are that guy. It creeps me the f*** out that people seem to think that attacks on a writer aren't obvious as what they are. They are that obvious. I remember looking at my screen in about 1993, I was doing a piece on David Wallace, and thinking, you know, this is wrong, you're maybe correct about David Wallace, but you know, who gives a shit, get your own act together, don't worry about his, and I never did criticism again.

Mojave is now in limited release and available on Amazon and iTunes.