Interview: 'Allied' Screenwriter Steven Knight On Crafting His World War II Romance And The Rules Of Hollywood

Screenwriter Steven Knight's latest film, Allied, has shootouts, impeccable costumes, exotic locations, and two appealing movie stars, but there's a fine conflict to go along with all the eye candy. Over 30 years ago, Knight was inspired to one day write about a Canadian intelligence officer (Brad Pitt) who learns his wife, a former French Resistance fighter (Marion Cotillard), might be a spy for the Germans.

Allied is based on a true story Knight was told in his 20s, but his version of the story plays out differently. Knight took the premise he heard, ran with it, and turned it into the movie we see today. His script ended up in the hands of director Robert Zemeckis, who crafted some top-notch sequences in the film we recently asked Knight about.

The screenwriter behind Eastern PromisesDirty Pretty ThingsPeaky Blinders, and next year's Taboo took the time to discuss setting up challenges for himself, directing, rules, and some of Allied's standout scenes.

Below, read our Steven Knight interview.

Locke is mostly set in a car with one character on screen. Allied is much bigger in scope. Did you have entirely different experiences writing them?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it's a totally different thing. Locke was sort of myself trying to find out if you could give yourself the maximum number of obstacles to make enough drama and seeing if you could do it. In other words, taking an ordinary man, two kids, in a car driving from a place in Birmingham no one's ever heard of to London on a motorway in the middle of the night. He's got an ordinary job. Can you turn that into a drama? I think it was sort of an exercise in trying to find out if you can get people to look at a screen for 90 minutes and just deal with character and dialogue and nothing else.

I was pleased with how it turned out. Whereas with Allied, it's a totally different thing. I mean, it's huge. It's fast. Both things are satisfying when it works as well as this has.

Mentioning the exercise of trying to keep an audience engaged with Locke, when you start a script, do you usually try to set challenges for yourself? 

If it's for myself, yeah. With a commission, you can't. You got to obey the rules. I think it's always good not to listen to what the rules are supposed to be about the arc of the character and the third acts and all this stuff. I think it's best to... It may not work for people but just to start writing. Just start. Just do it and see what happens. Pretend you're not doing it. Just pretend this isn't the real thing. You're just messing about. I think that gives you the freedom to do stuff.

You seem like someone who doesn't think a lot about those script rules people like to mention.

No. The film business seems to attract rules more than any other business. I don't know why it does. I think it's because there's so much money at stake. In other words, there's a lot of investment before you make your money back. If you're a painter, for example, the investment is in paint, and some canvas, so nobody's going to worry. It's like saying, "The last painting had 40% blue, so to be successful you got to have 40% blue paint in your painting." It would seem absurd. Whereas, in the film industry, they'd say, "Well, that was successful, so you got to have that in it." I don't think it works like that.

Are there any other rules you're not fond of?

I mean, the arc thing is interesting. It's good sometimes to have a character that starts as one thing and ends as another, but James Bond, Hercules, these are pretty enduring stories. [Laughs] Like a Greek myth. In a Greek myth, you can have the characters and objects, and it just goes through these events in the same as a computer game now. I don't actually know a lot of the rules that are out there, so I don't know how to break them. There doesn't seem to be any value in having a restriction on what you can and can't do.

There's a good story about Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg dealing with a bad note on Back to the Future. Have you ever heard about this?

No, no.

They got a terrible note, so Spielberg sent a letter to the studio executive thanking him for the joke, and the note never got brought up again. So, how do you deal with a bad note? 

[Laughs] It's worse at the beginning because you would get notes and you'd have to do it. Now, it's easier because I can resist changes as well. Anything that suggests a reference to another film I think is suspect because you're not referring to real life and you should be. If it's about real life, it should be about real life.

The idea that you can second guess what an audience is going to go for is sort of disproved every year when the film that is the most successful is the one that breaks the rules and does what the last year's film didn't do.

Again, I completely understand it, that if you're spending $150 million you want some certainty. You don't just want to say, "Well, let's play around. Let's have an experiment." You want to know that people are going to go and watch it. I think as budgets have got bigger in the film industry the need for certainty has increased and therefore risk taking has decreased, so you've got the Marvel and the DC and all that which do take risks but within a format where you can ...

There are certain parameters.

Yeah, yeah. I had a phrase once: quality-proof concept, where the concept is popular enough that it doesn't matter how good it is. Quality-proof concept.

[Laughs] That's very good. As a director, do you have any interest in directing some of those bigger studio films?

I mean, I don't mind that process of working on a big franchise doing your bit and then it passes onto someone else and then they do their bit and it passes on. Obviously, the money's good and you can do good stuff in there. You can do interesting things with the characters that are there, and also when you've got a big budget obviously you have a lot more freedom.

Allied teaser trailerThere a few scenes in Allied we haven't seen in recent history I'd like to ask you about. For starters, how did Marianne giving birth during the air raid come about? 

As you go through writing the script you have these ... Not a problem, but you have, okay, this has got to be done. You've got to get from wedding to them waking up with a baby. What happens in between?

Well, she's got to have the baby. It's wartime, so you could just see her giving birth but then ... The hospital in Hampstead was bombed, so why not have that? It's an air raid and it's a birth, and it's everything. Just bring it all in because that's what's great about having a bigger budget. You know you can do that and with Bob Zemeckis executing it's going to look incredible.

I mean, [it's about] finding those moments to it. Then once you've got that you can have that line where she says, "This is me," so that you can start to think, "What did she mean by that? Of course, it's you, but what did she mean?"

Yeah, those set pieces and similarly when the plane crashes, they're together, and they look at each other. You've got this dilemma. You've got this problem between the two. They don't know... He doesn't know who she is. To bring that out it's got to be moments of near death or birth, so that's when you can have those big set pieces. Being in the second World War means that you can be in London and suddenly there's an air raid.

The scene where Max goes to see Matthew Goode's character. The exchange reminds you this is wartime and far worse things are happening. What do you recall about writing that interaction?  

In doing some research about the SOE, the incredible bravery of the people who used to fly every night from airfields in southern England into France, which was occupied by the Germans. They got shot up, and they got wounded, and they got killed.

Just for Max the problem now is his issue with Marianne, but other people are suffering terrible things as well. To not reflect that would be a mistake I think. The hospital where he goes, I read up a bit about it. The people there were horrifically injured and traumatized, so I just wanted to get some of that flavor into it as well.

How about when we see SOE official is hiding a gun during his meeting with Max? 

It's just you think to yourself, "Well." That conversation took the longest to write because there's a lot in there and it's a small room. You're breaking that sort of news to someone who's trained to kill people, and they were. The SOE people were trained. They'd go up to the place in Scotland, a castle in Scotland, where there was this incredible martial arts teacher who taught everyone how to kill with their bare hands in like, five seconds.

They could kill anyone because they knew these techniques. There were stories of people who were traumatized, came back, knew these techniques, and would certainly find themselves using them without meaning to. There was a lot of that going on. I wanted the idea that here is this trained killer who could at any moment explode, which is why he's got the gun.

The party scene in Allied is wilder than you'd expect. Did you base that off any findings in your research? 

Yeah. I was reading about London, and particularly Hampstead, in the war where anything goes. The bombs were dropping, so everyone knew they could be dead tomorrow. I read some great research stories. A fireman in Hampstead who said there was an air raid going on and there was a fire, so they bashed down a door. They went through the door, and there's an orgy going on in this living room as he walks through with his hose, and they're carrying on. There are all these couples having sex and he's just walking through and then just puts the fire out.

It was just mad. Everybody's drinking and cocaine and all that. The image that we have of ourselves in Britain is that in the second World War it was all keep calm and carry on. Everybody did stick together, and it was great, and there was great morale, but there was also this hedonism.