mojave pic

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 fucker 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fuck 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 fucking 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 fucking 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.


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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fuck’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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fucking 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 fuck 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.

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