Screenwriter Rowan Joffe on the American He Wrote -- and the One You Saw
Rowan Joffe may be in Toronto to premiere (and hopefully sell) his directing debut Brighton Rock, but the awkward afterglow of this month's box-office triumph The American -- which Joffe adapted from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman -- followed the screenwriter north to TIFF. That's where I caught up with him to talk over the film's box-office success, the split personality of its moodiness and its marketing, and what Tony Gilroy's DVD extras taught him about writing for George Clooney.
I wanted to ask you about The American, which I really enjoyed--
Oh, good! I'm so glad you said that. Every time someone mentions the word I think they're about to go, "What the hell..."
No! I really liked it. But I have to ask: It was marketed as A, it comes out as B, and obviously it made money. But as the writer -- adapting from Martin Booth's novel -- what was your take on how it was handled?
Well, listen: Whatever views I may have on the accuracy of marketing it as a thriller, I have to acknowledge that Focus did a remarkable job selling as many tickets as they have. One producer came up to me at the festival, threw his arms around me and said, "I loved The American; it was like seeing a European movie without subtitles." And it was a European director and an English book -- and I'm an English writer.
I had always conceived of the story as an almost parodic contemporary Western. You have the lone hit man with one last chance at redemption. You have the hooker, you have the priest. I wrote it with an almost tongue-in-cheek respect for Sergio Leone, and I was surprised in a sense by the movie it then became, but that's none of my business. I'm the writer. I gave the baby away, and the baby is brought up as the parents see fit. But I'm delighted that the movie has done as well as it has, and I'm inordinately proud of having written a part for George Clooney. That's like every writer's dream
Well, I was slightly mortified to read Roger Ebert, who, on the one hand said it was as well-crafted a movie as he'd seen since Le Samourai, but then attributed the terse dialogue to Anton Corbijn. And I'm like, "Jesus Christ." That's a little unfair on the writer. I tried to do what Tony Gilroy once talked about on the DVD extras on Bourne, which was to have a lot of white on the page -- and just make the movie as terse as possible, because those were the kinds of movies that inspired me when I was writing it. I had a lot of Ennio Morricone playing, and I just kept thinking Clint Eastwood, Clint Eastwood, Clint Eastwood. Don't have him say something unless it's really f*cking crucial.
[Top photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images]