Jez Butterworth: ‘who knows where plays come from?’

Butterworth, Jez 1995 credit Henrietta Butler:ArenaPALAs his debut play Mojo receives its first major revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, we’ve delved into our archives to bring you this interview with writer Jez Butterworth. Originally published in the anthology Jez Butterworth Plays: One, this extract of a conversation between Jez and NHB founder Nick Hern, dating from October 2011, covers Mojo and Jez’s subsequent plays up to his 2009 hit Jerusalem.

Can we start when you’re twenty-five, which is when you write Mojo? Do you want to say how that came about?

I left London and moved to Pewsey in Wiltshire, which ended up being the fictional model for Flintock in Jerusalem. It was a dreamlike experience: I left London with the unrealistic dream of writing a play which spoke to people. And that’s kind of what happened.

It was very odd – to spend this period of utter penury through the winter out in the countryside, writing every day and every night, no television, no car, only a bicycle…

But Mojo is a very urban play. Where did that come from?

The actual initial impetus for the play was a conversation I had with Malcolm McLaren. He was talking about Soho and the wonderful collision between early rock and roll and gangland violence. It wasn’t something I knew anything about, but there was something about the collision between these two things that sparked something. Who knows where plays come from, but in this case it came from Malcolm.

What I didn’t want it to be was about gangsters. I wanted it to be about people who think they are – or who possibly know – gangsters, but aren’t. Because they’re a bunch of children, everyone in the play: it’s like a school playground game really. Sweets and Potts aren’t gangsters. Skinny’s not a gangster. Nobody in it is, really. Baby’s just a lost soul… It was always taken as a gangland play, but it’s not at all.

So you sent it to the Royal Court?

My agent at the time, Nick Marston, sent the play to the Bush, and Dominic Dromgoole [then artistic director of the Bush Theatre] mentioned it by mistake in conversation with Stephen Daldry [then artistic director of the Royal Court], and Stephen Daldry just poached it.

Mojo Cover

From our archives – the original cover to Mojo, first published in July 1995

So the play was virtually fast-tracked onto the stage? It was, as you say, a dream come true.

I finished the play in January. In February I was sitting in an office at the Royal Court with Stephen and Ian Rickson.

He’d been brought in to direct it?

Ian wanted to do it and to do it on the main stage. I went through a process of rewriting it for a week and then they decided they were going to stick it on the main stage. I moved back to London on May 1st, on May 2nd I won the George Devine Award, and we started rehearsing a month later. And a month after that it was a sell-out.

So no wonder in the photo on the front of this book [Jez Butterworth Plays: One, photo also at the top of this blog entry] which is you outside the Royal Court at that period, you’re looking a bit…

…shell-shocked.

Exactly: shell-shocked!

And then me and the Royal Court kind of parted company… I directed a film of Mojo the next year. And lost touch with Ian, partly, I think, because Ian had wanted to do it. I don’t think I was very sensitive about it at the time. It was a good long while before I set foot back in the Royal Court.

And you were writing a large number of screenplays during this absence from the theatre?

Yes, lots of screenplays – lots of which didn’t get made, lots of which were working on other people’s things. I realised by the time I was thirty-three, thirty-four that I’d taken a wrong turning. Some dreadful cocktail of fear and being paid just enough money meant that I had completely wheel-clamped my creative desire to go in any direction that was going to satisfy me. And I had to own up to that. So it was around that point that I moved back to the countryside.

Was there a Road to Damascus moment?

There was a moment in 2003/2004 when the music I was trying to listen to didn’t sound as good: troubling rather than nourishing. I’d started lying to myself about something to do with my nature and what I want, and I’ve got to go and find it out. And so the next year or so was a fairly fearless swan-dive into a place where I felt I could write a line that was true and resonated with my own heart rather than being the right length and suiting someone else’s needs.

I do understand that: you were psychoanalysing yourself in a sense…

On a lot of long walks by rivers with a dog we’d just bought, where I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. I realised I was properly marooned and needed to do something about it. The Winterling was the first play I wrote out in Devon, where I was living. It’s pretty much a cross-section of what was going on with me at the time. I’d started to keep, slaughter and butcher animals. And that play is very much a visceral, animal-like experience. Really it’s about the question – it strikes me now – as to whether there is any mercy in the world. Of course there is: we’re the only ones that have it. But it’s a question of where it gets exercised in the course of that play. There’s an act of mercy at the end of that play, which is the first thing that happens in it that a bear wouldn’t be capable of doing.

The Winterling

The Winterling, 2006 – ‘I wish to God to I’d dedicated it to Harold Pinter’

You wrote it at top speed because of this gap that had opened up in the programme for the Royal Court’s fiftieth anniversary year?

I sat down to write one play and another one came out. I was left alone in the cottage that we lived in and it was the night that Harold Pinter did his Nobel Prize speech, called ‘Art, Truth and Politics’. And I watched it. I knew Harold – I’d directed him in the film of Mojo – but I hadn’t seen him for ages. And in the first part of that speech, he tells you how to write a play – in the first ten minutes: he just takes you through it. It was like being reminded how to write a play. You’ll remember Harold was extremely ill, too ill to go and collect the award: it was like he was going to die any day. So I decided to sit down and write using entirely his technique. And try to speak like him. The Winterling sounds a lot like Harold Pinter.

It really does.

Everybody said that – except Harold. I wish to God I’d dedicated the play to him, because then it would have been obvious what it was I was up to: it was really an exercise in homage and also a wish to try to get close to him.

Close to him as a person or…?

Close to him as a creative force. To try to stand in his shoes. I saw the play again the other day for the first time and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I expected to find that it was a stuffed bird, but it’s not at all. It flies. I don’t give a fuck how much it sounds like Harold; it’s not easy to sound like Harold. If you’re going to do any kind of apprenticeship – and I still consider myself in one – it’s a great experience to… Everybody does it: there’s a point where you sing in someone else’s voice before you sing in your own. There’s this thing that critics get up to here where it’s almost as if they’re trying to work out who you copied your homework off. Voice is the hardest thing to grasp. But the critics’ attitude to writers is: ‘Let’s stamp the shit out of them when they’re on a journey to finding their voice.’ Were I a different person, I could have been destroyed by the response to that play.

You said you were too busy to see the play more than once. That was because your film career was carrying on in tandem? But not so very long after that you seemed to be returning to the theatre more frequently. Did you deliberately wind down your film commitments?

I did, yes. Around 2007 I started to change my ideas about what I wanted to use the theatre for. It wasn’t just a mysterious process that you threw yourself at in a short space of time. I suddenly realised that it was of foremost importance to me that I’d always written for actors not audiences. I love the idea that an actor gets to spend a month – or two if you’re lucky – with your work, your words, and thinks about it in a way that an audience isn’t privileged to. It becomes a part of the actor’s life. And I realised the whole process is about evoking anxieties that we share, anxieties that you can bring to light and deal with in the theatre. It hit me like a bolt of lightning: that’s what it’s for; this is a church. If I get this right, and I try hard enough, and I’m brave enough about it, I’m going to be able to access something which is going to be of importance to the actors first of all, and then to the audience.

ParlourSong.indd

‘There’s been a wood; it was here for a thousand years. Now it’s gone: we’re here.’ – Parlour Song, published 2009

With Parlour Song and then Jerusalem appearing on stage here in the UK in the same year, it seemed that some floodgate had been opened. What happened? Did you write them in parallel? Is the one related to the other?

One takes place in a wood and the other takes place in a new estate that’s been built on the site of a wood. Ned in Parlour Song says: ‘There’s been a wood; it was here for a thousand years. Now it’s gone: we’re here.’ And then in Jerusalem there’s the idea that the wood is going to be erased and replaced by housing estates. And though they’re set in different parts of England, those two ideas speak to each other. Rooster Byron in Jerusalem and Ned in Parlour Song couldn’t be more opposite. One is utterly defiant, courageous and free-spirited, the other is occluded, scared, closed, neurotic and shutting everything out – throughout. Albeit they’re both in states of delusion and denial, they’re opposite ends of the scale.

So did they come together in your mind?

Not consciously, but then at this point very little is conscious in terms of what it is I’m trying to do. I’ve found a way of disengaging consciously altogether from the process and of following a path, almost like following a trail of breadcrumbs through a wood, of goosebump experiences. I’m just using it as a compass: if the next bit creates goosebumps in some way, I’ll go there and I don’t ask why.

Harold Pinter used to talk about writing down snatches of dialogue or even just images which then went nowhere. Do you have false starts, or are you able to follow your compass accurately?

Jerusalem was a false start in as much as I wrote a first draft in 2004 and wholly disliked the first stab. The play was obviously big in scope, and I simply was unable to corral its effects into any kind of satisfying whole. Whether this was because, on a basic level, I hadn’t composed for that many instruments before, or whether it was because I was afraid to really say what the play wanted to say, I will never know. But I returned to it in the spring of 2009, by which time, as I’ve described, my whole approach to my work had fundamentally changed. And it just came.

Apart from that, I don’t have many half-written things. If I sit down to do it, I’ll do it. I tend to end up with very few notes, usually a small amount that I will have lost along the way. It’s almost like a performance, I suppose, where you sit down and set yourself an unfeasible time limit, usually dictated by a deadline, so it’s got to happen. It’s that feel of an actor walking on stage. What a neurologist might call ‘performance arousal’ occurs, where your brain sets itself up along different lines under pressure.

In 2007 I became friends with Harold Pinter and had lots of lunches with him and conversations with him about writing. In the two years before he died I saw him a lot and went to visit him. The conversations that we would have made it clear to me what it was I wanted to do professionally for the rest of my life, if I can. The things that Harold was saying were so extraordinarily profound and so meaningful to me that there was to be no fear from now on. There was going to be no place for that at all. In July 2007 he said something to me that was absolutely the ignition and spur to my decision to dedicate myself to playwriting.

Can you put it into words?

I’m never going to tell anyone.

That was 2007.

After The Winterling, before Parlour Song and Jerusalem.

Did Parlour Song start with a specific image? Did you, for instance, turn into a particular housing estate and think, ‘God, how deadly’?

I grew up on a new-build estate. We moved in a good five years after the houses were built on green-belt land on the edge of the countryside. Birthday Girl [a film written and directed by Jez, starring Nicole Kidman, in 2001] deals with that as well: he’s got suburbs out the front and wilderness out the back. I knew that world. I knew it really clearly. It wasn’t something I needed to research. We grew up in a house where the house next door was a mirror image.

Both Parlour Song and Jerusalem came about from following the breadcrumbs and getting goose pimples?

Yes.

Jerusalem 2009

The original cover to Jerusalem, first published in 2009. The play would go on to be an international hit.

I have the impression that the pre-rehearsal draft of Jerusalem that I read was a good deal longer than what appeared on stage. Do you get it all down and then look at what you’ve got?

I was producing a film in New York at the time by day, Fair Game, and writing Jerusalem by night. There’s an idea that this play took eight years to write, but actually it took about nine weeks over eight years: three weeks, four weeks and two weeks. The last bit was in New York, literally moonlighting, trying to get it finished at the very last minute. So we went into rehearsal with it not completed, which is, by the way, my dream state to enter any rehearsal. Ian was wonderful about it, even though I know he’d much rather have his annotated script before he goes into rehearsal.

So would the Royal Court, presumably.

They were brilliant about it too. We were a week into rehearsal, and Ian and I were saying, ‘We need another actor.’ And they were fine. ‘And it’s going to be three hours and fifteen minutes long.’ And the Royal Court were absolutely fine. Dominic [Cooke, then artistic director] is a big, big reason why this play ended up being what it is.

Is there anything else you want to say about this period that you feel should go on record?

The most important thing in my career so far, without a shadow of a doubt, has been Ian Rickson. His sense of what it is I’m trying to do has never faltered. To watch him in rehearsal… He’ll go in with one set of ideas – running the Royal Court, coping with the politics – then, twenty minutes into rehearsal, he’s changed completely, he’s become a different creature: I don’t think he knows it. He’s become this intuitive blob that can put stuff together the way it should be put together. He directs not like a conductor but like a composer: this goes here, that goes there, so beautifully put-together. He’s fearless in what he does and doesn’t want to have in it. It’s been a terrific working relationship. It’s had fits and starts, and we often go off in a huff with each other. But I love working with him, and if I could spend my entire life fruitfully collaborating with Ian, it would be wonderful.

Mojo

Mojo, £9.99

To mark the first major revival of Mojo – now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre In London’s West End – NHB are thrilled to publish a new edition of the award-winning script. To purchase your copy at a 25% discount (no voucher code required), visit our website here.

The full text of the above interview is available in printed form as part of Jez Butterworth: Plays One, a collection that includes the plays Mojo, The Night Heron, The Winterling and Parlour Song, and the previously unpublished short plays The Naked Eye and Leavings.

It’s also available to buy through our website at a 25% discount – click here to get your copy now.