Why do successful filmmakers write novels?


Werner Herzog gently rebukes me. “Don’t try to dissect it now, stick with the sentence as it is,” the towering German filmmaker instructed me via Zoom. We are talking about his first novel The twilight worlda fascinating account of how a Japanese soldier stationed on a remote island in the Philippines continued to fight for decades after the end of World War II, unaware that the conflict had ceased in 1945.

I’m trying to figure out what it means to write prose for Herzog, best known for directing jungle epics such as Fitzcarraldo and documentaries such as graying man, although he also published non-fiction and poetry. His response takes the form of an aphorism: “Films are my journey and writing is my home.” But what does he mean, exactly? Does he associate home with serenity, comfort, joyful solitude? Herzog does not take the bait. He intervenes: “I leave this simple sentence entirely to you and your readers. They will understand it. »

Herzog isn’t the only heavyweight filmmaker releasing a novel this summer. In August, Michael Mann will publish Heat 2a sequel to his hit 1995 crime drama. And, last month, David Koepp, screenwriter of jurassic park and director of secret windowamong many others, published Dawnan eerily funny page-turner that follows a dysfunctional family in the wake of a global blackout.

Director Werner Herzog in Hong Kong in 2018. He is releasing a novel this summer © Calvin Sit/Bloomberg

Filmmakers turned novelists are a hot trend in publishing. In the past two years alone, Quentin Tarantino has ‘romanced’ Once upon a time in HollywoodBrian De Palma co-wrote the political thriller Are snakes necessary? with Susan Lehman, and Charlie Kaufman wrote the absurd Antkind.

So what’s motivating these Hollywood veterans to ditch the camera and pick up a pen? Everyone has their own reasons, and the pandemic could also have something to do with it, but all appreciate the creative freedom and unique storytelling possibilities afforded by the medium.

“You’re stuck in a movie pretty much with what the audience sees or hears,” says Koepp. “With a novel, you have tools and techniques that simply aren’t available to you when you’re writing a screenplay, primarily what someone is thinking or feeling and the ability to digress.” Similarly, Herzog did The twilight world a novel because he felt the written word better conveyed the theme of his story. “On screen, you can’t really think much about the nature of time,” he says.

The protagonist of his novel, Hiroo Onoda, has a strange relationship with time. Entrenched in the jungle, he lives in his own parallel reality. “Time for him,” Herzog explains, “goes into convulsions. Sometimes he seems still, sometimes he races. And, of course, over time, memories change. To evoke this, Herzog sprinkles his book with thoughts for readers to ruminate at their own pace. (A highlight: “Onoda’s war is formed from the union of an imaginary nothing and a dream, but Onoda’s war, spawned by nothing, is nonetheless overwhelming, an event extorted from eternity.”

Director Quentin Tarantino and actor Michael Keaton at a book signing in Los Angeles in 1997
Director Quentin Tarantino and actor Michael Keaton at a signing in Los Angeles in 1997 © Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Despite the philosophical content, Herzog says he wrote the novel quickly: “The text was in me. Koepp is more romantic about the experience. After writing blockbusters for decades, he found prose writing “intoxicating”, reveling in the opportunity to play with words and compose similes. In Dawn and in Cold room, his first novel, Koepp’s cheerful writing jumps off the page. “I feel like I discovered almost belatedly that there are other means of creative expression,” he says.

The filmmakers have made this discovery since its inception. In 1935, unable to obtain funding for his screenplay on a gypsy queen, Erich von Stroheim, maestro of silent cinema, revised it into a novel entitled Paprika. Flash-forward to the 1960s and Elia Kazan became a full-fledged novelist in the second half of his career, writing seven novels in 32 years, which mostly dealt with his Greek heritage. Michael Cimino took write novels also, after being banned from Hollywood.

But not all directors who write novels do so in the twilight of their careers. Oliver Stone, who won two Best Director Oscars, tells me on Zoom that he first wanted to be a novelist. “I had no idea at all that I would become a filmmaker.”

In 1966, aged 19, he wrote A child’s night Dream, drawing on his childhood and teaching experiences in Asia and as a cleaner on a US Merchant Navy ship, completing the first project in a month. “It was the first time in my life that I could express myself outside of school,” he says. The result is an impetuous and baroque novel, written in a mixture of punchy and flowery sentences, halfway between Hemingway and Proust.

Director Oliver Stone in New York in 2012
Director Oliver Stone in New York in 2012. He talks about his first dreams of becoming a writer: “I had no idea that I would become a filmmaker” © Getty Images

Simon & Schuster expressed interest, but eventually agreed. “I thought I had crossed my limits, crossed the limits and I was embarrassed,” says Stone. He longed to be “anonymous” and so went to fight in the Vietnam War, vowing “never to have anything to do with [novels] never. I was fed up with the literary world in New York – fed up with myself, really, and my ego.

The tumult of war made Stone a filmmaker. “It was such an intense experience where you have to really be careful with your eyes and your senses,” he says, adding that he went on to “translate that into the realm of filmmaking. I’m on a set and the camera becomes my eyes.

In 1997, Dream of a child’s night was finally released. “I was bothered by certain things”, he admits but adds “it was important for me not to change it”, wanting it to remain “authentic to the voice of a young 19 year old”. Now Stone is writing prose again, working on the second volume of his memoir, and says he enjoys the process of conveying “mood” on the page.

But what can attract filmmakers the most is the autonomy that comes with writing. Charles Ardai, De Palma’s editor at Hard Case Crime, thinks this ultimately explains why so many filmmakers turn to novels: “It’s hugely appealing for a director or screenwriter to create a work of art alone . It’s a way to go from being a member of an ensemble, even the largest one, to being a soloist. Koepp agrees, adding that “everyone on a movie is an assistant storyteller.” A novel is “more fulfilling because it’s more yours”, he says, “there are no other opinions to consider”.

And then there’s the lack of budgets and filming schedules. Herzog, in typically vivid style, likens the filming process to “open-heart surgery”, which must be performed “under limited time conditions”. While editors may be at a standstill, film shoots, like operations, are ruthlessly unforgiving. “You can’t do open-heart surgeries that span two weeks,” Herzog says. “You have to do it in half a day, otherwise the patient will be dead.”

The twilight world‘ by Werner Herzog and ‘Dawn‘ by David Koepp are available now. ‘Heat 2‘ by Michael Mann will be released on August 9

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