Current MA in Creative Writing student Paula Cocozza profiles Craig Warner, scriptwriter, UEA Masters student and author of current West End Hit Strangers on a Train.
Craig Warner is a busy man. His latest play, Strangers On A Train, adapted from the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, is currently showing at the Gielgud theatre in the West End. And in the new year he will embark upon the final semester of his MA in creative writing (prose) at the University of East Anglia. The last few months have been spent to-ing and fro-ing between his Suffolk home and London, between work on the MA and finishing touches to the play.
The play has more than withstood the usual baptism of fire visited upon West End shows and has been very well received. Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph described the play as an ‘ingenious, grippingly nasty pleasure’. Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard says it is ‘as brilliant as any of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, a thriller that is unsettling and at the same time seductive’.
However Warner is keen to emphasise that the play is an adaptation of Highsmith’s novel, and not of Hitchcock’s film. ‘It’s disappointing to me that people are so distracted by the fact that there was another work created out of this book, which was so famous. I can’t imagine that if they would have that reaction if they had read the book,’ he says. ‘The book is morally complex in a way that Hitchcock’s film isn’t at all. It’s about spiritual decay. The film and the novel couldn’t be more different.’
The play at the Gielgud is a new work, but Warner’s fascination with Strangers on a Train the novel began many years ago, after he obtained the adaptation rights to it in 1995. He wrote an early play of it for radio and then stage. So how does the process of adaptation work; surely he must have re-read Highsmith’s novel at least a dozen times? ‘I loved the novel when I read it initially and first worked with it,’ he says. ‘But I see the play as a work in its own right. Once it became its own object I continued to work on it on its own terms.’ The play became a new original text that he refined and developed, distinct from the novel that first gave it life. ‘It has its own logic and really its own characters,’ Warner says. The show at the Gielgud is its ultimate, fully developed expression.
As well as being a successful playwright ,Warner is an award-winning screenwriter. His credits include The Queen’s Sister (nominated for several BAFTAS), Maxwell, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, the mini-series Julius Caesar (for Warner Bros), and he wrote the dramatic episodes of Codebreaker, a docu-drama about the life of Alan Turing. So why did he want to enrol on an MA in creative writing? Even allowing for the differences between the disciplines of scriptwriting and prose writing, this seems an admission of the challenges involved in writing prose.
‘I started writing one novel which I wrote to about page forty maybe twelve different times,’ he says. ‘I kept scrapping it. I was interested in the story too much and I couldn’t land on anything like a satisfactory tone to make it live. I’d overthought the story. I thought, I don’t know how to continue with this. I need a supportive environment to work on it. I knew I needed to go to an institution where I was certain of the quality of the teaching. UEA was the only contender.’ He is studying part-time over two years, but even so has struggled to square the commitments of having a play on in the West End with attending seminars. ‘I’m going to have to work very hard to get everything done,’ he says.
Warner has already proven his versatility across writing for theatre, radio, television and film. He also composes. (When, for instance, he adapted Strangers On A Train for radio in 1996, he wrote the score and sang the closing song. What then is the attraction of prose? For Warner, it’s partly about writing something that is not a screenplay. ‘I don’t feel like writing for the camera is actually creating a finished artistic surface,’ he explains. ‘Writing for television and film is a much more architectural kind of endeavour.’ Scenes tend to be very short, for instance. ‘And it’s the cuts between scenes that create some of the momentum and the drama. You can’t get lost in a scene. When I’m writing for the camera I’m always aware of the structure in which I’m working.’ By contrast, he says that ‘when I write a play, it engages a different part of my body, engages an intuitive part of my psyche and I can get lost in it and forget what I’m doing and actually follow some kind of rhythmic impulse.’
Warner was born in Hollywood in 1964, although for him it wasn’t ‘Hollywood’, as in the near-mythic entertainment capital, when he was growing up. ‘It was just home.’ His first thought was that he would be an actor. His next was that he would be a playwright, and it was that second idea that stuck. At 17 he wrote his first play, influenced by Edward Albee, and ’decided to commit to being a playwright. I’ve remained a playwright for 32 years.’ After high school he moved to New York and then London, which offered a thriving pub theatre scene, and a market for radio plays.
For Warner, writing prose promises a similar freedom and self-direction, to writing plays. But it has brought unexpected challenges. Kath Mattock, who produced The Queen’s Sister – the fictionalised account of the life of Princess Margaret which Warner wrote for Channel 4 – knows first-hand Warner’s strengths as a screenwriter. ‘His characters always have a true heart – and even though the world of the screenplay is often not wholly naturalistic Craig is able to make both become one,’ she comments. ‘He is very inventive with form and always surprises in the right way. He is confident to take bold choices – so there is colour and life – without undermining the integrity.’
When asked what he has learned from the MA, Warner’s first response is that ‘I’ve learned about myself. For some reason I don’t write in scenes when I am writing fiction. I can write scenes in my sleep. But suddenly I get to prose and find I write in a psychorealistic, sort of internal, position often times, which never lands on a mimetic scene.’ Warner’s UEA’s tutors have suggested to him that he may have been ‘waiting to break free of dialogue jail’. There may be some truth to that interpretation, he thinks, ‘but it certainly isn’t conscious.’
As a result, the novel that ran over and over to page forty has been abandoned in favour of the short story, which offers a more amenable format for ‘addressing my prose blindspots.’ Warner fears he may never have the time needed to write a novel, but in the meantime, as he says, ‘each short story is an attempt to learn something new.’