60 Seconds with Jane Goldman
Screenwriter, TV presenter and producer, journalist and author, Jane Goldman has consistently made courageous career moves. Her credits include co-screenwriter for Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and The Debt. Her latest triumph was the screenplay adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black. Her next project is adapting Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, to be directed by Tim Burton. Jane is married with three children and lives in London.
One Tuesday afternoon, despite our respective vocal dogs, we managed a phone call of rather more than sixty seconds.
Which book most influenced you as a child?
Things like Sherlock Holmes, Rebecca, A Kiss Before Dying, and The Shining. They’re all examples of the power of the written word. Books that can make you gasp aloud. I loved genre fiction right from the start. I was an only child, so had lots of time to read.
Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?
I write in an office at the end of the garden. It’s deliberately white and uncluttered with no pictures, just to keep my mind focused. Just a sofa, a desk and a laptop. And the dogs come and whine outside.
Who was the biggest influence on your writing life?
My grandmother. She encouraged me to think of writing as a career option. My parents encouraged me to read but it was my grandmother who gave me biographies of women writers and who belonged to literary societies
Journalist, author and now successful scriptwriter – which is the real Jane Goldman?
They represent different stages of my life, but I definitely feel most me as a screenwriter. I just swerved away from doing it for a long time.
Why was that?
Partly because friends had bad experiences and I only wanted to do things that were pure pleasure. When I tried it, I realised what a pleasure it really was.
But having been a journalist and author, with full control over your material, wasn’t the collaborative aspect a challenge?
No, I love that! I really enjoy the combination of working partly alone and then as part of a team. When I was TV producing, that collaboration was essential. And feedback, even negative feedback, makes you a better writer.
Which book should every child read?
It depends on the child. That discovery is individual based on the personality of the child. I know which books my kids will enjoy and they’re very different.
Which word or phrase do you most overuse?
There is one which I can get away with because it only ever appears as a stage direction. “Looks on in abject horror.” I think that’s appeared in almost every script I’ve written.
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?
I thought about this and couldn’t come up with anything. Although everyone told me The Catcher in the Rye was life-changing. So I was surprised to get to the end and find my life unchanged.
Why are there so few female scriptwriters?
I really don’t know. Maybe to break into film, it’s easier if you write horror, crime, fantasy or action, rather than drama. Perhaps women are less attracted to that kind of writing.
Which book or writer deserves to be better known?
I can’t understand why David Sedaris isn’t more popular.
I love David Sedaris!
Thank God someone else gets him. He’s not exactly unknown, but … (Jane’s dogs start barking)
Do you have a system when writing an adaptation of a book? Where do you start with something like The Woman In Black?
First, you have to make it movie-shaped. The form of a book is so different, so you have to find the spirit of the story and find a cinematic structure to suit. That probably takes me around three weeks to develop. Then you have to look at how to bring out character on screen. In books, a character can have a whole internal monologue, but on screen, that has to come across by putting them in different positions to reveal themselves.
Which book has impressed you most recently?
Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. I started it early in the morning and spent all day reading, avoiding work to do so. He’s brilliant at creating narrative in non-fiction, which is really difficult. It was compelling. (My dogs start barking.)
What are you working on at the moment?
Several projects. The screenplay for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Another one is a sci-fi film, which is an adaptation of a comic book. It’s unusual as there was only one issue, and it’s the first sci-fi I’ve done. I’ve also got another American film in development and I’ve just delivered an early draft for another idea.
How do you switch between all these different stories?
They’re all projects I love. I’m terribly fastidious about getting each one right and if I don’t have to switch too often, it works. If I can wake up on a new day and tackle something different to the day before, it’s what I love doing most. And while people are still giving me work, I’ll keep going.
My short-haired Brussels Griffon, Sweeney, has such a distinctive character. He looks like a Gremlin, before the change. All our dogs have such particular identities.
How many have you got?
Eight? I thought three was enough.
What kind are yours?
And then the conversation turned to snub-nosed canines, which have nothing at all to do with writing so I’ll stop there.