Written by Dylan Callaghan
At 14 years of age - when most boys are splitting lips or wearing out video game controllers - screenwriter Dean Georgaris was reading the libretto for Wagner's opera based on the folkloric tale of Tristan and Isolde. The Wagner came only after several epic poets' telling of the tale failed to sate Georgaris' thirst for the seminal love tragedy.
As an adult he's gone on to script (Paycheck) and co-write (2004's The Manchurian Candidate) films, but his screenplay version of Tristan & Isolde was actually one of the first scripts he sold when Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions purchased his spec in the late '90s.
Georgaris spoke with the Writers Guild of America, west Web site about how he envisioned the story, its unique origins and why his first version wound up in the dustbin.
For those who don't know, describe the origins of this story.
Dean Georgaris: The origins of the story are actually fairly nebulous because it originated as an oral tale that was told by minstrels during the time of chivalry. All of these tales were designed to teach people how to behave properly, but most of them were boring and people didn't like them. So somewhere along the way, someone started telling a story about a young prince in love with a woman he couldn't have and it was the big hit of the day.
The blockbuster of the oral tale…
(Laughs.) It was huge because it was human. Everyone could relate to wanting something they didn't have.
© 20th Century Fox
James Franco and Sophia Myles in Tristan & Isolde.
How did you happen upon the story?
I had always been a fan of the Arthurian legends and I was always fascinated with the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. Even as a teenager, I thought that was a great story. At some point, someone told me to read what they called the source material for that - namely Tristan and Isolde. I read two or three of the epic poems that had been done, and then I read the Wagner libretto for the opera, which is probably the most famous version of the story. At the time I think I was 14 years old and I was just fascinated. I wanted to figure out what the actual story was. It hadn't dawned on me yet that there was no one version of the story.
When it came time to do a script draft, what was your game plan?
I hadn't thought about writing it for a long time and then I went and saw the David Hockney-designed version at the L.A. opera. This must have been 1996-97. The minute I left the theater I remember I thought, “That's what I'm going to write next.”
Right from the outset I decided that I was going to worry less about paying attention to any particular version of the story and instead, just do another retelling of it, with the idea of making it as human as possible; namely taking out magic potions and spells and anything that would not happen in real life. I didn't think the story needed it.
How active was producer Ridley Scott with the script's development?
His company bought the very first spec draft of the screenplay, which was a miracle for me. I never imagined that would happen. Within weeks I was sitting down with him, not only developing the script, but I also became privy to the story boards for a space version he had done of Tristan & Isolde. He thought about doing it historically and then in space, [but] other movies had always gotten in the way. In fact, when he bought the script, he was in the midst of preparing Gladiator, I believe.
Everyone complains about notes, but how valuable can they be as a learning development tool when they're with someone like Scott?
The real advantage of having someone like Ridley Scott in the room is that he knows exactly what images will mean on the screen. As a writer, sometimes you think your pictures and your words are gonna convey a certain feeling [but] then Ridley would explain what that would mean on the screen and invariably we would find a different visual.
So it was like having an interpreter for the visual fruition of your words?
Yeah. It was the best kind of film school you can ever have. The negative side of the process, which luckily did not happen on this movie, is where people who are busy and have lots of things to think about take a half-hour to tell you how to make your story or your movie better. This experience - they're rare but they do happen - was a bunch of really bright people spending hours talking specifically about what it's going to look like. That makes your script better very quickly.
© 20th Century Fox
James Franco and Sophia Myles in Tristan & Isolde.
How long did it take you to complete the first draft?
I wrote the first one in about six weeks that was very sort of unoriginal, frankly. I gave it to a few close friends and got the most treasured thing in return, which is honest feedback. Another writer told me, “This feels like recycled clichés. I thought you were going to write your version of a story with people that sounded like real people?”
So I threw that script in the trash, drank and cried for a couple days and then started from scratch. The second script took about another eight weeks. Had that person not been that honest, I don't think [the script] would have sold.
I assume the differences in the two scripts were striking?
In hindsight, that first draft probably read like a production of Camelot on Broadway. The script that Ridley bought was much more barren and troubled. It read more like The English Patient than Camelot.
How much re-writing did you do?
Most of the time was waiting and hoping to find financing because the business side has very little interest in a film that's period, foreign and not cast with movie stars. The actual re-writing, I probably spent a few months every year over a three year period. The story changes were actually quite minimal.
Do you feel a clear sense of completion with most scripts, or are you the type that's perpetually thinking of ways you can improve things?
I tend to be a perpetual mutate/improver. I'm [also] a terrible audience for things I've written. It's not so much that I think they're perfect as they've been written and hate to see them change, it's much more [that] you can't help but have a very specific picture in your mind of how things will play, and then you hand them to directors, producers, and the realities of a production budget and you don't get everything you want. I'm a bit of a baby about that. I can't help but wish we could write movies and just actually make them without ever having to worry about budget or time.
That's probably the biggest fun of screenwriting, isn't it, that creative place, alone with a blank page where you can do anything?
It's wonderful to write the first draft and do anything you want; it's exhilarating at times to try and shape it into something that can be made. Then the last phase is seeing the film and sometimes being pleasantly surprised and sometimes not so pleasantly surprised (laughs).
And in this case?
Just very happy. Very happy because I was so worried about things being watered down -characters being watered down. Every one of the characters has something to be ashamed of. As we all know, sometimes messy characters don't end up on screen that way. They kept all of that stuff and that's just incredibly gratifying.