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Photo: Wiqan Ang
Bill Monahan
Profane Eloquence
Through the words of William Monahan, Boston swagger meets Hong Kong crime drama.

Outside a theater where The Departed unspools to yet another packed house, the film's stocky, long-haired screenwriter lights up a cigarette. After some compulsory greetings with industry execs, this writer-raconteur moves to a quiet corner outside the building and slips into story. “I was thinking about writing something rather personal.” Bill Monahan exhales, the smoke trailing behind his words. “Who knew it'd be a remake of a Chinese thriller?” Monahan's eyes glint with a hint of smartass; the Irish Catholic had just uttered the first of what would become an evening full of memorable lines.

That he is quick with a quip should come as no surprise. Monahan is garnering some of the best reviews of the season, particularly for his dialogue-speech that New Yorker film critic David Denby described as “profane eloquence... the most brazenly flamboyant element” of the high-octane crime drama. Such acclaim is even more impressive when you consider the flamboyance of The Departed: Martin Scorsese is director; the cast is a “who's who” of male movie stars, including the brazen and flamboyant Jack Nicholson as a scene-chewing godfather. Under all this Hollywood wattage, it is rare for a screenwriter to garner attention, especially when the script is adapted from the already acclaimed Hong Kong suspense film Infernal Affairs, written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong.

Although hired by Brad Pitt (one of the film's producers) over an L.A. breakfast, Boston bad boy Monahan appears unfazed by Hollywood and all the media attention. Which is not to say he's ungrateful. Monahan remembers being in Spain on the set of Kingdom of Heaven (the previous produced credit to his name-more are in the works), when he got the call that Martin Scorsese was going to direct his script and Leonardo DiCaprio had signed on as the lead. The volume of his smoker sotto voce had merely increased slightly as he replied to the news: “Yeah? Well, that's all right by me.” Not that he had director or cast approval, but as Monahan now recounts the call, that Boston twinkle of slight mockery reappears.

In a few moments, Monahan is to address the post-screening audience about his writing process. He'll oblige their inevitable questions regarding the intentional plot ambiguities in The Departed, such as “What was in the envelope?” His personal favorite remains, “Whose baby was it?” A lesser man might pass the buck and blame the Chinese writers for the story's obfuscation. But Monahan is proud of these plot elements: “For the first time in decades, we've managed to work ambiguities into a commercial Hollywood film. And everybody wants to know what's in the freaking envelope.” Monahan mutters and reaches for cigarette number two.

Boston Baked

When writing in this genre, Monahan explains, he is frequently asking the question, “Does it seem too movie-movie?” If the answer is yes, Monahan cuts; if the answer is no, he continues pursuing the thread. He's not usually fond of high-concept fare, but after reading the 89-page script for Infernal Affairs he saw an opportunity for something more. Monahan purposely avoided watching the Chinese films (he still hasn't seen the trilogy) because he was told it was extremely well-made. He didn't want to be intimidated or influenced by the film's stylizations. During that first breakfast meeting with Pitt, the screenwriter convinced the producer that Infernal Affairs could be a character study as well as a thriller. Monahan argued that the Italian mob had been “done to death,” and he knew nothing of the Russian mob. But he did know Boston, a city that has had its share of organized crime, and he pitched his version against a Back Bay environment. Indeed, Monahan had brushed up against similar characters in Boston, if only “just enough to know when you should leave the room or whether you've walked into the wrong bar.” The film's producers stopped talking with other writers; Monahan's Boston ties and vision for the characters earned him the job.

Instead of simply substituting Boston colloquialisms for Chinese phrasing and inserting American locales for the Hong Kong backdrop, a new plot provided a springboard for a theme that had long swirled inside Monahan's mind: “The engine of tragedy is when people depart from what they should really be doing with their lives.” Scorsese preferred his version. But the classic tragic structure, Monahan knew, is not often embraced by major motion picture studios execs who do not want their lead actors to die, especially if they are Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Scorsese and Monahan insisted, finally retaining the script's tragic structure.

“In the original script,” Monahan says of the Hong Kong version, “I think there were several female characters floating around doing essentially nothing more than what, unfortunately, female characters do in most movies, which is to unlock the psyche of the hero. I combined all the characters into one and as I did so I realized that, 'Well, Costigan [the DiCaprio character] has to see a shrink. Why can't it be this one?' And I think it worked. It plays. Her part was the one we worked on most during the production, just trying to refine it, tool it up a little bit.”

Far From Harvard

Formerly an editor at Spy magazine, Monahan's humor can be disarming, with such colorful insights as “Irish people have difficulty with ambition-an IQ of 190 and you're working for the phone company.” Underneath such self-deprecating observations lurks a keen grasp of man's ability to undo himself. This is perhaps Monahan's most fascinating attribute-he understands tragedy in both the real and literary sense.

Before embarking on a career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter-something he wanted since age 12-Monahan contemplated teaching. Ultimately, the writer had to ask himself, “Do I want to be the ornithologist or the bird?”

Growing up in Roslindale, a neighborhood six miles south of downtown Boston, Monahan was well-versed in people betraying themselves for an array of reasons. “With a certain kind of working-class, highly respectable Boston family,” he remembers, “they're still on the old medieval plan, where what job you have is less important than having a steady job.”

Fascinated by historic New England, Monahan recently told the Boston Globe, there were times he wished his hometown was still a place where you could jump on a ship and sail off to fight “Barbary pirates.” Instead of dramatic adventure, the town he grew up in offered economic depression, social confusion, and political corruption. That drew the young wannabe scribe to read British working-classs “angry young men” writers like Alan Sillitoe and his novel The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the story of an underachieving juvenile delinquent with a talent for track and field sports. “I was thinking about the past, the people I'd lost, and what it was like for me as a kid in Boston,” Monahan explains, “being angry and not knowing where to go or what to do.” The Departed gave Monahan an opportunity to explore “the mysteries of an Irish Catholic upbringing.”

Monahan moved boxes at a liquor store for a year before his love of Shakespeare brought him to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. There, he studied Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, lessons that inform his work today. “A lot of my enthusiasms, to say the least, as you can see from the blood-bolted ending [of The Departed], are kind of Jacobean. With this [gangster] material, you could turn it into a classically structured tragedy, except you had about four tragic figures making a fatal error rather than just one central one.”

No stranger to Jacobean body counts, Scorsese was impressed by the script. “The world William Monahan created is very different from the Hong Kong film,” says the director. “When I received the script, it took me quite a while to read through it because I began visualizing the action and getting into the nature of the story and the characters. One of the things that hit me was that the depiction of the characters and their attitudes toward the world in which they live was so uncompromising. That's what really got me interested in directing the movie.”

Monahan was equally impressed by the director: “Working with Martin Scorsese was extraordinary. It was a privilege to see him put the film together in his mind as we were discussing the script. It's like having years of film school packed into each and every day.”

By the time a script migrates into production, most screenwriters are already on to the next assignment. For both Kingdom of Heaven and The Departed, Monahan was involved throughout the production processes with directors Ridley Scott and Scorsese. By having a writer continue to work on location, Monahan discovered, he is afforded “a pretty good view of the universe from those locales,” proving once again how collaboration between writer and director benefits everyone involved.

Monahan discovered something else about Scorsese. Since Travis Bickle uttered the famous phrase, “You talking to me?” in Taxi Driver, there has been a misconception as to whether or not the majority of the dialogue in Scorsese's films is improvised. Although Monahan agrees that actors tend to show up on a Scorsese set ready and willing to use the word fuck and admits that in The Departed the “fuck-meter went into the red,” he dispels the improv notion. On set, Scorsese always posted the screenplay to the soundboard, and kept the shoot on track by encouraging actors to “go back to the script.”

Monahan compares Scorsese's rehearsals to live theater, which afforded the writer and the director the opportunity to work with actors in their trailers on tiny bits of business and small refinements right up until Scorsese ordered the cameras to roll. “It's part of Scorsese's method,” explains Monahan. “He really wants to dig into something, and if you find some place better to go, you go there. If you end up where you started, so be it.”

This was in direct contrast to Monahan's other on-set experience, Kingdom of Heaven, shot under a traditional British model of filmmaking where the screenplay is gospel and, as Monahan jokes, “the actors show up, say their lines, and then go and have a drink.” 

The old screenwriting adage “write as if great actors will deliver your lines” can be enormously daunting when you actually have the opportunity to work with a great actor. Monahan admits that when Nicholson was cast, he rewrote the script with that iconic voice in his imagination. The line, “Let's not cry over spilled guineas,” was written at Nicholson's own dining room table during a work session. In one scene, a priest says to Nicholson, “Pride comes before a fall.” What Monahan had hoped Nicholson would say as a reply was, “What comes before the fall was the summertime.” Too close to Joker territory, the line was scrapped, and Monahan still pines for it. But he was impressed that Nicholson never shied away from unflattering lines he felt were truthful, including, “To tell you the truth, I don't need pussy anymore, but I like it.”

Indeed, for Monahan the closest character in The Departed to Shakespeare was Nicholson's character. “Costello was always Lear,” the writer offers. “And then Jack came in, of course, and played Lear with a rubber sword. I've known a lot of 68-year-old Irishmen, and they're not so much with the coke and dildos, but Jack made it work.”

Monahan finishes cigarette number… Who's counting? He rattles off an impressive list of upcoming projects including Wartime Lies for Warner Independent Pictures. He is again collaborating with Ridley Scott on a spy thriller, Penetration. With this, he then makes the easiest joke of the exchange. “It isn't a porn film, but I still haven't been able to tell my grandmother the title.”