Pen Densham is an award-winning writer-director-producer of such blockbuster hits as Robin Hood: Prince of
Thieves (1991), Backdraft (1991), Moll Flanders (1996), and The Outer Limits (1995-2001), just to name a few. While I was attending the University Film and Video Association Conference in Chicago, I met up with Pen and we discussed the importance of writing the story within.
Mark Travis: One of the things I feel passionate about as a storyteller is that I can only tell the story within me, not the story that the system wants or some demographic wants. Why do you tell stories? How do you come up with your stories?
Pen Densham: Let’s go back to very primal things. There is something to do with the death of my mother that caused great pain. It forced me to look at the world through a filter. I knew from childhood that I wanted to work – to do, what I call ‘cast spells’ with a camera – which is to be magical, that there is some importance to being alive, that it all somehow means something.
It’s interesting. I’ve gained a certain perspective about writing from the root stem. I frequently felt like I was stealing time and I felt guilty because I thought I should be working on something to sell to a studio. When I snuck away and wrote something personal, it always seemed foolish, but those projects seemed to get made more frequently. I noticed there were patterns of depth to them, they seemed to have more strong creative language in them. There’s a sort of channeling when we’re writing purely; it’s almost like unleashing your brain and something comes through it. So, somehow, when I wrote those more personal stories, they had a more magnificent value system, they were different, they attracted actors and as people looked at the writing, they wanted me to write more things for them. That writing was so unique and the things that were in them impassioned me immensely so I found it hard to give up on them.
I let things flow through me on a faith base, operating from an instinct of “I know this is going to come”. I get very upset when people say you have to define everything before you do it. There is no right way. Some things don’t come logically. When I wrote Moll Flanders, I wrote it in five weeks in my spare time, every night at midnight and, dare I say it, it was like I was having sex with my computer through language because I was so impassioned to write it. It came out of me like an infatuation. I would love to write like that more often. It’s the Holy Grail and it’s what I would love to help others find as well. That script ended up getting made, with very few changes, within about 18 months.
Three studios told me that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard, that men with guns was the only thing audiences wanted to see. We were three-quarters of the way through the script when we heard that Fox had green-lit another Robin Hood. I was told there was no point in finishing the script and I said we had to finish it because I’d already abandoned one story that supposedly didn’t have ‘studio value’. I knew that if I abandoned Robin Hood, it would mean I’d essentially gone over to the studio system, that I essentially belonged to them – whatever they wanted, whatever they chose was going to be the way I would live my life instead of fulfilling the things that came out of me. So, we finished Robin Hood as a gesture of completion, knowing that it was never going to get made. Of course, it did end up getting made. The script I abandoned, I’ve been working on it for over 20 years now. It’s about self-worth and how that is connected to self-fulfillment. It’s a script that makes me tingle every time I pick it up.
MT: It’s very encouraging for me to hear you say you’ve been working on a script for over 20 years. It usually takes me 8 years to complete one of my scripts; the first 5 are really about getting to the heart of the story, figuring out what it’s really all about. My feeling is that important stories take that long because it takes that long for them to reveal themselves. My writing process is that there’s a story rumbling around inside and I have to find a way to let it come out. I talk about writing as more of an archaeological metaphor: I’m dusting away the layers to reveal what’s down underneath, but I have to be gentle with it otherwise I may destroy it.
PD: Right, and you might find that things aren’t quite what you thought or where you thought they would be as the dust and layers clear. I use the term “being ripe” and the advice I give to people is take it because it feels like it’s always going to be there and then it evaporates. Get it down and not just as a note, especially with dialogue, because the way it comes out first is often much better than trying to re-calibrate it later. The most organic, natural writing – this channeling writing – is closer to a finished result than trying to calculate your writing.
I call the first draft the “Lewis & Clark because, as I say, any way to the coast is absolutely legitimate because how can you blame yourself for doing things inaccurately when you’ve yet to discover where you’re going? And then, once you have written it, always cheer yourself on and celebrate your completion. After it’s finished, you can look at it objectively and see what you were trying to write.
MT: So, what I hear you saying is that many of your stories start out as impulses, things that have to be written. Even if you’re not totally sure what the story is in the beginning, there is a source from which you are writing, a feeling that something important is there, something that’s driving you.
PD: I call those “life scripts” and I think it’s because they’re going into things that are inside your subconscious that you’re still struggling to put a kind of perspective on. Somebody said to me once, after I’d handed him a script, “Oh, good. I love reading your scripts because I always cry at the end.” Most of my scripts end with emotional reconciliations between separated people whose coming together is joyously happy and it makes you cry. I hadn’t even realized I was doing that. I also see now that I have a sort of schematic that I frequently write that I have no idea why I’m writing it our how I’m writing it. It goes something like this: a man, who is damaged, goes into a world in which he has no tools he can use and he always goes into this world with a woman who doesn’t yet like herself and wishes she was someone or something other than what she is. The two of them go on an adventure and help each other in ways that are honorable and without any sexual relationship between them. I’ve written this over and over again – in war-torn France, as a Knights of the Round Table fantasy, as a detective working with the Navajo in New Mexico. It’s the same pattern – I’m writing to my nature, so I simply let them happen.
There’s such imprecision in this process and such uncertainty and sometimes our impulses seem so unlikely in terms of marketability, but then, somehow, it works. And the truth is, I have dozens of scripts that haven’t worked, things that I haven’t written well – these are just as important as those that have worked. I want to share the negatives as well as the successes because the imprecision of success is about constantly finding ways to get your material to people who just might be able to make it happen. It’s not that I made a shot at it and succeeded because that’s so, so wrong. I want people to understand, particularly creatives, that 10-20 years working on a project isn’t stupid, it’s practical and not giving up is what counts.
MT: What’s that Einstein quote you said the other day?
PD: As I understand it, it goes: “It’s not that I was smarter than other people, I just worked at it longer.”
MT: That’s fantastic. So, one last question: what advice, suggestions, encouragements do you have for writers – for all storytellers?
PD: Write a piece of crap. All writing is re-writing. Just let it spew out. It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are or what kind of creative you are, really. All artists suffer from the critic in the brain that tells us we’re no good. All of us. You are not alone. Don’t limit yourself. Just let it fly.