February 5, 2008 / 12:15 AM / 10 years ago

Oscar contender Harwood says latest script hardest

LONDON (Reuters) - Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood was close to giving up when asked to dramatize the story of a man totally paralyzed except for his left eye. Now he is glad he did not.

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (L) gestures at director Mike Newell at a screening of Newell's movie "Love in the Time of Cholera" on the closing night of the American Film Institute's (AFI) Fest 2007 film festival in Hollywood November 11, 2007. Harwood was close to giving up when asked to dramatise the story of a man totally paralyzed except for his left eye. Now he is glad he did not. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The 73-year-old, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay to Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” has been nominated for another golden statuette for scripting “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

An autobiography of the same name was written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle magazine in France who had a massive stroke and suffered the rare “locked-in syndrome.”

The father-of-two was almost completely paralyzed, but he decided to write an account of his experiences letter by letter, blinking after the appropriate letter in the alphabet was read out to him with the most frequently-used letters coming first.

Bauby died two days after the book was published in France.

“I read it five years before being offered it and thought it was an extraordinary book,” Harwood said from Los Angeles, where he was due to attend the Oscar nominees’ lunch on Monday.

“Five years later Kathy Kennedy offered it to me and I said yes without re-reading it. It was not a clever thing to do. When faced with reality I was totally stuck. I had no idea how to proceed,” the South African-born writer told Reuters.

After suffering anxiety and panic attacks as he grappled with turning an almost untellable story into a film, Harwood had his “eureka moment” and never looked back.

“As I was about to say ‘I can’t go on’ I had the idea of seeing it from his (Bauby’s) point of view and the camera did the blinking, and that was the breakthrough.” Harwood used a narrator’s voice to express Bauby’s thoughts.

“Then I knew what story I had to tell — one of illness and imagination,” Harwood said. “This was the most difficult screenplay I ever had to write, no question.”


Johnny Depp, originally cast as Bauby, asked for artist and film maker Julian Schnabel to direct the movie, and Schnabel remained on board even after the Hollywood star dropped out due to commitments to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters.

Eventually the picture was made in French starring French actor Mathieu Amalric.

It has garnered Oscar nominations for best director, cinematography, film editing and adapted screenplay.

Harwood consulted with the mother of Bauby’s children to make the film, and with the woman who took down the painstakingly slow dictation.

He described the sound of the woman reciting the specially-ordered alphabet as “music,” and the rhythmical recitation runs throughout the film.

Harwood said he had been fortunate to avoid the worst impact of the Hollywood writers’ strike, because he had not been working on a movie script when it was called.

He added that studios must accept the principle that writers be rewarded financially for movies that are downloaded over the Internet, even if the practice is not yet common.

“I was chairman of the writers guild in Britain when we had videos to worry about,” Harwood recalled. “Producers said then: ‘Who is going to buy or borrow video cassettes?’ We were screwed then and I think we have to stand firm now.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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