'The Tender Bar' Writer William Monahan Encourages You to Make Your Script a ‘Reading Experience’
William Monahan, who won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of The Departed, shares some wise words for aspiring screenwriters.
The new film The Tender Bar is an adaptation of the 2005 memoir by J.R. Moehringer, with a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed) and directed by George Clooney (Monuments Men). The movie tells the stirring story of a young boy, J.R. (Daniel Ranieri as a boy; Tye Sheridan as a teen), growing up in the 1970s with a single mom (Lily Rabe), trying to discover his place in the world. Due to tough times, J.R. and his mom have gone to live in the loving but chaotic home of J.R.’s grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Without knowing his own father, J.R. develops a bond with his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), a bartender who loves books and helps J.R. become a writer.
Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan is a pretty unconventional kind of guy. When it comes to the craft of screenwriting, he certainly doesn’t do things the way most other screenwriters do. Monahan has never written an outline and he avoids rewrites as much as possible. But it’s his rogue style that is probably why his screenplays feel so turbulent yet relatable at the same time. It’s also probably why his screenplay for The Departed ended up placing 30th in the WGA’s list of the best screenplays in the 21st century.
In my interview with Monahan, I found out he relates greatly to the messy ‘70s upbringing Moehringer writes about in his memoir, The Tender Bar, having had a similar experience with his own family and favorite uncles. I also learned that Monahan enjoys being contrary, that he’s highly literate, and, surprisingly, he also loves making people laugh – at least he made me laugh multiple times during our chat.
Screenplays are Literature
Because there are a lot of mediocre screenplays and movies in the world, Monahan says writing for the screen can get a bad rap. But he insists that screenwriting should be pursued with the same attention to craft and style as novels, plays, or poetry.
“Screenwriting,” says Monahan, “is a literary form. I never thought otherwise because the first screenplay I ever read was by Dylan Thomas. As a screenplay it was poetry. I don’t know how it was filmed, it’s called The Doctor and the Devils, but it sure was readable.”
When it comes to writing any screenplay, Monahan says, “You just treat it as literature – don’t compromise, make it a reading experience on the page. Every screenplay becomes a collaborative platform when it goes into production, so you have to realize there will only be one performance, it’s the form of dramatic writing where there’s only one performance. You don’t get to try it out in New Haven.”
Monahan says there are no fast and hard rules for dialogue. “Some dialogue is short and sweet. Other dialogue is long and sweet.” It’s about who’s doing the speaking – what are they saying? How much time do you got? Does the longer dialogue support itself? What kind of movie is it?”
He says these are all questions to be answered when you write dialogue and the answers will change with every screenplay.
Make Your Script Look Like a Movie on the Page
Monahan says the important thing is to describe a movie you can see in your head.
“You get a lot of general rules about screenplays which are based on the idea that it’s not literary. That it’s going to be saved on the floor by the actors and directors. But the thing to do is write it how you want to write it. And what you should be doing is describing a movie that you can see in your head. Time it out with implied shots and everything else. So if you make it a reading experience as a movie then, when people read it, they will see it as a movie. And it will be likelier to get made. The director is going to do what they’re going to do. But at least you’ve made it look like a movie on the page in order to get the cast and money and stuff,” says Monahan.
Monahan Rejects Outlining His Screenplays
“I have never written with an outline. When they would try to make us outline things, diagram sentences in school and stuff,” says Monahan, “that’s when I started skipping school. There’s a scene in The Tender Bar where Uncle Charlie points to the closet full of books and says, ‘Read all those. I don’t want to talk about them, just read them all.’ That’s kind of it. Once you get the bones of it in your head, you kind of don’t have to think about it. Some people get at it through outlining and analysis of sentence structure.
“Winston Churchill was one of the most mellifluous writers in English of all time, the man who mobilized the English language against the Nazis, right? He was a guy who came up diagramming sentences, that’s how he got the bones in his head. Other people just play it by ear.”
The bottom line is you have to “find the bones” of the story however best works for you.
Adapting The Departed vs. Adapting The Tender Bar
Because The Tender Bar and The Departed are such different films – one small and personal, the other large and violent, I asked Monahan how the experience of adapting each one differed. Surprisingly, Monahan says that while The Departed was supposed to be based on the Chinese film Internal Affairs, it really wasn’t.
“As an adaptation,” says Monahan about The Departed, “it was quite different because I didn’t have anything to adapt. I didn’t see the [original] movie. I was given a transcript of the dialogue which I believe had to be under 50 pages.”
He says the dialogue in the transcript was very vague and simplistic.
“The dialogue was on the level of, ‘We must get the goods.’ ‘No, it is too dangerous to get the goods.’ That sort of thing.”
He took the basic kernel of the Chinese film about one good cop and one corrupt cop and invented the story from there. He actually borrowed some things from a novel he had written and set the movie in Boston, where he grew up.
“I actually imported things from a novel I wrote, that now, I’ll never publish. So, a lot of it was from thin air. There are people out there who don’t realize how [The Departed] came together. They’re all like, ‘Monahan basically translated the better Chinese film,’ and it’s like, ‘Dude, you have no idea!’ All those people are like my uncles! As an adaptation, that was something expansive from something small,” he says.
The experience of adapting The Tender Bar was very different considering it was based on someone’s actual life. The film needed to have the same tone as the memoir and capture all the details.
“You want to get the essence of what you’re adapting, especially with such a popular book. You want to make sure it transfers. You want the movie to enter a kind of symbiosis with the book, that one will lead people to the other,” he says.
The biggest challenge was figuring out what to cut from the book to fit it into an hour-and-a-half movie. “You have to compress, you have to conflate, you have to make 500-odd pages work in 115-odd pages so you have to make some choices. With such a popular book that can be a little unnerving. I don’t want to make a mistake and alienate the fan base. But the reaction so far has been great. A lot of people who’ve read the book are coming out with tears in their eyes about the movie. And not because it’s bad!” he says with a laugh.
Monahan’s Advice to Aspiring Screenwriters
When I asked Monahan what advice he had for emerging screenwriters, he told me a story about Bette Davis, who was once asked what her advice would be to young actors coming to Hollywood.
“She said, ‘Take Fountain!’” With that, Monahan cracked up.
For those of you not from Los Angeles, Fountain Ave. is a side street in Hollywood that runs parallel with the very congested Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards. Fountain is a faster route and less congested. So taking Fountain is good advice, but Monahan generously added this:
“Just write what you want to, don’t listen to any rules, don’t listen to anybody. See a film in your head, write that film, and make the industry make it. If anybody takes that advice, they’ll put a lot of screenwriting teachers out of work but I’ll tell you about that in a different interview…”
If I get another interview with Monahan, I’ll report back right here. In the meantime, The Tender Bar is now playing in theaters, but look for it streaming on Amazon Prime starting Jan. 7, 2022.
Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards