Steven Knight is one of the most prolific screenwriters around. His films include Dirty, Pretty Things (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), Eastern Promises, The 100 Foot Journey, Locke and The Girl in the Spider’s Web. His TV shows include Peaky Blinders and Taboo. If that wasn’t a large enough resume, he also created the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I recently sat down with busy bee-Knight to ask him about his latest film, Serenity, a genre-bending noir thriller that questions reality.
Living on a tropical island, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) ekes out a living with his fishing boat. When he’s not taking tourists to catch tuna, Baker is obsessively trying to catch a particular fish that continues to evade him. But when his ex-wife (and mother of their teen son) Karen (Anne Hathaway), enters back into his life, Baker is shocked when Karen asks him to commit a murder. While the plot sounds very noir, that’s just the conventional part of the story.
Inspiration from real life experiences.
Knight was inspired to create Baker Dill when he was in St. Lucia and went out on a boat to fish for tuna. He says the boat captain was great until a fish bit the line.
“He became obsessed with the fish,” says Knight, “It was the only thing that existed.”
Knight says he wondered why a man who lived in paradise would be so obsessed with catching a fish. If that premise sounds a little like a modern Moby Dick, you’re not wrong.
“When I was creating Baker Dill I wanted to tap into that American tradition of the American hero – the outsider or the drifter with secrets who has an obsession like Captain Ahab. But as Captain Ahab pursues the whale, Captain Ahab begins to question what that reality is; he begins to question the nature of the whale, if you like. That’s sort of what Baker Dill is confronted with as well.”
The next layer of the story involves Baker Dill’s teenage son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who has his own obsession with video games. Knight says Patrick’s character was inspired by his own kids who obsessively play computer games.
“It seems to me that [my kids’] suspension of disbelief while [playing video games] is greater than their suspension of disbelief when watching a film because they’re so involved in it, they’re making it. They will do it for hours and hours. It struck me that there is something going on there, a reality that they are creating.
“If you walk into a café and if there are 20 people on their phones, there are 20 different realities. If you tap somebody on the shoulder, there’s a split second where they are between the two realities. For anyone who is interested in the nature of reality and the existential theory of reality, this development is quite interesting. People are capable of creating an alternative reality to the one they’re in. The film is set in the space between this boy [Patrick] and the screen – in the world that he created to comfort himself.”
Turn your real life experiences into a screenplay. Write your first draft in five weeks with this free guide.
Mixing two genres.
Serenity has both the noir/thriller-style relationship of Baker Dill and femme fatale Karen, and the somewhat sci-fi (or existential) reality of Patrick and his video game. These two realities exist in two different film genres that crash together in a surprising way.
“I am keen to not stick to a genre because I think film attracts rules, for obvious reasons. Film is an expensive business and people want to get a return on what they’re doing. It’s not like a painting where you can really be experimental – you’ve got to make it work financially.”
Knight says he knows to follow the “rules” when’s he’s making a studio project, but when he’s making a smaller, indie movie just for himself like Locke and Serenity, he says he likes the freedom to play around with expectations certain genres create.
Discipline vs. love for writing.
Given the amount of movies and TV shows Knight outputs each year, I asked him if he’s writing all day, every day, never getting any sleep. He smiles and shakes his head.
Knight says if he starts at 6 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., he’s put in a good day. He also says while it may seem like he’s got a lot of projects happening at once, some were written a number of years earlier. But it also might be the way Knight works that allows him to create so much content.
“I tend to sit at the keyboard and just let go. I love doing it and would do it anyway so it’s not a question of discipline. I must sit down and do it.”
British writers vs. American.
Another question I had was why Knight and other British writers like Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), Michael Hirst (Vikings) and Daisy Goodwin (Victoria) insist on writing every single episode of their series instead of having a writers’ room. His answer surprised me.
“I think we’re not very good at writers rooms. Americans can do it but British people, we’re not very good at speaking out and saying ‘No, no, you can’t do it that way.’ Everybody is very polite and you end up with a horrible compromise. The British writer likes to sit on his own and bang it out. I think the writers’ room is more work. I hate it – I can’t stand it; that’s work for me.”
Advice from a master.
Knight advises up-and-coming writers to draw their stories from personal experience and family history.
“You have to sift through your life to find things. Peaky Blinders was stories my mom and dad told me when I was a kid and they stuck with me. Because of that, I thought, well, maybe there’s something there.”
He also recommends not writing something similar to something that’s already been made.
“I think it’s best to go as far away as possible from what’s out there right now and try to make it have some connection to yourself. Then, when it comes to the actual writing, try and be as free and mad as you can because you can always straighten it up later; you can always make it more logical. If you start off with something very logical and then try to jazz it up – it doesn’t work.”
Serenity opened January 25th, 2019. Watch the trailer below.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards
Photo credit: Aviron Films