Interview: Murder on the Orient Express’s Michael Green on Updating Agatha Christie for Today’s Audience

By November 10, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Shanee Edwards

Michael Green, AKA the busiest writer in Hollywood, is hot off the heels of Blade Runner 2049 and already his next credited film as writer is hitting theaters. That film is Murder on the Orient Express, a remake of the Agatha Christie classic murder mystery, and fortunately for us, Green was kind enough to chat with us about the writing process.

Among the various new experiences the writer had while working on this project, the most notable perhaps was working closely with the Estate of Agatha Christie. Overall, he says, it was an incredibly positive experience.

“They were lovely, very English and polite,” says Green. “They obviously are very invested, both emotionally and financially, in maintaining the integrity of their properties. I spoke to her great-grandson James Prichard, who remembers her quite vividly. I also had the pleasure of getting notes from the Agatha Christie estate.”

Green pauses and laughs. “It was funny because I’ve worked with English people before, but never worked with such English people before. They were so polite in their note-giving that it didn’t work!”

The note he’s referring to came when one gentleman from the Agatha Christie estate asked about Poirot’s behavior in one specific scene. If you’re unfamiliar with the famous Belgian detective, Poirot has a bit of OCD that causes him to repeat his actions in an even, balanced way.

Early in the film, Poirot steps into horse feces on the street with his left foot. His face is disgusted, not just about the feces on his shoe, but the action he knows must come next to satisfy his obsessive need to balance everything out.

Green explains, “The man from the team asked, ‘But would Poirot do that?’ speaking very beautifully in his accent. I said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to do that right here in the scene so it’s fine.’ And again he asked, ‘But would he do that?’ Then I realized this was his polite way to give the note. I said, ‘Well, I think he’s going to do that here so we should move on.’ And that was where his note stood.

“I felt bad because that sort of passive-aggressive manner doesn’t work on me and if they had met my mother, they would know it was a bad strategy. I thought Poirot having to step into horse shit with his other shoe was a perfect way to show his need to maintain balance and order. It is a bit funny and broad, but I was not about to lose that because someone was asking in a passive voice.”

It’s great to see a writer standing his ground. Ultimately, the Agatha Christie estate gave Green their blessing and even praised the screenplay. Famed actor and director Kenneth Branagh coming on board to star and direct was the icing on the cake.

But reimagining such a well-known story for today’s audience has to be done very carefully and respectfully. Green had many conversations about it with 20th Century Fox. Luckily, they never veered off into any nutty directions.

“There was no mandate or suggestion to set it in space or blow up the train. There was no silliness. Everyone knew what this was and wanted to honor it. So it was more a question about what makes this a new experience – what makes it modern?”

The book was first published in 1934 and the world was obviously a very different place. In many ways, it was a simpler time, despite the fact that Europe was preparing for World War 2. Green wanted his version of the story to go just a bit deeper emotionally.

“Agatha Christie’s writing doesn’t mine the character’s emotions as much as it notes the emotions. I wanted to make it feel like these are real things being experienced by real people. That doesn’t mean you can’t have heightened moments for amusement or comedy. It’s a fairly dark story about a dark murder that avenges an even darker murder. I wanted to make it feel as if all these things were happening to these people with a truer, inner life that I don’t feel has ever really been done.”

The other thing Green was concerned about was recreating a much beloved character for a preexisting, very loyal audience while considering that a younger audience may not have even heard of Poirot.

“For those people, I wanted to give them a new element.”

He wanted to please both the loyalists and the newbies, but is that even possible?

“He’s been played so well in the past. People love the David Suchet version so much, there’s already a hashtag on Twitter that’s #NotMyPoirot.”

Luckily, Green isn’t discouraged by the hashtag. He’s actually excited by it.

“I think it’s great when people love a character with all four chambers of their heart. They mean it, they’re fans – but we’re fans, too. The opportunity was to find new shades within Poirot that haven’t been explored but still making him be Poirot. We never wanted to make him anything other than what he is. But there was still plenty to mine – and that came in conversations with Kenneth Branagh. He had a lot he thought he could bring to it. It kept getting enhanced the more we worked on my original draft together.”

The one thing Green knew he didn’t want to change was Agatha Christie’s sublime ending.

“You don’t try to out-Agatha Christie Agatha Christie. Especially since this is her most signature and fascinating ending. What I did want to do was make the ending register emotionally, not just intellectually. The resolution to that ending was where we could find more to mine.”

Green speaks carefully as to not spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen the previous movies or read the book.

“There is something very genteel about procedurals before a certain period when the murderer is caught. They kind of say, ‘Good show, you got me,’ and they are carted off to jail with a sense of fair play. In this, we get to see what happens after the killer is named. There are things that must be sorted out after because the circumstances are so unusual. That allowed us to make sure the conclusion of the case was relevant to the conclusion of Poirot’s journey, that those two things were married.”

Murder on the Orient Express opens Nov. 10.


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