Nick Hornby’s Hollywood Seduction

The British novelist and Oscar nominee on the attraction of “funny, painful, awkward” material

Last Updated: February 16, 2010 @ 8:27 AM

Nick Hornby may be a newcomer to Hollywood’s awards season, with a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for his script to “An Education,” but the British novelist and essayist has been winning literary honors ever since his first book, “Fever Pitch,” was honored with the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 1992. He’s also no stranger to the movies: “Fever Pitch,” “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity” have all been turned into films, while Johnny Depp bought the rights to “A Long Way Down.”

Directed by Lone Scherfig, “An Education” is drawn not from a Hornby book, but from a magazine article by British writer Lynn Barber; Hornby expanded the brief memoir into a warm, unassuming gem of a film that also won a Best Picture nomination, and an Oscar nod for Carey Mulligan’s luminous performance as Jenny, a 16-year-old seduced by Peter Sarsgaard’s older man in 1961 London.

The film is a change-of-pace of sorts for Hornby, who usually writes contemporary works and has few equals when it comes to perceptive, entertaining writing about pop culture and the way music can animate and sometimes dominate people’s lives. (His latest novel, “Juliet, Naked,” is one of his best.) Married to one of the producers of “An Education,” Amanda Posey, Hornby spoke to theWrap during a recent trip to L.A.

Nick HornbyYou’re too young to remember the period in which the movie is set, aren’t you?
Yeah. But if you can remember your uncle speaking in a certain way in 1966, he probably spoke that way in 1961, too. So I borrowed things from relatives, from my grandparents. And I read a lot, and thought a lot about that generation of my family, and what their lives must have been like.

And I was quite shocked by some things that I found out, like realizing that Jenny would have experienced food rationing for the first half of her life. It was a very poor country, constantly on the verge of catastrophic economic collapse, right into the ‘60s. I think 1961 had a lot more in common with 1945 than it had with 1963.

Certainly, there was a seismic shift in the culture right after the movie ends.
Exactly. By the time the movie’s finished, the Stones and the Beatles are pretty much in recording studios.

Your books have been turned into movies before, but mostly with scripts by other writers. What caused you to write this one?
It wouldn’t have happened if my wife were not an independent producer. It’s in the air at home, and because she is an independent producer in England, she’s not going to be optioning the new Stephen King novel. You have to find more creative and cheaper ways of doing things.

When I read it, it was a 10 page essay in Granta, but it seemed to contain a complete narrative and was about something interesting. I just said to her, “You should read this, I think there’s something in it.” And she and her colleague Finola [Dwyer] both read it, loved it, and optioned it.

And at that point I started to feel proprietorial about the material. So when they talked about other writers, I could hear myself saying, “What do you want to ask that loser for?” And I realized that I had an agenda, which is that I wanted to do it.

Had you tried to write scripts in recent years?
Yes, but I’d never stuck with it. A few years ago, D.V. [DeVincentis], who wrote “High Fidelity,” and I were given a gig of adopting “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” We wrote one draft, and then it all fell apart. And I’d spent a long time trying to cowrite a script with Emma Thompson, which we could never make work.

I was just so discouraged by the process. Books are so straightforward by comparison. The basic idea in publishing is that they publish your book, especially once you become established. Whereas movies don’t work like that. There are a million reasons not to make the screenplay that are unconnected to the quality of the script. And I’d never had the heart or patience to follow something all the way through before.

Carey Mulligan and Peter SarsgaardSo what was different this time?
I felt very connected to the material. And Amanda and Finola were very tenacious about it. They wouldn’t let me give up. And it’s much harder to avoid phone calls if you’re actually married to the person who’s making them. (laughs)

Why did you feel such a connection?
When I read it, I think the first thing I connected to was the tone. It seemed to be me to be funny and painful and awkward, and that combination is something I look for in fiction, and something that doesn’t come along very often.

So that was the first thing, I think. And then I did get really interested in the period, and I thought she was a really great character. But later I started to think about it more, simply because there was clearly something else going on with me.

Which was?
The kid, the smart kid who’s frightened of missing out on everything because they’re growing up in the wrong place, seems to me to be in some ways the story of popular culture. Just about every band ever was formed in that way. You think of the Stones growing up in Dartford, 30 miles outside London, and wanting to be Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.

It’s the idea of coveting what goes on in the city, and fearing that you’re going to be excluded from it. I think that’s what my first book, “Fever Pitch,” is partly about, even though it’s about sport. And I could see that in Jenny. She’s not very far away from everything, on the fringes of London, but on the other hand she’s a long way away from it, and the quickest way to get it was to get into this guy’s car. And I completely understood that.

Writing the story, you have to make that guy seductive enough that we don’t just look at him and think, what a cad.
David is definitely the character we all had to work the hardest on. He is a guy who picks up schoolgirls at the bus stop, so we all had to be careful about it. But I liked his gaucheness, and that he was supposed to be this seducer, but he didn’t seem that interested in sex. He seemed interested in other things about Jenny. I think he envied her background, and he saw a chance to reinvent his life. I thought it seemed quite complicated, what he wanted out of it.

Carey Mulligan and Nick HornbyI understand you were skeptical about casting Carey Mulligan.
I thought she was too old. They said, “We’re casting this 22-year-old,” and I said, “Well, that’s going to be a different movie from what I intended.” I think it’s very hard for modern girls to appear young and innocent and 16. Most of them have seen quite a lot of life already.

And then when I saw Carey, I realized that she’s incredibly talented, but she does have a strange physical quirk of looking a lot younger than she really is. The first time I saw her in a school uniform, I thought, god, she doesn’t look 16, let alone 22.

But also, it seems to me as though every single character is played by somebody really, really good. I thought Amanda and Finola were being really cheeky sending them the script, and I was really thrilled and flattered that so many of them wanted to do it. Like Rosamund [Pike], it’s quite a small part for her, and I’d never seen her be funny before. Dominic [Cooper] stepping in …

Wasn’t his role originally supposed to be played by Orlando Bloom?

And you had a phone conversation in which he told you that he couldn’t do it?
It was a very bizarre evening. Amanda and Finola said he wanted to talk to me about the script. I said, sure. I got on the phone, and basically he was saying, “I can’t do this.” And I phoned Amanda and said, “He didn’t want to talk about the script, he just wanted to say he wasn’t going to be in it.”

And of course they all thought I’d got the wrong end of the stick, or said something completely offensive. But Dominic was such a sport about it.  When he heard Orlando wasn’t going to do it, he offered himself up straight away.

The end of the movie is the first time we hear Jenny talking directly to us, in a voiceover. Initially, didn’t you write a different scene for that spot?
Yes. And it didn’t work. It was a scene where David came to find Jenny at Oxford. She came out of a lecture and saw that car and got a chill, and then he acted very blithe and said, “I’m going to get a divorce now, it’s all going to be okay.”

I think when I wrote it, I was aware that I couldn’t really find anything that was new for anyone. It seemed to be both characters restating their positions, and it was a rather flat way to end the film. And I don’t think I’d expected Carey and Alfred [Molina] to hit quite such an emotional pitch when they were talking to each other through the door. That felt like the emotional climax of the movie, and everything after that was coda after coda. So we wanted to try and cut the codas down a bit.

When you were writing that scene where Jenny and her father talk to each other through the door, did you feel as if it’d be the payoff?
Yeah. I’d hoped so, anyway. But I think if I ever have to teach writers about what other people bring to a scene that you think is pretty good, that would be the scene I’d talk about. Because there are so many crucial decisions that Lone and Carey take in that scene.

I don’t think I’d realized, when I was writing it, that one of the points of that scene is Jenny accepting her own culpability. I knew that it was about Alfred expressing that Jenny was culpable in some way, but then Jenny starts to cry when Alfred says, “He wasn’t who he said he was. He wasn’t who you said he was.”

That’s when she cries, and it’s such a painful moment, simply because Jenny’s finally accepting her own role in it. Up until that point, it’s been David’s fault, it’s been the parents’ fault. I don’t think I wrote in the script, “Jenny starts to cry.” That’s something they came up with, and it’s very complicated, why a scene works so well beyond the writing. (laughs) But, you know, I’ll take the credit.

What were your expectations when you took the film to Sundance a year ago?
We had no expectations. I think the first screening at Sundance was the first indication I had that it would make any kind of connection to an audience. We didn’t have an American distributor when we went out, and we were warned that we probably wouldn’t get one immediately.

And it was completely thrilling to walk out of the cinema, and there was an offer from a distributor pretty much while the credits were still rolling. Apparently it was a pretty insulting offer, but I didn’t know enough to be insulted. So I was pleased. And then it built, and three or four people were offering over the next few hours.

I take it you weren’t looking ahead to awards season.
No. What’s really interesting is how right people were from a long time ago. It seemed a joke to me that people were saying, soon after Sundance, that we had a shot at awards season. There were, like, 50 films that hadn’t come out. But one-by-one, lots of them fell by the wayside.

I remember that even when “The Hurt Locker” came out, people thought, it’s good, but’s it’s probably a longshot because there’s so much else coming out …
Yeah, that’s right. You have an advantage by being out and good, as opposed to not out and people not knowing.

(Photos by Getty Images)