Meet Peter Harness, Screenwriter for BBC’s Wallander
Two years ago, on a rainy summer afternoon, I just happened to turn on PBS to find Masterpiece Theater coming on. The feature that day was an episode of BBC’s Wallander, a compelling series about a Swedish detective played by Ken Branagh (who has won a BAFTA TV and other awards for his performance in the series).
That afternoon changed how I write.
It was my great joy this fall when screenwriter Peter Harness, the lead writer on Wallander Series 3, graciously agreed to be interviewed. He has some great advice, insight and a story to share.
Peter, tell us your story. How and why did you become a screenwriter?
I don’t know, really. Looking back, I think that I’ve always been in love with television as an art form, and that when I started thinking about writing, it was probably always with the ambition of writing for TV in mind. Along the way, I think I did theatre and (bizarrely) even film as an alternative, but really my love has always been television. To be honest, I feel I was raised by TV, and I owe it a debt. A lot of my education and my view of the outside world came through my TV screen when I was growing up: in factual programming, comedy, children’s television, and drama. When I graduated university, I half – or three-quarters – completed a doctorate about Dennis Potter (pretty much the English TV dramatist of the 60s and 70s), which I abandoned when I coincidentally won something called the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Prize for TV drama. So, I guess I became a screenwriter because I wanted to work in television and to do homage to people like Dennis Potter who had shaped my understanding and my life, watching TV as I grew up. Dennis Potter died in 1994, and did a very poignant final interview, and I took tremendous inspiration from that, and wanted to continue what he had done.
How did you land the job on Wallander Series 3 and what about this project keeps you challenged/inspired?
I landed this job – I don’t know, after several years of working in UK TV and film, doing bits and pieces and seemingly getting not particularly anywhere. This was, in fact, the first job (aside from those odd ones that I’d pitched myself) that I didn’t need to compete or do an interview for. This was the first job that I was actually offered. And that felt fantastic. It was very nice that the producers had read and seen my various efforts and felt that they’d like me to do Wallander. And I was even more delighted to discover that they’d decided to do that before they found out that I actually live in Sweden, where Wallander is set.
What is it that keeps me challenged or inspired? You ask a lot of big questions, you know that? Uch. I don’t know. I wrestle with that character, Wallander. He’s a difficult bugger to pin down and he’s not very cheerful to spend time with. But I guess it’s his honesty and his humanity and his relentless appetite for making the same mistakes which makes me want to see him through. And the fact that I’m going to get rid of him in a year or so.
What have you learned about fear and faith in your creative journey? How do you deal with them?
I think that the fear and faith element of the job falls into two categories. The first is the choice that one makes to become a writer in the first place – if you can call it a choice. For some people it’s a need, it’s a compulsion, a sense of vocation, for others, it just happens by accident when they’re doing other things. But somewhere along the line, you make a choice between being someone who wants to write, or who dabbles a bit, and actually being a writer. Because everyone wants to write. So many people come up to me at parties and say that they really fancy knocking off a novel or a screenplay. But the difference between me, and any professional writer, and them is the commitment. I tend to reply, if I’m drunk or bold enough, that “if you want to write, resign from your job, forget your pension scheme, get rid of your car, fuck your mortgage, and certainly forget all about success.” Because if you’re prepared to do that, if you can live with crippling uncertainty, and the terrible ultimatum that you absolutely have to make it as a writer, because you’ve fucked up every other means of earning a dollar that you can possibly think of, then maybe you can give it a go.
There have been times in my life when I have mourned my prospects and my fortunes very badly. But I’ve never doubted my decision. It was the right choice to make, and I went in with my eyes open. You can fail miserably at this, you can be penniless, you can crash and burn. And you can be a success. But even if you are a success, you’ll probably still have similar doubts and paranoias.
Secondly, and perhaps more optimistically, one of the most important things you need to develop as a writer is an ability to negotiate between self-confidence and self-criticism. It’s very easy to have too much of either one, and you need to keep them balanced if you want to get anything decent done. It can be very hard to keep hold of the good stuff about your work when it’s being rejected and criticised and having dozens of notes thrown at it all the time – it’s a long process to learn which criticism to trust and which to take with a pinch of salt. So, with all the rejection and with all the self-criticising one ends up doing, it’s easy to be too down on yourself. Conversely, however, it’s easy to be too enamored of your own stuff. It’s easy to ignore other people’s input. It’s easy to fall in love with words, phrases, stories or characters that you should be getting rid of. Successful writing is reaching a place where you’re finely balanced between all of these things, and you’re being honest with yourself about your work and how good or bad it is. It’s not an easy place to get to, and most of us are only temporary residents there.
Besides screenwriting, do you write in other formats? Novels, etc.
Not at the moment. I have written plays in the past and would like to do so again, and I’d also like to try and write a novel one day, but screenwriting is where my brain and my talent (such as it may be) is just now.
What is most challenging to you in the creative process?
That’s a difficult question. One of the things I most enjoy about writing is the constant challenges is sets up for you, and the various structural or character-based problems that writing any story forces you to face and to solve. So in a way, the traditional “challenges” of storytelling don’t feel like challenges for me, because (usually) I find them reasonably enjoyable and engaging. I suppose if we’re talking about “challenges” in terms of things that I find difficult or unpleasant, then it would be some of the elements that are inherent in the life of most writers. I find it difficult to discipline myself to write every day; I find the solitariness of it a bit of a pain sometimes; and I find the grind-work of drafting and redrafting (between the joy of starting a new project and the relief of finishing it) hard to handle sometimes. And of course, there’s the nag of self-doubt and the worry about where it’s all going in general. I’m also rubbish at hitting deadlines, and I find that fact very stressful.
What brings you the most joy?
I love being a writer: I’m thankful that I can earn my living doing something that I enjoy, in a job that means I can be my own boss, choose my own projects, and manage my own time. I love being in production on any given project. I like the collaborative aspects of getting something made and shot. I love the exhilaration of starting work on something new; I love the rush you get when you know you’re writing good stuff; I love being on the home stretch of a project, when things are finally starting to drop into place, and it’s clear that it’s going to turn out okay; and I love having finished something that I’m proud of, and holding it in my hand, whether it’s a wad of papers, a book or a DVD. And sometimes, though by no means always, you’ll be doing something that you’re just so immersed in and in love with that you can’t tear yourself away from it, that you can’t wait to get back to, that your mind is always half on it when you’re doing other things. At those times, the exhilaration of writing is unbeatable, like the crazy, consuming passion of first love.
What do you wish other people knew about your work as a screenwriter?
I think a lot of people are baffled as to what a screenwriter actually does: the overriding impression seems to be that the director or maybe the actors make up the story as they go along. People often seem to think that I maybe just write the dialogue or even (in the case of Wallander) just translate the novels into English. I’m never particularly offended by this from people who don’t work in the business – after all, I don’t especially know how a sheet-metal worker or a quantity surveyor goes about their job – but occasionally, the attitude persists in reviews or on sets, and I do find that a bit galling. What I’d like people to know is that the screenwriter tends to write pretty much everything that ends up on screen: structures the story, invents the characters, decides and describes the locations and action, and writes all the dialogue. That they create the world and the story that you see.
What is the most helpful advice you would give other screenwriters?
That’s a very big question. Very tough to boil it down to a couple of pieces of advice, as the tips I might give to those just starting out are very different to those I might offer to someone with more experience. Some vague maxims:
- Don’t be tyrannised by other people’s advice.
- Don’t get in the way of yourself.
- Get stuff finished.
- The best way to write interestingly and to avoid cliché is to be truthful.
- In a screenplay, there’s no place for any line, scene or character that doesn’t have a specific purpose.
I guess that’s what I’ve got. Until I write my book on how to be a screenwriter, which will be longer and probably more explanatory.
How do you know when a script is “done”?
I think you just know. You develop an instinct for it. Often, you think that a script might well be “done” when you’ve added or subtracted this or that specific thing, and then you find that you’ve uncovered a whole new other level of stuff that needs to be addressed. It goes on and on. But I think I feel that a script is done when I’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, and ended up on what I think is the best way to tell the story; when I’ve dotted all the eyes and crossed all the tees and I know why every single word of it is there.
Based on your experience, what do actors need from a writer? What can writers do to make an actor’s job easier, characters more accessible?
I used to do quite a lot of acting, and I think that an understanding of acting and an actor’s process helps in creating actable characters. Actors need to know how and why their characters make their choices. They need to be able to make sense of how their characters behave. I think the best that writers can do is to write truthful characters, who behave in a truthful way, according to their own lights. That gives actors the security they need to work. Also, writers should try their best to write dialogue that any real person would actually say.
Let’s talk about Wallander which is based on Henry Mankell’s novels. The BBC version has a strong reverence for silence, a slower pacing and incorporates a sharp contrast of natural beauty against violence/crime. None of this is written in the novels. Where did this idea come from?
I disagree with the idea that it’s somehow slower paced. I think the scripts that I’ve done for Wallander have much more action and move a lot quicker than anything else I’ve written. They’re very lean and there isn’t room for anything that doesn’t move the story along: and I certainly don’t write silences or brooding moments in just for the sake of it, or just to add flavour. There’s a lot of progression and incident in every ninety minute film. However, I totally appreciate that the series has more silence and maybe feels more thoughtful than a lot of other TV. I think this probably comes from the fact that we try to think as cinematically as possible, so we do cut as much unnecessary dialogue as we can, and we do tend to think strongly in terms of visuals. And so maybe it stands out as unusual in the television landscape. As far as the contrast of natural beauty versus violence, well, I think it’s a visual representation of a theme which is very much there in the novels, i.e., the notion of a “perfect” society (which Sweden, in some ways, sees itself as) somehow being corrupted and blemished by inexplicable violence and degradation.
How, as a writer, do you write “silence” and “slower pace” into a script, yet still keep the tension tight?
By making sure that you earn every single moment of silence and every single pause for breath by making the rest of the story so tight and tense that the viewer needs those little breaks every now and again to bed down what has just happened or to take in the impact what they’ve just seen has on a given character. You have a precious few of those moments to spend on any given script, and they have to justify themselves.
How much collaboration goes into the final script? How much does Branagh and the other actors weigh in on the writing?
It depends. Ken had more suggestions on the earlier scripts because I think I was still getting to know his interpretation of the character. Once I’d gotten comfortable with that, we were very much on the same page, so I think he had fewer notes. Of course, there’s quite a degree of collaboration with the producer and the various directors, and there’s a lot of conversation so that we feel we share a common understanding and vision for each film. The late stages of writing a script, just before you start shooting, when you’re refining it and honing it alongside the other members of the creative team, are some of the times that I enjoy my job most and find it the most fulfilling.
In the past, Mankell has mentioned his surprise with how much was stripped away to tell the Wallander stories in the BBC version. As a writer adapting material, how do you determine what to strip away from the original work and how much to include? How much leeway do you feel to create a new story and veer away from the original? What do you hold sacred and unchangeable?
I think what Henning Mankell likes about the BBC version is that it is so stripped down – at least, that’s what he’s said to me. He likes the economy of the storytelling and the precision of the film-making. That being the case, I feel that I’m trusted by the original writer to honour his work, and so have a lot of leeway to change and create if I think it’s necessary. Also, the three stories for the most recent series of Wallander all necessitated fairly big changes for different reasons. The first was based on a fairly brief short story; the second was very definitely set in a Cold War environment and needed reimagining for the present day; the third didn’t really feature Wallander as a central character. So they were always going to diverge from the originals anyway. Basically, I feel that I can make whatever alterations are necessary to make the story work as a film. I tend to ring-fence the most memorable set-pieces and characters from the books, and work them back into the story in whatever way I can; because what I do hold sacred is the principle that the adaptation should feel like the book. It should be a similar experience for the viewer as it was for the reader. That even if many of the details of the story and the character end up being different, I should always honour the spirit of the book and the original author’s intention, in so far as I can understand them.
Mankell’s Wallander has been done several times by other production companies. Were you focused on making this version fresh? What did you not want to do in this version?
I didn’t watch the other Wallanders because I didn’t want to be influenced by them. I think each of the separate adaptations has carved out its own take on the character and the way to tell his stories. I guess I was focused on making this version fresh, but primarily because it was the third series of this particular Wallander and I wanted to give the character new challenges and journeys and to move him into new territory. I wanted it to feel like progression and not repetition. So I think most of the anxiety of influence came from the BBC series itself.
Wallander gives the viewer time to absorb the emotions that Branagh is so skilled at portraying, and it really is the story of a man first, a detective second. Each episode is a revelation of the character’s inner life as it evolves against the backdrop of a crime. Screenwriters are told to have conflict in every scene, to never have a “slow” scene – but what you have done works and works beautifully. Is that because the audience is most invested in Wallander the man? Why does it work? How do you see it?
I think audiences are invested in Wallander because the films are about him. Because his character and the emotional journey that he goes on is the story, and everything else is tied into that and informs that. If you start from the assumption that character leads plot, and not the other way around, then your audience will invest in your character. The only reason that a scene is ever “slow” is because it doesn’t move the story along in some way. You can have scenes in which a character just sits in a room and doesn’t move, but which are the most compelling in the film because they’re somehow key to the whole story. Similarly, you can have a million dollar action sequence that flags and feels boring because it doesn’t move anything along. I don’t think it’s right that one has to have conflict in every scene, and I don’t think it’s especially good advice. What every scene does need is dramatic purpose and a dramatic progression, and some element of dramatic tension, which doesn’t have to come via traditional “conflict.”
Let’s talk about characters. I recently wrote a blog post on how characters seem to exist whole and know their story long before a writer gets involved. When the writing flows, it seems more like channeling than “creating.” Is this your experience, too?
Yes. In a lot of ways it’s a process of discovering your characters and getting to know them. They almost always take on a life and a voice of their own. And once you get to know them well enough, it does become like channeling. Which can cause problems, because sometimes you really want a character to do or say something which they end up stubbornly resisting. But then they’ll surprise you by doing something you didn’t expect which takes the story in much more interesting directions than you could have imagined before you got to know them.
You have a full cast of characters – ones I’m sure you know well by now. Does that make it easier or harder to write the next episode? Do the characters still surprise you?
I think it makes it easier because as long as the challenges they face are new ones, they’ll continue to react in new and interesting ways. I’m always trying to find situations which might open up a different aspect of their personalities. And yes, like I said, they do surprise me.
What have you learned most from working on Wallander?
I find that I learn a lot from every project I get involved in. And this has been by far the biggest, in terms of time, length and work, so I’ve learnt all sorts of things. I think I can now tell quite a good crime story, which I’d never tried doing before. But I feel I’ve also learned a lot about economy of storytelling, and how to bind character to story as closely as possible.
Will there be more Wallander episodes? What’s next for you?
All being well, yes, there will be another series of three films sometime over the next couple of years. But it’ll be the last, and that’s been the plan all along. Next for me is a new six episode series for BBC1, which is very different to Wallander and which I’m really excited about and really enjoying writing. Can’t give details yet, but it’ll be quite crazy and different and it’s scheduled to start shooting in about nine months. And then hopefully a long rest and some thinking time to dream up something new.