Let's talk about sex, baby.Or more specifically, gender. Or, to get right down to it, how Nick Hornby, bestselling male novelist, is making a new, Oscar-nominated name for himself as one of the most compelling female voices in cinema today.
Nick Hornby with Reese Witherspoon at a WILD screening Photo Credit: The Guardian
Hornby's latest screenplay finds him in the hiking boots of Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir, Wild, is now a film starring Reese Witherspoon as a novice walker who hikes the 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail in search of redemption. Previously, Hornby tried out the kitten heels of a young Lynn Barber when he wrote the screenplay for An Education. After Wild he journeys from Ireland to America in the company of Ellis Lacey as Colm Toibin's beloved novel, Brooklyn, comes to the screen. Literary cross-dressing much, Mr Hornby?
Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in a scene from Brooklyn
"We all know there are lots of books about women written by women that don't work and the character is not credible. And there are lots of books by men about men that don't work for a similar reason. If the book is good and it is done with sensitivity, it's really all about how good people are at their jobs, I don't think it is anything to do with gender."Wild, for which Witherspoon has been nominated for a best actress Golden Globe in tomorrow night's ceremony, is Hornby's fourth screenplay. His first was an adaptation of his own book, Fever Pitch. After that, he left it to others to write the scripts for High Fidelity (directed by fellow Arsenal addict Stephen Frears), About A Boy and A Long Way Down, while he got on with his novels, the latest of which, Funny Girl, was published last November.With Wild, as with An Education and Brooklyn, Hornby was left to do his own thing by the authors. "Cheryl realised, which is the only sensible thing to realise, that you can't control it, and if you trust the person, and if you've liked their work before, then you've just got to let them get on with it."Given the time it takes to bring a movie to the screen, Hornby knows from his own experience that becoming too involved in a screenplay can be a drag. "I'd rather be doing something new, something I'm working on, than try to muscle in on something that is happening without me. I think they felt the same."He was more involved with the director of Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), and Witherspoon, who is also a producer on the film. With Vallee there was a month of Skyping for hours every day. The way Hornby describes it, capturing the right tone is a case not of ventriloquism but translation.
"For me," says the noted music obsessive, "Wild felt like a Springsteen song, specifically a song from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and I wanted very much to try and capture that sound in the script."Sitting in his North London office, Hornby was a long way in every sense from Strayed the hiker. "I'm not a walker," he laughs, puffing on an e-cig. "In lots of ways I'm not a likely person to do this because I would never have set foot on a trail, I hate sleeping in tents. One of the many brilliant things about the book is that it is written with this sort of urban, liberal, arts sensibility and this sense of 'Oh my God, I don't know what I'm doing and I'm starting this walk'. If you live in North London or Glasgow or wherever you live, you are likely to think the same thing. What is she doing, what would I do?"For his part, Hornby, 57, admits to going to the gym and "listening to loud music" as a way of keeping his mood up, but this is shared only after a couple of prompts. While he has spoken briefly in the past of being "naturally depressive", it is clear from the slightly anxious look that crosses his face when I ask about this that he prefers to do his talking on personal matters on the page.When he has to, such as when he was campaigning to set up the TreeHouse School for children with autism in 1997 - his eldest son, Danny, born 1992, has the condition - or in his capacity as a vice president of Ambitious About Autism, the charity which subsequently developed, Hornby's public and private lives merge. Otherwise, he is far more comfortable talking fiction, characters, narrative, and what it is like being a balding, middle-aged London bloke suddenly finding himself at a Hollywood party.The latter happened after 2009's An Education received three Oscar nominations, including one for Hornby for Best Adapted Screenplay. Awards season is like a political campaign, he says. "You are either in or out. It's a bit like saying 'I'm going to run for prime minister but I'm not going to go out of my house'. You can't do it."One of several surreal moments happened at a house party in Hollywood. "I was getting my buffet dinner and looking around for somewhere to sit and thinking, 'Well I can't interrupt George and Meryl, because they seemed to be deep in conversation, and I can't just go and plonk myself next to Sandra Bullock.' In the end I said, 'Adam Sandler doesn't seem to have anyone sitting next to him so I'll sit there and just eat my dinner, I won't talk to him.' But then people start talking to people and they turn out to be very nice."The Surrey-born Hornby launched himself into the Oscars race the same way he wrote the screenplay for Fever Pitch, thinking he might not walk this way again. All his books-into-films were hits, with the exception of A Long Way Down, the Pierce Brosnan and Toni Collette-led drama which attracted lukewarm to chilly reviews. Given his second wife, Amanda Posey, with whom he has two sons, was a producer on the film, the response hit close to home in other ways."I couldn't see that they did anything that wasn't honourable. You had a really good cast acting their socks off. Clearly it didn't work for some people but I'm slightly mystified as to why it got the kind of reviews it got. It didn't seem to me to deserve them."Some things work, some things don't, he adds with the equanimity which comes from being an award-winning author and screenwriter. I wonder when he got to the point when he realised he would never have to go back to teaching English, or being a freelance journalist, again. The film rights for About A Boy went for "quite a lot of money", he says, which made him less worried about the future financially, but it was when An Education came along, and showed him he could now write screenplays as well, that he knew this was it, the writer's life forever.One of Hornby's former gigs was film criticism. "I'm a great believer in critics. That sense of somebody who has seen a lot of things and has some kind of authority is important. The thing that really depresses me is quoting from Twitter on film posters and things like that. You think, 'Really? A bloke in Bournemouth says it's a very good film and that is supposed to send us to the cinema?' I'm not denigrating the tastes of the man in Bournemouth who has seen it but I don't see what it is doing on a film poster."After a long shift at the laptop, Hornby's name is about to be everywhere. There is Wild, plus an adaptation of Love, Nina, and a film for Jason Reitman (Up In The Air). Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, has its premiere at Sundance this month.
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan / Brooklyn
"The book is so beautiful and so sort of muted, all the pain and the feeling is just under the surface and I think we've brought it up a little bit. I think it has worked out really well. The film is an emotional wrecking ball."An emotional wrecking ball guided by one of the most tuned-in chroniclers of contemporary life on page and on screen. And, yes, a man for a' that.
Remember: For those of you who haven't read the book, there's a fairly big spoiler here.