Writers on Film: An Evening with Martin Amis and Gary Oldman

Martin Amis/Photo © Isabel Fonseca
Martin Amis/Photo © Isabel Fonseca

There can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that Martin Amis, as a writer, is comfortable with violence, and various kinds of violence at that: emotional, physical and self-inflicted. If I were a punning person, that last would definitely refer to his character John Self in the novel, Money, but I am getting ahead of myself.

On Monday, April 16, as part of the Writers on Film series at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City, hosted by Michael Maren, Martin Amis arrived on stage to introduce one of his favorite films, "The Firm," and stayed on for a post-screening interview. Recently, the Crosby Street Hotel has become something of a destination for film buffs with its plush, state-of-the-art ninety-nine-seat screening room and its Sunday Night Film Club (open to the public) which features a three-course dinner and a movie for $50 a person.

"The Firm," made in 1989, isn’t exactly a feature film, but rather a seventy-minute, made-for-TV film written by Al Hunter and directed by Alan Clarke that was part of the Screen Two series made by the BBC. We all know that British television has long been more adventurous than American television, and "The Firm" is evidence of this. It opens with the camera grazing over graffiti-strewn walls, Dean Martin crooning “That’s Amore” in the background. Rather than simply being docu-observational, there is immediate tension as we see grown men (well, men in their twenties and thirties) scrimmaging with a football as others vandalize a car that belongs to one of the players. The action quickly escalates and there is little “amore” to be seen. The men are football hooligans, who, in response to a query by an off-screen sociologist, say straightforwardly, “We like hitting people.” There isn’t much plot, other than verbal taunting and physical violence among three gangs, supporters of different football teams. But present in spades is remarkable acting, especially on the part of Gary Oldman, who embodies one gang leader’s very essence in his speech, gesture, and barely contained rage

The not-for-the-squeamish film was often riveting, but the real treat was Amis, who said he chose the film because “Gary Oldman is the most novelistic and concentrated actor I’ve ever seen at work.” Praising Oldman’s language, pronunciation, and rendition of Englishness, Amis noted that the film’s portrayal of violence smacked not only of football but embraced the “emotions of religion and war.”

The author of more than twelve works of fiction, seven of non-fiction, and several film scripts, Amis not surprisingly knows his film history and credited the revision of the Hay code as having allowed for the making of auteur films as violent as Sam Peckinpah’s "The Wild Bunch" and Arthur Penn’s "Bonnie and Clyde." He thinks violence is important to show -- “It is the great curse of humanity, the male curse” -- and he gives film the edge over novels in depicting violence (except perhaps for Cormac McCarthy) quoting no less an authority than Saul Bellow to make his point: “Movies are about externals -- novels about internals.”

Amis’ 1984 novel Money is about the film industry and he was thrilled that the movie version was going to star Gary Oldman, but it hasn’t happened yet. Money was based on Amis’ not completely happy experience having written the 1980 film "Saturn 3," directed by Stanley Donen, which starred Kirk Douglas, Farah Fawcett and Harvey Keitel. The memory must have prompted Amis to dish. “When actors get old they get obsessed about wanting to be nude,” he said, “and Kirk wanted to be naked.” Amis continues and recounts that Fawcett didn’t want to disrobe and Douglas was adamant, saying, “What do you mean she won’t take her clothes off. She’s only a fucking TV actress. I’ll rip her clothes off!” Of course, Keitel had no problems with getting naked.

Amis also wrote a script for Northanger Abbey that didn’t get made and insists he’s never had a good experience writing for the movies, though he loves movies. He’s also not too keen on seeing adaptations of his novels on screen. “What the writer is going to feel about the adaptation is to feel a succession of missed opportunities -- it’s a deeply armpit-igniting experience watching your work on screen,” he said, wincing.

At this point Amis will stick to novels: “Writing for movies is collaborative and okay when you’re thirty but not when you’re sixty.” Now sixty-three, Amis was pretty spritely as he exited the screening room to sign copies of his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, in the lobby.

Martin Amis and Michael Maren

Martin Amis and Michael Maren