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An Education - Nick Hornby interview

An Education, Nick Hornby

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED British novelist Nick Hornby talks about adapting Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education for the big screen, recapturing the spirit of the pre-swinging ‘60s and why the whole experience has turned out far better than he could ever dared have hoped. He was speaking at a press conference held during the Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival.

Q. Why did Lynn Barber’s memoirs prove irresistible?
Nick Hornby: Well, I thought it was funny and painful and you don’t get that very often in the same material. And it introduced me to a world I didn’t know very much about, which was England in the ’60s before the ’60s happened. Some of those people were a sort of bohemian underclass that Jenny ends up hanging out with. I didn’t know anything about these people but I found that fascinating.

Q. I thought the period was well captured. Had you had any advice from Lynn Barber that helped you capture the period?
Nick Hornby: Lynn was very helpful about period, about language and cultural references – who would be the right artists to talk about, for example. I had fun checking up on language as well and finding out things about words like “preggers”. When was their first use in English popular culture and that sort of thing.

Q. Which area of your life has given you the best education?
Nick Hornby: Well, I wouldn’t like to choose one area in particular but I know it wasn’t education. I can definitely rule that out of the educational education part. I would say family, children and also the stuff that I’ve discovered for myself ever since I’ve been a teenager. So, music, movies, books – as long as they’re kind of self-motivated discoveries rather than anything that has been imposed on me. That was where education didn’t work for me. But I think that’s sort of alluded to in the film a little bit – I think that’s the position that Jenny arrives at, although she got there a lot quicker than I did.

Q. Did you have any trouble entering the mind and soul of a woman, particularly as the memoirs were written by a woman?
Nick Hornby: Well, if it’s really such a big problem for you as a writer then you probably shouldn’t be writing. In any kind of fiction, you have to write about people that are not yourself. Gender is one aspect of that, but there is age, there is class, there is nationality… there’s all sorts of things that you have to essay at some point in your career. But you just trust that you have been able to observe enough over the years to get it right.

I was surrounded by women on this project – the two main producers are both women, and I think it was very helpful to have a female director in Lone. So, I had Lynn’s source material, I had the experience of my own teenage years and sisters and all sorts. So, you just hope and trust your own powers of observation.

Q. Was the process of writing a screenplay different from the process of writing a book?
Nick Hornby: Of course there are some things that are technically different but it’s not particularly that I noticed about it. It’s more the difference in the process. Movies are an insane industry compared to books – books are quite straightforward. You write one and if they like it they will publish it. In movies, there are many, many, many reasons why they want to make a film or not… none of which necessarily have anything to do with the script. And that’s a big difference.

Q. Do you write your scripts with actors in mind?
Nick Hornby: I think it was impossible to write this script with actors in mind. I knew that I was going to have to… or we were going to cast as unknown in the lead role and I had no idea who that unknown would be, by definition. So, I couldn’t think about it. I also just don’t know enough, or pay attention. I can remember the person I watched in the movie I saw the night before, but if that was Do The Right Thing or the wrong kind of movie you’re stuff. But we had a brilliant casting director. Lucy was so clever at coming up with ideas and she’d seen Carey in a few things before, so of course I was completely delighted with that.

Q. Has An Education turned out better than you could have imagined when you first started adapting the screenplay?
Nick Hornby: Yes, is the short answer. First of all, I’d never imagined we’d get a cast like we have. I was always embarrassed when they said: “We’re going to try Dominic Cooper for this…” I was like: “He won’t do this! He’s earned money from acting!” So, there was a lot of that sort of thing that went on. But you cannot possibly predict what a good cast can bring to a project like this. So, I thought in my head there was this good version and it might come close, but it wouldn’t get to what I imagined. Yet in fact, when I see the finished product, it’s way beyond anything that I could have thought about it, which is partly down to Lone’s visual imagination and the performance of the cast.

They always ring things out of lines where there’s nothing to get anything out of. I keep talking about Matthew Beard’s arrival at the read through and getting a laugh from the word “hello”. I’m looking at this script thinking: “You cheeky bastard! There’s no laugh from his line!” But he’s got one…. and he gets one in the film. But that’s what a good cast can do for you.

Read our review of An Education