Hossein Amini is known for writing the screenplays for ‘Drive’, ‘47 Ronin’, ‘Snow White and The Huntsman’ and ‘The Snowman’. He also executive produced and wrote ‘The Alienist’ and ‘McMafia’. Our interviewer Michael Slavin talked to Hossein Amini regarding the difference between writing for television and film, the process of getting ‘The Alienist’ made and the series receiving its Emmy nomination. They also discuss the ‘Obi-Wan’ series and the beginning of his process for the program before it goes into production next year.
Michael Slavin: So I want to start off the interview by asking you a very standard question about how did you first get into screenwriting and what was your first big break?
Hossein Amini: I started writing quite early on in university, I wrote some plays and a couple of scripts for short films which I directed and I guess the first real break I had was, there was at the time this short film festival called ‘BP Film Awards’ and we managed to win a prize. It was just the moral encouragement really more than anything else, I didn’t get a break in the sense that I didn’t get an agent and I wasn’t paid anything, it just gave me the encouragement to carry on and try again. I still felt throughout my career that those moments when I was kind of despairing something usually would hopefully happen and keep me going for another few months because it’s very hard to give up with screenwriting because there are so many rejections and it takes such a long time to get going. That was my first sort of encouragement break and then the first professional break was when I sent a script to the BBC and that got picked up as a mini-series that never got made, but again at least I’d been commissioned.
Michael Slavin: Yeah, yeah of course. So yeah, you mentioned there that you’ve done some directing, some plays as you mentioned. It’s quite impressive how you’ve jumped between film and TV and I was wondering how do you approach it differently and how do you find it different when you’re right film versus writing a TV show as you’ve had success in both.
Hossein Amini: I’m certainly learning a lot about TV, I mean I started off doing TV but then I focused on film and as I felt TV changing and really becoming where I think the future of the industry is headed I sort of felt I had to adapt or die. It’s quite a different discipline in the sense that you know film is on a whole a two-hour sitting experience and the emotional storytelling in particular is very different whereas in TV I think, for example I underestimated how important pilots were in the sense that most TV reviewers only review the pilot and then they tend to decide after one episode whether they’re going to stick with it or not and I guess one of the mistakes I made initially was writing the pilot almost like you would the first 10-15 minutes of a movie screenplay where you’re doing a lot of setting up and stuff. And then I frequently learned that you really need to pace it like its own mini-movie and lots of other tricks you pick up from experience. They are very different in terms of, particularly the rhythm of storytelling.
Michael Slavin: So, one of your most known TV ventures is ‘The Alienist’ and I was sort of wondering how you first got involved in that project?
Hossein Amini: The Alienist was a book that I had already loved and I had read it I think when it first came out and I had studied History at university so I’ve always been interested in historical drama and I had also been interested in crime thrillers and this was one of the first ones that really captured both. I’d read lots of historical thrillers, but they all felt a little bit light and this had the seriousness and the darkness of contemporary thrillers such as ‘Silence of the Lambs’ or ‘Seven’. But at the same time, I think Caleb Carr had done an extraordinary job of researching the history or the period and it felt very accurate and real. So the moment that I knew it was around, I inquired and Paramount and Anonymous content were doing it, so I pitched for it and got the job and then it was a more complicated process after that because I worked in the first writers room and then I had to go off and then I had to come back on and off, but it took quite a lot of time to get made and was complicated because of the budget really.
Michael Slavin: So, that series was very successful and ended up going on to be nominated for a Prime-Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited Series and you already mentioned there why you thought it was a great success, but why do you think the series resonated with so many viewers?
Hossein Amini: I mean I really would put it down to Caleb Carr and the sweet spot he has found between historical drama and darker thrillers. I think he’s had a lot of people copy him since and that in some ways was the challenge with the adaptation of the book, which twenty years ago was completely new, and when we were adapting it, it already had many imitators and the challenge was how to make it fresh and what he did was so unique and special that those qualities through all of the difficulties stood through.
Michael Slavin: So, you similarly made a name for yourself in terms of adapting fantastic books with Drive which is a film that has swiftly become a cult classic in the film community. So how did you approach writing the screenplay on that film because as you mentioned when you are adapting a book you want to stay true to it and stay true to what made it great but you still need to be able to throw some surprises in for the audience. So, I was wondering, how did you approach the screenplay in that way?
Hossein Amini: With Drive actually, I have two favorite adaptations. One of them is drive and the other is a Henry James adaptation called ‘Wings of the Dove’ and both of them are similar in the sense that they are both very different books, but they weren’t obvious adaptations in the sense that ‘Wings of the Dove’ was all interior, there were no scenes as such it was just what was going on in the character’s heads. With Drive, it wasn’t really about plot, the book is really Drive amusing on the past and his life and he sits in cafes and there is the plot but it is told largely in back story. It’s a wonderful book but in a way because it wasn’t a normal narrative or obvious book to script adaptation it sort of gave me the freedom and so did the Henry James novel of being able to go well I sort of don’t feel that the plot of the book is really there because it is more character-based, so I can use these wonderful characters that both Henry James and James Sallis had created to just sort of create something of my own plot and it sort of became half an adaptation and half an original in that sense and that is always my favorite kind of writing, where I can bring in some of my other interests into the adaptations and also experiences that resonate with me. Both adaptations were different from the book but I think very much inspired by the spirit of it, in particular, the characters because when a book gives you fantastic characters it’s quite easy to imagine scenes with them in.
Michael Slavin: So, with Drive, you actually worked with the fantastic director Nicolas Winging Refn and I was wondering what it was like working with him and alongside him which directors have left a mark on your writing style?
Hossein Amini: Well with Nick, what was fantastic about Nick is that I spent four or five years going up and down on that script because it was originally a studio script so it went from something fairly similar to what it ended up as and within two or three drafts it went in different directions because I think the studio felt it needed Drive’s character in particular to have more back story and that was something I resisted but caved in on. The great thing about Nick was that he came in and said well strip it back down to what it was and I think Ryan (Gosling) felt that even more, and so the process with Nick was largely cutting. I think a lot it was there, he had some brilliant ideas and I had a few weeks with him in a house in Hollywood Hills which was really glamourous and the actors would all come in and in throw notes and tell everyone what they didn’t like about the script and so that was a process I found incredibly useful and a lot of directors don’t feel confident enough to allow the actors to give notes to the writer, they tend to keep the actors to themselves. What was great about this was that every actor no matter how small their part really thinks about their role because they’re the ones who are playing it, so they bring a whole three-dimensional aspect to it and a lot of their own experiences and how they imagine it. So, naturally, something that is two dimensional on a page becomes much more expressed and three-dimensional. So, it was a really useful experience and something I would like to do on other scripts if directors allow it, he was a director I loved working with. Iain Softley and Michael Winterbottom who I worked with on ‘Jude’ and ‘Wings of the Dove’ are directors I really found very very inspiring and really again because they had such a clear vision of what they wanted, but were also incredibly collaborative and in my experience, that relationship between a writer and a director is very key and if that relationship isn’t working I think things can go wrong.
Michael Slavin: Yeah, that’s fantastic thank you. So, one of your upcoming projects is the anticipated ‘Obi Wan’ show for Disney+ and I was wondering what you can say about the current production status of that series, I know you can’t say everything-
Hossein Amini: I can’t say very much. The plan is to start shooting in July, Ewan McGregor is signed on. I think he’s already said that it spans the period between episodes 3 and 4, so sort of after the fall of the republic and the massacre of the Jedi before the events of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’. It’s fascinating in the sense that it’s a period where there is a lot of change in the galaxy and a lot of hardship. So, for Obi Wan’s character, he has a lot to adjust to given the loss of his close friends and the order that he believed in. It felt like a really exciting opportunity to explore a different side of a franchise that I always loved and I’ve always loved it because of its spiritual aspects as well as its fun and action elements, it seems to work on way more than one level which isn’t always true for those big franchises.
Michael Slavin: That actually links very well onto my next question because I want to sort of ask how is it where you’re tackling such an iconic Star Wars character, but you’re tackling it in perhaps the worst span of their life because everything they ever stood for has fallen and everyone they have ever known has been massacred before this new hope is given, so I was wondering how you’re approaching that aspect of the character.
Hossein Amini: For a writer that is a difficult journey to explore because there is so much conflict in terms of internal and external and that’s what you’re always looking for in a story. When things are going great it’s difficult to wrangle a story out of that because there is nothing to struggle against in both the interior and exterior sense. So, I’ve always been drawn to situations that revolve around some kind of crisis.
Michael Slavin: Previously Obi-Wan was actually reportedly planned as a movie so why do you think that this story works best as a six-episode limited series?
Hossein Amini: I think because of what we were speaking about before, the situation is so complex both for him personally and in a way, the state of the galaxy, you sort of need time to explore it and to be honest there are loads of other stories within that period as well, it’s quite a few years. There is so much going on between episode 3 and 4 that hasn’t been explored. The idea of being able to go into a character journey plus the politics and plus all the vastness of the empire and what’s going on is exciting just because it feels like a proper period of history and sometimes that is hard to do in two hours. Sometimes with two-hour movies there is always an imperative for the action and the plot to move particularly fast and quickly and to go from action sequence to action sequence and there are many more aspects to storytelling that I find interesting.
Michael Slavin: So, how did you actually come about joining the project? Did you have to pitch, were you contacted? I was just wondering how you ended up working on the series?
Hossein Amini: I was initially contacted by the original director for the film version, Stephen Daldry and chatted with him and loved him as a director and then with Lucasfilm, it was more of a conversation than a pitch, I am incredibly gracious about it. They didn’t make it feel like an audition.
Michael Slavin: Have you always wanted to- you mentioned you were really fascinated by the period and are clearly a big Star Wars fan. Is Obi-Wan a character you’ve always been curious to explore?
Hossein Amini: Well he was one of my favorite characters, probably because he spans throughout both the trilogy and the prequels and it’s just something about how different he is from one to the next that is really fascinating and makes him such an iconic character. It’s also that I loved Star Wars because I’ve always been interested in different religions, like the whole notion of the samurai I’ve always loved, there are so many aspects of Star Wars that particularly appealed to me when I was a kid and it’s been actually really exciting being able to look at all the animated series and read many of the books it’s a whole world and galaxy that I’ve loved diving into.
Michael Slavin: I was wondering how long you’ve actually been attached to the series because I know Ewan McGregor mentioned that he’s been having to lie to people for years about it. Have you been similarly having to keep things tight-lipped? How long have you been attached to the project?
Hossein Amini: It’s probably coming up to almost two years now.
Michael Slavin: Oh wow, so that is quite a long period that this has been worked on.
Hossein Amini: Yeah I mean obviously, it’s been on and off but yeah.
Michael Slavin: So, I was just wondering how has it been working with the Lucasfilm story group to make sure that this show fits into the wider Star Wars canon?
Hossein Amini: They’re fantastic and absolutely devoted fans but they also know so much so that’s obviously wonderful and inspirational safety net to have. They are incredibly helpful to the process.
Michael Slavin: The director of the series is set to be Deborah Chow, who has done an episode on the Mandalorian, have you taken any influence from the tone they’re going for there where it is much more grounded-
Hossein Amini: I haven’t seen any of it except for the trailer. I’ve only seen as much as you have. I’m really excited to see it, but it hasn’t really affected what I’ve been doing particularly. I am a big fan of ‘Rogue One’, so the trailer for ‘The Mandalorian’ looks fantastic.
Michael Slavin: So with regards to the series, its set in a period as we’ve spoken about where although there is so much to that period and so much intrigue and interest, it’s not one that’s been touched on too greatly within films and the TV shows outside of the cartoons and I was wondering are there any canon or non-canon Star Wars material that influenced the writing of this or have you just very much approached it from a personal standpoint of ignore the rest and just focus on your own story.
Hossein Amini: No, I’ve been researching madly for a really long time and also because I love the research, with other projects too, like I said I studied History so in a way the great thing about Star Wars is that obviously, it started with George Lucas but the fans and writers and comic book artists have all contributed massively to this world that is vast so I think as a fan I have a certain responsibility to that group and I think it’s really important to be respectful and yes I’ve always loved putting something of myself in as a writer but when it’s something like this I think you have to know it like you would a piece of history you would be studying with all the characters and what has come before and in this case what’s come after as well.
Michael Slavin: So, you’ve mentioned in the interview and in other interviews how much for you it’s character first and then the plot comes from that as opposed to how much is driven by plot nowadays. Apologies if I’m retreading ground, I just find this completely fascinating. Is that what with Obi-Wan attracted you was an opportunity to start with a character rather than here’s a plot now make characters for it?
Hossein Amini: It’s a combination of plot and the situation that the character finds themselves in, its possible that Obi-Wan in a different period- like I said before, they have to be in a situation that also makes them interesting so yes it does start with character but it’s a combination I guess of character and situation or crisis. I mean he is a fascinating character.
Michael Slavin: Is there anything outside of Star Wars that you could point to as a potential influence for the series? Is there anything else that you in your research have come across that you find has been a real source of inspiration in writing the series?
Hossein Amini: Again it’s lots of other Sci-Fi’s but also the spiritual aspects of Star Wars that like I said is something that’s always really fascinated me so, yeah I try to keep the research as varied as possible, going into all sorts of books about crisis and extraordinary bits of anthropological stuff and you get inspired by everything and that’s amazing about what George Lucas has done with Star Wars is that it’s just so full of- whether it’s Buddhism or theology or anthropology, it’s got so much it’s just so rich and I sort of feel again that with the research reading all the Star Wars stuff but also all the stuff that George Lucas himself read from ‘A hero with a thousand faces’ to all the studies he did from Samurai costumes to weapons, there are masses to research.
Michael Slavin: Very quickly you mentioned before that you believe television is the direction in which we are heading, therefore how do you feel about the fact that you’re going to be one of the real tent poles for Disney+ starting off which is sure, which streaming is going to massively affect how we consume television and shows and I was just wondering about your feelings on that.
Hossein Amini: I’m really proud to be doing this, and I love TV but I am also a big movie fan. When I say that’s where it is going I mean I think there will be more and more TV done, but it’s getting harder to get films with a certain budget made- I mean I hope that doesn’t go away because I think now there is just so much competition for actors and resources that I think sometimes that smaller budget films can get slightly harder and harder to get done and that is still something that I am incredibly passionate about. I hope the two will coexist and that one doesn’t replace the other.
Michael Slavin: Perfect thank you so much, just to end the interview I was wondering if you have any upcoming projects that you would like to promote?
Hossein Amini: No, I mean this has been all-consuming so like I said I’d love to go back to writing for features and would love to direct something again as well. It’s great to be able to move from one thing to the other. It is quite easy to get bored just doing one aspect of such a fun industry. So yeah I’d love to do a small movie.
Michael Slavin: Thank you so much for your time.