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Finding the Moral Power of a Story: William Nicholson Discusses 'Thirteen Lives'

William Nicholson speaks with Script about writing 'Thirteen Lives,' how he finds truth in a story, his writing career from documentaries to plays, and so much more.
Teeradon ’James’ Supapunpinyo as Coach Ek in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Teeradon ’James’ Supapunpinyo as Coach Ek in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Thirteen is often considered an unlucky number. This is primarily attributed to Judas Iscariot being the thirteenth person to sit at the table with Jesus during the Last Supper. It’s also related to ancient myths and traditions, including the Sumerians considering the number twelve a “perfect” number. The number that followed it was deemed to be lesser. The twelve-month calendar can be attributed to their beliefs. This superstition is a construct of mostly the Western world because elemental civilizations like those of the Egyptians considered the number lucky.

In the summer of 2018, twelve young soccer players and their coach were trapped in the Tham Luan Nang Non cave in Thailand. The boys ranged in age from 11 to 16 and the coach was 25. Their lives hung in the balance as the world watched them get rescued. The Rescue (2021) is a well-crafted documentary that recounts the perilousness of the rescue. Thai Cave Rescue (2022) is a limited series on Netflix that has more of the perspective of the boys than the rescuers and has a more emotional core. Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives (2022) is an Amazon Original movie starring Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and Joel Edgerton as the fearless rescuers. The title itself connotes bad luck and danger. The film is finely acted and deftly directed. The litterateur of this nailbiter is William Nicholson, a veteran novelist, screenwriter, and playwright whose credits include Sarafina! (1992), Nell (1994), Gladiator (2000), and Les Misérables (2012).

I read somewhere that you were ten when you realized you wanted to write. How did you know that?

I was even younger than that! My mother was an English teacher. I was showing off to my mom.

William Nicholson

William Nicholson

Is your writing affected after you've won an award?

Awards are a complicated business. They're so chancy. When you win an award, you feel simultaneously imposter syndrome and like, 'Of course I'm a genius. Why wouldn't they give me an award?' It's somewhere between the two. There are plenty of things I've done where I thought I should have gotten an award and I haven't...! I've done it for such a long time I've gotten to the stage that I really want to be proud of what I've done and some of the things that I've done that are the best haven't been noticed very much, haven't gotten awards. I'm just so grateful. It's very difficult to get films made and just to get one made is amazing. Twenty-one of my scripts have been turned into films and that's what I'm proudest of. A very large number have not as well, I'd say an equal amount.

Do you ever revisit those?

Yes, I do. I'm forever trying to refurbish them as a stage play or a novel.

You worked a long time in documentaries. What was your writing like during those times?

What I was doing was like TV journalism. We'd spend a week on a project, two days filming, three days editing and bang. A forty-minute piece going out. It's not very impressive but very good training in lots of things. I learned a lot. I traveled the world. I met a lot of interesting people. I shot a lot of film, I cut a lot of film. I learned to find the heart of the story in a human situation. All those things stand you in good stead when you start doing fictional writing.

I heard you say in one of your interviews that you like to find the truth in a story. How do you go about doing that?

I guess what I'm talking about is emotional truth, not factual truth. Of course, you have to have factual truth but it's impossible in a span of two hours or less to reflect what actually happened because so much happened in any story, so you're selecting and restructuring all the time. You ask what the emotional truth is and how you can serve it. It's all about characters. What did they want? What did they feel? What got in the way of that? How did they deal with that? How can I essentialize that so the audience travels that journey that took them ten years and we're giving them in ninety minutes. It's about identifying the key emotional drives of the characters.

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What's the difference in doing that with historical fiction as opposed to real life?

It's the same process in each. In real life, you're dealing with people who are sitting in front of you and that's very different. I can write a story about Elizabeth I and she’s not going to turn around and say, 'You jerk, you got that wrong.' But when I write a story about divers in Thailand, they can certainly do that. I have to be doubly aware of that. The way I do that is I imagine while I'm writing them sitting beside me watching the movie. I've learned that people are OK with your interpretation if they feel they've been respected. I can't write stories about people I don't like. I've got to love my characters, to be honest.

What kind of research did you have to do for Thirteen Lives?

An enormous amount. There was a researcher hired by the producer before it ever came to me. I was given an enormous pile of paper. He'd interviewed everybody. He was an excellent researcher. That was immensely valuable. My job then was chucking things out, deciding what not to include. It enabled me to track my way through very quickly and decide what story I was going to tell and who were going to be the main people. I made simple decisions like, 'I'm not going to see the kids in the cave until they're rescued.' You make these decisions and that simplifies the process. To give you another example, I was told a lot about the kids, a lot about the families. I then decided to create a composite character, a mother, who represented the parents. She's fictional but based on everything the research had given me.

Pattrakorn ’Ploy’ Tungsupakul as Namhom in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Pattrakorn ’Ploy’ Tungsupakul as Namhom in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

You've said that before you start writing you have to have your ending. For this one, you definitely know the ending, but have you ever been writing, and the ending changed?

I truly don't think so. One example, but it wasn't because of me, was the end of Gladiator had to change because Oliver Reed died. He was a crucial part of the ending. I had to rebuild the whole ending during the shooting. It was two weeks off of shooting. But, normally, no. The ending is so important that I start with the ending. I almost don't take on a project until I know how it's going to end. I learned that way way back. I learned that endings have to be both happy and sad, both good and bad. If you give people everything they want at the end, the audience these days is quite suspicious because life isn't like that. If you give them a real bummer of an ending, where everything goes wrong, they hate it. I'm always looking for that balance.

What's a writing day for you like writing a novel as opposed to writing a screenplay?

I love writing novels because you can go inside the heads of your characters in a way that you can't in a screenplay. With a movie, you can give them voiceover, but you can't do too much of that. You're relying on the actors. We have these extraordinary actors where you can look at their faces and know what they're thinking. In a novel you can really go into the complicated flow of thoughts and emotions. The trouble is, novels play to my weaker side, and they encourage me to pontificate too much, get a bit pompous. I try and get deep and all that stuff. Nobody really wants that. Whereas when I'm writing movies, all of that is hammered out of me by the process of the group who's working. All screenwriters work with other people. They're not interested in my voice or my deep feelings. They want something that works. I have found that immensely valuable.

How about playwriting?

I absolutely love playwriting. It's almost my favorite of all because it's collegiate, you're working with other people, and it's very much a writer's medium. The first thing that I wrote that was successful was Shadowlands. That was first TV, then I turned it into a play. The moment I turned it into a play, I could start going deeper into some of those speeches and I decided I would begin with a nine-minute speech. You could never do that in a movie. I was able to use a beautiful structure that you can only use on stage. I wish I'd done more, and I want to do more. The problem is it's very speculative. Whereas with film, they pay you, even if it doesn't get made...!

What's your favorite movie of yours and why?

I recently did a film that I directed myself, which was a film version of a play I did. It's basically about me and my parents. The film is called Hope Gap with Annette Bening, Bill Nighy and Josh O'Connor. I really, really loved doing that and I loved the result. It hasn't been particularly successful but I'm very proud of it.

That was your second time directing?

Yeah. The first time, I had a very unpleasant experience. I hated the post-production process but loved the film. It killed my desire to direct for twenty years. Harvey Weinstein at Miramax was doing the marketing and it was an eighteen-month nightmare.

Did you feel that directing affected your writing at all?

Oh, yes. The glory of being a writer/director is you rework it as you're directing it. I think all writers should direct their own work. You can fine tune as you go along.

What is your favorite screenplay of yours that you've written?

Possibly Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. It's not an entirely satisfactory film because I perhaps tried to do too much. I tried to encapsulate the whole South African story within one life. And not just that. Within one relationship. It's really about Nelson and Winnie, who had two very different approaches to dealing with white supremacy. Obviously, I love Gladiator because it's such a brilliant film. Not because of me in particular but because of such an amazing director, amazing actors, and amazing designers. I'm very proud of a little film I wrote called Breathe. Andy Serkis directed it. Didn't get a lot of play but it's very powerful and I think it has a lot of truth in it. And of course, my original Shadowlands is very close to my heart.

What kind of projects are you attracted to?

I can always tell immediately if a project is my thing. It'll have a central character who I can get behind. Who I admire. I want what they want and I can turn that story into something that will have passion behind it. I look for someone who is trying to do something good and probably getting it wrong. In Thirteen Lives, which isn't my usual sort of project, it's rather process driven. I wasn't really interested in the process. I was interested in those divers who thought they were doing a technical thing. But I knew and they knew they were doing something to save lives. I love those differences. They wanted to do their thing, but it was ultimately about love. I respond to that sort of thing. I respond to being able to show that without being too much on the nose. Just to let it creep out until the audience feels it.


Do you ever have writer's block?

No, but there's a good reason for that. I have a trick for getting around it. Of course, I have days where I think I don't know what I'm going to do, I'm stuck. I do not allow myself not to work. I say, 'Relax. We're not going to write today. We're going to make notes.' Where am I on this project? What's coming up? When you write in note form, the critic in you, which is part of writer's block, takes a walk. Within ten minutes, you're writing again. You have to allow yourself to do work that's not very good. Just keep it moving. The bliss about what we do is that we do lots of drafts.

Do you have a writing routine?

I very much have a writing routine. I get up early and from the moment I'm up, it's happening. I don’t work after lunch, though.

Do you have a writing quirk that people would be surprised about?

I write with a fountain pen. The particular pace of writing with a pen suits the creative pace. I do all my first drafts in pen. Then I get on the computer, onto Final Draft, and type it out. Then I print that out, go back to my other desk. Out comes fountain pen again for revisions.

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What's your process for developing characters, particularly for true stories like Thirteen Lives?

It's actually quite instinctive. I've done my research or have been thinking about the character. Then I have a sense of the character. I structure the story. I know that the character will have certain crises. That's built-in. I often don't know much more than that. And as I start to write, I become the character. I become all the characters. That's the magic of writing.

In one of your talks, you said you use "sections" when you write screenplays. You don't just have the three acts. Can you expound on that?

I certainly don't have three acts. I build the story. Everything has its stages when things are happening. Instead of every single little scene, you have clusters of scenes. Each section is heading towards its own miniature climax. I need to know those before I start writing, just like I must know the ending of the whole thing before I start. That's how you pace what you're doing.

How was it working with Ron Howard on Thirteen Lives?

It was heavenly. He is such a wonderful guy. He's very meticulous, he's very process-driven, so he took charge of a whole bunch of stuff I had no idea about, all this diving stuff. But he was with me on the emotional journey the whole time. He wants what I want. He wants to make a movie where you really love the characters and understand why they're doing what they're doing. He's also extremely respectful. You might be surprised to hear that not all directors are...!

Thirteen Lives is now available to stream on Amazon Video.

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