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How 'SPENCER' Screenwriter Steven Knight Created Surrealism by Heightening Reality

'SPENCER' screenwriter Steven Knight talks about pivoting away from biopic conventions, creating a specific timeline and storyline structure, finding the narrative in the details, and the distinct connection between Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana.

The marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumors of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. There's eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. But this year, things will be profoundly different. SPENCER is an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days.

Ever watch a movie with no expectation of being scared to your core and walking away absolutely blown away by the movie viewing experience? Well, SPENCER delivers well on both fronts, from the opening shot, the ominous score, and Kristen's career-defining role with her portrayal as Princess Diana, and a twist on biopic storytelling structure. This is a movie worthy of multiple viewings, along with a pen and paper in hand to take note of structure, pacing, and character development. 

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the storyteller mastermind and scribe Steven Knight about pivoting away from biopic conventions, creating a specific timeline and storyline structure, finding the narrative in the details, and the distinct connection between Anne Boleyn and Princess Diana. 

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Photo by Pablo Larraín.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Photo by Pablo Larraín.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this story initially come about and the idea to pivot away from standard biopic storytelling conventions?

Steven Knight: Pablo [Larraín] was in London and suggested we meet, and we met for breakfast and he said, 'Would you be interested in doing something about Diana?' It wasn't something that had preoccupied me previously, but I did recall that when she died, I watched the funeral. I was in Canada working and I watched the funeral on TV and I saw when the gates opened and the funeral cortege, the streets were full of British people doing what British people never do, which is they were sobbing and wailing and showing real emotion. And at that time, I thought, 'What was that connection between not just British people but people all over the world?' So, when Pablo put this forward, I thought this might be an interesting time to look at that. And we both knew we didn't want to do a biopic I'm always interested in trying to limit the geography and the time scale of any given project and also limit the cast of characters and concentrate on one person and really concentrate on getting into the head of that character. And so that was what I wanted to do.

Steven Knight. Photo by Franco Origlia.

Steven Knight. Photo by Franco Origlia.

I started to do research, but I didn't read any books or watch any of the documentaries or anything, but I did speak to some people who worked for her, specifically. And it became obvious that there was a particular Christmas when a decision was made and I just thought, Christmas is great because it gives you Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, sort of Act One, Act Two, Act Three. And, it's a very pressurized time that a lot of people find relatable when a lot of us have had time at celebrations with members of the family we don't particularly want to be with. But what I wanted to do was to find a relatable period in her life where I could really examine who she was, and hopefully find that in a snapshot, the human being behind the icon.

Sadie: Finding and curating those little moments that lead to such a big moment in a specific period of time and keeping it very much her point of view, is tough. Going back to that collaborative process with Pablo, how were you two working in tandem and the overall timeframe for writing this to the initial shooting script?

Steven: It was a very unusual process, particularly for Hollywood really, in that I wrote a draft and the draft that was shot was pretty much the first draft. And it was shot as written and in the order that it was written, which is always a pleasant surprise as a writer when the thing you've written actually is shot in the way that it was written. It's because Pablo is so brilliant, and he's so confident that as the rushes came back to my screen where I've written it, it was a delight every single time because it's what you've written, but it's enhanced and turned into something magical by Pablo and Kristen [Stewart], who together created this incredible character.

[Making a Plan with 'King Richard' Screenwriter Zach Baylin]

Sadie: And it’s so haunting. This is probably the scariest movie I've seen in a long time, because of the way you interweave both Anne Boleyn and Diana’s internal struggle and trauma in such a short period of time. How did the idea come about to interweave Anne Boleyn into her psyche?

Steven: It was interesting because I was interested in the Anne Boleyn story before this project ever came up. This was a person that was sort of quite blessed in a way that certain things were there or there were facts about what happened that weekend and facts about her that really lent themselves to writing the narrative and they became steppingstones. And one of them was the fact that Diana is actually related to Anne Boleyn. The Spencer's and the Boleyn's were related by blood and just the idea that there is a resonance between her fate and Diana's fate, and I just thought, wouldn't it be interesting to have those two characters meet and because Diana was not well, and because the direction that both Pablo and I wanted to go in it was kind of heightened reality as a consequence of that, it was possible to bring Anne Boleyn into this more and Diana to confront what her destiny might be.


Sadie: The mirroring of the two worlds. Were you heavily outlining before diving in?

Steven: No. I don't do outlines unless a studio asks for an outline. The way I tend to work is to have an idea of what the story is, and then just start writing and writing and writing. And for me, it's a bit more like dreaming. It’s like you start and you write a scene, or you write the interaction between some characters, and then you read it back. And sometimes you get the clue as to where it's going to go from what you've written. But in order for that to happen, you need quite a strong structure, like the three-day structure of Christmas and also the true events that I was told by people who worked there. So, you use those events as steppingstones and then just let it go and imagine how it is from her point of view, to go from that steppingstone to that steppingstone. Because we were dealing with a kind of heightened reality, there is a lot of freedom to do things, like introduce Anne Boleyn, and the freedom to do things like as she eats the pearls and they fall into her soup, so you can be quite surreal.

Sadie: Hypothetical question and a personal ask, because there is such play-like qualities in this film, have you considered maybe turning this into a play?

Steven: No, that's a very good idea! I'll make a note of that. [laughs] I think it would lend itself to that, but I think if you decide to really narrow everything down and just get down to one particular character, I think then it does lend itself to the stage perhaps.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Courtesy of NEON.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in SPENCER. Courtesy of NEON.

Sadie: Taking a deep dive into your storyteller's brain, it's so interesting to me to see the general mass have such a fascination with public figures like Diana, and celebrities. And society has a dark and odd fascination with a celebrity’s or public figure’s personal turmoil and trauma. Why do you think that is? Don’t get me wrong, it's great fodder for storytellers to have.

Steven: I think it's a great question because I don't think anyone has the answer, we've only got our own theories, and each one's probably different. But I think, for example, this story is a fairy tale in a way. All fairytales are horror stories with a happy ending, really. The fairy tales deal with, in my opinion, sort of archetypes and things from our nightmares and from our dreams that get turned into stories with hopefully a happy ending that sort of helps us perhaps reconcile things that are in our conscious and subconscious. And I think that these days or for the past 100 years, famous people, celebrities, have taken on the roles of fictional figures of figures from narrative. And the fascination with them is almost like you're reading a book. You're reading the story and you're waiting for the next episode of this story. And what’s fascinating about celebrities and famous people is that you don't know what's going to happen next, because it's real. I think there's a lesson to be learned by all writers of fiction, but the more you can resemble the oddness, the anarchy, and chaos of reality, the more I think people are drawn to it.

[Creating a Feeling and Time with 'The Souvenir Part II' Writer-Director Joanna Hogg]

Sadie: I agree with that. Are there specific things or stories that excite you that you want to write about?

Steven: I'm drawn to anything. Particularly, if it's a true story that embodies, as I said before, the oddness of the way things are for real, in other words, fiction. I think history smooths things out until we look into the pattern. You read a history book and it feels like what happened in the end was inevitable. And in a lot of fiction, even from the beginning, you sort of know how this is going to go. I'm always drawn to things wild in their narrative that you don't really know where it's going, and odd things happen and knock things off course. That's always something I find interesting. And it's certainly true of the life of Diana.

SPENCER is now playing in select theatres and available On Demand.

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