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Writing a Cinematic Experience on the Page with ‘The Tender Bar’ Screenwriter William Monahan

Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan shares insight about adapting non-fiction work, taking your job seriously as a screenwriter and artist, and immersing yourself in your work.

The Tender Bar tells the story of J.R. (Sheridan), a fatherless boy growing up in the glow of a bar where the bartender, his Uncle Charlie (Affleck), is the sharpest and most colorful of an assortment of quirky and demonstrative father figures. As the boy’s determined mother (Rabe) struggles to provide her son with opportunities denied to her — and leave the dilapidated home of her outrageous if begrudgingly supportive father (Christopher Lloyd) — J.R. begins to gamely, if not always gracefully, pursue his romantic and professional dreams — with one foot persistently placed in Uncle Charlie’s bar. The Tender Bar is based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehringer

This movie delivers a feel-good, coming-of-age story delivered by a great cast, and visionaries behind the scenes. I had the great honor of speaking with one of the greatest living screenwriters of our time, William Monahan. This isn't William's first foray into the world of adaptation - he took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on The Departed. During our conversation, William shares insight about adapting non-fiction work, taking your job seriously as a screenwriter and artist, and immersing yourself in your work.

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan star in The Tender Bar Photo: Claire Folger © Amazon Content Services LLC

Ben Affleck and Tye Sheridan star in The Tender Bar Photo: Claire Folger © Amazon Content Services LLC

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this memoir initially come across your desk and what sparked your interest in adapting it?

William Monahan: Well, I read it when it came out. And I thought it was really interesting because it was one of the few first books in which the author doesn't throw his family and friends under the bus. There's just a truth about the material. It's a story about a guy who loved his family and they loved him. I thought, well, this is unusual since the first book is always generally revenge against your circumstances. So, it was interesting to me in that respect. How I got to do it finally, many years later was Amazon just came to me and offered me the job to adapt it. I guess it's been kicking around for a while without being written or set up or anything and they just came to me and I wrote it and sent it in. And it turns out that George [Clooney] and Grant [Heslov] had wanted to do it for a long time. And so, it just worked out that way.

Sadie Dean: What was that collaboration process like working with George from that screenplay?

William: It was perfect. I wrote it and he directed it. [laughs] That was it. It was all during the lockdown. So we didn't get together or anything.

Sadie: Oh, wow.

William: And he basically went with the first draft.

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Sadie: What a turnaround, too. There's this really great line in the script that states the theme upfront and who JR is and it's the line of description, “An optimistic observer daring to be disappointed.” That's just so rich and says so little bit says so much in that one line. In terms of adapting the story for yourself, what are you looking to pull from the story to adapt from the book to script? Do you generally focus more on character development or plot or is it a little bit of both?

William: Well, everything is all in the piece. You pull one thread it affects others. You have to see the thing as an organic whole when you do it and can't really break it out into parts and pieces like that. What I had to do was, as you know, it's a non-fiction book, non-fiction is real life and it's kind of messy. You've got to make it work as a narrative. And you have to figure out what you can use and what you have to omit, and of course in real life, as demonstrated right now, we don't speak in polished dialogue. [laughs] You basically have to change all of that. You have to find your way into it and make yourself enjoy it as you're writing it as if you're watching the film. That's always what's fun about it to me.

William Monahan

William Monahan

Sadie: I'm curious, from reading the book to writing the first draft, what was that turnaround process for you?

William: I held it back a little longer than I would have from sending it in. So instead of sending in my first draft and getting notes on it, I sort of held the script back and did a few drafts on my own until I was satisfied with it. I didn't really want to get notes on it or talk about it or anything else. I just wanted to deliver it as completed. I was just very fortunate that George and Grant were there to catch it. The film was shot and released all within one calendar year and that's highly unusual.

Sadie: Yeah, that really is. During that writing process and knowing that you weren't sharing it with anyone, were you doing additional research by speaking with JR and diving deep for his character development, and his Uncle Charlie?

William: No, not at all. I still haven't met him. But it's two different things, you want to get something that basically conveys yes, it's in the book and that the story can also stand on its own as a piece of work, so that the two pieces of work complement each other. But it's totally two different operations.

Sadie: In terms of the, I feel like it's a tale of redemption for JR, he's able to vanquish his baddy, which is his dad, but you're also dealing with something serious - what is the idea of manhood and fatherhood and how do the two correlate or inform each other? Were you approaching the script from a personal place?

William: I don't know, what do you think? [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs]

William: Have you read both things?

Sadie: I haven't read the book. I really want to, but I've read your screenplay. I want to say yes, but I could be wrong.

William: Well, a lot of me crept into it. I didn't have a terrible or absent father, I had the best father in the world but you know, the milieu of the seventies and everything else, the world was recognizable to me. And I had a lot of fun with it. Of course, I channeled a lot of my own stuff into it, because you have to, because really when you're screenwriting, what you're doing is you're doing an improvisational performance and a lot of people don't realize that the screenwriter is the first actor in a way. You're acting all the characters on the page and you have to act them, you have to improvise a kind of well, in order for anybody else who would want to do them and, after all, that's the whole point of screenwriting, to get people to want to make a movie, right? You definitely throw yourself into your interpretation of the book and the characters in it. For example, many things that people are carrying away from the film are the things that I sort of improvised by my experience of the way that the character work was naturally taking me in having to make it make the B story and A story work in this new medium.

Sadie: The characters are so real and rich. So, I guess I was right! Taking a step back, what initially inspired you to become a screenwriter?

William: I always loved movies, obviously, but there was one thing in my own life which is very important, which I grew up in a house full of books, like the boy in the film did, and that was the most useful thing that ever happened to me because it's almost like having a superpower when you've read everything. The house, had basically every book in the world in it, thanks to my own uncle. So, among those books, there was a copy of the screenplay, The Doctor and the Devils by Dylan Thomas. As you can imagine, it was kind of better than most screenplays because it was by Dylan Thomas. That was the first screenplay I ever read and it was literature. I didn't know there was any difference between a screenplay and any other kind of literary writing. So, when I started experimenting with screenplays at a very young age, it was always from the perspective of it being literature. Had I tripped across a screenplay for an episode of The Brady Bunch first, I might not even be a screenwriter, I might be teaching poetry or be an astronaut or something. [laughs] But it certainly wouldn't have inspired me to get into screenwriting. And the fact that my exposure to screenwriting was screenwriting as literature, means that I always kept that as a standard going forward. And it's done me some pretty good service at this point, not thinking that screenwriting is subliterary or left-handed, or something you only do when you need money, you know, it's an art.

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Sadie: I totally agree. It's a beautiful art form and it should be taken seriously.

William: Yeah, and you have to make it a reading experience, too. I keep saying this to people, you have to make it read. It has to be like the movie described on page, you know, you see the movie you're thinking of then you write it down on paper as best as you can. And, of course, the director would come in and do what he wants on the day or on the floor, but everybody involved has to be able to see it as a movie. And sometimes when people are writing screenplays, you see that they have sort of demoted themselves from being what they are at this particular time, which is primary artists in the process. So of course, many things are going to be realized later, but you have to provide a cinematic experience on the page.

Sadie: It’s so important and I loved your other response about you're the first actor with all these characters in this piece. Do you have a set writing routine or writing process when you're diving into a new project?

William: No, I just try to make myself work. [laughs] Isn't that always the challenge? [laughs] I'll walk around and do anything else before I sit down to write and then once I'm writing, I’m completely immersed in it. I sort of surface hours later and realize it's dark and I haven't even had coffee yet. When I get into it, I really love it. I really become engaged. I can never do those answers, ‘Well, first I sharpen my pencils, and then I combat writer's block by doing yoga.’ [laughs] I like to write, that's why I do it. I've never done anything I didn't like to do.

The other thing is that I always tell people, there's always questions about writer’s block, and you know, there isn't any such thing. You don't want to do it or you can't do it. And this can happen to anybody on a particular project. You can't do it. Or you don't want to and can't is usually a matter of don't want to.

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Sadie: I'm definitely guilty of that as well or just procrastination.

William: Well, it's not necessarily procrastination. It's a job where you're thinking about it all the time and your head is whirling with it. You might be solving problems even when you're sleeping. Then all of a sudden it just comes together, and you dash for the desk.

Sadie: Any general advice for is screenwriters who are interested in adapting a memoir?

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William: For adapting anything, just realize that non-fiction is never going to play. That's why it's adapted. It's the same as adapting anything, even a well-crafted fictional book isn't going to play as a film. There are rare exceptions, like Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. There was really no script for that. Kubrick just designed it and shot the pages of the book. So sometimes, a thing like that will fall into your hands, where you can just shoot the bloody thing. But in most cases, there has to be a full job done with things emitted and transformed and everything else. And as I suggested before, you have to fully inhabit it, as doing as I said before, improvisation - an improvisational performance with the characters and the interactions of the characters and things like that. You have to really get into it. You have to make it your own, in order to perform it in that way, while maintaining respect to the original and underlying material and the sensitivities of anybody who might be involved. 

The Tender Bar is now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.


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