Writer and first-time director Massy Tadjedin chronicles the story of a married couple’s journey through temptation in her new indie drama Last Night.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Last Night, the new drama about a married couple’s journey through a night of respective temptation starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington, isn’t trying to make a moral point about the characters’ behavior, according to Massy Tadjedin, the film’s writer and first-time director. The movie follows parallel tracks – the husband on a business trip with an enticing co-worker played by Eva Mendes and the wife with an old love who knew her at a younger, more aspirant phase of life.
Tadjedin, who also wrote the script for the thriller The Jacket, studied literature at Harvard, and immigrated at two to Southern California from Iran with her family, is a wunderkind with an earnest, intelligent fondness for thoughtful discussions on filmmaking and, most deeply, writing. To Tadjedin, moral judgments and narrative buttons make for a dull story. It’s the very indefiniteness of reality that turns the wheel of a memorable tale.
She spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about why Last Night was the fastest screenplay she’s ever written, how directing has improved her writing, and why even the bits of a script that inevitably get cut are invaluable to a good film.
I read that you’d always wanted to end this film with the line, “What did you do last night?” but after shooting you came to discover Sam’s reaction said it even better so you cut it. With that in mind, has directing changed you as a writer, and if so, how?
That’s a great question. It’s probably informed my writing, but I don’t regret the way I wrote Last Night. There were things we lost in production, but it was really important to write them. In other words, I don’t think Sam could have given me that look if that line didn’t exist.
Photo: © 2011 Tribeca Enterprises LLC
Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington in Last Night.
There are things your collaborators bring, especially the actors, that are unexpected and necessarily abbreviate or lengthen or even, in this case, eliminate the dialogue that’s there. But I think it’s important to have that on the page.
There’s a certain kind of poise required of most screenwriters to write less. Did directing give you a little more of a handle on that?
It certainly makes you realize that sometimes the dialogue is superfluous in the sense that there are things that will be communicated in expressions that you don’t necessarily need to verbalize.
I do think descriptions are important, even though they thicken the script, because, especially on a film like Last Night, where you have 28 days to shoot it, if you don’t have that blueprint of where you’re intending to arrive within the scene, then it makes things that much more difficult.
You’ve said you wrote this quickly. Is it right that you just started with a blank page and no real outline or plan?
That is actually true, and it’s very different from my other screenplays. Usually I like to outline and have a clear idea of the plot… but not with this one. It was the shortest amount of time [in which] I’ve ever written a [first draft of a] screenplay – it’s not like I was done in three weeks and never revised it! I worked on it all the way up to production, but the first draft took three weeks.
Some of that is because of the nature of the story. The plot’s not very involved and the characters, once I had a grip on who they were, I wanted them to behave as realistically as possible, which necessarily limited the courses of action I thought they could take. That was another kind of border to work within.
Also by limiting the time in which the story is told to 36 hours, there’s only so much that can happen in the course of that time frame if you’re trying to maintain a consistent and honest tone.
When you set out to write this without an outline, did you have a thematic agenda?
When I say I went to the blank page and started writing, [I mean] these characters were born. Once these characters were born, the agenda was born.
What is the agenda? We know the premise, which is classic. What did you want to do with these huge themes of temptation, love, and fidelity?
First of all, I shouldn’t have said there was an “agenda” because agenda is, especially with this film, not something that was in my mind. I don’t think there was a point to make with this film. If anything, we labored to resist making a point or a judgment about the behavior that is on display in the film.
I’ve read you talking about that…
We really worked hard to be equally sympathetic to these four characters. To me it would have been so boring to make a judgment on any of them.
You like the lack of definitive resolution?
Yeah, I like slice of life films. I like realistic fiction… This is what I would consider realistic fiction. When you do that, oftentimes, it naturally dictates a lack of resolution because it is dictating, you know, life.