Interview: Philippa Goslett

Philippa Goslett
Philippa Goslett

The screenwriter behind Film4-backed productions Mary Magdalene and How To Talk To Girls At Parties talks collaboration, research and writing from an unexpected point of view.


How did you become involved in Mary Magdalene?

The project originated with Katherine Bridle at See Saw. She had wanted to tell stories about women who had shaped history, but had been either forgotten or miscast. So she started developing the project, and when I came to the project there was a script by Helen Edmundson. What fascinated me about it was what it might be like to tell this story that we're all familiar with, the Jesus story, but from a woman's point of view. How it might feel different, how it might look different, and whether we would focus on different elements of the story. And, ultimately, what I was excited to do was see whether there could even be a different meaning to Jesus's journey, from a female perspective. So I rewrote, and then Garth Davis came on board, and Garth and I worked very deeply together to get under the skin of Mary's point of view.

What was it that you, personally, wanted to bring to the project, and achieve with the finished film?

I had two big questions when I came to the project that it took me a long time to get to grips with, and one was why Jesus would go to Jerusalem. As a person on the fringes of society, and a person that was becoming perceived as ever more radical by the authorities, why he would go somewhere where it would bring about his own destruction. And so that led to us tracking the process of Jesus's realisation of his fate throughout the film.

And the second question that I struggled with for a long time was Judas, because I just couldn't accept that somebody who had spent time in the Jesus group, with its emphasis on lack of attachment, and lack of money, anything that gets in the way of experiencing the Kingdom of God - I couldn't accept that somebody who'd been in that group would then betray Jesus for money. So I thought there had to be another way, and I had many conversations with priests and advisors and finally just came to this idea that Judas might betray Jesus out of misguided love, rather than greed. That also fed into the idea of the Kingdom, and what Judas believed the Kingdom would be, and how he in the end betrays Jesus because he feels he's helping him, forcing his hand to bring about the Kingdom. And that character of Judas becomes a tragic one, as he realises that everything that he's believed would happen, isn't going to happen. And his world crumbles around him.

And how did you find Mary - both her story and her perspective - amongst all of these competing voices, agendas and points of view?

Our two main sources for this were the gospels themselves, and the gospels never style Mary as this public perception that we have of her, as a prostitute or a sinful woman. The gospels just simply state that she was one of the women who were present at the burial and the crucifiction, and one of the women who witnessed the resurrection, or in the case of two of the gospels the first witness to the resurrection. So we know from the gospels, therefore, that this was a really important spiritual figure in the story.

And what happened then was in 591, Pope Gregory the Great issued a homily which conflated Mary with two other figures in the Bible, Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman in Luke 7. And these two characters give us the images of the woman who anoints Jesus, and the woman who weeps and bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair. And that was never Mary Magdalene, but then somehow, in the public eye, that’s who she has been ever since. And actually, in 1969, the Catholic Church amended its calendar and corrected that. What’s interesting to me is that ever since then, there’s been this huge emphasis on, if she wasn’t this penitent prostitute, then she must have been Jesus’s wife or lover. And it has been so hard for us to see her outside of these sexualised gender stereotypes - and that was key for me, to put her back in the context of the gospels, as this very important figure within the Jesus movement.

And then we also drew on another source, which was the Gospel of Mary - which is an apocryphal gospel. It was found in 1896, and it’s a 5th century text, but it’s a copy of a much earlier, probably 2nd century text. It isn’t a gospel written by Mary, but it shows her as a person of considerable authority within the Jesus group. And it also dramatises a tension between her and Peter, which we really drew on for their dynamic in the screenplay. What that also showed, the discovery of the gospel of Mary, was there was a female tradition coming down from the Jesus movement, which has been buried for centuries.

It must have been quite a specific writing challenge, finding this character in the margins of familiar stories. How did you tackle that?

I think the only way we could do it, having created this character, was to follow her emotionally step-by-step. And at every point in the screenplay, we’d never fall back on the comforting, traditional depictions of the gospels that we’ve seen before. We would keep asking ourselves how this would be from Mary’s point of view, what’s significant about it from Mary’s point of view. Many episodes in the script, in the process of working with Garth, fell away, because we felt that they weren’t that relevant to Mary. And that’s why we only see a few of the familiar episodes within the screenplay. We don’t try to create an epic, Biblical film in that sense.

Your next film, How To Talk To Girls At Parties, is inspired by a very different kind of sacred text, a short story by Neil Gaiman.

That was such a privilege for me to work on. I actually did my university dissertation on one of Neil Gaiman’s books, an amazing graphic novel called Mr Punch. At a time when graphic novels weren’t really as mainstream as they are now, I was trying to prove that they could be considered as part of the English literary canon. So when Howard Gertler, the producer, phoned up and said ‘I’ve got this short story by Neil Gaiman, would you be interested?’, my inner 18 year old was doing cartwheels.

And it was an incredible project, because it was so collaborative. We worked together, Howard, John Cameron Mitchell, myself, adapting Neil Gaiman’s short story, and the short story probably only takes up the first 20 minutes of the film. It’s quite literally there, quite faithfully adapted in that sense. But the rest of the film, we had to make up in a style and in a way that still felt like a Neil Gaiman project. And Neil is a producer on the film, and he had input at all key stages, and that was an absolute delight to work on. All of us - myself, John, Howard, Neil - all poured our most awkward teenage moments into that film. So I think it feels very personal to everyone, and we all just adore it for containing our secret teenage rites of passage.

That again brings up the process of collaboration between the screenwriter, source texts, and, in both John and Neil's cases, two strong creative voices.

What was delightful about it was that they’re very open, creatively, to work with. Yes, they both have incredibly strong voices, and creating something that feels like a John Cameron Mitchell film and a Neil Gaiman film is a challenge. But to begin with, John and Howard and I, we spent a year over Skype, just riffing on the story, before we even started the script. That was really exciting, to have the freedom to play with these incredible minds.

So you strove to make How To Talk To Girls At Parties feel like both a Neil Gaiman film and a John Cameron Mitchell film. Is there a sense yet of what a Philippa Goslett film is?

[laughs] Who knows! What I love is to explore canvases that we think that we’re familiar with, from a completely different point of view. Articulating familiar worlds in a way that is surprising and different. In terms of genre, it’s really whatever sparks my imagination. At the moment I’m doing projects on the CIA, superheroes, more arthouse stuff, crime, science fiction. It’s all over the place, but I guess it all has this quality of the unexpected point of view.

Mary Magdalene is in UK cinemas from Friday 16th March