by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Joe Penhall has been telling stories in theaters, across TV screens, and on stages for almost 20 years. His screenplay based on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, brought him acclaim and opened up doors that would lead to his most celebrated project to date, Netflix’s Mindhunter.
Penhall has returned to the world of cinema with his newest project. Starring Michael Caine, The King of Thieves is a crime story based on real events about a retired crew of criminals who attempt to pull off a heist in London’s jewelry district.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Penhall to discuss his work, his writing process, and his passion for criminals.
John Bucher: You have an amazing gift of taking source material, whether it be from Cormac McCarthy or from actual events like with King of Thieves and crafting a compelling narrative. How do you begin to approach material that already exists in order to craft it into a story of your own?
Joe Penhall: At the risk of sounding pretentious, I love to try and find the kind of quotidian humanity in these stories. These small details tend to be the things that set off a chain reaction that I end up discovering a much bigger story in.
King of Thieves came from a transcript of all of the conversations that a gang had which was recorded by Scotland Yard because they put them under heavy surveillance after the robbery. This transcript was 100 pages long and it was an incredible document of human vanity, narcissism, and flawed grandiose dreams. They all thought that they were in a heist movie. In several places, they even talked about one day there will be a book or a film about us.
So, I’m always interested in something that looks like genre but actually reveals some kind of universal truth. The other thing that’s fascinated me is serial killers, and that’s because I grew up in a town in Australia where there had been a space of about five terrible bizarre serial killings in the ’80s and ’90s through my adolescence. When they happen in your town and you’re a child, they sink into your imagination and in a way, you see the world through that prism. Mindhunter was an opportunity to do something with one of the greatest filmmakers around (David Fincher) that was genre and that was going to be a Netflix show but was also an opportunity to really explore a facet of humanity that I’d experienced and was intrigued by.
John Bucher: With both Mindhunter and King of Thieves, you really get into the psychology of criminals and you have deep insights here into the way that people who have committed and plotted crimes look at the world. How do you approach these characters to understand their psychology?
Joe Penhall: The first and only regular job I ever had was as a crime reporter in my early twenties, and occasionally, the detectives would give me a transcript to read. One of them was an interview with a serial killer and we would analyze it and we would talk about it and they would give me their insights, and over the years, I’ve just become more and more interested in psychology and the kind of pathology of people’s behavior, because the only way to know anything about people is to try and develop a proper kind of psychological perspective.
What fascinated me about Mindhunter was how these FBI agents are expected to get crew cuts and lock people up and they’re at a time in history when that’s not good enough anymore. We have to develop a more nuanced, more academic, psychological understanding of this and I think that that’s true. People accept criminals. They accept politicians. They accept the bad people and the good people in society without ever really analyzing or pathologizing them in any way at all.
These things are an opportunity for me to try and dig down and understand what makes criminals tick. These criminals are a big part of our society, and certainly when I was doing Mindhunter, I know David and I were both fascinated with psychopathy and narcissism and personality disorders because I think we felt, somewhere on the grapevine, there were other people out there who weren’t serial killers who were high-ranking politicians who had psychopathy, who had personality disorders that resembled very closely the kind of villains in our piece.
And it came to pass. Since Mindhunter was written, there’s been this book about Donald Trump’s personality disorder. It’s well known that many of history’s dictators had personality disorders. They had psychopathy. They had sociopathy. They had antisocial personality disorder.
And it strikes me as self-evident that there is a pathological way of understanding these things without just calling it evil or without just calling them monsters or without just ringing your hands, you know. I think we were on a mission with Mindhunter to show that these people were actually ordinary people, sad to say.
King of Thieves is a much lighter version of that, but it’s the same thing. It’s not Warren Beatty in a heist film. It’s not George Clooney in a heist film. They’re banal people. They’re banal people that can’t be socialized the way most people can and they end up doing odd things like robbing vaults. I just find it fascinating but fascinating for slightly different reasons than people generally find heists fascinating or criminality fascinating in the movies.
John Bucher: Many in our audience are writers themselves and are always curious about other writers’ creative process. Can you speak to that? Are you an early morning guy, a late at night guy? Do you write in chunks or everyday? What’s your process look like?
Joe Penhall: I’m definitely better in the morning and I think most writers will probably attest that sometimes, if you’re lucky, there’s a golden hour between about 6:30 and 9:30 where fantastic ideas just download from the cosmos and you have to leap out of bed and write them down. I think that neurologically and psychologically, it’s well known that we get our freshest and best ideas first thing in the morning.
So, the morning’s definitely when I write, and then after lunch it’s a bit more sporadic, but I do get ideas at odd times and out of the blue and I have to rush and write them down. I could be in bed. I could be asleep. It could be in the shower. It could be in the car. And by and large, I try and do six or eight hours a day, although it’s not always writing. I do a lot of reading as well. I do a lot of listening to people and talking to people and I watch lots of rolling news.
John Bucher: Between film, television, and even the stage with Blue Orange, how do you approach writing for different mediums? Do you think of the story in a different way? Do you take the story first and decide what medium would be best for it?
Joe Penhall: It’s confusing even for me. I think the simple answer is that stories lend themselves to a certain form and for some stories it’s clear what the form should be. Plays are very often one argument or one encounter drawn out and investigated in all its minutiae. A TV series like Mindhunter is an epic story that has many, many, many chapters to it. So that’s kind of an obvious decision. I guess you just try, and broadly speaking, let it find its own medium.
But I think the hardest thing is not so much the structural placement. The structure of something presents itself to you quite quickly and easily. King of Thieves was obviously a film. It would be silly to try and make a series out of that. It was obviously a heist film with a build up and the execution and the fall out.
Screenwriting is a solitary task. I don’t spend a lot of time talking to other screenwriters but when I do, I love it because we all have the same questions. Whether we voice them or not. I saw a fabulous interview with Andrew Bovell recently where he asked himself the same thing: What should I be doing as a screenwriter? And in some ways when you’ve done all these different things and been lucky enough for them to be successful, in a way, the world is your oyster, but in a way it’s also your clam because you kind of clam up and don’t know what to do next. I don’t know. I muddle through.
John Bucher: What advice do you have for storytellers and screenwriters who are trying to tell the best story they can?
Joe Penhall: There’s so much. I think the question that is obsessing me at the moment and has been obsessing me for the last few years starting with Mindhunter is why are you writing this story? What of you is in this and what obsession of yours? What fascination of yours is in this and how deep does it go? What I’ve discovered as I’ve gotten older is that the things that I’ve done that have been really successful and I think that are good, the best things I’ve done have inevitably come from a profoundly deep place.
I ask, is this something that any screenwriter can write? Or is this something that only I can write and therefore I have to write it, and if I do write it, then it probably will be quite good and original. There’ll be something about it that has a profound searching, grounded quality that won’t necessarily be there if I write something that’s just a confection that doesn’t come from a deep place.
Mindhunter is currently on Netflix.
King of Thieves is in theaters, On VOD, and Digital HD today.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.