NEWS19 March 2021

James Graham: ‘Walk in the footsteps of someone you disagree with’

Brexit Impact 2021 Leisure & Arts News UK

UK – It is important to empathise with those you disagree with and understand what motivates those with different political outlooks on life, playwright and screenwriter James Graham has told MRS Impact 2021 conference.

Speaking virtually to Marc Brenner, former editor of Research magazine, Graham (pictured), who has written plays, television programmes and films including This House, Brexit: The Uncivil War and Ink, said that today’s polarised political landscape lacks empathy, and said it was good to “walk in the footsteps of someone you politically or ideologically disagree with”.

“I don’t believe that most people wake up in the morning and think ‘how can I make the world worst today’,” Graham said.

He said that with any character he writes, he focuses on what the character wants, what is preventing them from achieving it and how they go about getting it, which Graham said was an “empathetic question to understand what is motivating them”.

He added: “Of course I have biases and very passionate political opinions, but I don’t want to project them onto an audience – I think that is boring and inert. It is more valuable to me to play devil’s advocate with my own political baggage and imagine the alternative world.”

Graham said that at the outset of many of his plays, he already knows the subject would be worth writing about, although warned that does not always ensure a great play.

“At the gestation point of an idea, you always know there is a kernel of something that excites you, can entertain as a story, can captivate as a leading protagonist or is a world you could spend two hours in” he said.

“I think you know that at the birth of it. It doesn’t mean you are successfully in translating that into an impactful drama.”

Graham has spoken to political and public figures such as political adviser Dominic Cummings and newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch as research for his plays. “What is the difference between accuracy and truth? Fact and fiction? The thing I enjoy most in the world about my job is being allowed access to environments, people and professions just because you email someone. It is such a geeky thrill to be allowed a window into those worlds,” Graham said.

“Like market research, it is often about how you frame the question – what am I asking, what do I want to know – without leading you in a particular direction.”

He also cited the importance of conducting research without an agenda, which helped to make people comfortable with opening up about their actions and experiences.

“People can smell insincerity, and if you are there with a particular agenda, or to exploit or misrepresent, people know it instantly,” Graham explained.

“Whereas, if you turn up incredibly sincerely, with a genuine desire for your own preconceptions to be destroyed and really hear people, they open up even more. You need to be prepared to go home and delete everything you have written because some has added a perspective.”

Graham said he writes a lot of notes but avoids recording conversations, as he is looking to learn about someone’s ideas, spirit or demeanour, rather than specific quotes. He also tries to experience workplaces or situations he writes about, such as being in the offices for the Vote Leave campaign at the 2016 referendum, or working for a major tabloid newspaper.

“Once you understand something’s process, you can understand a higher truth,” he said. “You don’t need to go in hard on the big philosophical stuff – you can enjoy the minutiae.”

Graham expressed surprise that people felt it was too soon to write a Brexit film when he was working on The Uncivil War, and highlighted the two-and-a-half year gap between the film All the President’s Men and the Watergate scandal as evidence of the timeliness of some art examining national crises.

“It is not just confection, art, drama and entertainment. It is a way of contributing to our understanding, and I am increasingly nervous that we keep having to make that argument and I didn’t think we used to.”

If you missed the conference, it’s all available via the MRS on demand service. Go to www.mrs.org.uk/Impact2021 to find out more.

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