A few days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, William Monahan, a journalist and novelist turned screenwriter, arrived for a breakfast meeting at the St. Regis Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. “I walked in from a college town, in a leather jacket, with hair to my shoulders,” Monahan recalls, “and the host said, ‘Your party?’ And I said, ‘Scott,’ and let the guy run his finger down the book until he looked up and said, ‘Ridley Scott?’ ‘Yes’ -- like Peter O’Toole. I’ve done that a few times when I walk into a restaurant, and it’s never not enjoyable.”
At the moment, little would seem less than enjoyable in Monahan’s life. Make that ecstatic. On April 10, his wife gave birth to their second child; last week, Martin Scorsese began shooting “The Departed,” a gangster drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson, from Monahan’s script; Friday marks the release of his first produced screenplay, the 20th Century Fox Crusades epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” directed by his erstwhile breakfast companion, Ridley Scott; and he was just signed to write the script for a Marco Polo project at Warner Bros.
Although the seeds of “Kingdom of Heaven,” a 12th century saga starring Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and Edward Norton, were planted that morning at the St. Regis, the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a different Monahan script, “Tripoli,” the true story of American diplomat William Eaton and his efforts to reinstate a deposed ruler to the throne of Tripoli in 1805.
Although Monahan was largely unknown in Hollywood, Scott, the Oscar-nominated director of “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” sparked to “Tripoli,” which he saw as a possible reunion vehicle for himself and Russell Crowe.
“When I read ‘Tripoli,’ ” says Scott, “I thought, ‘Wow, here’s a man who really knows what he’s doing on paper.’ ”
Oddly enough, paper -- and e-mail -- are currently the only means through which to glean an impression of the 44-year-old Monahan: The writer would not agree to a conventional interview for this story. The quote above, and all others herein attributed to Monahan, were the result of a lengthy e-mail exchange.
“Bill says he’s better on the page than in a meeting,” offers Scott, who could not persuade Monahan to grant a telephone interview. “But actually I’ve coaxed a lot out of him because he and I have a great exchange.
“I liked Bill right away, and that morning we talked about all kinds of things apart from ‘Tripoli,’ including, in broad strokes, my interest in a story about a knight,” says Scott, who was honored with British knighthood in 2003. “After that, I started working on ‘Tripoli,’ which eventually ran into scheduling and budgeting problems. Meanwhile, Bill had already started to noodle with the notion of a knight’s story ... and he said the corridor within which to place the story had to be the Crusades.”
Monahan, a Crusades aficionado since his teens, recommended setting the story between the second and third Crusades, a rare moment of tolerance during which King Baldwin IV (Norton), a leper who in the film wears a mask to conceal his disfigurement, opened Jerusalem to all religions. He then sketched out a conjectural back story for the little-known historical figure Balian of Ibelin (Bloom), portraying him as a French blacksmith who discovers that he is the illegitimate son of a Crusader knight (Neeson), with whom he journeys to Jerusalem. In the Holy Land, he distinguishes himself in battle and falls in love with Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla (Eva Green), wife of the power-mad baron Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). In the climax, Balian attempts to defend Jerusalem against the legendary Saracen warrior Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
Those close to the production praise Monahan’s screenplay for its absence of cliches and its generation-spanning relevance. “He has an amazing ability to take history and make it accessible to audiences of today while maintaining such integrity as a writer,” says Bloom. “Thankfully he had Ridley to bring it to life.”
Given its cusp-of-9/11 genesis and the story’s inescapable parallels to the present day, many people have assumed Scott and Monahan shaped it as a metaphor for today’s geopolitics. Scott dismisses this notion.
“We began working on this at least two years before the war in Iraq,” he says. “So none of this was structured around the idea of saying, ‘Let’s connect to what’s going on today.’ That is purely by the way.”
He and Monahan are even more fervently dismissive of claims raised by author James Reston that they plagiarized his 2001 book “Warriors of God,” the second chapter of which bears a title identical to the film’s and portions of which cover the same historical ground.
“I think Reston forgets that Balian of Ibelin actually surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin,” says Scott. “Because of that, we had to use him to hit the historical moments as accurately as we could. Everything else about Balian was completely fictitious. I think he’s fishing.”
As for Monahan, he denies ever reading Reston’s book -- or using any secondary sources whatsoever: “All historians of the period use the same handful of original documents, and we all know what they are.”
A complaint filed by Reston’s attorney pointed out that producer Mike Medavoy, who owned the rights to “Warriors of God” at the time, had sent a copy of the manuscript to Scott in December 2001and stated that Reston would file a copyright infringement lawsuit if he did not receive credit and compensation. Fox’s response argued that the facts in Reston’s book are public domain and that he “cannot claim a monopoly on history.”
Dismissing such statements as “platitudes,” Reston says, “I’m not a historian who is simply interested in throwing in all of the facts.... When I attack a subject, I absorb all of the facts and then identify those circumstances that suggest scenes. So it’s like ripe fruit up there, and that’s how I view the situation with Monahan and Scott. Here’s a very cinematic book with comprehensible characters and scenes that can be translated easily into the medium of film. So it’s not a question of can you copyright history. This is the expression of history, it’s an artistic and original process -- it’s not just facts.”
“Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the leper king, got into my head when I was a kid,” Monahan says, “and never left my consciousness. He beat Saladin at Montgisard when he was a teenager, and went out to war carried in a litter when he was dying. He’s one of the best characters in history. A writer files things away for future use or reference.”
Those who know him say this practice of storing away nuggets of arcana for eventual inclusion in his work is Monahan’s approach to every piece of writing. And to describe Monahan as well-read is like saying that Orlando Bloom has a few fans.
“Bill is one of the most naturally talented writers I’ve worked with,” says author Bruno Maddox, who befriended Monahan in the late 1990s when he hired him at Spy magazine. “It all stems from a staggeringly complete view of the world and literature. He’s read everything and seems to approach writing as sort of filling in the gaps in the Western canon.”
This might conjure an image of Monahan as a pedant with a pallor described as a library tan. But those who know him paint a vastly different picture.
“He’s kind of a man’s man,” says Scott. “But he’s been tamed now by having a wife and two kids.”
Although he maintains disciplined work habits, often rising at 4:30 a.m. to write, Monahan once enjoyed his share of revelry. In the memoir “Gentlemanly Repose: Confessions of a Debauched Rock ‘n’ Roller,” musician and Monahan intimate Michael Ruffino describes a party at which guests were invited to smash discarded computer monitors with golf clubs: “I believe it was Monahan who, with two Nat Shermans in his mouth and a Wild Turkey Old Fashioned balanced on his head, leveled a Hickory 3-wood at the last par-5 Trinitron, and bashed it out of the park.”
“I used to go out when I was single, but now if I have a drink, it’s unusual,” Monahan says now. “I’m too busy, I have kids and I’m not interested. It’s a younger man’s art form.”
As for Monahan’s prodigious erudition, Maddox says, “If I only knew his work, the thing I would notice meeting Bill is how incredibly down to earth he is.... He just knows what he’s doing.”
Monahan seems to have always known what he’s doing.
“I wanted to be an old-fashioned man of letters, so I essentially prepared myself very carefully through my 20s for a job that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “You may be able to find a man of letters in Syria or the Horn of Africa, but you could work Manhattan or London with dogs for a year and never find one. Anthony Burgess is dead, Vidal is the last lion, and at any rate belles-lettres aren’t where they were left. Anyway, I’m making movies now. Just before all this happened, I thought, ‘Out of everything you can do or think you can do, pick one thing and be it.’ What I picked was to be the screenwriter.”
Getting there took time. Monahan, born and reared in Massachusetts, moved to New York in the 1990s, supporting himself with journalism. Nearly all his pre-Hollywood work was comedic. At Spy, he and Maddox wrote or rewrote the entire magazine, but were unable to resuscitate the satirical monthly from its financial death throes.
When Spy folded, “it was personally a blow for me,” says Monahan, “because we’d created a job where I could be on two weeks in Manhattan and two weeks off in Massachusetts writing my own stuff. I had already taken ‘Tripoli’ out of the drawer and was revising it. The perfect literary job of my generation, as far as I was concerned -- and of course it detonated immediately. It was good because I was energized by the disaster -- within a year I had sold a novel and was a working screenwriter, which of course is what I should have been doing anyway.”
The novel, titled “The Light House: A Trifle” and modeled after the life of early 19th century British author Thomas Love Peacock, tells the story of Tim Picasso, a young artist and borderline sociopath who runs afoul of a drug lord and takes refuge at a New England inn populated by a gallery of eccentrics as a brutal nor’easter rolls in. At once hilarious and riddled with astute dissections of art and literature, the book was bought by Warner Bros., and Monahan was hired to write the screenplay for director Gore Verbinski. It never got off the ground, but it provided Monahan with his entree into Hollywood.
“The Light House” had lackluster sales, but it has many admirers. “I thought it was a kind of raucous comedy that isn’t much done in literary fiction these days,” says Kurt Andersen, a New York-based writer and a founder of Spy, who wrote a blurb for the jacket. “If you could imagine what that author would end up doing in Hollywood, it would be some version of Farrelly brothers’ comedy rather than the way he’s gone.”
“I don’t trust a writer who isn’t versatile,” says Monahan. “ ‘Hamlet’ is ‘Hamlet,’ of course, but it’s also really funny. Shakespeare’s serious is funny, and his funny is serious. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ has moments where the audience laughs out loud. ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ comes from a directly romantic side of my personality, and it really is more unguarded than anything else I’ve done. It’s what I genuinely believe.”
With his screenwriting career jump-started by the sale of “The Light House,” Monahan dusted off several scripts, which led to breakfast with Scott, who, at the rate things are going, just may turn out to be David Lean to Monahan’s Robert Bolt: In addition to “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Tripoli,” Monahan is adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian,” set in 1840s New Mexico, for Scott to direct.
“There are only a few good writers for my money, and Bill Monahan has now joined the club,” says Scott. “I think he’s going to go a long way.”
With flinty Yankee pragmatism, Monahan extols the virtue of hard work: “Screenwriting is like anything else. Feel it out, and see if you’re correct that you have a gift for it. The classes and books on screenwriting do far more harm than good, because writing drama is intuitional and case-by-case and there are no general rules. The only thing that will help you with the smallest problem in screenwriting is overwhelming general mastery of the form, and you get that by pissing blood for 20-odd years. In medieval times a craft used to be called a ‘mystery,’ and for good reason. A craft is a mystery, and ultimately, if all goes well, so is its practitioner.”