Diane Johnson was born in 1934 in Moline, Illinois. She first attended Stephens, an academy for future airline stewardesses, where her teachers encouraged her to write. Over the next twelve years, she left school for her first marriage, had four children, earned a Ph.D. in English from U.C.L.A., got divorced, and published Fair Game, her first book, in 1965.
In 1974, The Shadow Knows was released, earning favorable notices. Director Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by the novel's depiction of a person dealing with irrational occurrences that he chose her to write the screenplay for The Shining (1980).
In 1983, Johnson took a break from fiction to write the biography, Dashiell Hammett: A Life, with the authorization and help of Lillian Hellman. In 1997, Le Divorce was published by Dutton and became a national bestseller and a National Book Award Finalist. The novel was turned into a film by Merchant-Ivory in 2003.
She now divides her time between Paris and San Francisco, continuing to write fiction, non-fiction and criticism for numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review. Johnson's latest book, Lulu in Marrakech, was published in 2008.
Mark Steensland: Why do people want to make books into films?
Diane Johnson: For one thing, I think they depend on the already present audience. That is: all of the people who read a favorite book will want to see it. Presumably, if you are making Pride and Prejudice, all those Jane Austen lovers will want to see it. But Kubrick used to say that with a book, you already knew what you had. It was a richer source. It was better structured. This is why he made almost all of his films from books.
MS: What about the reverse: why do people want to make films into books?
DJ: That I absolutely can't imagine. I've never read one of those novelizations. It just seems like a very bizarre process. But, of course, I only know the process from book to film. For the novelizer, maybe there are some interesting aspects of novelization. I suppose you would have to look at the film in an entirely different way.
MS: You've been described as the love child of Jane Austen and Henry James. Is that what inspired Merchant-Ivory to make your novel into a movie?
DJ: That's a very flattering description. I don't know if Merchant-Ivory would have been aware of it. But maybe some of the same properties that made people say that about me also appealed to them. They are very literary. But I think also they want projects that take place in Paris because they are interested in shooting there. They have an apartment there and they like being there.
MS: How was it being adapted?
DJ: Not as bad as I expected. The film came out rather well. It's great fun, actually. I was quite interested in the things they added. They didn't add much, but where they added it was very meaningful and intelligent. So that was interesting for me. It sort of rounded out the book in a funny sort of way. I hadn't bothered to think what this or that particular thing would look like and then there it was. There are places where they had to embroider. But I think they did it very successfully.
MS: Did you talk to Merchant-Ivory while they were writing the screenplay?
DJ: I talked to them before. I had written a screenplay for Interscope, which was the production company who bought it first. Then Interscope couldn't find a director and then the company was sold because they were a subsidiary of Polygram and Polygram was sold -- one of these usual Hollywood things. The sale of Interscope left the property to be acquired by Merchant-Ivory.
Now maybe Merchant-Ivory didn't like my screenplay anyway, but the final results weren't that different, of course, because they were both based on the same book. So I have the experience of adapting it, but I didn't have to take the rap for what came out.
MS: Tell me about your first involvement with Hollywood:
DJ: Before I ever worked with Kubrick, I had done a couple of treatments. I can remember doing one for a book by John Fowles, who wrote The French Lieutenant's Woman. I had also written an episode of My Three Sons with Aljean Harmetz, a friend of mine who wrote a good book about the making of The Wizard of Oz.
So those two things pre-dated my working on The Shining. But I don't think that my job on The Shining had anything to do with them. In a way, I think, Kubrick probably hired me despite those experiences.
MS: How did Kubrick enter your life?
DJ: He apparently had been considering making a novel of mine, The Shadow Knows, into a movie. That book is a kind of psychological thriller. A horror story, if you like. He was weighing it and The Shining at the same time and he finally decided to do The Shining.
The Shadow Knows is a first person story, which would have been much more difficult to adapt, so I think that's why he ultimately chose King's book over mine. But in the course of making his decision, he must have read somewhere that I was involved in teaching the Gothic novel at U.C. Davis because at the time I was a professor at Davis. He wanted somebody who knew about the Gothic novel and what's scary and the whole genre of horror. So he just called me up.
MS: You say he just called you up. What was that like? You answer the phone and he says: "Hi. This is Stanley."
DJ: There had been a phone call ahead of time from somebody at Warner Brothers to let me know that Kubrick was going to be calling and wanting to know what was a good time. But after the first phone call, he called every night at 11:00 for a week. I was in London at the time, as it happened, so when, at the end of the week, he proposed that we meet, it was easy to arrange.
MS: How long did you talk with him and what did you talk about?
DJ: The conversations would go on for half an hour or so. They seemed quite long. But maybe that's because I'm not much of a talker on the phone. We talked about books. I remember being struck with how literary he was, how much he had read and how his approach was very writerly. He would talk about things in writerly, critical terms that I don't really hear filmmakers use that much. So we had these nice sort of booky conversations. I quite got to enjoy them. He was a wonderful conversationalist.
MS: What did you know about Kubrick before you worked with him?
DJ: Nothing, really, I have to admit. Except his name.
MS: What did you think of King's novel?
DJ: I'm not a big Stephen King fan. I'm not a big horror story fan. But I thought when I was reading it that it had a sort of surprising scariness, considering its flaws -- how kind of pretentious and predictable it is. But at the same time it was scary. So I admired it in that sense.
MS: How long did you work on The Shining?
DJ: Eleven weeks. I worked something like nine weeks in the first big block of time and then went back for another couple of weeks.
MS: I've never seen a copy of the screenplay for The Shining. The only thing I've seen is a kind of treatment in which each scene was written on a single page -- sometimes the scene was described in only one sentence, but a whole page was still devoted to it.
DJ: That format was unique to Kubrick. He very much wanted it in that form. The very first state was like that -- a scene on a page. And we worked quite a long time on getting the order of the scenes and the number of the scenes into a form that he liked.
Then we added dialogue. But it never was what you think of as a modern screenplay with "Interior - Day" and long descriptions and so forth, so there isn't really a screenplay.
MS: How did it feel adapting another writer's work? Did you find yourself wondering how it would feel if someone was doing this to you?
DJ: No. I felt authorized by Kubrick. I know that King didn't really like it. And I can sympathize with that because we did come out with a completely different thing. His book is very baroque and you can't really do that in film. It had to be radically simplified.
MS: How did you feel about Kubrick after the job was done?
DJ: Very positively. I liked him a lot. Admired him a lot. He was a real artist. A real auteur, even though he didn't write the script by himself.
MS: What did you think of the books about Kubrick by Michael Herr (Kubrick) and Frederic Raphael (Eyes Wide Open)?
DJ: I completely agreed with Michael Herr's assessment. I visited the Kubricks when Michael was there and Michael and I have talked about him a little bit since then. My Kubrick was very much like the Kubrick that Herr described. I think that Frederic Raphael must be a dangerous paranoid. I don't know what that was about.
MS: What did you think of the finished film?
DJ: I thought it was great. I didn't see it until it was all finished. So when I saw it, I was aware that it hadn't really gotten wonderful reviews at first. I saw it at the Kubricks and I had dinner with them and we talked about it. You can understand that in that environment, I was inclined to like it and to feel proud of it. So I'm happy that it's lived all this time.
MS: Why was the original ending removed?
DJ: I know there were time considerations -- some kind of contractual obligation to take out a few minutes -- so it could be that.
He actually took out a scene that I considered more important. If you've read the novel, it's the scene where Jack finds the scrapbook in the boiler room. And I thought that was very important because you had to know the moment in which he came under the control of the hotel. It's like the moment in a fairy story when the hero takes the poison apple. The main character makes a mistake that brings them into the grip of evil. That was when Jack made his mistake.
Before that, it could have gone either way. It's his vanity and his hope to be a great writer that leads him to take this scrapbook as a gold mine of subjects. That was written and shot. I was sorry to see that Kubrick cut that out. I would have argued to take out something else.
MS: You've traveled a lot -- have you been to the hotels that were used as the models for the Overlook: the Timberline Lodge in Oregon or the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite?
DJ: Yes. I'm an Oregonian, so I used to work at the Timberline in college. And I have stayed at the Ahwahnee. When I was on the set, it was really quite strange and very eerie to see the Ahwahnee in central London and the little half-sized Timberline Lodge.
MS: My wife and I stayed at the Timberline in room 217 on July 4, 2001. When I made the reservation, the clerk said, "Anniversary?" And I said, "Not exactly."
MS: You've written scripts for a number of different directors such as Francis Coppola, Mike Nichols and Volker Schlöndorff. But none of them has been produced. What's happened to all those projects?
DJ: Something just happened to them all. I worked with Mike Nichols on a remake of MGM Grand Hotel. And then the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, where the film was to take place, had a fire. Francis Coppola just sort of gave up filmmaking. I think Volker Schlöndorff could never get backing for the Mormon movie he and I wrote together. And so on.
MS: How was Kubrick different from the others?
DJ: One of the big differences is that he had only one thing going at a time. He devoted himself to that. He wasn't involved with spec projects. He was building sets at the same time the script was being written. And it already had been cast. He knew he was going to make this film. I have the impression that lots of directors work in a more "Well we'll see what comes through" sort of way. They say, "We'll go this far but no farther and then we'll see how much money we have."
MS: I'm about to adapt a novel into a screenplay: what's your advice to me?
DJ: The procedure that Kubrick advised -- and which I've followed ever since -- is to get that order of the scenes right. Decide on the 120 most essential scenes and then work with the structure until you get it right, bearing in mind the themes, and the need for characterization and all the things that you should bear in mind. Francis Coppola has a good way of doing it where he goes through the book and marks with three different color pens for Theme, Character and Plot. Then he cuts them out and puts them together in a kind of skeleton form.
MS: You don't teach anymore. Can writing be taught?
DJ: Not really. I think that the situation of a writing program is conducive, or can be, if it gives you an occasion to write. It also gives you colleagues and it gives you maybe some entrees to publishing. So in that sense, I never felt dishonest or like I was wasting anyone's time when I taught writing at Davis. But on the other hand, I don't know that it can make a writer out of someone who isn't much of a writer.
MS: What will your obituary say?
DJ: Oh, good. (Laughs.) I have no idea..."She was the co-writer of The Shining."
MS: "...And we'll still be hearing from her"?
DJ: (Laughs.) That's right.
Interview conducted by Mark Steensland. Text originally published in Kamera, issue #2.
Steensland’s first professional publication came at the age of 18 in Jim Steranko's Prevue magazine. Since then, his byline has also appeared in such magazines as American Cinematographer, Millimeter, and Kamera. He has directed two features: The Last Way Out, a neo-noir crime drama, and The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick, a documentary about the legendary writer behind such films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. He has also written The Pocket Essential Michael Mann. His short films, including Sucker, Lovecraft’s Pillow, Dead@17, Peekers, and The Ugly File have played in film festivals around the world and won numerous awards.
His most recent short, The Weeping Woman, starring Stephen Geoffreys and featuring a score by Fabio Frizzi, had its world premiere in Detroit in April 2011. In between teaching production and screenwriting at Penn State, he has served as an advisor to Tom Savini's Digital Filmmaking Program at the Douglas Education Center, as the Vice President of the Eerie Horror Film Festival and as an officer with the Film Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania and the Northwest Pennsylvania Film Office. He currently lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.