Tom Stoppard, 50, is one of the three or four leading English playwrights of his generation. His "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," first performed in London in 1967, was a great success and is still widely performed. "Jumpers," "Travesties," "The Real Thing" and several other notable hits followed.
As a screenwriter, he said the other day during a quick visit to Los Angeles, he has had interesting times and indifferent luck. He adapted Graham Greene's novel "The Human Factor" for Otto Preminger but some of Preminger's financing fell through in mid-production and the truncated project pleased neither Preminger nor Stoppard.
(Stoppard nevertheless says he found Preminger "a writer's dream who would debate the moving of a comma with you," and not the seething volcano he had been led to expect.)
Stoppard adapted Vladimir Nabokov's "Despair" for Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but the film came in at three hours and by the time Fassbinder had trimmed an hour out of it Stoppard says the proceedings were incomprehensible to anyone not thoroughly familiar with the novel.
He also did one draft of the script of Terry Gilliam's phantasmagoric satire "Brazil," but that was a polish on an existing document and not a from-the-ground-up exercise like the others.
Now, however, Stoppard has done the screenplay of J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel "Empire of the Sun" for Steven Spielberg and he professes himself very happy.
"Film is such a . . . precarious thing," Stoppard says. "This is the third novel I've done. I've been upset twice and pleased once, and this is the one, to the great relief of Warners," he adds, grinning at a studio representative in his hotel suite.
He was unusually well attuned to script Ballard's novel, which is about the Japanese capture of Shanghai at the start of World War II as experienced through the eyes of a 12-year-old British boy who will spend the rest of the war in a Japanese prison camp.
Although born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard and his parents went to Singapore to live when he was about 3. His father, a company doctor for a shoe-manufacturing firm with a Singapore branch, evacuated his family to Darjeeling, India, as the war neared but stayed on in Singapore himself and was killed after the Japanese took the city.
The Ballard novel recalled the whole period vividly and specifically for Stoppard. "Like Jim in the book, we were all terribly attracted to American things: the sunglasses, the uniforms. I'm embarrassed to say I was one of those brats who stood by the road as the GIs went by and shouted, 'Any gum, chum?' "
He had other shocks of recognition when he saw the set decorations of the boy's room at the family house in the International Settlement before the troubles began.
"Norman (Reynolds, the production designer) and his people had put a chart of the flags of all the nations on the wall. It was exactly the chart I'd had. Identical. Clipped from a magazine, I shouldn't wonder. Spooky."
The books on the boy's shelves can hardly be seen or identified in the film, yet Stoppard found they, too, were exactly right. "The films do props far in excess of anything you could do or would do on stage. Wonderful, and wonderful for the actors."
Rights to the Ballard book had been bought by Robert Shapiro, the film's executive producer. He and Stoppard were discussing other projects when Stoppard expressed interest in scripting the novel.
"I wrote a script. Steven (Spielberg) got interested in the project and he liked the script and we talked. We rather danced around each other for a little while and then became good friends."
They worked together on subsequent drafts of the script. "We talked a lot more, even going over revisions on the telephone." Some of the differences were essentially of scale. "Before Steven became involved, I was being very modest. I didn't write in a fly-over of P-51s--I'd no idea there were any available that still flew. And I didn't write in 5,000 coolies, and so on."
There was one other complementary difference. "I'm quite unsentimental, but Steven knows how to let the emotions out. My ending was cool. His was warm, and absolutely right, as I saw."
Stoppard was on the sets a good deal of the time while the film was shooting in Spain. Afterward, Spielberg invited him to spend several days in the cutting room to observe and comment on the editing process.
"The time in the editing room was heaven," Stoppard says. "A writer is usually that bit of the rocket that falls away. What a privilege to be part of that final process."
Now he wants to direct himself--a film of his "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." "If you know anybody with $3.5 million to invest in a nice little film, I've got one," he says. "The fact that I'm directing may be a problem, but I don't know who else will be willing to commit the necessary violence on the stage play ("Hamlet" or "R&G Are Dead"). I've got a good and important actor who wants to do the Player-King. That may help."