Interview with Beowulf and Grendel Screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: September 29, 2004 | Publication: Monsters and Critics | Author: James Wray
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Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him, son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.

M&C talked to Andrew Berzins, who adapted the poem Beowulf for the forthcoming Beowulf and Grendel movie. He chats about the problems of adapting such a poem, the relevancy of the story and lots more. Some story spoilers if you are not familiar with the plot.

Beowulf Primer

Beowulf is a poem that was written over 1000 years ago, thought to be sourced from oral traditions and other texts it tells the tale of Beowulf from his days as a young heroic warrior to his old age. He saves a neighboring people from a monster, Grendel, becomes the king of his own people, and finally dies defending them from a dragon.

It is is a tale of full of revenge, blame, dark comedy and tragedy.

Not surprisingly, every second comment I’ve received on this project has to do with the risks of [and my nerve in] trying to adapt this poem to a movie

JW: What is the essence of the story?

AB: Here we must talk our story as opposed to the story of the poem:

The poem: A dominant warrior – Beowulf - leads a small band across the sea to help the tribe of one of his father’s friends – and a protector of Beowulf in his youth – which is being decimated by a demon/monster. Beowulf arrives, battles and defeats the monster – then its mother - gains glory and gifts, and sails home.

Our version: Beowulf arrives to find the Danes’ dilemma is not so cut-and-dried. The demon/monster has a name, a personality, and a gripe. There’s a history here, a story behind the headline of: Evil monster wreaks havoc on poor Danes. Beowulf does what he came here for… but, in the process, he learns a great deal about loss, loyalty and mercy.

JW: How have you represented Beowulf's character?, does he got through a lot of changes?

AB: There are those who will feel he’s too modern in our version – too much the existential man. But we are underscoring the fact that there is a huge cultural shift in place in europe at the time – the spreading of christianity – which certainly must challenge northern/”pagan” assumptions about how the world – and the afterworld – works. so – yeah – I’ve given him some doubts. Also, Beowulf is less boastful in our version, and he comes to understand far more about the world than he did upon arrival.

JW: Do you think this will still resound with a modern audience?

I think, I hope. There’s a significant theme here of the dangers of tribalism. I started working on this during the slaughters in the former Yugloslavia. I think such factors leave their mark.

JW: Are you happy with the casting?

AB: Very.

JW: Beowulf seems to have attracted a few different writers, I noticed Roger Avary mentioned on his site that he has a Beowulf script that he wrote with Neil Gaiman, even the likes of Tolkien were somewhat obsessed with he poem. Do you think there is something about the subject that attracts writers?

AB: Absolutely. For me, it’s confronting the thing that comes in the night. it’s so primal, so fundamental. Also that torn-off arm getting hammered to the mead-hall rafters… You could just sense doom coming in on the next wind.

JW: Have you changed or emphasized anything in the story?

AB: Oh yeah…

JW: Was there anything in the original story that you thought would not work on the big screen and so removed from the screenplay?

AB: Primarily the digressions. Certainly many of the exagerations [i.e. – Beowulf, though mortal, having the strength of 30 [?] men; and Grendel, though able to have his arm torn off by Beowulf, capable of gobbling numerous men – at one meal!]. Also, I always felt Beowulf’s boastfulness would be a tough sell to an audience – modern or not.

JW: Have you been working on this screenplay for a while. I mean is it something you have always wanted to do or did you do it for this film specifically?

AB: I started working on an outline in spring/summer of 1999. I'd imagined a movie of Beowulf when I was a kid, after reading Rosemary Sutcliff's "The Dragon Slayer." I started imagining actually writing it myself about ten years ago.

JW: Are there particular difficulties in adapting an ancient poem?

AB: Lots. I think that what we accept/expect in a mainstream movie - in pacing, point-of-view, dramatic line - is very different from what an oral culture accepted/expected 1300 years ago [not having being there, I admit I am speculating]. And "Beowulf" contains numerous digressions, as well as a deliberately repetitive "looping" of story detail that is quite unwieldy for a film version.

Beyond that, there are only the thousands of Beowulphiles out there lurking, for some of whom the poem stands as a kind of holy thing to be tampered with at ones peril.

JW: Can you describe the process you go through when adapting an existing work?

The desolation and tranquility of a glacial lagoon

AB: Beowulf is unique that way. As opposed to an event-laden narrative, it has a small cluster of events making up “The Danish Story.” there are several scenes – the coming-ashore in Daneland, the welcome at Heorot, the two big fights – that stood as fixed points around which to build/explore.

I made a choice early on to not even attempt to accommodate the digressions. And we are only dealing with the Danish adventure, not following them home to the welcome in Geatland. Furthermore, this being a poem, there is far less in the way of a narrative structure to which we must pay heed. As i’ve said elsewhere, we are mostly true to the mood, to the obsession with fate… to the bones of the story.

JW: How much did you concern yourself with language, modern english contains many words they would not have used at the time the poem is set. Did you take this in to account with dialogue?

AB: Yes, very much. I wanted the dialogue to be accessible, colloquial, true to the characters, and – as much as possible – true to the time. But I’m working – as you note – in modern english.

The most significant choice I made was to try to sift out almost all latin-rooted words. Over 95% of the present dialogue is english rooted in old norse, old saxon, or germanic. the odd bit of frank/latin slips out from characters – a wandering and literate irish monk, the geats’ own poet… - who have cause to have crossed paths with other languages.

Occasionally there are words – like “dragon” – that have no accurate rendition in northern-rooted english. Worm [wyrm] and snake – the closest - both suggest something else.

Also I strove for words or word combinatations, either found or made up – whale-road, spew-eater, ring-wrapped grip - that felt like they came out of that time and land [even given that we’re cheating – sticking “Daneland” in Iceland].

JW: Does Iceland match up with what you visualised when writing the script?

AB: I first visited iceland shortly after completing the outline in 2001. I knew rather generally what the possibilities were, but the realities overwhelmed me. What I can tell you: after securing a stunning and unique location for almost every scene in the movie, we still have a pile more left for a sequel!

JW: Do you ever feel helpless as a writer once your screenplay gets picked up? since I imagine any control over how they change it must go out the window once the movie starts...

AB: Depends entirely on the project. Certainly I’ve wound up in horror stories, all the horror happening off-screen. But if the team is respectful and supportive of the original vision – as is the case on Beowulf & Grendel - each day of shooting only brings more wonder.

JW: What is next for you?

AB: More work, I hope. Good work. Weird work.

Andrew Berzins lives and works in Toronto, Canada.

He was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Blood & Donuts at the Genie awards, a movie about a vampire who went to sleep in 1969, is awakened in modern day Toronto by a stray golf ball.

He has also seen many nominations from the Writers Guild of Canada and won for his screenplay Scorn (2000) about a spoiled 18-year old plots to have two classmates murder his mother and grandmother so he can inherit their fortunes.

Thanks to Andrew for taking time to be interviewed. You can read and see more on Beowulf and Grendel in our database.