Friday, May 29 at 9 PM

Nightingale

HBO Films

Interview with Writer Frederick Mensch

HBO

How did the story of ‘Nightingale’ come to be?

Frederick Mensch

The Peter Snowden character was actually somebody I’d written in an earlier screenplay about a 12-step group. He had a very distinctive voice that stuck with me, and I was interested in writing more about him. But what really triggered the story was that a similar crime happened in my neighborhood. A man lived alone with his mother and he murdered her. He actually decapitated her and put her head out on the porch. This was right in my neighborhood; I walk my dog past this house every day. My mind would turn as I walked past the house, and I would think about what was going on inside and what was going on in the house next door.

HBO

What were some of the challenges making a likeable character out of a man who just killed his mother?

Frederick Mensch

As a writer, I don’t worry too much about making the character likable. I want to make him true and I want to make him someone that you can relate to and empathize with. We’ve all wanted things that we can't have, particularly in the area of relationships. To me, the most poignant and heartbreaking experience that you can have in life is to love someone and not be able to have that relationship. That’s what this story’s about -- a man who wants a relationship with somebody and that just can't happen. To me, that’s what makes Peter Snowden relatable.

HBO

Why is the film called ‘Nightingale’?

Frederick Mensch

The nightingale is renowned for its plaintive love song, and on a certain level, I think the movie can be seen in that way. This movie is about a man devastated by love and by loneliness, and this is his love song to the world.

HBO

Why did you choose to show Peter only inside the one house? Could you have seen him driving somewhere? Could he have gone to church?

Frederick Mensch

I considered all of those things, and that was actually the approach that I was going to take when I first conceived the idea. I thought it’d be a small film where we’d show Peter at work and at church and going to the hardware store and the grocery store and so forth. But the more I thought about the film and what I wanted to accomplish with it, the more I felt that it was important to put the audience inside Peter’s head and to show his isolation. I felt it was important, in terms of dramatizing the script, to show that there was no escaping his loneliness. The best way for me to do that was to keep us inside his house.

"I felt it was important, in terms of dramatizing the script, to show that there was no escaping his loneliness."
HBO

What was it like to see your story come to life through Elliott’s vision?

Frederick Mensch

Visiting the set and seeing the props that I described and the house -- it was disorienting and surreal, but also very gratifying. Elliott [Lester, the film’s director] was great to work with; he was insatiably curious about the character. In the weeks leading up to the shoot, he would send me emails and call me on the phone with an endless list of questions. Like, “What cigarette does Peter smoke? What does he like to drink? What brand of Scotch? Where does he buy his clothes? Shorts or briefs?” [Laughs]. But it was good because he was thinking about this person as a specific human being, and that’s the best way to make a universal story. To make it as specific as possible, it then becomes something that’s true and something that people can relate to.

HBO

How did you feel when you saw Peter embodied by David Oyelowo for the first time?

Frederick Mensch

David brings a specificity and a humanity to the role that might not have been there in the hands of someone else. He’s not judging the character and his behavior. I think that’s really important. If you go into this role and you play him as bipolar, a psychopath or whatever, it's not going to work. People aren't going to be able to relate to the character in a way that they should.

HBO

It’s interesting that despite what Peter’s done, you find yourself rooting for him, wishing for him to not get in his own way.

Frederick Mensch

Yeah, one of the fun things with a movie like this is, you have a character who’s done something awful and yet, I think if the movie is working the way it should, you're rooting for him to get away with it. It’s a sort of Hitchcockian perversity.

HBO

What did it mean to have HBO take on this film?

Frederick Mensch

t way exceeds my most optimistic expectations for this project. I really thought that this was going to be an independent film that was going to be seen and appreciated by a handful of people and nobody else. I’d been writing screenplays for something like 35 years and ‘Nightingale’ is by far the least likely to have been produced, but it’s the first one that did. It’s very exciting to see a really intense, challenging film find its audience. I know this movie isn't for everyone, but it’s important that we make movies like this. There’s an audience for movies like this and they’re hopefully watching HBO.