Nick Hornby's Oscar Insta-Buzz

Novelist Nick Hornby’s screenplay for An Education has made him an instant Oscar favorite. He speaks with Tom Shone about the insanity of Sundance and his Tom Hanks obsession.

10.09.09 4:00 PM ET

A year ago, Nick Hornby was suffering the agonies of the first-time screenwriter. The film he had spent the last four years writing and rewriting and had watched struggle to find funding, before finding it, losing it, and finding it again, was finally debuting at Sundance. “The first two-thirds contain jokes, and on a good day people laugh at them,” he recorded on his blog. “The last third is more serious, and intended to move an audience. In other words, the last half-hour is an agony of silence. (I often wonder whether I have always written would-be comic novels simply because it helps me ascertain whether people are awake at readings.) Three people leave in the second half of the film. Two of them come back (one of them, I realize, was Carey). I hate the third.”

Hornby negotiates the kind of success that would stun a small oxen, without letting it go to his head or give in to the equally treacherous lures of false modesty.

The reviews were ecstatic. An Education was picked up by Sony Classics, won the Sundance Audience Award and turned its ingénue, Carey Mulligan, into an overnight star. Hornby even found himself giving a light to Uma Thurman, during one of those sub-zero cigarette breaks that only Sundance facilitates. (He could barely reach; she was “about a meter” taller than him.) The film went on to Toronto, where it gathered ever more ferocious Oscar buzz, and where Hornby was asked for another light, this time by Penelope Cruz. When I met up with him, on the eve of the film’s premiere in New York, he seemed no closer to quitting.

“Where’s the incentive?” he said, as we patrolled the streets around Gramercy Park looking for a restaurant. “If I quit, none of the world’s most beautiful women will approach me randomly at parties or press conferences anymore. Somebody is going to have to arrange for the world’s most beautiful non-smoking women to come up to me, punch me on the shoulder, and tell me how well I’m doing.”

He goes on about his year: “It’s a bit like going from being a fourth-division football team straight to the first division without anything in between,” he says. “A few weeks after Sundance, I read a blogger who said that since they were doing 10 Best Picture nominations this year it would be good if they included a rank outsider as well as more standard Oscar fare like An Education. We’ve gone from ‘rank outsiders’ to ‘standard Oscar fare’ in the space of a few weeks. You think they’ve all gone mad after a while. We’re like, ‘Look, this one thinks we’re going to win four!’”

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“So there’s been Oscar talk in your house?”

There’s a long pause before he answers.

“Yes, because I think we’d regret not talking about it. More troubling, I think, would be to lend it a seriousness we don’t feel. Bad Karma and all that crap.”

A very Hornbyesque adjudication. I’ve known the author for close to 20 years, during which time I’ve seen him negotiate the kind of success that would stun a small ox, without letting it go to his head or give in to the equally treacherous lures of false modesty. It's a tricky maneuver, with no room for error, particularly in England, where we watch each other like hawks for the slightest sign of big-shotism, but Nick has managed to thread the needle every time. When we first met, we were both trying to make a living writing book reviews, meeting up in London pubs to swap book tips and slip American editions across the table, like samizdat. Raymond Carver, Anne Tyler, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore. These days he lives in a bigger house, close to the stadium of his beloved Arsenal, and the authors we once revered are more likely to be found on his dust-jackets, but when we meet it’s always the same. “How’s the smoking?” “What’s the new Nicholson Baker like?” “What are you listening to?” “Seen any good movies?” Culture Nerd Data Transference. If you could fit our heads with Wi-Fi, it would make the whole thing a lot easier, if less fun.

An Education is not Hornby’s first brush with the movies. He worked on a rom-com with Emma Thompson for a few years, and also wrote a draft of David Eggers’ A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. Then there have been the adaptations of his own books, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, About a Boy, all suspiciously good. The apparent ease with which Hornby’s sensibility has been decanted to the screen has been viewed with suspicion among some literary critics—it’s supposed to be bad books that make good movies, not good ones—thus forcing them to go back to the original books and find them “cinematic.”

“It’s not like there’s x-wing fights in them, or dinosaurs, or anything like that,” says Hornby, who is also in town to promote his latest novel, Juliet, Naked. “Maybe the first three pages of A Long Way Down where they’re all on the bridge—but the rest of it is just a bunch of people sitting around in the basement of Starbucks, talking... Of course, I’m influenced by cinema and TV as well as books; you’re not supposed to confess this if you’re a writer but it's sort of about right if you’re a normal person. I’ve been working on this theory that there’s a whole generation of English writers who write the way they do because they weren’t allowed to watch telly.”

“I wanted to make [Peter and Carey] the suburban version of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.”

Nick’s literary and musical tastes are well known—less so his taste in movies. When his first book, Fever Pitch, came out, the screening rooms in Soho where they showed the movie were not far from his office, so we often used to kill afternoons together, watching stuff like Barton Fink, Short Cuts, Dead Man Walking, Apollo 13. We share a devotion to Tom Hanks, particularly the early stuff. (“How many actors have two great movies like Big and Splash to their name? Plus we both know at least 25 people who would mock us for liking him.”) As far as directors go, he loves Mike Leigh, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman, having had his world turned upside down in 1975 by first Jaws and then Nashville. ( “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.”) At university, he had his statutory art-house phase, and once sat through Jacques Rivette’s four-hour masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (“My greatest achievement as a filmgoer, or indeed, as a human being.”)

Somewhere in there, between Spielberg’s gigoloish devotion toward an audience’s pleasure and Altman’s commitment to disturbing the peace, between Mike Leigh’s peppery truth-telling and Hanks’ sprightly fun, you sense something of Hornby’s own sensibility percolating through— funny, sad, prickly, warm. An Education was adapted from a 20-page memoir that appeared in Granta magazine by the journalist Lynn Barber, about her affair with an older man while still a suburban schoolgirl in the early 1960s. It was, says Hornby, the “first time that I’ve really stuck with a script, coming back to it again and again.”

“Why was that?”

“Those switches of tone don’t come along very often. You go into a movie and normally within five minutes you can tell whether it’s going to make you laugh or cry. It stays in that groove and doesn’t really shift. If it's funny, that’s all it is. If it's moving, there’s probably not a joke in sight. Lynn’s piece made me laugh but it was also incredibly painful.”

Barber’s memoir is a lot angrier than the movie, particularly toward her parents, who she resented for not only sanctioning the affair, but also for encouraging her to drop her application to Oxford and marry the guy.

“I was always a little gentler to her dad. I wanted to find the thing that makes you understand him,” says Hornby. “The key to the whole thing was realizing her complicity. And then spooling that back, right to the beginning and have her be in on the deception. I wanted to make them the suburban version of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting.”

The list of novelists who have written successful screenplays is not long. William Faulkner wrote The Big Sleep and a version of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not for Howard Hawks; Graham Greene wrote the screenplays for Brighton Rock and The Third Man; on the other hand, it's but a short step to Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge and Martin Amis’ misguided foray into science fiction, Saturn 3.

“Unlike a lot of novelists who come to the movies, Nick does not overwrite,” says Lone Scherfig, the film’s director. “He’s got a very minimal style, almost musical, with a great sense of timing. He trusts actors.”

There have been so many books and movies about “the summer that changed my life,” in which vapid teen heroes experience a life-transforming dalliance with the adult world (Interracial romance! Social injustice! The hypocrisy of their elders!), before mutely processing and repeating the appropriate Life Lessons, that the words “coming of age” are enough to make most of us glaze over. An Education will wake you up. It has all the rapt intensity of youth, raking in fresh experience about the world, and follows its heroine with an unwavering empathy for the messy, miraculous process of growing up: The Carey Mulligan we hear from in the final scene is a very different girl from the one we first glimpsed, drenched in the rain, in the first. No wonder they talk of a star being born.

“It’s been amazing to see the whole thing in action,” says Nick. “It became very apparent at Sundance that Carey’s life was about to change. In the course of a single weekend. Within 24 hours she was being described as the ‘Sundance ‘It’ Girl’ and ‘the new Hepburn.’ It was exciting to watch. You also realize how undemocratic the whole process is. You assume that it’s like voting. Someone appears in a movie and if enough people go to see that movie, that person gets to be in another movie. And so on. It's more like betting. Everybody makes a bet, then a bunch of other people make an even bigger bet, and then all bets are off. They’ve done the work for you.”

Tom Shone was film critic of the London Sunday Times from 1994-1999. He is the author of two books, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press) and In the Rooms (Hutchinson), his first novel, to be published in the U.S. in 2010. He lives in New York. He blogs at