Becky Johnston is perhaps best known for her script of Pat Conroy’s novel Prince Of Tides, which picked up an Oscar nomination in 1992, but that may soon change. She is the author of the screenplay of Seven Years in Tibet, the film by Jean-Jacques Annaud based on the legendary memoir by famed Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer.
The book, which was first published in 1953, has long caught the eye of Hollywood, but for more than a decade it defied the screen as numerous writers failed to find a narrative device that captured the drama of Harrer’s story. Johnston has. She has crafted a riveting screenplay that combines breath-taking imagery with dramatic action in a simple story that entertains, educates, and can also be read as a marvelous fable: a Western man sets out to achieve material success, discovers Tibetan Buddhism, and changes his life forever.
But Seven Years in Tibet has turned out to be more than just a movie for Johnston, who was born and raised in Michigan, educated as a fine arts painter at the Rhode Island School of Design, and now is an “A-List” screenwriter in Los Angeles.
Johnston spent nearly a year researching the script, studying Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of a lama, and visiting Tibet and Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Adding to the value of Johnston’s experience was working with Annaud, the well-known French director whose movies include Quest For Fire, The Bear, and The Lover. Annaud, who holds a degree in medieval studies from the Sorbonne, is obsessed with exploring the clash of cultures in his films and is known for his attention to detail.
“Our efforts have two goals in mind,” Annaud says. “One is to make a very good, entertaining movie; the other is to make a movie that is going to be one of the very few to witness the culture of Tibet as it was.”
With that thought in mind, it was fitting that my interview with Becky Johnston took place near the enormous set of the Hall of Good Deeds. Down the road, construction crews hammered away, building the steps to the Potala, which rose four stories and towered over everything. Nearby, Buddhist monks, dressed in maroon and yellow robes, dozed in the shade, awaiting their casting call.
Lawrence Chollet: How did you become involved in this project?
Becky Johnston: Originally Michael Besman at Tri-Star came to me with another project and I didn’t want to do it. So he said we also have this Seven Years In Tibet. Well, of course, I wanted to do that. Like a lot of people who’d read the book and liked it, I thought this was a weirdly missed opportunity. It’s an incredible experience and Harrer recounts it like he walked out to the 7-Eleven store.
What did you know about Tibetan Buddhism?
I knew nothing about Tibetan Buddhism. Before I went off to Tibet or India, I spent four or five months in L.A., studying with a monk. I figured that if you are going to write the character of the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of this entire religion, you have to know the basic precepts of it. And I was lucky. I found a brilliant teacher in Los Angeles, Tendzin Dorje. He had lived in Dharamsala most of his life, and was one of the Dalai Lama’s translators. He was a brilliant scholar on all levels of Tibetan Buddhist dialectics.
Tendzin gave me lists of books to read. I’d read them, come back, spend three hours in a session with him, and end up in tears. It was like therapy. He would very patiently go through each of the principal ideas that were essential to understanding this system of thought. He would find the personal example that brought the thing to life. It was such an education, I cannot tell you.
Unfortunately, I’ve never stopped clinging to my ego! [Laughs.] Every step of becoming a Buddhist is long and complicated. What Tendzin did was to guide me quickly through many of the steps. A crash course. Something got so stirred up in my mind; I had to wrestle with these ideas in a very, very deep way. But I’ve never had anything close to a true understanding of emptiness. I just did the meditation.
And how long did this go on?
I started studying with Tendzin in June, 1994 and went to Tibet in September. I did some research and found there was a tour put together through Wisdom Publications. The year I went the tour guide was Stephen Batchelor and I spent hours with Stephen going over the ideas in this story. He was kind of a teacher, too.
Then I went to Dharamsala and spent a month there. I originally went just to interview the Dalai Lama, and it took me four or five days to prepare. I had a notebook full of questions, and then His Holiness’ personal secretary came to get me and said, you are going to have 45 minutes! Then I met all the members of his family who were there; people who had been in the Kashag, the Tibetan cabinet, including the former Lord Chamberlain; one of the Dalai Lama’s old monk attendants; his former tailor; his doctor; his bodyguard, right on down the line. I just sat and talked to people every day for hours.
What was the element that drew Harrer and His Holiness together in Tibet?
His Holiness told me the thing he loved about Harrer, why Harrer became his friend, was his informality. Up until that time the Dalai Lama had never met a man who did not treat him with all the elaborate rules of protocol. Harrer was the first person who was essentially casual with him. And he loved Harrer for that.
For treating him like a human being.
Yes, a human being. Also the Dalai Lama has a great respect for irony and humor and for putting people in their place. He knows who he is on the deepest level of “I’m the spiritual leader of Tibet.” And at the same time, it seems to me, he knows he’s just this kid from Amdo who got picked, you know, to be The Big Guy.
The Dalai Lama would probably acknowledge that Harrer was extremely instrumental in his broadening, so that when he encountered the outside world he wasn’t shocked by it. He is the first Dalai Lama who has had to live outside Tibet, who is such a true citizen of the world, and so adept with people of all cultures. And he had to learn that somewhere, from somebody.
How did all this research affect your story?
One of the major revelations in going to Tibet was the thing that Harrer never seemed to write about in his book: his transformation by virtue of his contact with this incredible place. When you go there, you think, “My God, you would have to be in Night of The Living Dead to not have this place affect your soul and everything about you.” So when I came back I said, this is what the story is: someone goes there, he has to be changed.
As such, Harrer’s story becomes a great device for exploring the contrast between East and West.
Western culture is an egocentric culture. It’s all about the cult of the individual, and you won’t find any occupation that is going to heighten that sense more than to be a mountain climber. They are the most extreme examples of rugged individualists you can ever imagine. And if you take that and create an archetype—not just an archetype but build some psychology around it, that mindset—and put it into a culture that doesn’t understand ego, whose understanding of culture is to break the ego down, there’s your story.
So it is the story of a man who finds himself by losing his ego, his Western sense of achievement.
Yes. The whole story is about a man who goes through a series of humiliations, really. What keeps happening is that Harrer keeps getting knocked down, and along the way he learns that the graceful way of accepting life is not to assert his ego. What you see is the progression of a soul: you can see the contracted soul expand. That was the movement to communicate in the story, and I think it does that.
Tell me a little about how Jean-Jacques Annaud went about translating your script into all these sets and costumes.
For Jean-Jacques, the first reading of the script leaves a permanent emotional imprint. That’s when he sees the entire movie in his mind, and he makes the emotional connection to the story. At every point thereafter—from scouting locations to finished film—he is trying to recapture the images and emotions of that first read.
His research is incredible. I went location scouting with him to Bhutan and Ladakh, and I saw what his eye moved toward, what moved him. They were all things that surprised me. There would be something gorgeous—like some beautiful mountain range, or a House and Garden kind of monastery—and you would think, he’s going to love that. But it wouldn’t be that at all: it would always be something just around the corner. He picked out a funny little chorten on top of a gateway; he took that image from a street in Ladakh and put it atop the gateway to Harrer’s house.
What was your reaction when you came down here and saw your words made flesh in all these sets and costumes?
On one hand, it just knocked my socks off that this was South America and they had re-created this Asian plateau so phenomenally here. I was screaming—surprise, delight and joy. And on the other hand, it was like stepping inside Jean-Jacques’ mind and living his 3-D visual translation of Tibet. Because it all comes through him, the director. These sets and the way they’re designed is such a tribute to an eye that understands every single, little gritty detail. Jean-Jacques has multiplied a hundred times over what the story is, but again, it’s like the Buddhist idea of interdependence. There are all these separate departments that have individually conspired to create this whole that is far more than the sum of the parts. Talk about losing some sense of self! I can’t believe I had anything do with this. It seems so incredible to me.
What fascinates me is that Jean-Jacques seems to have captured the spirit and mystery of Tibet, but he’s not a Buddhist.
Jean-Jacques is so full of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s so much an agnostic; he refuses to embrace any religion. Yet he is drawn to all religions, to the mystery of it all, and to the idea in Buddhism of a certain kind of selflessness. I find Jean-Jacques arrestingly interesting because he is truly a happy man. I know very few happy people, and I think he has cultivated happiness in a way that is beautiful. I think that is why he is drawn to Tibet, to Tibetans, to this religion. It is a kind of valentine to happiness!