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Silence screenwriter talks subtleties of language, character

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the 2016 film Silence

He’s Martin Scorsese’s right hand man and Saturday night movie buddy, he’s on a first-name basis with Bob Dylan, he’s married to actress Verna Bloom and he knew Writer in Residence P.F. Kluge ’64 as “Klugey” during their time together at Kenyon. Screen writer and journalist Jay Cocks ’66 is a man known for his connections but is without a doubt a creative force to be reckoned with on his own account.

Even as a student at Kenyon, Cocks was making his first steps into the art world. He was the head of the film society and during his sophomore year, wrote a feature for the Collegian about an “up-and-coming” artist by the name of Bob Dylan and his performance at Kenyon. This article would later be featured in the book Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, edited by Jonathan Cott.

“Kenyon allowed me a lot of latitude,” Cocks said. “And it invested me with the spirit and knowledge to move on that latitude.”

Cocks continued his journalistic pursuits outside of Kenyon, working for TIME shortly after graduation. There, he was asked to write an article about film students in New York — something which, according to Cocks, was still a rarity in 1968.

In an effort to find subjects for this piece, Cocks contacted a friend who was working in an editing room at the time and was eventually put in touch with a recent NYU film studies graduate who was using the editing room to cut his first feature. That graduate was Martin Scorsese — or Marty, as Cocks fondly refers to him.

Cocks and Scorsese were a match made in heaven, both socially and professionally. The pair has collaborated on a number of films — such as The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York — since they met and Scorsese is even the godfather to Cocks’ son.

“There was a kind of immediate connection that’s hard to understand without seeming either very romantic and very sentimental or just weird,” Cocks said of Scorsese during the Q&A. “It’s a friendship, it’s a partnership, it’s a brotherhood of two.”

Their most recent collaboration, the 2016 film Silence, was nominated for an Oscar for Cinematography and has won the National Board of Review award for best adapted screenplay as well as the American Film Institute award for film of the year. Last Wednesday, Cinearts, the American studies department and the film department brought Cocks back to campus for a screening of the film followed by a Q&A led by the co-leader of Cinearts Ethan Fuirst ’17.

For most audiences,  Silence — starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Portuguese Jesuit Priests who travel to Japan in order to help Christian converts and find the missing Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) — seemed to appear out of nowhere. There was no advertising for the film in the U.S. until just a month before its release, and films like La La Land seemed to overshadow it in the box office.

For Cocks, however, Silence has been in the making for more than 20 years. Scorsese got the idea to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel of the same name (or Chinmoku in Japanese) after an Episcopalian Priest suggested he read the novel during the scandal surrounding the 1988 release of The Last Temptation of Christ, according to Cocks.

The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Scorsese — with Bloom in the role of Mary, Mother of Jesus and with uncredited rewrites from both Scorsese and Cocks — garnered protests from right-wing Christian groups who assumed the film was “about Jesus f*cking Mary Magdalene,” according to Cocks.

“These right-wing groups,” he said, “largely conservative Christian groups, marched on the studio. Terrible protests. They dumped lamb’s blood on the lawn of the head of the studio. It was a terrible mess.”

Scorsese read Silence while in Japan, and upon his completion of the book called Cocks and asked him if he would like to collaborate on a film adaptation. Cocks immediately said yes.

“I had no idea what it was,” Cocks said. “I said ‘sure’ because if I’ve learned one thing, I’ve learned that if you say no to Marty, you will regret the gift you didn’t take.”

The film itself is absolutely gorgeous. As one student pointed out during the Q&A, it seems to take cues from Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa in its use of the landscape to create a visually stunning film.

Though the bulk of the filming took place over 12 weeks in Taiwan, the landscapes chosen were reminiscent of 17th-century Japan and worked well to make the “swamp of a country” come to life on screen.

This line said by multiple characters — that Japan is a “swamp of a country” — is a perfect example of the way the screenplay and the visuals came together to create a cohesive feature. Many of the shots were obscured by a rising fog. Not only was this aesthetically appealing, but it also created an air of mystery and likened the landscape to a swamp long before any character uttered the phrase that became one of the central themes of the film.

So much of this film relies on careful word choice, as the characters grapple with a language barrier, something that Cocks tuned to perfection over the years that he kept returning to the screenplay. Cocks illustrates the misunderstandings without allowing the script to become marred by repetition or too confusing for audiences.

Subtitles appear most of the time that characters are speaking Japanese, but remain unused when Rodrigues, Ferreira or Garupe (Driver) would not be able to understand the language. Cocks trusts the audience to commiserate with characters even when they are speaking without subtitles.

Though Cocks eventually breathed new life into the characters of Silence, he said he initially struggled a great deal with the source material, which he attributed to a poor translation of the novel from its original Japanese and an initial inability to understand the religious fervor of Rodrigues.

“It was one of the most terrible moments of creative fear in my life,” Cocks said. “I didn’t understand it.”

Eventually, according to Cocks, finishing the screenplay became more a matter of pride than anything else. Even when initial funding was pulled for the film, he refused to stop writing the screenplay because “it would have been to my everlasting shame,” he said.

It wasn’t until writing the end of the film — something Cocks changed from the original ending in the novel — that he felt he had finally understood the character of Rodrigues. The struggle to commiserate with Rodrigues that he had been feeling, was, according to Cocks, actually a manifestation of the character’s plight to contend with his own religious beliefs.

The book ends with objective historical documentation stating that no one ever saw anything that would suggest Rodrigues held onto his faith after denouncing God to save the lives of five villagers; Cocks’ screenplay took the story a step further. While a Dutch trader narrates the information presented in the novel, the visuals tell a different story, showing that — although Rodrigues was cremated to prevent him from getting a Christian burial — his wife snuck a cross into his coffin, affirming that Rodrigues had never given up the faith.

“I was looking for a way to translate these historical documents, to put them into a visual form,” he said. “And then as I was writing I had the idea that what’s being said should contradict what’s being shown. And that’s what gave me the throughline to the image of the cross.”

Although one can only muse about how audiences would have reacted to an ending that stayed true to the novel, the audience reacted to this ending with, well, silence.  At the end of the almost-three-hour feature, as the credits rolled soundlessly across the screen, barely anyone in the crowd moved or said a word.

“[The film] really saves its greatest statement for the final shot,” Fuirst said, “So as soon as it cuts to black you’re left with new information that makes it an exciting experience even walking out of the theater.”

It wasn’t until the credits ended and Fuirst turned on the lights to begin the Q&A that the audience burst into a thunderous applause, finally breaking through the silence that had formed at the end of the film.

The Q&A began with prepared questions from Fuirst, a film major who prepared for the event by watching all of the films Cocks had worked on with Scorsese, reading the novel Silence and reading every interview about the film that he could find. Fuirst asked Cocks about writing an adaptation, bringing characters to life and working with Scorsese before opening the discussion up to members of the audience.

When audience members were given a chance to ask questions, Fuirst and Cocks appeared taken aback by how many hands immediately shot into the air. Attendees asked about influences for the film and requested advice about finding the motivation and meeting deadlines.

One junior got a laugh from the crowd when he asked Cocks for advice about writing shorter screenplays under a deadline, admitting that the script for his senior thesis was due on Monday and he had not yet started.

Upon seeing that Associate Professor of Film Jonathan Sherman and Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell were in the audience, Cocks turned to them and jokingly begged, “Give him an extension! Give the poor boy an extension!”

Fuirst had to start turning down questions when the talk ran late.

“I was excited because I have attended a lot of Q&As and I believe in Cinearts,” Fuirst said. “And I believe the opportunity to be able to talk with Jay about his film was so unique for me because he hasn’t had a new release in the time I’ve been at Kenyon.”

Cocks has visited Kenyon quite a few times since his graduation — in fact, he and his wife visit  Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff’s classes every year. It was upon hearing about his planned trip to Kenyon that the leaders of Cinearts got in contact with the American studies and film departments to organize the screening.

During his stay, Cocks was able to sit in on a wide variety of classes, including Sherman’s screenwriting class in the Wright Center and Rutkoff’s introductory class on America in the 1960s.

In Rutkoff’s class, Cocks accompanied his wife as she spoke about her starring role in the 1969 film Medium Cool, the story of a TV news reporter who finds himself swept up in the violence and mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As a reporter for TIME, Cocks had written a review of the film. The director of the film, Haskell Wexler, introduced Cocks to Bloom.

“It’s very stimulating,” Rutkoff said, “You have an outsider who is actually part of whatever the project is that you’re doing. It’s not just anybody, god forbid another boring academic. These guys are part of it.”

Cocks is working on two major projects. The first is an adaptation of a 2007 New Yorker article titled “The Book of Exodus” by Geraldine Brooks. The article tells the story of a Jewish teenager and a Muslim teenager banding together during World War II to save a copy of the Haggadah.

Silence screenwriter talks subtleties of language, character

The second project, which harkens back to Cocks’ days at Kenyon, is a feature about Bob Dylan and his time at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

 

Devon Musgrave-Johnson

Devon Musgrave-Johnson is Arts Editor of the Collegian.

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