Interview with Belle screenwriter, Misan Sagay
Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes): First off, congratulations on your film BELLE! Can you tell our readers a little about what the film is about?
Misan Sagay: It’s about Dido Elizabeth Belle, a mixed race girl who was raised by her Great Uncle Lord Mansfield in the 18th Century. She lived as sisters with his other ward, her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. But Dido’s colour means she cannot fully enjoy the benefits of her situation. Especially when it comes to love. Lord Mansfield is Lord Chief Justice of England, making judgements about the slave trade, including the infamous Zong case. The arrival of John Davinier, an idealistic vicar’s son challenges Lord Mansfield to make the right judgement and challenges Belle to find love.
Kevin: It’s been well publicized that the inspiration to write BELLE struck you when you saw Johann Zoffany’s 1779 painting of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle, when visiting Scone Palace in Scotland while you were a medical student at the University of St. Andrews. What was it about Zoffany’s painting that stuck with you and inspired you to write BELLE?
Misan: It was Belle herself, the directness of her gaze staring out at me. The fact she was black yet clearly an aristocrat. That intrigued and excited me.
Kevin: You come from a successful family of diplomats, lawyers, bankers and you yourself are a doctor. How did you decide to become a screenwriter and what was the transition from physician to screenwriter like?
Misan: I was working as Doctor and loved the cinema. But I never saw people onscreen who were like me. So many were servants or gangsters. Or their stories would be told through white protagonists. Especially women. we were always the best friend. I wanted to redress that balance. Film is the major narrative art form of our times yet black voices were restricted. In frustration I started to write.
Kevin: Since Dido Elizabeth Belle is a historical person, how much of her real life story did you include and how much creative liberty did you take for narrative storytelling purposes? Can you talk a little of the research and development process that you went through while writing the screenplay?
Misan: There are a million stories that could be told from the painting. Literally, a million screenplays to be written. That’s what is so wonderful about an inspiration like a painting as opposed to a book. With infinite possibilities no two writers possibly could come up with the same story through looking at that picture. Every person would be inspired to tell their own story.
So little is known about Dido that much of the film has to be fictionalised. It gives you freedom as a writer that allows you to tell a story about what matters to you. So the first decision I had to make was what story. Almost straight away I set out to write a Jane Austen love story but with a twist. To bring freshness to the genre by subverting it. Jane Austen with a black heroine. So my first decision was to create a romantic fulfilled love story, set when Belle is aged around 18. The real Belle married at 32. Why not just stick to the history? Because I wanted to set the film in a moment of flux. Belle at 32 would very likely fully understand what her position was. We would not have been on that journey of discovery with her. So I set it at age about 18, an age when she is discovering herself – by contact with her future husband, John Davinier and contact with the outside world through coming out in London.
The Zong judgement was in 1783 when Dido (born 1761) was 22 years old, Lady Mansfield died in 1784, Elizabeth married in 1785 when Dido was 24 and lost contact with Dido who remained at home, and Dido married in 1793 aged 32. So I conflated all these these into one time period. Elizabeth and Belle’s love affairs and the Zong judgement in this one moment. These two stories allowed me explore all the themes I wanted. Then I created the characters and the relationships that would tell the story.
I made Belle pliant and accepting of her position at the beginning. Her journey is to self-love and self-acceptance, which leads her to demand what she wants on her own terms. I was determined though not to have the cliche where she has to perform superhuman feats of goodness to be accepted. I hate that cliche. She is there by right and it is for others to learn to deal with it. Her colour is their problem, not hers. Above my desk I had the phrase “Freedom – not granted as a favour but taken as a right – Belle.” I didn’t want anyone to save “free” Belle. She had to free herself.
Creating the character of John Davinier was harder. Jane Austen has created some of the most enduring romantic heroes ever so these are big shoes to fill. I wanted John to be such a hero. At first I tried to keep him as the French steward he probably was but I just couldn’t feel romantic about that. To me the abolition period is a very English moment in history. So he evolved into the young, passionate, idealistic and iconoclastic young Englishman in the film. I made him an Vicar’s son because so many people like him were involved in the church. I wanted to honour that and we see him in church helping his Father. It also makes him a Gentleman! I wanted that for Dido. I made him Lord Mansfield’s prospective legal pupil so their relationship could be framed around their differing views on the purpose of the law. Order or justice? And finally he tied Dido into the Zong subplot bringing it to her attention her and letting her know who her Papa, Lord Mansfield, is.
Lord Mansfield was the kind of character that could take over. So much is known about him – he left a big footprint. In a way he is a metaphor for England at the time. He is trying to keep the emotion out of the slavery issue, to control the situation and say you can still be this liberal beacon of light in the world and pay for it with slavery . It’s just about cargo, isn’t it. In the end he comes to realise it isn’t about them. The nameless many. Like all issues of morality it’s about him and the verdict would define who he was and what world he was making. I think it also shows what love can do.
A script is a work in progress and at first the film also centred more on the relationship between the two girls, as you would expect looking at the painting. But this also evolved. Once the Zong plot came in there really wasn’t room for both. I had to carry all the Producers with me on this and it wasn’t easy. I had to sneak the Zong in slowly in the face of notes like “ getting political?” After all, we had first set out to make the painting. Belle and Bette. Between drafts the more Jane Austenesque subplot with suitors fell back as the central story as the more weighty triangle – Dido – John – Lord Mansfield took over. But it was a balancing act. Charting the evolution of the relationship between Elizabeth and Dido gave another dimension to the screenplays central theme of the worth of a human being so couldn’t be discarded. Gender and the place of women is explored through their relationships as they grasp for a future. Women were not free. The girls find their worth changing as they go out in society. Black and rich? Poor and white? All these are explored in the fortunes of the girls as they look for husbands. It is also explored through the wonderful female characters I love so much.
Writing the women was actually the most difficult part. History used to be written by men so women are often absent from the historical record. Their actual day to day role in the household is often not clear. Their voices aren’t there. And this is set 30 years before Jane Austen’s time. Then I managed to track down the letters and diaries of the Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park in Hertforshire, in a book decades out of print. This was a household very similar to the Mansfield’s. Grey’s husband, the Earl of Hardwick was the Attorney General at the same time as Lord Mansfield was Chief Justice. Hardwicke gave the infamous “Yorke-Talbot opinion” that legalised slavery in England. Lord Mansfield’s Somersett ruling overturned it. They were adversaries yet their backgrounds and homelike were very similar. This intimate first hand account of this household, written by a woman, the equivalent of Lady Mansfield, gave me a real picture of the daily lives of the women and prototypes for Lady Mansfield and Lady Mary.
So I created Lady Mansfield as wise and womanly. Characters like her don’t each have a lot of screen time and you have to establish them quickly. So though Lady Mansfield is resistant to Belle we warm to her, Lady M, immediately because the first thing she does is to take care of Belle. There in the midst of the shock of Belle’s arrival she asks for her to be given food. It’s a moment that says everything about her. I had her in that one gesture. I also made her marriage to Lord Mansfield a true marriage, (like the Hardwicke marriage where she was really his helpmate.) They are surprisingly equal, even modern in their relationship. They clearly love each other and their nieces. Lady Mansfield is the more pragmatic of the two. He is emotional while she is practical. She is the first to spot the problems Dido’s presence will bring, ”Marriage?”
Lady Mary was a challenge because she represents what Dido was destined to become. The keys to the household are to be passed to Belle, a symbol of eternal spinsterhood. Yet, she had to be sympathetic and loveable even though we must never want her fate to be Dido’s. She rose most clearly from the Grey letters, a kind of governess for the girls, slightly ridiculous with her dislike of the French ( England was threatened with invasion by Napoleon at the time) yet she is also true.
The Mansfield household consisted of many people at different times, including two other wards. The limiting of it to just these two women was an important creative choice I made. They portrayed very starkly the two paths for Belle, happy honourable marriage with an equal or twilight life of spinsterhood living for other people. There was one last option. An unhappy bitter marriage leading to shallowness and cruelty.
Lady Ashford is a villainess in the mould of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. She’s a shallow unprincipled snob. But it’s more serious than that. She represents the central hypocrisy of the slave trade. Black people did not become slaves because they were inferior. They were captured and then deemed to be inferior in order to justify the inhumanity of their treatment. It was all about money. Lady Ashford ’s racism is just money. I think this is an important message especially for black children who might wonder why it happened to us. Was there something wrong with us? No. It was all about money.
It was evident that the two suitors would have to be a rich cad for Elizabethand a poor man for Dido. This was established actually from my first treatment in 2004. Each suitor would then fulfil what society says each needed to be whole. For Elizabeth money and for Dido a pedigree. Dido’s journey to self-worth is charted in her embracing then finally rejecting the aristocratic poor suitor who sees her value only in her money. She chooses John who sees value in her. That these suitors are tied into the Zong judgement because they are also slave owners is very important in my theme that slavery being a financial necessity and basically everyone was involved in some way.
The themes of the film are inherent and set by the characters I created and their relationships. They were there from the start and the characters were designed to allow us to explore the themes. So the honoured wife Lady Mansfield and the unfulfilled spinster, Lady Mary allow us to see two future outcomes for Dido. Race, gender, class, belonging, self-worth. All explored in this rich mix.
From the characters spring the structure or plot. Dido’s journey begins in the slums moves to the arcadia of Kenwood. If she had stayed there Lord Mansfield might have been able to control the situation and her. That is why, by a twist of fate (Elizabeth has to come out and won’t go without Dido) I put her in London in the second half. From there come the original scenes. I take the greatest care over the scenes where the characters are introduced. The scenes are so integral to how I conceive the character that they have not changed much from first draft to the screen. The set piece where the household meets Dido is one I particularly love. Also the Vauxhall gardens when Dido meets John again in London. I loved writing comic the scene where Lady Ashford breaks up the proposal when she finds that Elizabeth is poor. I could go on and on.
Key dialogue that anchors the characters or plot tends to come to me early and endure through all the drafts. You can change every word but if that key dialogue is in the scene the essence of the scene doesn’t change. Belle was a complex screenplay balancing all these themes which took many drafts to find the moving parts.
Kevin: After you completed the screenplay for BELLE, what happened next? Who did you send it to and how did your script ultimately become a feature film? From the time you typed “FADE IN” on your first draft, to the day the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, what was the time frame to see Belle’s story finally told on screen?
Misan: It wasn’t as clear cut as that. The story and screenplay evolved from draft to draft. I wrote a pitch and found it difficult to get financing. I wrote a screenplay alone. I then took the script to HBO who took it into development. I worked with Producer Julie Goldstein. In 2009 I teamed up with Damian Jones and we went to together to the BFI. With their finance he optioned my script from HBO and commissioned me further drafts from me as he looked for a Director. But I was unwell and this contributed to my leaving the project I had loved and carried for so long. I was confident and the Producers told me in writing that the content of the screenplay was there when I left. Any further work would be editing to refine and focus my content into the final shooting script.
Director Amma Asante came on board weeks later in August, 2010. The film, Belle, based on my screenplay, was announced in the press, fully financed, a year later in 2011 and shot in 2012. It opened in Toronto in September 2013.
Kevin: BELLE obviously deals with issues of racial inequality and prejudice in the sixteenth century. According to the WGA’s report on diversity, there is still a ways to go for real gender and racial diversity in the film/TV industry. As a writer of color and a woman, what has your experience been like and have there been any special challenges or issues that you’ve faced so far? Do you feel any responsibility or desire to tell stories that increase social or cultural awareness in your stories?
Misan: The hardest challenge is to keep the story form a black perspective. You have the weight of history against you. After so many years of being written out of stories, pushed to the margin or having our stories legitimised by having a white hero pushed to the front, the cinematic language finds us difficult. A simple example is black love. It is black writers that are now writing film and TV with black women that are desirable and sexy. An honourable mention to Jackie Brown by Quentin Tarantino. You have to be suspicious of notes and check they aren’t pushing the script back to looking at the white characters.
The worst is what I call “Wilberforcing” of the script. I am totally committed letting black characters speak for themselves, be seen, and not letting them be experienced through a white character. Wilberforcing is when notes are sent, usually by white male development people, that result in every scene showing a black person suffering being massaged. Gradually, the scene or the black person in it is replaced by a white man making noble speeches. “They are human for God’s sake!” I loathe that. ! So I don’t just feel the responsibility to tell stories I would go as far as to say that’s why I write.
Kevin: There was some question of screen credit for the film that was resolved by the WGA with you receiving sole credit for the screenplay for BELLE. For aspiring screenwriters, can you explain a little about what goes into deciding who gets credit for writing a film and who makes those decisions?
Misan: To clarify about the credit. I originated and wrote the screenplay of “Belle” from 2004 to 2010. It is inspired by a painting I saw at Scone Palace of two girls, one of whom is biracial. The description of the finished film on the Fox Searchlight website accurately describes the film I wrote.
BELLE is inspired by the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay. Raised by her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield and his wife, Belle’s lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. While her cousin Elizabeth chases suitors for marriage, Belle is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar’s son bent on changing society, he and Belle help shape Lord Mansfield’s role as Lord Chief Justice to end slavery in England. I left the project in June 2010, suffering from ill health. In August 2010, the Director was hired. In December, 2011 it was announced in “Variety” as fully financed with my name as writer. This was 15 months after the Director came on board.
When it went into preproduction the following month my name had been removed from the script. From January 2012 the screenplay for “Belle” went out labelled “written by” the Director. To the cast, crew and journalists who visited the set the script was now written by the Director. In press releases issued by the Production a new genesis of the project appeared, attributing it to a post-card of the Zoffany Painting at Scone Palace sent to the Director in 2009.
In August 2012 I finally obtained a copy of the script and immediately recognized it as overwhelmingly a rearrangement, edit and polish of my original creative content. I contacted the Producer who immediately undertook in writing to replace my name on the script and all production materials. This was not done and I have now received an apology from the Producer for this.
In November when the Writers Guild of America exerted jurisdiction over the project my name was reinstated on the screenplay. It finally went to arbitration with the WGA with the consent of the Producer and full participation of the Director. By a unanimous decision I was awarded sole credit. The Producers have apologised for the chaos caused by the removal of my name from my script, paid monetary damages and have issued a press release to tell the truth about the origin and writing of Belle.
Since 1933 the WGA has had the sole authority to determine credits. The Guild conducts more than 150 arbitrations a year, about one third of produced films so it is very common. The WGA are forbidden by Federal Statute from discriminating against any one member or non-member. We take for granted all the rights and protections we enjoy under the Guild. I experienced months of uncertainty when my name was removed not just from the screenplay I had spent so many years crafting but from the history of the project altogether. This situation is similar to the position of writers before 1933 when the WGA was formed. It is important we support the Guild.
Kevin: When you’re not writing critically acclaimed, socially relevant period pieces, how do you like to spend your free time?
Misan: I’m a mum. I have two beautiful boys.
Kevin: What would you consider some of the best, or your favorite, screenwriting resources?
Misan: Life. I look at life and things that interest me. I listen to stories from every one. Friends, patients, everyone. I love hearing authentic voices when I’m creating characters. For that reason I love archives and diaries.
Kevin: Lastly, what kind of advice or inspiration would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?
Misan: The human experience is vastly enriched by its diversity. It’s important we all get our stories out there and we all get our chance to make ourselves heard. In some way all of us on this planet are diverse.
Kevin: Who would you rather have over as a dinner guest and why: Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter Regina Belle, actress Camila Belle or the founder of Parkour, David Belle?
Misan: Regina Belle. I love her music.
Kevin: What is your favorite Dido song: “White Flag”, “Here with Me” or “Thank You”?
Misan: White Flag!
Kevin: Lastly, who do you think would win in a food fight: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson or yourself and why?
Misan: Me! When you’ve beaten Stage IIIB breast cancer you’re aren’t afraid of anything or anyone. You know you can be the last man or woman standing.
Find us here: