Murder on the Orient Express writer on sequel plans and why 'diversity yields better storytelling'

Michael Green speaks exclusively to Yahoo Movies UK about ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)
Michael Green speaks exclusively to Yahoo Movies UK about ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images)

Murder on the Orient Express has been in cinemas less than three weeks, but 20th Century Fox has already confirmed that a sequel is in the works. Anyone who has seen the movie could have guessed that this would happen, and the follow-up being an adaptation of Death on the Nile – a murder mystery set on a riverboat drifting down the famous Egyptian river.

Kenneth Branagh is expected to return as Hercule Poirot and direct the new Agatha Christie adaptation, though no deal has been signed yet, but screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Logan, American Gods) will definitely be back to pen the sequel.

“The studio talks have been nothing short of wonderful on this project,” Green tells Yahoo Movies. “It’s really been strangely enjoyable to all involved. [20th Century Fox] probably, even more than me, wanted to continue. They were just waiting to see a little bit more about how it did and if the world was interested.”

The world certainly was interested as the star-studded movie – made for $55 million – has already earned over $148 million since its November 3rd release, and, its success is as much a testament to Green’s writing as it is to the A-list stars that made up the ensemble cast.

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham and Leslie Odom Jr. as Mary Debenham. (20th Century Fox)
Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez, Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham and Leslie Odom Jr. as Mary Debenham. (20th Century Fox)

Just one of the script’s best qualities was the way in which Green remedied some of the more bigoted aspects of Agatha Christie’s tale. Below, the screenwriter talks us through the process of adapting Murder on the Orient Express and why diversity is so paramount to good writing…

Yahoo Movies: Were you aware of the casual racism in Agatha Christie’s work and how did you approach the task of redressing it in your screenplay?

Michael Green: I’m not a Christie scholar nor am I a literary critic. I was not very aware of her reputation but to get started on the adaptation I did quite a bit more reading, starting with this book and I was stricken by the strangely anachronistic, humorous undercurrent of day-drinking and casual racism. Her books seemed to be steeped in it and that was a bit of a surprise to me.

There is this ongoing debate, that my opinion fluctuates on the spectrum of, about if you are looking at literature from another time that holds views that are questionable to today’s mind, do we throw it out entirely or do we take it for what it is, or try to give it a wider berth and look at it through the lens of its time. I don’t know the answer, it’s something to be struggled with, but there are works of literature that just can’t be gotten through.

[However], there are ones that can be remediated and in this case there is a debate to be had: is remediating just laundering and excusing attitudes of the time that we don’t like? My opinion is, I thought it was worth preserving and that we have the opportunity to make a comment on it, that we can actually take the aforementioned casual racism and say something about it and deal with it in the body of the work.

What were the types of prejudice you came across in the book?

I was stricken, especially in Orient Express, where there’s a lot of racism among Caucasian Europeans that was a lot of needless, strange heuristics about the temperaments of each nationality likely to murder or not murder. It gets you into the mindset of the day, which seem strange in our minds, but was there and it allowed for the opportunity to comment on it, because I found it very surprising that it existed and wanted to say something about it – the fact that someone would be racist to a Caucasian Italian or a Spaniard. So rather than lie and pretend it didn’t exist, I put it as part of the text and made it something that changes our opinion of people. If someone holds racist attitudes we now look at them with a specific type of suspicion because they are now capable of a type of thinking we don’t find acceptable.

Why did you choose to reflect the prejudice of the time through race rather than foreignness?

Diversity yields better storytelling so when I’m looking at characters, at the group of characters that were suggested in the book, my goal as a writer, personally, was to make each one just as interesting as I could. I wanted to make sure we had some racial diversity and then I thought well if Arbuthnot was a black man suddenly his being a doctor would have its own tinge to it; it would lend itself to a back story that is much more interesting than what I’m working with. A black doctor being accused just for a moment carries the weight of a whole life experience of being looked at as potentially less than because of his race.

If we go down the road of his hidden romance with Mary Debenham even that gets more complicated as well in a very appealing way to a screenwriter. His desire to protect Mary becomes a much different thing. The new couple’s insecurity about judgement became not just a matter of suspicion because of what they might be up to or not as suspects in the case, but because of a secret they were trying to keep quiet as the world was not quite open to it. So it really is a classic example of diversity made for better storytelling.

As a white male writer do you feel a responsibility to ensure there are opportunities for diversity and representation in your work?

As a white male writer, or writer of any kind, I’ve always understood that my life and my experience is not very interesting. I tend to sit in comfortable offices and type. These are not stories that I would inflict upon anyone so I’m always just looking for the most interesting story I could be a part of and tell. Any writer of any talent can write about experience if she and he chooses to learn about it to the point that they qualify themselves to write about another person’s experience. I do not believe writers should write what they know, they should write what they are interested in and then make themselves the type of writer who is qualified to write what they are interested in.

You’re certainly one of the more progressive writers in Hollywood considering the diverse casts of both Logan and American Gods. Do you write ethnicity into your characters or does that come after with the casting director or filmmakers?

In American Gods it was the decision to take an interest in America’s foundational racial diversity and cultural and ethnic diversity. That was very much the appeal of it, just knowing that we would have a cast that looked like America and not like small conclaves of America. In the case of Logan, specifically I was coming into with writer and director James Mangold who really had a strong vision of what he wanted this to be and my interest in working on it was down to that.

From the time that I came on he had a story in mind that was going to go into those themes and he dug deeper and deeper into them. I’m very grateful that he had that in mind. It was an example of a fortunate alliance where he had all that in mind and knew that those would be themes and representations that would just enhance the story he wanted to tell.

Murder on the Orient Express is in cinemas now

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