Q&A with The Neon Demon screenwriter Polly Stenham


Polly Stenham comes from an extensive and formidable background in theatre. At just 19, she published her first play That Face, originally starring Lindsay Duncan and Matt Smith, and she has since written many more plays. Polly has also gone on to branch into screenwriting, working on Channel 4’s Dope Girls and the screenplay to the intrepid and visually staggering The Neon Demon. Her focus is now once again on plays, and much of this conversation centred on the theatrical; dealing with directors, bad reading rehearsals and unexpectedly radical readings of her work, though she provides many interesting observations into film and television too because of the contrast with dramatic writing.

Genuinely this event was “in conversation”, and as the Q&A rolled on it became so comfortable that at times attendees didn’t need to re-raise hands in order to follow up interesting tangents. The main frustration of these events is when speakers hint at more tantalising topics, but then either forget to return to these mentions or run out of time, and so the particulars are left hanging. The easiness and laxness surrounding this particular event however allowed for the retracing of steps back into interesting side points, and incredibly earnest engagement with Polly helped to foster a real feeling of sincerity from both sides which made this talk feel so refreshingly organic and open.

The candour of Polly’s answers was invigorating, and while she certainly didn’t sugar-coat the hard realities of her craft, her love for writing was unmistakable. Polly mentioned an article which grabbed her featuring an interview with David Foster Wallace in which he stressed the importance of true, honest intention when creating art, and of art needing to come from a place of love in order for it to be loved. Yet Polly also balances this with what is commonly considered a more clinical approach to writing, and she has started to apply more dramatic theory of structure to her later work. However, it is interesting to her discuss how the use of these structures is an impetus to inspire by forcing thought in new directions, rather than a binding to a conformative, cold method of writing.

The candour of Polly’s answers was invigorating, and while she certainly didn’t sugar-coat the hard realities of her craft, her love for writing was unmistakable.

The main questions I asked were directed at how different she finds playwriting to screenwriting, and Polly had great insight here. Both are dialogue-based forms, and yet she pointed out that cinema is centred on image, and drama much more on the viscerality of the words and moments within scenes. The exclusive use of the elevated will seem overwrought on film where this would be affecting on stage, and it was also a key realisation for me to fully understand that screenwriting can be learnt from other modes of writing, and deeper insight comes from both the contrasts and connections between different fields.

What worked most about this Q&A was the same thing that makes writing work when it comes from truth and intention. Questions were asked out of interest, not as endeavours to try and sound clever, and they were answered in the spirit of this unreserved straightforwardness. There is little which is more inspiring than listening to those who are so enthused by what they do, and it was definitely a delight to be in conversation with someone as attentive to our questions as we were in her answers.

A podcast will be uploaded to the Oxford Writer’s House website, and is thoroughly worth a listen too if you weren’t lucky enough to catch the talk itself in person.


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