What made you want to pursue Screenwriting?
I only really considered Screenwriting once I had written a novel: Hitman which came out in 2000. I had always been interested in film but I had never really considered Screenwriting as an option.
Two things happened which made me want to get into it. The first thing was that I got some interest in Hitman when an independent producer asked me to write a film treatment for it and I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it for me. So, I thought ‘How hard can it be? I’ll do it myself’ little realising that it is really not that easy. The second thing was that I met a screenwriter called Marc Pye (The Bill, Eastenders) and as I tried to get into Screenwriting he helped me and became a really good friend and sort of mentor. It wasn’t really a conscious decision and I think, as is often the way with screenwriters, I just fell into it.
Act of Grace, this was your first feature film?
This is my first feature film and thus far the only feature film of mine to be produced but it wasn’t the first feature film that I had written, or rather, co-written.
How did you find the process?
Well it was a really unusual process because I hadn’t originally been involved. Again it was working with Marc and we had been working on another project of his called Scallies which was a TV drama we were developing for Granada TV. Marc had been working with a writer and producer called Alan Field. They had both worked with Jimmy McGovern (Cracker) on the first series of The Street and were developing Act of Grace as a low-budget feature film. Alan had raised the funds and it was a few weeks before they were due to shoot and they wanted somebody to help on a new draft of the script. So, Marc introduced me to Alan and I was asked to do a rewrite. Normally it’s the complete opposite and you work on something for years before it gets made but on this I was working on it for literally a few weeks.
Is it easier to collaborate with other screen writers?
I don’t really mind, it depends on the project. As a screenwriter you have to be prepared to collaborate; it’s not like being a novelist or a poet or something else which can very solitary. You’re part of a team and you have to be prepared to share nicely!
Were there any disagreements?
Not on Act of Grace; there was nothing major. I mean the story was pretty much there, I was just working on some characterisation, reordering some scenes and I was very much the junior partner so I couldn’t really change that much nor did I want to as the story was fairly strong already. But yes you often do get disagreements, not so much with fellow writers but with producers who often look at things from a different perspective as they are the ones who are holding the cash.
Has there ever been a time when you have been kicked off a project?
Oh yeah, I’ve been sacked a couple of times! You just have to deal with it. Most writers at any level will have been kicked off a project at some point. Working in the creative industries, you have to develop a thick skin and you just have to take it in your stride.
One time I found particularly galling was where I had been hired by an American producer who was a successful business man who just fancied becoming a filmmaker by way of a hobby. He employed me to work on a script and he didn’t really know what he was doing and when I got sacked it was a bit of a pain. But you just have to deal with it.
If you’re working on something and they say to you ‘we need to get a fresh pair of eyes’ it basically means ‘we’re getting someone else in’ [laughs]. You know it does happen but as long as the project goes on and does well and gets made, even though you are sharing your credit with someone else, then it’s fine. Screenwriters don’t generally have a problem with that. As long as they don’t murder the script – which can happen.
Baptism – your new feature film. How is that progressing?
Baptism is hopefully, touch wood, progressing well. It’s an adaptation of my novel of the same name, and The Philm Company have made a spec trailer which they do a lot of nowadays in order to raise funds. So they use actors which won’t necessarily be in the final cast but they shoot something which they can then show to financiers alongside a script. So a spec trailer was made, and I have to say it was a really great one.
Was adapting your novel a difficult process?
Not really because I was, you could argue, always cynically thinking that Baptism could be made into a film and even some of the people who have read the book say it reads like a film. Having said that, the book is a ten and a half hour read which means you have to lose a hell of a lot of the book to compact it into a two hour screenplay.
I loved adapting it though. Adapting it with Phil Hawkins who is the director/producer was a dream because he’s so good and we both kind of share the same vision for the story.
Did you liaise with the director a lot on Baptism?
Yeah I went and had some very long meetings to talk things through and Phil and his producer/business partner, Alex Baranska, would provide me with lots of notes. But as I say the notes were so good, when you get good notes you don’t struggle and you don’t have a problem with accommodating them. The worse thing is when you have a producer who is just starting out who thinks they are better than they really are and then they give you notes which don’t really make sense, which you don’t necessarily agree with. That’s when things get tricky.
Is it easier when you are writing to relate to places which you already know?
Funnily enough I have just been asked to rewrite an old script of mine that was set in London so that it’s set in Belgrade. I’ve never been to Belgrade so that was hard. Generally speaking, it is always easier to set things where you can picture them in your mind’s eye. Having said that if your story is really good and you have enough knowledge about a place which looks authentic in the script then you can get away with it.
Have you ever had to change a screenplay to work around a certain actor?
When I was working with Rik Mayall we wrote scripts very much with him in mind and that was fantastic obviously, working with him was a dream come true. I have worked on a few projects where they have had an actor in mind and so you tailor it slightly to that actor and then they say that actor has dropped out which happens a lot.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I have another co-written feature script, Alleycats, which I’ve been developing for many years with director, Ian Bonhote and producer, Andy Ryder. This is due to shoot in March in London and casting is taking place as we speak.
What is it like to live as a Screen Writer in Britain?
You have to be able to work very hard in short intense bursts for certain deadlines and you have got to have a very thick skin in terms of rejection. I would recommend though, especially to those who are just starting out, to have some sort of day job as it can be very precarious. You have to be incredibly single minded and not give in.
Could you name one good thing and one bad thing about Screen Writing?
Good thing is to work in a fascinating industry doing a fascinating job. If you love storytelling and you love films then it is a dream come true. I’m a firm believer in if you do something you love then you aren’t really even working. So that’s a prize to be coveted.
In terms of a bad thing it would be the precarious nature of the work and the cash flow. Sometimes you might be commissioned to work on a project and not get paid until a year later. The hours are long and the wages pretty low in the independent sector but you just have to keep on writing and honing your craft and hopefully, you’ll get somewhere.