WRITING A SCRIPT FOR MARKET
Or tailoring a script for a specific production company, genre and established market audience.
It was the summer of 2015 and I was on the plane travelling to Cannes with Alyson. We were both a bundle of nerves, not because I had been nominated for my first ever award as Best Director at the independent Nice Festival which preceded Cannes by a few days - but because Alyson was impeded by the over eager staff at Ryan Air who had no understanding of European Visa Laws and nearly didn’t let her on the plane. It was only when I assured the duty manager on the phone that things would be taken further and forced him to spell his name over the phone to me three times, then moments later the desk phone rang and they relented. For a brief minute we thought she was going to have to remain behind. We were both in tears. A somewhat auspicious start to the trip and something of an omen not relevant to this particular blog.
During the journey over I had talked about what script I was going to write next. I wanted it to be something that would be easy to sell. The Journey was a good film in its own way and people who found it and related to the story, loved it, but I always knew it would be a hard film to sell and was more likely to find an audience when my career was a little further along. Whatever I did next had to be as commercial as possible. I was completely broke, unemployed and my options were limited. At the low end of the British market everyone appeared to be making Gangland or Hooligan themed thrillers or Zombie movies. They even made a Zombie Gangster movie! Zombies was a genre I enjoyed thoroughly on the show ‘The Walking Dead’ (With the superb Andrew Lincoln who always has been one of my favourite British actors and I had the pleasure to tell him that in person after seeing him on stage in ‘Blue & Orange’) but I didn’t want to make a Zombie movie. Although I am sure I will make a horror film one day, it has never been a genre I have been drawn to and as I wandered round the Cannes Film Market, I was told repeatedly that horror was an over saturated market. I said to Alyson I would probably need to write a gangster film and by the time the plane landed I had written an outline for one but was advised by someone who shall remain nameless that I shouldn’t bother because films in that genre never make any money (What he should have said was ‘I don’t see a film in that genre making me any money’ but I digress…)
That plane ride left me with two pages of notes for an outline of a screenplay called ‘Six Days to Sunday.’ Ask anyone in the UK what the best British Gangster film ever made is and they will probably say ‘The Long Good Friday’ and they would be right. It just had all the right elements and came at a time when few other films like it had been made. The great combination of Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren along with a fantastic supporting cast, a dynamic tense script, gritty portrayal of a changing London landscape and a haunting memorable score just made for so many great moments. So many people over the years have tried to make another Long Good Friday and it’s an exercise in futility because it’s just impossible to recapture the mood of London in that era or those characters or to be the first to have done so. However, it can be used a bench mark of quality if you’re going to make a film set in that genre. It demonstrates the need to have talented actors in your key roles and many other things such as the importance of a great musical score to underline the emotional tone of the film. It has a sense of scale and precise, well written dialogue – all vital ingredients for a great film. So, while it is impossible to recreate ‘The Long Good Friday’ nor should one ever try, it’s not impossible to bring an equal level of quality to a different film thus ensuring that a story set within this well-trodden genre has the best chance of adding something great to those films that have gone before it.
So it was with all that firmly in mind that I set out to write Six Days to Sunday, and I will talk a little bit here about the brief I set for myself and how I approached the material to try and make it original but also work within those margins. I knew early on that this would be a film I would probably end up pitching at some stage to Carnaby International. This production company has produced a huge number of British films in the last decade and their output is only increasing. Like any production company they’ve had their hits and their misses but unlike some, they do try and ensure a level of production quality, something which led to the downfall of Cannon Films when they didn’t do their own due diligence on their output back in the late 1980s / early 1990s. I knew what Carnaby wanted from their films within this genre. I had watched most of their work and had an understanding of what shots/scenes would be required from an international sales perspective. Because I am also a director and have a good working knowledge of the film sales markets, and although I not an expert, I knew this would enable me to tailor the script to exactly what they wanted. Most writers often don’t give their scripts such due consideration (Nor should they always, as sometimes this can be a distraction from the most important thing: Telling the story.) but in this instance for me it was essential to know and understand these requirements.
For various reasons including another project which demanded two years of my time, I did not come back to this script idea, until the summer of 2017. I didn’t actually sit down to write it until December 22nd of that year, finishing it on Boxing Day at 445pm that afternoon, while cold roast turkey cuts sat my kitchen awaiting to be eaten. I’ll come back to that later.
On the plane to France two years earlier I came up with two starting points for the story which would drive the narrative of the script. It was my objective from the get go to take as many of things as possible that would be expected to be seen in a film of this genre and turn them on their head. Firstly I wanted this to be a female led piece. I was a huge fan of the television series Widows by Lynda La Plante (1982, 1985) and remembered it well.
I also love the work of writer Martina Cole and saw a stage adaptation of one of her books a few years back. Again, her stories are always female led with strong well fleshed out characters. I wanted to write something in the same spiritual vernacular so I decided one thing that was going to happen was most of the male cast were going to be dead in the first twenty minutes and after that the women would take over. Now all I needed to do was figure out how and why we would get there and what the ending would be. Two more things influenced the story line from here on. The first were the London/UK riots of 2011. (Riots I predicted only a week earlier during a conversation on my XBOX Live with a group of friends but that is another story!) After the riots I recalled a chat I had with a Police Officer friend of mine who told me at one point the resources of the Police UK wide were so stretched there was literally not a single unit spare to be sent anywhere else in the country. The army were on the verge of being called in, when things finally began to settle down. That piece of information reminded me of the opening scene from Walter Hills classic film ‘The Warriors’ where one man, Cyrus, tries to reunite all the gangs of New York into a single force against the police, explaining what power they would have operating as one, rather than as individual organisations.
This second idea resonated and was re set to London, with the riots as a recent memory, and became the opening for my story. The male protagonist, Max Riding, a leader of a top London firm, wants to unite all of the London firms as one and profit in the same context. I felt Riding’s wife, an intelligent sophisticated woman in her late 40s, called Helena, needed to be of a different ethnicity to Max, showing he was a man who embraced the multi-racial city London had become and was the sort of person who could bring people together. Helena subsequently, would become the stories leading character. I have wanted to work with my good friend, the incredible actress Josette Simon, for some time now, so I wrote the role specifically with her in mind. I do find as a writer that it’s easier to write dialogue for a character when you can see and hear that person, so I often picture actors in roles even if they don’t end up playing them. (I did the same with a number of characters in my book) To give the Ridings relationship another layer I also decided they’re both still grieving over the loss of their young daughter, though how or why she died I wasn’t sure yet. This also eliminated the children from their family element, and made the character of Helena very paternal over everyone who worked for their firm, treating them all very much like her own family. This would give another dimension to their relationship and would of course give the actors more depth to work into their performances. Next I decided was there was going to be four female leads in all. I wanted them all to be as different from each other as possible, to represent not only the different cultural melting pot that is London but also to have four very different characters interacting with each other, even if the link between them all was organised crime. In the end I decided that the three remaining characters would represent three different parts of London: China Town (Suri Yen, the young daughter of the head of her firm, a very sarcastic, passionate girl, who works as the company accountant and has a good head for figures) Brixton (Jade Williams, late 20s, an Afro Caribbean bisexual girlfriend to the boss of the Yardie firm, a pole dancer, she also has a degree in computing and can hack any website within minutes, making her a case of don’t judge the book by the cover) and finally Plumstead (Jane Nice, 40s, wife of the head of the South East London firm, who always speaks with no filter and is very much working class but always drips in designer clothes and is best friend to Helena for some years)
These three characters combined with the lead of Helena gave me a really nice mix, and additional supporting female cast would then be added to this. So with the men all killed off fairly early on I knew what the plot would be – Essentially the wives and girlfriends trying to find out who was behind the murder of their respective husbands and partners. I also knew that four female leads together would be a gold mine of comedy, so I decided that the tone of the film shouldn’t be too dark or take itself too seriously but certainly should not border on farce. It still needed to feel real enough to be believable but with these women I knew the potential for humour in the script would be far greater than having four macho male leading men.
Another production asset I knew had to be in the script was the potential for a number of strong male cameo roles. I knew this would enable both the production company and myself to get a number of established actors in the film for a scene or two with a very limited time commitment in terms of filming. This would add value to the film and also increase sales for the Production Company and make the film more marketable. I wrote a number of cameos that could be played by any actor, one of whose face we don’t even see until the final scene, enabling a body double to play him in the other scenes with the use of ADR, another clever device. Two of my favourite regular collaborators and friends are actors Jason Flemyng and Wil Johnson, both excellent actors with fantastic bodies of work. Wil was easy to visualise as Yardie Jack, the leader of the Brixton firm. Not wanting him to be a stereo typical character type from that world, I decided he would be a great lover of cooking, so our introduction to him and defacto, Jade, his partner, is in their kitchen with him slaving over a carefully prepared meal. Jason I knew would be only available for a single day or afternoon, so on that basis he would have to play one of three parts. The most likely ultimately would be Paul Channing, a bent high ranking copper and Helena’s ex-lover before she met Max. The scene between them where Helena is fishing for information with a bribe is one of my favourite in the screenplay and reveals Channing is a man already on his second failing marriage, who is still ready to jump into bed with Helena again if she willing. The older and wiser Helena declines. The scene practically wrote itself as I could see and hear it so clearly.
Another script requirement I knew this film would need for the sales reel was, unfortunately, an element of female nudity. Believe it not, this is actually a sales requirement. Most films within this genre will normally have a scene in a strip club or a brothel and with both institutions often connected to organised crime they’re easy to work into any given plot but often feel salacious, unnecessary and sleazy, something I was really keen to avoid. I decided the strip club scene would be key to the plot, so there would be a vital reason that our heroines would need to go there. I felt this was also the opportunity for comedy, so rather than make the scene sordid, I milked it for as many laughs as possible and I hope made it less demeaning than one would normally expect. If this film gets made and the scene stays in the script as is written, I expect it will get the biggest laughs of the night. That was another box ticked.
Stories within this genre always require a certain amount of violence (I prefer the term action, how violent it is often comes down to how it is shot) Another advantage I had with this screenplay, knowing that I wanted to direct it myself and knowing who I was going to approach to finance it, I had an idea of the budget I might be working with, so I knew some things to avoid. Car chases for one, are expensive, difficult to do well without the required budget and should only be written into the script if the story requires them or if you’re making the next Transporter or Bond film. Mine didn’t need them, so that was easy. The biggest action scene was in the first act, the assassination of all the leaders by an experienced well-armed hit team. This scene had to look and feel right and have an intense epic feel to it. Just because we might not have the size of a Hollywood budget to work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make our action scenes on par with theirs. I used a number of writing tricks to make the entire sequence feel much larger than I know filming will actually require. By making all the key assailant’s essentially a faceless enemy, one can of course use the same key six background guys over and over again in different shots. The penultimate action sequence with the female leads is quite physical, so I kept in mind it would be better for the younger characters to be at heart of any action that would be very physically demanding. Stunts can be expensive, depending on the stunt and of course they can also be time consuming to set and rehearse, so I also kept the number of stunts to the minimum that the story required and no more. (I have no doubt, if we do this film and I use Steen Young, he will come up with all sorts of ways to do things more ambitiously than are on the page, so it’s important not to second guess your crew at the same time!)
As most experienced writers will tell you, screenplays tend to naturally fall into three acts. Six Days to Sunday did that without me even thinking about it. The first third is the setup of the characters, we establish the various London firms, their leaders and the female characters that would be thrust to the fore of the story upon the demise of all their male counterparts. The second act is the coming together of the four female protagonists and their attempts to discover who and why is behind the assassination of those they loved while deflecting various conflicts from all sides. The third act is the discovery of information, the twist and the pen ultimate dramatic finale before the epilogue and resolution of the plot. If you follow my blog and read my facebook posts, you will know that Six Days to Sunday was written in record time. This isn’t a boast, I am naturally just a very fast writer (Always correcting all my mistakes and typos on my second and subsequent drafts) but I had an added incentive in the case of this screenplay. Actor Tony Fadil and I have become good friends over the last couple of years. I admire his work ethic and can do attitude and Tony provided a huge number of things for me on the film shoot for my Diamonds in the Sky shoot which he didn’t charge me for, so I decided this would be a project I would do with him, and he would thus be guaranteed to play one of the male characters in the film. (Tony is below on the right, I think this picture is just a typical Saturday night at his house - only joking Tony!)
Having constantly teased him that a Christmas present was coming for him last year, but not telling him what it was, it was a huge incentive to get my arse moving on the script, when come the 22nd of December, I had not, as yet, written a single line of dialogue. The characters were strong and clear to me plus I had my two pages of notes from my Cannes plane trip of two years. That and a fast approaching Christmas Day deadline was all I needed. I wrote for ten hours a day on the 22nd, and 24th of December (I did the shopping on the 23rd, so only got a couple of hours in then) however I didn’t quite make myself imposed Christmas Day deadline. Apologetically, I called Tony on the 25th (While ‘The Queens Speech’ was on of course, so I knew he would be free to talk) to tell him his gift would be one day late. On Boxing Day I had five hours to myself, so I got up early and blitzed the rest of it and presented it to him at 5pm on the 26th. This for me, is the best kind of pressure to work under and the results were as good as they would have been if I had written it in two weeks, because I knew exactly what was going to be on the page before I even started. That isn’t to say that the process didn’t have an organic element to it, because it did. Several elements of the plot along with a twist came together as I wrote it. I think it’s equally important to give yourself that level of freedom and never over commit to any element entirely until you have finished a first draft. I wrote two more drafts over the next week or so. I still think it needs another one but it was strong enough to take into a meeting. (Tony Fadil in a more sedate picture, one of the most hard working actors I know)
This was the first time I had ever written a script with a specific production company in mind and adhered to their criteria as well the sales market they would be aiming for. It was an extremely rewarding experience and I was also extremely happy with the results. We’ve now had our first meeting with Carnaby over this project, meeting with Andrew Loveday who was extremely receptive to the concept. I can’t say if they will take it forward or not, I can only hope that will be the case. I hope to tell you more about what happens next in the immediate future. In the meantime it’s back to the second book! 2017 was awful. I have to make every day of 2018 count, because you know why? It will be Christmas again before you know it. Time goes by really fast as you get older. Never underestimate the value of time!