Wednesday 1 June 2011

Frank Cottrell Boyce - "I’ve always called myself a hack."

Antony Gormley's Another Place sculptures
Crosby Beach, Merseyside

Frank Cottrell Boyce broke into writing for television in the Eighties on Brookside and from there moved to Coronation Street before working in feature films. In all he has had 11 feature films made, including Welcome To Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People. While also still writing for television (God on Trial) and radio, he is now also an award-winning children’s author (Millions, Framed) and it was announced in March that the estate of the late Ian Fleming has commissioned Cottrell Boyce to write sequels to Fleming’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Here he shares his experiences of working with Danny Boyle, Michael Winterbottom and Russell T. Davies, and explains why he's a very different writer from Peter Morgan and why he happily regards himself as a hack writer rather than an artist.

When you were a boy and wanted to be a writer, did you think in which medium that would be?
As a kid it wasn’t really what the product would be like, it was what the life would be like. It was imagining myself alternately on the deck of a whaling ship or sitting in one of the bungalows on the lot in Hollywood with someone sitting next to me putting cigarettes in my mouth while I type feverishly through the night.

You wrote plays while studying English Literature at Oxford University, but did you always think you’d be able to make a living as a writer or did you ever consider that it might be a bit of a pipe dream?
I didn’t have a Plan B. I’ve never done any other job, but I stayed on specifically at Oxford to do a doctorate because I wanted to be a writer and knew that I wasn’t in a position yet to make a living out of writing.

What was your doctorate on?
It was so right on! It was on pamphlets by Ranters, Levellers and Diggers, who were very extreme political groups during the English Civil War. While I was still a graduate student I wrote some radio comedy and we had a baby. So then there was a lot of motivation to earn. It wasn’t as if I was going to go to London and sleep on a friend’s floor and see if I could make a bob or two. I had to make a living. I was quite driven about it and I wasn’t that fussy.

How did you get your first TV job on Brookside?
The week the baby was born, while my wife was still in hospital, I saw an ad for a job in the typing pool on Brookside. The world has changed so much, but in the early Eighties people still handed their scripts in and someone had to type them up. It’s mad to think of now. So I taught myself to touch type from a book and at the interview they said: “You’re the only male who has applied. You were at Oxford University. Why have you applied for this?” I told them that I wanted to be a writer and so on. I think it was purely that we’d had a baby that week; that I was young but I looked very young and studenty, and they were just charmed. They wanted to help me. So they gave me a trial script. You shadowed a proper writer, went to story conferences and wrote the same script that they were writing in the block of the month. This was all unpaid. Then I think on the third go I started for real. So I was very happy.

Who were the other writers?
I was way the youngest, but they were young. They tended to be school teachers who were having a go. They weren’t established hacks. It wasn’t fun but it was exciting.

Do you feel your degree has fed some of your work, such as making A Cock & Bull Story, a film based on Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy? Things you might not have read if you hadn’t studied English?
Actually, I’ve always regretted doing English. I did it because I found it incredibly easy. I was much more drawn towards sciences at school, but I didn’t get on with the science teachers at all. I’ve always felt that I let them own biology when actually it belonged to me and I’ve been cross at myself about that ever since. But now you say it, maybe it was quite positive studying English. Maybe I wouldn’t have written Tristram Shandy otherwise.

The film Millions had a long gestation. The script was first written in 1996/7 and film wasn’t made until 2004.
Literally anyone you can name in the British film industry turned it down. And finally Danny Boyle read it by chance and wanted to do it.

He gets writers to read scripts aloud to him, doesn’t he?
Yes. What a great test! I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it. When you hit a funny bit you know that you’ve hit it. And if it’s not working, he doesn’t have to say anything because you just go “Oh, God!”

Wasn’t Millions going to be a musical at some point?
I’d forgotten that. Danny’s always wanted to do a musical. He probably read the script and thought: “This could be it”. And he probably thinks that about every single script, apart from 127 Hours. I’ve no idea how that was going to work. In fact, now someone in America has bought the stage rights to turn it into a musical.

Millions also changed your career because at Danny Boyle’s suggestion you wrote the novel of the screenplay.
‘Suggestion’ is a very polite way of putting it. It was more of an instruction. But writing the novel was like coming home. It was fantastic.

In fact, the novel has had a bigger impact than the film.
Millions as a film was a big ask because except for Nick Park’s films and Harry Potter, which are studio pictures, we don’t make family films in Great Britain. Any family film has got to compete at the very top of the market.

As soon as I started writing the novel to Millions I realised that the books that meant the most to me are the books that I read between the ages of 8 and 12. These aren’t necessarily the books that I admire the most but the ones that had the most impact on me: authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote A Wizard of Earthsea; Tove Jansson, in a different way, who wrote the Moomin books; and Leon Garfield. Nobody reads him anymore.

The other thing about being a children’s writer is that you become aware that fashions change. These are names that seemed godlike to me but don’t produce a single flicker of recognition in children when I’m talking to them now and I have to lie about what I read.

You’ve written three novels, does that mean you’re less interested in screenwriting?
Not less interested at all, but chasing it a bit less maybe. I’m incapable of making choices, so I just keep doing it all. I wonder if this is something that happens with screenwriters because you’re used to having a lot of irons in the fire and not over investing emotionally in any of them because most of them won’t happen. So you get used to letting your fate make your decision for you. It’s not such a good thing.

When I meet directors I’m always impressed that they can go: “That’s what I want to do and therefore I can’t do that”. Whereas I think if you’re a screenwriter you think: “That’s what I want to do. And I want to do that. And that.”

I still love making movies. I’m working on a screenplay of one of my kids’ books and I’ve got a screenplay now about the Homeless World Cup that looks as though it will go this year. To research it I went to the Homeless World Cup held in Milan a couple of years ago. I was thinking: “I’m in Milan. I’ll go to a few matches, shake a few hands, do a few interviews, but basically I’ll go out”. But we never left the pitchside for a second. It was gripping. It was the most amazing sporting event I’ve ever been to.

You’ve used the phrase “hack writer” about yourself a few times. Would you be happy if someone else referred to you as a hack?
I’ve always called myself a hack and I’m quite happy to be one. You do it for the money but not in a bad way. You’re up for an adventure. I’m not an artist. This might be completely humpty-dumpty of me making my own definition, but to me a hack is someone who’s good at it and will play an interesting game with whoever comes along, rather than someone who’ll say: “I have things to say about the world”. I know writers who know exactly what their thing is and I don’t actually know what my thing is. I wouldn’t say I’ve got a voice. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing. When I see Peter Morgan I kind of envy the fact that he knows what the Peter Morgan take on things is. If you say to him “Do a film about motor racing” he’ll go “Yeah, that’ll be Niki Lauda versus James Hunt”. Whereas I’d be all over the place.

Is it a bit like Archilocus’ hedgehog and the fox – “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”?
It’s exactly that.

What are the differences in writing novels and screenplays?
You’re probably more supported than people think when you are writing a book because your editor plays a bigger part than people imagine. But in comparison to being rung up every night and having someone ask “How’s the script going?” and having someone you can say to “Scene 3 doesn’t really work, does it?” no, there’s never really anyone that close up to a book. You’re very supported writing screenplays.

You made six feature films with director Michael Winterbottom between 1995 and 2005, but nothing since. Was there a falling out?
No, not really. I haven’t spoken to him for years and I’ve never really figured it out for myself. I completely respect what Michael does. It’s great and fine, but it’s just not what I want to do. It’s a lot of effort to make a movie and they’re not quite the movies I want to make.

You’re the only screenwriter I’ve read about who seems happy not to get the attention and likes that the director is the one who’s noticed.
I think all writers don’t want the attention otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. They might moan about it in retrospect, but if they wanted the attention they wouldn’t do it. There’s a great quote on screenwriting from Ben Hecht who said: “It’s easier to achieve fame riding a tricycle”. I don’t even think it’s that unjust. Directors probably work harder than screenwriters and have a bigger impact. A really good director can make a very average script really fantastic.

And you have no ambition to direct.
No. Directing is standing out in the cold with the two most uncooperative groups of people you can possibly imagine: electricians and actors. One of them saying: “Can’t be done” and the other saying: “Why should I?”

The screenwriter Allan Scott said to me that anyone who’s seen the utter tedium involved in directing doesn’t want to do it. And in the year it takes a director to make one film he could write three screenplays.
Absolutely. Danny Boyle has great creativity and reads a lot, but things are spinning off me all the time whereas for him it all goes into one movie every couple of years! That is the price you pay for directing.

So how structured is your writing day?
It’s completely unstructured! My house is full. My kids are home educated. I have a very, very mixed portfolio of things I’m working on, including working with Danny Boyle on the Olympics. However, I’m good at writing on trains and I do genuinely love writing. So, whenever the opportunity comes I grab it and it’s not hard for me to get down and do it. I try to get up early in the mornings, but if I’m not very quiet about it other people will get up early and it’ll become social.

With screenwriting are you one for plotting a lot ahead or seeing where it takes you?
Screenwriting makes you plot it out because you’ve got to pitch and do treatments, but I’m just cottoning on that if you’re writing novels you can take a risk and trust that something will come of it. If you try to preguess too much you kill the pleasure and the potential to surprise. Every ending should be a surprise ending and it’s not going to be a surprise ending if it doesn’t surprise the writer.

As films are very expensive to make do you feel that you have a responsibility to return the investors’ investment?
Obviously Michael Winterbottom doesn’t feel like that at all. He’s never been bothered about an audience. But Danny Boyle’s very concerned not so much about making a profit but about finding an audience. And that is important. Why would you make a film if you didn’t want it to find an audience? Why wouldn’t you just write a poem? Of course, it doesn’t have to be a multiplex audience.

What defines what you do is who you’re doing it for. I’ve got very clear ideas who I’m writing my children’s books for and it’s not a mainstream children’s audience. It’s an audience that I’ve got to go out and get. I’m in schools every week because if I’m not out there then the kids that I’m writing for won’t find my books.

What advice would you give people who want to become writers?
Don’t even think about it if there’s something else that you can do. The most important tool in your armoury would be the ability to take rejection, because no matter how far advanced your career, you are going to take a lot of rejection.

And secondly just read a lot. Danny reads a lot and I think you can really tell when people make films if they’ve come in and said “This film’s a bit like that film plus that film” as opposed to people who’ve experienced a lot and read a lot, where there is something beyond films. Films are incredibly conventional just because there’s so much money involved, so you need to know what else is outside that little box.

What of your work are you most proud of?
God On Trial because it seems extraordinary to me that it got made knowing how many years it took. I love 24 Hour Party People because everyone loves it and also because people kept saying: “Who would be interested in that outside the northwest of England?” I still get letters about it from all over the world. And I’m very proud of Millions.

Looking at your career…
I’ve had longevity. I feel very lucky really that I’ve got a body of work because there’s no reason for it. Somehow I’m still in the game although I’ve never written a hit. But I’m very good in the room and affable. I will keep going until it’s done. I won’t walk off a project. And the collaborative thing does appeal to me. I’m aware that when I’m talking to Danny, or when I was working in TV with Russell T. Davies, my game is being raised.

Are there screenwriting jobs you wish you’d been offered?
I’d love to do a Finding Nemo or a Toy Story, where it’s very smart, very emotional, it’s got something to say and everybody loves it. Danny and I worked for about 2-3 years on an animated movie for DreamWorks that just hit the buffers, but I would still love to do a big animated movie. I’d love to make something universal and show people something that they’ve never seen before.

1 comment:

  1. This interview should be a massive encouragement to anyone who wants to be a writer. Frank Cottrell Boyce set his sights and then plugged away, working his way through the system, despite having a house full of children. He's a fascinating man.