Hossein Amini shares his writing skills and drills

Hoss Amini

Screenwriter/director HOSSEIN AMINI (above) may well be surrounded by Blockbuster-full shelves of DVDs – the key to better screenwriting is watching more films, he says.

In the concluding part of my chat with the writer of DriveThe Two Faces of January, the newly-released Snowman movie with Michael Fassbender, to name a few, we talk about redrafting, battling writer’s block, structuring scenes and nailing believable dialogue.

And hey, it’s okay if all this stuff is hard to do…

You’ve been quoted as saying you find writing very hard, “just very difficult”. What do you find so hard about it?

I (now) find it a little bit easier and that worries me. I think it should be hard. Quite often the first ideas a writer has tend to be the most obvious ones and some of that difficulty is pushing yourself and challenging yourself so I think if it comes too easy I was worried there’s a combination of laziness and complacency.

One of the things that have made it easier now is as a writer I have got to know myself a little better so for example if I can’t crack an idea, if I have a good night’s sleep there’s a chance the next morning I’ll wake up and feel better whereas before I would agonise about it. I’ve got much better at switching off. That’s the experience of knowing how 5 or 6 times where I’ve hit those blocks and 3 days later I think what was I agonising about, the solution’s come so now I know not to put so much pressure on myself and in 2 or 3 days’ time the answer will somehow present itself.

So it’s not just knowing your craft, it’s knowing your self, your moods and habits and what inspires you and what blocks you.

Have your blocks changed over the years?

Each script, just when you think you’ve figured out how to tell a certain kind of story you go onto the next and a completely new puzzle comes along to confound you. There are things that are easier but suddenly some nasty surprise comes along.

So I absolutely love Drive. The first 26 scenes are my favourite.

With no dialogue in there.

Sorry about that.

That’s all right, no-no! I’m really glad you said that because that’s what I mean. Because that’s what I think screenwriting is – silent storytelling. And everyone assumes it’s dialogue-based.

Was it hard to write those first ‘10 pages’? How conscious were you about having to make that first Act impactful?

It was, but it wasn’t necessarily because I knew the studio was going to read it, it was about how I was going to tell the story. Because with the way that’s structured, after the first 10 pages with his [Ryan Gosling’s] character, it is a very slow build so I wrote the first 10 pages like that so I could write the next 30 quite slowly.

Those first 10 pages bought me time to let an audience and reader think well something else like that beginning is going to happen, I’m prepared to wait 30 pages for it. If I’d have started with him walking into the apartment and meeting her and you don’t know what he does really, I would have lost the audience.

How did it come about?

It was really fun to come up with. The breakthrough came with… I went with the producer, this is way before Ryan [Gosling] came onto it, we went to see the head of security at Universal and his whole thing was there is no point now, with helicopters, there’s no such thing as getaway drivers, it’s fantasy. So interrogating that more if it happened under a roof a helicopter wouldn’t be able to follow him. So from then it was like reverse engineering, if we have a roof, and it was really fun for him to try and beat the helicopter.

The first draft I was really happy with and then it went through 2 or 3 studio drafts where it really went the wrong way and got fat and overwritten and too much backstory and then Ryan came on and said the first draft was better can we go back to that and then Nicholas (Winding Refn, director) came on and stripped it down even more and he was very bold, why don’t you try it without this or that so it shrunk. Good directors almost direct a writer in the way they direct actors through a combination of inspiring and showing you movies.

Did you have to watch different movies for inspiration?

Nicholas and I had very different influences. I was really obsessed with the 70s neo-noir crime movies and (Jean-Piere) Melville’s Le Samourai and Red Circle; silent, visual storytelling, but Nick brought a whole 80s/David Lynch-y sensibility to it. So it was an odd combination that worked well. I guess the 70s version of it would have been too close to those old films but giving it that 80s dreamlike quality worked.

Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967)

You lived in Nicholas’s attic in LA while writing Drive?

He’d rented a house and his kids had gone back to Denmark so I had the kids’ room with a bunk bed. Neither of us could drive so he would go off location-hunting in the day and I was completely stranded in the Hollywood hills so I got a lot of work done!

Can you talk a bit about how you realise your characters?

I’m really interested in the silences. I’m interested in how people talk. For example married couples talk in code. They rarely say to each other ‘the last time we went on holiday I thought I loved you but I…’. You know they just have different ways of saying it. It’s what’s not said and pauses and the silences and the truth coming out in the unspoken. I think people invariably cover up when they speak. For example if you’ve heard someone talking to their lover on the phone and they then have a perfect domestic scene with their husband or wife they’ve cheated on, they can talk about the weather and it‘s going to be so charged for an audience. Then every single line will have a different meaning; dialogue that’s real but has drama hidden underneath it.

I love watching movies with dialogue where it’s beautifully crafted with amazing turns of phrase but I know I can never think of a line I want in a conversation, that’s why I will often go through the dialogue and if it’s too cute or too written or too well-crafted (I’ll) cut it so often it’s that classic line about kill your babies; it’s too good, you have to cut it because it feels false.

So how do you make dialogue better?

I ask myself if I overheard those two people having that conversation, would I believe it? Even if a single word and they wouldn’t say that or they wouldn’t say it like that, then it needs rewriting. So I don’t particularly write flashy dialogue with great zingers, I almost go the other way.

And the problem is if it’s not played right… the problem with that kind of writing is you leave yourself very much in the hands of the director so if those pauses are not in the right moments, it can come across as quite bland. And likewise if they lean too hard on the dialogue and don’t throw it away, quite often I write for it to be thrown away as in it’s not what they’re saying that’s important, it’s the intent and the silences, so if they lean too hard on the line it sounds rubbish as well.

That’s why it helped on the TV series McMafia, I worked closely with James Watkins the director and he gets the way I write so he knows throw the line away and focus on the pause or the moment that is unseen by everyone else.

How do you approach structuring a scene?

Definitely with their own beginning, middle and end. I plan carefully. So what I’ll do, I write very early in the morning about 6.30am until 1pm or 2pm and then stop because any more hours than that my brain stops working and I re-write the same thing again and again and you lose perspective. In the afternoon I will read or watch movies around the scenes I am going to write the next day and more and more writing notes to myself so whether it’s lines of dialogue or a moment in the scene but without the pressure of sitting behind a computer and writing.

I do have little bits of paper when I’m structuring something in the beginning. But once I start writing I just do notes on my iPhone.

I am hoping to achieve a rhythm. So if it’s a book first I’ll break down every scene, if it exists, even if it’s a one line thing. Then it’s a matter of whittling it down but also writing new scenes so the cards become the structural rewriting of the book.

I know with a lot of screenwriting they talk about the 3 Acts and the 5 Acts and whatever. I find what’s more important is it’s more closer to music and it’s about rhythm. So for Drive for example it’s fast, fast, fast, fast and then slow for a long time and then suddenly crank it up and goes fast again. So I can’t look at that and go it’s 3-Act or 2-Act. If anything it’s 2-Act because in one half he’s passive and the other he’s active.

I think it’s helpful to think about plot turns but rhythm… a film is moving for 2 hours, you don’t stop and re-read, so the flow and the rhythm is key.

In Two Faces of January, one of the things I learnt which came to bite me in the editing room, I had 3 very long dialogue scenes back to back at the beginning at a time when the film needed to move so the editing was a nightmare. Editing rooms are great places to learn about writing, you can see which bits they didn’t need; when they should have got faster, when they should have got slower. People talk about how editing is the last draft of the screenplay.

Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January (2014)

I really enjoyed the direction on The Two Faces of January. What were your influences?

The two big ones were Hitchcock because I’d always been obsessed with Hitchcock and that idea of storytelling through what the camera does; each shot of his he’s trying to tell a story. But the other director who was completely different who I’ve always loved was Antonioni, not stylistically because it’s very hard to emulate his style but in that sense of the way he captures almost the death of love, the way it’s not a sudden thing when people fall out of love with each other, it’s a horribly slow disintegration. The way he uses silences and what’s unspoken between couples. So he was a massive influence in the emotional story.

I am desperate to direct again. It’s quite hard if you’re a screenwriter and you get paid to write reasonably well, then to take 2 to 3 years of your life. I have a family and 3 kids to support so I should have a) tried to direct younger and also say this is what I want to do: write and direct, but I just couldn’t afford to financially. And also the whole TV boom was happening so what if I missed out on that I would have been left behind.

But I’m just writing something now that I want to direct.

Do tell.

It’s a book called A Terrible Splendor which is about the Davis Cup Final between America and Germany in 1936. It’s not really about the tennis, it’s about the world at that time. It’s mainly a gay love story between a tennis player who was supposed to be the great Nazi golden boy but he’s hiding this secret he was gay and had a Jewish lover so it’s a very powerful, moving story.

The same producers who produced Drive sent it to me, it took me a year to read. I was thinking it’s not my kind of thing and then when I read it I couldn’t put it down. That’s what happens with certain books and adaptations, there are certain books you read and when I was reading it I could almost imagine the film. And then when you write it, it takes many, many drafts to get back to that initial point of imagination where you can see it quite clearly. I’ve literally just written the first draft. I want to get the script completely right before I can think about how to direct it so right now I am in writer mode.

How many drafts do you do?

There are big drafts and little drafts. Probably 4 or 5 really significant drafts but within those there are little polishes. By the time you go into production you are changing all the time so those can go up to 20.

What is your advice on rewriting?

If you are going to rewrite, a fundamental rewrite, start at page 1 and go all the way through because you almost have to… and that doesn’t mean there won’t be 10 pages that work brilliantly and you skip through those but I think the idea of reliving the story through the writing process even on a second draft is really important. I think it’s harder to dip in and out. It’s really worth working the whole way through.

Have you any particular advice for writer’s block?

Leave it alone. Go back to it in a few days. A little bit of distance. Often watching a movie that is somehow related. Or just listening to music.

Endings are always the hardest. When they have test screenings invariably the one thing that comes up is the ending. That tends what to be reshot the most. When an ending doesn’t work then the film isn’t really working.

When I get notes from a director I don’t want it to be too specific. It’s a combination of having planned but leaving enough space for discovery because otherwise the writing’s not fun. If I know exactly how a scene is going to be played it’s just not alive. As a director I want to know vaguely the beginning, middle and end of a scene but then I want them to be able to inhabit that space and let the characters talk.

Routine is so important. I work less hours at the weekend but I do because I need to stay in that world and if I take a day off it takes me a little while to get back into the world of the script I’m writing so I need to do it on a roll. Even if it’s doing a couple hours on a Sunday to keep it ticking over. A first draft of a script probably takes me 8 weeks. A TV episode 3 or 4 weeks.

What’s the best way for a new screenwriter to get noticed?

I think writing samples are the most important thing, that’s the same whether getting an agent or a job for a TV show. And having worked in a couple of TV things and being semi-responsible for hiring writers it’s the samples. It doesn’t matter how good the interview is. People are going to judge the work. It’s one of those bits of the profession you can’t bullshit your way really, the writing speaks for itself so getting a really strong writing sample.

For someone who was hiring for a TV show all I was interested in was the quality of writing – the descriptions, the dialogue, the drama and the scenes, it was looking at craft.

What’s your advice in pitching to be the writer they choose?

Putting in the groundwork. Like on the TV series The Alienist, it was very competitive. It was a very popular book by Caleb Carr, it had been a huge bestseller so that I knew there were quite a few writers competing for it so pretty much when I went for my meeting I blocked out how I would do it and got my head around it.

Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl in The Alienist

There was another book called The Stars My Destination, a sci-fi book but I was in the middle of another deadline so I didn’t have the time to prep and I could sense in the pitches it was a disadvantage. As a writer you know when you’re bluffing and when you’ve really got a handle on something. It’s really hard. In order to pitch properly for a big job like that you need a week or 2, the space to prepare, and because you need to keep working, to keep earning, it’s hard to find that time.

The thing I try to do to make the pitch easier is to send some kind of document, 2 or 3 pages, of what the pitch is going to be about. I’m not very good at going to them cold and going, well what happens is we open on this. That idea of telling a story I find very hard so I try to make it a discussion rather than a story pitch and a document often helps that.

Do the studios pressure you to write it in a certain way?

They are specific in terms of tone. The first discussions before you write your first draft will be quite broad, they leave you enough freedom to run with it. Then after the first draft comes in, then it becomes more controlling when they see what’s not working for them in terms of how to sell the movie or its commercial prospects and stuff like that. The first draft you’re given room so it’s often the most enjoyable to write.

It is frustrating because it can move further away from what you wanted to do but it’s what every screenwriter has to learn: how to take notes, to understand where those notes are coming from. There’s usually some method behind the madness, they’re putting their finger on something that’s not working. Even if their solutions aren’t necessarily right, they are reacting to something that’s not working so that’s something I have got better at with time – trying to diagnose what the problem is and read between the lines and what’s really bothering them. Because they could say, there’s this problem in Act 3 and it could be all the way at the beginning or it could be not the character they are talking about, it’s somebody else so there is a lot of trying to analyse what’s there.

Another thing I found useful about notes is that it’s very hard once you’ve written something to do another draft and another draft so quite often those notes session and even those black moods that come after them of oh my God I’ve just done all that work and I’ve got to start again, there’s almost an energy you get from that bucket of cold water that says it’s a good first draft, it’s only your first draft. Because everyone thinks after you write something it’s the best thing you’ve written and I think it’s that wake-up call. It has a very useful energising process. And you invariably become snowblind as well so you need other people to tell you when it’s good and when it’s finished. I don’t think it’s ever really finished even when you’re shooting, it’s evolving, even into post-production.

You didn’t have any formal training. Where did you get your skills from?

Watching lots of movies. All you’re doing when you’re screenwriting is transcribing something you’ve seen in your head. So the more movies you watch, the more you get a sense of the rhythm of scenes, how long they should be, when you need a silent pause.

You can catch up with the first part of my chat with HOSS AMINI here.


Hossein Amini – ‘I’ve never been a gangster and nor has anyone in my family’


The son of a diplomat and children’s TV producer, screenwriter and director HOSSEIN AMINI moved from Tehran to the UK aged 11 following the Iranian Revolution.

After reading History and Modern Languages at Oxford University, Amini secured an agent on the strength of just one sample script, which began a flourishing TV and Hollywood career.

Known for his adaptations, Oscar-nominated Amini has written screenplays for Wings of the Dove, Drive, Jude, Killshot, The Four Feathers, Our Kind of Traitor and adapted and directed The Two Faces of January. He also co-wrote Snow White and the Huntsman, 47 Ronin, and coming this October The Snowman with Michael Fassbender.

His BBC mini-series McMafia starring James Norton is out later this year while The Alienist with Daniel Brühl and Luke Evans is set for 2018. Movie Shockwave, about the Hiroshima bomb, directed by True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga, is in the pipeline, as is another adaptation of novel A Terrible Splendor.

In this, the first of 2 interviews, Writerly looks at Amini’s path to success and the impact of his background on his writing life.

Where did it all start?

I became a writer because I thought it was the only way to get a chance to direct properly. I knew fairly early on, sort of 14/15. My Dad had been a huge film buff so I had it in my blood and I really wanted to do it. He was a diplomat but he wanted to be an actor and his parents hadn’t really allowed him to be an actor so I was lucky to get that experience. My Mum had been a TV producer back in Iran, doing children’s TV programmes. They weren’t super-arty but more arty than a lot of those families in that part of the world.

By the time I got to university I wrote and directed a couple of plays. They also had a film society which gave me money to make short films so I wrote and directed a couple. One of them won a student film prize and I got an agent through that for about 5 months. He left and then I was agentless for a good 3 or 4 years after university until Nick (Marston, from literary agency Curtis Brown) who is my agent now just read a sample script. It’s very rare, even more rare now that agents will take you on without some sense that something is going to get commissioned.

The sample script was a one-hour TV drama I had written which never got made. I think it was easier then, I think now it’s much more competitive and everyone is thinking about the commissions and the money they will make out of people so taking a chance on young writers is much harder.

Do you remember what it was about?

The two TV things I was really inspired by were Edge of Darkness and the original Prime Suspect. I can vaguely remember it was something to do with psychology because in the second one I wrote, a four-parter which was my first commission, it was about my own background of someone who had come over from Iran after the revolution. It was a murder-mystery set in London but connected to the Iranian community in exile and that was one Nick nurtured and Michael Wearing at the BBC who had produced Edge of Darkness had commissioned me to do it.

I was really happy with it and it got right to the whole thing of almost being green lit and then I think Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia had just come out and not done particularly well so I think I was very discretely, politely told there were too many foreigners in my series so they didn’t take a chance on it.

I was lucky in that I had parents who were supportive, especially Iranian parents who generally want their kids to be lawyers or doctors; a secure job. And my brother who was working as a photographer at the time would lend me money so I managed in that 2/3 year period not really working and being able to survive which I think in this industry is so critical because so many people I know just dropped out because they had to get a job and do something else.

I do think with screenwriting you need a few years to write more and more scripts and get better at it and also to get lucky because so much of it is good luck and whether the right script lands on the right desk, and that takes time. One of the things I’d recommend to people starting out is not to spend too much time dwelling on the first script, waiting for responses to come back but get straight on to the next one. If you have 5 or 6 out there then one of them’s likely to connect.

How do you choose what to write about?

When I started out, it’s very normal to write what interests you. I didn’t know enough about the industry to be pragmatic. Now with a few years of experience I know for example there’s no point writing a huge sci-fi epic which is going to cost 100 and something plus million dollars because 10 of those a year are made in Hollywood so the chances of getting made are next to nothing. But it’s more to do with budgets than an idea that is particularly hot because I think ideas you never know what people are going to respond to and sometimes the most surprising ideas are the ones that connect. You still want to be ahead of the market rather than chasing it.

I think TV’s really exciting because as there is less and less films being made and the studios sort of think they know what they want, I think television is much braver, a buyer’s market so a lot more opportunity.

I wrote a one-man play at university which got put on at the King’s Head. It was about that usual student obsession with Baudelaire, really pretentious but it got nice reviews, it gave me confidence to carry on. That’s another thing when you start out. I was quite lucky in that just when I was on the verge of giving up I would get a little bit of luck, something good would happen and that would give me the ability to say to friends that something has happened.

The hardest thing as a writer is all your contemporaries are working normal jobs and earning money and you’re constantly trying to justify what you’re doing, ‘something’s gonna happen next year’, so those tiny bits of success help.

You’re known for your adaptations. Has your approach changed over the years?

My approach to writing definitely changes but also interests change as well so I’d go though a period being interested in psychological thrillers then horror then period dramas. I love cinema and I love genre cinema so I find it exciting to do something different. If you’re interested in something your voice comes out through that but the vessel of a genre format is quite a good discipline so you don’t get too indulgent.

Really interesting is when you take something very different from your own life but then you can bring in elements of your own experience so that helps make it real and believable so it’s a combination of truth which only personal experience can provide but with excitement, fantasy, imagination and drama.

Which of your adaptations are closer to your truth?

I think they all are. Wings of the Dove (pictured below) was close because I’d spent some time in Venice with people around the same age as the characters so I took a lot of incidents and locations where I had been. With the Jude adaptation my wife, who wasn’t then my wife but my girlfriend, got pregnant and that completely disrupted all the plans I had which was sort of what the Jude story was about so they fed in.
Even with Drive there is something about that shy type of… the two sides we all have, you can tap into that. I’m quite a shy, prefer to stay in the background person so Drive becomes my own fantasy – what if I could drive a car really well and stomp on people’s heads.


Could you do it the other way round? Write a novel from a film?

I’ve never been that interested in writing novels. Movies were what I loved so I really wanted to write something that could end up on the screen as opposed to writing for writing’s sake.

My favourite snack while writing is
: Strawberries. Anything sweet. Apples.
My favourite beverage while writing is: Diet Coke. And coffee. Caffeine.
The stationery I use is: Mac, iPhone, Notes on my iPhone and Rymans coloured, lined index cards.
My favourite place to write is: My office, a converted garage in our house. It’s slightly apart from the house and occasionally hotel rooms if I’m working on something while they’re shooting, with easy access to coffee. I’m very distraction-sensitive. I can never work in cafes for example. I know people do. I’m very jealous.
I wish I wrote: Blade Runner.
I wish I directed: Apocalypse Now.
I get my ideas from… books and personal experiences, traumatic ones usually.
Where were you when you heard the news? For Princess Diana’s death I was at a friend’s (civilised) stag party and for 9/11 I was in my writing shed. I remember my TV not working and being frustrated when it kept going on the blink when there were all those images and stuff.

What makes you gravitate to more noir/dark subject-matters?

They are the kind of films I like watching so you inevitably write what interests you and things you respond to. I’ve always preferred tragedy to comedy and it moves me more.

There are events in your life which send you in a particular direction. In terms of those personal experiences, my parents’ divorce happened at the same time as the Iranian revolution so that whole notion of your world suddenly being turned upside down both personally in terms of where I lived and even financially because we went from being very well off to comfortably off and in a different country. And maybe that combination pushed me towards darker material and themes of lives being turned upside down. The idea that life can suddenly change was always fascinating and came from my own background.

Do you get that thing where because you’re Iranian, people expect you to write about Iranian things?

Yeah. I have always avoided the whole Middle Eastern thing, which I get sent a lot, partly because that’s not my experience. My experience is being someone from the Middle East who lives in London. I don’t get offended by that, I’m just less interested.

The only thing I really did about my own background was the four-part thing set in the exile community and it never got made and the exile thing became irrelevant because too much time passed.

But oddly in McMafia (pictured below) it’s about a Russian mob family in exile. I found I could take so much of my experiences of first arriving in this country and how I’d been teased as an Iranian and thought maybe the main character can be teased because he’s Russian. And he’s Jewish so instead of what I was called which was a wog or a darkie he’s called a yid and a Russkie or whatever.

And also the character’s family, I took a lot of incidents from that idea about a Russian father forced to live in exile and hasn’t really got his head around the language so oddly I managed to bring in tons of my own experience.

It was exciting to use that experience of exile and stick it in the gangster genre. I’ve never been a gangster and nor has anyone in my family but it’s the idea that 95% of the time they are like the rest of us so bringing the personal into it was very helpful.

And the whole Islamic terrorism thing I think they’re quite scary people and I don’t want to get into that world, it’s not something I’m particularly passionate about writing about.


How do you choose what projects to take on?

I generally don’t tend to work on more than 1 major thing at a time. I don’t like looking too far ahead incase something great comes along. Any writer has the idea the next one is going to be the last one and if I stop writing it’s all going to come to a grinding halt. It also becomes addictive so I don’t like not having something to write. But then McMafia had been in the back of my head and 4/5 years later there was an opportunity to do that so a lot of these things do come back.

What do make of your career so far?

It’s so up and down. It’s slightly out of your hands. It’s a combination of luck and other people’s talents. It’s alchemy that some things turn out really well and others don’t. All the scripts I’ve written, they are of a standard and yet the films have turned out so horrendously different from the good to the terrible. There are so many people involved, there are so many unknowns I’ve stopped thinking this is the one that’s going to be the one that’s really successful.

What’s your proudest moment in terms of your writing career?

Finding out about an Oscar nomination was pretty great (for Wings of the Dove). I got the time wrong so I thought the announcement was at 1 or something and I went and prayed in a church and then nothing happened and thought damn I didn’t get it. And I got home and realised I could watch it live.

The Cannes festival screening for Drive was great because it was so unexpected. Before it was shown everyone thought it was a write-off, the studio hated it, everyone hated it so everyone was convinced it would get terrible reviews. I really liked the film but when enough people tell you it’s terrible you start believing it. I wasn’t that involved in the fights they had in post-production and editing but apparently it was really brutal and ugly and all I got was ‘the film doesn’t really work’.

I’d been to Cannes before when Jude had come out which was the first thing I had made and was in the days when you have your screening and wait for Variety or Hollywood Reporter and read the review and with Drive that press screening, literally the Twitter reactions within 2 minutes of that screening you knew it was at least a critical hit. That was as big a buzz as the screening itself also because I expected it to be such a disaster that from zero to 100 that was pretty good.

I think I went to the Catholic church before the Drive press screening as well. It’s become a habit.

Next month, it’s writing advice galore as Amini shares his tips to combat writer’s block, crafting dialogue, structuring scenes and more.

Joe Penhall – the interview Part 3


Before JOE PENHALL was a multi-award-winning writer, he “wasn’t a very good journalist” in West London.

In the final instalment of our interview, he explains why local journalism is so important, how it’s influenced his writing, recalls a little incident with the Queen Mother in a fire escape, and talks about a new play he’s working on about a plucky, local hack.

Tell us about your days as a regional reporter.

My paper was a funny little paper. It was a Richmond paper, a Twickenham paper, a Wandsworth paper and then there was the Shepherds Bush and Hammersmith paper and this was where all the crime happened. And I loved it. It was crime and rock and roll. It was David Bowie at the Hammersmith Apollo and a double murder on Shepherds Bush Green.

But the publishers didn’t really like it because they really wanted Tiffin Girls School in Kingston have got Britain’s great astronaut. They wanted charity drives, winning in cricket. They didn’t want Africans murdering each other on Shepherds Bush Green for fuck’s sake. And it was really difficult. I would write these stories and they would get heavily subbed; they would allow it but I wasn’t encouraged.

I enjoyed being a local journalist because I thought it was the antidote to the national papers and by and large it’s pretty bi-partisan and utilitarian and fair and you’re not allowed to editorialise, you just have to report events and facts.

I used to like the local Tories because they were really flamboyant and gave you really good quotes. And the Labour party were very modest and self-contained and sober.

And one of your new ideas for a stage play is about a local paper?

It’s about a local reporter working on a local paper and he gets this big, global story that involves African secret police and corrupt clergy, a Foreign Office conspiracy and he doesn’t know how to handle it and the paper doesn’t want to touch it. And he’s stuck in this bubble of trying to write about small, safe, local events but in the evening investigating this increasingly murky story.

So this play is about this young, green journalist trying very hard to expose this story about the secret police in Wandsworth and no-one believes him. It’s pretty autobiographical, about being green.

[Here Penhall explains the plot and ending but I won’t give it away]

It’s just a little thing about being a local reporter. I would write about deaths in custody and they’d go well he’s obviously some sort of wino. As a playwright you go ‘there is a complex social, political, cultural backstory to all of this’ in the way these white cops are covering it all up and there was no way you could write about all that. Other local journalists writing for tougher, bigger, more well-financed papers got to write about it.

I think people think local journalism is cats stuck in trees but because there was a lot of crime in Shepherds Bush when I was doing it, the backstory behind the headline is always enormous, extraordinary, interesting, and I always had to write very sanitised stories.

So the Queen Mother opened Chelsea & Westminster Hospital – this was in the 90s – and I fucked up the story really badly and I was nearly fired for it.

You have to tell us how.

It was a bit naughty. I got separated from the press pack and ran up the fire escape and I couldn’t find anyone so I said to somebody where is everyone and they said I think they’re on the 2nd floor, so I ran up the fire escape and I popped out literally right in the middle of the Queen or Queen Mother – 1992 this was and I was really young – in the middle of the bodyguards and her.

So they got rid of me and basically threw me back down the fire escape and I didn’t know how to write this. It was Friday afternoon and the deadline was looming. The MD really wanted this story. So I wrote this really gonzo, stupid version of the story about how I could easily have knifed her and she was dressed like a giant blueberry and showed it to my friend who was the sub, for shits and giggles and then I went home.

And he filed the story!

I didn’t expect him to file the story, I just gave it to him for fun but he just filed it, being mischievous himself.

And then on Monday morning I got called into the editor’s office and she said that’s a sackable offence and technically it’s treason. Which was kind of one of the reasons why I wrote this play because in this play he [protagonist reporter] gets accused of treason.

I really wanted to write about diversity which is a really good way of getting attention in the theatre but I didn’t want to approach it head-on. So I thought I’ll write about what I know about. It’s kind of a shaggy dog story.

People have asked me so many times, why don’t you write more political stuff and I go ‘because journalists do it better’. And that’s sort of what this play is about as well. I salute the impulse but chances are you’re going to get it wrong and it’s just a bit patronising. Why don’t you make this about the Syrian diaspora? That to me feels a bit contrived.

My huge rubric as a playwright has always been, every time people go on at me about political plays, what are you going to get from a thespian that you can’t get from a good journalist? Read the fucking papers. Read your local papers, there are great journalists everywhere. You cannot tell me that a bunch of bored theatre people that are looking for a project that has currency are going to interrogate it and really write the last word on it. I know they’re not because I’ve seen what they’ve done and been party to the discussions that they’ve had and it makes me cringe.

There’s a kind of nobility to being a young, local reporter who just simply is bright and has learnt his or her trade and is tracking down a good story without the histrionics and the theatricality and the virtue-signalling that is attendant on theatre.

We pause. I return with drinks.

…. So I’ve just disproved my theory completely that [a play] you can explain in one or two sentences is probably the better idea [than] the idea that’s harder to explain that goes off in lots of messy tangents. [See interview Parts 1 and 2]

That’s okay Joe. So is the newspaper play a linear play?

I always write quite neat plays and I’ve been really conscious of that, that they’re quite geometric and so with the newspaper play the idea was to write something really structurally messy and chaotic, like a newspaper office, so shards of stories pinging off all over the place and messy lives bleeding into each other and consequences.

It starts with this very simple story, it’s this front page pic, it’s a puff, this clergyman with a community choir but it metastasis into this unquantifiable thing.

I was involved in a couple of deaths in custody, fascinating, that went on for years. And that is the nature of local stories. But I do think at a certain point you can’t take it as far as you want to go because certainly with my newspaper they didn’t have any money so they couldn’t afford to get sued.

There was a story, and it wound up in Love and Understanding, Charing Cross Hospital had had a blackout and it had gone half the night with zero power and somebody had died.

So we all went galloping down and wrote the story up and the subs got hold of it and I got called up to the editors office and they had mocked-up my story with the headline ‘Hospital Kills Man’. And she said, we’re going to get sued, you can’t write this story.

The hospital had issued a press release saying there was a blackout, fortunately the back-up generator kicked in. Coincidentally in another part of the hospital, a man died who was on a ventilator and it was a coincidence. And all the other local papers wrote pretty much what they wanted to write but I was compelled by my paper to do the press release version.

Why is this new work a theatre play and not a TV drama?

I felt I did that with Moses Jones and it was judged and received as a piece of commercial TV that lost out in the ratings to Whitechapel or whatever the fuck was raking in millions. And it did okay but in the theatre it might really detonate in an exciting way, that subject might go down really well.

Matt Smith and Shaun Parker in Moses Jones (BBC)

I know all the ingredients in the pot do go down well – I’ve written about reporters before, I’ve written about mad people before, guys taking on institutions before and all the constituent ingredients work well.

One of the things about writing a play – there should always be something about it you don’t understand, there should always be a lure you don’t understand. It’s a bit like a relationship, whether it’s a best friend or a partner, there should be something you don’t understand but you just like it.

Because I think everything is so analysed and justified and articulated and explained and there’s something magical about theatre that should be unexplained. I’m sure Pomona and X [plays by Alistair McDowall] were considered to be strange and incomplete and I think everyone who came across those plays [felt] there’s something about them, I can’t put my finger on it but I’m sucked in by it.

And that’s an important thing to remember and bear in mind that the really great things are magnetic and you don’t have to know why. And people in the theatre and film business, especially the film industry, they spend all their time quantifying and qualifying and analysing and telling you what you need and don’t need but at the end of the day the great stuff has just got something that is magnetic.

And I guess that’s how you decide what your next play is and if like me you have loads but only put one out, that’s the one with the X-factor. Haunted Child was one of my least successful plays but it had an X-factor, it still draws me in.

[American playwright] Sam Shepard said every play has a secret and the thing is to never know the secret, to creep up on it and tiptoe around it and feel its power but the minute you try and expose the secret, which is what they tell you in writing classes all the time ‘what’s your play about’, the minute you do that it’s gone. So I always get other people to tell me whether it’s magnetic or not. I don’t pitch something and go ‘are you into it?’

In the 90s boom they used to stick anything on, they wanted a play from you. Now it’s not like that at all – you have to really prove yourself.

Would you like to go back to journalism?

I’ve sort of thought about it but I wasn’t a very good journalist. I was pretty basic.

For a few years I wrote freelance features, mostly music journalism and then at the newspaper I was only there for 2 years as a kind of trainee and I was the only one on my paper, the Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush Guardian (sic), and it was only me so I did everything and so I could write well but I wasn’t really well-versed in the nuts and bolts of being a great journalist and covering council.

I would look into a really difficult story and I would be deflected and I‘d go fair enough and I would just go away.

My favourite beverage while writing is…
Coffee. When I wrote my first couple of plays it used to be booze but now it’s coffee because drugs and alcohol free you to have good ideas but then it’s like driving a car. You need to be pretty together to keep it on the road. So I learnt pretty early a pot of coffee in the morning is the best way to start writing.
My favourite snack while writing is… Often when I’m writing I just write and forget to eat but I like little energy-boosty things like black chocolate – total cocoa. When I did The Road, we all ate cocoa beans because Viggo Mortensen was on a no-food diet. He just ate berries and cocoa beans and tea so we all got into that thing and I still do eat 100% black chocolate.
My writing routine is… I start early in the morning and then go all day.
My writing implements are… I don’t have a notebook but I do usually jot things down somewhere, usually on my computer. Sometimes I’ll put notes to myself on the phone or send myself a text.
I wish I wrote… The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker. This was a big influence on me because I worked in kitchens a lot and I love his voice. It’s so warm and bipartisan but also beady-eyed and he writes about things not everybody does. When I wrote Sunny Afternoon I read that play and re-read it. I had it there and dipped into it and read a few pages just to get the voice right.

And music’s a big part of your writing practice?

I listen to music all the time. It’s got to suit what I’m writing so when I wrote The Road, and when I wrote Mindhunter, the Fincher thing [catch up here], I listened to a lot of Nick Cave. I listened to Murder Ballads when I wrote the Fincher thing because it’s all about serial killers and with The Road we wanted him to do the music so I was listening to a lot of more sound-tracky stuff.

At the moment I’m listening to a lot of jazz while I’m writing the diamond robbery film [Night in Hatton Garden, currently filming] because they are all Londoners in their 70s and they used to like going out to fancy restaurants which is unusual for crooks.

The thing about my villains and some villains are like this, what I found out about villains is they love the art world, film and music and they want to be involved in it – some of them. A lot of them are just thick pricks, most of them are thick bastards but a few of them…

In the 90s all the gangsters wanted to be involved in film and theatre and people like me and Ian Rickson [then AD at the Royal Court Theatre] and Ray Winstone used to hang with Mad Frankie Fraser and the Richardsons and all those ***** and get our pockets picked, just a stupid 90s thing but I still have that link between London music and film and a certain generation of crook so in the gangster film he goes to Ronnie Scott’s a lot and the soundtrack is all trumpet and saxophone so I’m listening to a lot of early Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy.

Answer this as you see fit. Where were you when you heard the news?

I could think of several places. I was at Glastonbury when the Brexit news broke. The lovely thing about Glastonbury is you’re in this bubble, in this other continent that isn’t part of the real world. Always big news breaks [and] feeds through the site but for some reason the Brexit news hadn’t got through at all.

And then I got back to my house and turned on the radio and I could hear all these raised voices and frantic reports and it was the next day and [David] Cameron had resigned. I just couldn’t fucking believe it. I was really shocked and pretty depressed.

Did it inspire you to want to write something about it?


I knew probably somewhere down the line it would metabolise and come out. The two plays I’m working on it’s started to come out but you can’t approach these things front-on and directly. You have to write a play about something else that is informed by it or is an allegory for it or involves a detail from it.

The problem with that is the theatre is a blunt instrument and it flies by really fast. If people miss it then you’re fucked. And the thing with Haunted Child is what attracted me about the cult thing was that I thought there was a direct correlation with Islamic fundamentalism and there is because what they do is recruit the disaffected or often mentally ill or the adolescent, people that are looking for a solution and they inculcate them in the solution. Very similar and I thought people will get that this is allegorical.

There’s a line in the play – ‘If someone told you to blow up the Tube, would you do it?’ And only about one person got the correlation so either I had pussy-footed round it so much it had not been effective or I wasn’t sufficiently interested in jihad in the first place, it was just a vague correlation.

Jack Boulter and Ben Daniels during rehearsals for Haunted Child at the Royal Court Theatre

So you’ve got to be really careful about how you approach the things that really matter to you. The reason why I love Blue/Orange still is because it’s about things that really matter to me but it’s all so beautifully held and disguised by this simple conundrum.

Should you write what you feel passionate about or what might be attractive commercially?

You should have one eye on what a theatre’s gonna want to do. The thing about the Royal Court and the National and all those subsidised theatres, there’s an orthodoxy to them too, a kind of mini commercial ecosystem and ideas that will have currency and will excite them and ideas that won’t.

They won’t necessarily excite them because they’re beautifully written, it might just be because of the proposition. It’s all about the ingenuity in the way you approach it.

With the whole care-in-the-community/mental health thing, when I wrote Some Voices, the first play I wrote was a short play about some guys in a burger bar and the Royal Court said it doesn’t have any currency, it isn’t a public play. This was in the early 90s when Eastern Europe was experiencing a revolution. If you made it into a burger bar in Eastern Europe in revolutionary time we might be interested. And I was like, fucking pretentious idiots!

But then when I wrote Some Voices I knew intuitively they would be interested because as a journalist I had covered all these care-in-the-community stories and I knew a lot about it and I knew it was a hot potato. I intuitively thought this will have currency in the theatre because it’s such a liberal orthodoxy and they are so concerned with these issues. And I was right.

And with Blue/Orange my safe bet [was] they would be interested in the subject matter but I was really writing about power and cultural specificity. I wasn’t really writing about care-in-the-community but it did address a lot of the conundrums of care-in-the-community.

How important is it for new writers to have mentors?

I believe really strongly in mentors and that’s a great secret to have. My assumption was I’m probably the stupidest person in the room. Always work with people smarter than you and great talents. Never work with someone you think is dumber than you. And work with people you really admire if you can. It’s not a bad goal to have.

When I finished The Road I had a couple of projects that fell by the wayside. My wife and I were watching The Social Network and my wife said you need to work with David Fincher and I kind of pursued it.

The movie industry doesn’t really know anything about the theatre world and the theatre world doesn’t really know anything about the movie industry. They do send people out to look at plays but in Hollywood no, in Britain it’s different.

Finally, what were you thinking?

I just had this mad idea it would be really cool to be a great playwright. I’m not sure how many people think that now, probably a lot because there’s a big playwriting boom going on. But I did think it was perfectly acceptable and sensible to want to become a famous playwright and a successful Hollywood screenwriter.

My sister’s a journalist and my brother’s an engineer, my Dad was a dentist, my Mum was a physiotherapist. But my Dad was a musician and I was a musician – I played guitar and a bit of piano.

And I’m still coming to terms with that decision of I want to be a playwright.

Catch up with Penhall’s earlier interviews here (Part 1 and Part 2).

Joe Penhall – the interview Part 2

FBI drama Mindhunter – set to air this autumn on Netflix

JOE PENHALL’s new flick Night in Hatton Garden, based on the infamous diamond robbery, is due to start filming in May, while his David Fincher/Charlize Theron FBI series Mindhunter debuts on Netflix in October.

Here in Part 2 of his interview with Writerly, Penhall shares his experiences for writing for film and TV.

We resume where, in Part 1, Penhall said having just 3 characters in a play offered a thrilling dramatic dynamic…

How does it work in movies, like your film The Road [adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel]?

It doesn’t really apply to films. If that was just 2 people in a room it would be really hard work but because the third character is the environment and various figures that appear from the environment and impact on those two it kind of does that.

But the beauty of film is that you’re not as bound by structure and form and convention, you can be a lot more freewheeling and the film I’m working on at the moment – the Hatton Garden diamond robbery – has five people all betraying each other. And it’s great fun because it just goes on and on. And every time you think one person has become loyal to this person he turns round and betrays him and forms a relationship with another person.

It’s a gang of these 5 old men. Everybody knows what they did – they robbed this place – but no-one really knows what happened after that. I mean, they hung around for 6 weeks in London just in the pub and didn’t make their getaway so the first half is leading up to the robbery and the second half is speculating what they did. I think what they did over those five weeks is they bickered and betrayed each other in a Shakespearean way and fought over the loot and kind of fought for dominance and one by one betrayed each other and eliminated each other until there was very little loot left and very little left of the gang and they were pounced on by the cops.

I’ve got this great ensemble of my favourite actors starting with Michael Caine playing all these old, bickering bastards. I met one of them, the one who’s out now. He didn’t participate in the robbery but he was done for handling stolen goods and I had a long lunch with him lasting about 4 hours.

Did the filmmakers ask you who you wanted to star in it?

Yeah. They don’t have to do that. In America, David Fincher [for Mindhunter] never really asked me. He consulted me a lot and I looked at all the audition tapes – hundreds of audition tapes.

But with the diamond film it was unusual that [director] James Marsh would always ask me who was my first choice and we have ended up with pretty much my first choices, and it was his first choice too but there was a few actors he wasn’t sold on that I persuaded him because I had experience with them but you’re very lucky if that happens because the writer tends not to be involved in those things.

What stage is the diamond film at?

I’ve finished about the 5th draft of the script and it’s out to casting. I got a nice note from Ray Winstone and I hope he’s in it. [Since the interview Winstone is on board, as is Tom Courtenay] I remember him in a thing called Fox in the late 70s, it had a really big impact on me.

It was about a South London family with 3 brothers and the oldest brother is a crook that gets banged up and the middle brother can’t decide which way to go and the baby is Ray Winstone who is a promising boxer and he’s straight but his brothers are leading him down this crooked path.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 16.00.55
Ray Winstone in Fox (1980)

So when I did my first play at the [Royal] Court and Ian Rickson [then-Artistic Director] suggested Ray I was so excited. I’ve always wanted to work with Michael Caine and it looks like I’m going to. He’s one of my great loves. And I always wanted to work with Fincher.

The funny thing about my career which is really weird is that I have ended up meeting or working with all my heroes. I really adored The Kinks and Ray Davies and always wanted to do that. One of my great heroes was Muhammad Ali and when I was a local reporter I got to meet him. I’d quite like to work with Paul McCartney but I think he’d be quite high maintenance.

How do you start something like Night in Hatton Garden in terms of planning and figuring out your screenplay?

We sat around talking about it for a week and we had a production assistant and she wrote everything down and by the end of it we said let’s agree on our rough beats, had a page of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, up to 20-whatever and then I took off and did it.

We didn’t have to go through the whole histrionic notes pinned to the wall, scratching your head and all that shit you see in the movies. I never really do that. It’s kinda ’cause it’s all in my head. I write a scene and then I might get an idea for the next scene or I’ll know there’s a collection of 20 great scenes.

Like the Kinks thing, Sunny Afternoon, I knew that story well and I knew the 20, 25 scenes we really wanted to have in there so it was just a question of organising them and deciding what I was going to have.

With a play you might write a speech or write an idea and then just leave it as a spare part and you’ll come and use it later. I’ve written a scene where something’s happened between anonymous characters and then I’ve reused it, I’ve written a play later and gone ‘what I need is a scene where this happens’. And I’ve got one. And I’ll import it into the play or a version of it.

And for your BBC TV series Moses Jones compared to Mindhunter?

That one [Moses Jones] I did write a treatment for so I wrote 10 pages or so.

[For Mindhunter] that was a 75-page Bible so beat-by–beat. It was like giving birth, it was just insane. They wanted 5 seasons; you need to write a Bible, it’s like a novel and you get paid for the Bible as well.

And with a TV show or a movie they tend to want an outline or a treatment unless you’re very lucky and you’re working with a director and producer who know you and respect you and they say go, just do whatever you want to do, which is very rare but it kind of happened with the diamond film.

What was the writing process like for Mindhunter?

You are supposed to have a writers’ room and one of the writers goes and covers set. I didn’t really have a writers’ room. I chose three other writers that I loved and offered them an episode each and wrote the rest myself and then went through rehearsals and when they went to shoot it in Pittsburgh I asked one of them to cover set ‘cos I didn’t want to do it – I’d been in America a long time and was sick of it and wanted to go home.

You’re planning the whole thing, that’s the vertiginous thing about it. If you’re ever going to get involved in one of those things there are pros and cons of getting involved. It is a monster. I wouldn’t recommend it for writers who want to write plays, or want to do anything else with your life because they own you every minute of the day – that’s why you have a writers’ room because if you’ve got 10 people in the room then you can take it in turns. But if you’re the only person, and I was the only person, they own you. It was really hard and that’s why you need a writers’ room because yeah frankly you need people to defend you, sometimes you need other people to take the flack, sometimes it’s just too much work.

Jonathan Groff as Holden Ford in Mindhunter

[The situation] was complicated. HBO offered me a creator/exec producer deal which means they would pay for me to go and live in America and run a writers’ room. They said [Penhall puts on Hollywood accent] do you want the whole pie, do you want a slice of the pie, do you want an iddy bit, what do you want?

And I said I want the whole pie.

[Fincher] wanted me to hire English writers and I couldn’t find English writers that I liked enough to do it or to get their head round it. He’s one of those, he likes the English, he’s an anglophile, he thought it was much better I was able to look them in the eye when we were working.

It ended up much better for me to get LA writers. The women that I wanted were all from LA and lived 2 miles from the office it turned out. They were very classy writers, they’d written Mad Men, had Emmy awards. They couldn’t really be part of a writers’ room and be bossed around and paid a pittance and made to rewrite these 25 times. I commissioned them, I got them to do 2 rewrites and then after that I had to do it.

It’s shot now and we’re waiting to come out. I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of season 2, 3, 4 and 5 because that model is probably unworkable. Me writing 7 episodes and 3 Emmy award-winning writers writing the other three, it’s high maintenance.

Hollywood works on a room full of up-and-comers who are good but will do anything for a pittance.

You’ve adapted books for the screen such as Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. What’s your approach?

Roger Michell, the director of Enduring Love, had done Blue/Orange. He approached me and said, look I’ve got this book I think you’d do really well. It was a bit like one of my plays in that it was about a couple and had someone come between them. My play Love and Understanding, he thought it was a bit like that and he wanted to make a film but it hadn’t panned out so he said why don’t you do that with this, make it all about the couple and the stalker is a bit like Richie coming in and detonating everything.

He was quite frank – he was like the first chapter is great, it’s the best bit, the rest we can throw away a bit which is a bit high-handed and certainly Ian McEwan didn’t agree but I knew I was going to have to invent quite a lot.

We got to a point in the middle where he said we need about 7 pages of Love and Understanding, we need you to just do that thing because Ian hasn’t got it in the book and just relationship stuff, intimate stuff, just them in their apartment alone together. There was also a lot of stuff about love and marriage that Roger wanted to explore that wasn’t really in the book so there was a lot of fiction in there, a lot of my stuff.

And then The Road was different because we all agreed we loved the book and the book was pretty much perfect. There were a few things for production reasons we just wouldn’t be able to film but most of it we wanted to do really faithfully.

The Road’s Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee

Cormac is a film buff. He started out as a screenwriter. He only started writing novels because he couldn’t get anywhere as a screenwriter so the dialogue in his book is very spare and lends itself to cinema, it expands with the performance. So it was a different approach in finding a way of translating it to screen, I didn’t have to invent anything.

Funnily enough in the diamond robbery film, James [Marsh, director] said he wanted a playwright and they suggested screenwriters that were just screenwriters but he said no I want somebody that can really do dialogue and when I had the early meetings I had all these great ideas and saw it as great cinema.

It was clear he read my plays and he was interested in the theatrical quality of it. But he also said to me at a later date is what I like about you is you can write screenplays and you think like a screenwriter, you think visually, which I do. My first love was film and I wanted to make films before I wanted to make plays so I’m very happy writing a film that’s very visual and not derived entirely from dialogue, you know, I am thinking about the environment, the location, the landscape all the time.

You’re unusual as a successful playwright but also screenwriter.

Yeah that’s really rare, I know it’s rare. I really worked at it. I failed over and over again. The film of Some Voices I re-wrote 20 times, and I went through several directors. It was originally going to be directed by Peter Cattaneo, who directed The Full Monty, then there was talk of getting Bertolucci to direct it, then Jean-Jacques Beineix who did Betty Blue and then eventually it got the director it got.

But I talk about plays in the drawer – for every screenplay that’s been made there are about 4 that didn’t get made and I also think with my theatre career I didn’t have many massive commercial successes, they’re all quite cult-y so I kind of had to try and be successful in film.

And because I love film and studied it and wanted to do it right from the start I was able to do it and now I’m pretty established. There are people in the film business that don’t know I’m a playwright.

Have you ever thought of doing a period drama?

I wrote a movie set in 19th century Kansas about cowboys that Sam Mendes was going to do. It was a good script. It was based on a great novel about buffalo hunters [Butcher’s Crossing by John Edward Williams]. Sam brought it to me and said I think you’d be perfect for this. I wrote it.

There was a syndicate of financers that had optioned the novel it was based on. When it came time to renew the rights so Sam could go and get it made, [one of the syndicate] offered the estate triple what Sam had offered, then wrote it himself. It never got made.

What about doing more directing yourself?

I like to direct because it’s fun but my problem is I work with great directors. I’m like that with films. I won’t make a film unless I know that someone fucking tasty is going to direct it. The best work emerges with collaboration.

In the final instalment, Penhall recalls his frustrations as a local reporter – including his treasonous encounter with Her Majesty. He pitches his new play and suggests how best to approach writing about things that matter to you.


This article was edited October 2017

Joe Penhall – the interview Part 1

Pic: Simon O’Dwyer

He’s the son of a dentist and physiotherapist who once startled the Queen while working as a cub reporter in West London.

But JOE PENHALL (above) is also well known for writing plays Blue/Orange, Some Voices, Pale Horse, Haunted Child to name a few as well as adapting novels Enduring Love and The Road for the big screen. The multi-award-winning playwright, screenwriter and director also wrote TV series Moses Jones and adapted The Long Firm for the BBC.

More recently he penned long-running Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon and has just completed David Fincher’s new FBI series, Mindhunter, for Netflix. He’s currently working on Night in Hatton Garden, Working Title’s movie about the infamous London diamond heist set to star Michael Caine and Ray Winstone.

Be warned, this interview is a monster in 3 parts. Forthcoming blogs will include insights into Joe’s film and TV work, his experiences as a journalist as well as exciting news on some new stuff he’s working on.

So get that brew on and enjoy our first chat about… tons.

Let’s start with the early days – tell us a bit about how you got started and how you knew what you were doing?

I was very lucky. Before I was a newspaper journalist I worked in a pizza bar and one of my customers was an actor and director and taught at Central and he said I like your plays, you should try and get them on in a local theatre and I’ll direct them.

So Wild Turkey he originally directed a reading of that at the White Bear and then when I wrote Some Voices he looked over it and he advised me on re-writes and did a great reading of it at Battersea Arts Centre. And then I was involved in the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre so I knew who to give it to and gave it to other theatres.

I didn’t give it to the Court because I was pissed off with them for not doing the burger bar play [more of this later]. Eventually I gave it to the Court and Stephen Daldry [then-Artistic Director] was really grateful.

But what happens is, every few years you come a cropper, every few years you do a play that isn’t that well received. You have to remind yourself there is a real world out there. That it’s not the end of the world – it feels like the end of the world when your play gets rejected… but it’s really hard.

Birthday [about a man who gives birth] took 6 days to write, infact it took 3 days to write – I wrote it day and night and didn’t stop. And then I gave it to director Roger Michell who said I really like it but the second half, does the baby have to die? I was like look man, I’ve been up all night for about 4 days drinking brandy! I could give it another 3 days, I’ll see, I dunno. So I went back, rewrote the 2nd half, the baby didn’t die, gave it to him. I think it’s shit but you’re the boss, and he loved it.

I sheepishly gave it to Dominic [Cooke] at the Court. I said Roger really likes it but be honest cos it took 3 days to write. He loved it as well and he said I’ll put it on on condition you don’t change a word. But that’s really rare.

Stephen Mangan as Ed in Birthday at the Royal Court Theatre (2012)

The difference between someone saying I love it and want to put it on next month and somebody saying I think you should leave it in the drawer and you’re probably better as a journalist, the difference is nothing, it’s a thin line between success and failure.

Some Voices – lots of people read Some Voices and were like I don’t get it, what’s it about? And then you give it to Stephen Daldry and he’s like well this, I just think this is extraordinary, we must put it on as soon as possible!

You quickly get a radar for who gets you and who is going to give you the proper devotion. You have to find people who will read it devotedly and thoughtfully.

One of the things about the boom in writing is that there is just no time to read all these plays and no time to find a product they all have to find now and those theatres are turning into sausage factories and so plays get read really quickly and writers are in or out really quickly.

How do you plan your plays, what’s your writing process?

I don’t write any kind of formal plan. I don’t write any outline for a play. I will for a TV or movie because they require that generally but with a play I might jot down literally what happens next, next he goes to the bathroom or next he resigns his job.

I’ll start with an idea that occurs to me, think about it for a bit and then forget about it and if it keeps re-occurring and it keeps accruing details then it’s probably a good idea. I go through a long and rigorous vetting process because I have lots of ideas and I know only one or two of them are going to be any good. You kind of want to make sure you figure out whether it’s good or not before you start writing.

One way is to talk about it with friends and if they’re engaged you can tell. It’s a bit like telling a joke, you know if it’s funny or not. One way is if you just can’t get it out of your head. Another good way is to just start writing it but you have to be a bit careful of that because once you start writing it, if you’re like me, you get a bit obsessive about it, you’re like a dog with a bone and you’ll write 80 pages before you realise it’s not good enough.

How do you form your characters?

Characters have to be pretty intuitive, you’ve got to have a nagging voice in your head or a nagging character.

Haunted Child – that was a pretty intuitive piece of work. I didn’t really know where that play came from. I just wrote it at a time I was a little bit troubled, not in a major existential way. I was just fucked off. I was trying to sell my house and just in general I was not very happy.

I’d done The Road [film adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel] and I really wanted to write about a father and son. I always wanted to write something very simple that erupted from a very personal kind of obsession of fathers and sons and I did a very raw version of it and that idea collided with… I was really interested in cults.

I went to Japan to see a Japanese version of Dumb Show and when I was there I got interested in the Aum cult which had gassed the subways and one of my favourite writers Haruki Murakami had written a book about them. It seemed a bit like jihad but it was all middle class, suburban, educated people who had joined this cult of technology. They were these engineers, scientists, journalists, ordinary people who were bright and you wouldn’t imagine them joining a death cult. So two ideas collided.

Haunted Child at the Royal Court Theatre (2011)

Often my plays are two ideas colliding. When you’ve only got one idea it’s not going to go anywhere but when you’ve got two then it’ll have offspring. So I did a version of it that was utterly humourless and bereft of any trickery or craft or indeed any fun whatsoever and not much emotion either, it was just a grind and I put it in the drawer for a bit and about a year later it still wouldn’t go away so I changed it and made it about a mother and a son and the father was the ne’er-do-well who had gone away.

And it had always been mysterious about why he’d gone away and then I imported this idea he went away to join a cult and then I had it. Once the cult thing joined with the other thing I had it.

Why did you stick with it?

I think I did start other things and realised this was the best thing. I usually have 3 or 4 things going on at once and I know one of them will be good and will stand the test of time. And the other things will be try-outs or I’ll use bits of them somewhere.

It’s quite painful because sometimes I’ll write a whole play and it’s not good enough to put on but it’s a try-out so Blue/Orange I had written 3 plays that were earlier versions of that, that were sort of unrelated until finally it all coagulated and I realised exactly what I needed to do.

And I found that out by directing a version of Speed the Plow by David Mamet, a 3-hander, and it was so neat and it just seemed to do everything I needed to do and I reconvened all my ideas as a 3-hander and then it suddenly leapt into life.

Is that generally your writing style?

I’m still perfecting it. I still haven’t got a pattern but you’re looking for a theatrical vehicle that will hold all your ideas like a vessel. The right shaped glass to hold the drink, the right shaped dish to hold the meal. Until you find that you can be fucking around forever, you can go up all sorts of blind alleys and indulge yourself in all sort of weird ways and while you do want to be as free as you can and not be restricted by Aristotlian conventions or 3-hander conventions, they can be incredibly helpful to help you find a form.

Look at a song. A song is a great vessel for a lot of things. You might not appreciate a great guitar solo until you hear that guitar player doing it in a song. Someone just free-ranging endlessly can be really boring but a really concise, well-structured, organised, rehearsed solo can make that guitar player sound like the most inventive, magical guitar-player. And I think it’s like that with a play.

Once you’ve got a structure and you look after it and you make sure it’s economical and it’s doing all the right things and all the right beats are happening in the right places and the right exposition is there and the right amount of humour. Once you look after all those things it starts to look after you in a weird way so you go oh this thing that pops up later is really good but if I follow convention and foreshadow it, just plant an indication it’s coming earlier, it’ll be really satisfying. Or this joke here’s good but if I elaborate on it later it will be twice as good. It’s very often about finding good structure and the form of the play.

You tend to have just 2 or 3 characters in your plays. Is that accidental?

It kind of is. I haven’t figured out why. I’m working on a play at the moment and it’s another fucking 3-hander! I got really self-conscious about it a few years ago and when I wrote Birthday I managed to squeeze in a fourth character. But I could have boiled it down to 3 – given half a chance I would have but thought I’ve got to try and write more.

There’s something about the argument, the counter-argument and then the catalyst. Or the argument, the counter-argument and the neutraliser. I’m really interested in the way people connive and betray each other and form loyalties and then sabotage them and the best way to do that is with 3 people.

If you’ve got 4 people then you’re needlessly complicating it but it can be satisfying and if you’ve only got two it’s not enough but you can do it with 3. It’s a bit like being in bands. I used to play in bands and they used to be 3-piece bands. Just enough to prop up the things, there’s something really thrilling about 3 people.

How do you approach redrafting?

I always liked to do a radically different rewrite. I kind of would throw the baby out with the bathwater and start all over again with the rewrite and what I learnt over time was that’s not the way to do it.

The way to do it is to incrementally rewrite it a very little bit at the time and do many, many rewrites that are small, incremental improvements. Never throw the baby out with the bathwater unless it’s just no good, in which case, just throw it out, don’t rewrite it.

Pale Horse and Blue/Orange. How many versions did you write?

Not many. First I wrote a play set in America with about 8 Americans in it for Blue/Orange which was about a group of homeless schizophrenics in care and one of them was black and had all these delusions. I did a reading of it and it worked quite well but not well enough so I put it on the back burner and then a few years later I got this idea about this guy who’s in a mental hospital who thinks he’s an alien from another planet and I did 30/40 pages, couldn’t make it work. This movie came out that was like it so I put that on ice.

Another couple of years later I directed [Mamet’s] Speed the Plow and suddenly realised that my original American idea, if I condensed it and set it in London and had just 3 people in a room it would work. So I wrote that draft, basically a new play and it worked and I did a reading, refined it a bit, maybe a couple of drafts.

Roger Michell came in and said it needed a twist in the 3rd act, and another twist at the end, and a reveal here. I thought this is all pretty prescriptive but I really admired Roger so I did it and it was done and then on press night the actors dried and dropped the three pages of twists and did my basic version before the re-writes had come in, they forgot the new stuff!

So I’ll sometimes write a play, realise there is something not working so I just put it in the drawer and I’ll come back to it and try and reconvene it.

I particularly love Pale Horse. How did that develop?

I wrote a rough, raw play about a young guy my age whose girlfriend had died and it didn’t quite work and about 6 months later I started all over again with what was Pale Horse. And the version that went on was that first draft of the new version.

The original version was stupid – she was from Manchester and he goes up to Manchester and he gets in a feud with somebody and he has a baseball bat and everything goes wrong in one day. And then I grew up a bit and a year on wrote this version about this man whose wife had died and he goes everywhere, he goes to God, he goes to his best friend, various agencies, the criminal underworld and he tries to assuage his demons.

That was the first draft and the Royal Court got hold of it and went, this is fantastic we’re going to put it on right now which almost never happens and I said no, no I need to do more work on it and I did a 2nd draft that was significantly different and they said you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, we want to do the first draft.

The difference was the girl that he meets, Lucy, that he becomes obsessed with, in the 2nd draft she didn’t kill anybody, she did something stupid in the bar and hit somebody with the baseball bat and there was a big scene and then she ran off and self-destructed, ran under a car and he goes and spends his time visiting her in hospital and it’s like what happened to his wife.

And obviously with his wife you realise there was some big scene and she had some kind of accident and he was culpable. It was a lot more internal and a lot more tricksy and the Court just loved this, it was the mid-90s, this kind of Tarantino-esque proposition of this cute girl who killed somebody and what are you going to do about it.

It was the same year as Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, it was really in the air. And I think they were probably right.

Funny things happen with plays. Because they are drama you sometimes have to have a fairly straightforward piece of drama to carry off lots of complicated ideas and that’s why film works and film genres like crime work because sometimes it’s a straightforward murder or robbery.

If you can find a plot that’s one idea that you can say in one sentence, and you can hang on that characters you can make as complex and multifaceted as possible that’s a good way of looking at it. With Some Voices my thing was it’s about a guy who gets let out of a mental hospital before he’s ready: disaster. Pale Horse: a man whose wife dies suddenly and he goes into a spiral of self-destruction. Blue/Orange: a man who appears in a London mental hospital claiming to be the son of Idi Amin.

The movie version of Some Voices (2000) starring Kelly McDonald and Daniel Craig

They’re all one sentence but spun in a complex way. And I’ve written plays that take ages to explain that don’t ever really work. The play I’m working on now is a really simple five-word sentence. It’s about a guy who loses everything to the taxman, he gets in trouble with a crooked accountant and loses everything. He goes through all the stations of life, having a really nice apartment on the river, having a great career to living in a doss house and his accountant goes from being a successful accountant, all the way to jail.

It’s really simple but it’s about the machinations of those complex financial frauds and the kind of characters that perpetuate them, and the morality of it. The central idea of somebody losing everything and going all the way to the bottom and ending up in a poor house and the other idea of somebody who is clearly of dubious morality and is clearly able to cheat financially in a grandiloquent way, seeing himself as a Robin Hood but ending up in jail.

There was something about that that really resonates. It’s a 3-hander (ofcourse). I did a reading with Alan Rickman last year before he died and it was good but it wasn’t great. But he was incredible. He smoked, the room; just sucked all the oxygen out. I knew the play was way too long and needed a lot of crafting and then Alan died and I just couldn’t approach it and now in the last few months I’ve gone back to it because it seemed like a stupidly simple idea: a fraud that costs somebody everything. But it’s the complexity of their approach to it.

And also doing the diamond robbery film it made me realise I’m good at crime, at devious, duplicitous people. The theatre loves things that are in the air.

I’ve got 4 plays in the drawer at the moment. I know they’re good but I don’t know if they’re good enough. And that’s a funny place to get to as a writer.

Writing dialogue – it’s about keeping it open to interpretation but how do you avoid losing your angle on it if it can be interpreted in different ways?

In the first part of my career I was much more neurotic – it had to be done in exactly the way I had envisioned it. Now I like the mystery of it being reinterpreted. People used to say it’s like hiring a dog-walker and you give them your Labrador and it comes back a Poodle and you have to get used to that, you’re handing it over, just get used to handing it over and they’d drum it into you. I hated that.

But now I like the idea you give them this thing and it comes back hopefully better or more interesting. I’ve been really lucky in that by and large it has come back better than I’ve envisaged.

But a serious thing is you need a really good collaborator to interrogate you properly but I think it’s a special kind of hell to have a director foisted on you that you don’t get on with and they want to do their own thing and that’s increasingly the currency.

Increasingly, as theatre becomes a product made by theatre-makers and you get people taking credit for devising and co-devising and it’s taken away from the writer, that kind of collaboration is dying where you have a director that’s devoted to the writing but also devoted to their craft.

It’s quite an old-fashioned idea that we’re all here to serve the play, from front of house to costume to the director. That idea is gone, it’s archaeology, you will not find a director in town that wants just to serve the play, or you will but they won’t be a careerist director. The directors who want to build a career are all trying to find ways to put their stamp on it and reinvent it.

What’s your secret to longevity as a writer?

Refusing to go away! Some Voices – I was totally expecting them to say it was rubbish and when Stephen Daldry wanted to do it… – the National had turned it down, the Bush had turned it down, the Hampstead turned it down – and Stephen said yeah, he called me up at the paper and it was wildly successful and I hadn’t really thought about if it hadn’t been.

Has working on Sunny Afternoon influenced how your writing’s developed?

Yeah because that was a big story so I’m interested in doing big stories. That’s quite messy and sprawling but spans 2 continents and covers a lot of ground, and characters who are only there for one scene and then walk off so I’m interested in that – the exact opposite of a 3-hander like Blue/Orange so I am interested in doing what I haven’t done before.

I always squeezed in my plays between films, I always had the things jostling and always written under pressure. If I had an idea I had to write it fast. And I think that has been a good thing because I’ve never got close to writer’s block. I’ve got the opposite, I’ve got loads of plays and loads of ideas, I just don’t have time to finish them.

You can do a lot of navel-gazing. Since having kids I think it’s a minor miracle anyone can write if they’ve got kids. I’ve talked to other female playwrights who are contemplating having kids and don’t want to because they’re worried about what effect it might have. And I talk to Simon Stephens a lot about kids, he’s got kids too, and it’s a big, big, big, big thing and it’s very hard to find the time and headspace but it does a thing to your brain, to your soul and your consciousness, it bestows upon you a wisdom and an ability to see what you couldn’t see before.

Birthday was a straight autobiography. It was me, my wife in labour for 17 hours fighting tooth and claw. I made it [the protagonist] a man to make it more interesting.

Simon [Stephens] and I are in agreement about this. That old quote from Cyril Connolly [literary critic and writer] about the pram in the hall being the enemy of creativity is nonsense. It fires you up. You work everything out: your morality, your sense of what matters, what’s happening to the world. Until you have kids your don’t feel it viscerally. You feel it instantly, viscerally and overwhelmingly in a way you’re removed from prior to that so it doesn’t affect you. I don’t know whether it will come out in the writing but it certainly feels like it.

Do you have any writing exercises you can recommend?

In the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre we did this thing where you take a newspaper story and see if you can write a play or scene out of it. I loved it because I was in newspapers. I still do it all the time. I go Sean Spicer: where’s the play in that? There’s a play in Trump. There’s a play in Tony Blair. There was a story a few years ago a clinical psychiatrist diagnosed him with hubris syndrome. There’s a great play in that. I’m sort of thinking about it.

It’s more about what’s happened to me or someone I know in some form or another. Or a newspaper story that I go wow that’s a great story.

Would you ever want to write something different like sci-fi, for example in Ali McDowall’s style?

I really love Ali and I know him quite well. One clever thing about being a writer, one trick, is don’t try and be other writers. So I thought yeah I’d love to write a play like Pomona but it’s probably wise to not try.

My plays tend to be linear but I’ve written another play that I’m still waiting to produce, that goes back and forth in time and doesn’t have scenes. It did have scenes but I chopped it all up and now it’s like a documentary. You’ll hear this person talking and then you’ll zoom over to this person, then you’ll get a bit of music and I’m trying to figure out who I’m going to do it with.

How do you deal with rejection?

You have to always become yourself. You have to become the person you were before you started, not worry about any of these bruises. You have to remember how you were when you first started and when you finished your first play and how proud you were and how indefatigable you were. It’s quite hard to do.

In next month’s Writerly, Joe tells us the latest about his new diamond heist movie, writing David Fincher’s Mindhunter, and the good, the bad and the ugly of his cowboy period drama.

BBC Three’s Cuckoo writer Robin French talks Supermalt and pantheism


ROBIN FRENCH (above) is off to finish making a Massaman curry. But first things first – a chat with Writerly.

Co-creator of BBC sitcom Cuckoo, French, 38, was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham. He read modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, where he was also involved in Cambridge Footlights.
A former writer-in-residence at Birmingham Rep, he wrote plays Bear Hug and Gilbert is Dead and, in association with the Almeida Theatre, The Red Helicopter.

As well as Cuckoo – for which he’s currently writing series 4 and 5 – he has script-edited a couple of series of Man Stroke Woman, is co-creator of US sitcom Roommates and co-created and co-wrote ITV2’s Trinity.

French’s short film Crocodile won several awards at Cannes. He also made a short film Groove is in the Heart, co-produced by the Royal Court Theatre. And he’s ensconced in writing Lust for Life, about David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s time in Berlin, which is in development.

Musician French, previously bassist in band Mr Hudson and the Library, is also a National Theatre Connections playwright.

I adore your play Bear Hug, a funny yet moving play about a couple’s son who has turned into a bear. You wrote it for a Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme in 2004, and it won their competition to be staged. How did you come to write it?

It sounds silly but I actually did dream it. I had this dream I was looking for a play in the dream and I knew the play was scary and funny and sad so I woke up with this sort of ‘tone’, this sense of this tone and I wrote it very quickly after that. It was about that tone in an indefinable, odd way. It was chasing that thing that I dreamt in some way.

The teacher in my writers’ group was Simon Stephens, he was very good.

How did you find the Royal Court experience?

It was amazing. I’d written bits of theatre before but suddenly it’s in front of lots of people and you’re getting to see people’s reactions to it but I also remember feeling very on-show and exposed so maybe a little unprepared because it is weird. When you’re writing it’s quite internal and then suddenly it’s a public arena but it’s really personal to you and that was odd to deal with.

I like things to be quite surprising. I was actually an usher at the Royal Court for a while and I think back then there was a period of quite a lot of naturalism so it made me want to write this – theatre that couldn’t be on TV. It was for the theatre.

I went to a performance of it in Germany and they had one interpretation of it which I have to say was not my personal interpretation of it! And that’s quite interesting. But I wrote it deliberately ambiguous because I like things that are ambiguous but also if you say what it came from you’re closing down its possibilities.

Was it difficult to write?

It was quite short so that helped. I was already working at TalkBack [TV production company] in comedy development so probably there was a lot of influence; I was reading quite a lot of half-an-hour scripts so the fact that Bear Hug ended up being half-an-hour, things go in and then what comes out is what a product of what you’re doing, or reading, but I don’t think I consciously plan very much, I just see what comes out.

You have to make up your own process to make you work because everybody’s very different. People are unbelievably different. I went to an event at the Royal Court, where they got Martin Crimp, Anthony Neilson and a few other people, they just talked through their process with us and that was illuminating. They all have a completely different process. You just find your own.

You have a lot of wildlife in your plays. Is using nature something you’re consciously interested in?

I am interested in nature. I’m probably a little bit pantheist. Quietly. I find the natural world imaginatively compelling. But I also really love medieval literature, Greek mythology and fairytales where animals are omens. So I’m really into it but it’s also in lots of literature I really dig.

The early plays, at university, how do they compare with your later ones? Can you see the seeds of your voice starting then?

Yes. They had animals in! There was always something a bit trippy slash mental illness in there but those sort of things were already in there.

One was a guy with a psychiatrist and the guy is convinced there is an audience watching him at all times. See what I did there. Very pleased with that one aged 20! I was like ‘I’ve finished theatre!’. It was called Crazy for You. Another one was a monologue where the speaker was dying of cancer but at the end you realised it was a dog but that was quite sweet. That was at university and then it went to the Man in the Moon theatre. I don’t remember what it was called.

Stage versus screen. Is the writing process the same?

I think it’s very different. But weirdly I was doing TV before I wrote Bear Hug so the TV thing and the playwriting thing were happening at the same time for me. I was writing sitcom scripts with Kieron (Quirke, Cuckoo co-writer) and then working in comedy development.

I did French and Italian (Modern Languages) at university. They definitely informed my writing in this regard: it was quite a terrifying course because you had to read novels in a foreign language, write essays and then talk to a Professor who was an expert on this thing, about them and this was quite hard when you weren’t fluent in a foreign language. And really annoyingly back then there wasn’t even Wikipedia.

I think it really affected me because there was quite a lot of reading things and half knowing what they were about and I think that’s imbued my taste in theatre that I like things that are a little bit elusive – the meaning’s sort of a bit away from you.

I adore David Lynch but it has that thing of, you’re not quite there, it’s a mysteriousness and a position for the audience trying to decode what’s going on. That suits my taste. That might come from not understanding what things were about when I was having to read things – but still really liking them that was what was weird! I was really into it but I’m not sure I always knew what was going on!

Taylor Lautner and Greg Davies in BBC’s Cuckoo

But where does intrigue stop and confusion begin for an audience?

I think that’s the challenge with writing. I think in my theatre writing I quite often try to explore the border country. I’m really into that area and I hope I’ve always kept on the right side of it. The theatre I really love is compelling, it’s just a good story. I like things that are strange but I like them to have emotional impact and I get quite bored…

I’m not a big fan of [Eugene] Ionesco because I find it emotionally arid. There’s quite a lot of writers like that, they are obviously incredibly brainy but they write something weird but it feels like an intellectual game. Whilst for me I love plays that are sad but they can be strange and sad at the same time then I really, really love it. For example, the film Don’t Look Now, it’s so mysterious but really sad and supernatural as well.

Cuckoo, Roommates and Trinity are just some of the shows you’ve written with your writing partner (and childhood friend since age 16) Kieron Quirke. What are your tips on successful co-writing?

We usually bounce drafts between us but only once we’ve agreed on a synopsis together. I would say there’s an amount of hanging out together that you should always be doing if you’re co-writing together because the best things come out of your friendship, chatting about your lives and making each other laugh. But it’s quite easy in the internet age of getting into the thing of not ever meeting and just sending things. It’s important to keep the integrity of the friendship.

You do a draft and you’re like I like that and send it to them and it comes back and the colour has all changed and you have a fit of pique for 2 minutes. Then your brain goes, this has happened before, in fact this happens all the time. And then you rewrite that and weirdly it becomes an agreed thing just through bouncing between you.

If you wrote a joke and they keep taking it out then you have a chat! Both of our Dads are lawyers so there’s quite a lot of arguing the case for certain lines or things. We were working at Rough Cut who do Cuckoo and they also do People Just Do Nothing. Those guys are in it and they write it by improvising, making each other laugh and I remember us being in a room next door to them, hearing them laughing, moving around, loads of banging and we’re just in there having quite serious intellectual discussions of what should happen next and why. But it sort of works!

Everything that goes in has to be co-signed-off and we both have very strong opinions as well but we do share quite a lot of taste.

What’s your advice on structuring a comedy script narrative?

It’s supposed to be a 3-Act structure but when people have said that it’s never really helped me understand it. You have a protagonist and they want something or they’re trying to escape from something and in the end they get it or they don’t.

I don’t think I think very consciously ‘and now the beginning of the 2nd act’. When you’re writing something long like a film you do end up going there is where the first act turns into the second act, here is the inciting incident, here is the midpoint. But within a sitcom episode, a rule that has helped me and Kieron is we just make sure our script is 32 pages long on Final Draft. And then there’s 2 of us pouring lots of new stuff in so the container is 32 pages full and it coalesces. We do talk about the story first so I suppose it gets structured.

Cuckoo is a very story-hungry show. If you like it, you’re probably liking it because of the ironic twists and turns of it. I think that’s what Kieron and I are really into – constructing the farces. And that’s a lot of talking, writing, throwing things out, trying a new direction. Even though in our heads it’s a 3-Act structure that comes quite intuitively through going, what about an episode in which this, but then this happens but then this. It sort of happens. If you think of really funny stuff to happen in a row then after a period of work it will have become a 3-Act structure, at least that’s always happened for us.

If you’re writing a studio sitcom there’s an obligation to have a certain amount of jokes on every page but we’re in a very dramedy [time], it’s really cool at the moment, I really enjoy dramedy and it has a different tone.

But I think if you’re writing a comedy, every line is character-full and the characters are drawn comedically. The POV of the writing is comedic so it’s not necessarily for me about going, ah there’s the joke on the page, it’s more every scene probably has an irony in it and everything the character says is characterful and then jokes sort of happen through that.

What makes a good (comedy) character?

The lack of self-awareness. There’s a gap between how they see themselves and how the world sees them, I think that’s true of all humans.

If I’m writing on my own I think I’m quite an instinctive and intuitive writer but with someone else I’m forced to talk about the things in my head a bit so it’s a slightly different process.

For Cuckoo, you choose a protagonist and you surround the protagonist with characters that are going to activate that protagonist. But why do you choose a protagonist in the first place? It’s like falling love. You meet them along the road. I think you have to have a bit of a falling in love thing with the idea or the character. Niceness kills characters only because it’s not true. If you think someone’s nice then you don’t know them well enough. People are more than nice. Nice is a very uninteresting word. People are polarities, people and nice and nasty, kind and cruel, generous and stingy.

You’ve also had the Los Angeles writers’ room experience. How was that?

I really enjoyed it, you learn loads and see how all this amazing American TV gets made. For me it felt like the most opposite world to writing Bear Hug possible, which was a very intuitive, personal piece of writing. It’s nice to write something like, ‘only I would have written that’. In the US it’s very different. You’re writing with 12 other people, like going out to play a sport every day. It sharpens your skills. There’s a lot to like about it but for me maybe I’m a bit European in my sensibilities, you know, I’d quite like to be writing French film or an impenetrable, absurdist play.

It’s very weird for English writers at the start but then you get used to it. You’re supposed to pitch jokes to a lot of strangers and on the first day you are not used to that but as you get to know people better it become a group of friends.

The Red Helicopter was a play for ‘young people’. What does that mean for you in the approach, conception and writing for that age group?

I didn’t think like that at all. The Red Helicopter was through the Almeida Theatre which did a brilliant scheme with lots of teenage actors so I knew who was going to be in it. I interviewed all of them one-on-one and I had a lot of opportunities to hang out with them and see them acting and I created characters around each of them. I made it very bespoke, I came up with a world. It was for the actors, I don’t think there was any age idea for the audience.

I don’t really know what the difference would be for a play written for teenagers and for people in their 20s. I went to see Matilda the Musical, the film Ratatouille it’s brilliant. A good story’s a really good story. You’re just not allowed to have too much swearing.

Cast of The Red Helicopter at the Almeida Theatre

Groove is in the Heart was one of 6 short films for the Royal Court’s microplays initiative in association with the Guardian newspaper. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The brief was it had to be filmed within a house that could be made into whatever film set you wanted, in a warehouse probably in Haringey somewhere and you were paired up with a director, mine was Bijan Sheibani and a journalist, John Harris. Because of my past as a musician I was given ‘Music’. It was supposed to be about the state of England and two minutes long.

It was a hard brief. You have this quite a lot when you’re a freelance writer, like ‘I’m sure I’ll think of something’. It’s quite hard to know when you’re going to have an idea and as it gets closer you get this panic. But it’s not really your conscious that comes up with ideas, so you’re waiting for your sub-conscious to supply you with what you need so that came incredibly late! The nice thing about short films is that it’s one idea, one concept so when you do have the idea it doesn’t take very long to write it out. I told Bijan what the idea was and he said cool so then I wrote it.

I was probably being a bit nostalgic when music felt like it had.. when you used to pay for music in ye olden days, it had a lot of value, your identity attached to it and there’s a lot to love about how music’s all available now but there’s also something that’s been lost about it. There’s something so personal about compilation tapes in the mid-90s, it was such an act of love to make your friend a compilation tape and then you did listen to that compilation tape. And you’d think about the friend that gave it to you. A beautiful gift of friendship wrapped up in music.

[You can watch the film here]

There’s a moment in the film that resonated with me where the girl (played by Ruby Ashbourne Serkis) rips off the tape’s cellophane with her teeth.

I get enthusiasm for certain people and I got very into Lynne Ramsay, Scottish director of Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin. She’s so good at getting you inside the character in a very subjective way and making you feel what the character’s feeling. The small moment-by-moment actions, [for example] she might have a little bit where someone picks up a pencil and is doodling and connects that moment to the state of mind of the character so you feel really immersed in the character.

Ruby Ashbourne Serkis in Groove is in the Heart

Should you include that amount of detail in a pitch or script?

No. In the script you might want to do it if that was the effect you’re looking for. This was going to be a very short film so I knew what I wanted for it but I would say if you were writing screenplays, a rule that I live by is be very, very careful not to be windy and overblown in your stage directions.

I think I was very influenced by years of reading other people’s scripts. Be concise but fun in your stage directions. It’s a very quick way to put your reader to sleep when they see a paragraph of stage directions. If it’s a visual thing just be concise about it – what are they looking at? And then don’t be afraid of starting a new par for a new bit but don’t bunch it up in a nest of prose, it really kills the reader’s attention.

You’re still telling a story in the stage directions, really remember that. Keep them entertaining.

Does being a musician influence the way you write?

I think it definitely has an effect on my writing. I listen to music a lot when I’m writing. When I’ve written something that feels right it equates to a 2/5/1, when you get to the 1, it feels right, it’s inevitable. You’ve arrived, in music it’s a resolve, you know it’s right. I do think about writing in a music-y way, a lot of it’s about hearing it. A lot of dialogue is rhythm.

I think probably most screenwriters would feel a bit like that, you’re feeling it like a piece of music when you’re writing and when you’re reading it again you’re playing a new bit in a piece of music, bits where you feel happy and sad.

There are certain things you cannot listen to when writing, anything that’s hip-hop, anything with lots of words in will make writing impossible. Anything where the bass gets too funky, maybe because I’m a bassist but I find it incredibly distracting. I can’t think when the bass gets too funky.

I love 70s Brazilian music and 70s reggae and the Beach Boys, Smiths, David Bowie, Serge Gainsbourg.

My favourite writing snack is…
 I’m a very non-snacky person. But they opened a West Indian takeaway near the studio so quite often I’ll be there at half 12 going ‘am I actually going to get curry goat again?’.
My favourite drink while writing is… Supermalt. It’s a West Indian malt soft drink. And a big black coffee at the start of writing, and then cups of tea.
I wish I wrote… The Pillowman [by Martin McDonagh]. One of the best plays I’ve seen. I like it when things are emotionally engaging but also a bit funny so I really love Martin McDonagh, Mike Leigh, Dennis Kelly, Philip Ridley. And in film the same things, get all of the drama but also a little bit of comedy as well.
I get my ideas from… being with other people and enjoying other artforms.

Tell us a bit about your work routine.

I am a morning person, the muses usually desert me in the afternoon. I treat it like a job, I go in in the morning I do writing, get lunch and then at 4 I’ll go, I did a good innings. For me it’s about having done a good innings. If I spend a day and just read articles or doss off then I feel very unhappy in the evening. I stay until I’ve done a good innings. I’ve gone to the place, brought some writing back, I’ve put it on the laptop, good.

Do you have a special place to write?

I used to write in cafés, for years in the Rustique Café in Tufnell Park which I heartily recommend. This is when I was living in Kentish Town. Tim Key and Tom Basden sometimes also worked in that café. Then I moved to Dalston and all the cafés play music too loudly so now I work in Hackney Downs studios with lots of artists and illustrators in the same studio and that’s writing heaven for me.

There was some theatre podcast with Mike Bartlett and he was talking about how he often goes away to write something. He’ll even book into a Travelodge for a couple of days. And I thought I am allowed to do that. So I’ve started doing that a lot more. It’s a really fantastic thing to do for your writing.

I have this sacred normal place which is the studio. As soon as I go there my brain goes, now is the time to work. But it’s so useful during the year a couple of times you can spare a week with nature or a different city. A really great thing to turbo-charge what you’re writing, like going on a date with your own play. There are loads of things competing for your attention and only by taking yourself away you suddenly have loads of time and the only thing you’re thinking about is the thing you’re writing and I think it helps you find the most interesting things.

This year I spent time in Montmartre, also in the countryside where I looked after my friend’s dog.
Part of the feeling you get is now I really have to write. It’s a no excuses you must now finish this thing or make a real advance on this thing. I’m not allowed to go home not having written anything.

What’s your advice on redrafting?

Don’t go near it for a month, forget about it. Go and write other stuff. Change. Every day you’re changing as a person. Change as a person. Then meet a person who has also read it on the same day.

Quite often I read it and it’s quite clear what’s wrong with it, to me. Then you go and talk to someone and they probably say a similar thing and it gives you a bit of oomph to feel quite certain about what’s wrong with it.

Redrafting’s the hardest bit and there’s times when you’re writing you can feel very lost in the woods. And when you’re in those bits, just keep going because quite often you can find a path out.

After the month I feel I know what’s wrong with it and now I have to try and do this. Quite a lot of it is knowing what’s wrong with it and as you get older as a writer maybe your diagnosis of what’s not working becomes a bit clearer to you. And you’re not so precious about dropping things. You’ve dropped a lot of things before and you’re fine.

What if the people you send it to disagree?

That’s a difficult one when two people say opposite things.

You have to write what you really want to write first and then move it afterwards. But what are you finding attractive in it is probably what the audience will find attractive in it. So if you’re mediating yourself… if it’s a play there’s no point in second-guessing the audience or mediating yourself, it’ll just make you write worse.

Because often a play is about some weird, secret stuff that your subconscious is throwing up. You have to leave the door open for that stuff to come out. It’s a really bad idea to put on a gate before it goes on the page. Put it on the page and then follow your intuition about where the dramatic moment is and where it’s enjoyable and where it becomes boring or where you can hear the writer too much.

Write a lot and then look for the clues in what you wrote that will lead you to the thing.

Go away with it for a week somewhere with a hard deadline where you’re going to hand it in to someone. Get to the end, even if you feel it’s not the right end. Because you’ll get there sooner than leaving something unfinished and going I don’t know what happened next.

How important is dialogue?

For me it’s absolutely about the story, and the moment. But that doesn’t mean dialogue isn’t important because sometimes dialogue is what is carrying the moment. It’s all about the dramatic moment but dialogue isn’t the exclusive carrier of the dramatic moment, it can be other things. It is important but it’s not everything, what’s underneath is the story, that’s the most important. Dialogue is just one thing on top of it, conveying.

Should you write what inspires you or have an eye on its commercial potential?

I don’t think you have to choose, I think that what interests you and inspires you probably does so because you’re not as unique as you think. A lot of other people will probably like it if you find a way to communicate it and then it probably will be commercial.

I’m allergic to that [‘urgent’ writing]. But I’m not that kind of playwright and there are people who are brilliant at that kind of thing. There are some playwrights that are journalist-y but I’m not very much like that.

The only way you’re going to write a good play is to pursue something that’s grabbed you, what’s actually grabbed you?

For me, you’ve got to say something that hasn’t already been said. This is the thing that’s difficult about plays that are a bit journalistic, a lot of them are already an article whereas a play is not like that. A play has got a thesis and an antithesis, a play is undecided, a play is posing a question, a play is provocative, it’s not doctrinaire. There should be something unresolved in a play. It’s not just a writer’s opinion about something. If a writer’s got an opinion about something they should write an article about it. That’s not really what a play is. A play starts feeling quite fake to me when you start to feel it’s a writer trying to persuade you of something.

Is it important to get an agent?

Concentrate on writing lots of really good things and try not to get too distracted by that kind of thing. I think that’s a bit of a mind-game when really, if you concentrate on writing, get better as a writer, it’s a better use of your time to be writing than thinking about how I get an agent because there are TV companies who will read your scripts and theatres that will read your plays. I don’t think you need an agent to start being in dialogue, to start being in play as a writer.

Michael Gould in Robin French’s award-winning Crocodile

Can you recommend some writing exercises?

Always have a notebook. Always write down ideas. I write them on emails to myself. Most of them you’re like ‘no, never going to do that’. But it’s important to have your net, your ideas-net, and catch them as they come and put them in your book because it shows willing and you’ll be ready when the right idea comes.

I’m also a big fan of write 1,000 words in 2 hours. Not a dialogue but if you have an idea and growing it and things could happen. Don’t make any decisions. Get stuff from in here [your head] onto a page, it really progresses things in your mind.

Also, change the view [seeing it at 125% or 150% size for example] in Final Draft or Word or whatever program, at different stages of your writing. It’s quite hard once you’ve been reading a script to see it again because you’ve been looking at it for ages. By changing the View – right before I’m going to hand it in I’ll have it the biggest it’ll go because at that stage you’re going through it trying to take out words. Put it on a trim right at the end. It’s almost certain you’ve got otiose words that are slowing down the thing. Leanness is an excellent quality in dramatic writing and a good way is looking for snips of word and interrogating whether a word is doing something, is it necessary? Get rid of the fat and it’ll just become better writing.

The point of view you have on humans and life, that’s in there like a fingerprint in the thing if you’re writing really well. You don’t have to worry about cutting words and losing your voice. Your voice is your good writing. Your best writing will reveal your voice most. And good writing is lean.

How can you ensure longevity and survival as a writer?

You cannot. I haven’t. I love writing, I’m obsessed with writing, with music in an equal way, but I go and write some stuff every day and I’m still alive and still going.

You get to a bit where certain people are asking you to do things. I always have quite a lot of projects on the go. A real danger when you’re starting out is you have one thing and you’re completely obsessed by that one thing and all of your chips are on one thing. Being a writer is writing lots of things.

You’re more than the thing you’re writing right now; that’s just one of your brood… and you’ll have many.

Getting playful with David Keating


‘We should all be more playful. I think writers and actors should live together in a big, happy house and invite directors around for lunch. And sometimes directors and actors should live together and invite writers round for lunch. We don’t know enough about what we all do. I’m all in favour of being serious but we should all be more playful.’

Feature film director and writer DAVID KEATING is in a ball-pit being photographed for Writerly. Before arriving for our chat, he was laundering blindfolds for people coming to his screenwriting workshop.

I didn’t probe.

Keating was born in Dublin, Ireland, and is known for directing the award-winning Wake Wood (2009) starring Aidan Gillen and Timothy Spall, The Last of the High Kings (1996) (also called Summer Fling) featuring Jared Leto, Christina Ricci and Emily Mortimer, and was a writer for Into the West (1992) which starred Brendan Gleeson and Gabriel Byrne.

His most recent feature film was horror Cherry Tree (2015) featuring Hellboy’s Anna Walton. He has also written and directed TV drama, documentaries and commercials.

David, I first met you at a BAFTA Screenwriting Festival where you were doing speed-dating-style pitch practice sessions. So what makes a killer pitch both in the writing and presenting of it? And as a pitch-ee, what are you listening for?

I think the most important element in a film pitch is the person who’s pitching.

I believe people who listen to pitches are moved ofcourse by ideas, themes, characters, the commercial potential of a project but the excitement and magic somebody generates when they love a piece is what’s infectious.

So I find it very difficult to listen to pitches when people sound like they’re not that interested in them themselves. I suspect [what happens] is our mouths are moving and our voices are making sounds but our heads are going what’s the next really smart, important, intelligent thing to say and so it just comes out rather dry.

I love to hear writers talk about theme, subtext and characters because from those 3 properties I think we can triangulate pretty much all the other tangents and lines and bits of information we might be asking.

If you know what the theme is and you know what the characters are, you’ve got a good idea of who your audience is. If you’ve got the subtext then you know what the intention of the work is. These are ideas that are very familiar in theatre and drama, not so much in film.

My friend [director] David Pope says the trouble with pitching is it sounds like you’re throwing things at people and I think film pitching works better when it’s a conversation.

Very often when I say to a friend or a student so what’s your project about I’m very likely to find myself listening to, ‘well, open on…and then this happens and then that happens and then you didn’t see that coming ..’ and I feel pinned-up against the wall by this stream of events and detail and there’s part of me that just wants to quietly say, I asked you what it was about because I think it’s really useful if we talk about what the work is about as opposed to what it is shot by shot, beat by beat, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, act by act.

For me [theme, subtext, character] is the foundation of film storytelling.

You may only have 5 minutes or 45 minutes or 45 seconds in the classic elevator pitch. But the problem with an elevator pitch is you don’t know which floor they’re getting off so you really don’t know whether you’ve got 45 seconds or 4.5 seconds.

So with that in mind what should we aim to do in a pitch?

I think the most practical thing for us to want when we pitch a project in a meeting, is another meeting. If it goes brilliantly, what we’re gonna get is another meeting. You don’t tend to get a bag of cash. I have on a couple of occasions been given a hug and a kiss.

And I don’t think it matters if you’re meeting the boss of a studio or the intern. If the pitch goes well, what’s really going to happen is there’s going to be another meeting. What we often don’t realise is when they jump up and down and say ‘That’s amazing, thank you, would you please come back and talk to the team’, we don’t realise there’s another meeting that happens before ours when our project is discussed, except we’re not there.

This is important because what we have to do when we pitch our project is we have to use ideas, and language and persuasion which is immediately transferable so we have to deputise to the person we’re pitching to so they can pitch on our behalf – because that’s what’s really going to happen.

You ever do one of those pitches in Cannes or Venice, where you go into the booth? The next morning they say, ‘Ok guys what we got, anybody got anything?’ Somebody goes, ‘Yeah I had this great meeting, I think we should get Sarah in’. And they go, ‘What is it?’ And the next thing they say has to be convincing because we’re not there for that.

What makes you want to make a particular film?

A connection with the material. A starting point, some way to find your way in, an excitement. I’m not genre-driven. Basically I make love stories.

So the first film I made, Last of the High Kings, was about the idea it doesn’t matter how dysfunctional family is as long as there is enough love to go around. And Wake Wood is about how much we love our kids. Cherry Tree was about what a teenage girl would do to save her dad’s life.

So I’m much more theme- and character-driven. As long as there’s blood being splashed around I don’t really care.

Timothy Spall, Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen in Wake Wood

What makes a good script?

I tend not to read supporting material, you know, CV, character breakdown, review coverage. I want to read it like I don’t know anything about it. What happens when I start to read it? I want to care about the characters.

I can get about a third of the way through and I can go, I don’t really give a shit about these people. Very often scripts rely on tension, on conflict and jeopardy and all those good things but very often I don’t feel a lot of tension or jeopardy if I don’t care about the characters. There’s some films I watch where you know there’s going to be a bloodbath and you’re going, well, the sooner the better really, these people deserve it.

I don’t have to like the characters, I can hate them but I have to feel something for them. I think it typically does [come from good character work from the writer].

Somebody else might say something dramatic’s got to happen in the first 5 pages. That wouldn’t occur to me to say but they might.

I just don’t want to be bored. I don’t need character arc. And story arc? Sometimes character is story. I heard Mike Figgis talk about that, about the notion we divide out character and story analytically is questionable.

And one of the reasons I say I don’t need character to arc is because as long as my perception of them arcs, then I’m engaged but I’m quite happy if the person is the same person on the last page as they are at the beginning. But if my perception of them has evolved then I’ve learnt something, I’ve followed something, I’m interested.

They can be exactly the same person at the end as they were at beginning but the journey that we’re on is finding out who they are. They were that person at the beginning but we just didn’t know it. We didn’t know it when the lights went down, the story hadn’t started. And with really good writing we don’t even know it at the end of the film. Our relationship with those characters are evolving a day later. We’re still going ‘Ohhh! I get it’, we’re still thinking about it afterwards. We’ve developed a relationship with these characters and that relationship doesn’t necessarily end with the credits. Then we talk about it with other people and they go, did you notice this and you go, no I didn’t. And that changes our perception of them and that perception continues to evolve. It’s pretty cool.

The film I really enjoyed was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I’m interested in the relationship between the two men. What is it that makes Sundance so taciturn? Is he really a Native American in white man’s clothing? Is Redford really playing a kind of Native American?
There’s a moment in the beginning, there’s a card game and somebody says something like ‘how come you’re so lucky?’ and he says ‘prayer’. He’s so monosyllabic he’s like the Indian in a Western. The writer Robert Pirsig wrote about this in [his book] Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. (Pirsig also wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

How important is dialogue?

I think if characters are going to talk then what they say better be interesting. I was looking at a clip from Double Indemnity and there’s a scene where a guy is trying to sell insurance and he’s basically coming on shamelessly to the wife and the subtext is all about his interest in her and how she’s reacting to it and it’s incredibly elegantly written. So subtext is really important.

[You can watch the clip here]

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

If screenwriters want to get their films made and let’s say the project happens to be the kind of film that might need some money or even some resources, one of the traditional but also relatively reliable ways of getting films made is to have actors with profile in them. But put that to the side for a second. One of the ways of making films that are fabulous to watch, irrespective if made on a budget of x or 20p is to have fabulous actors whether they have profile or not.

So how do you get fabulous actors? I think one of the most reliable ways is to write characters that when the actors read them they go ‘wow I want to be that person, I want to explore that character, I want to say those lines’.

This is not to think about actors as wild animals but sometimes writers, directors, producers talk about certain kind of writing as ‘actor-bait’ because it’s the kind of stuff where you read it and [Keating bangs the table].

[Legendary actor] Richard Harris calling me up [to talk about a script], he was calling me up because he wanted to play that part. I didn’t plan it that way but it did make me think.

There’s a story about Mulholland Drive’s David Lynch making Blue Velvet and he sent the script to Dennis Hopper. There was a character called Frank Booth in it. Frank’s a really fucking scary character and apparently Hopper calls up David Lynch and goes ‘don’t worry about Frank, I’m Frank, I know that guy!’.

… And if you’re not David Lynch?

David Lynch wasn’t always David Lynch. I mean.. he was, arguably, but when he was making Eraserhead he convinced Jack Nance to be in it.

David Lynch had this roof rack on top of his Volkswagen and the actor admired it and David Lynch said if you do the film I’ll give you the rig.

The thing that people who aren’t David Lynch need to remember is that actors love working. They love making good work. It could be the opposite of something violent, it could be incredibly quiet. You could offer it to some wonderful actor who might not be famous but they might be discerning, they might be choosy.

Then what are the elements of a really well-written character that actors want to play?

The sort of psychology that drives characters is useful to understand.

A friend of mine was making a film where she was interviewing screenwriters and directors and I was her cameraman. We went off to Mexico City to shoot with [writer] Guillermo Arriaga who made 21 Grams, Amores Perros and stuff like that, great writing, amazing. I had the privilege of spending a day shooting with [the late] Frank Pierson, a real hero of screenwriting. He wrote Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke. When we were with him he was working on [HBO series] Mad Men.

Frank was a very generous writer and was involved in the early days of Sundance. But he talked about the things he encouraged screenwriters to do which was take your character and put them in a situation that isn’t even in your film. It can be any old situation.

For example, Ann goes to work on Friday morning only to discover she’s been fired. What does she do, how does she react, what happens next? Write that scene. Write the scene that she’s fired and the next scene. You’re going, hey that doesn’t happen in the film, I’m not planning to tell that story. But find out about this character. The guy that goes home to find his big brother in bed with another man. How do they react, what happens as a result?

And Frank said you will be so free because this doesn’t have to go in to your script, you’re under no pressure to make it a perfect scene but you will learn so much about your character. You will wind up using that, you’ll end up asking I don’t have that event in the story but this scene is so damn good maybe we should, because you’ll really explore the psychology and I think that’s a tremendous tip.

My favourite snack while writing is…
I like to write early in the day and I like to try not to eat early in the day so I don’t really associate writing with eating.
And while directing… I love dinner. I’m a huge dinner fan. I quite often don’t eat until dinner. I know that sounds mad. It gets harder towards the end of a shoot because you’re just tired and you think the food is going to give you energy but it’s the opposite. I eat fruit. Apples and mangoes. I do all the peeling but then I lie down and they feed me.
My favourite drink… I make quite good coffee with an AeroPress. I can only drink one or two.
I wish I wrote… The Third Man.
I wish I directed… The Third Man. Fallen Idol. Apocalypse Now.
Do you have a special place to write? No. Just as early in the day as possible. Although, I wrote two scenes last night, late.

What is your advice on redrafting? How do you approach it?

I go back to a beat sheet between every draft ‘cause when suddenly you’ve got 100-plus pages it’s really easy to swim around and get drowned and say all I need to do is a nip and tuck here and all I have to do is shove this other scene here.

So typically I take the script, break it down onto a wall onto cards and I look at it because then you can see the shape, deal with the flow and I think it’s great to think musically. Where do you want it to be loud, soft, and then the texture of it as well. And then you do that as many times as… Robert McKee [screenwriting guru] jokes about the 11th commandment: thou shalt rewrite.

I absolutely love directing but the tyranny of the page.. I would be totally fine with writing if I really liked my writing but I don’t really like my writing much.

I’m always a big believer in always working with people that are smarter and more talented than you are so I like working with writers who are better than I am.

Should a film always pose a question or dilemma to an audience? 

No. It can do or it can be a series of questions. It can be, I wonder how she’s gonna get out of this one, I wonder how this is going to end? She will obviously get her man but how’s she going to manage to do that?

I think you don’t have to have the audience ask a central question. Some films work on spectacles. Films can be more like a circus than theatre and maybe it’s not surprising films sort of came from a carnival, circus world.

Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in The Third Man – a film Keating wishes he wrote and directed 

Should you write what inspires you or always have one eye on its commercial potential?

It’s very difficult to know what’s viable and what isn’t, but more than a sense of viability, a sense of one’s own intersection of it is really valuable.

If you wake up thinking about it, if you fall asleep thinking about it, if you dream about it, or if you suddenly find yourself with a fork-full of food in mid-air and you’re not quite sure how long it’s been there – these are signs!

I once directed a play where these actors asked me to direct them. I read it and I was in two minds because I really admired these guys so I said I’ll direct as long as you’re okay with me telling you right now, I don’t really get it but it’s possible that I will but I don’t right now. And they said okay. So we went into rehearsal and we played a lot of games and we had a lot of fun and I found out what it was that interested me about it and that’s what we did.

So I think I remember that clearly because maybe a year or two before that I would have gone, I don’t get it, there’s no point working with me. I don’t think I would have been the kind of person who would have said I like you guys, I like the process, the material is the material, we’ll find something in this. I don’t think I would have been that person if I had not started directing theatre.

I think I’m much better at what I do as a filmmaker because I started to direct theatre, much more confident.

It explained things to me I didn’t really understand. I had been encouraged and mentored by John Boorman, who I heard say he had to make a film before he really fully understood what it was about. I didn’t really understand that because Boorman is nothing if not meticulously prepared but in a way that’s one of the tricks that we do.

Do we really sit down with people and go this is what it’s going to be like, you’re going to feel blah.. and you tell them what the finished product’s going to be like before you’ve even started? What a big, fat, fucking lie. And if they’re any good they understand this is a sort of convention because what we’re not talking about is the process, which in a way seems mad.

It would be much more truthful to go, here’s what I’m interested in, here’s what the ideas are, here’s how I’m going to go about it, I think there’s going to be something really cool at the other end. That would be a more truthful thing to say but that would be a conversation about the process than the output.

And… I’m just about to disappear up my own bum, but this could be a conversation about the difference between art and art-work because I’m not sure film is art anymore, I think it might be artwork. The art might be the process.

What is the best way into the filmmaking industry for new screenwriters? 

I don’t think this changes, I think this applies to people starting out and people mid-career. I think we have to get stuff out there and get noticed and collaborate and make mistakes and fall on our faces and pick ourselves up and learn – not try to make the perfect film or write the perfect script.

Think about the process, what we’re learning, what we’re enjoying, people we like being with. I think films get made by teams so, I’ve heard people say, I went to film school, it was a complete waste of time and they’re making a film and you say who are you working with and they tell you who and you ask, how did you meet them and they say I met them at film school. So if you come out of school with a close ally or good friend that’s got to be worth it hasn’t it?

Any writing exercises or tips to keep you generating good stuff?

I think writers and actors should live together in a big happy house and invite directors around for lunch. And sometimes directors and actors should live together and invite writers round for lunch. We don’t know enough about what we all do and I think directors should act and write and writers should act and direct and actors should do everything else they can.

For writers, write stuff, get actors to read your material out loud to you, play with it, we should all be more playful. Is it any coincidence we use the same word: we play, we’re playing, they’re players, all the world’s a stage blah blah. We’re supposed to be playful. I’m in favour of being serious but we need to get our work out there and we need to listen to it and we need for actors to muck around.

Apparently there’s that quote that Harrison Ford said to George Lucas: ‘Just because you write it George doesn’t mean anybody can fucking say it’.

How do we find this out without actually working with them? I’ve been in workshop situations with writers where we stage a scene for the writer. They’ll watch it once and go ohhh, I have to rewrite that immediately because I can cut the middle out of it, it’s perfect, the end’s great.

Somehow we think screenwriters go off in a factory and write five pages a day. Like the example earlier with the actors, it took 10 days of clowning around first.

Jared Leto and Gabriel Byrne in Last of the High Kings

Can you give us writers a reality check on pressures on directors?

We don’t work enough. Directors who go from job to job are blessed because you get to practice. The reasons why I will always teach an acting class or lead a workshop with actors is because it’s like going to the gym.

Feature-length film versus short film. Do the same rules apply?

I would be super-careful about any notion which leads us down the road that we have to do anything. I believe it was Kubrick that said you can do anything you like but you can’t be boring.

I’ve heard Lorenza Semple Jr who wrote some amazing stuff [Papillon (1973), Flash Gordon (1980), Never Say Never Again (1983)] say.. we were on those seminar things, we were holed up for a week in Vienna. One of the students said to Lorenzo, so what’s your theory of screenwriting and he said I just try and make sure that in every scene something interesting happens. Not bad advice!

If you look at a lot of short films you’re like, this is a short film, why does it feel like it’s so long? And the answer often is because the set-up takes so long. There’s that beauuuutiful opening shot you all got up at 3am to get, it’s amaaaazing, and then you blew all your money on getting the crane in and we become attached to these things so because we spent all that money we have to use that shot. Or maybe we spilt blood getting it, we were all so freezing cold we poured our hearts into getting that shot but it’s actually not serving the film.

There was an old Hollywood adage that I think goes back to the silent era. You ask the question, do you want to make your film better? We say yes. The answer is, throw away the first reel.

So it’s not always true but that tip of try to come into the story – and the scene – as late as possible and try to get out as early as possible. It’s worth considering. How late can I come into this story? Short films tend to come in maybe a little soon.

Is it important to get an agent?


How can you ensure survival and longevity in the industry?

You can’t. None of us know anything. There’s no job security. You can keep on making things. Shoot something every week on your phone. Collaborate.

 How stubborn should you be as a writer?

Incredibly. And flexible. Strong and bendy. ‘Cause you have to be strong but if you’re stiff you’ll break. You have to be both. It might be worth thinking about that whole process and outcome – we have to be attached to an outcome but perhaps not a specific outcome. It gets exciting when you give someone a few pages and they go, ‘cool, when can I read some more, can I be part of this?’.

Any final tips for screenwriting?

Finish the draft! Get to the end. At least if you’ve got a draft then you can get drunk, put your feet up for a week, and read it, and go, what do I think? Until you do it’s hard.

To get a bit hippy about it for a moment – films have a life, even before they’re shot. Projects have a life and sometimes if we listen really, really carefully they will tell us what they want to be. Don’t think for a moment you are in control of this.

With this, Keating exits with a maniacal laugh.

Bananas, bombs and Barney Norris


The drama begins as soon as I meet playwright, author and thoroughly nice bloke BARNEY NORRIS (above) as we tussle to be the one to pay for the coffees. Both of us are too polite. The café lady is terrified. Norris wins. 

The Guardian newspaper called him “a decent human being” so I should have known.

I’m at Keble College, Oxford – where Norris read English and is resident playwright – to probe the 29-year-old on all things dramaturgical. If you’ve never met the lad, he’s like an ebullient Border terrier (I mean just look at his hair) but a Border terrier who’s a bit good at writing stuff.

His first full-length play, Visitors, won him the Critics’ Circle and Off West End awards for most promising playwright. He is also known for plays Missing and Eventide and recently published his first novel, Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain – currently Waterstones Book of the Month.

He is an artistic associate at Oxford Playhouse, the Martin Esslin Playwright in Residence at Keble College, was named by the Evening Standard as one of the 1,000 Most Influential Londoners in 2015 and was shortlisted for the recent South Bank Sky Arts Times Breakthrough Award. He is also co-director of theatre company Up In Arms.

And most recently, his play The Rest of Your Life was featured in the Bush Theatre’s series ‘This Place We Know’, with work from a range of playwrights staged in various locations around Uxbridge Road, West London.

Welcome Barney. Can you start by telling us a bit about The Rest of Your Life. Where the idea came from, was it hard to write and did you enjoy the experience?

The idea was to tell a story about the way our pasts form us and the way that people carry secrets through their lives. It was incredibly hard to write!

Because normally I work through a well-established routine going with my regular collaborators to a particular part of the country, usually the Hampshire/Wiltshire border, having a wander round, having a chat, getting some tales and then telling them. This was the Bush approaching me, that it would be a one- or two-hander, last 45 minutes to an hour and going to be in a kind of ‘found’ space. We saw options but when the plays were being written we didn’t know which [location] it would go in – they were assigned based on the plays. But the Bush curated it so different venues did ‘speak’ to the different plays.
[Barney’s was staged in Bar FM, a basement karaoke bar]

I had nothing, I had some poems. We got in an actor, Franc Ashman, part of the Bush’s family, who I consider to be a very great genius, a wonderful person, someone to read these poems and think about what they had in them. I don’t even know if we read the poems because once we got in the room we started talking about Oxford and Franc had worked in music as well as theatre and had done a lot of gigs on Port Meadow [in Oxford] and from this synchronicity, the story came.

Rakie Ayola and Waj Ali in The Rest of Your Life

I had been saving up a lot of Hampshire/Wiltshire tales with a view to using them, for some time. I thought it was quite exciting, the idea of people living the rest of their lives in that quiescent place. I was interested in maybe doing something about those undercover police officers who infiltrated environmental movements. I had housemates who were part of that scene. They all lived in that world where when you have a meeting about environmental activism you take your battery out of your mobile. So it all coalesced.

I’ve also always wanted to do a play set in a café. In the theatre you’re always looking for scenarios where people might hang out for a long time so they have to talk to each other but other people wouldn’t come in but that’s really hard because you need a cast of 200 to look convincing or you pretend the other people are imaginary with a clinking glass soundtrack. I thought it would be exciting to try and make a play with a different feeling about it, like darkness because I hadn’t done anything like that.

I was probably quite resistant to notes because I felt vulnerable and that was probably the point, of trying to work without my team. We made a scene and a play, it was all right, and I cut a bit of the rubbish. I had a notes relationship with [then-associate dramaturg] Rob Drummer (now artistic director of Boundless Theatre), which helped see the wood for the trees. Then the director was attached, then the venue was attached and then the actors came on.

The play I think is set in a café at 6pm but above all, with such a low capacity you’re going to be playing to regular bookers. It was exciting to think we’re going to be taking those who are used to walking into that space [Bush Theatre], we’re going to take them just over the road. The triumph was the curation of the spaces and interaction with the audience.

The ambition was cool. On top of that it was done in sort of in traverse and on top of that horizontally lit.

For a couple of your previous plays, Visitors and Eventide, you’ve had personal, precious treasures included as part of the set – your Great-Grandmother’s bookshelf and Christening tankard, respectively. Why do you do this?

I was very interested in this thing [actor] Mark Rylance apparently does which is he gets everyone in his companies to put an object of value in a box and put it under the stage they perform on. Because it makes the space a numinous, charged environment in which to work where everyone has something at stake.

I think that’s profoundly brilliant and totally the energy that theatre thrives on is if every actor will kill to defend that environment and will stake their reputation on that little patch of grass. I think that’s what’s cool about plays, if you see someone burning to advocate that space they’re in and therefore everything that happens in it. So it’s a nod to that, and along the line affects my behaviour towards my plays and maybe the way I am in the rehearsal room or tech.

It’s a very emotional thing to have had that bookcase in that space, four generations back and every night we’re showing that to people, proud because where we’re from.
The most exciting thing in the world is actors believing in what they’re doing, it’s an amazing thing to see so you always want to make it not a job, you want to make it the last thing they want to do on Earth and if I’ve put on stage the only physical remnant I have of my Great-Grandmother, I mean it and I’m here to die if necessary, go up in flames if necessary.

Hopefully that makes me vulnerable and communicates that I mean it, and it’s made with that spirit.

My favourite snack while writing is
: Bananas. Two as an upper limit because of potassium overdose.
When I’m writing I like drinking: Coffee. Cafetiere, not instant. It takes trouble to make – the ritual is part of the process, it’s mind-clearing. At the moment, Kicking Horse coffee from Vancouver.
The stationery I use is: I’ve got a Parker ink pen with long cartridges. It was a present from my fiancée. It’s my second, the first I got from my uncle for my 18th but the nib broke and I didn’t have the ingenuity to fix it. But everything I have written is with those two pens. It’s like once more into the breach.
And I use a notebook and A4 paper. ‘Cause you have to think about what you’ll write so you do that in the notebook and then you got to write it out on A4 so you can put it in a funny little slot you can make stand on end so you can type it easily.
My favourite place to write is: I have got a special room but I really like going outside. I had a really great writing session on Wandsworth Common the other day.
I wish I wrote: A Whistle in the Dark by Tom Murphy. It’s ridic, Arthur Miller-level balls out writing, so emotional and brilliant. It was written by this 25-year-old boy living in the west of Ireland with no mates or theatre whatsoever and it’s amazing and cool.
I get my ideas from.. Wandering, spending time in different communities until you hear a funny joke and when you’ve got a joke you’ve got a play because people love a joke. They like a sad bit too but I can make that up but jokes are very hard. There’s one in my new play which I’ve made up that I think is so brilliant.

Let’s talk about structure. How do you plan your plays and structure them? And how do you handle structure if it’s just a One-Act form like Missing versus one with a clearer 3-Act plan?

I don’t really plan my plays, I keep writing until there’s a shape but I’ve just planned one in advance, it’ll be 4 big, long acts, I love a long scene. I really wanted to work with this particular director so I thought I would try and impress him by planning it first! It sort of works because the director I shared the outline with, the first outline was like a 10-scene outline, he suggested an act of concentration and an act of elevation in terms of the dramatic stakes which definitely is cooler and more Ibsen-ian.

Normally I write a crap play, then get the notes off the director and then the plot gets better and that’s really inefficient.

The Rest of Your Life has a 3-act structure definitely. That’s about narrative content so I like to think of plays like mathematical formulae so if a character is called A and A has the following qualities, A is a recovering alcoholic whose wife has just left him who is having to sell his pub because his wife gets half of it and A meets B who is… whatever, inevitable conversations take place so the first sequence of a scene is everything that would be said between A plus B.

A plus B equals the following dialogue, and then you get to the end of that, either the scene ends or a new character enters and then A+B+C not only brings in C’s information but makes A and B say completely different things. Or you bring in different information in a different way and in Rest of Your Life they were both lying about who they were so there was a whole new set of characters on stage after the first Act when it was revealed that there was a lie and then we get A+B is actually C+D but it’s the same people but it’s different formulae and then it’s the flowering of inevitable dialogue, because it’s inevitable you’re going to talk about that because that happened.

Is dialogue or action more important?

I’m better at the dialogue, I have to think about the action, because it’s important that people do a thing in a scene, we call it the widget.

We had a scene in Visitors where we solved this plot-less, event-free scene by making one of the characters fix a bit of farm machinery and it was great! It got huge laughs. It was made out of a bit of a car engine stuck to a bit of fridge and the actor had to pretend to screw something into this thing. So you’ve got to put a widget in a scene, they’ve got to do something with their hands.

Robin Soans and Linda Bassett in Visitors

The Rest of Your Life is only about 45 minutes’ long. How did you choose the best points to have the Act ‘breaks’.

You have a set of thoughts in your head and you let them unfurl and they should finish unfurling before you get to the next one. Unless they’re interrupted in which case the function is they’re interrupted. In that scene I thought I got as far as I could get between A and B without the reveal coming now and she was leading him to a vulnerable place. So the objectives, the goals feel realised.

I admire Jack Thorne’s stuff and apparently he is hugely structurally, technically adept and he talks about laying bombs and lighting fuses and bombs going off and so I believe, I think Simon Stephens is like this, I think there are writers who know what they’re doing but I haven’t been as clear about that.

What’s the best way to approach re-drafting?

Re-drafting for me is very much about sharing – other people’s intelligence augmenting the initial gesture. I like people who tell you it like it is.

By adding that intelligence to the work you are fundamentally changing the work so you do have to be careful who you share it with. It’s helpful if it’s someone who’s going to have a stake right throughout the process.

Is it important to get an agent?

Yes when the time is right but I don’t think it’s a valuable use of energy at the beginning. Agents shape and safeguard your contractual life. At the beginning you can’t make them any money and they can’t make you any money. Just telling someone you’re good won’t really do it.

How can you make your play the one theatres want to produce?

Ezra Pound called it ‘the slight but revolutionising change’ meaning that’s all that artists do, it’s all just nudging along what the last bloke got up to.

I think just a fresh perspective, something that no-one’s heard before. The honest truth is that it’s not going on if you haven’t built it to go on. The ‘what theatres are looking for’ is irrelevant. The truth is how are you going to get it on a stage and which theatre is going to be lucky enough to be a part of what you’re looking for… and you just have to force the bastards!

You make a load of shows and each time it’s a better venue. Just get in a room with people and make some work and yeah it can wither and die if no-one else hears it but don’t judge it too much and try and share it and then each time you make a new thing, try and take a step forward.

The other advice I like is in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter where Garry Essendine, the matinee idol tells Roland Maule, the cutting edge playwright: “…If you wish to be a playwright you just leave the theatre of tomorrow to take care of itself. Go and get yourself a job as a butler in a repertory company if they’ll have you. Learn from the ground up how plays are constructed and what is actable and what isn’t. Then sit down and write at least 20 plays one after the other, and if you can manage to get the 21st produced for a Sunday night performance you’ll be damned lucky!”

That’s the speech and it’s so inspirational because that is the game. It does happen, plays get picked up off the unsolicited submissions pile but actually what happens is relationships grow between people with like minds who have talent who are artists and bit by bit those spiders’ webs expand.

Tell us about your theatre company Up In Arms and what it has in store.

Up In Arms is the resident theatre company at Farnham Maltings. We’re triangulating away from the city! We are beginning to commission. Our role is to make plays about people and the places they’re from and articulate what we believe are unrepresented voices in the lives of these islands which we can’t claim to have scratched the surface of, but there are lots of voices, and to take them as widely as we can around the country.

We make new plays and revivals. The revivals are selected because they say something about the type of work we would love to be making. German Skerries by Robert Holman was our first venture into revival plays, a perfect expression of the type of theatre we think is cool to see on a stage – ordinary human, extraordinary experience, red in tooth and claw and given clarity by the landscape against which those lives juxtapose because it’s the juxtaposition of human life and the situation that it’s lived in that makes plays or stories exciting.

We’re trialling our first book club in November because we struggle with how to genuinely engage with our audiences, and it’ll pop up here and there, a way for people to meet. It’s testing the idea it’s possible to hang out with like-minded people and interact with people who are into what you’re doing more regularly each time you do a show. Is it fun to get together and have a reason to get together but then it can break away into infinite conversations.

We are also developing 4 pieces for production by 4 writers which is exciting because to date it’s been mainly me. We want to speak up for more communities and you do that by getting people who know about more and more stuff so we need more writers. Part of this is developing a revival project. We know we’ve wanted to make it for 4 years. They’re all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary in a particular strata of human life.

I’m telling a story about the town of Havant and the people who work for the council there. Bea Roberts, a rock star writer from the West Country, she made big hits And Then Come the Nightjars and Infinity Pool. She had an idea about a particular, extraordinary activity that happens on Dartmoor. And we have a new writer who’s probably secret but making a story about military couples which I think is very exciting.

And I’m about to announce my next play with a secret partner which we’re delighted to be working with again and it will be a touring piece next year.

You said in an interview: ‘I’m interested in a theatre which, instead of being about entertainment and escapism, is about a kind of immersive, deeper engagement with people’s lives, so that we all go to the theatre to think more deeply and more emotionally than we do at any ordinary part of the day. How do you translate that to the writing of it?

By spending as much time with people who are even going to see the work in the process of making it. I like [Robert] Frost’s dictum of don’t make anything up. Some of the words might not have been directly said but actually don’t make anything up.

Frost and [fellow poet, Edward] Thomas are a high watermark in what’s possible to make out of words and they offer a pretty cool vision of how we should go about it.

You always go into projects hoping 15-year-olds will Tweet ‘totes emosh’ at the end. That’s the dream.

And with that, our time was up. Walking part of the way together to our destinations, we were briefly intercepted by an acquaintance of Norris’s. He left us exclaiming “brilliant.. brilliant” down the road.
Nuff said.