One-To-One: UK Star Of Tomorrow writer Virginia Gilbert talks to writer Simon Beaufoy, whose work includes The Full Monty, The Darkest Light and Yasmin.
Virginia Gilbert: How did you get into the business'
Simon Beaufoy: I went to Bournemouth College of Art and Design and trained as a documentary director. I was trying to make a film about the Glencoe mountain rescue team and we ended up spending quite a lot of the BBC's money and not shooting a frame.
They said it wasn't my fault but it was the end of my documentary career. Then I started writing drama.
Gilbert: You started with some shorts. Was there an encouraging climate for short film-makers then'
Beaufoy: The British Film Institute (BFI) short film scheme was a fantastic operation and I and Bille Eltringham who I was at Bournemouth with made the short Yellow. It was lovely working through the BFI because they really understood short films and that they're not Jeffrey Archer stories in miniature but that they have their own poetry.
We made two or three shorts which were exhausting - we realised they took about as much energy and time as a feature film. The producer Uberto Pasolini approached me with this film about some guys in a gym which had a line about male stripping. I'd written a film about electricity pylon painters and both films were about working class men at a very low point in their lives.
At first I said no because the Chippendales [a troupe of male strippers] had been around a while and I felt it was a very tired idea. But Uberto gave me free rein to do what I wanted and we all agreed that we wanted to do a film about what was going on for men in society at the time.
That was interesting to me because I'd lived in Sheffield and watched unemployed men wandering around doing nothing. So that's how The Full Monty came about.
Gilbert: The film was a massive success. I wonder how difficult it is for a new film-maker to embark on the second project when the first one has had such an enormous impact'
Beaufoy: I didn't have a blank slate before The Full Monty so I couldn't just say, what shall I do now' I did have various projects at various stages. Everyone involved on the film had a different response to its success.
But you know, even when it's going on you think, 'This isn't affecting me'. You try to be really level-headed about it because we all genuinely thought the film was all right but we knew it wasn't the best film ever. So when it was very successful we were all quite humble about it. It was made in a very untypical way and we were happy that that had come across - it was very humane and sensitive.
Then I decided to make The Darkest Light, a film about children dying of cancer and foot and mouth disease. As one of the children we auditioned said, 'Ooh, that's a bit too much miserable stuff all in one film'. That turned out to be quite a good critique.
Gilbert: It seems as though you very deliberately set out to do something grim and gloomy. Was that your response to the success of the film'
Beaufoy: My response was to plough the same furrow I'd always ploughed. I wasn't interested in commercial success. I carried off down the arthouse road with a vengeance in a bloody-minded way. I kept thinking that the success was having no effect on me at all but of course it gave me tunnel vision away from the commercial which is probably just as bad as going straight to Hollywood.
Gilbert: Were you well advised at that point'
Beaufoy: Not really. I wasn't advised full stop. No one I knew had ever dealt with anything like that. If I had been I'd probably ignored the advice anyway. Loads of people wanted to be my manager and my agent but I just wasn't ready for it all.
Gilbert: Did it frighten you'
Beaufoy: I think it did because we didn't know why the film was so successful and everyone was saying, 'Do another one!' And we didn't know how [itals] we'd done the first one. And I wasn't interested in the film world as a money machine.
Once a film does well in the US, you're seen as a valuable commodity; you're treated like part of the factory. I remember I went out for a run, not a very long run, and when I got home there were 26 messages on my ansaphone, all from the US. I was offered Conan The Barbarian, I can't remember which number. It was 'You've made a hit, you're hot, you can make anything a hit'.
Gilbert: How did the success impact on your directing'
Beaufoy: For a short while massive commercial success gives you a window of opportunity and we got funding for The Darkest Light which I don't think we would have got without the success of The Full Monty. I co-directed that with Bille Eltringham. After that I decided I wouldn't direct again. It ran counter to the whole way I work as a writer.
Gilbert: In what sense' Didn't you find the editing like a continuation of the writing process'
Beaufoy: Yes. The editing process is fascinating and I do a lot in the cutting room with the director. It's like writing - it's thoughtful, it's considered, it's structured.
Gilbert: It's like redrafting the script.
Beaufoy: Yes. But directing is not considered any of those things. As a director I couldn't bring more to it than I had in my head and in my head it was perfect. I have tremendous respect for directors because a writer sits in a room and creates a perfect imaginary world whereas the director has to go out and create that. I write in quite a multi-layered way - there are often three or four things going on in one scene - and that can create nightmares for directors.
Gilbert; And working with actors'
Beaufoy: I'm not very good at that. But I love working with actors on workshops on ideas. I do that a lot. I'm working now on a very difficult book called The Raw Shark Texts [for Blueprint Pictures and FilmFour] which is about conceptual sharks that eat your memory.
I agreed to do it as part a drunken joke after a discussion about what was the most difficult book to adapt and the next morning I was awoken by a courier with a copy! I work with the same group of actors in these workshops. It's very useful to pull something apart with them and then put it back together. They really come up with great suggestions about character.
Gilbert: What is your advice to get through the active development process' What are your strategies for dealing with the 'active' development process with producers, financiers or broadcasters'
Beaufoy: On the whole I've been very lucky in that most of the development processes I've been through have had a lot of momentum behind them. A continually rolling momentum is the most important thing. And a small number of voices.
If you have too many people in on it and you have long gaps - often no one's to blame for that, by the way - you hit problems. Not because anyone is stupid; most people who deal with scripts are bright but different voices means different perspectives and that becomes totally unhelpful.
Gilbert: Do you ask your producer to protect you from financiers' The reason I ask is that the emphasis seems to be on creative producing these days.
Beaufoy: Everyone has an opinion and they're not stupid. It would be very easy if you could dismiss people but you have bright people making suggestions.
Gilbert: How do you know if a story is worth pursuing if it gets to a vulnerable stage'
Beaufoy: I never start writing until I know it's worth pursuing. It hangs around my head for a long time. Some ideas that seem fabulous go away or sit there and don't do anything. Other ideas keep coming back. Often when I'm working on something I'm at my most productive on other ideas because I'm so annoyed with what I'm working on.
I suppose if an idea refuses to go away, it's worth listening to. I run it past a few people in a deliberately low-key way.
I'm very loath to pitch in a professional way because I'm never entirely sure what it is I'm embarking on. I really like protecting that lack of certainty and I'm lucky that I can.
I can tell people that I won't do a treatment which is a very privileged position to be in. It's because I don't want to know what happens exactly. I know sort of what happens, sort of what tone, sort of what the characters are, but I can't go through the scene by scene process - this happens and then this happens - because your brain is immediately shutting down possibilities.
Gilbert: But isn't that scene by scene process a part of the business, to do with trying to over control very early, certainly from the financial side of things. And that's the difficulty in development.
Beaufoy: Yes, absolutely. It's a great mistake but a completely understandable one. But maybe there are writers who like working like that. I found it hard to even start a script when that's happened - once you've done a scene by scene breakdown, you've basically done it. You have to manage expectations. If someone's going to pay you money to write something, they've got to sort of what characters and what tone, because they're already thinking about casting, and that's their job. They've got as difficult a job as the writer. I never see a producer as an enemy; that's really counter-productive.
Gilbert: I suppose you have to give them enough that they want to support it but not too much that they want to control it.
Beaufoy: All these relationships are very delicate and the good producers are aware of that. They read between the lines. It's good working with people who you've worked with before because they know what you're like. The people I work with will start saying, Oh no, you're going dark on me. It's going to be another of your suicide films!
Gilbert: I've found I have quite a lot of freedom at the moment because I'm just starting out. The expectations are a bit lower and the pressure is less intense compared to what an established writer experiences and that's a great luxury. The pressure is more in my own head because I feel I've got so much to prove. I haven't really been faced with having to compromise. Should I expect it to get worse'
Beaufoy: It's funny because I compromise more than I used to. I used to be really dogmatic because I was slightly scared that if I compromised with the script then I'd ruin it. But over the years I've learned enough of the craft to know how to satisfy any demands from producers and keep the script on course.
I suppose I have more tools in my bag to be able to see another point of view and how to bring it in without losing my original vision. I used to think scripts could break very easily; I know now that they're actually very malleable.
Gilbert: How is writing for film different to writing for TV'
Beaufoy: I've just finished my first real TV project [the two-part climate change thriller] Burn Up [for Kudos Film and Television and the BBC]. In TV it seems that there are a lot more people between you and shooting. There are more people trying to make sure that what you're doing is what the people above them want.
There are a lot of them and you have to negotiate your way through that. It's a bit of a minefield. But really very few were obstructive, most were putting intelligent comments across, but it was just that there were a lot of them.
Doing a political film with the BBC is difficult; it's in a difficult place [after the fallout of the Hutton enquiry which questioned its journalistic objectivity] and it feels as though it's lost confidence and is constantly looking over its shoulder. If it's not careful, its ambition is going to be compromised because they're scared of being mauled.
But having said that they took on Burn Up, which was my idea, after Channel 4 passed on it.
Gilbert: You made Yasmin, the post-911 drama about a British Muslim woman, with Channel 4. How did that compare as an experience'
Beaufoy: Yasmin ended up on TV but was always going to be a feature film. It was backed by Channel 4's documentary department. That was a lovely development process. It was developed like a documentary.
They didn't come back saying, 'What's happening in Act 3'' Channel 4's commissioning editor Peter Dale, like every other commissioning editor at that time, wanted a film about suicide bombers. I went up to the Yorkshire and Lancashire mill towns [which have high Muslim populations] and realised that it was insulting to them to do such a piece because there was no story.
He said, 'OK that's fine'. I told him what was interesting was the women there. It was a case of 'follow the story' not 'follow the pitch' and that felt like a very adult method. I did lots of workshops with women's groups and youth clubs. It was their story and often their words structured and written by me. It was their story rather than me imposing a story on them.
Gilbert: It sounds as though you did it inside out, rather than outside in.
Beaufoy: Yes. It gave the film an authenticity. Everything was based on fact.
Gilbert: How do you chose projects' Your work seems to be very varied in subject matter.
Beaufoy: It's mostly political with a small p. To stay interested and to stay fresh I like to do something diametrically opposed to what I've just done. If I can.
Gilbert: Are you wary of staleness, of being drawn to the same sorts of themes'
Beaufoy: Always. I've been doing this for 15 years and it's very hard not to get stale. That's why I do the workshops with actors - they really challenge you and feed you ideas. It's good to be challenged head-on because as a writer you can be locked away in your own head.
Gilbert: And the more fluent one becomes, the easier it is to delude yourself a little bit.
Beaufoy: Yes. And the more you're protected by your own success, the more you can drift in your own little world.
Gilbert: You seem to be brave in taking a lot of risks with your work.
Beaufoy: Those risks are what keep me interested and keep my writing fresh. My wife keeps reminding me that we still don't have much money. My projects are just not mainstream.
Gilbert: This Is Not A Love Song was one of the first British films to be available for download at same time as theatrical release. Why did you make it like that and what did mean in terms of how you made the film'
Beaufoy: It was a rather revolutionary experiment with the UK Film Council (UKFC).
It was really thanks to Paul Trijbits [then head of the UKFC's New Cinema Fund]. I gave him a two-page outline and said that we needed hardly any money to make it but we wanted his decision very fast, two weeks to say yes or no. Then we workshopped for two weeks, wrote it in two weeks and asked Paul to make a decision within a couple of days.
Then we shot it in two weeks. It was a very deliberate attempt to shortcircuit the lumbering structure that film-making can be. We cut it also very fast and got it out really fast. I could see the writing on the wall for all those ancient distribution organisations and financing institutions where everything takes so long to make.
I thought there must be a way round all that because there's so much energy loss in film-making. It's back to that thing about momentum; the film had a tremendous momentum and that went into the film. Everyone said we'd never do it, the lawyers said it would take weeks.
But why should it' We all agreed on everything and it didn't. This is the way things are going. I tell students that their film isn't going to be in Leicester Square, one of them might, just might, get there but they probably won't even like the film they've made.
Why not get a DV camera and shoot something you really love for a few grand and show it on the net' 35mm is on the way out and a lot of me thinks that's fantastic because we can make films for much less money. Of course, a big chunk of the industry doesn't want that to happen. The film industry is going the way of the music industry - in fact, we were inspired by the music scene to make This Is Not A Love Song.
Gilbert: Is that a positive thing' Like thinking everyone has a novel in them.
Beaufoy: I've never believed everyone has a novel in them and I don't believe everyone is a director but there are a lot of talented people out there who will never make a $50m film but might make a $50,000 which is really from the gut. And it's their voice, not the voice of corporate finance.
Gilbert: Are you optimistic for the UK industry' Do you think we're trying too hard to compete with American films'
Beaufoy: I don't think we're competing with American films, I think we're making [itals] American films. It's very difficult to make a film without an American distributor's money in it so films are nearly all, especially the successful ones, are American financed. I hope there is a parallel industry that isn't trying to make Ferraris, it's trying to make Mini Coopers which are both great and exciting but very different types of cars.
Gilbert: Is that being nurtured in your opinion'
Beaufoy: People are trying but there isn't enough of it yet. Things will change with technology and downloading and how people get their entertainment - they still can't get a whole film easily and quickly on their computers and This Is Not A Love Song suffered a little from the lack of technology. But that experience taught me a lot about writing fast and when you need time to reflect.
Gilbert: What would be your advice to someone like me'
Beaufoy: Keep the momentum up. If you lose it, you can get it back but it's a real struggle. Once a project is going it can do its own thing but if it stops it's really hard work to get it going again.
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