All posts by Stephen Armstrong

Living the dream

Tony Grisoni enthuses about the merits of collaboration as he discusses career highlights including Southcliffe and Red Riding and reveals more about new projects The City & The City and Philip K Dick anthology Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

The best thing and the worst thing about being a screenwriter is that it takes a lot of people to make a film – it’s no good unless it’s actually made into something,” Tony Grisoni (pictured above), the award-winning writer of The Brothers Grimm, Red Riding and Southcliffe, explains thoughtfully. “I love that social part, that collaboration, but if you’re spending a lot of time writing and nothing’s happening, it can be tough.”

It’s fair to say that’s not a problem the 64-year-old Grisoni faces too often these days. Since his breakthrough feature Queen of Hearts back in 1989, he’s had something produced at least once every year – from 1998’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, through 2009/10’s purple patch of Red Riding and Southcliffe, to his collaboration with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope.

And yet one crucial part of his overall writing process effectively depends on dry spells – his unpaid collaborations with conceptual artists like sculptor Brian Catling. “There’s no money involved – it’s just somewhere to play,” he says, grinning widely. “We’ll make the kind of films no one would commission. But the important thing is that it stirs the cauldron. There are lots of ideas that begin there – in Southcliffe there’s an old lady with Alzheimer’s who had her beginnings in a piece I did with an artist Oona Grimes, for instance. It keeps you alive and it keeps you inventing.”

Grisoni collaborated with writer-director Paolo Sorrentino for Sky’s The Young Pope

It’s the kind of spirit that took him from sound assistant, through production manager, to runner, then assistant director on commercials and music videos across the 1970s and 1980s. “I spent my spare time writing ideas for films, or sometimes collaging images, and I shot bits of Super 8,” he explains. “It was a way of starting the filmmaking process without the funds or army of people. Then a friend who had risen up the ranks got me a commission, but it was five years before Queen of Hearts got made.”

Queen of Hearts’ story of Italians immigrants wasn’t exactly autobiographical but it was rooted in a lifetime of research growing up in London’s Italian community. Since then, deep research has been the core of half of Grisoni’s work. In 2001, he made the trek along the people-smuggling route from the Pakistan/Afghan border, through Iran and Turkey, to Europe with director Michael Winterbottom.

“When Michael said he wanted a refugee journey shot documentary-style with non-professional actors – or what we call real people – it meant I had to think carefully about the writing,” he recalls. “How are you going to write dialogue when they can’t deliver it? The starting point was to meet a lot of people who had been smuggled overland into London. Then we went out and tested the route – dangerous things happened to us and I thought that was such an exciting way to write, because instead of me making stuff, it’s about real experiences.”

The resulting film, In This World, won the 2002 Berlinale Golden Bear. Similar research infused 2008’s Kingsland, a collection of short films that Grisoni directed as well as wrote, based on a gang fight in his Hackney neighbourhood. Even the modern gothic thriller Southcliffe was based on his research into shooting sprees such as those that occurred in Hungerford (1967) and Dunblane (1996).

“I started with the idea of writing a series set in Faversham, a market town in Kent, and I wanted to explore how a community coped with a number of people dying in this small town,” Grisoni explains. “The most interesting thing was to have someone from within the community have executed these people – it makes it more complex. All credit to Channel 4, they agreed to that when I didn’t know if it was three, four or five parts. I didn’t know what happened, I knew a lot of people died and that was kind of it.”

Grisoni was one of the writers of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’s screenplay

From Southcliffe’s first draft, the writer opted to identify the killer in the first scene – “because it was about how it happened, not who did it,” he explains. “I knew that if you saw someone doing something atrocious and then you saw him repairing a radiator, you wouldn’t be able to take your eyes off him. That non-linear approach engages me as a viewer because I’ve become part of the storytelling. I’m not just being fed stuff; I’m trying to puzzle it out.”

If research is roughly half Grisoni’s writing practice, adaptations are effectively the other half. “I think it’s unlikely that a production company will come to me with an idea they’ve researched as a package and say, ‘Are you up for this?’” he explains. “I find it very difficult to get into those projects. I always feel they’ve been very thought out by someone else. But if someone brings me a book and asks if I’m interested then it could happen.”

For Grisoni’s remarkable Red Riding trilogy, that’s exactly what took place. “I knew Anne Reid and Revolution Films after In This World,” he says. “They came with this quartet of books by David Peace and asked if I was interested in adapting them. I started reading the first one. It’s difficult to describe them, they’re so angry and they’re full of literary experiment but they’re also exciting, with images that repel you but draw you in at the same time. I was scared of them, to be honest, and so I said I’d only do the first one.

“Then I kept reading and had conversations over meals and drinks and, finally, I gave in and did them all. I just waded in and started to take the books to pieces. It helps to have someone – a producer – who’s on top of the books and effectively plots which character is where for you, who you can check in with every day. That’s the main thing about adapting.”

Andrew Garfield (left) and Sean Bean in Grisoni’s Red Riding

Grisoni clearly loves working on books that would scare other writers. His version of the China Mieville novel The City & The City – which will air on the BBC as a four-part drama later in 2017 – is a case in point. “It’s a noir-ish detective story in two cities – one Eastern European and crumbling, and one all glass and steel. But they coexist in the same geographical space,” he grins. “The populations of each city know it’s a sin to see the other. Once you’ve got that wrinkle, you’ve got your detective story and it becomes very interesting and very complex. And almost impossible to adapt, by the way,” he bursts out laughing. “That’s when you need a good director to fix everything.”

If Grisoni likes working with good directors, they love working with him. He’s written for and with Monty Python member Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. “Working with Terry is like a hard play,” he nods. “For Fear & Loathing he’d seen loads of scripts – including one by Hunter S Thompson [the author of the autobiographical novel] – but he didn’t like them, so we tore the book in half. He took the front half and I took the second half and we collaged it. When we needed lines or events or anything, we took them from the book. It’s about people trusting you, people being willing to take a risk.”

Grisoni also wrote the script for Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – a movie that famously collapsed back in 2000 while a documentary crew were following the making of the film. “Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe were documenting us not making this film – there was one point where it was clearly collapsing and they said to Terry, who was mic’d up all the time, do you want us to stop filming?” Grisoni recalls. “He said, ‘No, someone has to get a film out of this.’”

The writer’s killing-spree drama Southcliffe

The resulting 2002 doc – Lost in La Mancha – appealed to Grisoni and he worked with Fulton and Pepe on Brothers of the Head, a dark tale of conjoined twins. “But Don Quixote is finally due to shoot next year – I’ve been re-writing it twice a year for the past 17 years and the script’s getting OK now,” he laughs.

If there’s one project that knits together all Grisoni’s technique and learning, it’s his contribution to Channel 4’s forthcoming Philip K Dick anthology series Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. His script is part research, part adaptation and part lived experience. And, in a way, he’s been working on it for years.

“Ages ago I came across a Philip K Dick interview about a story he hadn’t got around to writing, about a really crap film composer who’s kidnapped by aliens so fascinated by sound that they biochip one of their kind into his head and send him back out into the world where he starts to compose amazing avant garde music,” Grisoni explains enthusiastically. “I wanted to write that story and dovetail Philip K Dick’s life with it, so I went to California and met his five ex-wives and his friends, and [visited] the places where he saw God.

“It was the most intensive bit of research I’d ever done. Towards the end I was staying with ex-wife three and every time I used the bathroom there was this frog sitting watching me. On the last day, I looked at it and thought, ‘There’s something about that frog’s face that looks a bit like Phil K Dick.’ The moment I thought that, the frog just disappeared and I thought, ‘I have to go home now, this project is too much.’”

Recently, Sony and Channel 4 approached Grisoni to contribute to the anthology – “and I’ve never written anything faster,” he grins. “It’s purely because that frog story was there waiting to go into something. Very often someone gives you a book or suggests something and you pick up on it because it connects with something you were thinking earlier but just couldn’t crack,” he smiles. “That’s the other best/worst thing about being a screenwriter – everything is material.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,

Know your Enemy: Stephen Poliakoff discusses his new show

Look to the past to find a good story, says Stephen Poliakoff, as a bomb-damaged hotel in post-war London provides the stage for his latest BBC drama, Close to the Enemy.

In this burgeoning world of multinational, cross-cultural scripted drama – where Canal+ makes Versailles as an English-language show, Deutschland 83 plays on US primetime and Scandinavian writers and directors are in charge of half the UK’s output – there’s a risk that nations will forget exactly what’s unique about their home-produced drama.

In the UK, if they ever forget, they can simply watch the latest from Stephen Poliakoff: the patron saint and reigning heavyweight champion of high-quality British drama.

In a career that’s ranged from radical 1970s theatre through intense movies about incest to scathing assaults on the nation’s disregard for its own culture and history, Poliakoff’s early years were spent writing for the stage and the big screen.

Poliakoff: 'I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC'
Poliakoff: ‘I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC’

For the past 20 years, however, he has concentrated on writing and directing for television. Quirkiness and eccentricity have always been present in Poliakoff’s work – his love of elaborate montage sequences, odd juxtapositions of sound and image, and extended narratives have always seemed more comfortable on serialised television than his earlier, slightly over-complex movies.

For his latest project – Close to the Enemy, pictured top – the writer effectively mounts a dramatist’s investigation into the post-war recruiting of Nazi scientists to serve the West. It’s becoming a theme of Poliakoff’s work – revisiting the crucible of the 20th century with ambitious projects about appeasers in the British ruling elite like Glorious 39 or the overlap between the Jazz Age and fascist princes in Dancing on the Edge. Where do such ideas begin?

“I usually start with a moment in time – in this case when the victorious Allies, the Americans, the Russians and the Brits, were literally seizing scientists off the streets of Germany, bringing them over here and giving them new identities so the world didn’t discover what they’d been up to during the war,” he explains.

What follows is a period of intense research from the sweeping vista of history to the daily minutiae of life. Poliakoff worked through the history of these street snatches – the British nabbed several hundred, which was dwarfed by the industrial scale of the Americans and the Russians, who took thousands – but also realised that, despite the tradition of post-war movies showing London as grey and foggy, the reality was that the absence of so many buildings meant the light was blindingly bright, and this shapes the look of the show.

“I start with the situation but then try to develop it into a gallery of memorable characters facing complex decisions in difficult situations. At seven hours, this is the longest thing I’ve ever done so the story has to be as compulsive as you can make it. I try to work purely through character, rather than making ranty points about torture or war crimes. I mean, it is fascinating that we were torturing people after the war but it’s not the real journey of the show.”

Many of Poliakoff’s scripts, it’s interesting to note, are about the perfidy of the British establishment. It’s a problem he returns to partly because of his own curious relationship with the British elite. “A lot of people would say I was very much a member of the British establishment,” he says. “I was brought up in very English landscapes and had a classic public-school, Cambridge education.”

Dancing on the Edge
Dancing on the Edge was nominated for three Golden Globes in 2013

The son of a Russian émigré businessman and aristocratic Anglo-Jewish actor, Poliakoff was packed off to boarding school in Kent at the age of eight, where he encountered plenty of low level anti-Semitism – both putting him at the heart of the elite and giving him an outsider’s perspective.

Some argue that his education explains the leeway he has at the BBC – suggesting a sort of old boys’ favour system that allows him the scope to deliver slow-moving but compelling dramas like Shooting the Past, which flew in the face of accepted broadcasting wisdom at the time.

Although it’s true, Poliakoff concedes, that the BBC grants him an enormous amount of freedom, he insists he won this himself: “I think the BBC trusts me and I hope it has been mutually beneficial. The great thing about that freedom is that I can cast whom I like and I actually have a very good track record of discovering stars – I’m like a talent spotter for the BBC.”

Poliakoff gave early breaks to Gemma Arterton, Tom Hardy, Matthew Macfadyen, Rebecca Hall, Ruth Wilson, Clive Owen and Emily Blunt, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Gideon’s Daughter. The BBC consulted him over casting Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who’s most recent assistant, Clara, after he helped discover her in Dancing on the Edge.

In Close to the Enemy, produced by Little Island Productions and Endor Productions for BBC2, he has cast Jim Sturgess as an intelligence officer charged with recruiting August Diehl’s German scientist to help the RAF develop the jet engine. Freddie Highmore plays Sturgess’s shellshocked younger brother, Charlotte Riley plays his best friend’s fiancée and Phoebe Fox plays a tough war crimes investigator, keen to bring Diehl to justice.

“There are one or two people in the show I have worked with before – Lindsay Duncan and Alfie Allen, for instance – but I’m new to Highmore, Sturgess and Riley and I think I’m giving them breakthrough roles,” Poliakoff says. “They’re all strong talents but I think you’ll see them differently after this piece.”

Poliakoff has cast and directed all his own work for the past 25 years. “It’s always an interesting exercise in a project when you move from being its writer to its director, but it does mean all my work is made on a brutal schedule,” he explains. “That’s partly why I do a lot of rehearsal. Some people do a week, but I do three weeks and I do everything in my power when we hire actors to persuade them that is part of their contract,” he says with a quick grin.

The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who
The BBC consulted Poliakoff before casting Jenna Coleman (right) in Doctor Who

“I’m slightly surprised more people don’t do that. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, because the actors get rehearsal pay that isn’t reflective of their fees for the main shoot. So it’s quite a small investment but it pays off enormously. It helps to build up the actors’ confidence and it helps me to realise what I have written, too. It’s a sleight of hand really. You can achieve the quality of a feature film on the budget of a TV series.”

Another trademark Poliakoff technique is his extensive use of location – to keep costs down and to avoid overusing CGI. With Close to the Enemy, this was especially complex, as the show is set in heavily bombed post-war London.

“I was very keen to make a period show with hardly any CGI because I think CGI tends to make all period drama look a little bit the same,” he argues. “You show panoramas that are like animated paintings and viewers don’t quite believe it. A bombed London with virtually no CGI meant shooting among real destroyed buildings – and there are none in London so we shot most of it in Liverpool with other wrecks around the country. That posed a lot of problems with the schedule but it was worth it – the places really looked like they were bombed.”

Poliakoff is hands-on when it comes to location scouting – in part because a good location can influence his writing. In the case of Close to the Enemy, the team found the hotel at the centre of the story before he’d finished all of the scenes set within, and the building shaped the script to some degree.

“The danger of looking for locations before you’ve written them is that, if they fall through, you’ve already written rough sequences and you then have to adapt the whole script,” he says. “But that’s the great advantage of being a writer-director – you can swim with the tide of the production more easily.”

Despite these local details, Poliakoff is keen to stress that Close to the Enemy isn’t just a British story – he’s cast German actors in all the German parts, including Inglourious Basterds star Diehl as an ex-Nazi jet expert. The same goes for US parts, although Brit Charlotte Riley takes the prime American role.

It’s tempting to think it’s this global element that persuaded US broadcaster Starz to coproduce with the BBC. In fact, Poliakoff has already done surprisingly good business for the Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons network, with Dancing on the Edge picking up three Golden Globe nominations back in 2013. Is this Anglophilia pure and simple? Poliakoff doesn’t think so.

“If you tell good stories about the past, they resonate with people today,” he insists. “If you look at the events in Close to the Enemy and compare them to the situation in the Middle East now, you can see that the sense of your enemy becoming your immediately useful friend as soon as circumstances change never leaves us and is as perilous to the world now as it ever was.”

The key thing for any creative in this time of opportunity, Poliakoff argues, is to stick with your tried and tested ways – without trying desperately hard to please the entire world, tempting though such success may seem. “Everyone wanted a sequel to Dancing on the Edge,” he points out. “The BBC in particular was keen on another chapter, as it did quite well for it. But I don’t like sequels – I like to keep moving, to visit new stories and characters. As long as they are colourful and compelling, people want to watch.”

tagged in: , , , , ,