This is the first in a new series of mini-interviews, in which I ask twenty conceived-in-haste questions of some extremely generous famous person.
Frank Cottrell Boyce is an acclaimed screenwriter and dramatist. He wrote seven of Michael Winterbottom's films, including BUTTERFLY KISS, WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, THE CLAIM, and 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE. Other screenplays include PANDAEMONIUM (directed by Julien Temple); HILARY AND JACKIE (Anand Tucker; the screenplay was nominated for a BAFTA); REVENGERS TRAGEDY (Alex Cox); and MILLIONS (Danny Boyle.)Photo: © Macmillan Children's Books
Frank was born in Liverpool, and still lives and works in Northwest England. The father of seven children, he's recently turned his hand to children's books, including Millions, which won the 2004 Carnegie Medal; Framed; and Cosmic.
Because I am a slavish fan of his work – obsessed, in particular, with 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE – and because (surprise!) one of my screenwriting classes is studying his writing this semester, I asked him for an interview. He kindly agreed to answer the following questions, via email, on March 4, 2010.
PM: Before you were writing for film, you were a television writer, writing for Coronation Street and Brookside. What did you do when you first graduated from university, and how did you get into writing? Your career in film always seems to be presented as a straight line beginning with Living Marxism, followed by radio plays.
FCB: I was writing all the time at university – putting on my own plays with a group of friends. I started selling bits and bobs to the radio and to comedians, which is how I got the soap opera gig. The stuff about Living Marxism is daft. It was just a favour and it had no career impact. They put it up on Wikipedia and I can’t be bothered working out how to take it down.
PM: I read that two films that had a big impact on you were THE GREAT ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SWINDLE and GREGORY’S GIRL What engaged/attracted you?
FCB: Well, GREGORY’S GIRL was set on a big, pleasantly dull housing estate and in a big comprehensive state school and I swear it was like looking in a mirror.
I’d never seen my life on film before. Until then I was imagining you
could only be a writer if you went to fight in the Spanish Civil War or shot
big game or something. It never occurred to me that my kind of life could be
material till then.
And THE GREAT ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SWINDLE was just this great, swaggering call to arms. I just watched it till my eyes dropped out. It didn’t make me want to make films. It made me want to rule the world.
PM: In an interview on your TV drama, GOD ON TRIAL, you said: “People
start to write because they think they can change the world for the better. In
the end, you find that it’s hard enough to make your writing better.” Why did
you start to write?
FCB: Actually because when I was eleven my teacher read a piece I wrote out to
the class and I was at the back of the class when she read it. And everyone
laughed and it was just delicious getting laughs without stepping into the
limelight. One of my favourite ever days. Thank you, Sister Mary
PM: Would you talk about the differences in writing drama for TV and film – and also about the demands of writing for shows like Coronation St, where you’re part of a large team?
part of a team when you write a movie, of course, even if you’re the only writer.
Directors, producers, even (goddamnit) actors get their say. TV
drama is very dialogue-driven, which film shouldn’t be. It’s also, in a strange
way, not plot-driven because the world of the show has to stay intact. If Homer
wins the lottery, he has to lose the money by the end of the episode.
I guess the big difference is that you have to invent the world of the film,
whereas the world already exists on TV – you can go and visit it before you
start. You don’t have that gut-chilling feeling that it’s all melting to
nothing as you work on it.
PM: Your first film was FORGET ABOUT ME
(1990) – also your first collaboration with Michael Winterbottom. You were both
working in television: what made you decide to work together on a film?
FCB: We were only working in TV because we wanted to make films. There was no
stable British film industry to employ us. Michael in particular just
talked in movies.
PM: You wrote a spec script for him: what was it about?
FCB: It was
about stealing cars to order and it was based on the story of someone I went to
school with but the true story was mixed up with ideas we nicked from that
genius movie PEPE LE MOKO (1937).
PM: I read that an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy was the first idea you ever pitched to MW – and that only later did it became a film about making a film. What attracted you to the novel in the first place? It took such a long time to get the film made – how do you sustain a project that stretches out over so many years?
FCB: My wife and I had
just had our first baby and it seemed to me that this book – which has a scary
intellectual reputation – was the most tender, moving thing, a story about a
man trying to imagine and create a perfect world for his son. It was so long
ago – home video cameras were just getting fashionable and I thought it would
be great to do is as a kind of home-birth video diary. It’s the only novel I
know that goes into so much detail about babies and labour and that was my life
at the time.
sustain the project. I just kept teasing and pleading with MW about it and
occasionally writing little bits. It was hard to write, in that the idea became
so obvious to me that I could barely write it down – it seemed so obvious.
PM: You've collaborated with Michael Winterbottom, Alex Cox, and Danny Boyle, among others. Is it important for writers to be able to adapt to different styles of working?
FCB: I know I’m versatile but I’m not sure that versatility is a great quality in a
screenwriter – it’s a bit like gymnastic ability in a waiter. It would be nice
to see it for a few minutes but basically you want him to shut up and give you
All of those people you mentioned are more or less collaborative. The most
collaborative and open by miles was Danny, which is just part of his general
courtesy and amazing good manners. These are qualities that bring out the
best in people around him. He’s one of those people you want to impress.
PM: In WELCOME TO SARAJEVO, you were
adapting a non-fiction book. Would you talk a little about the challenges of
adapting someone else’s work? What are your first steps?
FCB: I think you find that the thing in there that you identify with most
clearly and you use that like Theseus’ ball of cotton to guide you through the
PM: You’ve described the script for this film as “rough and ready” – does that mean you wrote it quickly?
not sure now. I really threw myself at it, I remember that. We were
very keen to get it made fast because the war was still happening and the
situation was far from stable. It’s strange to think now but what we
wanted was Western military intervention – something that’s been very
discredited since Iraq.
PM: The Variety review of this film said this was "clearly a movie by British filmmakers, in which much is left unsaid and unshown.” Do you think of your writing in that way – that there’s a difference in approach because you’re British? (And beyond that – because you’re a Northerner?)
guess that’s a Northern thing. I hate hearing people in films talk about their
feelings. Not least because it’s a wasted opportunity to find something
true and funny or moving. No one ever really fights about their marriage
explicitly, do they? It’s always about who puts the bins out.
PM: You’re not bound by received wisdom on how to write a screenplay – ie you’re not obsessed with strictures on the three-act structure. You played with point of view in HILARY AND JACKIE, for example, showing us events again from a different perspective; you admitted other perspectives into WELCOME TO SARAJEVO. And 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE disrupts and subverts its own narrative, with direct addresses to the audience and discussions of different versions of the story. You’re willing to explore different stories within the same film – that seems to be one of the hallmarks of your style. How do you counter the pressure to follow “rules”?
one thing is that by writing about real people and events you have a court of
appeal, don’t you. You can say, I’m afraid this lady’s life never did
have a third act.
I love playing with structures and shapes. I don’t think three acts is
the only game in town. But it is a good game and there’s nothing wrong
with the three acts. What I really hate is that idea of characters who
grow and learn and hug and whose lives all look like therapy journeys.
PM: I read this quote from you: “If you’re making a generic film, you generally know what the ending is going to be: the crime will be solved, the lovers will kiss, the sequel will be suggested. But if you’re writing away from the formula it’s a lot harder to set up the ending. If you can come up with something in the last few minutes that makes the audience see the whole film in a new light, you’re onto a winner.” Is that what you’re doing – writing “away from the formula”?
PM: Re: 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE: was your original “in” to this material the time and the place, the music, or the story of Tony Wilson?
think Michael was keen to make a film about the music and musicians. But it was
clear from the first that Tony was actually much more romantic and rebellious
than any of the musos. By and large musos have rebellious youths and then
go off and use the money to collect classic cars or something, like retired
dentists. Tony was still restless, still searching, still gloriously wrong.
PM: When you were interviewing all the people involved in the story, did your original focus drastically change? What different approaches did you try with such a sprawling story? Did you always plan to have the character of Tony Wilson address the camera directly?
from the first meeting. He just talked so much! He was unstoppable. It was part
of his generosity. I thought quite consciously – Tony is Tristram Shandy.
He’s got all these plans and opinions and they’re all wrong but he won’t stop
talking about them. Really 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE was my first shot at
adapting Tristram Shandy.
PM: You write (acclaimed) novels for children; you write for theatre and TV and radio and film. How do you balance multiple projects going at once? How does your approach to writing a screenplay differ from writing a novel?
FCB: I don’t
balance them. It’s chaotic, plate-spinning, headache-y. Novels are hard
because you’ve got to have total faith in yourself and no one is going to
reassure you till you’ve finished. You start getting feedback from your screenplay
before you start writing. With a book, you’re on your own.
PM: You move between different genres in an admirably fluent way. How have you resisted getting pigeonholed as a writer?
one ever offered me a hole to pigeon myself into.
PM: Are there screenplays – or particular writers – you really like?
really admire all the usual suspects – Pixar people, Billy Wilder,
Izzy Diamond, Ben Hecht. I think one of the best
"screenwriters" around is Paul Greengrass, though I’m not sure
what physical form the script has. Yes, tons of people. I get all fired
up about movies about once every two months.
PM: Are you especially proud or fond of one of your own screenplays?
FCB: I love 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE because it's got so much swagger. I love MILLIONS because it was such a joy working with Danny, and because he got me writing for children, which is when I finally found something I was good at. I'm also fierce proud of a TV play I did, GOD ON TRIAL. But I think MILLIONS above all, because it was like coming home.
PM: What is a typical day for FCB?
FCB: There isn’t one. Not since becoming a children’s writer. You get asked to do such mad things. I went to Bristol today to judge a rocket-launching competition. The day before I was in Walton jail doing a reading group with prisoners. I’m working on a radio documentary. It’s all too unfocussed and a big mess. Don’t do it.
Frank's produced screenplays to date are:
FORGET ABOUT ME (1990)
BUTTERFLY KISS (1995)
WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (1997)
HILARY AND JACKIE (1998)
THE CLAIM (2001)
24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002)
REVENGERS TRAGEDY (2002)
CODE 46 (2003)
A COCK AND BULL STORY (2006)
GROW YOUR OWN (2007)