Simon Beaufoy spoke, at the Darlington Arts Centre last night, as a key-note speaker at The Story Engine - the Third Northern Screenwriters' Conference. That's Hollywood to the North East of England in five days. He's a down-to-earth, Oscar-hugging, boat-dwelling, beer-swilling, gent!
His interview, by conference organiser Ian Fenton, concentrated on four films he'd written across his career, culminating with Slumdog Millionaire, launched with The Full Monty, and bridging Among Giants and This Is Not A Love Song.
After revealing that his recent Golden Globe award sits in a thousand pieces at home (though you'd have to chase him for the full story), he proceeded with a detailed strip-down of the processes which brought these movies to the screen. It was an incredibly insightful evening: good psychological nuts-and-bolts, writer's life stuff, with plenty of input from delegates.
I was at the conference to learn tricks about story-making from some of the best and most innovative story-tellers you'll find. These are some of the insights I'll take from Simon:
On adapting Slumdog: that adaption should strip a book to its soul - what is built up from then on, what is woven back onto the piece in its movie form, comes second. Simon is up-front about this when speaking to authors. He travelled to the Mumbai slums to find the soul of the book in the people he interviewed there. He used a trick from his days as a documentary film-maker: to find the heart of a place, ask its people what they would film if they held the camera. Slumdog became a movie about romance, about gangsters, about the naive and glorious generosity he found amidst the violence of Mumbai.
On place: that place is a character and films are about character. So place is considered from the word go in the development of his scripts. In Slumdog it was Mumbai; in The Full Monty it was Sheffield. The Full Monty is as much a hymn to Sheffield as a depiction of male disenfranchisement and the humour that arises from it. The movie is bleak, under all the great gags.
A great question from one of the delegates on Monty: now that we are back in a recession, does this change the way we view the film, no longer nostalgic for the characters, but empathetic? For Simon, you could tell, this question was the reward of the evening, something new for him to ponder after the event, and his answer illuminated because it was about the transparency with which he let us see his pleasure at the questioner's acute insight. You knew that the film had always been about the solidarity he felt with the men he was depicting, their resilience, their pain and fortitude. Political, he said, with a small 'p', meaning a very big 'P' indeed.
Finally, on This Is Not A Love Song, a guerilla piece of film-making that was the first to be released on the web simultaneously with its cinema showing. It lost money, which stymied the production of similar low-budget, on-line movie releases for a media generation, because it became the target of a hacker protesting the need to pay a subscription fee to view the content. It seemed, from the clip shown, to be a raw and very, very exciting piece. The crew behind the film shot, edited and released it in (do I remember?) sixteen weeks, holding down two jobs each (the writer was also the caterer), on digital cameras, and at a minimum wage.
But there was the film, and after a couple of days where the sheer exuberant potential of on-line films and an accompanying 'just do it' mentality had been showcased, here we could see someone at the top of his game, forced in 2002 to push the medium as far as he could, first to protest against the lumbering machinery that was holding his creativity in abeyance, and second, to do something new, truly democratic, hand-held, bright.
There were more insights, of course, but these I found particularly relevant, and directly applicable to my own 'just do it' vision for storymaking, real-life, real-time, without cameras or the crossing of any cultural threshhold, on the streets and in the houses of Whitley.