IFTA-winning screenwriter Malcolm Campbell - honoured at this year’s ceremony with the award for Best Film Script for ‘What Richard Did’ – spoke to IFTN this week about his successful career, past and current projects, and his advice to up-and-coming writers.
Also winner of the Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Screenplay for ‘What Richard Did’, Mr Campbell is a past BAFTA Children's Awards winner and nominee for educational series ‘L8r’ and ‘All About Me’ respectively.
Prior to gaining international recognition, he established himself as a writer on such well-loved TV programmes as ‘Byker Grove’, ‘The Bill’, ‘Skins’ and ‘Shameless’.
Mr Campbell, can you tell us a bit about the background to writing ‘What Richard Did’?
It was all about being in the right place at the time. My wife Emma was working in Development at Element Pictures and we'd just moved over from the UK. We were living in Blackrock and I was waiting for ‘Skins’ notes one day when she said why don't you check out this book, it's really interesting and set right here. So I started reading Kevin Power's Bad Day in Blackrock, barely took a breath and rang her saying 'is it optioned; is a writer attached?' I was really struck by Kevin's novel and knew how I'd adapt it, so I wrote a pitch and Ed Guiney showed that to Lenny, who'd also read the book. We met, started talking about the pivotal character in the piece and don't seem to have stopped discussing just ‘What Richard Did’.
What were some of the biggest challenges in writing the screenplay?
Initially, understanding that world and finding the voices: I'm from a mining-town in England, went to a Comprehensive and always had a deep suspicion of rugby lads, based on seeing way too many 'mickeys' flashed at the end of messy nights. I didn't know many successful kids - certainly no Richards - so I had to get over my preconceptions and stuck into that world, without seeming like 'creepy older guy'. And the more I observed these kids, which is all they were, with more confidence than any I'd hung out with, I realised there was this ordinariness to them too: it meant I could identify with them, write for them, about them. Lenny was a great help too. Having attended a South Dublin school, albeit 'one that was crap at rugby', he offered context and insight. I wrote a few good drafts, shaping Richard's emotional journey, but Lenny felt there was something missing, an air of authenticity, so he had the inspired idea of casting the 'gang' and finding the truth of teenage life through workshops. And that's when it shifted into a different gear. We found an amazing bunch of young actors and just talked, about the script, being teens today and something clicked for us. I listened, took notes, rewrote, layered-in the colour from their lives and the script started to feel honest. Which is what we were aiming for.
Did training/education play a role in your break in writing for film?
Yes and no. I studied Film at Uni, but it was mainly theory: I watched a lot of films, drew inspiration, but didn't know how to make them. I got my break, luckily, through telly, on the job. I was fortunate to work with a script editor at World Productions , who'd just made ‘This Life’, called Simon Heath, who basically taught me storytelling and screenwriting, whilst I was developing a drama for them. I'm indebted to those guys. They looked after their writers. What's more, in that first meeting I had with them, they stressed the need to research, to keep things real, so the audience doesn't feel insulted. That stayed with me.
What was your first job in the industry and how did that lead to your current position?
My first paid job was a commission to write an outline for an episode of ‘The Bill’. I got sacked after a few weeks, when they found me out. I could write decent dialogue and had plenty of ideas, but didn't know how to shape a story, write telly. It was tough - I thought I'd blown my chance - but the best thing that happened to me, 'cos I didn't want to feel so exposed again. So I listened and learned and when I got another chance to write for them, years later, I worked so hard on that first draft there was no way they were going to dump me! My work on ‘The Bill’ led to me getting regular eps on Shameless, which led to Skins, which kind of got me 'Richard'. Or at least convinced people I was down with the kids!
What do you enjoy most about being a screenwriter?
Not writing. That sounds lazy and glib, but it's not. I think too many writers do nothing but write, then don't have anything to write about - apart from themselves, babies, failed marriages. I try to have a life and dip into the real world when I'm developing stuff. Writers are in a powerful position, 'cos they regularly get to access different, sometimes off-limits worlds and people like to open up to us, they want their stories told. I was recently devising a drama with a group of ballsy teenagers on the Falls Road in Belfast and just kept thinking this is great fun, what a privilege.
Can you describe your typical working day?
I try to work Mon-Fri, 9:30-5:45, during my son's creche hours and I'm pretty strict about not writing on weekends or late into the night (when you've got a toddler, why deprive yourself of more sleep?). Depending on what I'm working on, I'll either write non-stop - if it’s deadline based - or read or go out, meet people and listen - robbing their best lines. But I'm always ready to stop. I rarely feel compelled to keep writing. That's not to say I'm not committed, I just know myself and when to call it a day. I guess it's about being disciplined, finding your rhythm and sticking to it.
What screenwriters’ work are you most influenced by?
Billy Wilder. Robert Towne. I think ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Chinatown’ are two of the best scripts ever written.
What do you think makes your work unique compared to other screenwriters?
Apart from the fact there's only me who can write what's in my head, I don't think I'm particularly unique. I know what I'm good at, try to tell things truthfully and write from the inside-out with some understanding of character. But you'd like to think everyone does that. I guess my best trait is I'm not precious. Production is a collaborative process, so there's no point getting arsey 'cos everyone's trying to make the best piece they can with what they have - though admittedly, I can influence the 'what they have' bit. You can still care and it's good to have opinions, but you've got to work with people. And continue to work after. So I give my all, choose my battles and try to remain employable.
Is there anything you can reveal about the next screenplay you’re working on?
I've just finished writing a couple of episodes of ‘The White Queen’, a big ten-part historical drama/romp for BBC1. It's on next month, I think.
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to become a screenwriter?
Learn your craft. Learn how to tell stories, specifically stories for the screen. It's a real skill. You have to be precise and concise, whilst still showing insight and flair. And you have to understand the medium. Being a good listener, having a good ear really helps, but we structure, write pictures, sequences and silences too. And that's stuff you need to master. I think it was Billy Wilder who said scriptwriting is 90% architecture, 10% texture. Then of course, you need to write, lots. But have stuff to write about too. Like I said, I'm a big believer in writers not writing. Oh, and develop a thick-skin whilst nurturing that talent, 'cos it's an unforgiving business. But it's also pretty cool too. There's nothing quite like seeing your work on the big screen.
‘What Richard Did’ screened at last month's Tribeca Film Festival in New York; won the Golden Tulip International award for Best Film at the Istanbul Film Festival; and five IFTAS this year in the categories of Best Film, Best Director, Best Film Script, Best Actor, and Best Editing in Film/Drama.