I love my job and apart from a hankering to go to space or lead Arsenal out at Wembley Stadium, I wouldn’t do anything else. But once upon a long ago, I was destined to be a screenwriter.
I had grown up on classic movie-writing greats such as Billy Wilder and William Goldman. I wanted to be just like them. Arriving at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design as a fresh-faced eighteen year-old, I was going to learn my trade and conquer Hollywood. And that’s where I met my future partner in writing crimes, Mr. Ashley Pannell.
Perhaps it was a twist of fate that two such identically-minded movie obsessives would find themselves sharing a student house in the toy-town suburb of Lower Parkstone in Poole (the most desirable location in the whole of the UK – no kidding!). Surrounded by a too-cool-for-film-school bunch whose influences didn’t go back further than Mean Streets, I was something of an outsider knowing anything about Capra, Wilder and the Marx Brothers. Ash boasted a shameless love of the works of Joel Silver and Simpson & Bruckheimer as well as Roger Moore’s James Bond. Combine this with a forensic (some would say geeky) understanding of gods of the blockbuster Messrs. Spielberg, Lucas and Zemekis – it didn’t take long for us to join forces. At that point, we were also the only students in our year who had any interest in actual writing. At risk of mixing my metaphors, the die was cast with knobs on. A writing partnership was born to rival the very best and a process was devised that stayed with us for the next fifteen years.
The two biggest influences on our screenwriting from the early days have to be William Goldman and Viki King. Goldman, the legendary scribe who gave us The Princess Bride, Marathon Man and All The President’s Men (amongst many many others, of course) wrote two indispensable books about writing: Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell. They are absolutely two books you should read before you die, even if you have no interest in writing for the screen. Superb on Hollywood and the movie business, they are highly inspirational in only the way a hard-nosed, straight-talking, Oscar-winning Tinseltown veteran can be.
Viki King’s deservedly best-selling How To Write A Movie In 21 Days is perhaps less fashionable (and beautifully cheesy – Viki calls her process The Inner Movie Method!) but was just as seminal for me in cutting through the fear. I only picked it up because Viki promised to have me completing a full length feature screenplay in three weeks – and she was right! My first ever attempt; a vigilante super hero flick called Agent Orange (which had great reviews from my brother Steve incidentally), was written with Viki King looking over my shoulder. How can you resist quotes like “write from your heart, rewrite from your head“?
The main piece of advice we learnt from these gurus was to lock ourselves away until we had finished a full 90 pages. We were all about consistency of style and, by any means, getting to [write] The End. That first time, I can remember quite vividly staying at our empty student house for the holidays, rather than going back home, and stocking up with provisions as if we were expecting a nuclear strike. We wrote solidly for an entire long weekend, fifteen hours a day, to the tunes of David Bowie, Queen, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi – with a few of Ash’s Bond and John Williams movie soundtracks when we needed some inspiration. We’d break to watch the most eighties of action movies and maybe smoked the odd cigarette.
Fueled by Mars Milk and tinned Bolognese, that first Rob & Ash motion picture extravaganza was titled Fast Aid. Here’s the logline:
In an alternative NHS-less future where health insurance companies battle each other to get rich off the sick and dying, a rogue team of fearless medics steal patients to give free treatment and start a revolution. Fast Aid is a politically-charged action comedy with high speed ambulance chases through the streets of London.
What a pitch!
And it wasn’t bad. The pro-welfare state message was a little heavy-handed for sure but it had gags, action and a few nifty plot twists. We also introduced our technique of using the names of footballers from leagues all over the world for our characters. Unfortunately, we had absolutely no idea what to do with it. Our course at BPCAD was merely a foundation, offering an introduction to audio visual production. The intention was to send us on to a further film degree after our two years was up – not to teach us how to write big budget movies and sell them into the studio system. We were as far from selling our script to Hollywood as we were from dating the girls studying fashion (we hadn’t a hope in hell!).
We did proudly send our work to one producer. He was a friend of Ash’s father, I seem to remember, and sent us a bemused letter of encouragement.
The second year of our course was spent doing the stuff one does at film school: making epic short films, devising in-jokes that would last the next twenty years and more, spouting about the works of Francis Ford Coppola and rescuing future blockbuster film directors fuelled by tequila (but that’s another story). We survived.
I passed up the opportunity to spend another four years in higher education. I figured it would be so hard to break into the movie business that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t get cracking immediately. I was back home, applying for various restaurant jobs while I knocked on the doors of disinterested producers in the threadbare excuse for a British film industry of the early nineties. Then I got a phone call from one Paul Albert.
One of life’s true menschen (look that one up in your Dictionary of Yiddish), Paul was an old friend from Bar Mitzvah class at Hendon Reform Synagogue. I hadn’t seen him for a few years. He had a proposition. He wanted to make a movie. And he wanted us to write it.
The adventure of the next two years is certainly a tale to be told in a future blog. Bringing Ash into the team, Paul and me and the legend that is Daniel Betteridge formed a production company with the intention of making a feature film about the 43 Group, a little known anti-fascist organisation that operated in the UK after the Second World War and halted a comeback by Sir Oswald Mosley, former leader of the Blackshirts, when the country was on its knees. It’s a great story and one that needs to be told. We were going to tell it and the next few years saw us spending a considerable amount of time with a collection of ex-43 Group bruisers, raising money for a trailer, taking an eye-opening trip to the Cannes Film Festival and writing endless drafts of a script that morphed from Shades Of Black (awful title) to The Book Club (better) and then eventually Welcome Home (just about okay).
And what of that script? Well, a report for Central Films (who they?) remarked: “This is a potentially fascinating story about the unheard of Group 43. However, the story is let down by its plotting and characterisation.” But what do you really think?! Scala Productions were told by their script reader “with a second draft it could be an excellent piece of forgotten history on a par with Let Him Have It but not quite Schindler’s List at the moment.” Could be, eh? Not quite Schindler’s List? Fair enough. We weren’t quite Steve Zaillian (you can look him up too).
Despite our valiant efforts and the amazing support from executive producers John Stevens and Clifford Kaye (as well as our wonderful families and friends), we never did get to make our movie but it was certainly an education.
Throughout this period, our writing partnership blossomed with a number of spec scripts:
All For Lenya was a psychological thriller about a prima ballerina facing a violent stalker on the eve of her glittering London debut.
Want a Victorian action thriller with nods to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps? Try our period actioner A Whiff Of Grapeshot.
The saucy romantic comedy Our House was intended to be accompanied by the music of Madness (yes, we invented the jukebox musical five years before Mamma Mia opened in the UK!). Producer Aaron Simpson of Scala Productions wrote in response “Thanks. But no thanks. Next?” More on him later.
Finally, and probably best of the bunch, was family comedy Living Image: the story of a young man whose life is so dull and hopeless that his reflection climbs out of the mirror and runs off to join the circus.
If any of these most speculative of screenplays had hit the spot, we’d no doubt be living in a beach house in Santa Monica, but they didn’t. Maybe we weren’t good enough. Certainly, the necessary alchemy of talent, timing and luck didn’t happen for us at that moment in time. By the time the Welcome Home situation was evaporating around 1996, we realised we needed to do something radical. Our fledgling writing career needed a kiss of life. So we decided to go back to what we knew best. We decided to write an action movie.
Next time I’ll tell you how close we flew to the sun.