Last time, Rob met Ash at college and they embarked on a writing career. They nearly made a film…nearly. Read on…
After four years working together, Ash and myself found ourselves not much closer to writing for the big screen than when we met at college. Something radical was called for. We needed to go back to our roots. We decided to write an action movie.
Following in the footsteps of greats like Steven E. de Souza and Shane Black, we were going to deliver 100 pages of thrills, spills, laughs and games – with an action sequence every 10 pages and a 30 page wow finish.We were pretty sure that’s how you wrote an action movie – and we had watched enough of them!
The pitch is simple: Die Hard on live TV where the game is life or death. We took our use of football character names to new levels (Arnie Wenger?!), agonised over one-liners, meticulously planned our action sequences, wrote a kick-ass speed-boat chase and delivered a climax at an aeroplane graveyard where literally everything explodes!
And it worked. Kind of.
Hugely proud of our new opus, we actually sent it to a few agents. A letter arrived from one Natasha Galloway at PFD in London (now one of the most successful reps in the business). I’m afraid I can’t find this important historical document to tell you what it said but she must have liked Showtime because she wanted to meet! Us!
So we took ourselves down to PFD’s magnificent offices in Chelsea Harbour, as nervous as any young movie geeks brushing against the big time, and found ourselves in a stuffy meeting room with Natasha Galloway and the legendary agent Anthony Jones. One thing I do remember of what seemed like a thirty second chat was that Anthony Jones was wearing a very sharp dark suit (no tie) and a pair of extremely colourful socks. I wonder if he still does that.
Natasha and Anthony told us they liked our script. Showtime had potential. They wanted to sign us up and send the script to their co-agents in LA who would sell it to a studio and we would become Hollywood screenwriters. It was that easy.
Of course, we said yes. We would have bitten their hands off…and their feet. We had an agent. We were going to be successful…and rich. We might even meet Bruce Willis.
Unfortunately, none of this happened. Showtime did go to Hollywood but it made little impact. Our super villain happened to be a cult leader and, apparently, Hollywood wasn’t buying cult leaders at that time.
We didn’t wait by the phone. Thinking we needed to write something for the UK, we got back to work on a time-travel action thriller: Call Back Yesterday. Set in Scotland, it boasted a fist fight on the roof of a speeding train and a cameo for Sean Connery as an irascible but lovable genius inventor (imagine him barking the line: “They can shove their bloody Official Secret’s Act up their self righteous arses!” Channel him below…). Natasha didn’t really like that one so it didn’t go very far.
Unbowed, we went back to basics again with an even bigger, far more bonkers action blast called Lotusfinger, the story of a megalomaniac arms dealer who destroys Chicago to demonstrate a new superhuman fighting drug and the helicopter cops who save the day (lots of exploding flying machines!). Natasha didn’t really go for that one either. Maybe our luck was running out or the work wasn’t up to scratch. We were certainly having a hell of a lot of fun writing.
And I’ll say this to any budding writers out there. Looking back as an agent myself, apart from the not actually selling scripts thing, we must have been the perfect clients. We just couldn’t keep away from our keyboard. We were bursting with ideas and desperate to write all the time so kept producing specs and firing them off. For anyone with that kind of enthusiasm, I’ll always say it takes the right kind of alchemy of effort, timing and blind luck to make a career in this crazy random business. The killer is giving up. If you give up, it’s never going to happen.
Ash and I haven’t given up. We’re just on a very long break. But we’ll get to that.
By 1998, after many years sending endless letters to production companies and distributors, I had started finding work as a script reader. I was actually pretty good at writing script reports and had made some good contacts. Those contacts actually translated into a few paid writing gigs. We wrote a heist thriller called The Elephant Men for Greg French (a budding American producer in London who actually had a pet wolf!) and Lee Magiday (still a good friend and now BAFTA nominated producer of The Lobster). We sweated blood over a teen action thriller for Australian producer Deborah Balderstone, which had various titles, including Lighthouse Island and – my personal favourite – Southern Charm Offensive. She eventually made the film, called The Entitled and starring Ray Liotta, but didn’t use our script.
Natasha got us a gig with Steve Matthews, one of the true good guys in the business (now running HBO Europe), who was then heading up Blackjack – a Columbia Tri Star-owned TV production company in the UK. Recruiting our friend Mike Narden, an aspiring director with a razor-sharp sense of humour, the three of us devised a series of comedy mockumentaries under the banner Unearthed. Each film would poke fun at a different documentary form. Pilot episode The Search For Alfonso Peseta was intended as a Nick Broomfield parody complete with a fake Nick called Bick Brushwood, on the Machu Pichu trail looking for a non-existent government conspiracy. It was actually very funny and there was a degree of excitement that we might even finally get a break. And on the eve of this sure-fire hit going into the broadcasters, Columbia pulled their funding and Blackjack crumbled. The script never saw the light of day.
Throughout this period, I had been reading scripts for a young producer called Aaron Simpson, who had been working at Scala Productions (he of the pithy rejection letter in last week’s episode). I’d say he was more like the Hollywood model than most you’d meet in the UK at the time. He shot from the hip and had a real ambition to be a ball-busting American-style mogul. He also saw something in us, particularly our next spec script. It was a family movie; a contemporary take on the Jack and The Beanstalk story set in the Arizona desert called Beanstalk! (exclamation mark compulsory). This is the one I’m most proud of. For me, the mix of tight story-telling and surreal comedy absolutely shows the kind of writers we could have been. Aaron took it on, worked us hard in development and sent it out to directors. He told us at one point that Tim Burton was reading it. Perfect! Crushingly, Burton did not attach himself to our movie. Neither did any other film-maker. Aaron went on to produce the Brit-comedy Women Talking Dirty and then left the industry to become very successful doing something sensible.
So at the turn of the millennium, we were near-thirty-somethings who had come so close but had yet to develop a cigar habit. Ash was working in the emerging computer games business. I had carved a niche as a pretty good script reader and consultant. My long-suffering and hugely supportive partner Mary was expecting our first child and I really had to get a proper job. I answered an ad in the Guardian Media section (whoever finds work there?!) and became an agent overnight (something else that never happens but that’s yet another story). I was able to put all those years of rejection to good use!
With responsibilities and salaries, the opportunities to hang it all and just write came fewer and further between. Considering my experiences of the previous ten years and my overflowing address book, I seemed to be pretty nicely set up to make a go of agenting. And I loved it. Still do! As Ash was making a similar impact in the video game world, the writing had to take a back seat.
There is one more notable chapter to our story so far. During the early naughties a very bright young exec at the UK Film Council (now the British Film Institute) called Natalie Wreyford (now part of the vital Raising Films initiative – check it out on: www.raisingfilms.com) realised that aspiring UK screenwriters were frankly rubbish at pitching (one of the most important skills in the modern film biz) so she devised the 25 Words Or Less initiative. If a writer could pitch their film idea in 25 words or less, they would be awarded funding to write a script. The scheme was split into categories to limit the barrage of entries. We figured “why not?” and dusted off a discarded idea to set the Frog Prince in high school as a teen musical called Me And My Frog. We won! We were going to write a musical for the BFI.
I was a little uncomfortable about this and worried about a Film Council award compromising my position as a writer’s agent so we agonised over using a pseudonym for the gig. Our top choice was Hoops McCann (only recognisable by real Steely Dan enthusiasts) but in the end we decided to let Ash shoulder this one alone. He would attend meetings and be our mouthpiece, with me in the background as his “agent”. It worked and no one suspected a thing. With exemplary script-editing help from the brilliant Lucy Ryan, we produced a kicking screenplay but were about four years behind High School Musical and completely beyond a British film industry that is still mostly running scared of family films. Another one bit the dust.
To be abundantly clear, Ash and I still have smiles on our faces. We are both engaged in fantastic careers and revel in these memories of very nearly becoming screenwriters as brilliant as our idols. And it may not be over. We still threaten each other with the prospect of a comeback.
I hadn’t written anything for a long while when I was struck by inspiration in Snaresbrook a few years later (see blog number 2). Next week, I’ll tell you what I did with that inspiration as we prepare our countdown to publication day. Until then, I leave you with Arnie as Hamlet…