Interview: Screenwriter Tony Grisoni

tony-grisoni-interview

Red Riding is a trilogy of movies based on a quartet of novels by David Peace. The books (and films) are fictionalised accounts of the investigation into the Yorkshire Ripper, a brutal serial killer that stalked the Yorkshire area of England in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

I was present at the launch of the films in London and interviewed writer Tony Grisoni (Tideland and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas).

How do the three films (1974, 1980 and 1983) tie together?

Three full length films, they work so that 1983 revisits 1974 and you see things from a slightly different perspective and then the middle one, 1980 is against the background of the Yorkshire Ripper but the characters roll all the way through the three of them.

The original idea of the novels, it’s basically fiction around a true event?

The novels were a quartet, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983, and what David Peace talks about, he says it’s fiction torn out of the facts.

There are four books and three films. Was that your idea?

No, it started out that we’d make all four and I wrote all four, but filmmaking is capital intensive and we didn’t have enough money to do all four and we then had a choice, we could have done four but made them all shorter and we had to talk about that but I’m so glad it didn’t go that way.

These tales aren’t just about cops and robbers. Had we made them shorter it would have forced us into a vagueness of narrative and you wouldn’t have had chance to have these incredible atmospheric moments that David Peace wrote in the books that we tried to mirror in the films. So, it seemed to make more sense to make three, and then a question of how do you do it? Do you take a couple to pieces and feed them into the others, but in the end I decided to just drop 1977 out cleanly. So, for a number of reasons really. One is that the others seemed to work really well as a trilogy and the other thing is it leaves ‘77 untouched and possibly we can go back and make it. That’s what I hope.

I noticed from watching that each films appears to be police versus journalists, then police versus police and then police versus people. Is that something you planned or was it in the original books?

First of all it wasn’t like writing an original piece where you, for example, if I was setting it in the boxing community I would go and visit a load of boxers where boxers hang out and talk to them. This is adaptation – I trusted those books and I trusted David’s writing and so I treated those as the truth. What was there I took and then you had to work it into a screenplay. What happens in 1974, is absolutely that. It’s a little more complex in ‘74 for instance. You’re with a journalist, a young journalist and it’s not quite like journalists against cops. It’s a particular journalist. He’s a young guy. He’s a typical film noir hero – he’s libidinous, he’s lazy, he’s selfish, a self obsessed young man. What happens with him, he starts off by just being out for himself, but then he’s got this thing in that he has to know what happened, he needs to know truth and so he goes further and further down that path and eventually it gets to a point where he needs to know the truth more than anything – more than his own safety or anything. So, he kind of changes as it goes along. Absolutely, he’s up against the police.

The second one is very much the police investigates their own. Peter Hunter is on a Home Office investigation which he has to keep covert and he is investigating corrupt police and as it said in that clip “How deep does the rot go?”

The third one isn’t really that, the film is a two-hander. You’ve got two main characters. You’ve got Jobson, Morris Jobson, a policeman, who has gone along with corruption all the way through and has finally reached a point where he is going to do what he should have done a long time ago, like nine years before, so it’s redemptive in many ways the final one. Then you’ve got John Piggot. I really like his character, he’s wonderfully disgusting. He’s a damaged man. A lousy solicitor, but again, he wants to know what really happened. And again he doesn’t feel quite up to being a champion that’s what he becomes. It’s a long answer to your question.

The thing about David’s fiction and these films we made is that they are quite complex pieces. There isn’t a good and bad. It is more like what it is like out there. It’s all these different levels of good and bad, it’s not like they are not comic book heroes. They are fractured people. They are a more bit like you and me. I hope.

How do you think it will go down in the North and South of England?

Where are you drawing the line? I think, it’s all about West Yorkshire. I think West Yorkshire will enjoy it. I hope they do. I think they will. As you can hear I’m not a Yorkshire man. Just to misquote probably David Peace again, he makes a lot of sense that man. He was Yorkshire born and bred although he wrote these from Tokyo. It’s a bit James Joyce isn’t it – writing something that’s so in your heart from exile. He’s got a very complex relationship with that area but he believes, and I agree with him, that particular crimes happen in particular places to particular people. It’s for a reason and the ‘70s and ‘80s, Yorkshire in the ’70′s and 80′s was a hostile place. The UK was a pretty hostile place and he would say that that area in that period was a hostile place particularly to women. That’s a Yorkshire man talking but I agree with him. I say that about Yorkshire but I could do that for London or anywhere else.

Do you think Life on Mars fans will enjoy it because of the look of it?

Well it is a period movie, but there are a few more teeth in this one! I think one of the interesting things when I see lots of cuts of these and as I sit and watch them I forget about the period in fact. I follow the dramas and I’m following the characters.

One of the exciting things for me writing and then to see the writing completed by the actors and directors and everything is that you’ve got three full length films, three different directors, three different styles, so what are you following? You are following the characters and it is a real joy, When you see Borris Jobson, how he changes. There is a young man called BJ who starts off as a silly little rent boy and who ends up a son of Yorkshire and a hero and that’s a beautiful path for him. So you follow these people and the way we structured the films mirrored the way the novels were structured so your main character bows out but the more minor characters that you’ve got to know a little bit then come to the fore in the next one and so it is like baton passing. I think that is why you are going to watch to find out what happens to these people and why things happen to them. I hope that is so interesting and so involving that you won’t look at how big the lapels are.
Did the three directors have much interaction with each other or did they look after their own thing?

It was a team effort. The whole thing was very much a team effort right from the beginning in that everyone spoke to everyone else. Everyone was aware of two more of these films going on at the same time. Having said that the idea was always that they should have the freedom to make the film they wanted to make. So you have them on very different formats. You have 1974 which is on 16mm. 1980 is shot on 35mm and rather beautiful 2:39 format and then 1983 shot digitally, but beautiful digital. Someone could have shot them on a phone. The idea was to have that open. They all have very different tones. They all feel like different films – you can sense that and again what goes through them are those characters. Again, I think structurally if you become involved in the characters everything else falls back. That’s why I follow stories.

What was the hardest thing about adapting the novels into a screenplay that works?

What to leave out! The novels are so full and they are such full on experiments. David uses all kinds of different styles of writing. You’ll feel like you are reading American detective fiction at one stage all the action is pushed through on dialogue without any stage direction – I call it stage direction – prose. Then he’ll go to stream of consciousness where there is no punctuation, you get blocks of text on a page. It is very full on and I was spoilt. These novels were gifts. The other thing was, which was quite amazing, I was getting total freedom. I didn’t have someone saying “Oh can you do all the outlines and treatments?” and all that kind of stuff which when you do, makes you kind of bored before you start – it’s like homework then. So, I just ploughed in.

Fortunately, because I got a main character leading the first one, a main character leading the second one and then two characters, what’s great is that you tell the story from their perspective so you only know what they know. You cannot know anything outside and that gave me a really solid framework. So you only stay with them. That was like the sheet anchor that helped me stay on course. Then I just waded in and started writing a very long first draft of it that I then pared down. The main difficulty was that.

The other thing was that the books are written where they ask more questions than are ever answered. Part of the darkness of the books is that some narrative strands kind of disappear off into the darkness – you know and you can never know everything. There was a woman employed whose job it was to take those novels to pieces and she gave me cross referenced charts. I have cross references – a bit like Eddie. It’s not a mistake that that happened. It’s probably from David Peace’s plan when he was writing the book. It’s to try and piece together the whole tale. So I had all these cross referenced charts, I had people all the way through different years. It doesn’t all add up if you sit down, but it does add up. But we had to uncover all that so we knew what we were dealing with. Then I think with the screenplays they had to be a little more tied down than the novels but I didn’t want to do it too much otherwise you destroy the feeling of them. That was pretty tricky. I was lucky that someone was willing to sit down and take characters and events.

There were lots of emails between me and David Peace in the lead up to me writing and then he came over here and we had a six hour meeting. We had six hours and I just grilled him, “Why did they do that? Why did that character go there?” “In 1974 you said that this character did this. Of course the poor guy this was all past for him, so he had to start digging again, but he was really, really generous and always very helpful. If he knew the answers he’d tell me. If he didn’t he’d try and find out and if it didn’t quite add up then we’d have conversations about what might be the story.

Did you have to do much research for the screenplays?

Well, there’s two things about that. One is that David’s research is so intensive and the books are full of it, but yes I did. I would go back to particular news stories. For instance, take the Ripper investigation I went through that to find out how the police tackled that. I spoke to a few people who were around. I did some research, but I’ve got to tell you – he starts with research. We tried to speak to the West Yorkshire police but they didn’t want to talk about it.

How happy where you with the cast as there are some big names in there?

How could I not be happy with that cast! I was just knocked out by that cast.

Did you picture any of them when you were writing the screenplay?

No none of them. When I am writing they are just sort of characters in my head. I don’t put faces on them at all. So when the casting starts to come together it adds another level to it. I’d be tempted to mention particular names, but I dare not to because they were all so good. As soon as I think of one name I think of four more.

At what point were the directors brought in? Was that before you’d finished the scripts or before you had even started?

They came in after we had locked off the scripts. They weren’t completely locked off because that would have been kind of daft. I’d started in early 2006, by the beginning of 2007 we had three scripts. We had been through about 2 or 3 drafts. We went though three drafts of ’74, 77 and ’80 and two drafts on ‘83. Then the directors started coming in. Having said that I met James Marsh in Edinburgh, at the Edinburgh Festival and we’d just met and started talking and enthusing. The woman who was doing the development of the scripts knew him and had been working with him, so he started to become attached to these projects way before anyone was officially being approached. He knew the material and because we were in touch he stuck his flag in 1980 really early and wouldn’t be kicked off it.

Most people in the UK know David Peace from The Damned United which became an unlikely bestseller. Was this all green lit before that success?

Oh yeah-I’m not sure if it was green lit but I was working on it before Damned United yeah.

It has the same approach where he takes a real character, sort of fictionalizes it in order to get to the higher truth. That’s the plan isn’t it? I trot that one out about the bigger truth. I think it makes sense.

How long where you on the project?

Three years. Three years of hell. It started in early 2006 until they locked off a cut.

That’s a long time.

Yeah but the other thing is – here’s a sort of catharsis to it – it’s fiction. That’s the whole point of that kind of fiction – it is cathartic. I remember reading the novels and I found it really liberating and writing the screenplays was just a joy.

Did you seek out the job of trying to adapt the books or did somebody knock at your door and offer you the job?

Somebody phoned me. Andrew Eaton from Revolution Films made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The thing is; I knew Andrew because I’d worked with Michael Winterbottom on In This World, a film about two Afghani boys being smuggled overland, and working on that film was one of the best filmmaking experiences I’ve had. It was so good that having the film was like a bonus. Working with that particular crew, in that particular place at that particular time was something else. That’s a good memory. The whole thing about Revolution Films is that if they make a call you know it is going to be a challenge. The chances are you are going to be asked to do something you don’t think you can really do or you are scared of doing. Go to Afghanistan, adapt four novels into four films inside a year and a half- that kind of thing. So you know it’s going to be exciting.

Will these three films be released in cinemas in the US and around the World?

There are plans. Things are being looked into. It’d be interesting wouldn’t it? I’d be really interested to see how the States take them. It feels to me, and I’d only be second guessing and I’ll only be optimistic, but I think they could really do well in the States. They’ve got a feel to them – something that Americans adopt. They owe a lot to film noir and they owe a lot to American detective movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

It reminded me a lot of Zodiac because of the density of it.

Yeah. I agree. It will be very interesting to see how it does.

There’s also some big names again.

Yeah, I’m going to start mentioning names again and I promised that I wouldn’t.

What are you going to be doing next – a holiday?

No chance of a holiday! I’ve just finished worked on a really extraordinary film that is a first Film directed by Sam Mortimer in Nottingham – which concerns a little girl who is in care and that was quite an experience. We wrapped that film just before Christmas. Also last year I directed a film I wrote which was a 20 minute short which is set in the Kurdish community in North London where I live. So right now I’m writing the feature version of that and I’m helping Terry Gilliam put Don Quixote back in the saddle – for my sins.

What are they going to do with the film that never was?

Put it on the DVD extras. There’s only 5 days shooting.

They’re starting from scratch basically?

Yeah.

Is it really looking like it will go ahead this time? It’s been on the boil for a long time.

Absolutely. 100% (makes a funny face). There’s nothing else could have happened on that shoot. We ran out of things. The terrible thing was that in the script it opens with these people shooting a commercial which is a parody of Quixote and there’s a storm and it’s washed out. Then we started shooting and guess what?

Those are the two things I’m doing Quixote and Kingsland – which is the story of the Kurdish community.

How do you balance writing so many things at one time?

I don’t do anything else – I don’t have a life or anything. I just write. I think what happens is one is usually in the forefront and you’re keeping the other one ticking over until you’ve got to a particular stage with one. Either people are reading it or you let it sit there for a bit and get on with the other one.

It’s not real writing. Novelists – that’s real writing. What I do is what you do when you’re a kid – its just make believe. That’s why it’s such fun for me. You only need a vocabulary of about fifty anyway, anymore than that and no one’s going to read it.

 

This interview first appeared on Screen Rant in 2009.