Writing.ie’s Paul FitzSimons met with Malcolm Campbell to talk scripts, screen writing and winning awards.
One of the hit Irish movies of 2012 was What Richard Did, the adaptation of Kevin Power’s commanding novel Bad Day In Blackrock. I recently sat down with Malcolm Campbell, the man who adapted the already compelling story into an award winning film. I started by mentioning the film’s most recent award nomination, the Irish Scriptwriting Award or ‘Zebby’ for Best Feature Script. Malcolm was gracious in defeat.
“Yeah, Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson won for the fantastic script for ‘Good Vibrations’, very well deserved,” Malcolm told me. “I’ve won two awards for What Richard Did so I can’t afford to be greedy. I’ve won the Evening Standard Screenplay Award for Best British Film. That’s probably contentious but I’ll air the fact that I’m British. The film also won Best Script at the IFTAs.”
I picked Malcolm up on this and I asked him if What Richard Did is actually classified as a British film.
“They’re called the Evening Standard British Film Awards but they celebrate British and Irish Film,” he said. “So you’ll find that people like Daniel Day Lewis will get nominated, Irish film-makers like Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan as well. In the past, all of Lenny’s (Abrahamson) films have won – Adam and Paul won Best Screenplay, Pat Shortt won Best Actor for Garage, and then we won Best Screenplay for What Richard Did.”
The film is based on Bad Day In Blackrock, the emotive novel about a student beaten to death outside a Dublin nightclub and the ramifications that follow. Malcolm told me how the film, and his involvement, came about.
“It was a privileged position,” he told me. “I got to work with my wife who brought me to the project. She’s the Head of Development at Element Pictures and she introduced me to the novel. We were living in Blackrock at the time and she said ‘you should read it, it’s an amazing book and we’re thinking of optioning it.’ So I read it in, literally, a day and over the next few weeks it was rattling around in my head. I really loved it and I realised – I know how to adapt this.
‘I had never adapted something before. But, you know, as a writer, you have your inner tuning fork. You know what works and you know what doesn’t work. And I knew how to do this. I made some big decisions – the novel is set over several years with multiple characters and I just wanted to set it over one summer with one main character. And once I had made those decisions, the biggest challenge was convincing Lenny to do it. He doesn’t make many films and so he interrogates you and he interrogates the script, as he should. So you have to raise your game to work with him. This man has never made a bad film. He makes superb films, he’s worked with great writers in the past. So you say to yourself ‘I’m going to do the best version of this I can’.”
I asked him, now that he had done both, if adapting someone else’s writing was more of a challenge than writing a screenplay from an original concept.
“I was just chatting to Kevin Power (author of Bad Day In Blackrock) about that. The older you get as a writer, the lazier you become. Plus it is hard to think of original ideas. You have to really push yourself. With this, even though I knew I was going to make big changes, the fact that I had something to work with gave me the freedom to say ‘Okay, I can be playful with this, I can do what I want.’ If I was having to start from scratch and create this world, It would take so much longer.”
I was curious as to whether he would consider doing an adaptation again.
“I would do it again,” he told me. “If I had stuff to play with. As long as I get the right people working with me and I know I’ll have a little bit of liberty to do my own thing.”
I put to Malcolm the same question I had asked Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan recently – whether what ended up on screen was good as what he had envisaged.
“We were recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was the last time I saw the film,” he said. “I’ve seen it six times now and it keeps getting better and better for me. It’s so well directed. I can’t stress this enough, so beautifully directed. You see things that were never in the script. I was noticing this when I was working with Lenny. Even during the auditioning process, he would be getting actors to do things with a line that wasn’t intended and yet gave that line a different meaning, a better meaning. You realise he’s making things better on every level. There was no stage where I thought ‘No, you’re making the wrong call there.’ Lenny was always thinking about this. And certainly towards the end, it was all he was thinking about. So when you get that kind of talent applied to a really good script and align it with a cast who were all hand-picked and were all brilliant, you know you’re going to do a good film, going to do justice to the script.”
I suggested that What Richard Did is an illustration of the strong acting talent that we have in Ireland and I asked Malcolm how the film was cast.
“We found most of them,” he told me. “It was the first time a lot of them had acted on screen. There were those films in the early 80s, like The Outsiders – that generation of actors became the Tom Cruises and Mickey Rourkes. I felt the same thing was happened during What Richard Did. I kept saying ‘These guys will be on our screens for the next twenty or thirty years. They are that good.’ And Lenny just has this talent of working with actors – he spots them, he knows who’s good. He knows who can work on screen. There’s one guy, Patrick Gibson, he auditioned for ‘Richard’. Way too young at the time but Lenny was saying ‘This guy’s a star, we need to create a role for him. And so I wrote a role for him. Because we needed to have that talent on board.”
Moving away from What Richard Did, I asked Malcolm to tell me a little bit about his latest project.
“It’s a BBC1 television series called The White Queen. It’s starts in June. It’s a ten part series co-funded by the BBC and an American channel so production values are quite high, the acting is superb. It will be a good show.”
If The White Queen and his future scripts are as well written and as beautifully executed as What Richard Did, Malcolm Campbell will definitely be the screenwriter to watch.
‘The White Queen’ started on Sunday 16th June 2013 at 9pm on BBC1. The White Queen is based on a novel by Phillipa Gregory, read Hazel Gaynor’s two part interview with Phillipa for writing.ie, here
(c) Paul FitzSimons
Paul FitzSimons is a screenwriter and novelist and has written the novel ‘Burning Matches’ and a number of scripts for film and TV. He has worked as a storyline writer on RTE’s ‘Fair City’. His short stories are published in ‘Who Brought The Biscuits’ by The Naas Harbour Writers. Paul likes crime thrillers, good coffee and Cadbury’s chocolate. He doesn’t like country-and-western music or people who don’t indicate on roundabouts.