Just like James with Severance, Richard Smith wrote a feature script and got it made, just like that. It was Trauma, the UK psycho-thriller starring Colin Firth and Mena Survani, and directed by Marc Evans. Haven't seen it? Check it out! But was getting the film made an easy case of just writing a script and producers going, "yeah, sweet, let's do it"? What had Richard been doing before his official breakthrough? What was the process actually like? Let's ask him:-
You were doing some TV writing and stand up comedy before you made an impact with your Bafta short, Leonard, and subsequent debut feature, Trauma, but where did it all begin before that? What would you consider your first break?
Ha, yes. The stand-up. I was sort-of doing that to fund my new writing career (‘fund’ is a pretty generous word to use by the way!). I was doing a postgraduate degree in screenwriting at the same time, and wrote my half-hour script, LEONARD, on the course. It was commissioned by Scottish TV as I graduated. That was my break: the film got noticed, won awards, screened on TV and I got an agent. Before I knew it, I was pitching feature ideas. And I think that’s all you can hope for as a writer – someone to pay attention to you!
Once you started to get a bit of work, did more opportunities open up for you, or was it a case of ‘I don’t know where the next cheque is coming from’?
Both. I think you blow hot and cold. Generally, I’ve found that work breeds work – and getting a film made definitely put me in the game. Receiving offers (books to adapt, scripts to re-write, treatments commissioned, etc) was a wonderful new experience – and one which never gets boring! But it’s not on tap – so I roll with the good times and pretend not to notice the bad.
What was the inspiration behind Trauma, and was it your first spec script?
I’ve actually never written a spec script. TRAUMA was commissioned from a five-page treatment – which was enormously brave (or foolish?) of Little Bird (ed: through their horror label, Ministry of Fear), considering that I’d never written feature-length before. It was the clashing together of two ideas, neither of which quite worked on their own. I’d become interested in people who start hearing voices in their heads after experiencing exceptional trauma, and I was interested in putting an audience through the disorientation that follows. I still needed a compelling hook (that all-conquering ‘what if’ question) and realised that I’d already found it in a different idea. Marrying them together was an explosion of the bleeding obvious – and could have saved me months of anguish and self-doubt...
Can you tell us a bit about the experience, e.g. was it quickly sold, or did it do the rounds, or did it languish in development hell for a while, etc?
It was probably as close to development heaven as I’ll ever experience. It was rocket-fast. It took just eighteen months from a five-page treatment to first day of shoot. There was a lot of faith in the project, and a serious burn to get it made; it was proof to me that there has to be a serious – and powerful - driving force behind a film. You can’t expect money to appear from nowhere, and you have to go out with total belief. On my second draft, we got Marc Evans (director) on board – which quickly led to Colin Firth, Mena Suvari and full finance (around £6m). We were in prep before I knew it.
What did you learn, good and bad, from the whole process?
Well, it gave me a false impression of the efficiency of development; it made me wonder why everyone was moaning about the time it takes to get things done! But I wouldn’t have had it any other way – it’s given me belief. I learned a lot about collaboration and re-writing, and the realities (and constraints) of the job. It gave me the opportunity to work with incredible people with real integrity. It taught me to enjoy prep – when everyone’s raving about the script – because you’ll quickly go from King to tourist. I join the ranks of the many in bemusement about the writer’s involvement/status when it comes to production, post and release. The writer’s input should be paramount, not avoided.
Last year, you directed your own short, Mono, not to mention Score, for filmaka.com - are you repositioning yourself as a writer/director or are you going to focus on one area more than the other?
I’m experimenting with directing. My main motive was to test my ideas about how films work: a lot of people pay lip service to the importance of narrative – but I believe it. There’s a thrill and empowerment in making all the decisions and seeing the whole process through. It’s a different kind of work-load, rush and responsibility. MONO’s success means that I should be able to direct again – but I won’t do it at the expense of my writing. Writing and directing are completely different disciplines, and one doesn’t greatly prepare you for the other – so I have a lot to learn yet. Now that I’m thinking about it, I probably just wanted to find out what it’s like to be the guy who can’t blame someone else!
What can you tell us about your current workload?
I’m writing my fifth and sixth feature commissions now. I’m working with Celador and Fragile/Ealing Studios. I’ve got a re-write going into production early next year and an original script hunting for finance (anyone got a spare few million?). I’ve got bits and pieces in very early development, and maybe a TV thing. In short, I don’t have much of a life.
Any favourite screenwriters?
Aside from the usuals, I’m a big fan of Charlie Kauffman. He achieves real invention, whilst disguising structure. Also: Paul Fraser, Paul Laverty, Jeremy Brock, Peter Morgan, Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, Paul Haggis…
Would you like to do more TV, perhaps your own series, or something like that?
I get accused of not liking TV, but I just don’t like bad TV – in the same way that I don’t like bad clothes or bad hair. I think that exciting things are happening in TV, and I’d jump at the right opportunity. It would be cool to do something a bit edgy and contemporary. I seem to find it more difficult to get TV commissioned than films – so I guess it’s just where you’re known. I think the discipline and longevity of a series would be a great challenge, and the speed of turnover is a definite allure. So, yeah. Okay. You’ve persuaded me.
And finally… what film that would you like to remake, and what would you do to give it a modern update?
Controversial comment. I’m not really into modern updates or remakes. I judge every project on its merits of course, but the argument to remake something would have to be really strong to make me want to do it. So there.
Cheers, Richard, top stuff. I've got another Q&A lined up with Andrew Collins, writer/DJ/author etc, and that's good, too, so the Q&A series is shaping up nicely.