Tony Grisoni takes audiences on a haunting, harrowing ride through three films based on four novels in the remarkable British noir trilogy Red Riding.
Written by Denis Faye
If you think the grisly murders littering David Peace’s Red Riding crime novel quartet are a crime, wait until you hear what screenwriter Tony Grisoni got away with when Revolution Films asked him to adapt the series.
“I said, ‘I love these books and I really want to do all of them, but I want enough freedom to do them right,’” explains Grisoni, whose script credits include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland and Terry Gilliam’s quixotic The Man Who Killed Quixote. “’I want you to trust me, and I’ll be totally open with you. I want to be as true as possible to the stories and the people in those stories.’”
Sure, it’s a plea that’s been heard a million times by a million producers. But this time, it worked. Grisoni was given unheard of freedom when writing Red Riding: 1974, 1980, and 1983. “We didn’t go through the tried and true mill of script development,” he says. “I didn’t produce treatments, outlines, none of that. I was allowed to produce first drafts of each of these screenplays, and then we discussed the whole.”
Of course, he knew not to take advantage of the situation. “Because I’ve written a bit before, I didn’t deliver 300-page first drafts. I delivered drafts that were 120-125 pages. They trusted that I wouldn’t just produce half the book to chew over.”
Although 1977 was eventually dropped for budgetary reasons, the result was a critically-acclaimed, blood-drenched head-trip featuring Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane), James Marsh (Man on Wire) and Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) helming the three very different films.
Grisoni took time for a long and spirited conversation with The Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his work on the Red Riding series, the myth of the auteur, and why Terry Gilliam isn’t the lunatic he wants us to think he is.
You spent two-and-a-half years in this world. It’s so dark and painful. How did you stay sane?
Weirdly, it was a joy. I won’t say it wasn’t intense. I won’t say it didn’t interrupt the flow of my life. I won’t say it didn’t have huge effects on everyone around me and close to me, but it was a joy because I was doing what I love doing, which is make-believe. It’s something very few people get to do and even fewer get paid to do. I’m doing what most people have to give up when they’re 10. It’s a fantastic job. I would never, never complain about that.
The tough thing about Red Riding was kicking it off, because it became such an important part of my life, those novels and films, that it became very difficult to shrug them off.
What about the ending of 1983? Was the somewhat positive ending you wrote, which is completely different from the novel, what kept you going, too?
Photo: © 2010 IFC Films
Andrew Garfield in Red Riding: 1974.
It was a thing that gathered as I was working on the adaptation. Peter Hunter [Paddy Considine], the character in 1980, in the novel, he made a deal with God, and he said he wanted to save just one. I took that deal and became obsessed with trying to save a child, fictitiously. Also I fell in love with the shambolic heroes. B.J. [Robert Sheehan], a rent boy looking for a champion and savior who eventually takes on the job himself; Piggott [Mark Addy], a man torn up by his own past; and Morris Jobson [David Morrissey], who is guilty of not having done what he should have done. So I fell in love with these people and I fell in love with trying to put a little chink of light there. It was also about releasing myself from this very dark cycle. I don’t think it would have happened quite like that had I not had the freedom. It became very, very personal. I had a very personal link with these fictions.
It took me a while to understand what was going on with all the flashbacks. What did you do in the script to help the audiences with them?
I’ll tell you what I didn’t do. I didn’t flag. It’s something I’ve come across before. You write a piece and the piece relies heavily on flashbacks to different time periods and the exec would read it and say, “This is very confusing. No one’s going to understand where they are.” They say, “You should label the years,” so you try to label and what happens is that people are even more confused by all the dates.
I’m not saying I fixed it totally. I’d love to return to those things and redo them better, but I think we got a certain amount right by not flagging, but by trying to play the writing in the right emotional position, so that when a character has a flashback, it spins off into that emotional state.
As much as it was your vision, it was also the three directors’ visions. How did you work with them and take their notes and still remain faithful to the overall story and your vision?
It’s a really funny thing. I’ve done a little bit of directing – not very much – and what I discovered kind of shocked me. Suddenly, people would say to me, as a director, “Tony, tell me about your vision.” I’d say, “Wait a minute, no one ever asked me for a vision when I was writing screenplays. Suddenly, I’ve got to have a vision.” It usually gets applied to the director. What’s the director’s vision? But what I’ve usually found in my best filmmaking experiences is that there is no auteur. What happens is that you kind of create a fictitious auteur by working together. It might sound impossibly idealistic, but it’s a high bar worth aiming for nonetheless.
Any discussion I had with a director in the series – and obviously, I had quite different relationships with each of them – I spoke with them before production, during production, and also during the cut. There was open discussion all that time. I’d be talking to say, James Marsh and if James suggested something or queried something or something came out of our discussions that lead to a change in the script, I’d always have to bear in mind that it would affect the other two. It would be part of my responsibility to go back to those screenplays and track it through and then to come back and say, “Listen, James, it can work in that way, but we’ll have to make this slight alteration or this is going to give us problems.”
I can only say that I think the guide was to make an act of faith in the spirit of David’s books. That’s what kept us on the straight and narrow.
It seems you had to be incredibly regimented to pull this off, yet you also worked with Terry Gilliam, who seems anything but regimented. How did those experiences compare?
I apologize to Terry for this, but it has to be said. When I worked with Terry on the screenplays for the films, he’s incredibly organized, incredibly careful, incredibly thoughtful; all of those things that you wouldn’t think he was. The crazed madman on the set is one of his greatest creations. That craziness does a lot of things. It frees people up. It enables people to make a fool of themselves if he’s willing to make a fool of himself. It creates a certain feeling of unsteadiness when anything can happen and that also helps creatively, so that’s a conscious decision on his behalf.
One of the people I like to give a screenplay to read for feedback is Terry. He reads screenplays incredibly closely. I might not agree with him all the time – I certainly don’t – but he does read them very closely. You get a very careful reading of a screenplay from him, which is always to be trusted.
But the thing is, with Red Riding trilogy, I was blessed with two incredible people. One was Hayley Williams, whose job it was to deconstruct all the David Peace novels and produce vast charts where everything was cross-referenced: Characters, events and years. I had these charts on the wall and when I needed to, I referred to them. I could just throw myself into a story and not be at all organized or have any plan or scheme, but when I started to worry about a character, Morris Jobson, for instance, I could go to Hayley’s chart and track Morris’s career, his private life, what happened to him in different years, what his reactions were, and then cross-reference them with the page numbers in the particular novels.
And the other person was Kate Ogborn, who was in charge of development at Revolution at the time. And Kate’s mistake was to live between my house and the public library where I wrote them all. Almost every morning, I would stop at Kate’s. She’d be having an argument with her husband, trying to get her kid to school, and I’d say, “I want to talk to you about the latest killing, and I’m not sure why this happens.” I’d just talk and Kate would listen, give me a careful response and send me off happily to the library, where I’d sit down and start writing.
I also had [producer] Andrew Eaton. I could call Andrew and say, “Andrew, I just need a drink. You’ve got to take me for a drink,” and we’d have a drink, and I’d talk about these fictions. I had a lot of friends, and this is what makes me excited about filmmaking, that it’s a social act. There are many people, and it’s not about them supporting you. They have their own jobs. It’s just that all your jobs overlap, so it’s a weird and strange thing – strangely good.
I read in the Los Angeles Times that you questioned David Peace and occasionally, even he didn’t understand the complex narrative of the books.
It has to do with the nature of novel writing, over a quartet in particular. There’s enormous freedom, particularly over the monologues. There is the sleight of hand that is writing prose, which is very different from a screenplay or a movie, which is such a literal art in many ways. I’d ask David because I’d think he had something in his head. He’d always try to remember. He’d look back over the novels, and then we’d have a conversation about whatever the point was. Sometimes, I felt it was necessary to find a firm, clear line through the narratives, and I would decide upon one. Often that was a matter of picking one of four or five different scenarios that David had painted over a quartet of books.
Other times, I was really interested when the screenplay could borrow from the literary source. Very often novels are full of exciting experiments when films aren’t because films are capital intensive; they rely on so many people to give them nods, to get them moving. It often irons a lot of interesting stuff out, whereas a novel is one person and a publisher. For instance, David used stream of consciousness, especially in 1977. It would be margin to margin, no punctuation, no paragraphs, nothing. It was glorious, wonderful stuff. It was very exciting, so I’d steal chunks of it.
Also, there are so many little narratives in the greater narrative. Sometimes they spin off into the dark and questions are never answered. I‘d steal that, and I’d think, “Wow, what a great idea. Let’s have that happen in the film. Why should we answer all the questions? Why should we tie everything up? Why should we put that bow on the parcel at the end?” And because I had that freedom, that trust from people, that experiment was allowed to live. Whether that experiment worked is down to the viewer, not me, but it was very exciting. It was liberating being freed from completing the story, allowing it to echo beyond the last frame.
You took a novelistic approach to screenwriting.
It happened in Tideland, which is from a novella by Mitch Cullin. Mitch was writing a novel, and he suddenly decided this really important character was going to pop up in the narrative. There she is, suddenly, unannounced. Now, if you’re writing a screenplay and that happens, you then decide, “Oh I better go back to scene one and pop that person in there because she’s going to come back later on.” That’s how you’re taught to write screenplays. But why should you? What happens if you don’t signal that this person may come back later in the story? What happens if they just appear halfway through? Boom, there they are. You don’t know unless you try it. The problem with screenwriting is that there are so few people willing to take risks. You need them to make the film, so you can see what happens. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy working with Terry so much. He’ll take crazy risks.
But don’t you think you need to know the rules before you break them?
It depends. I will give you a different answer if you ask me that tomorrow. On one side of me, I want to say, “You’re absolutely right. You have to know the rules.” That’s the schoolteacher part of me. And then tomorrow, you’ll speak to the destructive adolescent and I’ll say, “You’re fucking crazy. What are you talking about? Why should learn the fucking rules? I’ll do what I want and then see what happens.”