Let's kick this off by talking about your mini-series Southcliffe
- in a few words, what is it about, and what were your inspirations when
dreaming it up? And how did the project fall together in the
Producer Peter Carlton and myself had been tossing ideas back and
forth for some time, trying to find a project we could work on together.
The idea for Southcliffe, a 4 part TV drama centred around a shooting
spree in a UK market town began here. We shared an interest in the
poignant, very human relationship between the dead and those still living,
a relationship at once both comforting and disquieting.
I found the following early message:
“The real gold dust, the backbone to the drama, has to be personal
testimony – people’s experiences of bereavement - of emotions and
experiences they find difficult to assimilate. The truth and
strangeness of the actual informs everything. Gathering these testimonies
will involve a great deal of time and trust.”
Rather than start with invention I wanted to be guided and informed by
true stories and memories. Our lead researcher, Susannah Price placed ads
and put out the word inviting people to share their experiences of
sudden bereavement. The resulting recordings and texts were humbling.
People you will never read about in the style magazines or see on
television shows responded with heartrending, courageous accounts of
how their lives were smashed. The truth was so much richer and more
strange than our fictions. These tales of loss were not without poignancy
and humour; the deceased refused to vanish, they argued, interrupted
waking reality, mocked our logic. In the face of tragedy, time and space
disintegrated - something which informed our non-linear, dove-tailed
narratives. Gradually, characters emerged, not portraits of existing people, but
combinations and recombinations of what we found in reality
Let's go on to your other big TV series, Red
Riding - again, what is it about, and how did it come into being?
early February 2006 Andrew Eaton made me an offer to which I could not say
no. He asked me to take a look at the Red Riding Quartet of novels by
David Peace with a view to adapting them. I started reading 1974 and from the first unsettling parody of a fallen angel to the
final Jacobean shoot-out I did not stop to take breath.
I plunged into the other three novels
1977, 1980 and 1983. They read like an English James Ellroy cut with Stan Barstow
and drenched in the occult sensibilities of an Iain Sinclair. Here
were fictions torn from the facts. Each book was powerfully
contextualised; 1974 against the background of a hung parliament and
the IRA bombing campaign. 1977 – the year of the Jubilee and Punk.
– Thatcher’s Tory majority and the Yorkshire Ripper. 1983 – The Falklands
war and Thatcher’s re-election. But the world of Red Riding is not purely material, it is a universe where
the dreamed, the imagined, the supernatural is as alive as the natural
world. We’re talking about people’s souls here. We’re talking
about eternal perdition and the possibility of redemption. Yorkshire noir.
Dickens on bad acid. And that is what we planned to bring to the
I had worked with Andrew and Revolution Films before. In This World
was one of the best filmmaking experiences I have been fortunate enough to
have been part of. I didn’t refuse Andrew’s offer. The bigger
decision was whether to take on just the first novel, or to go for the
whole quartet:. I went for the whole set. It meant that I’d lose
the next two and a half years to David Peace’s world. A dark place to
were some of the key challenges when adapting David Peace's novels for the
screen, and did you at all directly or indirectly collaborate with him/get
any feedback from him? And since the novels are (loosely) based on actual
events, did you do any further research on the facts behind the fiction?
The plan was to make each drama both a stand-alone, full-length film,
and at the same time link into the other three. Characters would develop
and reappear in later films, events would be referred to and
revisited in flashback. It meant that any change in the action,
characters or sequence in one story would have consequences for the
I subtitled each title by way of signposting an overall theme – a sort
of sheet anchor:
1974: “This is the North where we do what we want.”
Eddie - film noir hero – lazy, libidinous. Becomes entangled with a
damaged and dangerous woman. His need to know the truth about the
connections linking a series of missing girls draws him into the
dark web that will destroy him.
1977: “We're the flowers in the dustbin/We're the poison in your human
machine/We're the future, your future”
A double-hander. A crazed journalist and a policeman, married to the
boss’s daughter but in love with a prostitute. The policeman turns
whistleblower and pays the price.
1980: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself
mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
Assistant Chief Constable Peter Hunter investigates his own. A good man
with a guilty conscience. Against the background of the hunt for the
1983: “Everyman is guilty of all the good he did not do"
The child killings start again. A shabby solicitor investigates. A
police detective revisits the past and all the good he did not do.
I was fortunate in that neither Revolution Films nor Channel Four ever
demanded detailed outlines before I embarked on the screenplays. After
relatively little discussion, I was given complete freedom to
plough straight in and produce a first draft. Hayley Williams came on board to disassemble each novel. She
cross-referenced characters and events, drew up charts of who knew what,
did what and to whom. It didn’t always add up…
After a flurry of emails, I finally met David Peace face to face at a
seedy London hotel – his choice. He was in London to promote his new
novel, The Damned United. David lives in Tokyo, the Red Riding
Quartet was written in exile. I had a long list of questions for him – exhuming the people and
places and events of novels he thought he was finished and done with. We
spent four hours picking over the broken narrative paths and buried
motives. He helped the disinterment with equanimity, always generous and
humorous. Later, while writing the screenplays, if I came across
something that puzzled me, I knew David was always there in cyber space,
willing to delve and postulate.
Looking back over our communication:
“…for me, the books were about Nature vs. Nurture - did the time, the
place and the society of West Yorkshire give 'birth' to Peter Sutcliffe
or was West Yorkshire just 'unlucky'…”
One email I sent asking for a Yorkshire colloquialism for ‘chippy’
as in resentful and grudge-bearing was met with a page long free
association involving French and German word derivations,
ruminations on the Yorkshire psyche and research phone calls to family and
friends in God’s Own Country itself. “Right (reet) bitter
cunt” was favourite.
A novel is not a screenplay. We show, we don’t tell. I amalgamated
characters; in 1974 the sadistic property tycoon, John Dawson, is a
combination of three characters from the novel. I compressed and
simplified events – trying to find clean lines of narrative energy. At
the same time part of the innate darkness of the novels is the
serpentine nature of the tales, that feeling something terrible is
happening on your peripheral vision. The balancing act was how to retain
the sweaty anxiety without tipping into confusion.
Kate Ogborn was heading up Revolution Films’ TV development at the
time. I’d spend the first hour or two of most mornings at her family
breakfast table, competing for space, chewing over the latest
plot convolutions or mysterious death or barbaric torture. Then to Stoke
Newington public library where I virtually lived 6 days a week.
That rare freedom and trust afforded me by both Andrew Eaton at
Revolution Films and Liza Marshall and her team at Channel Four went a
long way. By the end of 2006 we had two drafts each of 1974,
and 1980. These dark scripts stayed true to the spirit of the novels; they were
unfettered by sentimentality and avoided simplistic notions of good and
bad. The anti-heroes descend into a world riven with corruption and
uncertainty. The damaged journalists and policemen may strive to combat
evil and uncover the truth, but their involvement in the world
always compromised them. In early 2007 I began adapting 1983.
Finding an email I sent to David Peace:
“…between us - like hunter i am obsessed with trying to save one
child. just one. have you read that article on natascha kampusch who was
found wandering vienna 8 years after she was kidnapped as a
The action in 1983 revisits 1974, shining a light in some of the darkest
corners. It is a collage of events and years bound by a rent boy’s
stream of consciousness. And with the conclusion of the novel,
David doesn’t spare us. No future. And so it became a kind of mission
of mine to save a child and to turn this into a redemptive story.
Nothing stays buried. Truth will out. Truth hurts. The challenge was how
to do this without destroying the essential nature of David’s
novels. All through the process I’d held onto his words as a guide
through the process. I hope against hope he does not feel betrayed. But
I had to save that one child.
read somewhere that Red Riding was being dubbed "Yorkshire noir"
- a label you can at all live with?
David prefers the English word, “black”.
What got you into
writing in the first place, and screenwriting at that?
I’ve always been involved in film and TV work. I worked in cutting
rooms, as a runner, third, second and first assistant director,
production manager and producer on TV films, commercials and music
videos. In 1983 I stepped back from everything - left London - and tried
to recapture the wonder and optimism of my time at film school. I found
it in writing, collaging, imagining films that might be made. Writing
was a way of sustaining the cinema in my head.
I went to what was then called The Polytechnic of Central London.
Melies showed his first films there. Back then in the 70s there was a
wonderful sense of freedom. In a film school, you are cocooned and
protected from the outside world. You get a pause in time when you can
experiment and think and talk film and play. The trick is to continue
playing when the course finishes. And for that to happen, you need
producers and executives with big cojones! They exist.
would you describe yourself as a writer?
Do talk about
your screenwriting debut Queen of Hearts for a bit, and how did
that one come about?
Back in 1983 I had started to put
together ideas for films I wanted to see, stories I wanted to tell. These
took the form of treatments, outlines or collages of images; anything to
give an idea of the world of the tale. One of these was titled Queen of Hearts. 5 years later, thanks to a couple of commissions I was
surviving solely through screenwriting. That said, apart from 3 short
films, nothing had actually gone into production.
Queen of Hearts was set in a re-imagined Little Italy - inspired, in part,
by the actual Italian quarter in London’s Clerkenwell. An Italian family
live above their café in a piazza of London brick, suspended in time and
cocooned from the world. So, not an illusion or mirror of reality but an
attempt to inspire what Borges calls “poetic faith” in the viewer.
None of this concerned me when I started writing. The only thing I cared about
was how to allow 10 year old Eddie Lucca to narrate his story as best he
could given his tender years and his limited experience. Eddie wasn’t
always capable of separating the real from the wished for, the waking
reality from the dreamed. And I, in turn was protected and supported
throughout the writing process by director Jon Amiel and the producers.
Filmmaking is a social act. Later, when watched an early cut, it was
like waking with a start; I was shaken by my meeting with Eddie and his
family. Actors had become people, sets were houses and streets, truth had
I cannot think of any greater way of expressing my deep gratitude to
cast, crew and audience.
Now I'm sure you have by now grown
tired of the next question and wish you'd get a Pound for every time
somebody asked you, but I wouldn't do my job if I didn't ask as well: Over
the years you have worked with Terry Gilliam quite frequently - so how did
that collaboration come into being in the first place, and what's it like
working with him?
I got a screenplay to Terry. He passed a
message back to me via my agent saying it was quite good but very visual,
so it didn’t stand a chance of being made! I sent a message back saying,
maybe he could direct it. He replied saying he was busy with his own stuff
but did I have any interest in the Minotaur? I said that maybe I did. He
said, ring this number. I rang. I left a message. This went on for 4
years. Finally he returned my call. I said, after 4 years?! He said,
“Well I’ve been busy”. We started work that afternoon. Working with
Terry is hard play.
... and hot on the heels of the last
question, another one I feel obliged to ask even if it might turn you
utterly against me: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - what's the
present status on that one?
The status of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
is that we are and absolutely have to make it.
You obviously also have to
talk about your directorial debut Vanished! A Video Seance for a
bit, and what urged you to assume directorial duties on that one?
I think the best I can do here is to quote both the South London Gallery
blurb for the 1999 opening and also Jonathan Romney’s piece in The
The South London Gallery
Vanished! A Video Seance
Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni
This collaboration between the poet/performance artist and the
screenwriter has produced a hybrid work that uses atmospheric narrative
to unwind a compelling true story.
In 1932, an elderly mother and father lived with their young daughter in
bleak isolation on a windswept hillside on the Isle of Man. They became
the reluctant hosts to another presence, haunted by a voice which
described itself as "Gef, a spirit in the form of a mongoose with
small yellow human hands." Their complex and hidden relationship
became a nationwide curiosity for a short time but eventually
disappeared into obscurity... until now.
After months of field investigation and research in libraries and
psychic archives, Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni produced Vanished! using
a professional cast and crew. This is the first showing of this
work in London.
The video summons the dead parents and sleeping daughter, now 87 years
old, to tell their versions of this strange event. Actors Julian Curry,
Rosemary McHale and Victoria Seifert became the possessed family.
Made for gallery screening, Vanished! will convert the SLG
into a temporary cinema, reminiscent of travelling shows and gatherings
in village halls with folding chairs and a hanging screen. It is
back projected and has controlled ambient sound.
Jonathan Romney for The
Scarier than Blair Witch
Wednesday October 27, 1999
Oh, but they're shrewd at the South London Gallery. It makes obvious
sense to put on Vanished! - subtitled A Video Seance - for Halloween,
but it's particularly smart to programme it just after the release
of The Blair Witch
Project. Now it's trumped by this British ghost tale,
which contrives to send shivers down your spine without so much as
a single camera movement.
A curious mixture of fireside tale and tabloid curio, Vanished! is the
work of poet, sculptor and performance artist Brian Catling and
screenwriter Tony Grisoni, who has worked with John Boorman, Terry
Gilliam and Jon Amiel. The latest of the increasingly frequent
encounters between mainstream movie story-telling and the art
avant-garde, Vanished! does tell a riveting story. What makes it all the
more gripping is that it's supposedly true.
In 1932, a family living in an isolated house on the Isle of Man - the
elderly James and Margaret Irving and their daughter Voirrey - received
their first visitation from a mysterious spirit. Its name was Gef,
and it took the form of a mongoose-like creature with yellow human
hands. The story was briefly celebrated, then forgotten. Now, as they
say, it can be told again.
Vanished! really feels like a seance. First the Irvings' house appears
on screen. Then the families' necks appear in close-up, their breathing
and swallowing amplified until they become an unearthly roar. Then
the characters appear in close-up, father and mother summoned from the
dead, while the daughter, now aged 78, manifests herself in her
youthful form. Dad establishes himself as a no-nonsense chap, proud of
his skill with wall insulation, and so the last person we expect to hear
muttering portentously about "things not of this world".
Each person has a different relationship with Gef. Father treats it as a
surrogate son, calling it "that lad". Mother is charmed by its
antics, but comes to recoil at its anarchic presence. The daughter
has an odd, mutually protective relationship with the thing. It's at
once her pet and her guardian, as well as the traditional
"imaginary friend" - telling her about its adventures up
the Ganges. But the relationship has sexual overtones, too: "He's
tickling me with his muzzle."
Gef proves to be a very sexual beast indeed. The father catches him/it
watching the mother as she undresses. In other words, the father is
spying on an invisible, possibly imaginary creature spying on his
wife - a bizarre case of voyeurism at one remove, as if the adults were
using the spirit as a go-between in their own perverse relationship. Gef
is a medium for all three's fears and desires, and possibly a screen for
something nastier. This is not simply a story of a folie à trois, but
apparently a drama of deception and abuse - but, tellingly, nothing
is spelled out.
It's here that Vanished! comes into its own as video, making the most of
ideas associated with projection: we are literally seeing the family's
fantasies and disturbances projected on screen. Another meaning of
projection is voice-throwing, and the story is at its strangest when the
characters lapse into Gef's eerie, high-pitched keening.
Vanished! is as simple and suggestive as the best ghost stories - as
Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, for example, where an apparently
sane character gives us a straightforward account of uncanny
events, and we're left to sift out veracity from delusion. The three
narrators of Vanished! recount events in a way that's at once
matter-of-fact and demented, the actors (Julian Curry, Rosemary McHale
and Victoria Seifert) striking a balance between domestic
matter-of-factness and Old Dark House character playing.
The piece is something of a genre-buster. You can imagine seeing it on
TV and finding it a bit static. But watching it on site, sitting in
church-like pews, gives the characters a real presence in a real
space, and makes the piece more akin to theatre than cinema. And I
suppose it has to be regarded as docudrama, because, remember, it's
Of course, unless you're prepared to seek out the contemporary coverage
in the Times and elsewhere, you can only take that on trust. But as the
father says, "No one would be fool enough to invent such a
bloody stupid story." Well, quite - making up such a bizarre
apocryphal yarn is the sort of stunt that American independent horror film-makers
would pull. It couldn't happen in a British art gallery, could it?
Any other films
of yours you'd like to talk about?
A short film I wrote and
directed: Kingsland. I have lived in roughly the same area of London for
around 20 years now. There are two neighbourhoods in fact. The first is in
the London borough of Haringey in north London. When I first moved there
with my partner, it was predominantly Cypriot - it used to be called
"Little Cyprus". It was also an area full of small shops:
grocery shops, dry-cleaning places, bars and cafes. They were privately
owned small businesses and there were no chains. In the 10 or 11 years we
were there, the demographic changed; more and more people came over from
Turkey and these people were predominately Kurdish. At the time I
didn't know why these people were coming, I didn't know very much about
them at all. I was pretty ignorant. Towards the end of our stay there,
there was a big street fight involving around 40 or 50 young men
armed with pool cues and things they'd picked up. It was a really serious
fight; many were injured and one man died. When I asked people about
it, they just said, "Oh, it's drugs! It's drugs!" as if that
explained anything. So I didn't really know why this fight had happened. We then moved - not
very far - but to a slightly different area, where I am now. The local
overland railway station is Kingsland Dalston and, again, this area
is predominantly Kurdish. In 2001, I worked on a film that Michael
Winterbottom directed called In This World. As part of this film, I went
and met some Kurdish people at the local community centre and asked
them if they would mind coming along and being extras in the film. Through
that, I made some Kurdish friends. So I started to ask them about this big
street fight and what was behind it. Around that time, I thought,
"I really want to make a film set in my backyard, a film set where I
live." These were the people I had to go to because it wasn't something
I wanted to make up or invent; it was something I wanted to source from
reality. The producer, Kate Ogborn, came on board and raised a little
finance from production company The Bureau, for research. I went
about it in the same way that I went about working on In This World –
which is to meet people, and to ask to hear their stories. I did this with
my stepdaughter, Lily. We collected hundreds of tales, and in researching, I discovered a little
of the true story behind the street fight I had witnessed four years
previously. It was a very complex thing, but amounted to a local
community having enough of gangsters dealing drugs on their doorsteps and
enough of finding money and guns under their sons' beds. They couldn't get
results from the police or from local politicians, so they took the
power into their own hands. It's a lot more complex than that, but that's
the main thrust. So I had all of these stories, and in order to knit them
together, I needed a framework of some kind. I went to the Italian
Neorealists – specifically Visconti's movie Rocco And His Brothers. It's
a story about five brothers and their mother who come from southern
Italy up to the rich, industrial North looking for work. Each brother has
a story and that story is interlaced with the other tales - I really liked
this framework. So I tried to give the tales that I came across that
type of structure. I decided to have four or five different people whose
stories would be interwoven and converge at the end. And the first
character was called 'The Dreamer'; a young man who arrives in a
place where he doesn't know the rules, doesn't know how things work - he
is literally a dreamer.
In the middle of trying to get people interested in the feature film, I
was given an opportunity, thanks to Jo McClellan at Film4. She made a real
act of faith in me and put up enough money for us to make a short
film. I ripped out the first of these stories - The Dreamer - and I then
started shaping the tale so that it came round in a circle and had a form
to it, which I felt would make a short film. We were making a film
sourced from real stories and I knew that I wanted to shoot the film in
real locations. I wanted to shoot it in the same locations where these
stories took place. I also wanted to involve non-professional actors.
It seems to me that if you are lucky enough to get a chance to make a
short film, then you should take risks.
There's a tendency for directors to behave themselves because they're
frightened that they won't get another chance. Then there are filmmakers
like Michael Winterbottom and, although he's a totally different type
of filmmaker, Terry Gilliam. The thing they have in common is that they
like taking risks and I admire this very much. So we had real locations,
real people, but the difference was that I really wanted to shoot
this using a classical cinematic language. The co-producer, Mike Elliott,
introduced me to the DOP Florian Hoffmeister. We got along straight away and
decided that we wanted to shoot the film on 35mm using anamorphic lenses
to give an epic feel to these true stories, rather than go the traditional
route - which would have been closer to a kind of documentary. Similarly, the wonderful score by
Jem Finer helps give an otherworldly
atmosphere to the piece. So, that was the plan, and our casting director
Shaheen Baig really had her finger on the pulse. Shaheen and I met
lots of people at the Kurdish Community Centre who wanted to be in a film.
Then we'd start to play games. We played charades: acting things out,
doing impersonations, like a charade of someone mending a bicycle
tire and they would have to guess what I was doing. Of course, I was so
bad at it that they couldn't guess, but at least if I was making a fool
myself than they were less frightened of making fools of themselves.
Very quickly we learned who wanted to play and who didn't. Interestingly,
for the main character I had in my head Lamberto Maggiorani from Bicycle
Thieves. I kept thinking a man in his late thirties was what we were
looking for, but we couldn't find anyone who fit the bill. One day we were
seeing some people and Shaheen looked in the corner where one young man
was just getting some things out of the cupboard. It was Abdullah
Gurlek, who was 18 years old and in college. She just nodded at him and I
looked at this young man, and he had such charisma; it was so clear that
he was the person we were looking for. We approached him and he agreed. I
then went back to the script and I changed it all to take on a younger
man. It made for a better film thanks to Shaheen's instincts.
Any future projects
you'd like to share?
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
I have just emerged from adapting China Mieville’s wondrous
novel The City and the City. My head is spinning, my mind is bent. I wonder what
I have written. And in what language.
Writers, filmmakers, whoever else
who inspire you?
A long list of new people I meet who are
knocking at the door.
Your favourite movies?
ones to come.
Facebook, whatever else?
Special thanks to Richard S Barnett, founder of IIWYK!!!