Sally Brockway: Tell me, what were the difficulties? What were the things that were difficult? Writing a script in that way, what was more difficult than it perhaps would be if you were doing it in a normal way?
Robert Jones: I think you can’t make the characters do what you want. Well, obviously you can, you can force them – but given that you as the audience are there on their face, you’re there scrutinizing them, I think you’ll find them out if they’re saying things that are done just for the plot. And I think you can get away in drama with coercion by other characters, people can be forced into things and it might seem quite convincing, interaction can lead to something surprising and you can get away with stuff when you’re trying to turn the plot in a certain direction. But I think when you’ve only got their take; you have to give them more economy. It’s a difficulty in that you can’t twist and turn the plot simply to your will.
On the other hand, you’re getting more depth out of the characters and perhaps what you end up with is something more fulfilling on that level. So that was the difficulty; you couldn’t just have a drama scene then suddenly everything changes, two people work something out. You only have the story, the account of that, and I think the fact that it has to be truer to the characters than you would in a conventional drama.
SB: And also, there’s not much action going on, is there, really? It’s all the dialogue. Which is horrifying really, it puts a lot of pressure on the words that you pick. Was that daunting?
RJ: Actually that wasn’t so daunting. I suppose practically in terms of the drama, those were the difficulties. But the dialogue – either it’s going to work or it’s not. It might be too much – you just don’t know. It got a good reaction at the press viewing, but it might not have done. People might think it’s too exhausting or it’s too difficult to stay with, I don’t know. As a writer – and probably as an actor – you enjoy pursuing a character so that wasn’t a problem in itself. Whether it would prove a problem in the drama, I suppose, is not for me to say but it wasn’t a problem in the writing.
SB: I have to say, when I heard what the drama was going to be I did think, ‘Oh well goodness I wonder if that’s got the staying power.’ But the thing is it was very easy to watch because you’re just drawn in and you want to know what happens next and I have to say it was completely silent in that room. There wasn’t a whisper; we were all rapt, so obviously it works.
RJ: Fingers crossed. I hope so.
SB: So would you do it again? If they say, ‘We want more of this,’ would you be up for doing similar stuff?
RJ: Yeah. Obviously we’d love to do more. If they were to say to me we want a series – which they won’t say – I wouldn’t be able to do all 13. But I’d love to follow that form again. We’ve got lots of ideas. Originally we talked about it as a series so we came up with lots of ideas about it, at that stage, before we’d decided it was going to be like this. The BBC wants to see if it works in fact on the page as well as on the screen. If they do think that then maybe they would go back to the idea we originally had and it would be a series. So yeah I would love to do it again.
SB: I like this idea that you’re someone who storylines. Do you normally do a sort of treatment that’s pages and pages long so you know exactly where you’re going?
RJ: Yes. What I do, is I do a lot of thinking for days and days and weeks on a story, making notes. And then I will write a 10 page storyline. It’s not scene by scene; it’s slightly more descriptive so that you have different ways to go when you get to the script. It wouldn’t say what each scene was at all but it would give the gist of everything, in lot of detail. And that’s what takes me 4 or 5 weeks, and then I can write the script itself in 10 days. So for me that’s most of the work. And that’s when I really enjoy it; when you’ve done all the horrible sitting around stewing and then finally you go to script. Because you start the script and the script usually fires onto the page. And I think that’s when you know whether you’ve don’t a good job on the storyline. So normally I have my way of working and don’t deviate from that very much. But this one didn’t seem to call for that somehow
SB: Was that quite freeing?
RJ: Definitely yeah. I suppose it’s slightly nerve-wracking. You actually start a script – I know some people do that, they actually start a script or a novel having done nothing but ponder it. And they’ll start Page 1, Scene 1 and off they go. But I’ve never been able to do that.
SB: That’s what I do. That’s why no one ever makes any of my scripts because they just sort of tie themselves up in a million knots then I put them in a drawer and start another one.
RJ: Yeah, that’s what seems to happen, isn’t it. You start off like a steam train and you come across the first problem and you think, ‘oh, bollocks, didn’t think of that.’ And that’s so demoralizing. I, having tried it a number of times, that’s why I hit on the other method which is bloody laborious but it does seem to come up with a better result ultimately.
SB: So if you were to do more of these to-camera pieces again you’d use this same method, this sort of free method?
RJ: Yeah. Get those fragments down. I think you have to know your characters, know what the incident is and you have to know more or less who you think did it and so on.
SB: Was it on your mind constantly for weeks on end?
RJ: Yes. With this I have done a lot of waking up at 2am and jotting stuff down which I haven’t particularly done before. So that’s the downside of not having nailed down the storyline, you’re thinking of things at all sorts of different times. That seems quite organic – it’s just a bit of a shame you’re awake at 2am.
SB: But you came up with something brilliant so it was worth it I guess.
RJ: In the end. In this case, yes definitely worth it. We’re so pleased with everything really: how Kath produced it, how Birger directed it, how Jacob edited it, with the actors. It’s just one of those productions where everything, down to the production design, everything has come right. It doesn’t always happen. You’re lucky if you get sometimes a tenth of it, but this time its hit the nail on the head.
SB: At what point did Birger Larsen become involved? When did you know? Was that before you’d written or after?
RJ: No it was after. I think it was already written. Most of the work was done a year ago and then the BBC said yes but for budgetary reasons it sat around for 7 or 8 months. At which point Kath, who has always been a fan of Danish films, discovered that Birger was interested in working in this country and she knows his agent so she sent him the script. And he came on board about a year ago, something like that. And it was shot in February but he probably came on board last autumn.
So some of the press said it’s the British version of The Killing but I hadn’t seen The Killing when I wrote it.
SB: You hadn’t?
RJ: No. I saw it. As soon as they mentioned Birger was going to come aboard I watched it and now I’m a huge fan. It’s absolutely wonderful. And the fact that he’s come and taken this project on is a massive boost for us. And he’s a brilliant and very funny guy. He’s been fantastic to work with so everything just worked like that.
SB: It was very evocative. It had a lovely mood about it. It was very filmic in parts. You could see that he was directing. It had that feel and I think it really added to it.
RJ: It looked entirely different to what I thought it would look. Kath said she didn’t have any idea of how it would look but if I had any idea how it would look it would have thought more British realism. We always thought that it should be beautiful, but it’s so composed and it’s so beautifully directed. And he’s got such confidence in the actors and he’s got such confidence, I suppose, in the script as well. But he’s got confidence in his own methods. He’s got confidence in his images. He’s got confidence in those actors. Just that confidence washes over everybody and you just get these performances where you can’t image anyone could do it better. He and Kath spent a long time with casting. So yes his contribution is massive.
SB: The actors were phenomenal, they really were, all of them.
RJ: They were. It’s a funny mix of very established actors and two or three very new actors and I think they’ve all done a fantastic job.
SB: You had Kath onboard. Is it very important for you to have a producer that you know and who you trust?
RJ: Yes. It’s not vital but it’s really fantastic if you get a working relationship. It takes a while, doesn’t it? You can’t always have what you want to do new things, new companies, and new people. But it is fantastic. I’ve done a number of projects with Kath, not all of which have been greenlit, and I always feel she pushes you further than almost anybody else. Usually to very good effect, I think. She’s just that much more challenging and demanding and insight-pushing than is sometimes the case. Some producers just don’t think that’s their job. And it’s not really I suppose in some cases. I think she and I just have this particularly fruitful relationship.
SB: So, Robert, what would your advice be to the people out there who haven’t yet had anything produced, who are sitting in their rooms alone tapping away. What would your advice be to wannabe writers? The top tip you would give us all?
RJ: Let’s see.
SB: Don’t do it?
RJ: [laughs] I don’t know. What would be a top tip? Let me think. Oddly enough I would say work it out in advance. Go completely against what I’ve done on Murder. I would say leave that for when you’ve got a few things under your belt. I would say, think of a story that thrills you, work it out in absolutely painstaking detail, ask yourself a hundred questions about it and make sure you can answer them. And then, only then, when you’ve got it all down on paper and you know more or less where it’s going to go, let the script lie in it. Because I think if you’ve got it grounded than the script will enjoy itself, I think. So that would be my advice, and it isn’t what I did on Murder but I think it’s essential really.
SB: And what was the script that launched your career? Was there a spec script?
RJ: Yeah, I had a script called Kingsland, which was a caper really. I can’t remember much about it now. I remember there was a great bag of stolen money and various things happened to this money. And it opened a lot of doors for me. No one ever made it. People kept saying they might but it did open a lot of doors for me and I got an agent on the strength of it. And I got work for The Bill on the strength of it, which kick started my writing career about 20 years ago. So yes, that was something I wrote on spec because I’d been trying to write poems and short stories and I don’t read poems and I don’t often read short stories. I thought, ‘Why am I trying to write these things?’ And someone asked me if I’d ever tried screenwriting and I hadn’t and I tried it and it was brilliant.
So yes that was probably the thing. I think the biggest thing, after getting an agent through it – and I was with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop and I was a very small fish in a big pond there so I moved on eventually – but probably the biggest thing was Christopher Penfold at The Bill joined and asked me to come in. I think the first time he took me for lunch at canteen and he wrote Christopher Penfold’s Guest and I thought, ‘Blimey, I’m a writer.’ So after that I never looked back obviously. He put it in pen and ink.
SB: So that spec script then was hugely important. So everyone has that script that’s going to open doors. Had you had a pile of other scripts?
RJ: No, not really, two or three, maybe unfinished things. Something I did for somebody else. I wanted to make films and two or three friends said can you write so I tried something for them. But no, not really, maybe two of those kind of specs. And then after that I’ve been lucky really because I’ve been working since then, mostly part-time and then full-time.
SB: Getting a gig on The Bill, you must have learnt a hell of a lot from a job like that.
RJ: Yeah. When I was writing for them they were half an hour, three times a week. And they needed drama! Now! It was a great way to work. Because you would try something, it didn’t work. You would try something and it would be out six weeks later and you think, ‘Its ok but it’s not brilliant’ and you’d try something else and six weeks late. Maybe a bit more, maybe 8 weeks. It could be onscreen within actual time. You learned lessons very quickly.
And they were so supportive of writers there because obviously writers were their meat and drink. They had to have them. People always think a place like that, they’re a machine. No they’re not. They love writers. It can’t exist without you and it’s much clearer in those kind of places than some others.
SB: How long were you with The Bill for?
RJ: I did 15 episodes and I was probably with them on, on and off, three or four years. Not particularly prolific. And I did Pie in the Sky, Ballykissangel, Cops, various Party Animals. That sort of half hour drama at The Bill was fantastic. You had to get them hooked in 10 minutes and you really felt if they weren’t hooked by then people wouldn’t come back. It was a great lesson really.
SB: This has been fantastic talking to you and once again, congratulations, it is brilliant work.
RJ: Thank you very much. I’m really glad you liked it.
SB: Well you’re the one that did 12 drafts so you deserve the praise for it. I do hope it’s well received; I’m sure it will be.
RJ: Fingers crossed. Thank you very much.
Murder screens on BBC 2 on the 26th August at 10.00pm.
Kath Mattock is one of the judges in the 2012 Screenwriting Goldmine Script Contest.