We continue our in-depth interview with Paul Finch. This time Paul speaks about UK police drama, The Bill, Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow and cult favourite, Spirit Trap. Read Paul Finch Interview Part I.
Have you ever had a bad experience because of a difference in artistic vision with a director, and how did you resolve the problem?
PF: The only times I’ve had major problems on a script was while I was working in TV. I won’t mention the name of the show or the persons involved, but quite simply it was intolerable. As I say, I regard myself as easy-going and receptive to other people’s ideas and solutions. But when a storyline is changed radically on a daily basis – and that is no exaggeration; every day the basic plot had changed beyond recognition, with different characters coming and going – and you are constantly being expected to produce a new draft for no extra pay, then you have to eventually draw the line.
This isn’t an entirely adequate response to your question, as this wasn’t a matter of artistic difference – we never actually got to that stage – this was a matter of the show being in a state of complete disorganisation after a major clean-out. Nobody seemed to know what they were doing, but whether it was by accident or design, my good will was being used and abused on an epic scale. In the end it was resolved very unhappily. I gave up trying to please what seemed like half a dozen masters, none of whom appeared to agree with each other on any aspect of the episode, and walked off the show. It was a big decision for me, and inevitably it cost me money, but this particular experience dragged on from September to February, and it nearly made me physically ill.
PF: With movies, it tends to be that they come to me, usually via my agent. I’m quite fortunate in that my agents, Blake Friedmann, have a strong film and television arm. However, you have to be proactive as well. These days, I’m often able to pick up work from whatever job I’ve been involved with previously. If you’re good enough at what you do, and you’re easy to work with, you usually develop such good relationships with producers and directors that they’ll come back to you again. Even if they don’t do that, if I hear that one of them has got something going, I approach and enquire about work opportunities. Sometimes they can help out, and sometimes they can’t. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I now know quite a few people in the industry, and every so often I make a round of networking calls to see what’s available. One thing I would say is that movie contracts are not going to land on your desk simply because you’re a writer – even if you’re a good writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written 50 novels. Movie writing is a separate discipline, and you’re only likely to find easy and regular access to movie scripts if you’ve got a track record in that field.
How did you come to be involved in the script for Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow?
PF: Well, I’ve known Brian for quite a few years. We first met at World Horror in Seattle in 2001, when we were both relatively young writers, and have kept in touch ever since. But my being recruited to write the first draft script for Dark Hollow came about as a bit of a coincidence. I’d worked with Paul Campion for several years on a movie called Voodoo Dawn, based on a short story of mine, ‘Law of the Jungle’ (it hasn’t been made yet, before you ask, but we live in hope). We were having trouble raising the finance, and because we needed to earn, we tentatively both began to look for different projects. Paul zeroed in on Dark Hollow as a potential US movie, having read the novel in the past, and when he was next over in the States he went to visit Brian at his home. While he was there, he was fascinated to see some of my books on the shelf in Brian’s living room. Brian mentioned that he and I knew each other, so Paul emailed me right there from Brian’s house and I suddenly found myself in a three-way email chat about Dark Hollow. Within a few weeks, Paul was back in Blighty, having secured the rights to a movie adaptation. The initial plan – simply because of budgetary constraints – was to set it in England, probably in a village down in the West Country. Personally I think it would have worked in that context had we been careful to steer it away from that rural demonology thing that’s gone on in British horror cinema for so long, though we were both still aware that the original Dark Hollow was a very American concept. Anyway, I produced a script which we both worked on through a couple of rewrites, but increasingly I don’t think either of us really thought we were doing the concept justice by not setting it in the States. At length, this began to affect our enthusiasm for the project. We continued to work on it, but other distractions were getting in the way, one of which, The Devil’s Rock, suddenly came to life when we received such an eager response from the New Zealand Film Commission. Dark Hollow went on the back-burner – but only briefly. That’s the way movie production works – no project is ever dead for long. Now that The Devil’s Rock is in the can, and has been sold to so many territories, Dark Hollow is up and running again, and we’re in a strong enough position to place it exactly where it was in the original novel, the US.
PF: I wrote for The Bill on-and-off for quite a few years, contributing episodes both before and during the ‘soap opera’ era. To be honest, the time available varied from episode to episode. My personal preference was for the earlier era, when each episode was a free-standing, self-contained police drama. There was a less frenetic atmosphere in those days, and I usually found that, once a premise had been accepted, I had several months in which to produce a treatment and then a script.
What lessons, if any did you learn from writing these scripts?
PF: An awful lot. As I mentioned earlier, I first worked on The Bill when I had no writing credits at all, so I basically learned everything I know now from working in that high pressure, highly professional environment. Of course television is organic, and its style evolves over the years. During my time on The Bill, I saw big changes. Episodes were edited a lot more tightly by the time I’d finished than they had been when I started. In many ways, they’d become a lot more filmic, and the scripts had to reflect this. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse with these things.
PF: That’s not strictly true, though I don’t blame you for not knowing this. I wrote an awful lot of television animation between finishing on The Bill and getting involved with Spirit Trap, plus a couple of other thriller and horror movie scripts, two of which The Golem and Deep Black – reached advanced stages of development, but Spirit Trap was the first feature film I penned which was actually shot and released to the cinemas.
Sad to say, but my involvement with Spirit Trap was relatively brief. I was brought in at quite a late stage as a ‘script doctor’ – in other words, the producer felt she had a script that was struggling and wanted someone to cast a fresh eye over it. I had a couple of meetings at Pinewood with the production team, which were very enjoyable and seemed to go swimmingly. The team were receptive to all my ideas. I then had a couple of weeks to turn the script around, which I did, making a few significant changes to the original, though not changing the overall concept, which I regarded at the time, and still do, as a really excellent and original template on which to build a horror movie.
Did you get to meet Billie Piper?
PF: No. Billie Piper was only cast after my final script was accepted. And as most of the filming was done in Romania, I couldn’t just pop down to the studio to watch, the way I used to with The Bill.
How happy were you with the finished film?
PF: I’m always very critical of my work after it’s been broadcast or published. I never like it, so I’m not the ideal person to ask about this. I’ve seen Spirit Trap about ten times since it was released, and I think it’s a great looking film – David Smith, who was the director, set up some lovely shots – but if I’m honest I think it lacks a bit of pace and clarity, for which I blame myself as the last writer through whose hands the script passed. That said, it seems to be quite a popular movie, and has now got a big cult following, which is nice and, as I say, may indicate that you’re not always the best judge of your own work.
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