Litro magazine article

Putting Words in a Goat’s Mouth

One of my guilty pleasures is to sit on Norwegian public transport and think up stories.  With the eternal landscapes of rock, fjord and tree, the often dreary weather, the indecipherable town names and long distances, making up fiction is just about the best use of your time.  That was where, several years ago, I had the idea of writing about a goat that could speak.  The story arrived fully formed – two sisters living in a decrepit cottage, a dirty caravan at the end of the garden, a mysterious goat tethered to a heavy iron chain.  As I looked at the millionth tree of Norway passing by the window, this goat appeared, suddenly traveling with me, in perfect detail.  I saw the tobacco whiskers of its beard, the horizontally slit pupils in its pale ungodly eyes, and its blackened tongue behind a filthy white row of teeth.  Little did I know that one day I would peer into a trailer and meet this goat, on a film-set.  And I would make it talk.

A few weeks ago I received UK Film Council lottery funding to adapt my first novel, SALT, into a film script.  I started the process symbolically, by taking the novel off the shelf and placing it on my desk.  But the business of adapting your own work into a film-script is far from straightforward.  Long before the battles with financing, casting, script editors and producers, executives and production coordinators, you have to do battle with yourself.  SALT had once been a heavy-weight draft coming in at 130,000 words.  For publication I slimmed that down to a leaner and meaner fighting weight of 106,000 words, but there, on my desk, it seemed a fairly heavy beast, none the less.  One of the more surprising aspects about being a novelist is just how often your books appear fuller of words than you remember.  Pages and pages of them, sentences you can’t recall ever writing, words you don’t even use in your vocabulary any more.  It’s daunting, as if the novel might have been growing fatter on the shelf, after spending so much time mixing with other books.  
Faced with the task of arranging a sprawling text into a precisely organised film script, some writers begin with impressive wall charts and plot breakdowns, or get holy with it, writing Character Bibles and Mission Statements.  Others go to the stationers for advice, and emerge with lurid day-glo highlighter pens.  But I tend to start with a casual mid-morning assassination of my lesser characters.  I try to be civilised about it, but it soon becomes a vicious fistfight.  For a start, they outnumber you.  SALT has a hoard of them, wandering through the pages, full of self-importance and author-given right to be there.  Giving them the elbow can be savage.  Some characters, of course, behave from the start, knowing the rigours and economy required of a film script not to mess around.  They quickly learn to talk succinctly, don’t mind rapid cuts between scenes, will never demand a Winnebago.  But others – usually the minor ones – the ones holding on to a few prize lines of dialogue, can suddenly whip up a storm, nagging you with the possibility of extra scenes, explaining how they are key to an otherwise meandering plotline.  In short, they turn out to have more character than you gave them credit for.  And devious, too.  They wait for you to weaken, to feel sorry for them, and then suddenly there you have it – you’ve written three extra pages of Lonnie Lemon eating a cooked breakfast in the middle of the script.  He’s done it right at the point where all the How to Write a Film Script manuals would tell you there Needs To Be An Inciting Incident.  
What soon becomes apparent is the rocky road of your characters reinventing themselves a second time round.  Now there is nothing automatically wrong with that, clearly they will have to change, because a film is not a novel, it requires a more specific language, but it’s worth bearing in mind characters can be wrecking balls, jostling for space, and you need to learn a new discipline in bringing them to order.  Otherwise, your film script will move from the acceptable term of ‘Adaptation,’ to the more loose-jointed term of ‘Based On,’ and then beyond, into the uncharted and probably un-financable – ‘New Story with Little Reference to…’

A similar dirty war can happen with story.  We all know how a novel can sluggishly meander across its own created landscape, with pretty little digressions, tangential ideas, and the occasional whiff of purple prose.  A few pages of the author’s childhood anecdotes can shore up the text here and there, and no one really minds if you go into a little bit of extra detail if the writing’s good.  There’s a gravity and maturity in a good thick book – it makes you think of Dostoyevsky and Melville, authors with real ideas to talk about, real whales to chase.  But you can forget those high ideals when it comes to a script.  Pages mean money, simple as that.  All you need to make a film is cash, lots of it, and the more expense that’s written onto the page, the less chance it has of getting made.
With this in mind, it might be advisable to get those day-glo highlighter pens after all.  Yellow for ‘essential,’ orange for ‘they might stretch to it,’ and red for ‘you’ll never be commissioned again.’  It’s surprising, applying this criteria, just how much of a novel becomes problematic.  As you begin to break it down, slashing and burning all your previous hard work, the ghostly spectres of future executive producers gather at your elbows, shaking their heads and rolling their eyes as you try to hold on to vestiges of story.  You can form quite a strong relationship with these phantom executives, they whisper left-field suggestions in your ear such as – should this be an animation? or, let’s start at the end, lose the mother, drop the father, make it a comedy, is comedy still funny?  It’s worth rehearsing such random creative battles, because one day, believe it, you’ll be hearing them for real. 
But there’s a sport to be had fighting these money battles, and personally, I like to keep a few high-expense set-pieces on the page, as negotiation chips I can trade in down the line.  OK, let’s drop the aerial shot, but keep the tiger chase?  That’s worth saying in an executive’s office at some point. In ten years of working as a script editor for the BBC and Film Four, I heard some pretty astonishing comments.

But something more worrying is bothering me as I look at that book on my desk.  For some reason, I tend to write unfilmable novels.  The protagonist in SALT is mostly mute.  Now that’s a difficult one to solve.  Your middle-of-the-night solutions to that emerge in the light of day as the thoughts of a madman.  And get this – my new novel, THE WAKE, which is published this month, features a rampaging stallion running amok, a violent storm in the middle of the North Sea, and a roving cinematic landscape across the Southern States of America from Florida to Texas.  I clearly don’t learn.  In fact, I remember thinking how impossible a film script of this novel might be, as I sat writing it in my shed.  Given my film background, this tendency of mine to write unfilmable novels is a surprise, even to me.

When your morale slips, it helps to remember just how awful the process of novel writing can be, with all that prose scene-setting, the moving of characters from one place to another, and all the he said and she saids that navigate the reader through an essentially unseen landscape.  All those pulled teeth spent worrying.  Surely a film script, with its eloquent use of directions and cuts, offers an amazing liberation.  Cut to: Lonnie Lemon, eating his sausage, is a sheer joy to write – a saving not just of wordage, but of the agony too.  The beauty of the film script is that most of it doesn’t exist.  It’s a series of suggestions for others to interpret. 
And writing a novel is often a solitary and exhausting business.  The buck stops with you, on every word, it’s continually demanding.  But with a film-script, the knowledge that you are one part of an ever-expanding team can be a huge relief.  The writer is just one of the many talents working hard to bring it to life.  The director, producer, editor, actors, and every last member of crew and support from make-up to gaffer, are all there to bring their own expertise and imagination to the project.  Your creativity can double, then triple, as others become inspired, and areas of sound and vision you’d never considered bring a vital new life to your work.  Personally, I love this feeling of creative get-together, and the script really has to acknowledge it too.  You need to know your place.  
But you also have to be prepared for a possible downside to this team approach.  One of those talents coming to your adaptation might be a cuckoo, a new writer brought on board to bring new dimensions to your script.  I’ve seen it happen many times before, and seen it work well, too.
Which reminds me, it’s often said authors don’t make the best adapters of their own work.  It’s worth forgetting that, because you have to believe in the script with the same commitment you had when you wrote the book.  But with one difference – you no longer own it.  You have to adapt, as an author, before you begin to adapt your book.  My only real tip is to know the material well, and imagine the film it might be.  Often this involves a kind of imaginative projection of it, and your role is to transcribe the possibilities of what your seeing.

As I begin to adapt SALT, it’s useful to remember how the process has succeeded before.  And that’s where the goat comes back in.  After getting off that Norwegian bus, the goat made its first appearance in a short story – a contemporary ghost story.  A couple of years later I looked at what I’d written and decided to adapt it into a short film script.  The sisters changed names, they became younger, in more precarious circumstances, and the cottage became a scruffy low-rise block by a South London allotment.  The goat survived the transition to script relatively unchanged.  Still rough, old, mysterious and malevolent. It still had those tobacco whiskers and black tongue.  Soon after I wrote the script, Channel Four decided to fund it, and then the real changes began.  A director was hired, then fired, another one found, executives rattled their sabres, testing how loyal I was to the characters, actresses were cast and locations found.  Throughout this process, it seemed the one untouchable aspect was the goat itself.  But as the production neared, even this became up for grabs.  If you’ve never been to a goat casting session, believe me it’s one of the more peculiar aspects of film making.  I was shown many photos of varying livestock: from magnificent regimental mascots (in full military regalia) to fluffy blown-dried pets.  But not so many of my stinky stubborn variety.  At a wedding I met a woman who kept an old goat in Bath – she offered to shove it in the back of a car and drive it up to London.  I also went to a circus and saw a troupe of performing goats, and was reassured that they could be taught.  One was very devilish looking.  It couldn’t speak, but it could probably roll a cigarette with one hoof.  Then goat wranglers - now that’s a job-title! – started to demand special conditions for themselves and their cloven footed charges, and extraordinary bureaucratic conditions emerged concerning the transporting of livestock across London.  It looked like filming would be virtually impossible – unless a goat could be walked to set.  One goat – boy he was the real deal – belligerent and mean – just plain refused to do anything for camera.  I rather respected him for that.

It was two years after coming up with the story when I finally walked across an allotment in Merton and peered into the trailer to meet my goat.  Cut to ‘Billy’: a handsome, proud, long-horned goat, standing in the hay.  At last, the illusionary drafts of fiction had condensed into a real, living, breathing animal.  It looked back at me, with no sign of recognition.  That day it was pouring with rain, the lights of the film set were steaming and the crew were gathered round in all weather gear as the goat was led by a short tether, first to do a scene in a caravan, and second, to go into a house, where it would climb onto a bed and look down menacingly at an actress.  Throughout that day, the goat was clearly convinced it was due a particularly strange ritual slaughter.  Goats have a nose for approaching sacrifice, and I felt ashamed, and guilty, that I had led this animal to screen, for this.  But I also had feelings of endless possibilities – that fiction can be spun and refashioned, transforming from ideas to notebooks to novels to scripts, and at times it can even exist in the real world, with real people speaking real lines.  So, next time you’re on a bus in Norway, listen to the goat.  You never know where he may lead you.