Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of the most respected screenwriters working in the English film industry. After serving as the television critic for the magazine “Living Marxism,” he met Michael Winterbottom and the two collaborated on “Forget About Me” (1990). Winterbottom had made five more films based on Boyce’s screenplays, “Butterfly Kiss” (1995), “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997), “The Claim” (2000), “24 Hour Party People” (2002), “Code 46” (2003), and “A Cock and Bull Story” (2005). Boyce has also collaborated with the directors Danny Boyle “Millions” (2004), Alex Cox’s “Revenger’s Tragedy” (2002), and Anand Tucker “Hilary and Jackie” (1998).
In the words of film critic Roger Ebert, whom he interacted online at Ebert’s old CompuServe chat group in the early 1990s, Frank Cottrell Boyce is “arguably the most original and versatile screenwriter in [England].” Boyce has participated in Ebert’s Internet forum and on “The Claim” website as he doesn’t regard himself as a professional filmmaker, but more like a very enthusiastic fan. In his spare time, Boyce helps run a small independent movie house, making the popcorn duty and acting as an usher, which includes having to throw people out.
Boyce and Winterbottom began their collaboration when he was working on a script about the dangers of smoking for the same London television company where Winterbottom was working as a trainee editor, a position in which it was hard to make progress due to the seniority system. He was as frustrated as Winterbottom, and to escape their apprenticeship hell, Boyce wrote a spec script for Winterbottom to film. While the movie was never made, it was good enough to get producers interested in the duo.
From a script written by Boyce, Winterbottom made his first theatrical film, “Forget About Me,” which was released in 1990. Five years later, they teamed up again for “Butterfly Kiss” (1995), a road movie featuring Amanda Plummer as a homicidal lesbian. Boyce loves the film, which he says was written and shot very quickly.
“Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997), the duo’s next effort, was a docudrama about reporters covering the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Boyce’s sister’s ex-boyfriend was a journalist killed in Sarajevo, and the duo wanted to make a film about the human tragedy of the civil war there. Shot on location in Sarajevo despite great difficulties, Boyce says that the film “was made with great spirit.” Both the script and the finished film were unpolished, as they had wanted to shoot the film quickly.
Boyce is a Thomas Hardy fan, and Boyce wrote a script based on Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” called “Kingdom Come” that was later re-titled “The Claim” (2000) for release. Like Hardy’s novel, a man who sells his wife and daughter sets the events of “The Claim” in motion, although a change forced upon the filmmakers resulted in the narrative becoming fuzzy. Boyce was disappointed by the finished film for he believes the potential of the script, which he and Winterbottom worked on for two years, was not fully realized as Boyce had lost control over the script during the development process.
Financed by Pathe for Canadian $20 million, the biggest budget Winterbottom had ever worked with, the money people at Pathe were insistent that showing the man sell his wife and daughter at the beginning of the film would make him an unsympathetic character. Like the Hardy novel, Boyce’s script had started out with the Faust-bargain that determined the trio’s fate. In the script, the deal comes after a grueling trek through the cruel environment of the Sierra Mountains in which hope is faint and there is no turning back. So as not to lose sympathy for the hero, Pathe demanded that the event happen later in the movie, in flashback.
The scene does come later in the film, and the scene is not as elaborate as Boyce had written, thus dampening the desperation of the young Dillon, the movie’s protagonist. There is less of a sense in the film than in the screenplay that there is no turning back from his trek to Kingdom Come, the name on the shack of the lonely miner who will trade his claim for Dillon’s wife and baby. Shot at an altitude of 7,000 feet on Alberta’s Fortress Mountain in appalling conditions, Winterbottom’s ability to shoot the entire script was restricted.
By moving the protagonists’ “terrible crime,” as Boyce calls it, to the movie’s halfway point, the film was rendered unfocused and the theme of the terrible machinations of fate was ungrounded. The result was that the drama suffered. This “crime” against Boyce’s script by the producers rendered the film “pointless,” Boyce believes, still stung about giving in to the producers and not fighting for his own vision. “The Claim” opened to some fine reviews but was essentially dumped by its North American distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Featuring excellent, Oscar-caliber performances by Peter Mullan and Sarah Polley as father and daughter, and opening with 45 minutes of superb, hypnotic sequences that serve as a visual correlative of the characters’ atomization and loneliness in this awesome physical landscape, the film deserved a better fate.
Critic David Thomson was very impressed by “The Claim,” both by the drama and the visuals. Winterbottom’s director of photographer, xxx xxx, had innovatively photographed the snow using black and white stock that was seamlessly matched to the color footage. The landscapes were as cold and forbidding as any ever caught on film, and foreshadowed the fate of the protagonist Dillon’s soul.
“24 Hour Party People” (2002), a free-wheeling, high-spirited movie about the Manchester, England nightclub impresario Tony Wilson, was the Winterbottom-Boyce team’s next project. Wilson was the man who helped transform the British music scene in the 1980s after being enthralled by a Sex Pistols concert. Boyce is not an anal retentive-type when it comes to his screen writing, and he freely admits that the script of “24 Hour Party People” was never actually finished. However, he does dispute critics’ perceptions that Steve Coogan, who brilliantly limned Wilson in what many assumed was an improvised performance due its freshness, winged it. Wilson’s verbal flights of fancy were in fact scripted.
Tony Wilson was a generous soul, eager to spread his good fortune around, which made him an attractive character to Boyce. Fueled by ecstasy, the Manchester music scene exploded like the beer-and-amphetamine rock n’ roll scene in Boyce’s native Liverpool a generation before. It all comes crashing down, but not before Winterbottom (a native of the Manchester area) and Boyce turned in one of their most entertaining films.
For other filmmakers, Boyce wrote the screenplay for Anand Tucker’s “Hilary and Jackie” (1998), the story of cellist Jacqueline du Pre and her sister. The film attracted the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and Emily Watson and her co-star Rachel Griffiths both won Academy Award nominations as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, for playing Jackie and Hillary, respectively. Boyce also wrote the screen adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s 17th century play “The Revenger’s Tragedy” for cult director Alex Cox.
With “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle, most famous for that film about Edinburgh’s heroin addicts, Boyce gave the cinematic world the family film “Millions,” in which two small boys find and spend the swag from a train robbery. Boyce was given the honorific “Written by” in the credits, the equivalent of a director’s “A film by” but even rarer, showing the respect that he has earned in the industry..
Boyce wrote the script immediately after “Welcome to Sarajevo,” but English producers, used to financing quirky, niche films for the art house crowd or mid-Atlantic comedies featuring the likes of Hugh Grant, were wary of a family film as that would mean competing with Hollywood on its own turf. The script didn’t’ attract the interest of producers until Boyle attached himself to it. Boyle’s low-budget zombie chiller “28 Days Later” (2003) had grossed over $45 million at the box office, making him a hot property and “Millions” a go. The movie represents a radical departure in both subject matter and tone for both Boyce and Boyle, a fact pointed out by critics. However, Frank Cottrell Boyle, in an interview with Roger Ebert, told him “it’s the destination I’ve been trying to get to for a long time. ” Boyce has turned his screenplay into a novel, which has been published by Macmillan in the UK and by HarperCollins in the US.
The film features its young protagonist conversing matter-of-factly with several saints, whom he is an expert on. Boyle had read an Ebert interview with Martin Scorsese in which the great American director recounted that he’d been influenced by a book detailing the lives of saints, “The Six O’clock Saints.” Boyce then reread the dictionary of saints he’d had since childhood and found that there was a plethora of stories there, “narrative cash” he calls it.
In the Ebert interview, Boyce said, “People think of saints as vaguely nice and virtuous but in fact they were often difficult, mad, driven by a different energy….. The thing about the saints is that for nearly 2,000 years they were the popular culture. Those gory, erotic statues you see in old churches are like early cinema….”
Working in a national film industry always teetering on the brink of financial disaster, Boyce is able to ply his craft outside of London, living in Liverpool with his wife and seven children. Boyce thinks he’s been lucky in that he’s never actually written a hit movie, though the curse of “hit” screen writers is that if they write something that is not subsequently a hit, they have failed. Though Boyce has had his disappointments, he has never failed. “I’ve never done anything that I had to live up to!”
The films written by the former TV critic for “Living Marxism frequently feature the trope of money and the power it exerts over people. Money, realized in the trading of his wife and child for a gold mine claim, destroys Dillon in “The Claim.” The reckless generosity of Tony Wilson sets up his eventual fall in “24-Hour Party People,” while in “Millions,” children hands out wads of cash before the introduction of the euro would make their loot worthless. Boyce thinks the importance of money in his films is not rooted in Marxism but “from working in the film industry where money is like an actual physical force acting on you all the time – like gravity or something.” He describes his life philosophy as “Reckless Generosity,” a fusion of Tony Wilson and St. Francis of Assisi.
Frank Cottrell Boyce told Ebert, “I’m not sure that I’m that successful! I think I’ve probably let others do all the moving and shaking for me. Living far away from London may have something to do with it. People hesitate about calling you down to meetings so you never get sacked. Maybe people don’t want to sack someone who’s got so many mouths to feed!”
His advice on scriptwriting and actually getting films made is to work with people you like and get on with, rather than selecting people for technical expertise. That way, “[Y]our script usually ends up less mangled.”
Michael Winterbottom’s forthcoming “A Cock and Bull Story” (2005) is based on Boyce’s adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman.” The classic novel is the autobiography of a man who never gets around to being born, focusing instead on the events that will propel this new life into the world. In fact, “Tristam Shandy” was the first project that Boyce had ever pitched to Winterbottom.
“The book is about the birth of a baby, and about how all your hopes for the baby are dashed but somehow it doesn’t matter.”
Boyce says that the movie, which is a movie about the making of a movie, is “quite a warm film about the fun of the film set.” Starring Steve Coogan, Boyce claims that it actually is more evocative of Francois Truffaut’s “La nuit americaine” (1973) than it is one of Charlie Kaufman’s screen writing exercises.
Currently, Boyce is working on an adaptation of “The Odyssey” aimed at a young audience which focuses on Odysseus’ son Telemachus. On the advice of his young sons, he is including the interactions of his characters with the gods, something the movie “Troy” neglected.
In terms of the screen writing craft, Frank Cottrell Boyce feels that the much-heralded “Three-Act Structure” for motion picture screenplays is bollocks. He points out that the structures of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” are accumulations of anecdotes through which the audience pieces together the storyline by themselves. As for the admonition that writers should only write what they know about, Boyce counters with the example of Shakespeare. One needs not be a king to write “The Tragedy of Richard III.”
Essentially, Boyce and his collaborators are in the long-line of screen writers and directors descended form Maurice Tourneur. Tourneur was one of the first in Hollywood to argue against convention in favor of a more artistic, expressionistic cinema free of the formulas of the penny dreadful pulp fiction and other vulgar entertainments of the masses. Like Tourneur, they believe that the audience is smart enough to understand a picture that does not rely on hackneyed formulas. While Boyce had trouble breaking out of the “art film ghetto” with his relatively large-budgeted “The Claim,” his dedication to his craft and his principles promise that art house patrons, if not the masses, will be enjoying stimulating entertainments for years to come.