Grisoni, Tony (Screenwriter, Red Riding Trilogy)
“Yorkshire Noir. Dickens on bad acid.” -- Tony Grisoni on Red Riding. Tony Grisoni did it. Wrote the whole lot. All 278 minutes of the Red Riding Trilogy, which was adapted from David Peace’s noir epics. Dread Central recently sat down with him to get the scoop on the details, the process, Poe, and even Terry Gilliam.
What we present now are only the facts — under the grim light of day. They say it’s a nightmare town out there, filled with corruption and woe. I’d say beware of wolves and stick to the path.
Heather Buckley: What is the origin of the title Red Riding?
Tony Grisoni: For administrative purposes, the English county of Yorkshire is divided into three; one of these is known as West Riding. So the title Red Riding plays off these historic boundaries. But, of course, there’s also the allusion to the Grimm’s fairy tale with all its original nightmare and rites of passage and morality and primal terror.
HB: Can you talk to us more about the animal metaphors in the film? Rats? Pigs? Wolves?
TG: I generally trust metaphors and am nervous about prodding them. They can turn nasty. People are sometimes given a nickname because of a physical characteristic: Badger (if the person in question has a white streak in his hair for instance) or Owl (wears glasses) or Pig (is fat and has the name Piggott!) These are examples from Red Riding. They are fun because they encapsulate a particular element of a character.
What became clear as I wrote the screenplays was how these “animals” proliferated. A whole menagerie! It seems to me that this connects with animism — the pagan sense that souls inhabit creatures and objects and even natural phenomena. The entire world is literally alive with meaning and magical significance.
HB: What were the challenges faced in combining the David Peace novels into an over five-hour epic? Were there any techniques you used to keep track of all the interwoven plot points and keep the characters cohesive?
TG: Well, in the first instance, I wrote four screenplays, one from each of the novels. Had we filmed all four, there would have been a six-and-a-half-hour epic! So you have been spared.
I wanted to enter the world David had created without a map. The experience of reading the novels took such a strong hold on me, I felt as I felt when waking from a strong nightmare as a child, not knowing what was real or phantom. And I wanted to replicate or relive that intense feeling of having a foot in two worlds. Once or twice people have joyfully pointed out that the Red Riding narrative has holes or inconsistencies. Like we didn’t know. That was the whole point -- to create a narrative that spun off into the dark, that felt like it had an existence beyond the fictions. It meant asking for the freedom to launch straight into the adaptation rather than produce interminable treatments and outlines and all the rest that help crush out the life of drama.
I was fortunate that I was surrounded by people who were willing to trust my instincts. Producer Andrew Eaton was in constant touch. We’d meet once a week, and we would chat about what was happening in the Red Riding Underworld. There was also Kate Ogborn, who headed up Revolution Films’ TV development at the time. She has the misfortune to live between my house and the local library in Stoke Newington where I wrote for two years. So I would knock on her door every other breakfast time and kvetch for an hour, then leave her exhausted and head off to work.
Hayley Williams was another angel; her job was to deconstruct and cross-reference every character and every event in the novels. In that way, when I was in the middle of this chaos and needed a little stability, I could reference these vast wall charts Hayley made and find out roughly what latitude and longitude I was at. David was living in Tokyo at the time. He did that generous thing; he stepped back from the screenplays but at the same time made himself available for email or texts or phone calls to help me with my long, long list of questions. He became a friend.
HB: Over how many months was this series shot?
TG: 1974, 1980, and 1983 were shot so that they overlapped. The shoot was a phenomenally complex operation overseen by producers Andrew Eaton, Anita Overland, and Wendy Brazington. You should speak to those people to hear their stories. They were nothing short of heroic.
I was in constant touch with the directors throughout the process through to the final cut. Things change on the set; something that works on the page needs adjusting or even throwing away. There are different energies at play, new people; in short, reality bites. I love being at the party. I love playing my part.
I remember meeting Peter Mullan on the set of 1983. A good man. A fine actor and director. He was sitting in a chair on the set of the police station basement, the belly. He was wearing a blanket round his shoulders, and his face was spotted with rat’s blood. It wasn’t Peter at all; it was Reverend Laws, and I couldn’t stay in his company longer than a minute. I was freaked. I had to get out of there. I had an even darker meeting in a Soho pub with Sean Bean, who plays John Dawson. But that’s another story.
HB: You have worked with Terry Gilliam in the past, and Tideland certainly had dark subject matter. Plus you’ve written weird and wonderful flicks like Brothers of the Head. What is your fascination with these types of stories?
TG: There is a great quote from a story by Edgar Allan Poe that goes like this: “March 1st - Many unusual phenomena now, indicated that we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder.”
Seems to me that’s the place to be constantly entering a world filled with unknowable things. You mention Tideland and Brothers of the Head, but there is In This World (directed by Michael Winterbottom) where two young Afghani boys go on an epic journey into unchartered territories. There is The Unloved (directed by Samantha Morton) where a young girl survives brutal reality through recourse to her own inner sense of the spiritual.
So, these stories are often about survival against the odds and usually involve people reinventing themselves in quite bizarre ways. I think it was Phillip K. Dick who reckoned the only sane reaction to the world was one of madness.
The other theme that attracts me is the notion of the past as a living thing. We are surrounded by politicians and property developers eager to expunge all. It’s dangerous. We should not forget. But anyhow the real past lives on in us. Truth will out.
HB: Would you ever consider making a feature-length horror film?
TG: Only if it crept up on you. Only if you started out thinking you were watching a romantic comedy.
HB: How did you feel each of the three directors interpreted your screenplay?
TG: Julian Jerrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker are three of the most talented directors working anywhere right now. It was a privilege and a joy to work with them. They are three very different people and so we worked in different ways, but their commitment and generosity was constant. We (not just the directors, but the producers, the actors, the cinematographer, the editor, the soundman, everyone who makes a film) interpreted the material together. It’s never a matter of the written being passed down from the heights. That would be boring.
HB: Are you a big fan of noir/neo-noir? Any favorites in film? Authors? Titles?
TG: Producer Mike Elliott gave me the John Franklin Barden trilogy he wrote in 1946-48 to read recently. Barden is way, way out there. I’m holding on tight.
HB: Lastly, do you have any great Gilliam stories?
TG: I ran into Terry the other day in London’s Oxford Street. He was strangely calm. I said I really hoped we’d get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote going this spring. He smiled in a reassuringly zen-like manner and said that of course we would. Then he drifted away into the crowds. I think he may have found god. Or some money.
Big thanks to David for taking the time to talk with us. Check out the individual trailers for the Red Riding Trilogy (review here) below. All three films are available right now OnDemand.
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