Without doubt one of the best movies we've seen so far this year - well we know it's early days yet but nevertheless, it'll take a serious belter to knock this one off our top spot - we couldn't pat the folk at JDIFF any more on the back for choosing such a fantastic festival opener. Based on a novel by Daniel Clay and directed by Rufus Norris, Broken (starring Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy) is compelling from beginning to end. While I could babble on here about the ins and outs of the plot - the story's treatment of mental health issues, violence, and father/daughter relationships - I'd rather not spoil the rich cinematic experience that awaits you. Rather, I'll let novelist Daniel Clay do the talking. Clay was kind enough to share with me his experience of taking Broken from the seeds of an idea right through to the big-screen masterpiece that it has become. Having endured more than a few hiccups along the way, Clay's is a fantastic success story, if ever we heard one.
So Daniel, how long was this in the works? When did you first write the book?
I wrote the novel in 2005 but I was an unpublished author with no links to anyone in the publishing industry so it was a case of sending off unsolicited submissions to publishing houses and agents in the hope of catching someone's eye. Two years and countless rejections later, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown Literary Agency read the same submission everyone else had turned down and fell in love with it and things started moving from there; the novel was published in 2008 and the film rights were optioned by Cuba Pictures in conjunction with BBC Films the same year. Since then, with the film, it's been a case of ups and downs with different actors being attached then suddenly not being attached and funding disappearing with them and all sorts of shenanigans like that, but it finally started filming late 2011 and had its worldwide premiere when opening Critics' Week at Cannes last year.
What was the inspiration behind this?
I think for Rufus Norris (the director) - and a lot of the people tied to the film - the inspiration to run with it seems to be the story's different portrayals of parenthood.
For me, it was reading To Kill A Mockingbird for the first ever time in 2004 and starting to think about two things, really - the fact To Kill A Mockingbird was a debut novel written by a woman who was earning a living as a clerk for an American airline at the time she wrote it (plus wondering what sort of novel she would write if she was living my life and drawing inspiration from the things going on around me) and also wondering how the main family structures in To Kill A Mockingbird might interact with each other and the world around them in a modern English suburb. Broken isn't a re-telling of To Kill A Mockingbird or written in the same style as To Kill A Mockingbird, but the background of how To Kill A Mockingbird came to be written and the differences between that depression-era society and our own society were the things that inspired me to write it.
Have you experienced anything like any of the subplots here?
Yes, definitely - though, thankfully, always on a smaller scale. In terms of the Oswald family (the neighbours from hell, for anyone who's not seen the film or read the book yet), I've never lived next door to a nightmare like Bob, but I've met a few people like him I would not have liked to have ended up living next door to and my wife and I have lived in a house where the local kids were constantly gobbing off at you the way the Oswald girls torment the Buckleys. I've also lived through a heart-breaking situation where someone close to me has been sectioned; I think, being honest, more of us have than we care to admit, and one of the things I think both the novel and the film are particularly strong on is the sense of social awkwardness Mr and Mrs Buckley have about the situation and the way they try to carry on with their son as if everything is normal when it's patently anything but.
What's the message you hope audiences will take away from this?
Think about your actions and the consequences they might have on those around you. You just never know what's going on in somebody's head or the buttons you're pushing when showing other people little or no consideration.
The cast is all fantastic here - wholly convincing in each and every role - how do you feel about the actors who have portrayed your characters?
Just overjoyed they were attracted to the roles they fulfill in the film, really, and also that they were willing to make sacrifices to ensure the film got made at a time when raising money to make such films is proving more and more difficult to do. It's not just the cast, though; Mark O'Rowe's script, Rufus's direction, Rob Hardy's camera work, Damon Albarn and the rest of Electric Wave Bureau's score. Everyone involved has been brilliant. It's been amazing to see it unfold.
What's it like seeing your story come to life on the big screen? Is it a nerve wracking experience?
I guess it's different for every writer, but for me it hasn't always felt like a positive thing - the waiting, mainly, and the wondering whether it will happen or not, and the fact you can't really control whether it will happen - and the idea there are people out there you'll never, ever know about, and they're taking huge decisions about whether something as spectacular as a film adaptation of your debut novel is going to be made... and all this is before shooting's even started... but once shooting did start, even though I hadn't read the script, just looking at the cast list and knowing the same production team behind the film adaptation of Jonathan Trigell's Boy A were involved... I just sensed they were going to do something special. And I know I'm biased, but I think that they have.
How involved were you in the filmmaking process?
As you can probably guess from the above, not at all. I just signed some papers and then started to worry about the finances I wasn't involved in raising and not having any control over whether certain actors would stick around or not. It's one of those strange things where you hear nothing for months, then suddenly get an e-mail saying 'such and such is attached, this is fantastic' then hear nothing for months, then suddenly get an e-mail saying 'such and such has done one, it's not fantastic anymore'... then all of a sudden, within a matter of weeks – after four years of wondering and waiting - Tim Roth has signed up and they're actually shooting the film. I like to think if I hadn't worried so much, it would never have happened. The whole thing. It's all down to me.
I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading your novel - I will get to it very soon- but how close to the book is the film?
It's hard to explain... but in some ways it's totally different, and in other ways it's exactly the same. I think in sentiment both are identical, but there are things that happen in the novel that, for me, would never have worked in the film, so I'm glad Mark O'Rowe and Rufus Norris took a different route to tell the same story. I also love the fact you can read the novel and be surprised by the film or see the film and then be very surprised by the novel. Watching it for the first time was so strange, though. I'd avoided reading the script so other than seeing the trailer I didn't have a clue what it was going to be like. That was just such a completely surreal experience. I know I'm a writer and should be able to describe it better than that. But I can't. It was simply surreal.
How fragile do you have to be when depicting a mental health breakdown? How important do you think it is to highlight? Is it being addressed enough in today's society?
I don't know about fragile, but I thought a lot about sadness when working on the character of Rick 'Broken' Buckley, and I thought a lot about regret. Professionally, I was in a very unhappy place when I was working on the novel; I hated the company I worked for and couldn't stand a lot of the managers there but I couldn't leave because the chances of getting a job that paid as well in the same area were pretty slim, so I just kept having this feeling inside me... if I could just go back, change things, and of course I was thinking about my career and (lack of) qualifications, but I just felt so trapped and unhappy that it felt right to give this character the same feelings but about his childhood and his life and all the things that had conspired to leave him hiding away in his bedroom and watching the world through the gaps in the curtains. For me, it was the expression of his sadness and the fact I shared it in an area of my own life that made him feel so real in my head. So I think, as with any character, you need to feel you can express the world through their eyes and maybe think - what's the part of me that could turn into this person? How can I make him real for a reader? How can I make the reader understand what he feels?
As for important to highlight it, yes; especially, for me, in terms of Broken's mother and father, who are so desperate to help their son and love him so much but don't really know how to galvanise the social services system on his behalf - I think Clare Burt, Denis Lawson and Robert Emms who play the Buckley family in the movie have done fantastic work with extremely difficult roles. But it's an extremely difficult thing to address, especially in terms of producing a novel people will still want to read or a film people will still want to go and see. I think it works in Broken because it's a consequence of the story, not the point of the story, and the reader is given access to Broken's thoughts as he begins to unravel. But there is a fantastic debut novel coming out in a couple of months called The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait which shows there are writers thinking very deeply about the effects of depression and producing great literature that is moving and inspiring to read as well as helping us understand what living in a household affected by depression and mental illness might really be like.
There's a great balance of humour and drama here too - difficult tightrope to walk?
I wasn't aware of trying to walk one when writing the novel. I think, instinctively, I just felt that the Buckley family was off limits for humour, the Oswalds are the sort of family many of us laugh at in a horrified, sneery way, and the Cunningham family - especially Skunk, with the way she questions everything going on around her, and her father, where he'll often say the most ridiculous things just to shut her up - were the release valve. Again, the film's quite different. There's a great series of scenes with excrement-throwing twins who don't even exist in the book, and there's a beautifully sad/funny scene with the Buckleys towards the end of the film that isn't in the book either. It's great to sit in a cinema and actually hear the reactions of the people sitting around you, and the best compliment I can pay the film is that the couple sitting in front of me when it premiered at the London Film Festival spent eighty minutes laughing and ten minutes crying.
Is there a potential here for a follow on story to see where life takes Skunk or do you feel happy to leave it at the film's close?
I think, for me, Skunk's voice belongs to a girl of her age; she's on the cusp and everything's starting to make sense and yet not making sense all at the same time. It wouldn't seem right to try and imagine her at a different stage in her life. I'd worry too much about how it might jade her. I'd be tempted to have Bob Oswald or one of his daughters pop up in a future novel, though. Bad pennies like Bob - they don't go away. Again, though, his fate in the novel is quite different to how things end up for him in the film; I can see quite a few possibilities for him fifteen or so years on from the end of the novel.
Tim Roth as Archie - what a fantastic casting choice - I'm interviewing him next week. Are you a fan of his work?
A huge fan. There's some films he's been in that I'll re-watch just to see his performances; Rob Roy and the Planet of the Apes reboot spring to mind. He was a class apart in both of those films. Like everyone else on the planet, I love him in Pulp Fiction: It's impossible to catch the first scene without watching the whole film. When I first heard he was interested it was so out of the blue and such a turn around because Colin Firth had been attached to play Archie, but as soon as he won his King's Speech Oscar I started to worry he'd be inundated with other offers and just had this awful feeling a lot of the finance would disappear with him. So the phone rings... and then for a few weeks after Colin had pulled out there was just silence, and I knew, if the film was going to start shooting that year it had to start shooting soon because it's a film set in school summer holidays and the leaves were starting to fall, and then you start to think, well, if it doesn't happen this year, will Cillian Murphy still be able to do it? Will Cuba Pictures and BBC Films still be interested? Will Rufus Norris keep hanging on? And they haven't even cast someone to play Skunk and the other children in the film yet because they've got to be a certain age so there's no point sorting that out until the money and the rest of the cast are all in place, etc., etc., panic, panic, and then there's another phone-call to say Tim Roth's attached and everything just fell into place. It was still all up in the air after the first phone call, but I think the producers were worried about me and told me as soon as they could.
Broken premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on February 14th. For those of you lucky enough to have nabbed a ticket, you are in for a treat.