AA: Hi Joe, thanks for taking time out to talk to The Brit List. What are you up to right now?
At the moment I’m in the last two weeks of filming on a show I created and wrote. It’s an 8 part series called Giri/Haji for Netflix and BBC2 with Sister Pictures. It’s about a Japanese detective who comes to London to try and find his wayward younger brother. It’s taken over my life for the last couple of years so I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with myself when it’s finished. Have a small existential crisis probably. I’ve also got some other stuff I’m developing and several emails from producers politely asking when I’m planning on delivering the scripts I promised them. I try to mark them all as spam but some still get through.
AA: I remember you talking about the idea nearly 5 years ago! Can you talk through the genesis of the idea and the journey you’ve taken to be at this stage of filming now?
JB: I had the idea for a while. About 7 years ago my girlfriend at the time was doing a masters degree in crime science and she told me one of her classmates was this middle aged Japanese detective who had been sent over by the Tokyo police to London to take the course and I just thought that sounded like an interesting character. I tried to pitch it as a low budget film a few times which didn’t really work but then I started thinking about it for TV and mentioned it to Jane Featherstone and Katie Carpenter when Sister Pictures had just started and they really liked it so… here we are! We’ve been filming for 9 months including 2 months in Tokyo and it’s going to feel very strange once it’s over.
AA: Wow, that’s a long evolutionary journey! Is that typical of the projects you’ve worked on? And once you’d settled on it being a story better suited for TV, what was the biggest challenge in the writing of it?
JB: There’s been a few things which have had pretty long gestations. The other original project of mine that I’ve gotten made so far is a film called MY DAYS OF MERCY which is coming out this year – I wrote the first draft of that 12 years ago. I’m hoping I won’t have to wait so long in the future!
The biggest challenge in doing Giri for TV was probably just the size of it. It’s 8×60 minute episodes which I wrote by myself. I hadn’t done anything of that size before but luckily we had quite a long prep time so I could get it all done.
AA: 12 years is a long time… was MY DAYS OF MERCY with a producer all that time and was it always in active development? And there’s your project that was on The Brit List in 2013 – INVASION. Is that still active?
JB: MY DAYS OF MERCY was mostly sitting in a drawer for that time but it did eventually get passed to Ellen Page and Kate Mara who were looking for a project to do together and they decided they wanted to produce and star in it which certainly moved things along quicker.
INVASION is still active. Been developing it pretty constantly since it got on The Brit List. Recently Michael Pearce who directed a film called BEAST came on board so hopefully that might be something that finally sees the light of day…
AA: I always think that it’s one of the strangest things about the film and tv industries – the way that there are so many different routes to getting something made. There is no one set pattern or rule to developing something to production. How do you deal with that?
Maybe you find that you give yourself structure in when and where you write, or maybe it’s more about what you choose to write?
JB: It’s weird. Obviously the more established you get the more streamlined the process becomes. Which can be a good or bad thing really – there’s definitely writers who can get stuff commissioned more easily which doesn’t necessarily encourage someone to do their best work! I suppose there’s sort of a route to it all – have an idea, get it optioned by an indie, develop it, take it to a channel/film fund. But obviously within that there’s loads of variables and the stuff you think has a good shot of getting made doesn’t and sometimes the surprising projects do. I’ve tried countless times to get TV shows made and they’ve all failed apart from one so I honestly have no idea how it works! I usually just start with quite a pessimistic view from the outset so that if anything does get made it’s just a nice surprise and if it doesn’t, well, it was still fun to write it.
AA: That sounds like a good way to stay in love with the fundamentals of writing process.
Where and when do you write – how do you plan your days, do you have a set routine?
JB: I don’t really plan my days. Generally I just write either the thing that I’m most excited about or the thing that I’m going to get yelled at the most for not finishing soon. Guilt is a good motivator. So is panic. But it’s always nice when something just flows because you’re enjoying it. I can’t write in cafes or anywhere public really. I sort of mumble a lot of my characters’ dialogue out loud when I’m writing so I just look like a crazy person. Sister Pictures gave me a little office for a while when I was doing Giri. Abi Morgan had been using it before me so I felt a lot of pressure to try and do good work in there. Eventually I think I just went back to writing at home but for a while it was nice to have to get up in the morning and go to work like a normal person.
AA: What’s your biggest challenge when writing?
JB: I don’t really like plot very much. If I could just write things where people sit around chatting that would suit me as I find trying to work out the mechanics of a story interminable. I mean, I can do it, because it’s my job. But it’s the worst part.
AA: Does this mean that you start your projects by focusing first of character – or is it a combination of character and the world they inhabit?
And, for you, what’s the most important aspect of building a great character?
JB: I think it’s best when you start with character whenever possible just because that’s the most important part and if you have a great concept but can’t think of any interesting people to populate it with then you’re a bit screwed. I mean, try and think of both, obviously…
I’m not sure exactly what the most important aspect of building a great character is though. I mean it’s fundamentally just coming up with someone you’re going to want to spend 90 minutes or so with. Maybe working out what flaws to give them is key. It’s why villains are often more interesting than heroes, cos they’ve got a bit more about them.
AA: How many projects do you work on at any one time?
JB: Probably more than I should! It’s good to have a few things you can bounce between but too much and you just start to feel a little swamped. Which is a bit of a world’s smallest violin situation but there you go.
AA: What’s been the hardest scene you’ve tackled? And what was the key to unlocking it?
JB: There was a scene in My Days of Mercy that was a sort of group therapy thing where the main character had to slightly break down under questioning. Because it was a therapy scene it was really hard not to make all the dialogue expositional and direct. There was just a lot of different things going on and it took weeks to get it right and then we didn’t film it cos we ran out of money. I can’t remember how I unlocked it. To be honest I probably didn’t – it was probably terrible and they just said we didn’t have the budget to be kind…!
AA: How frustrating! Have you come up a lot against having to change scripts to fit budgets? How do you think it affects the script (e.g. for the worse, or better)?
JB: Yeah, it happens quite often. I always thought it would mean stuff like ‘you can’t have a helicopter chase here’ but usually it’s just means you have less time for everything so it will most likely be the little scenes which aren’t considered vital to the story that you end up losing. Which usually translates as getting rid of interesting character beats and that can be a slippery slope to go down. Of course sometimes it works out for the best and forces you to come up with a more interesting way of doing things. And sometimes you just have to let go of that helicopter chase you always wanted.
AA: What advice would you give to screenwriters just starting out?
JB: When you’re first starting out focus your efforts on becoming a good writer rather than a professional writer. The 2nd part will follow the 1st.