Interview With Sergio Casci

Sergio Casci is a Glasgow based screenwriter whose television credits include River City, Personal Affairs and Sea of Souls. His first feature film, American Cousins (2003), a romantic comedy about a Scots-Italian fish and chip shop owner who takes in his American Mafia cousins when they go on the run, was voted third best Scottish film of all time in a poll by The List magazine. His most recent film, The Caller, stars Rachelle Lefevre (New Moon, Twilight) and Stephen Moyer (True Blood). Filmed at the end of last year in Puerto Rico, the psychological thriller about a divorcee tormented by sinister phone calls will be released later in 2010.

I got into screenwriting while I was working as a BBC news trainee. After a couple of years I realised that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to being a journalist. When a big story broke other people were desperate to get sent on it and I was hiding in the toilets. I was a bit of a wimp. I was talking to a newsreader there about how lots of Scots-Italians come from this one small village in Tuscany called Barga, which is where my family come from, and she thought it was a great idea for a documentary. I went to speak to somebody who worked in features at BBC Scotland and she put me in touch with this documentary maker, Don Coutts. We came up with an idea for a documentary and I went over to Barga with him and he directed it. It was a really lovely film; very lyrical, very warm hearted, because he’s that kind of director. We got to know each other very well and it turned out that we both really wanted to make films so I went away and I wrote a full length feature screenplay, a sort of European political sex comedy thriller, which – given that the films that tend to succeed are single genre films – was destined for failure. It was a real learning experience so I thought I would be a bit less ambitious and try to make a short film.

My first short film was called Dead Sea Reels and it was about a magical piece of film which, when you play it through a projector, shows you what you need to see. The film went on to win an international award was very well received. That gave me a lot of encouragement. I wrote more short films which Don directed so in the end we made three short films together.

I started writing for television after that and eventually I reached the stage where I was earning as much from writing as I was from journalism. I had a lot of work lined up so I thought, ‘This is the time to jump.’ As soon as I left my job at the BBC, all the work immediately dried up. I had a shocking six months. It was almost like the universe had conspired to fool me.

The thing that saved my career was River City. I got involved when it was just being set up and they gave me quite regular work which meant that I could feed my family. With River City you get a bible, character outlines, the back story of each character and, if you go in for a commissioning meeting, they’ll give you an A story, a B story and a C story. Within each story they’ll tell you where they want the characters to start and finish and you have to bring the thing to life and inject as much drama as possible.

Writing for a continuing drama is not that different from writing your own film. With River City you’re working with someone else’s show so you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. There are so many people involved – writers, technicians, producers – that you all have to follow what the centre is saying, otherwise it would spin out of control. If you are writing your own film it will only get made if someone puts money in. At the point where someone puts money in, you have to listen to their ideas and suggestions. If you were a writer who had millions of pounds of your own money to finance your film, I suppose you could do what you wanted, but in cases where somebody does write and direct and produce their own film, the finished work suffers. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve written that hasn’t been improved by other people’s input.

I’ve got many, many weaknesses as a writer but one of my strengths is dialogue. There is a rhythm and a poetry to dialogue and until it’s right, it offends me. Musicians wince when they hear a guitar being played out of tune. I wince when the rhythm and tone of dialogue is not right. I don’t write the way people talk because that would be dull. You want the dialogue to be effective but still sound natural so that a person watching thinks that that is how people talk. It’s fraudulent. I don’t think you have to be great at dialogue to be a successful screenwriter. You can be a brilliant screenwriter but crap at dialogue and you get someone in to fix it. Getting someone in to fix the structure or the character development or the plot is much, much harder.

One of the lead actors in American Cousins was a brilliant character actor called Dan Hedaya. When he had a scene he would try to cut the dialogue down as much as possible. He thought that the purest form of acting was with no words spoken at all. When he had a scene with nine or ten lines he would often cut it down to two or three. On every occasion his version was better than mine because it achieved everything I intended with my dialogue but in a much more efficient and emotionally charged way.

I still keep hoping that one day American Cousins will find a mass audience. It didn’t have the resources behind it to publicise it properly. It’s really heartening that the people who’ve seen it seem to genuinely love it, the only problem is that so few people have seen it. If you have a film that people really hate and you generate controversy then you get journalists writing about you. But American Cousins wasn’t controversial.  It was just a film that made people feel good. That’s no use. Maybe if we’d shot a puppy in the first scene… I’ll have to remember that for my next movie.

I think some people were pissed off about the chip shop mafia in American Cousins - I mean how stereotypical can you get? – but I wrote that film very much for me. I wasn’t thinking about what would appeal. The fact is, for a hundred years the vast majority of Scots-Italians worked in cafés and chip shops and ice-cream shops. My great grandfather came to Scotland in 1899 and worked in a café. My grandfather then worked in a café and my dad worked in a café. Yes, it’s a stereotype but the reason that stereotypes and clichés exist is because they contain a great element of truth. I don’t have a prejudice against stereotypes. I think it depends how you use them and where you go with them. The Mafiosi in American Cousins is a heinous stereotype but I would argue that the portrayal of these people in the film was not stereotypical.

My big thing now is The Caller. I’ve always loved supernatural thrillers and horror movies and I’ve always loved comedy so I’ve tried to do both in my career. I think there are a couple of laughs in The Caller but in terms of genre it is very definitely a supernatural thriller. The film’s in post production but I’ve seen bits of it and it looks great. It’s nothing to do with me, it’s the producers and the director and the actors to thank for that. Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to film, with great crews and a fabulous variety of locations. I went over for a week to watch the filming but I wasn’t tempted to offer my own ideas. On set the director is boss and if he wants my opinion I’ll give it to him, otherwise I’ll just let him get on with his work. Don’t interrupt a surgeon in the middle of a brain operation!

At the moment I’m working on two projects which are adaptations of my wife’s [Helen Fitzgerald] novels. One’s a feature film screenplay for her thriller, The Devil’s Staircase, and the other is a TV idea based on her Krissie novels and it’s called Dead Lovely. You do have to perform major surgery when you adapt a novel because it’s this great, sprawling, panoramic thing and you can’t just plonk it into Final Draft and put in on the screen. You have to decide what the essential parts are and distil them into a three act movie while remaining true to the spirit and intention of the novelist. The good thing about working with my wife is if I collapse two characters into one or do something radical, instead of sitting there worrying, ‘Oh my God, will the novelist now stalk me for the rest of my life?’ I can just ask her and, more often than not, she’ll come up with solution that’s better than mine. From her point of view the good thing about working with me is that she knows the person adapting her book is never going to betray her vision. She’d kick my head in.

Interview with Keith Gray

There are no taboos as far as Keith Gray is concerned.

“If I ever write an autobiography it will be called Red Bull Nights,” Keith Gray jokes, explaining that some of his best writing is done during the night. He has just finished giving a lively talk to the third year English pupils at my old high school, entertaining and horrifying them simultaneously with stories of rock climbing accidents and the effects of drinking too much Sunny Delight. Before he heads back home to catch up on that day’s writing quota, he lets me pick his brains on writing for young adults and talks to me about his most recent novel, Ostrich Boys, which was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award.

Ostrich Boys tells the story of Blake, Sim and Kenny, three teenage boys struggling to come to terms with the death of their best friend Ross. After a dispiriting funeral that does not seem to do justice to Ross’s memory, they steal the urn containing his ashes and set out to travel with it 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Scotland. They believe that taking Ross to Ross will be a more fitting tribute to their friend. Pursued by the police and by their parents, the boys have to overcome a series of obstacles that threaten to cut short their journey. On the way, they begin to uncover some uncomfortable truths about themselves and about their relationship with Ross and have to face up to the possibility that their friend may have taken his own life. It’s a difficult theme but Keith handles it with sensitivity and humour.

“I didn’t want it to be an ‘issues book’,” he explains. “When you read Ostrich Boys you can enjoy the adventure and the humour of it; it’s an exciting story, but there’s something heavy underneath.”  The darker issues that the novel touches on – death of a close friend and suicide of a young man – are counterbalanced by many funny moments as the main characters wriggle out of one scrape and land straight in another one. “People have said you shouldn’t have humour in the book, but not once do you laugh about suicide or death.”

Although the feedback on Ostrich Boys has been overwhelmingly positive, Keith has received letters from some parents and teachers who feel that suicide is not a suitable theme for young adults. “Where some people have a problem is that they think a book about suicide should be called Don’t Do It.”

Keith disagrees. “A lot of young people don’t want to be told things black and white.” He should know. His first published novel, Creepers, appeared in 1996 and since then he has been growing in popularity with teenage readers all over the world. He writes horror, thriller and adventure novels which have featured, among other things, terrifying creatures, runaways and guns.

“I don’t think there should be any taboos or any restrictions on what we write for teenagers or young adults,” Keith says firmly. “I don’t write about drug use, because I’m very much from the school of ‘write what you know’ and I don’t have any experience of that, but there are other writers who have been involved with things like drugs and I think, yes, they should write about it. If young people have to deal with these things in real life then, yes, we should write about them in books.” Keith believes that suicide is an issue that affects young people today. “Suicide is the biggest killer of people under 35 in Scotland. I’m amazed more people don’t write about suicide.”

While Keith stresses the importance of writing about issues that matter to young adults, he avoids current issues that might quickly become dated. “If you try to be too topical or contemporary, by the time the book is written and published it is not contemporary anymore. There are certain issues with young people – bullying, friendship and family – that never age.”

Friendship in particular is a recurring theme in Keith’s novels. “I think in today’s world, friends are becoming more important. With the breakup of families, people feel closer to their mates than to their parents. I had some really good friends when I was at school so the ideas that I have seem to involve friends.”

Keith’s story ideas are inspired not only by his own teenage years but also by other people’s books and films. “The initial spark of an idea is ‘How would somebody feel if this happened?’ With Ostrich Boys it was, ‘How would it feel if your best friend died and you were part of the reason?'” Once he has identified the question at the core of the novel, Keith goes on to develop the characters.

“I work from emotion outwards. Before I knew the protagonist of Ostrich Boys was called Blake, that he was overweight and that he was one of the clever kids at school, I knew how he felt about his best friend dying. I built everything around that feeling.”

The protagonists of Keith’s novels are usually male, because he writes with an audience of teenage boys in mind. “There are lots of books written for teenage boys all about being a spy or shooting people or flying to the moon or whatever. There are very few books written for teenage boys that talk about what it feels like to be a teenage boy and that’s the gap I’m trying to fill.”

The way the main characters in Ostrich Boys communicate with each other, constantly taking the mick and winding each other up, is something that teenage boys reading the novel can identify with.  “The dialogue is the thing I am most proud of in Ostrich Boys,” Keith tells me. “Young lads show their affection by calling each other names. All the name calling, bitching and arguments in Ostrich Boys are 90% though love.”

Keith warns against using current slang in teen fiction, pointing out that it quickly falls out of fashion. “You can still write decent dialogue without using it,” he says, then adds with a mischievous grin, “Swear words never age.”

Although Keith does not like to research for his novels, finding that it gets in the way of the story, he does admit that to make his dialogue convincing he is “always switched on” during school visits. “I listen to the way kids talk, watch how they interact and see how they use language. That’s my research.”

School visits are a mutually beneficial experience. In return for the soaking up the speech patterns of young people, Keith inspires them with his love of reading.

“Reading a good book is the greatest pleasure I’ve ever come across. People who read books are cleverer, wittier, more open minded and downright nicer than people who don’t. ” And he certainly knows how to make books sound appealing to today’s gadget guzzling youngsters. “A book is an incredible piece of technology. It’s like a little solid block of virtual reality.”

Keith is also keen to get more young people involved with creative writing. “A lot of school is aimed at passing exams. Sometimes people forget to tell the kids that writing is just an incredible, cathartic, pleasurable experience. I’ve worked with young offenders and I get them to create an imaginary character and to write a story using that character to describe their own lives and themselves. It can be a really liberating thing to do.” No sooner has Keith uttered these words than he claps his hand over his mouth and apologises for sounding pretentious. I assure him that only his infectious enthusiasm for writing is coming across. You can get a dose of this yourself in the five podcasts that make up his Creative Writing Masterclass at the Scottish Book Trust website.

I ask Keith if he can offer any tips for adults who would like to write for a teenage audience. “If you want to write for young adults, you need to read some of the best writers out there for young people at the moment.” Keith reels off a few examples: “Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Siobhan Dowd – she’s fantastic. There are also some really appalling books for teenagers out there, but I won’t name any names. You have to read everything to let you know what’s good and what’s not so good.”

As for the actual writing, Keith’s advice is to “put story first. Young people don’t want morals and they don’t want to be preached at. They do want a damn good story.”

Point of view is crucial. “Don’t write hindsight fiction. Don’t be an adult looking back, be a teenager looking forward. When I write for young adults, I’m standing side by side with the teenager, looking forward.” In Ostrich Boys, the three main characters are looking forward into a future without their best friend in it. It is a crushing loss to come to terms with but they discover that life still has much to offer them.  “Blake, Kenny and Sim are having an adventure and Ross is going to miss out. That’s my message with the book.”

Ostrich Boys is available to buy in bookshops and at Amazon.

Ostrich Boys was shortlisted for the 2009 Carnegie Medal and is on the shortlist for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.

Dialogue

If you read as many author interviews as I do then you will probably already know that many writers recommend that you read your dialogue out loud to check that it flows well. Good advice. However, I would like to add that this does not mean that your dialogue should sound natural. Why? Because people talking naturally scatter their sentences with all sorts of unnecessary words such as: right, OK, well, really, ah, um etc. There is no place for these words in your dialogue. Keep it tight. Examine every line of speech you have written and if there is a way of expressing the same sentiment in fewer words, do it.

Here is an example of some shoddy dialogue taken from my own writing:

“Well hurry up, or we’ll miss the show,” Julie called.

“OK, I’ll be there in a minute,” I yelled back. I turned to Russ. “I’m really sorry. I’ve got to go now.”

“That’s OK,” he smiled sadly. “Thanks for visiting.”

All those meaningless words for the reader to trip over! Here’s how I made it snappier:

“Hurry up. We’ll miss the show!” Julie called

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I yelled back. I turned to Russ. “Sorry, I’ve got to go now.”

He smiled sadly. “Thanks for visiting.”

Here is another tip: don’t use dialogue where none is required. Dialogue should serve a purpose. If it is not important to the readers’ understanding of a character or does not advance the plot in some way, take it out. For example, in my novel-in-progress, I have written a scene where two characters go to a bar:

“What can I get you?” the barman asked. “A Sex on the Beach for me please,” Julie said flirtatiously. Louise would have been too embarrassed to ask for a Sex on the Beach even if she had wanted one. “Can I just have an orange juice please?” “Sure,” the barman replied.

What is the point of all those distracting quotation marks? An improvement would be:

Julie ordered a Sex on the Beach, smiling flirtatiously at the barman. Louise would have been too embarrassed to ask for a Sex on the Beach even if she had wanted one and instead asked for an orange juice.

Here is my final dialogue tip: start at the end and work backwards. If the point of a conversation is, for example, that a husband admits to his affair, write his confession first then think about what his wife could have said to make him blurt it out. If you start writing a section of dialogue where you think the beginning should be, you might find it rambling around and going off on tangents before it arrives at the crucial point. I have written lots of short stories with rambling dialogue but I’m trying to keep my blog posts short so no examples this time!