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.