BAFTA’s 2014 series of Screenwriter Lectures – marked by disparate talks from the likes of James Schamus and Emma Thompson – wrapped tonight in London with Brit Steven Knight running through a practical discussion about his approach to the craft. The writer behind The Hundred-Foot Journey, Dirty Pretty Things, Lock eand Eastern Promises talked through his process, discussing a distaste for structure, the rocky road from script to screen and his plans for the end of Peaky Blinders, the British TV hit he created which launches September 30 on Netflix in the U.S.
Knight said he loves TV, where characters have a chance to be unsympathetic for longer. “You can make somebody bad for a long time, and people love it when they then do one good thing and it’s almost like a triumph. Actors seem to enjoy it more.”
Of the hit show about organized crime in turn-of-the-20th-century Birmingham, Knight — who says he always has endings in mind when he starts writing — revealed that he’d plotted out a finale that could be several seasons away, and then proceeded to spoil it for the audience: “I’m not joking: I’ve got an ending where [Cillian Murphy’s character] is Sir Thomas Shelby, and it’s the start of the Second World War. The first siren goes off and that’s it. What I’m trying to do with the whole thing is look at someone from his background: Can he get out and escape?”
With the second season of Peaky Blinders set to start in the UK in early October, Knight has been working on World War Z 2 for director Juan Antonio Bayona. He was matter-of-fact about the Hollywood way of making movies. You don’t negotiate the three-act structure the industry is used to, he says. “Basically they come to you and say they want you to write X, Y, or World War Z 2, and you know the deal, you know the parameters. Personally I have no problem with that; they’re running a business making something out of fog and mist, and it’s not solid. They want to know they’re going to at least get their money back. The easiest way to do that is to make it similar to something that has already made money.”
But he found a useful analogy for why he liked taking risks with his non-Hollywood material: “I think it’s a bit like saying a painter does a painting everyone loves and it’s 40% blue paint, so from now on you have to paint paintings that are 40% blue. That’s the film industry at its most blunt, which is why it’s constantly bats and spiders and superheroes.”
Knight had a charmed few years early on in his screenwriting career. Getting Dirty Pretty Things into Stephen Frears’ hands coincided with success at his day job at light entertainment powerhouse Celador, where he co-created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. “I was doing two things at once for quite a long time,” he said. “I was working in television and writing novels.” The script for Dirty Pretty Things developed when he realized the novel he was working on would work best as a film.
Of those early days in television, Knight said the light entertainment world was staffed with “funny and very odd people” — and he recalled developing Millionaire. “We kept finding that the contestants would keep taking the money, and we had to keep trying to find ways to keep them playing the game,” he said. “So we had to invent Phone a Friend and Ask the Audience for that.”
It was this day job that kept him from concerning himself too much with Dirty Pretty Things once it began circulating. “You don’t think of it as what you do for a living, so you leave it alone a little bit, and sometimes it takes on a life of its own.” A brief meeting with the straight-dealing Frears left him with a single note: “It’s good, but can you make the ending better?”
That first film was an education for Knight, who said he finds the development process generally revolves around people liking a script but having a problem with one element of it. He recalled being disappointed when he saw the finished film, and was certain it was a disaster. “Just because it didn’t look like what was in my head.”
The 2002 crime thriller starring Audrey Tautou, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo scored Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Knight’s original screenplay.
Knight said his process was to start with an idea and write it, not bothering himself with treatments and structure. “I should think about structure more,” he lamented. “It’s not clever.” But he liked the process of refining an idea in the execution of it and finds that most of his scripts begin with a bang. “If possible I try to make the opening of the film an event or a decision which causes the rest of the film to happen.”
Knight moved into directing in 2013 with the Jason Statham starrer Hummingbird and followed up that same year with the critically acclaimed Locke, featuring Tom Hardy. It was a story, he said, designed around the most ordinary character he could think of. The entire film was shot over eight nights, with three cameras on Hardy and continuous feature-length takes.
It was Hardy’s idea to make the character Welsh, Knight said. “Tom said, ‘The person I know who’s most like [Locke] is Welsh — and I don’t do accents, I do people, so I’ll do him.’ When the film came out, a Welsh newspaper tracked down the person on whom he’d based the character and asked him how it felt that Hardy based the character on him. He said, ‘It’s fine, but I’m not Welsh.’ ”
Knight was honest about watching his work change in the hands of directors and actors, saying he “wasn’t happy” when actors changed his dialogue. But he summed up the writer’s lot: “Your job is to defend it word for word and then accept that it isn’t going to be like that.” Hardy, he said, had no interest in changing a single word.