Written By — Summer 2010
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Stalking Red Riding Hood
David Gritten

Tony Grisoni reflects on a dangerous routine: scripting serial killers.
T ony Grisoni, it’s fair to say, ain’t your average screenwriter. A frequent collaborator with director Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland) who also adapted David Peace’s four horrific Red Riding crime novels as a screen trilogy, Grisoni is drawn to extreme, edgy material.

Yet he’s no mere sensation-seeker, and in this past year his exceptional talents have at last been recognised widely.

His work on the Red Riding scripts—screened on British television as three separate 100-minute episodes (with three different directors), but given a limited theatrical release in America as a single five-hour work with two intervals— has received the most extraordinary praise.

Veteran film critic David Thomson, in an essay for the New York Review of Books, wrote: “Red Riding is better than The Godfather… but it leaves you feeling so much worse… Red Riding is a deeper pool than The Godfather, but it doesn’t encourage swimming.” In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan observed: “The powerfully disturbing Red Riding Trilogy will haunt you waking and sleeping, night and day. If you survive the watching of it, that is, which is no easy thing.” Yet it isn’t only Grisoni’s talent that sets him apart; his working methods too are individual. Over a two-and-ahalf- year period, Grisoni would set out from his house, in a lesser-known part of north London, and head for Stoke Newington public library. There, in a staid, booklined cradle of normalcy, he completed the gruesome Red Riding assignment.

“The staff were nervous at first,” Grisoni said, smiling mischievously. “I think they were worried I’d use up all the electricity. But one librarian there was very kind. He quickly realized I was coming every day, and I always went to the same chair. By the end of adapting those novels, he wouldn’t let anyone else sit in that chair. I could even leave notes and articles [pinned] up on the wall.

“I got to know the different rhythms of the library.

On Wednesdays, there seemed to be more mad people; in the winter, more old people, coming in out of the cold.

But no one had any ideas of these demonic fictions being woven under their noses.” The Yorkshire Ripper Demonic they certainly are. Peace’s quartet of crime novels— Red Riding 1974, 1977, 1980, and 1983—are set in the county of Yorkshire in northern England, and deal with the torture and murder of a series of young girls over several years. The storys’ background are a number of gruesome real-life murders perpetrated by a man named Peter Sutcliffe, universally known as the Yorkshire Ripper, set in an area where corruption is endemic. Property developers stop at nothing to advance their own interests, while the police are violent, dishonest, and pride themselves on being so. Their drinking mantra is, “To the north, where we do what we want!” The title Red Riding references Little Red Riding Hood, with red signifying violence, though “Riding” has a specifically Yorkshire connotation: It’s the name given to three administrative subdivisions of the county.

Grisoni took the stories on after British producer Andrew Eaton of Revolution Films, who he knew from writing the script of In This World for prolific director Michael Winterbottom [A Mighty Heart, 24 Hour Party People], mentioned Peace’s work and asked him to adapt the quartet. “I began reading the first book, 1974,” Grisoni recalled. “I was caught by its central image, which is both obscene and oddly beautiful—a dead child with swan wings stitched into her back. A parody of an angel. It’s emblematic of all those fictions by Peace.

It’s something you want to look away from—a horrorYou’d rather not know about, but which you’re drawn to. It’s curiosity. You needed to know details. So, I was caught, and from then it was a rapid progression.” Well, not exactly. Peace’s work would take him a long time to adapt, and Grisoni’s strong opinions about how he wanted to write initially caused unease among executives at Channel 4, the British TV channel financing the project. “I really didn’t want to write treatments and outlines,” Grisoni said. “Some people love doing all of that, but I don’t. I asked that the executives trust me to wade straight in. My argument was: let me do the first draft of each [novel], let me get stuck in, then let’s talk. Andrew supported me, and finally they agreed.” But given that working on treatments or outlines is routine procedure, why was Grisoni so adamant? He smiled wryly: “You’ll get me in a lot of trouble!” Regardless, then he goes on to explain: “There’s an executive need to understand and to see a piece before it’s done.

One of the ways they do that is to put writers in a situation where they have to produce outline after outline. They then have discussions on those outlines, you go back and rework them, and by the time you’re ready to write the screenplay, you’re just exhausted. You think to yourself: ‘I don’t want to do this—it’s just coloring in.’” Grisoni also believes that writing outlines (which he has done) inhibits writers from finding out about their material as they proceed: “You become obsessed with plot, you think and write in a kind of shorthand so you don’t really live through the people in the story. You don’t quite breathe it in the same way. But when you write in longform, you’re imagining in longform, taking your time for things to surprise you. You do all these things that you don’t do when you produce an outline or a treatment. Of course, my alternative is riskier, more dangerous.” He deliberately wrote the first drafts of Red Riding at full speed: “I found that helpful. It prevents me from thinking too much. I don’t watch my tail so much, I’m not so selfconscious.

I’m less likely to censor myself, and from speed I find rhythm. A pattern builds up strongly, so you repeat, revisit, and reintegrate people, themes, and events all the way through. It’s easy to find that. It makes the writing feel more like music.” Home Alone He told me this in the living room of his modest terraced house, furnished minimally and dimly lit. Grisoni is 57, a tall, well-built man with close-cropped, receding hair, a mustache and a somewhat aquiline profile. His father was Italian, a waiter who met his British mother shortly after World War

II. They settled in London, and he worked his way up to become a restaurant manager.

Gazing out of his window, Grisoni occasionally paused during our conversation to point out some character from his neighborhood passing by. One was an elderly woman bent almost double from osteoporosis, trudging along. “I don’t know how she gets around,” Grisoni said. “Wouldn’t you love to know her story?” He speaks in a forthright but amiable manner, and as he outlined his career history it became clear that he’s an unusual screenwriter for another reason—he has kicked around the film industry in London for years, doing various jobs, some of them menial, working his way up.

As a student, Grisoni took a film course in the early 1970s, then worked for a spell in the BBC’s Film Library: “I used to run film reel to reel and find tears in the sprocket holes.” During lunchtimes he’d go down into the cinema vaults and illicitly watch blackand- white documentaries. This led to his departure.

He worked in low-level jobs for a spell, as a runner and assistant editor.

His first job in production came in 1978 with the drama Spongers, written by Jim Allen and directed by Roland Joffe, as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series: “I was 3rd AD.” Grisoni and a partner then wrote a short, low-budget revenge story, Dark Water. It was screened in UK theaters preceding The Amityville Horror. They made two more, but their mainstream thrillers were out of sync with the times: “We were left high and dry, then we went bust.” He retrenched, working on music videos as a first assistant director and producer. “But by now it was 1983, and I suddenly felt I’d lost my way. I’d lost the joy of filmmaking, which I’d had when I was back at college and we had such freedom, playing and experimenting with film.” Yet at this low point, he earned his first writing commission for a story called Fallen Angels.

“I even got paid,” he marveled. “That’s how I became a screenwriter.” But it was five years before his first feature screenplay, Queen of Hearts, would get produced.

“Not exactly a conventional screenwriting career,” I observed.

“Good!” Grisoni said.

Yet Queen of Hearts, directed by Jon Amiel, became a turning point.

“It was set in a fictional Italian quarter of London. Not many people went to see it, it didn’t survive at the box office, but it made a lot of friends.” Suddenly Grisoni was getting calls from America, mostly from producers who had ideas for stories that, but for a simple twist, sounded suspiciously like Queen of Hearts. “It took a while to distance myself from being the guy who wrote that sweet little drama-comedy,” he recalled.

After Queen of Hearts, Grisoni spent time commuting between London and Los Angeles, “doing some rewrite work and trying my hand at a couple of studio projects. None of it came to anything. I earned very good money, but I was nervous about being in L.A., on my second swimming pool, but with no films produced.” In general, he finds London a more comfortable base for a writer with his left-field sensibilities.

The wide variety of jobs Grisoni held down in the film industry may have helped to demystify screenwriting for him. He sees it as work, and likes to see an end result.

“I enjoy writing, but I’m more interested in the totality of making films,” he explained. “There have been rough times. I’m always aware 95 percent of what I’ve written has not been made.

Frustratingly, I’ve always written but it wasn’t always being developed into films. And there’s nothing more destructive.

We’re not writing poems or novels here. Screenwriting is the start of a process.” His relationship with Terry Gilliam took time to evolve: “I’d written
A script called Lives of the Saints. It was set where I lived in north London, but it mythologized the place. Various people wanted to direct it. Terry read it and liked it. He was finally too busy to take it on, but he asked me: ‘Are you interested in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur?’ I left word that I was, but he never returned the call. Four years later, he got back to me. Four years! I went to his house and straight away started work on the Minotaur project. The first draft was 300 pages.” Then: “While Terry was away in Italy, I read that Alex Cox was going to direct Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I called him, but Alex said he was adapting it too. Then Terry came back from Italy and said he was going to direct it and wanted to rework the existing script. I’d read scripts adapted from Hunter S. Thompson’s work, but they felt like a pastiche. No one does Hunter like Hunter. Terry and I decided we would collage his books and throw in scenes from other books if they fit the story. But it would all be Hunter.” Grisoni was also screenwriter on Gilliam’s ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which starred Johnny Depp and fell victim to a remarkable run of terrible luck: shooting was ruined by flash floods, which swept sets away; leading man Jean Rochefort (who played Quixote) fell critically ill; and financing ran out midshoot. This mess was captured in a remarkable documentary, Lost in La Mancha, in which Grisoni appears, watching with Gilliam as their film fell apart.

“It was just awful,” Grisoni says now. But now there’s a new script, plans for a new Quixote (Robert Duvall is thought to be interested) so he and Gilliam will try again.

They reunited for The Brothers Grimm, in which Heath Ledger and Matt Damon played fraternal conmen in 19thcentury Germany, investigating the disappearance of children.

Grisoni rewrote the existing script with Gilliam, but the two men became embroiled with receiving credit for their pains.

In the end they elected to bill themselves “dress pattern designErs” on the end credits. [Some humorless soul at IMDb.com took this at face value, listing Grisoni’s credit for the film under “costume and wardrobe department.”] In retrospect, he finds all this less than amusing: “It was so frustrating and distracting.

Something similar happened on Fear and Loathing. We wrote more while trying to get our writing credit than we ever did in writing the screenplay. We got it in the end, but the amount of energy, blood, sweat, and bad karma involved was such a waste of time.” Seeing Red And time, one feels about Grisoni, is always wasted if it does not lead to a production. So he creates his own work. For example, he was introduced to the actress Samantha Morton, who had long wanted to direct a film based on her own troubled childhood. She had tried writing it herself, but concluded another writer was necessary.

“I’d go to her house every other day,” Grisoni remembered, “and we’d talk through the story on tape. She knew the opening image: an unconscious child at the foot of the stairs.

Sam would say ‘I,’ but I insisted: never say ‘I.’ So she talked about her in the third person. She’d sit there, feeding her baby, feeding the log fire. I transcribed the tapes without writing too much dialogue. Soon we had a 60-page script. Somehow the story got told.” (The film, The Unloved, opened in Britain last year.)

Grisoni was also prime mover in a project that was heroically uncommercial: “A friend of mine, Brian Catling, and I made an installation called Vanished— A Video Seance. It’s set in the 1930s and it’s about the paranormal. It took three years; it’s 80 minutes long, involved three actors, and was screened at art galleries. We didn’t make a penny from it. But the most important thing is to stir the cauldron, tell a story. This was something that’s not a pure film, but it worked as primitive cinema. I’m more interested in spending three years of my life on a project like Vanished than sitting around Hollywood, getting paid for writing scripts that never get made and getting the swimming pool.” In addition to his many scripting activities, Grisoni has turned his hand to directing. He hoped to make a film set in his neighborhood, detailing the backgrounds and events leading up to its centerpiece—a major street fight.

Grisoni’s methodology was collecting true stories from local people that would feed into his broader narrative.

“The people I met were mostly KurdIsh,” he said. “I knew some of them from In This World.” He plans to shoot in November, using nonprofessional actors; the film’s working title is Kingsland, named after a major street in the area. As a taster for this project, Grisoni directed a short film, Kingsland #1, which covered a small part of the bigger story and was nominated for a BAFTA last year.

Still, at this point, the Red Riding Trilogy feels like Grisoni’s masterwork, and he’s happy to discuss the task of adapting it. As you might expect, Grisoni is enough of a pragmatist to concede that it’s David Peace’s original creation from which he constructed the scripts. But then Grisoni has a fluid idea of auteurism: He says that between himself and Peace, and then between himself and the three episode’s directors—Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker—they created a fictitious composite “auteur.” And now a layman’s question: Given that the subject matter of Red Riding is so horrific and pessimistic, did working on its adaptation make him feel depressed? Did he feel he was wallowing in degradation and misery? At this question, Grisoni sighed deeply.

“It was intense, certainly,” he said. “But it didn’t get to me in that way. I was very aware that these fictions came from reality—and not a very distant reality either. But I think because of the way stories were told—a mix of Grimm’s fairy tales and American noir of the ’40s and ’50s—because of those filters, that Gothic sensibility, they announce themselves clearly as fictions. They’re at one remove.

“The problem I did have,” he admitted, “was that over the period in which I wrote them, the real world mirrored what was happening in the fictions. Numerous children went missing, several women were murdered in Ipswich, there were accounts of police corruption. An innocent man suspected of terrorism was killed by police in London. All that I found really hard. It just went on. It got me down.

David Peace uses repetition a lot, like a chant of meditation.

One repeated phrase was, ‘It’s happening again.’ And that’s what I felt.” So Grisoni allowed a ray of hope in his adaptation. In Peace’s books, all the young girls die, but in the final scene of the trilogy, a missing girl is found alive. When she is lifted up by the man who discovers her, it feels like a rebirth or a resurrection.

“It was about the saving of one child,” Grisoni said. “No way I wasn’t going to save one child. But it’s also our release from the fictions. You needed to be released [in the end]. I know I did.” What does the future hold for Grisoni? Not repeating himself will play a large part: “The whole idea [in life and career] is you’re searching all the while, looking for a new challenge—if you have the choice. If I was down on my uppers, I’d take anything I was offered. But then, if I was down on my uppers, I’d be washing floors somewhere.”