Premiering at the 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival in June to – mostly – rapturous applause, Albatross is a coming-of-age comedy-drama centring on verbose, would-be writer Emilia’s incendiary effect on a struggling author, Jonathan (Sebastian Koch), and his respective family, including wife Joa (Julia Ormond) and daughter Beth (Felicity Jones.
Last week, HeyUGuys had the opportunity to speak to the films riotous writer Tamzin Rafn about Albatross’ inspiration, the trials and tribulations letting her script be made into a film, how she felt about Niall MacCormick as a director, her neglected yet brilliantly titled rom-com and her plans for the future.
Here is said interview in its full, unabridged glory.
HeyUGuys: Firstly, what was your inspiration behind Albatross?
Tamzin Rafn: Albatross wasn’t my first screenplay. My first ever screenplay was a rom-com called Audrey Disorderly – a great title given the disorderly mess of the writing in it – and it told me that I loved the process. That script instantly, but incredibly fortuitously, got me an agent and was optioned by a small producer and, buoyed by instant success, I wrote a second comedy which I gave my husband to read whilst I popped off to the cinema. He read it and, rightly, said I didn’t know how to write humans. It was so awful that we decided that it should never see the light of day and we ceremoniously burnt it on the BBQ. The lesson, an age old one, was to write what you know and it turns out I don’t really know many funny fat lawyers with self-esteem issues which caused the fire in the first place.
What I did know about though was naughty girls in seaside towns. I knew that because I’d been one and I always loved movies about people who misbehaved. Plus, not long before, whilst I was writing the BBQ debacle script, Juno had come out and there was a ton of press about Diablo Cody, this stripper who had just put down her bra and picked up her pen, and I found that quite inspiring. Not the stripper part – that never really floated my boat – but the other bit was quite exciting. So I sat down and I thought about everything I loved in movies. That list ran to: naughty girls, seaside towns, writers and scandalous behaviour. I then watched every movie that fitted that for me – The Wonder Boys, The Squid And The Whale, Wish You Were Here, The Door In The Floor, Thirteen.
And there we have it. Da-da… Albatross.
What made you want to write a script in the first place? It must be an incredibly daunting and lonely experience. Was it always your aim in life?
Are you kidding me? Who doesn’t want to work in film? And I’m not a director. And I may be a hammy show-off but apparently I’m a dreadful actress (I think I’m good though. That helps).
I love writing but I’m not a solitary person. This is why I still have a day job as well. I would literally start gnawing off my own arm if I was left on my own for more than a week – I crave company in the bathroom. Plus I’m a terrible magpie. Where else am I going to get stories from? My husband is a director and he often works weekends and we work well together so we are happy, as long as there is wine and buddies at the end of it, to spend the weekend writing.
I obviously aim to write forever. It’s a lovely thing, writing. You don’t need anyone else to do it, you can do it at any age and you get so much pleasure from it.
My ultimate aim is obviously to move to Hollywood, get incredibly white straight teeth and a minuscule waistline and throw out handbags like used coke cans. But I think my sensibility is quite British and I would really hope that films like The Inbetweeners are putting more money back into the British film industry and allowing us to make more movies here of the types we want to make.
Obviously there are pre-conceived ideas and conventions behind the coming-of-age genre. For me, Albatross marked a defiance of those boundaries and represented a new direction. Was it always intentional to push the boundaries and try something new rather than succumbing to generic ideals?
Although this is very definitely a coming-of-age tale, I didn’t really pop it in a box in that way at any stage – until it came out and that sounded good. I think I was trying to write a cuckoo-in-the-nest comedy movie (and the original incarnation of the script was very much that) and I just happened to choose a coming-of-age character to do so.
I was a nightmare at 17. I was a nightmare at 14, 15, 16 and 18 too. I chose 17 so that some things were legal and some things were still banned. When my mum saw the film in Edinburgh, there were a group of my friends up there with me. She turned to them and said, “If you think Emilia was bad, Tamzin was worse”. So pushing the boundaries came as a result of that being an actuality in my teens. It just so turns out that being a nightmare comes naturally to me. And writing Emilia was like writing a version of myself but adding characteristics to make it filmic and that meant giving her some tragedy and heart to explain her behaviour. My behaviour was unexplained. My own upbringing was pretty idyllic and my rebellion came from a much more selfish place so, basically, I was simply a cow - but the end result is that it has helped create this film.
I’m not sure that answers that question. It turns out I can waffle in text just as much as I can waffle in conversation. Whodathunkit?
Do the themes of loneliness, rejection and adapting yourself to fit that run through the film mimic your life in any way? Did you write from certain experiences?
Those themes resonate more in the fact that they’re fears. They tap into things I feared at 17, and probably still do fear. Still needy.
As I said before, the film explores a variety of themes and ideas. Was it important for you to layer your film, so that it can be unravelled and seen through many different eyes in a variety of ways?
It’s always important to hold information back. The audience only know what they’re given. It’s a powerful position to be in.
It was important to me that you didn’t instantly know that Emilia lived with her grandparents. I really wanted that little bits about her to just drip out. I withheld that she’d been expelled from school too – not particularly because it lead anywhere but more so that people would keep reading in the hope that it would. It’s so easy to put down a boring script so I was throwing anything at it to keep people reading. A friend of mine who I asked to read it when it was still a work in progress said to me, “Very good. I got to page 78”. I immediately raced home to see what the lull was on page 78 and why she got bored enough to put it down and never go back to it. (Actually, I never worked it out. I’ve decided my friend is not a very good reader instead)
The other thing was that Audrey Disorderly, my first script, followed one character. Audrey was in every scene and I couldn’t work out (as a novice) whether that was normal, whether I’d ever seen a movie where, unless you were with the protagonist you couldn’t witness the action (obviously happens a lot but I was learning). So Albatross was also an exercise in multi-protagonist narratives. It’s quite refreshing to write yourself into a cul-de-sac and think, “Oops, skip to Joa being mean then” to get yourself out of a situation.
How was your relationship with the director [Niall MacCormick]? Did he approach you about directing your screenplay, or was it all done through your publicist?
The script of Albatross was optioned, about three weeks after my agent sent it out, by Marc Samuelson and CinemaNX. This is unheard of, by the way. More than that, it was filming within a year of that. This is almost unprecedented. I realize I am very lucky.
They sent the draft out to directors, met a heap of people without me, whittled it down and then I met some of them. I obviously had my favourites and Niall was among them so I was really glad when they offered it to him and he said yes. It was a Sunday night I think and, as he lives in Croatia, he was on a plane over on Monday morning. I was beyond excited on that day.
I’m not going to lie though. Working with a director, any director, is hard. When you’re writing, you’re your own boss. No one tells you what to think or what to feel or what to put on screen. All directors have their own story they want to tell and, it’s often reflective of yours, but has its own characteristics. Straight off, Niall wanted to cut a character – Beth’s brother Griffin who Emilia slept with when he came home from University and who made her realize how old Jonathan was. Griffin then rejected her as a silly little girl and devastated her. Cutting him was huge. Griffin was the entire reason that Emilia and Jonathan had a tempestuous end and the whole reason that Joa discovered the affair. However, what interested Niall was the friendship between Beth and Emilia and, whilst that was always very strong and central in the script, it wasn’t the reason that Emilia didn’t want to be with Jonathan anymore. It took some thinking. It took some arguments and it took a lot of collaboration. We love each other again now. You both want the same end result – A great film. What happens in the middle is the process.
Did you work closely with him/have any say when it came to the final cut?
I did have then, and still have now, a full time job. I took a couple of weeks off to spend with Niall getting the script right but everything else was done on evenings and weekend. There was a lot to cut and there was a lot to change. The worst thing is losing stuff you love but what I actually found even more difficult is that great swathes of stuff gets cut in the edit too. I estimate from the shooting script, nearly 20 pages aren’t on screen anymore because it was just too long. The stuff that gets cut is the stuff you love – comedy mostly – because it doesn’t drive the plot forward and that’s gutting but necessary.
I went to Isle of Man, where the film was set, for a couple of days one weekend (I saw the P Party being filmed) but I did any changes that needed doing during the shoot very early in the morning before work or very late at night when I got in.
Adrian, the producer, kept me in touch with what was going on, mainly if something exciting was happening or somebody was being made to do something awful (run into the sea in the Isle of Man in November, anyone?)
I only saw one rough cut before the final film. I had my comments, as everyone does, but it’s someone else’s job by this point and, once you get this far, the film is everyone’s baby. I was very supportive with what they had because I was so excited – even if in those early cuts you could see that Jessica was amazing and that Sebastian is really hot and that Niall had captured what I felt. It’s the weirdest feeling. It stops being your life and it becomes a movie.
How do you feel about the finished film? Do you feel Niall translated your words onto screen in a way that satisfies you?
I LOVE THE FONT MY NAME IS IN AT THE BEGINNING.
I think it’s a good film but obviously I’m nervous about ‘people’. Who knows what ‘people’ think? Someone on the internet has already called my script ‘execrable’ (which my friends have turned into ‘excrement’ for comedy value). Someone else took a whole paragraph to annihilate me personally. It’s going to happen because it’s not for everyone. I just hope that the someone it is for loves it like I loved Wish You Were Here as a teenager.
Edinburgh Film Festival was a revelation in getting in touch with the audience, I did three Q&A’s and it was so brilliant and enlightening and interesting to see what people connect to or want to know. AND when I got back, my agent passed on a message from David Leland (writer/director of Wish You Were Here) thanking me for referencing his film and wishing me luck with Albatross. And then I DIED WITH JOY.
Did you have any say when it came to casting? Are you pleased with the way Felicity Jones and Jessica Brown Findlay inhabited these characters you’d conceived and mapped out?
I could not be happier with the casting. Both Felicity and Jessica are the embodiment of the characters but also bring something else to it that you can’t write. But then I love Sebastian, who I hadn’t originally written as a German, and Julia who is so perfect for Joa. And most of all, I love Peter Vaughan because he makes everyone cry, which does my writing more of a service than it deserves, by just being heart-breaking in his performance. I was kept abreast of the casting process but it’s not my choice – it’s not my money at stake and good casting is all important. They knew what they were doing and I’m so grateful.
Is there anything you particularly liked about it the experience as a whole, or anything you wish you’d done differently?
No, you can’t go backwards. I think the fact that I was such a teenage mess has helped me now so I don’t like to have regrets. Well, one or two, but probably not repeatable here.
Who in the film industry do you admire?
In no particular order: Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Nora Ephron, Alexander Payne, Billy Wilder, David Sedaris, Chelsea Handler, Neil La Bute, Mike White, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil Simon, Truman Capote.
Can you name some of your favourite films. Did they have any influence on Albatross?
The list includes: The Apartment, Jaws, Wish You Were Here, When Harry Met Sally, Sunset Boulevard, White Christmas, The Wizard Of Oz.
This list is never-ending. I think Sunset Boulevard and When Harry Met Sally vie for my wish to have written them most of all. Inspiring in different ways but both enviably brilliant. Lord, may I one day have the guts to write a monkey funeral as a throwaway plot point. Or the words Baby Fish Mouth.
Do you have any projects currently in the works?
I’m currently writing a biopic of Shirley Bassey, based on the book Miss Shirley Bassey by John Williams, for director Marc Evans and Rainy Day films (they made The Edge Of Love and Marc’s film Patagonia). I’m starting her at 14 and probably finishing around 22. I love Shirley Bassey and her life as a young girl bears a lot of resemblances to Emilia in a funny way. I can see why they chose me. That and my gushy pitch probably sealed the deal for me.
I have a couple of original ideas on the back burner too but I can’t take too much on seeing as I have a job too. I have to be sensible, particularly if someone is paying you to write. I’m not very good at being sensible so it takes some effort just to maintain one thing.
Finally, for those who might not know much about Albatross, could you sum the film up in a snappy sentence for us?
Ambition is in the eye of the beholder.
Thank you very much for your time, Tamzin.
Albatross hits U.K. cinemas on October 14. Click here to read my review.