British screenwriter and producer Nick Moorcroft sold his first spec script Burke & Hare over a decade back. That went on to become a feature starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis and Moorcroft hasn’t looked back since. He scored big at the domestic box office with the remake of the classic Ealing comedy series, and the sequel, St Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, which he co-wrote.
His new British film, Urban Hymn, sees him tackle material of a very different nature to his most well-known work, but its subject matter which is very close to the writer’s heart. we chatted with him about the project and how it came together.
One of the first scripts I wrote was called Riot Girl. I wanted to do something autobiographical but use a female protagonist instead. Those great films like Made in Britain and Scum, similar to the subject matter I was writing about, were very masculine. I knew a lot of scary girls growing up and I thought it would be interesting to channel my story through a girl’s eyes. Women are very different from men in many ways but I find it fascinating when you encounter a female committing violence and crime. It goes against our normal perceptions of what a woman is.
That was the starting point. I wrote a very aggressive and uncompromising screenplay which was never gonna get made and it was David Thomson from BBC Films which looked at and said “this is really great, but we feel there is a way of making it a little more accessible and commercial”. He talked about the idea of the protagonist having a talent, which I wasn’t initially open to. From writing that I went on to have some success with comedy films here in the UK and I ended up working a lot in America.
I became quite disillusioned over there from being stuck in development hell. You realise you’re a tiny cog in a very big machine and chances are, your projects are never gonna get made. My partner Meg Leonard suggested I take that older script back out. I dusted it down and I give the central character a talent, which was a voice. She could sing really well. It became Urban Hymn, which is ultimately a story about a female offender growing up in a residential care home – a place very different to something like Banardo’s or any of the government-run children’s home. This one was a really stark and oppressive place.
One of my mum’s very close friends worked that that type of home. I based it on that, and my mum’s own experience of working in a prison and my own experience of being a young offender. I thought I’d tell a story of both a girl who has lost her mother and an unconventional care worker who has herself lost someone close. Together they create a mother-daughter relationship amid the bureaucracy of a system that doesn’t allow that kind of unconditional love to blossom. There are too many rules in place to protect both sides. I thought it was an interesting area to explore.
And the London riots come into it, right?
We saw what was taking place during the London riots and felt that it was an amazing context to place the story. For the first time in a generation, you had young people taking to the streets feeling completely disenfranchised and disconnected to the political elite. They were angry and unrepresented.
It isn’t a film about the riots, more a catalyst for the story. When we first enter the world of the characters world [the riots] are what you see, and our care worker comes into her new place of employment just after they have taken place. The character of our fantastic leading lady, Letitia Wright, has been involved in the chaos and it comes back to bite her on the arse.
Being the author of the piece, did you have a say in regards to the cast and crew? Your director Michel Caton-Jones has previously made a terrific coming-of-age story about troubled youth with This Boy’s Life.
My American agent, who also represents Michael, told me he was going to send it him and I told him not to be ridiculous. Michael is genuinely one of my favourite film directors. Film like Rob Roy and Doc Hollywood were huge for me, growing up. I remember going to the cinema to watch Memphis Belle and being blown away. Michael has directed all those iconic films and within three days, my agent got back to me saying Michael has read it, loved it and wanted to do it. Meg and I met with him and we all got on very well.
As the writer, you’re very excited when a director is hired for your project because you can see it making that big step forward, but it’s also a terrifying time because the director might kick you off or may want to play with the script to the detriment of the development. Michael loved the script but had some notes he thought might benefit the story. They were brilliant because they didn’t change the structure at all but he bring a new confident within him in terms of the maturity of the piece. He said it wasn’t just a youth movement movie, it was bigger than that. He argued there were some strong adult characters but they weren’t completely fulfilling what they should be doing. He encouraged us to invest more into them. He brought a level of experience in the transition of some scenes which was very intuitive for me as a writer.
It sounds like the kind of collaboration you want.
His frame of reference was the film Kes. It’s one of this favourite films and I guess that was what inspired him to take the film on.
Were you there to see it take shape and come to life during the shooting process?
This was the kind of film where very minimal alternations were needed to be done to the script while the film was being shot. It’s always a good place to be because everyone is feeling secure with the material. I was nobody getting freaking out and called me up for changes. Anything altered [in the script] was purely for practical reasons, such as budgetary concerns if a location had fallen through.
Urban Hymn is very different from some of your work in the past. The St. Trinian’s films, for example, have quite a broad appeal for audiences. This is much more personal.
I love writing comedy and I suppose it’s a lot to do with the chances offered to you. Sometimes the movie business or the TV industry doesn’t have a huge imagination. They want to hire the person who has already done something similar beforehand. You have to earn a living and you’re being offered jobs within the same genre you’ve either had some success with, or you’re known for. About twelve months ago, with the support of my agent, I made a concerted effort to try and get more dramatic work. This [script] was the catalyst and it’s worked out really well. I’ve had some great commissions and that’s very exciting.
I think there’s a great history within the British films industry chronicling these stories of disaffected youth. [Scum director] Alan Clarke was a pioneer of sorts, and then Mike Leigh took it into the family environment. They’ve made some fascinating films covering that terrain and those are the ones I really responded to and were ultimately a big motivating force in getting Urban Hymns to the screen. Barrie Keeffe, who wrote The Long Good Friday and is also a brilliant playwright, one said he wrote plays for people who wouldn’t be seen dead in the theatre. I’ve got that quote in my office and when I was writing Urban Hymn I always used to think about that.
Urban Hymn is out in UK cinemas today.