This week sees the streaming debut of director Coky Diedroyc’s film adaptation of How to Build a Girl, written by music journalist turned author/screenwriter Caitlin Moran. Moran’s semi-autobiographical script (adapted from her own novel) sees a gutsy, working-class teenager from Wolverhampton, Johanna Morrigan, played by Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart, What We Do in the Shadows), enter the world of early 90s music journalism where she is forced to learn industry ropes and how to be a decent person.
Set during the during pre-Britpop indie rock scene, the story takes us to a time that feels long ago but is far from forgotten in the minds and hearts of music fans. HTBAG also boasts an impressive supporting cast including Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Michael Sheen, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd and Alfie Allen amongst many others.
Back in 2018, HEYUGUYS visited the HTBAG shoot in Dollis Hill, North West London, where a working man’s club doubled up for a grubby gig venue. Beanie and the extras were decked in timely indie attire for a scene featuring the lead actress bypassing a queue to enter a club.
After watching a bit of the shoot, HEYUGUYS perched with Moran between two parked cars on the pavement outside for a chat. Behind us, a bloke in a hi vis vest shovelled forkfuls of junk grub from a foil container while a rowdy school playground blared off across the road next to some minor building works. Despite all this, it was quieter than inside.
HEYUGUYS: Has making this film felt like going back in time for you?
CAITLIN MORAN: It has, especially going into venues like this which haven’t been redecorated, and with gigs-goers dressed like that. You forget those little details; like everyone having shit hair. We now live in a world of hair products and fashion standards which weren’t there in 1993. So, yeah lots of flashbacks and memories of how small the world felt.
What’s it like seeing your memories being brought back to life before your eyes?
It makes me wonder how I managed to get the career I’ve now got considering where I came from. Nowadays, a sixteen-year old working-class girl on a council estate couldn’t get that kind of job. So, it might seem like Disney to kids watching it today; as much of a fairy-tale as Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King.
Walking in there reminded me of old 90s London club nights like Popscene at the Astoria and Collide-scope at Temple. Even the smell.
There were certain smells. Everyone was perpetually stinky. When you came home from a gig, everyone had smoked so much your clothes were stiff with nicotine, which I didn’t know was a property that it could convey. You’d sometimes have to wash your clothes twice, they would be that disgusting. Non-smokers must’ve got withdrawal symptoms from cigarettes just from going to gigs in those days. And everyone was pissed all the time.
A scene we were shooting last week at Koko was a recreation of the first gig I went to which was The Smashing Pumpkins at Birmingham Edwards No 8. I was being paid to be there as a journalist. I got there two hours early and was down the front with my notepad. Then when Smashing Pumpkins came on, everyone started moshing. I’d never seen moshing before so I worked out in my head that this must be like a custom or a ritual that people would do to this specific song. So, I was standing there being jostled by all these people moving around, then the next song started and people were still moshing. By this point I had lost my lovely hat and my note-pad had crumpled up so I waded my way out the pit thinking it was demented.
That was the thing about rock in those days; no one told the girls how to prepare for it. If you’re a girl going into a mosh pit, you will need a sports bra. There was no one to tell you that braless girls in mosh pits will need to hold onto their tits. By the end of that gig I was in love with music. Before that I was quite an old fogie even though I was only sixteen because all the books I read were from the 19th century. But by the end I was like “I fucking love rock n roll! This is my life!”
Did your views of the industry change while you were writing about it?
The thing with writing about something is that you have to have an angle straight away. As a fan you can just love it. Nowadays fans have kind of taken over from critics because we’ve lost that industry. There aren’t many music magazines anymore, but back then there was more of a divide between the writers and people who were there just because they loved it. It was always the hottest writers in town that would tear these things apart. So, I thought, well if that’s the game, I will be the evilest writer ever. Like a child suddenly let loose on a newspaper.
The stuff I wrote was more horrible than anything the men were writing. That all ended with a review I wrote about a band where I literally imagined I was standing at the grave of the lead singer, throwing earth under his dead face and telling him how useless his career was. I came into the paper thinking everyone would be like; “yeah she’s done it, she’s a fucking legend!” and they all thought I’d gone a bit too far. The man I am now married to, came over and said “that’s a bit much.” Which is the nearest he’s got to criticising me before or since. I remember thinking if lovely Pete in the cardigan thinks it’s a bit too much then maybe I should start being a nice person.
Is that character arc captured in the story?
Yes, that was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. Young people being able to communicate to so many others was a very rare thing back then. Now anybody can do it through social media where people are being snarky, unpleasant and horrible; tearing each other down and writing outrageous blogs. So, I’ve been on this journey, which it what you first do when you are given power, but after a while you get to a point where you just go “I came into this because I was a fan, why have I turned into the kind of person who destroys things?”
The most beautiful thing in the world is pointing at something brilliant and saying “this is awesome”. That’s a really useful thing for a human being to do. Don’t worry about the things you don’t like. So, this is one of the reasons I want to write the film. The quicker you can go on that journey, the faster you become a positive person and conduit for fabulous things rather than the type of person who goes around shitting on stuff and reducing it to rubble. They end up upsetting and hurting people then having to write a huge amount of apology letters as I did. That was why I was really excited to write the script because it feels really relevant.
How did you find the process of adapting your book into a screenplay?
Oh my God, I knew nothing! I thought it would take a week to write and then two weeks to shoot, with lovely long lunches in between, but it went on forever. I didn’t even know how to write a script at first. Originally, I was working with John Niven. I wrote thirty pages of the script after getting the deal and then swiftly realised it was shit so rang John and asked him to help. He told me the characters were brilliant and dialogue was fantastic but nothing had happened. I didn’t have a plot. So, we worked on it for about a year and then parted ways with a great deal of champagne because in the end it just needed to be my voice.
Would you want to write more screenplays after this?
Yes, John and I have just finished something different to this: a gigantic swashbuckling story with a female lead but I’ve got more ideas. Writing is an absolute joy.
I’ve not really seen the Britpop movement captured in modern film-making, except a few documentaries about concerts and bands. Do you think this film could kick start a revival?
Well, the 90s today is what the 60s was to me. This one is a bit pre-brit pop so it’s more around the start of Manics, Suede and Pulp but it was an incredible time to be a young person. There was a new anthem every week, it was cheap to live, cheap to have fun, no one ever ID’d you. We were kids at play and there was so much great music. It was the last hoorah of a working-class movement. The music industry has changed so much, you don’t get working class bands nowadays. You can’t afford to put a working-class band in a rehearsal room let alone tour them. I never want to shit on the next generation but what’s missing from music at the moment is songs about everyday life that make the real world more interesting. Britpop was about that. It was all about having a fag or riding a bike, cleaning your teeth and seeing your mates, playing football and listening to the radio. Songs that made ordinary life seem amazing and allowed everyone to feel a part of something. Now it’s just about being in clubs and drinking champagne. I remember when it was all fields.
That Oasis gig at Knebworth in many ways felt like the pinnacle.
Were you there? I was there as a wanky journalist with back stage wrist passes. There were a lot of drugs going around. I took so many I spent most of the time laying under a table with the Creation artist Trash Monk, until I slowly came down enough to crawl out and watch the gig, which I don’t remember anything about. So, I was there physically but mentally from about half four I don’t remember much.
Are the rest of your scripts and stories going to be about music?
Well, the sequel (How to be Famous) to this is set during Brit-pop. It starts with her going to see Oasis at the Astoria. She sees the main music star suffer a backlash from the cool kids, which happened a lot in Britpop. Lots of people thought bands sell out when they get teenage fans. I remember people insulting the screaming teeny boppers at the front. It’s a rage I’ve carried with me for twenty years and channelled into my work. Why is the teenage girl’s love of music belittling to them? Why would a band be seen as less of a band because teenage girls love them?
Teenage girls have exquisite taste. The first people down the front for the Beatles were teenage girls. And how could you ever reject that love? It’s crazy but that’s what a lot of people were doing back then. So, a lot of bands started trying to upset girls and make them go away. I wanted to explore that inherent sexism and bands self-sabotaging their careers because of it. I find the whole concept of fame absolutely fascinating. The different stages that people go through and the changes that happen. So, yes there will always be music in there.
Is the main rock star character in your story, John Kite (Alfie Allen), based on anyone specific?
In movies and books, whenever people write about rock stars it’s always some kind of horrible cockney geezer in leather trousers doing loads of coke. When I first came down to London as a teenager it was all lovely working-class bands who you could sit in a pub with, have a pint, play Scrabble, talk about literature, poetry, the importance of education and how they would love to have kids. They were like brothers to me. I never saw anyone write about rock stars like that. Especially from those days in the music press. It was like a cultural meeting point or education system. I loved that in rock, and you don’t see that anymore.
Because the protagonist is a teenager too it might attract a younger audience as well as those who grew up on the music.
I always presumed my audience would be women of my age reading for the sake of nostalgia but my audience is only 50% that. The other half is younger people who weren’t part of that era but look at it as a magical time. It was a really creative age where you were allowed that have more fun. Fun was free then. Now a night out is too expensive for young people. Maybe fun will find a way to come back when humans invent a new way to have a good time.
How to Build a Girl is on Amazon Prime Video from 24th July