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'Millions' writer wins "lottery"

Frank Cottrell Boyce, conducting his filmmaking workshop for children.

Filmography: "Millions" (2004) "Code 46" (2003) "Revengers Tragedy" (2002) "24 Hour Party People" (2002) "The Claim" (2000) "Pandaemonium" (2000) "Hilary and Jackie" (1999) "Welcome to Sarajevo" (1997) "Saint-Ex" (1996) "New York Crossing" (1996) "Butterfly Kiss" (1995) "Forget About Me" (1990)

There was this guy from Liverpool named Francis Boyce who hung out on the old Ebert Forum at CompuServe in the early 1990s. It was only belatedly that I realized that Francis was the gifted British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce.

In 1990 he had already written his first screenplay, which was made into Michael Winterbottom's first film, and in the years to come he wrote four more for Winterbottom, and others for Alex Cox, Julien Temple, Anand Tucker and Danny Boyle.

He was working with a group of cutting-edge British filmmakers, and becoming arguably the most original and versatile screenwriter in the land. Who else could show the range represented by "Butterfly Kiss," "Welcome to Sarajevo," "Hilary and Jackie," "The Claim" and "24 Hour Party People"?

Perhaps you haven't heard of those movies, except "Hilary and Jackie." But I gave them an average review of 3.62 stars, if you don't count the two star review for "Sarajevo" ("a film you hated," Boyce reminds me). Now Boyce and Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later") have worked together for the first time on an extraordinary new film named "Millions," which I rated at four stars, bringing his non-Saravejo average up to 3.7 stars. It is a magical film, and what is perhaps more amazing, coming from Boyle and Boyce, is that it's a family film.

I am obsessing about the average star rating because that's the kind of discussion we had back in the old Compuserve days. So after I saw "Millions" and loved it, I thought it would be appropriate to interview Boyce via e-mail.

Roger Ebert: What led a professional to an Internet forum?

Frank Cottrell Boyce: Well I don't regard myself as a professional. I think I'm more like a fan who's too enthusiastic to confine himself to spectating. In "24 Hour Party People" there's a man called John the Postman who got so excited during every gig that he jumped onstage and sang "Louie Louie." That's me. Do you know that I help run a small independent cinema? I do popcorn duty and stand at the back to keep things in good order. I'm famous for stopping a screening of "The Others" on the grounds that the audience were making too much noise. I sent them all home!

RE: You've worked with Michael Winterbottom right from the beginning, with "Forget About Me" (1990), when he was 29.

FCB: Michael and I are contemporaries. We met when he was working for a London television broadcaster as a trainee editor. In order to become a proper editor you had to wait for the present editor to die. I'm not sure whether the training included killing techniques or not. Anyway he was frustrated. And I was working on a script about the dangers of smoking so I was even more frustrated. We met in the canteen and plotted our escape route. It involved me writing a spec script for Michael to shoot. It never got made but it was good enough to get us some meetings.

RE: "Millions," is a complete departure in subject and tone for Danny Boyle. How did you come together on the project?

FCB: I wrote it way back -- straight after "Welcome to Sarajevo" (a film you hated!), but people were understandably nervous about making a family film like "Millions." If you make "24 Hour Party People," you're competing with Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. But if you make a family film you're supposedly competing with Pixar, for which you need more firepower. So no one was interested until Danny came along. I don't know what made him want to do it. I didn't ask in case he started to question it himself. It did feel like winning the lottery the day he said, "This is a great script," even though he did go on to say, "well the first thirty pages are great anyway." It might seem like a departure, but to me it's the destination I've been trying to get to for a long time.

RE: In the film, your young hero has perfectly reasonable conversations with several saints, and is an expert on their lives and histories. How did the saints make their way into a movie about a two small boys who find the loot from a train robbery?

FCB: You already know the answer and you're being coy! I read an interview that you did with Martin Scorsese in which Scorsese said he'd been influenced by a book called "The Six O'clock Saints," about the lives of the saints. People think of saints as vaguely nice and virtuous but in fact they were often difficult, mad, driven by a different energy. Bunuel made a film about "Simon of the Desert," who avoided temptation by living on top of a marble column. Even St. Francis -- who was one of the two or three greatest human beings ever to walk the earth -- could be a bit weird. Your interview with Scorsese sent me scuttling back to a dictionary of saints I'd had as a child and opening it up was like opening my own mysterious bag of cash -- endless mad, gigantic stories. Narrative cash. The thing about the saints is that for nearly 2,000 years they were the popular culture. Those gory, erotic statues you see in old churches are like early cinema, aren't they?

RE: The films you've done with Winterbottom are so various in subject matter. Comment, please, on these titles:

"Butterfly Kiss" (1995), with its amazing Amanda Plummer performance as a disturbed drifter driven by self-destruction and violence.

FCB: I still love this film though I haven't watched it since then. It was written and made very quickly and I still don't really understand where it came from.

RE: "Welcome to Sarajevo" (1997), a rough-edged docudrama about reporters in the war zone.

FCB: You hated this but I was very happy making it. It was made with great spirit. Michael insisted on shooting it in Sarajevo in the face of incredible difficulties. It was a Herzogian thing to do. The script was rough and ready and not that well informed because we wanted to make it quickly. Michael has since made "In This World" with the same kind of heroic lack of finesse. I think that's his best film. My sister's ex-boyfriend was a journalist who was killed in Sarajevo and the news coverage of the war was so slight that we didn't know he was dead for about a year.

RE: "The Claim" (2000), about a man who sells his wife and daughter for a claim to a gold mine.

FCB: Ohhhhmygod. What might have been. Unlike the other two we worked for years on the script of this. Obviously it was a higher budget. I had such ambitions for it but I completely lost control during the development process. It's so nearly good. Pathe were obsessed with the idea that we would lose sympathy for the hero if he sold his wife at the beginning, which is the whole point of the story and which is where the Thomas Hardy novel starts. So they tried to sneak his terrible crime in halfway through in a flashback. As a result the film is fuzzy and unfocused and dare I say it, pointless. Michael did amazing things in it - the house moving, the landscape, the town - but without the story it was just a magic lantern show. I fought for it for awhile and then gave up.

RE: "24 Hour Party People" (2002), about Tony Wilson, a man who is transformed by a Sex Pistols concert and becomes a one-man recording and club industry who transforms the British music scene.

FCB: I utterly love this film. It's a hymn to Manchester, and to Tony Wilson who is reviled and laughed at in Manchester for being pretentious and pompous. I think in these times being pretentious is sort of heroic and I hope the film makes that case for him. His career seems to have had a lift from it. I was amazed that anyone who lived outside the North West of England could begin to understand it. It was particularly weird watching it in Cannes with a stoned and bewildered Tony on one side and some bejeweled and well-groomed Riviera bourgeois on the other (they didn't really get it). I've met people in Brazil and Germany and Croatia who love this film and that always makes me go gooey about the generosity of the human heart -- that people would care about something so parochial. Also people generally believe that it was largely improvised which it wasn't at all (you try and get Steve Coogan to improvise about Boethius or DNA!). But I do think that's the greatest compliment a script could have. I remember the first time I saw "Spinal Tap" I didn't twig that they weren't a real band! I wasn't sure you were supposed to be laughing.

RE: "Code 46" (2003) about a future world in which personal freedom and relationships are governed by genetic information.

FCB: Ohhh. Don't let's go there. By the way, four of the above films contain sequences shot in Formby Woods -- a pinewoods on the beach near my house. "Hilary and Jackie" opens on the same beach. I do try to bring investment into my poor benighted home town.

RE: The forthcoming "Tristam Shandy," based on the classic Sterne novel which, being the autobiography of a man who begins before he was born and never quite gets to his birth, seems to have anticipated the recent screenwriting adventures of Charlie Kaufman.

FCB: This was the first film idea I ever pitched to Michael. It's now become a film about making a film, which sounds a bit Kaufmanny but it's actually more like Truffaut's "Day for Night" I think -- quite a warm film about the fun of the film set. Steve Coogan, who is always brilliant, stars again. The book is about the birth of a baby, and about how all your hopes for the baby are dashed but somehow it doesn't matter. That seems very human and straightforward and true to me. At least true of SOME of my children anyway.

RE: You also wrote Anand Tucker's "Hilary and Jackie" (1999), the story of cellist Jacqueline du Pre, her sister, and her disordered life. Both Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths won Oscar nominations; were you surprised that this risky, intimate story won the attention of the Academy?

FCB: Flabbergasted. Although I thought Emily's performance was amazing -- more like necromancy than acting. We'd seen her in "Breaking the Waves" and we took her out and told her the story. We didn't have a script and we said we wouldn't write one unless she said yes because there was no point as she was the only one who could play it. I didn't appreciate at the time how unusual it was for a distinguished actress (she got a nomination for "Breaking the Waves" too) to respond to a pitch like that. She has a season ticket for the Arsenal Football Club and so does Anand so maybe football played its part.

RE: You've worked for 15 years at the cutting edge of the British film industry, which is famously described as an invalid. Despite its precarious health, despite living outside Liverpool, you work with great success at projects of your own choosing. Is that a miracle to equal what your saints provide in "Millions?"

FCB: I think I've been very very lucky in that I've never had an actual hit. If you have a hit then anything you do after it has to be a hit too; otherwise it's a failure. I've never done anything that I had to live up to!

RE: You were the TV critic for the magazine "Living Marxism." In "Millions," your young hero Damien distributes handfuls of cash, possibly illustrating Marx's "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Comment?

FCB: Well, I think "24 Hour Party People" was also a film about reckless generosity. Maybe it comes from working in the film industry where money is like an actual physical force acting on you all the time - like gravity or something. Reckless Generosity -- that's my philosophy of life. That's what unites Tony Wilson and St. Francis.

RE: Your "Saint-Ex," about Antoine de Saint-Exupery, stars another kind of saint, who wrote about a Little Prince who was somewhat saintly. Am I reaching here? The two boys in "Saint-Ex" are your sons?

FCB: Yes they are! And very cute they looked too. I wouldn't normally let my kids near the set but it was a low budget film and the restrictions on children's hours were putting weeks on the shoot so I used my own kids and worked them half to death. Poor Aidan - who was about five at the time -- had to fall backwards off a gantry into my arms at one point. He did it about five times and the fifth time, when I looked down he was asleep. They put me in a cab back to Euston and I got on the train and made it all the way back to Liverpool without him waking up. I turned up at the door and he was still in his costume.

RE: How do you function as a successful screenwriter with six children in the house?

FCB: Blimey. Well I'm not sure that I'm that successful! I think I've probably let others do all the moving and shaking for me. Living far away from London may have something to do with it. People hesitate about calling you down to meetings so you never get sacked. Maybe people don't want to sack someone who's got so many mouths to feed!

By the way it's now seven children, not six. I'm working on an adaptation of "The Odyssey" at the moment and my 8-year old is massively excited and contributes hugely to it. They're just particularly wonderful children, I suppose.

RE: Just like the kids in "Millions."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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