Looking back, I can see that my 22nd birthday was a significant day in terms of my going into the film business. I had already raised the money for, and was about to shoot, my first short film. This was long before the advent of mobile phones and even affordable video cameras. I was sharing my flat above a ballet school in Emmanuel Road, Cambridge, with a mature student called Iain Reid. He was about ten years older than me and had been in the Grenadier Guards. Before coming up to Cambridge he’d worked at an advertising agency called CDP. Two of the people he’d met there, a producer and director were coming up to Cambridge to scout locations for a movie they were hoping to shoot in the summer. But he couldn’t meet them as he was at tutorial that morning, so would I mind. Of course I agreed and so it was I spent my 22nd birthday showing David Puttnam and Hugh Hudson round Cambridge for a movie they hoped to make called “Chariots of Fire.” They were fascinating to a young student like myself and both of them charming and encouraging. The only point of disagreement was when we went into the Great Court at Trinity College and they talked about shooting the Great Court Run there. I politely told them it wouldn’t be possible as Trinity didn’t allow filming. They assured me they knew people and would make it work. I assured them it didn’t matter who they knew, they couldn’t shoot there. They smiled sympathetically, I didn’t understand the film world they seemed to be saying. They didn’t understand the world of Cambridge colleges I thought.
That summer Iain was asked to recruit extras for the Cambridge sequences. He enlisted my help as I had directed a few plays at the ADC Theatre and knew where to start. We advertised and signed up a couple of hundred extras. The first day of the shoot on King’s Parade was incredibly exciting. Then we shot the societies Fair in the Senate House. I was put in charge of the barbershop quartet, which included my friend Simon McBurney, who went on to become an international acclaimed theatre director with his company Theatre de Complicité. If you look closely you’ll also see Stephen Fry in the crowd somewhere. We were to shoot in Gonville and Caius on the first day but the college had taken offence at the portrayal of their master at the time as being an anti-semite. Welland wouldn’t change the script as it was based on factual research and so we ended up shooting at the entrance of Trinity Hall.
After the shoot Puttnam organised a “college” photograph taken with all the actors, crew and of course extras and gave them all a copy, which was a nice touch. Later that summer we bussed a couple of coachloads of students down to Eton college where they were shooting the Great Court Run. Trinity College had turned indeed said they couldn’t shoot there. I visited them later in the summer when they were shooting with Iain Holm playing the Italian coach Sam Mussabini. Puttnam was incredibly gracious and asked if I’d started writing any scripts yet. Which I hadn’t. “Be sure you send the first one to me when you do.”
Within a few weeks of leaving university I met the great filmmaker Derek Jarman. He’d just had huge success with his movie of ‘The Tempest’ starring the poet Heathcote Williams, Toyah Wilcox and Jack Birkett. Derek was incredibly encouraging to the young and hopeful and he made no exception with me. I spent a week as part of his band of young creative creatures following him around London. People like Rupert Everett, Julian Sands, Johnny Maybury, Cerith Wyn Evans, Judy Blame and Andy the furniture maker. Derek was a mischievous, charismatic kind of genius. He was like a Pied Piper with us all traipsing behind him processing to his glorious, wild tune. We would go out clubbing then come back to his flat in Phoenix House, about twenty of us and sit around while he projected super eight films he’d made, onto the wall, with classical music blaring out of the speakers as a soundtrack. It was completely magical. Looking back I don’t think I realised what a unique privilege this was. But one Friday night as I was leaving Derek came up to me and said he wasn’t really sure he could help me. I think he had a sense that I wasn’t an artist like Johnny and the rest of them. I was maybe a little more mainstream (and dull!). So he said goodbye and wished me luck. I had his phone number. I could call him any time.
I was a little deflated but still encouraged. It proved to me these things were possible. You just had to keep trying. I’d been turned down by the BBC and pretty much every major TV company in the country. I’d slogged up and down the streets of Soho trying to get a job as a runner in a facilities house. Nothing came up. Then the phone rang a couple of weeks later. It was Derek. He was writing a movie called “Neutron” with a young writer called Lee Drysdale. It was set in a post-apocalyptic world and was going to star David Bowie and Steven Berkoff. He was going to shoot it in the disused Battersea Power station. He and Lee needed some fresh eyes on the script and some help doing a polish. Would I be interested? Would I!? That afternoon a script arrived – on a motorbike! Oh the glamour.
I devoured the script. Feeling I didn’t understand it I pored over it again. I just didn’t get it. Maybe it as down to my inexperience, it was, after all, the fourteenth draft; they’d put a lot of work into getting it right. It was a Saturday I was due to be with Derek the next morning, Sunday. By midnight I had read it maybe the tenth time. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong. “I don’t think it’s any good. In fact I think it’s all over the place. But what do I know and what is more what am I going to do?” For me this was a huge break – what am I talking about? It was my ONLY break. Was I really going to blow it by telling them that I didn’t think it worked? She gave a me a great piece of advice which I’ve followed ever since. She said I had to tell the truth, albeit it respectfully, underlining that I could of course be wrong and face the consequences whatever they might be. She made the point that if I began lying before my career had even begun it could only go downhill from there.
So I made my way to Derek’s flat and met Lee. I felt that he, understandably, resented me being there. I think I would’ve felt the same. (Truth be told I’ve felt that way many times in my career.) Before I had a chance to say how I felt about the script Derek had me sitting at a desk with a tiny Olivetti typewriter and we began work on the first scene. I lasted all of twenty minutes before I turned round and said.
‘I’m really sorry but I have to say this and I promise when I’ve said it I’ll leave and won’t bother you again, because after all what do I know?” They listened very politely as I talked for about fifteen minutes, going through my thoughts on the script and where I thought the problems were. I finished. There was silence. Then Lee leapt off the bed. I really thought he was about to thump me but instead he said “He’s absolutely f***ing right!! Why hasn’t anyone else told us this? Why haven’t the execs said this. It’s the fourteenth f***ing draft.’ We set about rewriting it. Then we had a pizza at Pizza Express beside the British museum. At one point I caught Derek smiling at me. I like to think, looking back, that he was thinking he was right to send me the script. His instinct had proved correct as it so often did. I’d given them a nudge which I think he instinctively, maybe even subconsciously, knew I’d give them. It was this instinct which made him encourage the filmmaker Johnny Maybury, the actress Tilda Swinton – who later pretty much became his muse – and Sandy Powell the Oscar wining costume designer to whom he gave her first professional job. She always did his movies after that. It was like Derek’s secret power.
We finished the draft of Neutron. It sadly never got made. One of the initial problems being that Battersea Power station was full of asbestos. One funny anecdote I remember that summer was that Bowie was coming to meet Derek. It was their first meeting. I was thrilled at the prospect of meeting this icon, but then, just before he arrived Derek said I had to go! So I never got to meet him. But when I went back the next day Derek couldn’t suppress his glee as he pointed to the mantlepiece. There on the end was a crumpled pack of Marlboro Cigarettes. “That’s David Bowie’s pack of cigarettes!” Derek said giggling with that unmistakeable schoolboyish giggle. He’d kept it like a holy relic. Anyway it was still there two weeks later, having been admired by dozens of visitors no doubt, when Bowie returned for another meeting. According to Derek, in the middle of the meeting, the great man got up, went over to the mantlepiece, picked up the crumpled up cigarette packet, turned to Derek with what he later described as a “piercing” look of disappointment and put it in his jacket pocket. Derek of course thought this was even more hilarious and marvellous. Bowie didn’t hold it against him though. They met several times after this, with Derek, on one occasion in 1983, flying to Geneva to meet Bowie, where he played him the as yet unreleased “Ashes to Ashes” album in a “darkened room.”
Derek then installed me in his friend the artist, Christopher Hobbs’ artist’s studio to write a new project for him called Bob Upadown. A silent medieval movie about a walled in Anchoress and a woodcutter. It was a great summer. I wasn’t being paid but I was a screenwriter thanks to Derek. I look at some of the early drafts of the screenplay with Derek’s beautiful handwriting in red all over it giving really strict almost angry criticism. He was a hard taskmaster. No pushover. He also made me spend a fortune on a Braun Nizo Super 8 camera in Burlington Arcade – “if you really want to be a filmmaker you need to start with one of these.” Again this movie never got made. He rewrote it many times in later years for Tilda Swinton and added dialogue. But I will be forever grateful for him taking a chance and investing time and care in me when he didn’t have to. It set my career in motion in all sorts of ways.