‘If you sell your film rights…’
This is what people say when you write books. Writing a book is good, but someone coming along and buying the film rights is, it is assumed, the thing that will make you rich. Occasionally that happens to people. Nicholas Evans, for example, sold the rights to The Horse Whisperer to Robert Redford in 1995, for £3million, before he had even finished writing the book. Generally, however, ‘sell your film rights and you’ll be rich’ is an idea that writers greet with hollow laughter.
While I have sold various film rights for small sums over the years, the only time someone has tried very hard to make a film of one of my books was when the wonderful director Antonia Bird bought the rights to Backpack, my first novel. I was amazed that a proper director (of Priest and Ravenous, among many others) was interested in my book, which she had bought at an airport looking for something easy to read on the plane. While the film never got made, it was the start of an inspiring collaboration and a friendship that lasted until October 24th, when Antonia died after a seven month illness.
The first time she called me, I was unable to come to the phone as I was in hospital: my first baby was two weeks overdue and had shown no inclination to be born, so I was lying back with drips and machines attached to me, having labour induced. When I was back on my feet, however, we met in London, and she laughed about the oddness of calling me and being told by my mum that I was busy giving birth. ‘I said to everyone in the office, “she’s actually having a baby right now!”’ she told me. ‘No one else thought it was as brilliant as I did.’
When, despite much effort, the Backpack film never got funded, we tried other projects together. We tried to get funding for a film of another of my books, Plan B, and for a TV series about Britain flooding, and for a film that will always be The One That Got Away, to me.
This one started when Antonia called me full of enthusiasm for the idea of making a film about the City and financial collapse. It was 2006, and the economy was wildly booming. Antonia sensed that something was afoot, and wanted to get a film about financial collapse made, not really sure whether it would happen in real life or not, but knowing that it would make a brilliant story. I was living in rural France and was heavily pregnant with my third child: Antonia and her adored husband Ian came out to stay with us for a few days, and she and I worked on a story about a woman called Rose uncovering stories of bankerly wrongdoing, causing systemic collapse and going on the run.
It was intense and stimulating. Antonia was utterly focused and writing with her was a joy. I rarely work with anyone else, and those days (plus more, in both France and in London) were a wonderful insight into her world. Antonia was an energising whirlwind to work with: she was infectiously obsessed with the project in hand, optimistic with the right tinge of cynicism, massively open to ideas and always ready to laugh. We sat at the kitchen table in France, and (on her second visit) I jiggled my baby, Lottie, while Antonia wrote our plot on blank postcards with her purple pen and we shifted the scenes around. When she returned to London the process continued by email: I remember desperately finessing a synopsis document, knowing I had 15 minutes before I had to leave for the school run, determined to send it before I left because I could not bear to disappoint her. Her replies would come almost instantly, new ideas, responses to what I had written, bouncing it all around until it felt right. They often opened with a jaunty “back atcha”.
Antonia always had many projects on the go and talked about them with passion and generosity. She gave the same level of energy and commitment to everything she did. While I knew her, she made films that ranged from The Hamburg Cell, a fictionalised account of the September 11th hijackers, to Off By Heart, a wonderful documentary about children reciting poetry, which won her a BAFTA.
Over the years we went to meetings with producers (who generally said ‘write the whole script and then we’ll see’), and we never got a project off the ground. The financial collapse happened when that screenplay was on the back burner, and the fact that we hadn’t got the prescient film made in time was a source of darkly amused regret to both of us. Antonia picked me up from airports, took me to tea once at BAFTA (my excitement was ill-concealed), and would always meet for coffee or lunch if we were in London at the same time. A few years ago my brother and I had a night out with her that started at Shoreditch House and ended in a Mexican restaurant near London Bridge. All I remember from that night is the three of us laughing (and Antonia didn’t even drink). We never got a film project off the ground, but our relationship became a straightforward stimulating friendship.
The last time I saw her was 18 months ago, when we met for lunch in London. She grasped her hair with both hands, as she always did, and talked about the film she was researching about Bradley Manning: she was passionately political and principled. Generous as ever, she also told me to write a short film that she could direct, so we could use it as a calling card for a bigger project. I did, and that script bounced between us for a while. She was full of plans: she and Ian were going to buy a camper van and come to visit us in Cornwall. I asked her to come and talk about film at a children’s writing course I was running, and she was enthusiastic and apologetic that she couldn’t make the dates that year.
The next time I tried to see her she was away in the Peak District filming the acclaimed TV series The Village, and wrote to me amused to have bought one of my books at a Waitrose in Derbyshire. The time after that she replied to my text with a chilling: ‘I am very ill’.
I knew it must be something terrifying: she would never have used that phrase otherwise. And so it turned out. She died a few months later after suffering from anaplastic thyroid cancer. The loss to the world of film is intense and shocking.
I have never had a film made of one of my books, and I probably never will. I did, however, get to be friends with Antonia Bird for 12 years. That is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.