Ten Years Ago Today: Robot Overlords and Rehearsals Begin

Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been looking back at my diaries from ten years ago, just as we were prepping to shoot Robot Overlords. From now on the diary entries you’ll see are the ones featured in the back of the film’s novelisation (and if you want a signed and dedicated copy of the paperback, then please step this way and click here). However, there were a few things that I left out of those book entries, that I’ve reinstated here (mostly me moaning about money!). We’ve got three entries in this post, just as we started rehearsals with our young actors including one new addition to the cast, James Tarpey, who brilliantly played Nathan in the film…

Sunday 26th May 2013


Staying at the Crescent Townhouse Hotel, ready for the start of rehearsals tomorrow. Met with Jon tonight to run through the schedule and work on ideas. We’re both still smarting from not getting our deferred fees, but at least the extra money we need for VFX is now in place, and the movie won’t look like a bad episode of Doctor Who.

In the paperback diaries I changed that last line to “like a bad episode of Blake’s 7”. I clearly thought I was in with a shout of getting a Doctor Who writing gig and didn’t want to offend anyone. Looking back at interviews from the time I say that I’m a big Doctor Who fan. Actually, it turned out that I’m a big Russell T Davies fan, having lost interest in the show after he left as show runner.

Monday 27th May

Belfast – rehearsals

Read throughs. We’re in a room in the production offices in an industrial estate on the edge of town. It’s bare, but we can work in relative peace and everyone’s raring to go. I had already met Ella and Milo at the audition stage, and was probably more excited than they were to start rehearsals.

Met Callan (McAuliffe) for the first time. Nice guy, and our new Nathan, James Tarpey, fits right in. For him, today was as much an audition as it was a rehearsal. Happily, Jon offered him the part at the end of the day. We needed a couple of adult actors to read-in the other parts, and we got the fabulous Jo Donnelly and Lalor Roddy (who would also play Swanny). Jon loved working with Lalor on his previous film Grabbers. He’s huge fun, and, it turns out, worked with Declan Mulholland back in the day (an actor/director I worked with at Unity Theatre about 20 years ago, and was the actor who originally played Jabba the Hutt in the first Star Wars movie). Jo was terrific, such a good actor and a delight to be with through the long days.

I was taking notes throughout the day and we have some minor tweaks to make to the script, which I started tonight.

One fly in the ointment. A guy called REDACTED brought in the prototype for the implants and, frankly, they were shit. Bulky, with poor illumination and not at all what we need. They look like roller disco earrings from the 80s. Jon wants to investigate a CG solution, if we have the budget.

I know creative types bang on about this all the time, but our cast really was a lovely bunch of people who had an excitement and energy about them that comes across in the film. It was important for the four kids (Callan and James were adults by this point, but they’re playing kids in the film, so I’ll refer to them as such: sorry, gents) to feel like real friends, so the next few days were crucial.

Having Jo and Lalor around was such a great help. And Lalor returned to play Rory in Unwelcome where he gives one of my favourite line readings in the film, ‘Big feckin’ hole in the roof.’

And yes, the implants aren’t great. The ones in the film are a slight improvement, but not much. Not at all what Jon and I imagined — we needed something small, battery-operated, that could flash and change colour — but it all came down to the lack of time and budget in the end. I think we’d definitely do those differently if we were making it today… That said, when people talk to me about the film now they almost always mention them, ‘Oh, yeah, that film where they’ve got those lights plugged into their necks!’

Tuesday 28th May

Belfast – Rehearsals

Read throughs. We got to the end of the script today. James is really making the part of Nathan his own.

There’s still no easy solution to the implants issue. We might resort to single colour devices that we can tweak in post. Not ideal.

Got to the end of the script today and finished around 4:30, giving me time to visit the Belfast Titanic Museum.

Belfast is a beautiful place to film. Having grown up in the 70s/80s I’d always associated it with the Troubles, but you could not ask to meet more friendly and welcoming folks. The city is a great mix of old and new and yes, definitely take the time to go to the Titanic Museum. The real awe comes from going around the back where they’ve marked the slips for both the Olympic and the Titanic. The sense of scale was quite moving.

It was great to see James take ownership of the role of Nathan, as you’ll see from the next entry (coming on Monday!), this was a big deal for him…

Ten Years Ago Today: Robot Overlords and my Last Day in the Office

Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been looking back at my diaries from ten years ago, just as we were prepping to shoot Robot Overlords. This entry is from my last day in the day job (I was a sales manager at Orion Publishing) before taking a six-month sabbatical…

Saturday 25th May, 2013

Up early. Too many things rattling around my head. Not least a £1000 VAT demand for money we’ve not received. I’ll have to sort that out with the accountant, pronto.

Yesterday was full-on. It started with a text from Jon. The BFI are coming in to save our VFX and shoot budget, but not our deferred fees. Jon’s really pissed off.

Meanwhile, my agent Katie was apologetic, but at least had news of a meeting with someone at Left Bank in a couple of weeks (they liked Myths & Magic and want a general meeting).

It was also my last day in the office before rehearsals next week, so I was trying to tie-up all sorts of loose ends, while also enduring a launch meeting, and putting together a presentation to Gollancz. All done, though. Now it’s in Jennie’s hands.

To be clear: I got the VAT sorted! You don’t muck around where the taxman is concerned. And the Jennie I mentioned there was my colleague Jennie McCann who is now a managing director at a major publisher and is one of those people who is brilliant at whatever she turns her hand to. I had no qualms about leaving all my accounts in her hands.

Jon and I were so angry about the deferred fees thing. Not least as it was done without anyone giving us the opportunity to properly protest it. You can read more about my thoughts on that here

I don’t recall if that Left Bank meeting happened, but the project they liked — Myths & Magic — was an early version of what became The Witches of Woodville series. Back then, it was a TV series idea set in a modern day village, but I could never quite get it to work. It took years of going round in circles before I realised that writing it as a series of novels and setting it in the Second World War is what it needed to click into place.

Leaving the Orion office on a sabbatical was a big step and the first time I had ever done anything like this. I had fantasies that this was it, and I’d never be coming back, and it was a thrilling and liberating feeling. I was a writer. One who’d been paid to write a movie and a novel, and they were now flying me out to Belfast to rehearse with amazing actors on location. We were off! More on that tomorrow…

Ten Years Ago Today: Robot Overlords and Losing a Cast Member at the Last Minute

Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been looking back at my diaries from ten years ago, just as we were prepping to shoot Robot Overlords. We needed more money to make the film and it looked like the BFI were coming to our rescue…

Thursday 23rd May, 2013

Jon (Wright, director) says the BFI thing is looking good. They want to give us a creative director to look at the script. Basically someone to be their eyes during production, and in return we get our VFX budget and writing fees back. Sounds good to me.

We might be losing Eros (Vlahos, actor who was originally cast as Nathan). His agent can’t get the dates to work with filming for Da Vinci’s Demons (a show that Eros was working on at the time). Be a shame to lose him, but Jon’s already looking at other kids.

I resumed work on the (Robot Overlords) novel. Still waiting for the nod from Gollancz… But it’s good to be writing again. I get glum when I’m not.

Katie (my then agent) has sent my stuff to the Doctor Who people! Were were both doubtful they’d even consider me, but they seem to be quite receptive.

We were assigned a creative director — he was credited as an Executive Producer — in Chris Clark, who was terrific when it came to honing the script in the frantic days before the shoot began. More of that soon.

And yes, sadly, we did lose Eros who was a terrific actor, but we did get the brilliant James Tarpey to play Nathan and now I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. But if you’re curious, you can see some pics of Eros on our test shoot day here.

I have no recollection of the Doctor Who thing. Needless to say it never happened. I’m not a huge Whovian, but it felt like a good after Robot Overlords… Though, let’s be honest, it’s the only original* science fiction show on the Beeb, so it’s not like I had any other options. I have a theory that the BBC treats science fiction like religious programming: they have one original show (Doctor Who… and when that wasn’t on it was Red Dwarf) and that’s it. Doesn’t exactly seem fair when there’s countless gritty dramas about cops, but such is the fickle nature of televised drama.

*Original being the important word here. Don’t come at me with ‘But they did His Dark Materials etc…’ That’s based on a bestselling book series. I’d love to see more new and original SF&F on the Beeb, but it’s not going to happen while Doctor Who is fulfilling the geek quota.

Sue Watson on the Bestseller Experiment | Do Writers Get Second Acts in their Careers?

Once a writer gets published there’s always a concern that either they’re a flash in the pan, or that in order to be successful they’ll have to write the same thing again and again to feed the publishing marketing machine until they’re driven mad and end up curled up in a ball under their desk, eyes twitching as they wonder how they’re going to make something feel fresh and original for the eighteenth time. Or… you can do what Sue Watson did. There’s a great moment in this week’s podcast where she admits that she was tired of trying to be funny and so switched from romcoms to murdering people for fun and profit (in fiction, I hasten to add). She also hints at a third act in her writing career too.

As always, this is available on all the usual podcast providers, and there’s an extended version where me and Mr D discuss how publishers define genres, when things don’t work out with an agent, self confidence, digital first publishers, success in the US, pen names, and much more! You can get your mitts on that by supporting the podcast here.

Ten Years Ago Today: Robot Overlords, Spitfires and Letting the Grass Grow

Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been looking back at my diaries from ten years ago, just as we were prepping to shoot Robot Overlords.

Pre-production was in full swing with location trips by the director Jon Wright and the production team. I could only sit at home and dream of such exotic locations…

Thursday 16th May, 2013

The Robots production and VFX team have been on recces to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man this week. Some great 360°/180° photos from Paddy (Eason, VFX Supervisor). The one sticking point is the Spitfire: we can’t afford to park a real antique in the middle of a wood, and we can’t — apparently — afford to build a model. Thinking caps on…

The script had the Spitfire hidden from robot drones in a woodland clearing. Here’s the page in the script as the gang chase a boy through the wood and discover the Spitfire…

In the end, we set the scene on the edge of a wood and put the plane under camouflage canvas. Can’t recall who came up with the solution, but it works really well in the finished film…

From L-R: Milo Parker, Ella Hunt, Callan McAuliffe, James Tarpey

Friday, 17th May, 2013

Apparently the BFI are making noises like they might come in with extra dosh. Jon also reports that the locations and crew are great — he’s in good spirits.

A nice report from Screen International today — mostly on the finance, but a mention from Tim Haslam (Producer) on the strength of the script. Another piece on an Isle of Man news site looking forward to the start of production. It said the grass around the castle is being allow to grow after a request from the production.

See, we were into No Mow May long before it was fashionable! The grass had to be overgrown because no human had tended to it since the invasion, and gardening was not a priority for the robot invaders. They were more into harvesting minds!

Here’s that Screen International story. Not sure that ‘strength of the script’ quote is quite what I make it out to be. I guess we all see what we want to see!

The next entry will be on 23rd May where we lose a cast member and discover if the BFI are able to give us the extra money we need. Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss out…

Jonathan Whitelaw on the Bestseller Experiment

I’m always interested in writers who pivot from one genre to another. I read all across all sorts of genres, so why should writers be expected to write the same stuff for the rest of the their careers? (Answer: to make the marketing department’s life easier, but that’s a conversation for another day) So it was a delight to speak to Jonathan Whitelaw, whose first book was Iain Banks-style contemporary fiction, followed by a couple of satirical thrillers, and now he’s returned with a series of cosy murder mysteries with a unique crime fighting duo — a son-in-law and mother-in-law — in The Bingo Hall Detectives and The Village Hall Vendetta. Jonathan was really good fun. Enjoy!

Oh, and if outtakes are your thing, then hang around to the very end of the recording…

Download the screenplay for UNWELCOME

I’ve had a few people ask if they can read the screenplay for Unwelcome. Well, I had a word with the producers and you can download it for free by clicking here or on the image below…

This is essentially the shooting script for the film, though I have tidied it up a little, meaning I’ve updated the title (it was called The Little People originally) and I’ve got rid of things like revision stars which can make a script look like a mess. You might notice a few differences from the script and the finished film and that’s to be expected, but if you have any questions just drop me a line here.

Happy reading!

Jessie Keane on the Bestseller Experiment (and I confess my most humiliating moments)…

I think Jessie Keane is the first guest on the podcast with Romany heritage and she’s definitely the first to tell us that her success as a writer was foretold by her Gran! That sense of destiny is what a lot of us writers lack. We’re all too eager to tell stories of chosen ones who are fated to save the world or achieve greatness, but we don’t apply it to ourselves. Jessie had plenty of opportunity to give up and walk away (ten romance novels, all rejected!), but with that prophecy ringing in her ears she kept going and each of her thrillers have been Sunday Times bestsellers and she’s sold six and half million copies. So be the hero of your own life and fulfil your destiny!

At the other end of the scale, me and Mr D reveal our most humiliating moments. These were just the ones I could recall in the moment. I could fill a whole show with the others if I applied myself. Instead, I’m going to pull a sword from a stone and be a chosen one for the day…

Ten Years Ago Today: Robot Overlords, pay cuts and solidarity with the WGA strike…

Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been looking back at my diaries from ten years ago, just as we were prepping to shoot Robot Overlords.

By a weird bit of serendipity, today’s blog post coincides with the beginning of the strike by the Writers’ Guild of America. Why the coincidence? Well, here’s my diary entry from ten years ago…

Thursday 2nd May, 2013

Met with Jon (Wright, director) to run through the location changes. Bit of bad news — one of our backers didn’t have the million quid they claimed to have, so we’re down another million. Thankfully, the other backers are keeping their nerve and we’re staying on schedule, but the pressure’s really on Piers (Tempest, producer) said.

So let’s skip forward a few days to…

Bank Holiday Monday 6th May, 2013

We’ve been asked to take another cut in pay. Down to £30k for me. Not happy. Won’t take a decision until I’ve discussed it further with Jon.

The idea was that we would have a conversation with our agents regarding the cut in pay before agreeing to it. Now let’s skip forward to…

Tuesday 7th May, 2013

It seems an executive decision was made on Friday night and both Jon and I had our writers’ fees cut. Not happy.

Really not happy (and I’m no longer with that agency). A few of you out there might be thinking, ‘Thirty grand! What are you complaining about? That’s loadsamoney!’ Well, I’d worked on this script for over two years, and thirty thousand pounds does not represent the amount of work that I put into the film. And the same thing happened to me again on Unwelcome. At the very last minute, I was asked to take £50k pay cut because of budget issues. You’re always told that others are taking a pay cut, too, but call me a cynical old goat, but I doubt that Sir Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson took a cut in pay. Why is it the writers who are always first for the chop? Because we’re an easy target. We’re often desperate and alone. If this had been a production by a WGA signatory, it’s highly unlikely that the pay cut could have occurred. That’s why I stand in solidarity with the WGA in their strike. They’re fighting for a better future for all writers and this time they’re up against the streamers: Silicon Valley tech companies who really hate unions.

Here’s a little follow up…

Wednesday 8th May, 2013

I got a call from Piers tonight, apologising for and explaining the nature of the fee cuts. Basically, we lost £1.35 million… If the cuts didn’t happen, then we’d lose the film. I appreciated his call.

Piers didn’t have to make that call, so I do genuinely appreciate his gesture (and I later learned that he basically made the film for free, surrendering his whole fee!), but more has to be done in the UK to protect writers from such last-minute shenanigans. Not long after this I joined a writers’ group called the Vipers, and some weeks we would have a guest speaker from the industry. One week we had a producer who, when asked about paying writers to develop scripts before they go into production, simply shrugged and said he couldn’t afford it. I suggested that if he couldn’t afford to produce films, then maybe he shouldn’t be in the business of film production. That went down well…

I’m currently working on a romcom script with a Finnish film company and they’ve paid us good fees to develop the script at every stage. It’s been absolute bliss and proves it can be done, so why do we not do more of this in the UK? The truth is, this is the reality of filmmaking in the UK. We don’t have the scale of economy that Hollywood has (or even Finland, apparently) so we’ll just have to accept it and bumble on… Which is par for the course in this country! Grr, humbug, and other grumbles. I’ll stop now before I start blaming everything on the Tories, which is what my rants usually default to (and with good cause)… Don’t worry. Your normal, cheerful service will resume in the next post.

Witches of Woodville now on Kindle in the USA & Canada

Just a quick note to announce that The Crow Folk, Babes in the Wood and The Ghost of Ivy Barn are now available on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited in the USA and Canada. Simply click on your country’s flag below to be whisked straight to some witchy digital goodness…

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