11 things I learned making a movie…

A version of this first appeared over at the Gollancz Blog. I’ve made a few tweaks since…

On our week of release, I was over the moon to be told that ROBOT OVERLORDS, the film I co-wrote with director Jon Wright, leapt to #3 in the UK Blu Ray chart, and #7 in the DVD chart. This news came just over 5 years after getting an email from Jon asking me if I’d be interested in working on the project. So now seems as good a time as any reflect to reflect on the things I’ve learned from writing my first movie…


I expected a good level of collaboration with Jon and the actors, which was fantastic, but some of the most surprising and rewarding stuff was getting emails from the production design team asking for names for castles, banks, names of towns on maps, the date of birth for our hero for a sheet of paper, all of which are barely seen on screen. This was great fun as you’re made to delve a little deeper into the world you’ve helped create, prompted by a team of people whose sole purpose is to make it look as believable as possible, and who think of all those details that add texture and depth to the environment.


To be honest, most days on set a writer feels like a fifth wheel: that paper script of yours no longer exists and the cast and crew are too busy trying to make it into a movie to accommodate you. But you’re on a movie set! For a film nerd like me this was heaven, especially on the day we shot at Pinewood, where I strolled around like I owned the place.

I was on set about eight days out of an eight week shoot (they didn’t have the budget to have the writer hanging around, plus I had a novelisation to write!). Jon and I had discussed protocol for dealing with any script changes on set/location, and agreed that he would take care of the day-to-day minor tweaks, but that we would collaborate on anything major. In the end, there was only one occasion where we had to make a major change and I happened to be on set that day. I was despatched to a trailer (I had my own trailer! For a bit…) where I worked on the revisions. I felt very important for at least forty-five minutes.

And the catering. Don’t forget to make the most of craft services. I put on quite a bit of weight.


“You’re going to be famous,” friends and relatives would say. I’d then ask them to name three screenwriters (that weren’t also directors) and most of them were stumped.

Screenwriters just don’t have the same profile as authors. Film is a director’s medium. And authors can’t be fired from their own book, whereas screenwriters get fired all the time, even from projects they originated! This time I managed to stay the course.


There’s an alternate universe where our producer Piers Tempest didn’t option the film and Jon and I are musing “That Robot Overlords idea could be a goer, y’know.” Without Piers’ tireless work this film would never have been made. And Jon spent pretty much every waking hour either writing, sketching, pitching, listening, re-writing, answering roughly twenty thousand questions a day before, during and after the shoot. Over a period of about four years. That’s hardcore stuff and I don’t think he put a foot wrong.


I had a week of rehearsal with Callan, Ella, James and Milo, working to tailor the dialogue to their strengths. It was an absolute joy to see them take ownership of their characters, and the backstory stuff we worked on formed the basis of the first part of the novelisation.

And then the likes of Gillian Anderson, Geraldine James, Roy Hudd, Tamer Hassan and Sir Ben Kingsley start saying words that you wrote. That’s a series of pinch-yourself moments right there.

I have so many favourite lines in the film, but the one that makes me giggle every time is just one word. “Fecund.” And Kingsley delivers it with exactly the kind of filthy relish we were hoping for.


You can do it well, cheap or fast, but not all three. Visual effects is a much-misunderstood industry, not least by me at the beginning of this project. The team at Nvizible pulled off nothing short of miracle bringing our metallic invaders to life on a budget that would barely pay for the Incredible Hulk’s pants on certain other movies. And they did it with meticulous attention to detail in a craft that’s a curious mix of hard science, pure art, teamwork, and all done with a rigorous pride in finessing stuff that might only register subconsciously with the viewer, but makes all the difference. They also have a terrific understanding of story and character. So much so, that I’ve even written a script with one of them.


We ran the gamut from children running screaming from the room (from one scene in particular, which became known as “the torture scene” by the producers) to others declaring it to be the best film they had ever witnessed.

We had the most amazing preview screening at the BFI Southbank: over 300 kids whooping and cheering and bursting into applause at the end, but we still didn’t manage to get the kind of nationwide distribution we wanted. Why? Myriad reasons, but it largely comes down to money. Marketing to 8-14 year olds is very, very expensive business (probably in the region of two million quid) and there wasn’t a major distributor in the UK willing to take the risk on an original idea. A shame, but that’s the reality of the British Film Industry at the moment.


I read all the reviews and you’re soon able to discern if it’s going to be a good or a bad one in the first paragraph. There’s nothing more wonderful than when a reviewer latches on to what you were aiming for and sings your praises, there’s nothing more sobering than a critical review that nails a problem that should have ironed out before production, or might not even be the production’s fault at all, simply a compromise made due to limitations of time and money. And there’s nothing more hilarious than the cretinous remarks by the Simpsons Comic Book Guys who troll the comments pages of Youtube and IMDb and have yet to learn that not all films are made for males aged between 20-35.

The hardest bit has been keeping my mum away from the bad reviews, because she will hunt down and kill the reviewers.


Somewhere along the line, someone managed to pirate a rather poor quality publicity screener of the film, and it was suddenly all over the torrent sites. We should have been flattered that it topped the torrent charts for some time, but the crummy quality of the pirated copy simply does no justice to the film.

What was remarkable though, were the number of people who would talk online about downloading/streaming the film from torrent sites and then tag our Twitter and Facebook accounts in their conversation! When you politely pointed out that what they were doing was illegal they became very apologetic and promised never to do it again, but there’s clearly a vast swathe of the population who enjoy their movies highly compressed with tons of digital noise and diabolical sound quality. Each to their own.


I’m not. I still have a day job to pay the bills. And based on what I was paid for this gig, I will need the day job for some time. Screenwriting is not a get rich quick scheme. It might not even be a get rich slow scheme. Ask me again in thirty years.


When Piers first suggested a novelisation of the film I raised my hand like the swottiest kid in class, “I’ll do it, let me, let me! And I know just the people who can publish it!” It’s been a privilege working with the Gollancz team to write a book that I hope stands alongside the great movie tie-ins I read when I was a kid. And you never know, if enough people like it I might get to write another one.


Photo by www.mpsv.co.uk
Oh, and always wear headphones, and always, always lurk near the director… Photo by http://www.mpsv.co.uk


Film Nuts – Jon Wright and I chat to Mustapha Kseibati

Jon and I took a break from writing top-secret-new-thing the other day to chat with filmmaker and all-round good guy Mustapha Kseibati for his podcast FILM NUTS.

Mus is one of the most passionate filmmakers I know, and there’s nothing he loves more than a great, heartfelt, commercial movie. Just, whatever you do, don’t get him started on BACK TO THE FUTURE:  if you think I can go on about STAR WARS, you ain’t heard Mus bang on about BTTF!

Jon and I had really good laugh chatting to Mus about how we got started and how ROBOT OVERLORDS got off the ground. You can download the podcast from iTunes here, or stream it on Soundcloud:

Oh, and if you’ve not seen Mus’s latest short, MOHAMMED, you’re missing a real treat. Watch it here!

mohammed poster

Enjoy! Oh, and Jon – who’s not a podcast listener – isn’t convinced there’s anyone out there with the endurance to sit through an hour of us waffling on, so do please let me know if you do!


Robot Overlords is out in the UK today!


ROBOT OVERLORDS is finally available to own in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray today…

It’s already out there on Digital HD across all platforms: Virgin Media, iTunes, Sky, Blinkbox, Amazon, Xbox and Google.

And now The DVD and Blu-Ray are available wherever DVDs are sold…


The Blu-Ray is also available as a beautiful limited edition Steelbook .

Ooh, shiny…

All editions feature the same cool extras:

Cast and creator interviews at the MCM London Comic Con (featuring Gillian Anderson, James Tarpey and Craig Johnson)

A Making of…

A VFX special…

The cast reading an extract from the book at Pinewood Studios…

Matt Zo – Robots Never Lie Official Video…

The Comic Con extra is especially brilliant as poor lovestruck James pursues Gillian for an interview throughout the con.

So grab your copy now! But don’t just take my word for it…

 “A British sci-fi blockbuster, a must-see for all the family.”
   — Henry Fitzherbert, Sunday Express

Robot Overlords includes lots of things it’s impossible not to love, especially in the context of British cinema: hovering robot menaces, standing stones, a dour seaside location, a Spitfire in flight… while Gillian Anderson gives Paddington’s Sally Hawkins stiff competition for the title of Britain’s Best Mum.”
   — Kim Newman, Sight & Sound Magazine

“These are the droids you’re looking for…Robot Overlords proves, like Monsters before it, what can be achieved when you’re short of cash but rich in imagination. It’s also brimming with charm, and has a game supporting cast.”
   — Neil Smith, Total Film

“As with Jon Wright’s excellent last film,Grabbers, the pace never really lets up…Robot Overlords displays knowing intelligence, a sense of fun and a deep-rooted love for post-‘70s genre film. Unlike its titular villains, it’s sleek and it never malfunctions.”
   — Owen Williams, Empire Magazine

“The SFX are nothing short of incredible… What’s really astounding about this movie – not that fact that the team had this vision, but they managed to deliver it on a tiny budget, and deliver it well.”
   — Richmond Clements, Forbidden Planet

“Wright’s pleasingly pacy direction is infused with a palpable sense of fun and the film makes strong use of its various picturesque locations… Frankly, Michael Bay should watch this for tips and save himself a few quid on the next Transformers movie.”
   — Matthew Turner, WOW 24-7

“Director Jon Wright makes the most of his resources, imbuing the action with an oddly endearing sense of string-and-glue DIY youthfulness.”
   — Mark Kermode, The Observer

“He may not have the Hollywood buzz of Christopher Nolan or the hyper-kinetic style of the similar-surnamed Edgar, but the director has a voice (and confidence of tone) that knows exactly who he is, whether he’s working with drunken aliens or giant robots.”
   — Ivan Radford, i-Flicks

“A surprisingly slick and stylish British sci-fi… An entertaining action adventure with impressive special effects.”
   — Maria Duarte, Morning Star

“Director Jon Wright – who co-wrote the script with Mark Stay – has come up with a brilliant concept that really works on a small budget… A rip-roaring adventure that harks back to the ‘80s. Perhaps they do make them like they used to.”
   — Kate Lloyd, MyM Magazine

   “Robot Overlords doesn’t outstay its welcome, it doesn’t rehash boring things seen in bigger blockbusters, it plays within a world with established rules and a history, it plays with characters who have clear goals and chemistry, and it has a lot of fun in the process… A really enjoyable slice of cinema.”
   — Andrew Jones, HeyUGuys

“Doing away with the massive spectacle set pieces and never-ending explosions, Jon Wright instead shifts the focus to the human side of the story. It’s all about the characters. This is where Robot Overlords really shines… An action-packed romp through ’80s sci-fi classics, taking the over-the-top spectacle of Transformers and flipping it on its head.”
  — Ryan Leston, Total Geeks

Robot Overlords is a fun entry in an increasingly neglected genre: the family-friendly sci-fi movie… A charming throwback to the adventure films of the 70s and 80s.”
   — Ryan Lambie, Den Of Geek

“A Children’s Film Foundation offering updated for the JJ Abrams era: we now get better VFX, lashings of lens flare and Roy Hudd as a kindly grandpa… More spirited and nonconformist than the Transformers movies: the strategic deployment of a second world war Spitfire suggests this one may hold symbolic value for our newly confident industry.”
   — Mike McCahill, The Guardian

“A joy to watch, fun as anything, genuinely funny, tense, brilliantly made and with such grand spectacle at times it is hard to believe it is a British film, a proper British film. Your next big family favourite film.”
   — Andrew Jones, Box Office Buz

“Prepare to kneel before the Robot Overlords because this is one hell of a good film. Five stars.”
   — Paul Metcalf, Pissed Off Geek

“Giant Robots and Gillian… What’s not to like?”
  — James Mottram, Metro

“Mark Stay’s script, co-written with Wright, nails that balance between sci-fi grit and adventurous glam, filtering the Amblin escapades of old through a modern Britain.”

— Ivan Radford, Vodzilla


The GollanczFest is a go-go!


Gollancz Fest 2015: 16th-17th October – Manchester and London, events tbc

Not sure what I’ll be doing yet, but there will be an awesome line-up of talent (and me!), so you’d have to be some sort of weird anti-geek to miss out…

Last year tickets were sold out in three weeks, so to get yours click here.

In praise of the @ScriptWritingUK podcast…

I was delighted to be interviewed on the UK Scriptwriters’ Podcast this week. I’ve been following this podcast – as far as I know, the only one of its kind in the UK – since the very beginning, and it’s an invaluable resource for any writer. In each episode Danny Stack and Tim Clague bring their considerable industry experience to talk about writing for TV, film and games. They’ll cover the practicalities of writing as a career, and it’s inspirational stuff for any writer; beginner or pro. Seriously, if you want a career in writing and you’re not listening to this, then you’re definitely missing out.

So, to end up as a guest on the podcast is a particular honour, especially on their fifth birthday! You can download it from iTunes, or you can check it out on Podomatic.

And be sure to visit Danny’s blog, which is a treasure trove of good advice.

Oh, AND Danny and Tim did what so many filmmakers just talk about and actually made a film. Off their own backs! Via Kickstarter they raised the funds to make WHO KILLED NELSON NUTMEG?, the kind of British children’s film they really don’t make any more. Here’s the trailer…

So do the subscriby thing and start from the very beginning!

How Old Is Milo Parker…?

The most common search term that brings people to my blog is currently “How old is Milo Parker?”

Milo, of course, is one of the young stars of ROBOT OVERLORDS, and can currently be seen stealing the scenery from Sir Ian McKellen in MR. HOLMES, and has been filming Tim Burton’s MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN this summer.

Well, I’m delighted to settle this for once and for all. Milo Parker is 57 years old…

Milo Parker (the elderly man on the left) and Mark Stay.
Milo Parker (the elderly man on the left) and yours truly at Pinewood during the shooting of Robot Overlords. Photo by http://www.mpsv.co.uk  (c) MEDIATOR 452 LIMITED/BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE.

And if you don’t believe me, then Google it. Oh, wait…

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I’ll be at Nine Worlds this afternoon!

If you’re there too, come and say “Hi”. I’ll be revealing all the secret behind-the-scenes stuff about ROBOT OVERLORDS with a super-whizzy multimedia presentation.  I’ll also sign things, including books and posters and naked flesh… okay, maybe not naked flesh…

Here are the where and when details…

Friday 7th August, Nine Worlds and Geekfest:


Friday 7th August, 4-5pm, Room 16: Robot Overlords From Script to Screen. A behind-the-scenes look at how this independent British Sci-Fi movie went from script to screen.