London Road is set to hit the big screen this week and is an adaptation of the National Theatre musical of the same name, which in turn is based on a series of interviews about the Steve Wright killings in Ipswich.
Alecky Blythe conducted the initial interviews and penned the screenplay for the stage musical and she is back on board to write the script for the upcoming film.
We caught up with Alecky to chat about the film, her verbatim style of writing, and what lies ahead for her.
- London Road is set to hit the big screen later this summer, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
London Road is created from real interviews that I carried out from the end of 2006 in Ipswich, once five women had been found dead in the town. I collected interviews from the people of Ipswich over the next two and a half years. It doesn't really tell the story of the murders at all but it's about the community - particularly that of London Road: which is where the man who was arrested and now serving a sentence in prison for those murders lived.
It is about that community healing itself, coming together during that difficult time, forming a Neighbourhood Watch, becoming friends, and really working to make that place a nicer place to live after they had had a problem with prostitution; they felt that they had been tarnished by the press and given this red light district label. What they want to do was say, ' look, this street is not what you think it is.'
- The movie is not about the Steve Wright murders per-say but more about the ripples that are caused in the community that he lived. How did you discover the story of London Road and its residents? What was it about their story that interested you?
I discovered the story... first time I went the murders had happened and I was really just focusing on the town in general. I did get there before he was arrested and the town was in a state of fear. When I returned six months later - after I had started work on the piece - I got the local paper and on the front was a picture of this resident with all of her hanging baskets showing that the London Road In Bloom gardening competition had happened and I thought 'aahhh.'
At that point, my story had been more about the town living through this time but then I focused in on London Road as I could see that they were taking action and there was a narrative that I could follow through. It all happened very organically and that is where my nose led me. I went knocking on this woman's door and was like 'is this you on the front of the paper' and she like 'oh yes, it was the gardening competition that we had last week.' She was very happy to talk to me because I was meeting her at a time when the street was feeling better and was more than pleased to talk to me.
The reason that they had done that competition was to say to the wider public 'don't label us as this dingy, dangerous red light district because we are trying to recover and this is what we are doing.'
- You also wrote the hugely successful National Theatre musical - on which the movie is based - so what were the challenges of adapting the stage show for the big screen?
There were many challenges. The obvious one is the fact that a screenplay has a lot less dialogue in it than a stage play - and a verbatim stage play in particular as a verbatim, by its very nature, is very wordy and you are always struggling to give it a little bit of action. It was about trying to invent context, where things didn't happen to try to make them more active and so there was more for an audience to visually look at.
Also, trying to highlight a few of the residents as it is very difficult to have eleven central characters in a movie; in an ensemble play you can do that but in film, you want to focus on only a couple. So there were some big headline notes that I had been given. I also went back to my tapes - I didn't go and collect any more interviews - but I did listen to some of my hours and hours or recordings to think 'ok. I need this here and I need a bit of this.'
The road itself is also a central character, you see it get better over that period of time, and it ends looking beautiful with flowers and a street party. At the beginning, I was looking to get material that painted the picture of the problem with the working girls; which in the play was only talked about but in a film, it is all about the pictures. Therefore, it was about finding things that people had spoken about and then I could write a scene of action based on something that someone had said had happened to them.
- You are a verbatim playwright so how were you able to weave the way you usually work into this project? And how did that process of working fit in with the way that Adam Cork works?
When we first sat down and tried to write a song, I approached it in the same way as I had approached everything else, which is quite instinctively. My knowledge of musicals is very limited and I found the first workshop terrifying and intimidating but really exciting because I didn't really know what I was doing. But I just figured out what the song was about, oh it is about the town being scared, so maybe the line to repeat should be 'everyone is very very nervous.'
There were certain lines within the audio that just jump out at you and you go 'yes, of course. Maybe that should become the chorus.' You are trying to make a point and what I found was that recordings from my initial interviews at the time of the murders happening, which were quite vox-poppy, I found that... by creating a song using those little bits and repeating lines, the music acted like a glue to hold these sections of shared sentiment together.
In a traditional piece they might be a little bit disjointed but I felt that the music really held into a nice shape and bolstered the emotion; which is what I had wanted to do because it did feel like an extraordinary time that people were living through and maybe it's not too weird that they would suddenly burst into song about it (laughs).
I cringe at moments in musicals when you go from speaking into singing and I think one of the reasons why I wanted to see if I could make a musical was to see if I could make one that didn't have that lift-off moment. I thought I could do it in a gentler way with the ummms are the aarrs where you don't realise that they have started singings. Adam was a brilliant person who was able to do that and make the illusion seamless and you don't really realise when the singing begins.
- The movie sees you reunite with Adam and director Rufus Norris, with whom you worked with on the theatre production. How did you find collaborating with them once again?
It was great. I think it was fantastic that we had the same core creatively; there was Adam and Rufus but there was also David Shrubsole, the musical director who has worked on the show; it was his job to teach all of the actors to sing these difficult songs.
Javier de Frutos was the choreographer, Katrina Lindsay was the production designer, and had both worked on the show as well. It was lovely that they knew the material inside out, again they were having to adapt it to a different medium, but they were familiar with this potentially very tricky and delicate world that we were trying to present.
Then it was about surrounding ourselves with some real film experts, because that is not our field, and getting the chance to learn from people who work in that medium all of the time. I found on a film set very different to a rehearsal room. In a rehearsal room, there might be five creatives sitting behind the table and the actors are out there doing their stuff - so there wasn't a very long queue to get to speak to Rufus. But on a film set, you are competing with about a hundred different people who are trying to speak to him too.
I just got a bit better at being less English and polite and just elbowing by way in thinking 'I have got to speak to him.' I just got better about being more American about the whole thing otherwise I wasn't going to have my say and the film will be in the can - maybe my point is irrelevant but you feel like you want to say it and you will kick yourself if you don't get that chance.
A film set is just so crazy compared to a rehearsal room (laughs). That was a massive learning curve as the first three weeks of a six-week shoot I was finding my feet. I then really go into it and by the time it ended, I was like 'no, I know what I am doing now' (laughs).
- During your career, we have seen you write for TV, film, and theatre during your career, so how does writing for the different mediums compare?
I think with verbatim in particular, the requirements of TV and film... the tricky thing is wanting to see the action happen in front of you. I try as much as I can to be there when things happen to get, what I call, present tense material; if there's a party going on, I want to be at the party rather than hearing a couple of days later 'it was a great party.'
There are certain moments when I am physically not there and it is about trying to make those moments dramatic. They may have been big, key, important events but I was in London in a rehearsal room when these things would happen. A normal writer would just write that and that is very much a challenge. However, that was something that I enjoyed with the screenplay because I thought 'maybe I could invent some action that I didn't witness but I heard about or I think within the knowledge that I have of these characters is maybe how they would have dealt with it.'
That was quite liberating for me and I felt that quite exciting. Verbatim does have a danger of being too retrospective with everything happening yesterday (laughs).
- London Road is based around dark subject matter but what do you hope people will take away from this film when they see it?
Ultimately, I hope that it is oddly uplifting even though there is a tragedy at the heart of it. Rufus does a wonderful job with the final scene of the film, where we don't forget why this all came about because there is a presence of one of the working girls at the street party.
There is this bittersweet ending where you see the street celebrating but you don't forget the journey they have been on. I hope that people will bear in mind that if there are vulnerable people in the community that are overlooked and not looked after, then this is what could happen. It is good to make friends with your neighbours and care about where you live because your life can be enriched through that and I think that is what the piece is showing.
There is also a resilience in the characters that come together through that awful time. There is some hope and ultimately there's some optimism at the end of the film - without forgetting the sad that that happened at the centre. Weirdly, I actually think that the film is more emotional than the play and there is something more intense about the film. I was definitely more moved at some of the screenings of it then at the show.
- Finally, what's next for you going through the rest of this year?
I have made a short film that will be going out on BBC Four. There are a series of eight short films for the re-launch of drama on BBC Four later this year. I have made a verbatim piece about a couple of homeless people.
I am also working on a couple of new theatre commissions as well as a TV and film idea. It is definitely a film that I want to keep exploring because there's more to learn about it and I want to keep seeing what I can do with it.
London Road premieres on 9th June via NT Live and is on general release on 12th June. Visit londonroadfilm.co.uk for more information.