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Don't expect happy endings

Category: Dear Frankie News
Article Date: December 26, 2004 | Publication: The Sunday Times - Scotland | Author: Anna Burnside

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The screenwriter Andrea Gibb has drawn on the real-life experience of her family to come up with a pair of tearjerkers, writes Anna Burnside

Within the film industry, writers have traditionally occupied a place somewhere between the wig technician and the second catering assistant. They are Barton Fink, sitting in a cheap hotel churning out wrestling B-features, mired in misery and crumpled sheets of paper.
This is not the way Andrea Gibb likes to work. The writer behind the widely acclaimed Afterlife, and then Dear Frankie, which is set to boost Kleenex sales when it is released in January, wants to be involved. Very involved. When the two films were being shot simultaneously last year, she shuttled between the two sets, starting the day at Afterlife in case any lines required tweaking and arriving at Dear Frankie just as the crew were breaking for lunch.

“Collaboration is the only way,” she says defiantly, smoothing her pale, heavy hair behind her ears. “A lot of writers complain that they are cut out once the script is delivered, but that has not happened to me. Of course, everyone has their own jobs and skills. You don’t tell the director where to put the camera, they don’t tell you how to write the words, but it is a collaborative medium. It’s only when you get to the other end that it becomes so-and-so’s film. Really it’s everyone: the writer, the composer, the cinematographer . . .”

It is impossible to deny Gibb’s influence in her two films to date. Afterlife, her moving story of a tabloid ratpacker, his dying mother and his sister with Down’s syndrome, was based on her own family’s experience. A labour of love for Gibb and her first-time director Alison Peebles, they resisted all suggestions of switching to a more cuddly disability and cast Paula Sage, a 22-year-old with Down’s who had never acted before. The film was made for £320,000, in eight mad, manic months. (“It shows in the script,” sighs Gibb. “It could have done with at least one more draft, possibly two.”) But it was finished in time for last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it won the audience prize. It has been winning them ever since — the most recent was in Bratislava earlier this month — and has brought Sage a part in River City.

Dear Frankie is a different kind of movie, although the hand of Gibb is just as visible. It had a proper (by Scottish standards) budget of £3.5m and stars Emily Mortimer as a mother who becomes embroiled in an elaborate charade of phoney letters from her son’s absent father, and Gerard Butler as the enigmatic stranger she hires to play daddy for the day. Many of the themes, however, remain the same. It is set in Gibb’s home town of Greenock, centres around a disabled child — the Frankie of the title is deaf — and is preoccupied with the ties and responsibilities of family. It has won the hearts of, among others, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who bought it on the basis of a promo reel and will be distributing it in America in March.

Having spent five years working on Dear Frankie, Gibb is ready to leap to its defence before anyone has a chance to formulate an attack. “It’s not just a woman’s film,” she says. “We’ve had a fantastic response from men, it’s full of stuff about parenting, fathering, the nature of your relationship with your child.”

I ask if she would ever consider a happy ending. Without wishing to spoil anyone’s viewing pleasure, neither Afterlife nor Dear Frankie has the kind of conclusion that would satisfy a Hollywood test screening audience. Gibb’s instant response: “I think my endings are incredibly hopeful. I am already accused of being sentimental. Actually I think sentimental is a very maligned word and if you can touch someone, that’s great. I’d say my work is emotional. If it has meaning for you as a viewer, then that’s all the film-maker can hope for.”

What about her preoccupation with disability? Is she in danger of becoming an activist spokesman rather than a screenwriter?

“I couldn’t personally be a cheerleader for the disabled because I don’t have a disability and they have the right to that themselves. But if there’s anything I can do, I will do it.

“With Afterlife, I never set out to make an issue film because it’s such a highly personal story for me. I’m very aware of the strains Down’s syndrome puts within a family. My mum has looked after my sister Sharon for the past 30 years, 24-7, and I wanted to write about that, to say there are these people, these invisible carers who don’t get anything for what they do. That’s where my work has a political message — with a small p. It’s political because it’s so personal.”

A case in point are her family, who have little choice but to join in the collaborative process. Several of Sharon’s paintings feature in Afterlife. Her husband, the composer Paddy Cuneen, wrote the original music for Afterlife and reads all his wife’s scripts. She also freely admits to stealing all his best gags.

“I plagiarise my family, and everyone I know, for everything,” she says with a disarming grin. “I’m terrible. My son says he can’t watch some of it.” She makes a Kevin the teenager face — Calum, her son, is 15. “He says it’s like watching your own breakfast table on screen, it’s grim. It’s my family up there.”

Gibb talks with such assurance that it would be easy to forget that she is relatively new to writing. She has only written three films which she calls, with huge self-deprecation, “my trilogy”. One of them is still in a drawer. At 42, she has spent most of her career on the other side of the camera, as an actor. She is grateful that her acting career was more jobbing than resting — her most high-profile role was a three-year stint on All Creatures Great and Small, and she recently finished filming a new series of Taggart. Yet it is clear that acting is no longer her priority.

“I got to a point where I was thinking, if this phone stops ringing, if I stop getting interviews for training videos or soap powder commercials or the next social worker on the next medical drama on TV, what am I going to do? How am I going to live?

“I was getting to an age where I thought, there must be more. Acting is great when it’s going well and you’re getting stretched and challenged but for the majority rejection is the commonplace, your self-esteem is up and down like a yo-yo, to say nothing of your weight.”

As she was brooding on her future, Gibb’s mother, one of seven sisters, told her a tale from the family archives that she thought might make a film. So she wrote it as a 15-minute short, showed it first to her husband and then to a producer friend. They made muted, but interested, noises. Expanded to 30 minutes, it was shortlisted for the Dennis Potter screenwriting award. That gave her the confidence to try another short, which landed in front of director Shona Auerbach and eventually turned into Dear Frankie.

The success of Afterlife, which she wrote next, and the Miramax interest in Dear Frankie mean that Gibb’s corporate video days are over for good. If she is not chained to her laptop at home in Glasgow’s Jordanhill she is at meetings at “her office” — Tinderbox coffee shop on Byres Road. She has finished the second draft of an adaptation of Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room and is busy eviscerating another novel, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. A longer-term project is the Glasgow-set Bollywood-style love story, called Nina’s Heavenly Delights, that she’s writing with thedocumentary maker Pratibha Parmar. And Gibb also has another original piece on the go. Called Sextet, it will be, she thinks, “a Scottish Big Chill”.

“I wanted to do a relationship drama about people like me, people reaching 40 and what that means.” What, I ask her, does it mean? She laughs. “I have absolutely no idea.”

Dear Frankie is released on January 15


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