The first two Javier Falcón novels have been made into movies, directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and Gabriel Range (Death of a President) and produced by Julia Stannard (The Awakening), with the production team at Mammoth Screen and financed by Sky, ZDF and Canal+ (Spain) for transmission by Sky Atlantic in 2012.
Every writer’s dream is to have a book published. But once that delirium is over what else can you hope for? More readers? Critical recognition? Peer approval? Yes, but what most writers (and their publishers) secretly hope is for their book to be filmed. Writers are paid dreamers and the ultimate fantasy is an intense collaboration with Martin or Steven, the book’s title emblazoned worldwide, a red carpet moment with Angelina or Brad, a multiplication of sales, vast wealth, and finally in some secret cave of the mind – the flash-pop, shutter-clicking madness of an Oscar. Find me a writer who hasn’t had that one at four in the morning and I’ll find you a banker with a disdain for money.
However, dreaming the dream in no way prepares you for the reality of having one of your works of fiction transformed into film. You might have taken some advice on board intellectually, like Elmore Leonard’s: ‘My book, their film.’ Or been arrested (cardiacally) by the disconcerting, experience of John Le Carré: ‘…like having your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.’ But, as with losing your virginity, there are some experiences that are just too personal for the advice of others to be of any real help.
Over the decades several film options had been taken out on my books and I’d learnt one thing: don’t hold your breath. Pay absolutely no attention to it, because it ain’t never gonna happen. This meant that while I was never disappointed, I was also unprepared for the day in September 2011 when my agent called and said: ‘Sky Atlantic have given the green light for the first two Falcón movies.’ The call came after such a prolonged silence (while Sky restructured) that I’d assumed it was all over. But now that it was ‘game on’ could I allow myself to get excited? There was no time for contemplation as the boom of the project unexpectedly going through the sound barrier told me we were in new territory. The money had started talking and that meant people normally deaf to the drone of book/movie prattle were suddenly listening and taking action.
In no time I was sent the second half of the screenplay and Michele Buck, the MD of Mammoth Screen, who had optioned the books, introduced me to Julia Stannard (The Awakening), who was going to be the producer for the two movies. With Julia on board the acceleration kicked in and in less than six weeks I was walking around Seville with the director, Pete Travis (Omagh, Vantage Point, Endgame), showing him Javier Falcón’s world.
Pete Travis pushed the tempo up another notch as he worked through every scene with the screenwriter, Stephen Butchard, inspiring the script with his powerful vision of the movie. Through Christmas and New Year casting began, names flew in and flew out. The readthrough kept getting pushed back as Pete demanded more and more from Stephen and the casting possibilities were whittled. Finally the day came in early February of 2012 for the readthrough of The Blind Man of Seville.
I turned up in the main hall of the American Church on Tottenham Court Road where people were gathering around a large square of tables and chairs. This was when it finally came home to me: it was actually going to happen. All these people, there were more than fifty, were gathered here because ten years ago I’d written a book. I felt tremendously excited, humbled and invariably, nervous.
In the few minutes before we sat down I met Javier Falcón, played by Marton Csokas (The Debt), whose ability to show internal suffering whilst still looking good had won me over. After a short introduction from Pete the readthrough began. The script took strange life as the actors read their parts - some with animation, others just ‘reading’. I hadn’t met Consuelo, played by Hayley Atwell (Captain America), in the mêlée beforehand, but when I heard her voice I knew she’d nailed the part. In an hour and a half it was all over and everybody dispersed, leaving ten of us from Sky, Mammoth and the production team to have a script conference.
By then, having seen my 450 page book distilled to a ninety page screenplay, I’d already understood that my ox was stock, and stock with foreign bodies floating in it, too. What I hadn’t quite grasped was how distant it was from the original material. The intensity of the discussion around that table was remarkable. Pete’s profound knowledge of the script made him undentable. I admired his ferocious defence of the work. Gradually, though, it dawned on me as I made my remarks that, while my terms of reference were still from my book, theirs were exclusively from the screenplay. As I spoke they looked at me, heads tilted, polite but slightly pitying, before reverting to the work at hand: their film.
I left in that strange state: gratified but bereft.
Three weeks later I could add ‘and a little richer’ to that state as the purchase price had been paid on inception of principal photography, and I flew into Seville with my wife to watch some of the filming. We were walking around the city after the flight, wondering where the film crew might be when suddenly we heard loud shouts, followed by four gunshots and ‘Cut!’. Christ, they’re doing it. We’re in Seville and they’re shooting The Blind Man.
It was only at this point that I realized how emotionally worked up I was about the whole project. Only now that it was happening did I fully understand what I’d entrusted to the people making this movie. It wasn’t just a book. It was how I’d
become a writer that was at stake. If they messed this up it wouldn’t be something I could just shrug off, this would hurt.
I spent four days (and a few nights) on various sets: a lamplit street with Marton Csokas belting down the cobbles in pursuit of the killer, in Falcón’s house with Marton having a tense chat in the patio with Bernard Hill, who plays Ramon Salgado, Javier’s father’s art dealer. Finally I was in a cramped apartment with Marton on the balcony in discussion with Charlie Creed-Miles, who plays his second-in-command, Ramírez. All the time I was thinking: is this working? Everybody on the Spanish crew were pulling out all the stops for Pete. The Director of Photography, Lula, was doing a brilliant job. Marton, Charlie and Bernard looked as if they were enjoying the work. The Spanish production company were pleased with way the English actors were able to make it all feel Sevillano. But was it hanging together?
At the end of that week Pete wanted to show the crew a three minute clip of what had been achieved so far as a way of thanking them for all the work they’d put in. My wife and I turned up at the crew’s hotel for the viewing and I was wound up so tight I could hardly speak to anybody, certainly not to Pete, who was nonchalantly bearing the full responsibility. We sat down, the lights went low, the editor tapped away at the computer and the images came up on the wall.
I cried with relief. The clip was terrific. The beauty and strangeness of Seville during Holy Week, the pace of the story, the intensity of the characters, the emotion in the drama all came through in those three minutes. And it looked fantastic. If I’d been Spanish I’d have kissed Pete Travis. As it was, both of us being English, we shook hands, squeezed shoulders. I’ve rarely felt so grateful.
What it’s like to have a movie made of one of your books? For me, it’s like selling a prized pig that you’ve carefully fed and husbanded for a couple of years to a chef, who
later invites you to his restaurant and serves you médaillons de porc au sauce crémeuse aux champignons et au pesto. And you think: the pork was good and I liked the mushroom sauce, but was the pesto really necessary? And…where’s the rest?