Green light for Cuba Pictures
Nick Marston reports on how the Curtis Brown literary agency is increasing its commitment to bringing innovative dramas to the screen.Last month, the Controller of BBC 1 announced a major new drama commission, a six-hour adaptation of Susanna Clarke's epic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
The intention is that it will be one of the boldest dramas seen on the BBC in a long time - an ambitious mix of literary and historical fantasy on a grand scale, made for a grown-up audience and shown in a prime slot on the main channel.
It is also something of a landmark in that the programme has been fully developed and is now being financed and produced by a company which has sprung from a literary agency.
I started Cuba Pictures in 2008 with my colleague at Curtis Brown, Tally Garner. The plan was to make use of the fund of literary material the company represents (we are now officially the oldest literary agency in the world) with the particular lure being my relationships with playwrights, TV and film screenwriters and directors, nurtured over more than 20 years.
It was widely assumed this would mean snaffling all the high-profile titles before the rest of the world had a chance to bid. In reality, the first two books we found were hidden gems, both first novels already published and struggling to find the readership they deserved in the crowded world of fiction publishing.
Boy A was written by Jonathan Trigell while studying at the Manchester University novel writing course. His tutor, Anna Davis, was also working as a novelist and contracts guru at Curtis Brown. It is the story of a man in his early 20s emerging from a 10-year jail sentence with a new name and a new identity. Gradually we understand the heinous nature of the crime has has committed. With the foundation of Jonathan's novel and the collaboration of screenwriter Mark O'Rowe and director John Crowley, a hugely affecting coming of age story was created, making a star out of Andrew Garfield (now Spiderman), who became the youngest winner of a Best Actor BAFTA. The film won five BAFTAs in all, and was released theatrically by the Weinstein Company.
Boy A was fully financed by Channel 4 as a single film for television. It made us think that, with the right combination of material and creative team, raising the finance for a feature film should also be straightforward. We found a first novel by Daniel Clay called Broken, a kind of English To Kill a Mockingbird, set in a suburban housing estate. Like Boy A, it combined an illuminating picture of modern Britain with a highly resonant emotional story. Mark O'Rowe once again wrote the screenplay and the director was Rufus Norris, who, I had long known as a theatre virtuoso, with productions such as Festen, Vernon God Little and London Road.
As I should have known from my day job as an agent, it was actually incredibly hard to raise money for a British feature film. In the end, we relied on a call from Rufus to his theatre patron Bill Kenwright, who, happily for us if not for Everton fans, had just sold a star footballer and was able to provide some crucial outstanding finance.
Bolstered by superb performances from our 12-year-old lead, Eloise Lawrence, and her co-stars, including Tim Roth, Cillian Murphy and Rory Kinnear, the film has emerged as something to be proud of. It was one of only two British films in Cannes this year, opening Critics Week there, and last month it won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards. It will be released in the UK by Studio Canal in March.
We have now decided to invest in production as a new, stand-alone unit under the Curtis Brown umbrella. Tally Garner returns this month from maternity leave as a full-time producer, and Dixie Linder, who has a wealth of production experience and no agency background at all, has also joined us. I don't think a UK agency has housed full-time producers before, and the next few years will, at the very least, be an illuminating test case.
The advantages of working in this way are already clear. Authors are able to collaborate creatively and participate commercially in ways they never otherwise could, and crucial underlying rights can be held back from third party exploitation.
There are, of course, potential pitfalls, all of which have been loudly spelt out to me. You have to be clear with the authors about the terms of collaboration and that this route is no guarantee of film success and satisfaction (after all, no one can guarantee that). This has to be, for writers and directors as well as authors, a possible route to production and not the exclusive one.
However, if we are able to fulfil the enormous potential of Jonathan Strange and deliver a top-class series, the possibilities for literary adaptations of this kind should truly open up. How about, for starters, two modern classics which could make terrific multiepisodic television series - Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet?