Novelist and Screenwriter Matt Thorne on the adaptation of his award-winning book 8 MINUTES IDLE

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Matt Thorne is the author of several novels including the award-winning 8 Minutes Idle, about life in a Bristol call centre, which he’s now adapted for the big screen and is out in limited release today.

Dan (Tom Hughes) has the simple ambition of an easy life. Accordingly, he has chosen a mind-numbingly dull call centre job to achieve this ambition, but his hopes of idyllic idleness are wrecked when a misunderstanding with his mother results in his sudden eviction from home, forcing him to secretly move into his place of employment with only his most prized possessions and his cat companion, John. This romantic comedy about imperfect employees also stars Ophelia Lovibond (Nowhere Boy)Antonia Thomas (Misfits) and the comedian Paul Kaye.

Novelist/co-screenwriter Matt Thorne talked to me about the challenges of adapting his book almost a decade later, how the crew turned to Kickstarter to finish the film when their distributor went bust, and the coincidental feline similarities between his film and the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.

Vérité: Fans of books don’t often understand the difference between film and fiction writing. Given that you co-wrote the adaptation, when they invariably complain that the book is better than the film, they’ll know who to blame.

Matt Thorne: Ha! I was very keen to acknowledge how very different those two mediums were and think of the film as its own thing. In that sense, it’s not a true adaptation. The thing I would say about the book was that I was very keen not for it to fall into any one particular genre outside of being a contemporary novel. The film has a more obvious structure but we’ve managed to maintain that sense of not knowing what will happen next which I’m very proud of.

Even with everything you might expect of an adaptation, the tonal shift towards romantic comedy feels like quite a big change 

Maybe the thing that links them is that the comedy element is still very black, but of course the differences will be substantial when you turn a 500 page novel turned into a 90 minute film. Given the low budget, the running time had to be kept down and tough choices needed to be made. I do think the big scenes from the book are in the film even though a mystery plotline involving Dan and his Dad’s seven mysterious women friends has been dropped. This was the entire thrust of the earliest adaptation that was set up at Film4 at one time and funnily enough the woman who optioned it there, ended up being the script editor on the film ten years later. Dan is a slightly different character, and I think when we started working on the film we were conscious of wanting to make it less depressing and a bit more comedic.

The book was first published in 1999, did coming back to it all these years later make the prospect of adaptation easier and did you always want to be involved? 

The book was optioned immediately after it came out and I wrote a very different screenplay back then. The distance of time meant I could look at it fresh. We had to make some decisions, the first being whether to do it as a period piece and set it in the late nineties. We decided to update it and once you do that, you have to look at how call centres have changed, how communication has changed and it starts to become its own thing very organically. That distance of quite a few years is interesting because one of the things people still get annoyed about to this day in the book is the ending – that Dan’s romance with Teri was stopped midway through its process. Part of that was deliberate, because Dan had done some bad things in the novel for which he needed to be punished and he doesn’t do as many bad things in the film. I also had always had the idea of writing a sequel and some of those ideas I was going to pursue did end up in the film, particularly in the way Dan and Teri’s relationship continues. In the novel, it’s very much about Dan’s relationship with his Dad.  Dan’s Mum is an offstage presence and I was always planning for the second book to be about his relationship with his mum in the same way. In the film she’s seen from the opening scene and is featured throughout.

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Coming back to the book for this project, has it re-stoked your interest in ever writing the proposed sequel? That didn’t happen in 1999 obviously and you went on to other books instead

One of the nice things about the film coming out is interest has picked up in the book again, and yes, that idea is again hovering in the back of my mind. But one of the things that makes it hard is the passage of time, like do you pick up exactly from where it left off? I did write the first 100 pages of a second volume and it follows immediately from the end of the novel, but writing it today, I’d have to choose between doing it as a period piece, which kind of runs contrary to the contemporary nature of the story itself or massively update it. These characters are special to me though, so maybe one day but I think that’s probably dependent on how well this film does.

And what was your experience of working with a co-writer on a story you must already feel quite protective of and opinionated about?

Nicolas Blincoe was friends with the producer who asked him to write a film set in Bristol. He didn’t have ideas for that, but knowing me, he loved the book and always believed it’d make a great film. It had been optioned before, but over the years that hadn’t happened, so now the two of us with the producer and director Mark Simon Hewis, started working on this for the iFeatures scheme which had whittled down 550 potential projects to 3 that got the money to go into production including us. It also meant that the director and producer had more input than they ordinarily would have, being on board right from the beginning. Nicolas’ biggest contribution was choosing the genre and the decision to make it more specifically a romantic comedy of sorts.

Did your contribution continue into the shoot?

Mostly in the editing, actually. There were discussions about there not being enough daylight in the film, being that it’s set largely in an office at night, so I was involved in re-shoots and re-writing linking scenes that got the characters outside.

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In the novel, this group of call centre operators are friends purely out of necessity, a way of killing time in their jobs. They exploit one another and stab each other in the back. Here, they’re a group who find solidarity in their mind-numbing work and depend upon one another very much

The increased sense of camaraderie between them is the difference of having actors who really bonded as a group and you can see that visually. Our leads have real charm and that’s what brings a magic and a lightness to it. Though I do think in the novel they are more united than you suggest given their collective disdain for their boss Alice, and that is still a common denominator here. Also, Tom Hughes worked very hard at giving Dan the moments of emotional blankness he has in the book. He spoke about to me about his idea that when Dan gets into conflicts, he switches off and visually you can see in his performance, in the scene of him being reprimanded in the office, you can literally see the character shutting down. That seemed to me to stay very true to the Dan I wrote.

Dan was quite thoughtless and self-obsessed in the book, you have him looking after a ginger Tom cat to make him more sympathetic, though as it turns out, he’s pretty awful at that too. In the film, Dan is much nicer, so when the cat goes through the same troubles you don’t like him because of it. In the book I liked him for trying, in the film I disliked him for not trying enough.

Originally we had it in for Dan a lot more. We shot a scene where Dan was telling his co-workers about the embarrassing threesome he witnesses in Teri’s bed as a funny story – she walks by, overhears him and they get into a huge row. Mark was unhappy with it because at that point it had got too dark for Tom. Compounded with the cat dying it was almost impossible to sympathetically bring him back from that. When I was writing the novel, I didn’t even know the cat was going to die, but once he had him in the office and living in the ceiling, I had to write a resolution to that narrative that was suitably dramatic.

What do you feel about this coming so hot on the heels of Inside Llewyn Davis, which prominently features a guy failing to look after a ginger Tom?

That was particularity strange, seeing those similarities, even just from watching the trailer. I read an interview with the Coens saying how nobody works with cats and how this is the only time a ginger Tom was used as a main character, even though our film was probably written and shot before they’d even thought about Inside Llewyn Davis.

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It’s interesting that the group are all skewered very young in the film. Gordon, the fortish mummy’s man has been replaced by an Indian twenty-something, obviously this is a nod to the ethnicity of most call centres these days.

Yes, the character of Gordon has been totally replaced by Dev who’s much nicer and easier to root for. So that and his youth changed the group dynamic significantly.  I realised that Gordon, who was a lot older, was now a tired character having written him before all these office-based comedies now on TV. in the film, this peripheral character has now moved into the center. His Indian ethnicity is what’s left of the wider commentary about call centres all around the world shutting down, the idea being that if you’re a good company, you don’t need a helpline. People want their problems solved via Twitter these days.

Characters often get compressed in adaptations, but surprisingly, Teri assumes the lead female role. In the book she’s essentially the third choice of Dan’s potential love interests after Adrienne and Alice

Adrienne was Dan’s equal and if she wasn’t with Ian they’d likely be together since they have the most in common. He’s with Alice out of cowardice and because he’s unable to express his true feelings, but I’ve always thought of Teri as the one with whom he’d be happiest with in some ways. He cant get to that point because he’s constantly screwing up. He was going to earn her love in the second book and this was my way of seeing that play out. We’ve shifted the focus rather than expanded the role, which is there almost identically in the novel of but sort of hidden in a way. Terri really likes Dan and even though he’s attracted to her, he’s not picking up on it. He’s more able to pursue her this time.

It’s so hard to get any film made, but even once it was in the can, things looked doubtful when your distributor Revolver went bust and you had to gamble on Kickstarter to get it in front of audiences

I was in a hotel room doing promotion for another book I had written. I got the phone call… it was so depressing and devastating to have worked so long and hard on something, get right to the finish line and be told it wasn’t going to happen. It took a lot of work finding a distributor in the first place and we were so happy with Revolver – in fact we’d only just had the conversation about how we were going to promote the release before it all happened. Then it was a while before we did the Kickstarter thing because David Shear who’d previously worked at Revolver needed time to set himself up independently. Creative England then offered to match-fund it if we raised the money from Kickstarter, a process that quite honestly saved the film. Once we got past the friends and family side of it, there were people pretty much from every country round the world chipping in. A guy from Milwaukee made a substantial connection after really connecting with the end credits song.

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You’re the author of quite a few other books. Any adaptations of your work you’d demand to be involved in?

“Cherry”, my sixth novel has been optioned the most and I’d really love to be involved in that. It’s a mixed genre piece, this noir-ish paranoia story. A man meets an old guy in the pub who asks him what his ideal woman would be like, then his ideal woman walks into the pub and a mystery spins out from there. It’s only at the treatment stage right now and a script is yet to be written. “Dreaming of Strangers” was adapted by Steve Barron (Teenage Muntant Ninja Turtles) who really responded to a lot of the eighties culture he’d created as a music video director. Sadly that never went any further.

What’s next?

I’m writing some TV scripts, which will hopefully be greenlit soon. The one thing script writing really has over working on a novel is the feedback. With a book, it’s you, the editor and the agent, and after that you’re just waiting on the reviews. Often it takes years to figure out if people actually liked it or not. The constant feedback in film is a great creative challenge and I enjoy the process of fighting for ideas you want to keep in there amongst all these other opinions.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on February 14, 2014

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