Development Hell to Production Heaven: Katy Brand on her ‘F**k It Script’
Nominated in five categories in the BAFTA Awards, Katy Brand explains how her hit movie about retired RE teacher and a sex worker was supposed to be a ‘last hurrah’
Katy Brand, actor, comedian, playwright, novelist, memoirist, is nominated for a BAFTA this Sunday for her latest venture, screenwriting. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande has nominations in five categories, including Outstanding British Film, Lead Actress for Emma Thompson, both Lead Actor and EE Rising Star for Daryl McCormack, and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for Katy Brand herself.
Brand’s career has spanned stand-up and sketch comedy, both on stage and on TV, in shows as wide-ranging as ITV’s Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, Channel 4’s Peep Show, and her 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Show, I Was a Teenage Christian (‘The church’s loss was comedy’s gain’ – Evening Standard). As an actor, she has appeared in films including Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and Svengali. Her novel, Brenda Monk is Funny, described by Irvine Welsh as ‘essential reading’, was followed by the bestselling I Carried a Watermelon – part memoir, part obsessive fangirl homage to Dirty Dancing – and most recently, Practically Perfect – Life Lessons from Mary Poppins. Her debut play 3 Women starring Anita Dobson was performed at Trafalgar Studios in 2018.
Having tried all those different strands of work, does she feel she’s finally found her métier?
“Yes, it has been rather a circuitous route to where I am now! But I think my heart is in writing dialogue for other people to perform. I’ve done a lot of different things to get to the point where I can make a living doing just that, some of which have been immense fun (some, less so). But I feel very happy to be in a position currently where I can do what I really love every day.”
Writing for both stage and screen, Brand is clear-eyed about the pitfalls of each and the difficulties of getting work into production.
“I have very little experience in either, to be honest. I have written so much, but so little of it has been made for film and theatre thus far. I would say both have maddening paths to success, which is you write, and pitch, and get rejected a thousand times, and it all feels so difficult all the time. Then suddenly out of nowhere it all just takes off for a minute and it all happens and it’s wonderful. And then it’s back to write, pitch, get rejected again. But in my experience more generally I would say a project needs momentum and the things that have been produced have tended to happen quickly. I prefer a quick ‘no’ if it’s not going to happen. It’s the languishing that’s the worst – you have to try to avoid projects languishing.”
Brand has spoken of the agony of “trying to please people who simply didn’t want what I was offering” and the horror of “Development Hell”.
“Yes, I have experienced ‘Development Hell’, which means that as a creative person your work has been taken on by a company or producer for ‘development’ (rather than actual production), and this can be rather an open-ended period with no promises or guarantees attached and increasingly frequently, no money either. It can literally go on for years, with more notes and tweaks and rewrites, with no defined goal. And in the end the problem is you lose sight of the idea you originally liked and felt excited by.
“I know what it’s like. I’ve also worked for several companies over the years as a development producer, so I know what it’s like from that side too. The trouble is that as a writer, you can comfort yourself that you are ‘in development’ and so therefore something is ‘happening’, but the reality can be rather destructive in my view. The air goes out of your creative tires if you’re left in Park for too long, and then you get stuck. Now I try to move faster – just keep moving.”
It was after just such a period of languishing that Katy Brand wrote the script for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in what she thought was a final act of defiance, a “F**k It Script”, written for herself, not to fit anyone else’s agenda.
“I wrote the first draft as a kind of ‘last hurrah’ for myself before I gave up on writing altogether. At that point it felt to me that no-one in my industry was interested in anything I was writing – I could barely get anything read, let alone made. So, in January 2020 I sat down and wrote it, on the basis that I could write whatever I wanted as no-one would ever see it anyway. I enjoyed myself very much and then I put it away because I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is essentially a two-hander that takes place in a single room; Nancy Stokes, a widowed retired RE teacher, meets a young male sex worker, Leo Grande, in a hotel in a bid to achieve her own sexual awakening – a simple set-up that covers a huge amount of emotional, social and sexual ground.
Brand says was an idea that had been brewing:
“I had been thinking about the set up for some years – just the opening scene of her waiting nervously in the hotel room for him to arrive. It had an energy to it I liked, and I felt plenty of room for comedy. It was an interesting dynamic to me, and I wanted to see what happened. I have always been interested in how people suppress desires, and the effect that can have, and I wanted to write about that too.”
The film addresses the difficulty that women have in asking for, and taking, what they want. Brand is directly challenging the idea that to satisfy personal needs is selfish:
“A lot of people are raised to feel that wanting things for themselves is somehow dangerous” she says. “And a lot of those people are women, who are asked by society to provide endless care, support, empathy, compassion for those around them. These women effectively keep the show on the road, but at what cost to themselves? And to their own families. We all deserve pleasure; we all deserve to be happy. And when we are happy, we are more able to make others happy. It seems such a simple algorithm, but it can feel like a threat to anyone who doesn’t like the idea of a woman taking something for herself and herself alone, in case it somehow means there’s less for them. And we are discouraged from doing it – the word ‘selfish’ starts to get thrown around and people retreat. I wish it wasn’t so. I’d like people – and women in particular – to take more for themselves.”
Nancy is brave enough to ask for what she wants, then almost talks herself out of the whole thing when faced with the overwhelming physical reality of Leo. One of her coping mechanisms is to then focus on a list of sexual achievements she would like to tick off one-by-one. The balance between the comedy and the delicate intimacy being established between the characters is key to the whole thing for Brand:
“It was very important that it was a funny film, a comedy” she says. “But also, that the joke must not be on Nancy and Leo at any point. We are not laughing at them as an audience, we are not laughing at their life choices or their desires. The key was that in order to do this, the characters themselves have to find each other funny within the story. And that invites us to laugh along too. It makes it warmer. And funny is sexy – finding someone funny and letting them know and laughing together. What’s sexier than that?”
The character of Leo, as a young, confident male sex worker, subverts a lot of stereotypes. The film’s director, Sophie Hyde, has spoken of how important it was for her to consult sex workers, to listen to their experiences and insights, to make Leo feel real “to people that were engaged in this kind of deeply intimate work.” It was equally important to Daryl McCormack to meet those with lived experience to understand Leo’s character. Katy Brand insists that she is not expressing any moral view of sex work with the story:
“I am not a campaigner or an activist, and I’m not trying to make any point or guide anyone’s own opinions – I have no moral judgements to make in any direction about anyone in the film. I am a writer, that’s it. And as a writer all I want to do is write interesting, entertaining people in interesting, entertaining relationships and situations. And everything about this situation interested me greatly” she says. “I found the vocational aspect to their work that they describe absolutely fascinating. All I wanted to do was explore that. People can make up their own minds!”
Six months after having written the original ‘F**k It’ draft and put it away, Brand sent the script to Debbie Gray at Genesius Pictures, who was looking for small cast projects that could be safely produced under Covid strictures. Gray responded with an immediate “yes”. Development Hell was about to become Production Heaven.
Brand had worked with Emma Thompson on Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and sent her the script. Thompson also responded instantly with what she has described as “a kind of visceral reaction to it… I wrote immediately saying it had to be made and that I really wanted to be in it.” Things started moving quickly after that. Getting Thompson on board was a wish come true for Brand:
“I walked around in daze all day. I had written it ‘for her’ without any real expectation that the dream would happen and she would actually say yes. But I sent it to her, and went out for a walk, and she very quickly came back and said she loved it and wanted to make it. It was an incredible feeling. To see and hear her say those lines was magnificent.”
Thompson’s astonishingly brave, vanity-free acting is a huge part of the film’s appeal and contributed to the way the story developed.
“I think there was a strong sense that Emma, as an artist, wanted the story to be as true and meaningful as possible and she gave me a lot of freedom to take Nancy to the place she ultimately gets to” Brand explains. “So, it wasn’t as if we had some huge summit about sex and nudity or anything, it was more that she encouraged a vast amount of creative freedom, which meant we could really reach that climax, so to speak.”
Brand also pays tribute to Daryl McCormack’s confident and generous performance:
“Daryl is a brilliant actor and he seemed to understand Leo very deeply from the off. He also has this incredible generosity and openness, and a gentleness that seems to complement a certain masculinity too. The intelligence, subtlety and humour he brought to the whole thing both as an actor and a person really blew me away.”
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is an unashamedly ‘feelgood’ film that packs a lot into its tight 97-minute running time. Brand is a great advocate for uplifting cinema:
“I like films that make me feel invincible at the end – that I walk away from feeling a fizz of excitement about life and all the adventures I could have. I like watching films like that, and I want to make films like that. ‘Harrowing’ is not a word I ever expect to see on a poster of any film I write. So that was important to me. And yes, I am a great admirer of filmmakers who still manage to keep their work to less than 100 minutes. You can tell a story in less than a hundred minutes if you really know what story it is you’re telling. Or so I believe. Also, some of us have young kids and we simply cannot stay up that late.”
The EE BAFTA Film Awards will be shown on BBC One at 7pm tonight 19 February.
This is so inspiring! I’ve spent the better part of a decade in development hell and what inspiration to push on! Thank you!