Interview with 2015 Cordelia Award Winner: Kitty Percy
Best Screenplay from the UK
Butter Side Up
When a hopelessly unlucky smalltime criminal kidnaps a celebrity by mistake, he finds his luck starting to change in unexpected ways.
The dialogue in Butter Side Up is fantastically witty and comedic. What was your process in crafting the dialogue in such an authentic way?
Why thank you, BlueCat. I feel odd taking credit for the dialogue when all I do is take personality ingredients, add them into some characters, cook them for a bit then let them loose, observe what they say and try to write it down before I forget it.
I guess my natural tone is somewhere between drama and comedy (which isn’t ideal for a commercial writer, BTW). I often set out to write serious dramas or thrillers, but as soon as I hit a moment when a character is called upon to be heroic or noble I can’t help myself: We’ve all been in situations when there’s a ‘right’ thing to say, but actually what comes out is something inappropriate / obnoxious / cowardly / vain etc. I can’t resist that human truth, the stupid reality of what we do say as opposed to what we should say.
Luck is a reoccurring theme in your screenplay. Which character’s stance on luck do you identify with the most?
Maybe it’s because we live in such cynical, secular times that I’m interested in our unshakable belief in luck. The main character Stan, a smalltime criminal on the Isle of Wight, believes he’s fundamentally unlucky. He finally learns that luck – good and bad – is random but ‘lucky’ is a state of mind. (I try to maintain this outlook on life, but I’m as prone to ‘woe is me’ wallowing as any other writer. Sigh…)
What’s interesting about celebrities is they’re the closest thing we have to mythical beings. Butter Side Up is a kind of question – ‘what would happen if the unluckiest man in the world got stuck with a kind of modern-day goddess of good fortune?’
The line between “reality” and “imagination” are often blurred in your screenplay. Can you give some insight into the reasoning behind this storytelling choice?
My life is largely domestic and suburban; writing is an escape. Like most writers, the worlds I create in my head are as as real to me as any other. One of my favourite movies is Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, in which the living and the dead rub along together, people get reincarnated as strange animals and the time line is non-linear – none of which is ever explained or rationalised. In Butter Side Up, Stan’s daughter Micky (11) has been dealt a tough hand; I wanted to suggest in some sense that by the end of the story she’s made her imagined life a reality.
What inspired you to become a screenwriter?
Writing is a way to take all of your mistakes and neuroses and turn them into something useful, and it’s cheaper than therapy. Maybe it’s because my mental terrain is chaotic, but what I love about screenwriting are the structures and boundaries, the rules of the craft. The thought of writing a novel terrifies me – where do you even begin, let alone finish? I’d start navel-gazing then disappear into that dark psychological hole and never come out again…
Do you have any particular writing habits or routines to keep you motivated?
Some writers can barricade themselves in a room and write for hours on end and come up with something good. I am not one of them. My process is like that game at kids’ parties, where there’s a donut hanging from a string and you kind of hover strategically, taking little bites at it (whilst trying to prevent it falling apart) until it’s finished.
I read an interview with Irish writer Colm Toibin, who said a hard bench is better for writing than an ergonomic chair: you can’t be creative if you’re too comfortable. So now I write in my kitchen, sitting on a wooden stool.
(Dammit I need to go out and get a donut…)
What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Back now. One thing I struggle with is becoming too fond of my characters – even the baddies – so I don’t want to make them suffer. I’m great at coming up with stories where nothing much happens and people are generally nice to one another.
Sometimes I think the writing part is easy – it’s everything else I struggle with: kids / dog / cat / cleaning (which I don’t really bother with any more, if I’m honest). I’m often writing very late and very early – sleep is something I haven’t done properly since 2002.
How do you overcome writers’ block?
If time’s on my side I get away from all screens and try to inhabit a different headspace. I avoid films / TV and read or go see some art – even if it’s incomprehensible, art is the closest possible thing to entering someone else’s mind and wandering about in it. Sometimes that’s all the fuel you need to get over a bump. Writers block when you have a deadline is horrible and scary. Try and silence your inner critics by mentally taping their mouths shut with duct tape and just get something on the page, even if it’s sh*t.
Are you interested in directing your screenplays?
Yes and no. Because my writing is not quite drama and not quite comedy, tone is everything. I put a lot of thought into action and descriptions; I treat them as a kind of trojan horse that I hope will carry my tone into the final product.
Screenwriting is a strange discipline; it’s like creating a blueprint for a building, then handing it to someone who might make a perfectly decent version out of bricks, except you’d envisaged it made out of ice cream. Which is a roundabout way of saying I would love to direct eventually, but like lots of writers I’m a misanthrope at heart. I’d probably turn up on a film set, see all those people and run screaming.
What is your ultimate goal as a screenwriter?
There’s a lot of buzz about TV at the moment, and it’s great that telly is having something of a golden age, but I remain truly, romantically smitten by cinema films. I’d love to see a film I wrote make it to the big screen. A low concept, low stakes type deal, with my own brand of pre-menopausal humour, about slightly odd people being kind to one other then going home. Watch out for that one at your local multiplex.
What movie or screenplay inspires you to be a better screenwriter?
Coen Brothers’ scripts are beautiful documents, ditto anything by Wes Anderson, who’s a huge inspiration. Miranda July is probably my all-time hero; then there’s Holofcener, Dunham, Baumbach, Duplass – geniuses who, unlike some in the mumblecore canon, tell human stories with tenderness and hope. (Although I’m not nearly cool enough to be her friend, I’m hoping I might one day persuade Lena Dunham to adopt me as some kind of pet? I wouldn’t be any trouble…)
Who do you go to for feedback?
One of the best things about doing a formal writing programme (I did an MA in screenwriting at the University of the Arts London) is the chance to find like-minded souls. I couldn’t function without my writers group. Also, since I entered BlueCat, I’ve been signed by an agent. He is a diamond – reads every bit of nonsense I put in front of him and gives constructive and insightful notes.
It’s important to be able to present your ideas, otherwise the only feedback you get is from the voices in your head (mine are mean and, at times, screechy). But pick your people carefully: I disagree with the advice that friends and family are a good sounding board. In my experience, if they say something nice you don’t entirely trust it because they probably don’t want to hurt your feelings; if they criticise you feel hurt and betrayed and want to stab them with their evil amateurish pencils.
Why did you enter BlueCat?
As a UK-based writer, I’m pretty much at the whim of our very small and cautious industry, which seems to be divided into clear factions: There’s the Period Drama industry, the Cockney Gangster industry, and the Bleak, Baffling Art Films about Poor People industry, and not much in between. (Don’t get me wrong – I admire the BBAFaPP’s but there’s only so many a person can watch without wanting to jump in the Thames.) BlueCat is an opportunity to present material to American readers and get a sense of whether or not it works for a US sensibility. The feedback is really valuable – certainly the best bang for your competition buck.
What advice can you give to aspiring screenwriters?
As I feel like I still am one myself, I should probably limit my advice to subjects about which I’m qualified to comment. To that end: 1) if you’re making mashed potatoes don’t peel them first – all the goodness is in the skin. 2) Unless it’s August, wear a vest for heaven’s sake. 3) The donuts will get you in the end.
For professional inquiries, please contact Kitty at [email protected]