A Recipe for Nothing

By Klaus Fried


“The problem is…” so I am told, “that there just aren’t the scripts out there.” It's as if the wheels of the British film industry are all in place, ready and waiting to roll out the latest work from the hottest new talent, which our islands are apparently blessed with. This has not been my experience. It may just be that I've written an exceptionally bad script. Perhaps my ideas are the very antithesis of cool. But I am not alone in suspecting that the development process in this country is horribly inadequate.

My father was heavily involved in radical politics, and as a child, our house was stuffed with the revolutionary thinkers and doers of the day. From May 68’ers to Baader Meinhof, there was always someone interesting to play with. So, when I was invited to curate a season of films at the ICA and a conference marking the deaths in custody of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, I was happy to accept. The programme was planned for October of that year (2002), twenty-five years since the German Autumn – that miserable moment in 1977 when West Germany held it’s breath over the kidnap of the industrialist banker Hans Martin Schleyer and the hijack of a Boeing 747 in Mogadishu. The demands of both Palestinian and Red Army Faction groups responsible for these actions were the same; the release of the surviving leaders of the RAF still held in the Stammheim. It is a matter of faith whether they simultaneously committed suicide or were disposed of, but by morning of the 18th they were all dead. Predictably, more bodies were to follow.

The powers that held the purse strings at the ICA were uncomfortable about financing any press for the event – perhaps the subject and guests were a little too hot for their delicate fingers, but we generated enough interest for the programme to be a success. The films, both classics of New German Cinema and contemporary works such as the historically dubious drama Baader and the rather sensationalist BBC documentary In Love With Terror, were packed and the conference, which explored the problematic relationship between politics and art, was sold out. After the event, I was approached by a producer / friend who had seen my last film and wondered if I might like to develop a documentary exploring issues surrounding my peculiar childhood. The documentary plan ambled around in my head for a few days without direction or impetus and by the end of the week, I was writing a script.


We were invited to develop the idea on the Screenwriters Lab at PAL. Backed by Sony and the Film Council and run by the very able and unusually sympathetic Corrine Cartier, the first lab consisted of ten days at Bore Place in beautiful Kent countryside. I thought I was blessed. The labs struggle to find support now and Corrine has moved on to run screenwriting at the NFTS, but back in 2003 it was a fabulous programme, with fine mentors and interesting participants. I was rubbing shoulders with established writers such as Nick Stafford, whose War Horse is currently at the NT, and emerging names like Billie Eltringham (This Is Not A Love Song, The Long Firm, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution). We had Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank, in our group, and Gurpreet Bhatti, whose plays about the Sikh community in Britain were about to hit the headlines of every national paper. Corrine had drafted in the services of seasoned pros Roy Battersby and Roger Smith as mentors and I could smell success just around the corner. It seemed to my naïve nostrils, that I had landed in the soft embrace of a generous development process, which could carry us aspiring filmmakers on the crest of its’ gentle wave. But the wave was a ripple and the smell of the development process that I had hoped for, has since turned.

For a while though, things were looking up. Roger Smith, who has spent a thousand years collaborating on scripts with Ken Loach, offered to take it on and we bashed out a first draft under the title Heroes. The story, focuses on the relationship between Petra, a Baader-Meinhof fugitive (loosely based on my friend Astrid Proll) and Leon, the young son of a left-wing writer, who himself fled German Fascism forty years earlier. Oskar and his son are based on my own relationship with my father and much of the film’s detail is autobiographical. Their home is under surveillance (as was ours), and too dangerous for Petra to stay. A safe house is quickly found and Leon becomes an ad-hoc go-between. Things are awkward at first. Have you killed anybody? Do you have a gun? Petra resents Leon’s questions. Questions that only a child would ask. But she fascinates him and relishing the one to one attention, which she affords him, he pursues her until she softens. It’s an odd relationship, the son of a holocaust survivor and the daughter of an SS officer. They inhabit a strangely parallel world and of-course in the end Petra comes to rely on him just as much as he on her. But their budding friendship is doomed. Petra's comrades are being hunted down abroad, while here in Blighty, the ring around her is tightening. In the end Leon's visits become too much of a liability and Petra must reassess her future.

I’d got it – a political thriller set in 1977 when our strike-ravaged nation was reeling between the Sex Pistols and the Silver Jubilee. It seemed to me to be a pretty sexy proposition for any prospective producers, sales agent’s, TV execs, etc. who might be interested. Interest however, is a fickle commodity, usually qualified and always contingent.


My producer had a project in the film market at Rotterdam or Berlin, I don’t remember now, and took our script along. It immediately found an interested party at K5 Films. The project had a lot going for it – not least my father’s name, which still raises eyebrows on that side of the North Sea; a semi-autobiographical story, by Fried’s son about a famous household, and a good script at that. The German producer was happy to seek finance in Europe but insisted it needed seed funding in Britain. It is after all a profoundly British Film.

So I sent the script to Brock Norman Brock at the Film Council. We’d met through the PAL excursion and he’d been very interested in the project. With a string of recent successes to his name, and a firm reputation as a man who gets things made, I was hopeful that this would form the cornerstone of our finance plan. But the Film Council proved difficult. I had to send the script several times (there must be rooms full of orphaned scripts there) and it took months for it to arrive on his desk. By the time he’d acknowledged the script, he’d lost his post – something to do with a two year turnaround of staff and the British Film Industry's habit of discarding it's best assets. So, to this day I don’t know if he ever actually read it.

It’s worth nothing here that there were others who begged to be sent the script, only to leave it languishing unread in some pile or other. I have no interest in naming them all but it was becoming clear to me that people over here were not going to back a first-time writer / director on a film of this nature. Everybody wanted to be connected to the project, or at least, nobody had the courage to turn it down flat, but when it came to a hard commitment...

So Plan ‘B’ arrived on my doorstep. My own producer started nudging me to consider other directors, I had to concede a partial defeat, but her suggestion put me in an awkward position. There was interest from a hot director with broadcasters over here. If BBC films or CH4 had backed the project, the Euros might well have flowed in after, but the director's relationship to my producer (marriage) made it a rather tricky conversation to have. I liked him – a strong director and an exceptionally nice man, but... Maybe I was wrong to turn down that particular offer, but I just wasn’t quite ready to give the project away in those circumstances. Giving up our work is of-course something that writers must live with. It is something we have to learn to embrace, but this film was so personal, and its’ political subject(s) so sensitive, that I decided to decline. My producer and I parted company amicably on the project and our fledgling contract was annulled by mutual consent.

The German producer was still on-board, but was becoming increasingly impatient with the lack of movement on our side. She had been reasonably comfortable with me attached as a director. There seemed to be more willingness to take a risk on the continent, and my personal connection to the story could be regarded as an asset. But the climate over here was very different and I had all but given up on directing it myself. The advice seemed to be that if I was going to give the project to somebody else, I'd better work out who was at the top of my list?


I sent the script to Ken Loach’s producer Rebecca O’Brien. Two weeks later I got a message to call her. She liked it… “a lot” apparently. I put down my walking stick and turned a few cartwheels. But, it wasn’t right for Ken and if he wasn’t making it, then nor was she. She proposed I send it to Sally Hibbin at Parallax. Rebecca thought Sally would like it. “It’s up her street,” she suggested. It wasn’t and she didn’t. No notes. No nothing. Just… “No”.

Somehow a reader at Constantin Filmhaus in Bavaria had got hold of a copy and loved it. He asked permission to send it up the chain of command. Constantin had just made Downfall, which I had loved, so my permission was a formality. It took several months but eventually…they passed. It had fallen at the last hurdle. “Structural issues” was all I could glean from the notes that came back. My German can order me a newspaper, or purchase a train ticket, but I had neither the knowledge nor heart to decipher the pages that arrived on my desktop that morning. I was back at square one.

The project was going backwards. Months were turning into years and I was starting to sense that this project would never be picked up. I sent it to Chris Collins. He knew my early films, and had himself just won a BAFTA for My Summer of Love. He was very positive about the script and we discussed minor changes that might bring out the quintessentially English nature of the story. But he felt that it would be hard to progress such a project over here without some German money up front – even with a 'big name' director. He's been proved right of-course, but should it really be necessary to find foreign money to kick-start a distinctly British project. What to do? He suggested I send it to Stephen Frears, or perhaps make a less ambitious film first and then push to direct it myself...?


I was running out of steam. It would soon be thirty years since the German Autumn but the frenzy of activity on the continent was not appreciated over here. My Berlin producer got tired of waiting and I started looking elsewhere. There was still genuine interest in Germany. There, they were touting for scripts on the subject and producers were talking to me, but they still insisted that there had to be co-finance from Britain. It is a film about London. The dialogue is overwhelmingly in English, and all the cultural references are our own.

I tried again. A colleague in Berlin, sent the script to the British producer of some note who he’d worked with previously and with whom he had stayed close. The producer in question has a reputation for risks and a healthy maverick streak and we thought he’d enjoy the script. He did, but…he believes that it is essentially a German Film! And needs German money up front. He suggested I re-write the script for German speaking characters. This to my mind misses the point of the film entirely, but does go to illustrate the problem. I'd been warned not to show it to too many people otherwise I might be inclined to follow their advice. But after several years the readers do inevitable mount and now I had received so many contradictory notes that I was reeling.

Producers in Germany are telling me now that they have all but given up on the hot air emanating from our so-called film industry. They think of us as being in perpetual development and they are largely right. We have a culture of development here. It’s cheap after all. In fact, it has become an industry in of it’s self. I can’t turn on my email, without being bombarded by a plethora of short courses praying on the hopes of desperate writers, trying in vain to shape and reshape their stories, in the vain hope of getting green lit somewhere, somehow. The myth is propagated that if we can just get the structure right then the story will follow, when of-course the reverse is true.


The real problem I suspect lies as ever in the puny output that our mighty industry struggles to muster. Ben Gibson, (formerly head of production at BFI) used to talk about critical mass. He argued that if we could only produce that little bit more, we would reach the point where the successful films pay for the unsuccessful ones, thereby sustaining a diverse industry. But short of that we are left with the sorry situation, where every film could spell the end of somebody’s career. Few brave decisions are made in such a climate, and without brave decisions, interesting films don’t get made. Ben Gibson incidentally suggested I re-write the film as a TV serial; a sort of mini-Heimat spanning the experiences of three generations of political exiles. But he conceded that nobody here is making such television, so...

I am not a particularly experienced director, with just a small cluster of cinema and broadcast credits to my name, and as a writer I am a near unknown. But I’ve been working in this industry for twenty years, and I haven’t met a single writer, who isn’t exasperated by the development process here. It’s an experience that most of us share; taking notes from some English graduate who’s done a short course in screenwriting and presumes to know best what should be happening on page forty-two of a script they don’t understand. They call themselves script doctors now, as if the script is in some way sick, but would they know a healthy one if they read it?


We moan about the scripts that actually do make it to the screen here, carping on about the weak characters, anodyne dialogue, predictable storylines, etc. And all too often we conclude that the development process needed to be tougher, as though another year of re-writes might have slapped some structure into the ailing story. But how often is it the case that the first draft, or the second, was more interesting than the sixth? How often is the character of a story worn away by countless re-writes. How often does the writer fall on their own sword, trying to address every contradictory note that they’ve had to endure. The greatest films aren’t made from perfect scripts. They come out of conviction.

I’ve heard it said, that our film industry is thriving at the margins. Perhaps. There's certainly a thriving post-production culture ensconced in Soho – putting the finishing touches to productions from all over the world. And we do have the talent, even if it's mostly frittered away on short-courses developing the "perfect" script. But it’s the bit in the middle that needs a boost; the production bit. You see, to my mind, the fundamental problem remains; we don't make much. The British are not coming. We left quietly by the back door without making a fuss. Our absence was only noticed some time after we’d gone. And while we’re making very little, our development strata may keep itself busy, but it cannot thrive. Stunted by a lack of real production opportunities, we remain insecure. We lack conviction. And our processes remain Kafkaesque – riddled with hollow words and paths that twist back on themselves. It is a recipe for nothing.

Klaus Fried is a writer and filmmaker. He lives in London