Saturday 8 February 2014

Interview with Owain Gillard

Owain Gillard is a well-traveled writer, musician, screenwriter, script doctor and film location scout. 

I missed Owain when he passed through Adelaide recently, only encountering him on Twitter when he discussed the disparity in the lengths of January and February.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales. I'm still trying to grow up.

What kind of a family did you grow up with?

A very Welsh-speaking one. Although Cardiff is Wales' largest city, it's actually a very small place, and it was even smaller when I was a kid, although of course it seemed huge then. It's historically quite multicultural due to its coal exporting past, and also quite English, due to its proximity to England and factors such as the work opportunities that came with the coal mining. You do hear quite a bit of Welsh spoken in Cardiff, but it's mostly an English-speaking area, and these days everyone who speaks Welsh also speaks fluent English.
    So anyway, there I was, in a suburb of the Welsh capital, surrounded by English but cocooned in a world where practically everyone spoke Welsh: all my family, most of my family's friends, all the teachers in my Welsh-medium school, my doctor, my dentist, everyone on the radio, and a lot of the people on TV.
    My mother was a primary school teacher, my father a civil engineer. My sister was a year older than me. I'm slowly catching her up though. Both sets of my grandparents lived by the sea, and I used to love visiting them. Both my grandmothers were musical, particularly my paternal grandmother, a North Walian lady, an organist, pianist and viola player.
Glynis Johns
    My maternal grandmother was from the Welsh valleys. Her father had been a collier. When she was young, she did variety shows at a venue called the Parc and Dare Hall. She was spotted by a big film producer who was looking for a replacement for Glynis Johns who'd just pulled out of a film called The Halfway House (1944), which was set in that area. My grandmother was all set to play the part, but then Glynis Johns turned up at the last-minute, and that was that.
    So my grandmother stayed in Wales, and got married young to my grandfather who was a Nonconformist preacher who had a habit of clipping his cigarettes. He'd take three drags, clip the cigarette, and light up again five minutes later for three more drags. He mainly sat and read. And almost all the books he read were in Welsh.

When did you first take an interest in writing?

My grandparents had a neighbour who was a real character. She was four foot high and four foot wide, and had these very delicate hands. She worked at a small publishing house. My grandparents would often invite her around for a Sunday roast after chapel. On the occasions when she knew we'd be visiting, she'd turn up with a big bag of goodies. You never really knew what to expect, but chocolate was always a safe bet, as was an assortment of scrap paper. The paper that I remember was this thick, rough stuff in long strips the colour of a basketball. I was maybe eight or nine. My sister and I would draw on these bits of paper. I'd get bored of drawing almost straight away, so I'd write little poems instead. I remember one of them in particular, about the Cardiff rugby team. Gareth Davies, Terry Holmes, Adrian Hadley, Bob Norster.

And when did you first take an interest in film?

There was this wonderful cinema where I grew up, called the Monico. It was recently knocked down for development. I don't know how that was allowed to happen.

It was an Art Deco building, and had two screens. There was an old organ at the front of the larger auditorium. My first memory of the Monico is of watching E.T. (1982), and particularly that scene where they ride up into the sky. That scene has stayed in my memory as being one of the most awesome things I've ever seen. Then when I was in my mid teens, I managed to sneak into a screening of Reservoir Dogs (1992). That was the moment I said to myself, "This Quentin Tarantino guy is a cool filmmaker. I wanna be a cool filmmaker too." Up to that point I had only wanted to write novels. I wrote my first novel at fourteen and then set fire to it.

Do you struggle with letting people read your work?

A few years ago I wrote a script synopsis for a project called Northbound. It got me a place on the SOS script development programme in London, which meant being locked in a room with twelve other writers for five days. I struggled with discussing my ideas with all those people. The whole thing was like some kind of AA meeting. Great experience though. Looking back, it was just what I needed, and since then I've been lucky enough to have in-house quality control in the form of one Mrs G-T. She gives me honest feedback.

What happened to Northbound?

It went south. I was working on themes such as war-versus-peace, innocence-versus-villainy, freedom-versus-confinement, and I was implementing these themes into the personal, social and national context of the protagonist. I kind of saw it as a festival film. It was the story of an innocent and privileged young man getting drafted to the 'Nam, and running away from the draft, and kind of entering his own war, his own hell, on his way to Canada. Some of the forces of antagonism had to take physical form - after all, this was a movie. But the problem I had was that the more physical the story got, the more entrenched it became in horror conventions. And I didn't want to write a horror. I wanted to write a film about horror. But anyway I will return to it, and I'll totally reshape it. The main character and setting are still inside me so I'll have to let them out at some point. It's the theme of freedom-versus-confinement all over again.

You worked as a script reader for some time, and ran the script consultancy service Movie Hijacker. What did you learn from that experience?

That script reading pays less than flipping burgers. But you know, it served a purpose at the time. I thought it would deepen my understanding of screenwriting. I think it did, but it's a tough job. I'd have an action-packed zombie noir thriller set in 7000AD on my desk in the morning, and in the afternoon it would be a Christmas musical about a lonely angel falling in love with Santa.
    I used to worry about not being an expert on every genre - particularly the ones I didn't like, so I'd watch pretty much every film that came out, regardless of genre and regardless of how terrible. Then I asked myself why I was doing this. So I decided to narrow it all down. To give feedback to any friends who wanted it, and do some script doctor work on projects that I thought I could tinker with to good effect. What I do now is I show a producer or director or writer a list of films that I love, and if that resonates with them, then I'll see if their project is something I might be able to help with.

Who is the teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

R. Gerallt Jones
My Welsh teacher, Mrs Jones, aka MWJ. I felt that she genuinely believed in me, and that she genuinely looked forward to reading my creative writing assignments. 
    It's very simple - if someone gives the impression that they genuinely believe in you, then you will do all in your power to prove them right. I'm indebted to Mrs Jones for that.
   Another person I should mention is R. Gerallt Jones, who was a great writer and a great teacher. He was my tutor at university. I got the impression that he believed in me too.

What was your first paying job?

It was a Sunday job while I was still at school. I was an assistant to the presenters of a phone-in entertainment show. They'd get me to dress up in a different costume every week and run around the stage. One week I was Biggles. The next week I was a Frenchman. One week I was Mickey Mouse. I've blanked out all the really bad ones, haha.

I can think of a few TV shows being filmed in Wales in the last few years, but no movies. Is there an active filmmaking movement there?

There is. There are the big blockbuster films that have a base in London and come over for some location shoots - typically beaches or mountains; there are the low-budget British films that have a name or two attached; and then there are the micro-budget films that tend to be high-concept horror/thriller films made with local talent. Cardiff is not far from London, and Snowdonia is not too far from Liverpool and Manchester, so there is a lot of crossing over. Of course, the glut of TV dramas we have shooting in South Wales these days is good for the development of the local crew base, which in turn can attract more film producers.

The name ‘Gillard’ became prominent in Australia recently, when Julia Gillard became the first-ever woman Prime Minister here. Is she any relation of yours?

Yeah, it's not a common name. I grew up ten miles from where Julia Gillard's family lived before they emigrated. I don't know her family though, and I'm not aware of any connection, but then that side of my family tree is a bit sketchy.

According to IMDB, your father, Peter Gillard, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for most cumulative miles hitchhiked. As a former hitchhiker with a few thousand miles to my credit, I’m curious to know: How did he set that record?

There was a wild goat hanging on the kitchen wall in the house where I grew up. It was my dad's Sahara flask. I thought all dads had Sahara flasks. He hitchhiked through a lot of North America and Africa and the Middle East in the sixties and seventies. He once waited two weeks for a ride. That was in the desert. He kept diaries throughout, which he used together with paperwork and photos and passports as evidence of his miles hitchhiked. I don't think it was ever his intention to break any record. It just kind of happened.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

If it's for a newbie, then I'd go for How Not to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn. It's easy to read and full of useful tips that introduce the reader to the strange world of the film script.

What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?
Apocalypse Now (1979)
A Serious Man (2009)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Three Colours: Red (1994)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Blade Runner (1982)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Up (2009)
You can see my favourite 100 films here:

What’s next for Owain Gillard?

A Welsh-language novel very loosely based on my childhood. I also have a TV comedy in development, and two feature film scripts. One of them is the US one I mentioned. Another is a period film inspired by true events. I also want to shoot short films on my new camera. Get involved with projects. Hopefully get back into film location scouting which I did for several years and loved. Driving around and walking up mountains. I can think of worse ways to pass the time.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow, Owaiin Gillard has a complex writing background. He must be highly motivated, to have picked up such varying jobs in the movie world. Good luck to him.