J.J. Connolly, screenwriter of cult British gangster flick Layer Cake tells us about trusting the actors, being a salesman and working out which horse to back.
Layer Cake, J.J. Connolly’s adaptation of his debut novel about the London criminal underworld, directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring Daniel Craig, became an instant cult classic after its release in 2004. Having spent the last nearly 10 years working with and writing for A-listers like Guy Ritchie, Robert de Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film’s London-based screenwriter has never looked back. Connolly currently has several projects on the go, including the film adaptation of Viva La Madness, his 2012 follow up to Layer Cake, plus some ambitious plans for the future.
None of this was ever part of the plan. Connolly had always been a huge film fan, able to watch favourites like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Casino over and over again, but he had no training to call on when it came to adapting his debut novel.
“In many respects I was a chancer when I done [sic] Layer Cake…I met someone in the street who said they’d publish my book, I met someone on a train who said they’d make a film of it and the next thing I knew I had a film in the cinemas.”
Adapting the novel was a learning curve. “They say that the best education for a writer is to read and the same applies to films because you start picking up instinctively that, ‘ah, this where it’s going’. And then when people start saying to you, ‘this is the first act, this is the second act, this is the third act,’ you think, ‘I know that’. Someone’s telling you something you knew but didn’t know it.”
The secret to a good screenplay, Connolly soon realised, is structure. The writer uses “old-fashioned index cards” which he physically places on the floor around his work space to give him a “helicopter view” of the film he’s working on. “You’re looking down on your plot from above and you can see the timeline; you can see the breaks: first act, second act, third act; description points – if you’re going to employ, not going to employ them…If you’re going to break the rules,” he says, “you need to know the rules that you’re going to break.”
An importance lesson Connolly says he learned early on was about the importance of “economy” in scriptwriting. “You can’t indulge yourself too much. Long speeches, forget it. Any speeches longer than three lines, that becomes like a soliloquy.”
Stage directions are another big no-no, he discovered. “Actors like to do their own things. I’ve written screenplays where I’ve put in brackets, ‘said sarcastically’ and actors started saying to me, ‘the first thing we do when we get a screenplay is cross those things out. So don’t bother putting them in there. Save your energy’.”
Working with Daniel Craig on Layer Cake was an eye-opening experience, says the writer. He recalls a scene in the film that he spent a long time on, writing and rewriting a speech by Craig’s nameless drug dealer character in which he reacts to the news that Gene has involved the highly unreliable Duke in proceedings. “When Daniel [Craig] went to do it he raised his right eyebrow and Matthew went ‘cut’ and that was it…Daniel would say, ‘if I need it, it’s there. It’s good to have it there but I’m not sure I need it’. He does very little and that’s the skill of what the man does”.
Connolly is a firm believer, however, that achieving success as a writer is about much more than talent. There are plenty of good writers around but attitude and business acumen are increasingly important in today’s budget-conscious times. First, he says, aspiring writers need to decide exactly what kind of work they want to do. “If you want to make a lot of money you’ll have to write a certain thing,” says Connolly, noting the recent success of the Bond franchise and plots involving vampires. “If you want to change the way people think about issues in society, that’s a different gig altogether.”
Second, you need to be able to get out there and persuade people to back your idea. “The 10-second pitch, the 10-minute pitch, you can’t be scared of selling, selling yourself. You have to believe in yourself, that enthusiasm has to be contagious…You get a meeting with a producer – you’re in Tom Cruise’s production office – basically it’s like you’ve got to sell them something: ‘I see Tom in this film’. You’re not a writer, you’re a salesman.”
It pays to remember, says Connolly, that while you’re busy selling your idea to producers, producers are also selling theirs to you. It can be hard to know who to trust. “Believe what you want to believe and the next thing you know you get slightly disillusioned…It took me a long time to learn the game: which horse to back, who to go with, which projects were going to pan out, knowing my worth, knowing how much work to do on spec…I’ve [now] got about five films in various different stages. In the past I used to put all my money on the one pony.”
In the future the writer hopes to move into producing himself. “That’s the next learning curve for me, to draw things together, to pull money in…I’d love to make films in the UK, films I really care about.” In the meantime though, he’s being kept busy on a number of other Hollywood projects including the follow up to Layer Cake, Viva La Madness.
“We’re doing Viva now. Viva‘s going to be a great film. The screenplay, it’s electric. But it’s a different entity. Ten years have gone past, 10 years! It’s extraordinary. I’ve been here, I’ve been there, I’ve met great people, I’ve earned money, I’ve lost money, I’ve written another book. I’ve not driven myself mad – no one’s going to say I’m a workaholic or anything, but I’ve had a really good life. If it all finished tomorrow, I’d say to myself, ‘that was a gas, I ended up in places I dreamt about, I done [sic] things, I met people, it was a gas’.”