Matt Greenhalgh: How To Write A Music Biopic
From Clash’s film issue, March 2011. Photo by Ella Webber
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh has the ability to get under the skin of some of the most iconic musicians in history. It was Control, his study of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, that announced his talent. Greenhalgh’s script empathetically presented the central conflicts in Curtis’ life and earned him a reputation as one of the hottest screenwriters around.
Although reluctant to tackle another rock biopic after the success of Control, the lure of John Lennon’s teenage years for Nowhere Boy proved too much for Greenhalgh to resist. Like Control before it, Nowhere Boy emerged to tremendous critical acclaim.
Greenhalgh started his writing career as a teenager when he became a club reviewer for a Manchester-based magazine during the glory years of the Haçienda and the Madchester scene. A spell as a runner on Brookside enabled him to break into television and he would later work as an assistant director and/or writer on shows including Cold Feet, Clocking Off and Burn It.
Who else could provide the ten golden rules behind writing a successful music biopic?
Rule One: Be intrigued by your subject, but not fanatical.
I don’t think it’s a good idea if you’re a big fan of the band or the subject to do a biopic, because you’d probably end up not having an objective view. I’ve seen writers who have been given a gig and been like, ‘Oh my god, this is my dream.’ I would never write something about Morrissey, because that would be my dream. Conflict equals drama, and if you can’t bring conflict to it… [sighs despairingly].
If you’re intrigued by a dislike of the person, then I don’t think it’s worth it. If you’re going into depth, you’re looking at a year’s work. There’s no point going into it with a negative attitude and then a year down the line you’re either doing a puff piece or a real number on it. You don’t want to be hating someone for a year because that must be really bad for the soul.
Also, scripts find you. Control was a bit of a fluke. A script had been written by an American fan and it was everything it shouldn’t have been. Debbie [Curtis, Ian’s wife] didn’t even show me it. They wanted a Mancunian writer and I’d just written a series of Burn It which was very Mancunian. I was a TV writer, but I really wanted the gig and was really proactive about it. I heard about it and said to my agent, ‘If it’s in the pipeline, find out about it because I’ve already missed out on 24 Hour Party People. It’s a subject that’s very close to me and I know that I can do a good job on it.’ In the end, it was a bit of it finding me, but also me finding it. And I had a good agent.
Rule Two: Apart from music, there needs to be a revealing story.
Ian was so beyond his years intellectually and poetically. He was a wordsmith and a poet, but like with most good poets there was a sense of doom and love twisted around everything he said. For such a young man, that was amazing. He wasn’t just someone belting out rock ballads, he was a tortured soul. I’d read Debbie’s book [Touching from a Distance] which is so good because it was from a wife’s point of view of a rock star. So you’ve got a lot of conflict because she’s very hurt by what happened, and obviously he committed suicide so she feels bereft. It was almost an outpouring of grief in a book. I had a great place to start with the book as there was so much to work with.
The beauty about Control was that it was about an unknown singer and an unknown band, to the wider world at least. People went in not really knowing who Joy Division or Ian Curtis was. That’s what worked about it, and Sam Riley was so amazing in it.
I said to my agent that I wasn’t going to do another rock biopic. But then someone said, ‘How about John Lennon as a grown-up adolescent?’ With Lennon, no-one knew about those early days. It was an unknown story. Everyone knows the story after that and has a vision of it. You can’t really ‘be’ the iconic John Lennon and you can’t have an actor playing Paul McCartney as he’s still alive.
Rule Three: Listen to the music that influenced them.
Especially on the Lennon biopic, I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis and everything he was listening to. The Quarrymen weren’t great at the time, so the good music was what he listened to and what he was connected to. It’s taken for granted that you know your subject’s music, but is it the most important thing? If you’re basing a film around some key songs I suppose it is, but if you want to know about the character, learning about what made him write his music is probably a better way to approach it.
Rule Four: Read everything, and forget pretty much all that’s out already there.
With the internet and Amazon there’s no excuse not to. You cram and research, and make sure you cover everything that’s relevant to your story. Have a few bits that are totally relevant that you don’t want to forget. It’s impossible to hold all of that information in, so sub-consciously – and I think this is where you can’t teach it – it should come out in your work. If you put a lot of pressure on yourself to remember all of that, you’re going to be frozen and you won’t come into the script. At the end of the day it has to be you that writes it. It’s not a Wikipedia article.
I had a head-start on Joy Division because the Haçienda and New Order were big parts of my life. I felt Seventies Macclesfield played into Seventies Salford where I grew up; I knew that town, I knew the scene, I was on the scene. The research was pretty easy because I knew where Ian Curtis was coming from. I plastered images and interviews on the walls all around my computer. It’s like you’ve walked into an art gallery. You go and browse it and it puts you in the place you should be. I did that with Nowhere Boy too; there were images of young John everywhere. Everyday that image talks to you.
Research is very very important, but at some point you’ve got to cut it off. Especially if you’re a fan as you’re very wary of getting it all right.
Rule Five: Talk to close friends and associates.
Everyone’s wary of you to begin with. It’s like going up to a girl in the street and saying she could be a model. Everyone thinks they own that person [the subject], but you’ve got to own him. I had a situation where I sat with an ex-Joy Division roadie. I met him in a pub and bought him a pint. And then he started taping me! “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m going to write my own script.” And he was deadly serious. That’s how mad people get. They think their version of the story is the one that needs to be told.
Rule Six: Know when to close your ears. A lot of bullshit flies around famous people.
I tried to interview as many people as possible and it got me down as they all had conflicting stories. I rang Tony Wilson [manager of the Haçienda and co-founder of Factory Records, who died shortly before the film’s release] and he said, ‘Just fuck ‘em off and write Matt Greenhalgh’s version. It’s doing your head in, Matt, just go away and write it.’ It was totally liberating, and that night I started writing.
Tony had always been an icon of mine. I’d seen him knocking about, but we’d never been friends before the film. Suddenly I was in the same arena as him. He was just getting ill at that point. I was sitting in his flat, chewing the fat with a tape recorder. I was taking everything in as he was talking about those days. When I look back at everything, that’s up there as a ‘pinch me’ moment.
Rule Seven: If the locations still exist, visit them.
I really loved doing this on Nowhere Boy. Forty minutes down the East Lancs Road is the Mendips [where Lennon’s childhood house stands as a National Trust site]. I’d walk from there to Paul’s house which is the exact walk that John would do. When you start walking in their footsteps and doing things they used to do, that’s when the magnanimity of how great it is to be doing what you’re doing sets in.
Rule Eight: People and reviewers are going to say that you didn’t get your facts right. Take it on the chin.
You can get over protective about getting it right. What you’ve got to understand is that if you’re writing a movie rather than a documentary, it’s entertainment rather than an informative piece. Hopefully it’s informative too, but you’ve got to understand that it’s fictional and you will take liberties. As Tony Wilson said, ‘Write the myth rather than the fucking fact.’
Cinema’s a great format. You pay your money, and you’ve got to sit there for an hour and a half. If you don’t make the story interesting enough, then what’s the point? A film has to constantly create interest. Like David Peace [author of The Damned United] says, biographers purport to be experts on people’s lives but they weren’t in the room. Neither was I. It’s about how fictionalised you want to do it.
Rule Nine: Don’t listen to music when you write. You should always know it.
I’ve tried to write with music going on. When you write characters you have people talking in your head, so you don’t want other people on stereos talking into your head too. If you’re writing about a musician, you should already be hearing what he was hearing or that track that you’re writing about. You’ve got to be at one with yourself. Yourself, therefore, has to transform into other people. There can’t be any distractions. It’s a lonely job.
Rule Ten: Try to choose a subject that’s feasible to make.
You can be a writer in this game and churn out loads of scripts, but if none of them get made it means jack. People don’t say let’s read the script, they say let’s watch the film. The first mistake that beginners make is to think, ‘I’m interested in it, so therefore the rest of the world will be’, but it’s not the case. After Jesus and Muhammad Ali, John Lennon is probably the third most iconic figure in the world.