Control begets success – Matt Greenhalgh
With a feature film premiering in the States, writer Matt Greenhalgh could rest on his laurels, but it’s more important to continue with the job in hand, he tells Matt Hemley
When the Joy Division film Control enjoyed its New York premiere last week, its writer Matt Greenhalgh wasn’t there to share the excitement.
Instead, Greenhalgh, who successfully combines a career writing for both television and film, had his head down researching his latest project.
“I had a ticket to attend but it is a long way and I have too much to do,” he says. “Once you are into something you have to stay in that place. I know it was a once in lifetime opportunity but I have to be on to the next thing. Control is getting a lot of press and a lot of plaudits, but for me as a writer I am not in that world anymore. I don’t mind sitting back and watching it all from my computer.”
Greenhalgh, 35, evidently takes his work seriously and is not one to be caught up in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and everything that being involved in a feature film offers.
Instead, he would rather concentrate on the task at hand.
This devotion to his art has paid off as far as Control is concerned. The film, a biopic of Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis, has been receiving positive reviews.
It stars Samantha Morton and is based on a book by Curtis’ wife Deborah, called Touching From a Distance, which provides a personal account of her life with the singer, who killed himself in 1980.
Greenhalgh, who has previously written a number of television dramas, including Channel 4’s Legless and the BBC series Burn It, was asked to come on board as writer when a friend of his in Hollywood mentioned his name to a producer who had bought the rights to Deborah Curtis’ book.
A screenplay had already been written, but the producers were not happy with it and wanted someone who knew Manchester, where Curtis was from, to have a go.
Greenhalgh, a northerner who grew up in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, was a perfect fit.
“I managed to get videos with various clips of Joy Division concerts from a fan I knew and that was key,” he says. ‘I talked to people and I watched footage to get his voice. Then I managed to get hold of the letters he used to write to Annik Honore – a journalist he was having an affair with – and that was good because I could read those letters, which are that personal, in his voice. Suddenly it all started to click. I had a list of a lot of people I wanted to speak to, which got curtailed because as soon as you feel you are ready to write then I think you should do it. Some writers sit around when they are ready and have a bit more thinking time and put it off. But at the end of the day a writer has to sit down and do it.”
Despite having written predominantly for television, he did not find writing a film much different, claiming the only real difference is the length.
“Legless was a 90-minute show and the first thing I ever wrote was a film so I was not unused to writing for longer,” he says. “The good thing about writing about a book is you have that book there in the first place – but with an original idea you have the problem at the beginning of persuading people with money to see your idea.”
Greenhalgh is currently working on another film, the subject of which he is keen to keep under wraps, and then he is hoping to do something for television.
He is currently developing a comedy drama series, called Big Shop set in a Wigan cash and carry, for BBC1, and he is keen for it to be commissioned, mainly because he is concerned about the quality of drama on television at the moment.
“I would love to do something decent on British TV,” he says. “I don’t watch it a lot anymore. I think you just have to check people’s Sky Plus to see what is on it and there is not much that is British, I’m afraid.”
Big Shop is being made in association with Red Production Company, with whom Greenhalgh made Legless and Burn It. His partner is the company’s chief executive, Nicola Shindler, one of television’s most respected drama producers.
Working and living together, he admits, has its highs and lows. “We have our moments,” he says. “We try not to have script discussions on holiday now. I think it helps that I work with a lot of other people and she does too. It is fraught of course. I would say things to her I would not normally say to a producer and vice versa. But what we get to is the heart of an idea very quickly because we can say what is on our minds. She is the best script editor in the world. I give her all my stuff because I know what she says and does is brilliant.”
Greenhalgh says he wants to move into directing more of his own work, something he did with Legless, claiming it gives him more control over the general look of a programme.
“If you write and direct it you live and die by the sword,” he says. “And that is the best way, because then you are not opening the script up to be interpreted wrongly.”
Although he seems to know what direction he wants his life to take now, this was not always the case.
As a teenager he didn’t enjoy school and left with no qualifications. He considered journalism and, after writing to a Manchester magazine called City Life to tell them he did not like their reviews of nightclubs, was asked to take on some of the writing himself.
This earned him a place at Warrington Collegiate Institute where he did a degree in media studies and, by chance, ended up playing cricket with someone who worked on Hollyoaks. He eventually got a job as a runner on the programme and worked his way up the ladder, working on scripts and gaining an understanding of how they were put together. Having seen first hand what makes a good script, he then decided to write his own, and eventually landed himself an agent. The rest, as they say, is history. This reading of other people’s scripts is something he thinks all aspiring writers should do.
“Don’t read script-writing books, read good scripts,” he says. “And then just do it – just write.”
Control opens at cinemas on Friday, October 5.