Matthew Jacobs wrote the screenplay for the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, and in the current edition of Starburst Magazine (issue 394) we talked to Matthew about his experiences of working on the project. Our conversation also took in the writer, actor and producer’s other genre work, and his career in general...
Matthew Jacobs: I’m very much an actor’s director, because I act myself, and at the end of the day, they’re the ones on the screen. You remember the actor, you don’t remember his writers.
Starburst Magazine: You grew up in the UK...
I moved to America in 1992/93, primarily to work on Young Indiana Jones for George Lucas. And then I got various studio deals, stayed and have kind of been here, on and off, ever since. Came back to the UK to do Mothertime and obviously various UK productions, like Doctor Who.
How did you get into writing?
I fell into it later on when I went to the National Film School. Up to going to the National Film School I was an actor, director, theatre, as an undergrad. When I got to the film school there was a very encouraging writing teacher called John Bryce, who had developed the original Avengers series. I was broke, and he got me a job being a reader for Rank – so I learnt what was a good script and what was a bad script, because the good scripts I read were all scripts that had been greenlit. And the school encouraged me to be a writer. And basically I needed the money, so I started writing, and then I fell in love with it – and fell in love with relationships with directors, and started writing better and better stuff. You know, a couple of grindhouse movies as soon as I’d left there, but I always had some pretentious movie up my sleeve like Darkness From the Trees, or something like that.
Paperhouse was your breakout movie.
That’s true, absolutely. That came from a collaboration with Bernard Rose that had been born at film school.
You recently also did Boxing Day with him, as an actor.
Yes, Boxing Day came out on the 21st of December at the cinema, in about twelve cinemas, and got all its reviews then. I appeared in The Kreutzer Sonata for him as well. Bernard knew I could act, and he tends to bring on board filmmakers, for the most part, as his actors (Danny Huston, who starred in both, is a filmmaker, a director, as well as being an actor), because we’re able to take a scene and run with it – it’s ad-libbed. We know the process; it’s done through a process of trust, those kind of movies. And the last two movies I’ve directed, I’ve directed in a similar way, and wrote in a similar way.
So how did Paperhouse come about?
It’s an adaptation of Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, and it was something that Bernard and actually his first wife had been looking at. It was a lovely concept, a lovely idea. The book is a children’s’ book; I took it with Bernard and we gave it more edge, put the father in, turned it into a more psychological horror movie. It wasn’t just this cute book, this sweet book. But without Catherine Storr’s book it would be nothing. And it came about because we already had a bit of a track record of working together, we’d done a TV movie for the BBC called Smart Money, which I’d written. I’d been working anyway for Working Title, for Tim and for Sarah Radclyffe, who was then also head of Working Title. So it was a gang; like all movies, that’s when a gang comes together and says, “We’ve got to do this.” And they’d had success with My Beautiful Laundrette, so Vestron said they wanted to make some films, and before Vestron knew how weird Paperhouse was, we’ve kind of made it – with them!
A case of getting away with it...
I think most films are, actually. And in this case it was really Roger Ebert’s support of the film, when it showed at the Toronto Film Festival, that helped – I don’t think it would have been distributed without his good review, I suspect.
And soon after that, you also adapted Lorna Doone.
Yes, oh my God, I did a sort of Ladybird Books version of Lorna Doone. With a great cast.
Do you find the process of adapting much different from writing something totally original?
I think in all screenwriting – or all writing, really – you bring yourself to the table. So when you’re excited by the source material, to do an adaptation that has any teeth itself, you have to bring yourself to the table. So to a degree it feels like original writing; you really get to know the source, and then you’ve discussed and come up with a take on it, an approach, and then you have to put it to one side and do your own thing. It’s a time-honoured tradition, it’s not theft. Shakespeare was doing it! His plays were remakes of Holinshed, and then he was probably ripping off something else... You hear a great story and then you do your own interpretation, you know. It’s very rare that somebody comes up with such a unique interpretation; for example, Being John Malkovich is a very unique take on the average body-swap movie – but it’s not a family movie, it’s a sort of sexual body-swap movie. But everybody thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s completely new!’ And it was, but I don’t think anybody really consciously went down and said, “We’re doing Big, but with sex.” I don’t think anybody consciously did that.
And then with Doctor Who and Indiana Jones, you’re writing original stories in an established universe.
Well that’s just fun. You’re being given the opportunity to play with something that you’ve always wanted to be part of. I remember walking home from school when I was at a comprehensive school in Harlow; you know, you’re walking down and you’re kicking a stone along the pavement and you’re daydreaming about, ‘I’m the one who’s going to do Doctor Who. Imagine if it was mine!’ And then when that dream comes true, it’s irresistible.
How did The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles come about?
I’d just directed a short called Vardo for the National Film Finance Corporation, which George saw and really liked – but ironically I hadn’t written it. And I’d also just done a TV film called Hallelujah Anyhow, or was finishing that, so I was really working. He was looking to have a cadre of writer-directors at that time for Young Indy, and he wanted half of them to be British, and he wanted writers who had a very good experience of history, who had knowledge of history which I do. It was primarily an educational series; that was his original dream and he managed to do that eventually with the seventy hours that is in the final set, a lot of which is documentary. So I got called in when he was in London, and we got on very well. It was very simple: they offered for me to come on board. But the original thing was that the writers were going to direct as well as write, which is why you’ve got Frank Darabont in there, Jonathan Hensleigh, myself, who are all directors as well; Jonathan Hales, who was a very good theatre director. So initially, that was how I got involved, because I was kind of qualified for the job. They started out as an ABC series, and we did two seasons for ABC; we did about thirty one-hour shows, and then they were re-tooled for The Family Channel as TV features where you take two shows and put them together.
You also worked on a Star Wars video game...
Yes, it was great. Lucas got in touch with me and asked; they wanted more of a “writerly” feel to their video games at LucasArts, and so initially I did Outlaws, which was tremendous fun. Obviously with a game, you’re working in collaboration with game designers, so they had a vision for characters. But with the Star Wars: Starfighter game, we were given the opportunity to write our own characters, which was like an honour, creating characters for the Star Wars universe. I wanted to go back to more of the Western feel that was in the original film, before it became an exploration of early twentieth century politics. It’s not linear writing, it was the early days of PlayStation 2, so we were looking at non-linear progression; it was more like theatre, because you’re involving the audience much more, so there’s an interaction both ways. I didn’t suddenly lose myself in the world of video games, but I adored doing it.