Climb every pylon

Simon Beaufoy on the film he wrote before `The Full Monty', and his love of the industrial landscape that inspired it
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Why on earth would you want to make a film about electricity pylons? They are just ugly bird-killers. So began a letter from my godmother, who had seen Among Giants in France a few months ago. This was hardly the generous praise I was expecting, but it did make me stop and think. Among Giants has taken more than six years to reach the cinema, and the question of why I had wanted to write it in the first place had not occurred to me for a very long time.

What had intervened in the years in- between was the small matter of The Full Monty. I have a very clear recollection of talking to Peter Cattaneo, the director, after a screening of one of the cuts of the film near to its completion. Morosely staring into his coffee, he said that the best he could expect was that The Full Monty might be one of those cult films that people stick on the video after a beer and a curry on a Friday night. We tried to console ourselves with the the thought that at least drunken curry-breathed people might get a smile out of the film. Then we finished our coffee and went resignedly home.

So we weren't exactly prepared for the tidal wave that swamped us. Was it exciting? Sort of, though frightening would be more the word I'd use. Glamorous? Certainly, if glamour means sharing the same sidewalk as a frail though still distinguished Gregory Peck as we both awaited our limousine on Oscars night. We had been shivering in the spring evening for an hour and a half by this time, watching the entire Academy skip lightly into their limos and off to the parties. "What colour was it, Mr Peck?" asked an Oscar minion, desperate not to be held responsible for the frost-bite of a star. "Grey." We stared down the straight mile of bumper-to-bumper limousines. Only about a thousand of them were grey.

So that was the Oscars for me and a dozen other starry events too. More a holiday from serious film-making than anything else and a gradual realisation that no matter how loudly I shouted, somehow, the political film that I thought I had written was this year's rip-roaring feel-good stripper movie. Which made me worry all the more for Among Giants.

The film has lived with me for as long as I have been a film-maker. It was the first script that I wrote after leaving film school, when nothing except unemployment loomed in an industry which was then barely alive. Never having written a film more than 10 minutes long, I found the idea of writing a full-length feature utterly daunting. But as I was not doing anything else that year - and probably the year after that too, judging by the dust and tumble-weed bowling down Wardour Street - time wasn't a problem.

Ideas for films are rare enough, good ideas as rare as unicorns. In its wisdom the film industry has a massive two categories for ideas: There is "high-concept", popcorn-suitable plots that can be written on a yellow sticky with a fat marker pen (watch out for guns, models and the occasional spaceship), and then there is "low-concept": popcorn-unsuitable plots that take longer to explain than watching the entire film - if indeed there is a plot at all (no spaceships: models, if any, usually French). I attempted to fit ideas rather cold-bloodedly into these categories, until I realised that the only way to sustain a process that could last years was to write about what I cared about - from the heart, whether or not it fitted anybody's categories.

I'd been spending a lot of time in Sheffield, a city whose industry was razed by the policies of That Bloody Woman, as a neighbour used to call her. My girlfriend had fallen 60 feet while climbing and was in a spinal injuries ward. Between visiting hours I would take myself off to the gritstone edges of the city and boulder around on the crags in the blustery wind to clear my head, often coming across bands of unemployed men using their enforced leisure time to improve their climbing skills. Quiet, generous men whose floors I slept on for many weekends while my girlfriend slowly, slowly recovered.

They seemed to me somehow the lucky ones. They had an escape from the nullifying effects of unemployment in the freedom of movement on rock, in the physical chess that is a hard rock-climb. It is a pastime demanding total concentration and delivering a joyful release when the top is reached: that is for me the truly addictive part of climbing. But it was only when I saw a group of men painting electricity pylons - tiny dots high in the mesh of angular steel - that the themes of climbing and work welded together in my head. Finally, I had an idea.

The more I investigated the bizarre world of the pylon painter - as one character in the film says, "I didn't even know they were painted" - the richer became the material. These were men who lived out of the back of battered old vans in the middle of moors. They cannibalised their safety gear to carry more tins of paint, and thought nothing of wandering the narrow steel struts of the pylons in their wellingtons, can of beer in one hand, paintbrush in the other. They drank up pylons, smoked dope up pylons and, on the really big ones, slept up there, almost unrecognisable under the layers of paint that had blown off their brushes on to their faces. They cooked on camp fires, and got paid good money which burnt a hole in their pockets until Friday night when they hit the nearest town and created mayhem. To me, they were the last frontiersmen, genuine Yorkshire cowboys.

Yet keeping characters, situations and plots in my head for more than a hundred pages felt akin to juggling. If I spent too much time on the characters, I'd drop the plot. And if I concentrated too hard on the plot, the characters would slip out my head. As the paper expanded, themes emerged, patterns appeared. It wasn't only the people I was interested in; it was the environment in which they lived.

I had grown up with derelict mills all around. As children, we wandered the echoing shopfloors, unsure of what took place in these deserted halls, clear only that it was powerful, grand, frightening. On a trip to Jordan, I visited Petra, where Bedouin tribes were camping out in the remains of vast Roman and Nabataean palaces cut into the rock. To me, Sheffield had just such resonances: instead of Roman palaces, there were cooling towers, gasometers, electricity pylons - monoliths bearing testament to an industrial age that had crumbled, leaving nothing but its rusting archaeology and the people living in its huge shadows.

And are these structures ugly? Are electricity pylons, designed by Gilbert Scott - whose other works include Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral and Battersea Power Station - really just bird-killers, as my godmother so trenchantly called them? To me, the stride of a pylon across the moors resonates as much about the spirit of an industrial age as a Georgian house reflects the refinement and order of its era. I began to write scenes that were almost impossible to shoot (yet somehow were shot) which put the landscape at the heart of the film. I wrote one scene to be shot on the top of a gasometer and a love scene that takes place in the middle of a disused cooling tower, its cascades of water becoming a modern, industrial Eden. Gradually, I realised it was the people surviving and even thriving in the midst of these ruins who were the real giants.

One day as I was writing, the characters began talking to each other. I appeared to be nothing more than a conduit for their conversations. By the time they had stopped dictating to me, I was exhausted and had "written" 15 pages without conscious thought. It is the nearest to pure writing I have experienced. This, I thought, is the real thing, what writing is all about. Five films later, I am still waiting for it to happen again.

When I began the process, my biggest fear was running out of material in 30 pages. Yet by the time I got to "the end", Among Giants was more than 160 pages long - at least 40 pages (and therefore as a film 40 minutes) too long. I was secretly more proud of the sheer bulk of paper than anything else, and would pick it up and weigh it satisfyingly in my hand every time I passed it on the desk. It was, after all, the only physical proof of six months' graft until the film got made. And that was how it was to remain for many years. Just a pile of paper.

I handed it in to my agent, who was effusive and then ... nothing. A producer rang up, wanting to meet me in a pub after work. I remember everything about it - right down to the fact that I ended up buying the drinks - because it was my first grown-up meeting. Finally, I travelled up to London as a Writer, capital letter and all. The script, said the producer, was the best thing he had read in six months. He was interested. I glowed. He dropped me off at a Tube station in his big Alfa and I never heard from him again. No reasons given, no phone calls returned. I was completely crushed.

There were many such meetings over the next six years, though none that attained such a benchmark of thoughtlessness and arrogance - and even the least interested producer pays for his own drink. Along the way, I was lucky enough to come across Stephen Garret, a producer with what was then a small production company who seemed smitten with the script. The BBC wanted it, then they didn't, then they did again, as successive purges swept the drama department of commissioning editors.

After a couple of years of this, I printed up a T-shirt of choice phrases from the rejection letters piling up on my desk. "This one's not for us"; "More an Eighties idea than a real Nineties one" ; "Good luck with placing this elsewhere"; and my favourite, beautifully crafted to damn with the faintest of praise, "This script has some merits..." I wore the T-shirt to meetings and everyone got a good laugh out of it until I pointed to one of their own phrases. It didn't help the film get made, but did make me feel just a little less at the mercy of other people's apparently random decisions.

We held our breath as the head of drama at Channel 4 read it. Another puzzling pause was followed by the message that he just "hadn't got it". We murmured darkly about the lack of vision of commissioning editors and looked elsewhere for finance, only to find, six months later, that what Channel 4 meant was that he literally hadn't got it. The script simply had not arrived.

Quietly persistent, Stephen kept searching for finance. We both turned into the saddest of pylon-spotters, and phone calls would begin, "Saw a good one by the Severn Bridge at the weekend." "Oh yeah, twin or a quad?" "Quad. With platforms." We found a director, Sam Miller, equally obsessed, and built up a cast that included Rachel Griffiths - who faxed Stephen the message, "If you give this part to anyone else, I will kill you" - and Pete Postlethwaite, who was intrigued and delighted by the idea of playing his first ever romantic lead at the age of 50. Both kept faith with us until Stephen finally put the money together. Eternally to his credit, he managed this long before The Full Monty had been released and films about grubby blokes in Sheffield became unaccountably what every commissioning editor had always wanted.

Which brings us back to that film, released before Among Giants yet written three years after it. As the head of marketing at Fox Searchlight, the distributors, said, "There's only one problem with Among Giants, and that's The Full Monty." Superficially, the two are related, cousins that meet only at family functions and don't get on. Both concern work, and how men deal with the lack of it. Both are set in Sheffield. Yet where The Full Monty is broad brushstrokes and primary colours, Among Giants is muted, shifting, ambivalent. One became, despite itself, a Big Movie, an event, while Among Giants is something quiet and personal - an attempt, like the pylons themselves, at a brutal kind of beauty.

`Among Giants' is released on 11 June.