The man from Threshers, off-licensed to thrill

Cannes Festival: British action film company chooses for its first production a script by an unknown writer who worked in his local wine shop
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The Independent Culture

A film penned by an unknown writer as he worked by day in an off-licence has been chosen as the first production by a new company seeking to reinvent the genre of British action films.

The 51st State, a £20m film starring Samuel L Jackson as a drug dealer, will be filmed on Merseyside and culminate in a gun battle at Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club.

It was written by Stel Pavlou, 29, as he worked stacking bottles and sweeping floors at a branch of Threshers. He would retreat to his flat in Rochester, Kent, to work on manuscripts.

Mr Pavlou wrote the script in two months during 1995 and sent it via an agent to Tim Roth, the British actor who starred with Jackson in Pulp Fiction, who insists on seeing all independent film scripts sent to him.

Within a fortnight Roth telephoned Mr Pavlou, saying he was interested, and helped to get creative and business backing. Mr Pavlou flew to Los Angeles last year to discuss his script with Jackson, who at the time was filming Jackie Brown and Sphere back to back. "He is a really down-to-earth man and wanted to get to the nub of his character," said Mr Pavlou. "As we were talking, George Lucas rang to offer him the part in the new Star Wars films. Then he started practising saying, 'May the force be with you'. That's when I knew I was in the middle of the movie business."

He added: "The whole experience has been nerve-racking, exciting, full of joy but also worry that it would fall through."

Mr Pavlou, whose father is a taxi driver and whose mother works as a home-help, went to university in Liverpool for a course in American studies and served in the Greek army in Cyprus for a year.

He spent five years working at Threshers after applying for about 600 jobs in the media and publishing. Since his film success, he has had a science fiction novel, Decipher, accepted by the publisher Simon & Schuster.

The idea for The 51st State, a phrase used by Americans to described Britain during the Second World War, came to him in 1994. He calls it a black comedy thriller about an American drugs baron who comes to Liverpool to sell a new drug to the highest bidder.

Robert Carlyle, star of Angela's Ashes and Trainspotting, has been approached to play his American-hating minder.

The film, which will be shot later this year, will mark the entry into the British film industry of Momentum Pictures, a new company headed by the former Universal Pictures chairman, David Kosse - an American who lives in Britain. Kosse is to inject £40m into British films over the next year, producing eight films.

Some of Kosse's funding comes from Canada and Germany, so profits are still likely to go abroad, but he said his production and distribution outfit would be shooting action films in Britain - a genre he said Britain was weak on. He said: "I am the only American foolish enough to try and build a film career in London. The demise of Polygram was the low point for the British film industry. We want to promote the industry and build it up again."

He has already struck a deal with Natural Nylon, the film company of the actors Jude Law and Ewan McGregor, to make the film Marlow, the story of the playwright Christopher Marlow, likely to star Jonathan Rees Meyer and Michelle Pfeiffer as Lady Walsingham. It will be the first time she has made a film in Britain. Mr Kosse said: "Our connections with the studios in the United States are unrivalled. We are set up well to access the top talent in the US."

Other projects include White Clouds, an unpublished screenplay by the late Dennis Potter.

Lord Puttnam is to chair the development board of the British Film Institute overseeing a newly launched department to find donors for the new BFI film centre on the South Bank in London, it was announced in Cannes yesterday.