Birdsong: An epic in the making

Sebastian Faulks sold the film rights for his bestselling novel 16 years ago. Only now may shooting finally start on the sweeping wartime love story. Geoffrey Macnab pieces together a blockbuster saga with a cast of thousands

Monday 09 March 2009 01:00

This is the story of a blockbuster movie that hasn't been made (yet); a film that, if it lives up to its potential, should carry us all away with its sweeping historical narrative and tragic romantic undertow. Imagine a British Dr Zhivago – an intimate epic about love and war, about coming of age and disillusionment, about sexual rapture and the squalor of mass slaughter. It's a film that the millions of readers who savoured the novel on which it is based can already picture vividly in their minds.

The story of this proto-blockbuster has an all-star cast – Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley, Eva Green and Jake Gyllenhaal. As for directors who have come and gone from the project, the roll-call is no less stellar: Joe Wright, Sam Mendes, Peter Weir, Michael Mann, Roger Michell, Paul Greengrass, Justin Chadwick and Rupert Wyatt. And the writers who have flirted with the project include a Nobel Prize winner.

Over the past 16 years, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent on commissioning scripts, optioning and re-optioning the source material, hiring lawyers and scouting locations. There are no particular heroes or villains from this epic process. This isn't a cautionary Hollywood parable about some faceless Hollywood studio calling the shots. It's an everyday tale of the British film industry, where projects not infrequently spiral off into some development hinterland whence they struggle to emerge.

The film enduring such a long and tortuous journey toward the big screen is Birdsong, an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's hugely successful novel which, since its publication in 1993, has sold more than three million copies and been ranked 13th in the BBC's "Big Read" survey to discover the nation's best-loved book.

Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman first seen in Amiens in 1910 where he is staying with a local family, learning about the textile industry. Stephen has an affair with a married woman, Isabelle Azaire, and elopes with her, but she eventually returns to her family. From pre-war France, the book takes us to 1916, with Stephen an officer in the British Army during the Battle of the Somme. There are also sections set in the late 1970s, dealing with Stephen's granddaughter's investigations into her family's past. It is a book that comes with all the ingredients that ought to make for a rousing movie: love, lust, intrigue and the human catastrophe of the First World War.

Take One

When Birdsong first appeared it was well reviewed, but sales were not brisk. This was effectively an unknown book by an unknown writer. Only when published in paperback in the summer of 1994 did it become a bestseller. Michael Whyte, a film-maker who worked mostly in television and was then making a documentary about Belfast's Shankill Road, optioned the rights for a few hundred pounds. "It was maybe £200, £250, something like that. It wasn't an extravagant amount," Whyte recalls. Whyte approached potential financiers but encountered widespread scepticism. He was told the book might make a TV mini-series but was far too complicated for feature film adaptation.

Potential backers were wary about Whyte's credentials for a big-budget movie and didn't accept his assurances that it would be possible to make the film on a relatively modest scale, with an emphasis on characterisation rather than spectacle.

All the while, the popularity of Faulks's novel was growing. After it had become a bestseller, Whyte was approached by Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley – as close as British cinema of the 1990s had to its own Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. They told Whyte bluntly (and, as it turned out, accurately) that the film would never be made with him as director. They proposed taking the rights off him but helping him to develop another project in return.

"I was just polite," Whyte recalls. "I said thanks, but no thanks."

Deciding he needed experienced and trustworthy producers to help him, Whyte turned to industry veterans Simon Relph and Ann Skinner of Skreba Films (whose credits included the well-received First World War-themed movie The Return of the Soldier.) Whyte's condition for bringing them on board was that he would be retained as director. The next step was to commission a screenplay. Harold Pinter was suggested as the perfect choice. He'd read and admired the novel and was keen to adapt it. But he wanted a small fortune up front (sources quote between £200,000 and £500,000) – much more than the producers could afford, especially with unknown director such as Whyte. But Pinter was charging his non-negotiable "Hollywood rate". When the producers signalled they couldn't meet his demands, he withdrew quickly.

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For the past two decades, there has been one immediate port of call for British filmmakers hoping to tackle big-budget movies – Working Title, the Universal-backed outfit behind everything from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Elizabeth, Notting Hill and Atonement. Predictably, the Birdsong team turned towards Working Title in the hope that it might finance the development of their movie. Working Title initially seemed keen – but at this stage, back in the mid-Nineties, both Faulks's novel and Working Title were smaller entities than they would become, and Working Title passed on the project.

Take Two

Without Working Title as backer, the producers threw in their lot with The Bridge, a small production company backed by Sony and the French TV network Canal Plus. A writer called Clare Foster was drafted in. She spent a very long time writing and rewriting a screenplay that no one seemed to like. Already, the film of Birdsong was beginning to resemble an old car spluttering on a frosty morning; it couldn't get started.

By the late Nineties, Faulks's book was a huge bestseller. Three or four years had passed since the film version had first been mooted and there was still no sign of a satisfactory script, let alone a date for production to begin.

"It is a very difficult novel to adapt," suggests Kevin Loader, who ran The Bridge. "Everybody who reads it is swept away by its fabulous narrative power and the brilliance of the writing, but it is quite a hard novel when you analyse it structurally. There is that whole Amiens section pre-war. You get the Somme. You get the denouement. And it's framed with the flashback, the granddaughter revisiting the past." "It's a terrific book but it is jolly difficult to contain it," agrees Relph at Skreba Films.

All the while, the longer the project was delayed, the more difficult it became to secure casting. Ralph Fiennes – still basking in the afterglow of The English Patient – had expressed strong interest in playing Stephen, but this was a role for a young man, and Fiennes was growing older. In a bid to ease the logjam, Faulks volunteered to write a new script. Although he completed his screenplay, he struggled to overcome the film industry prejudice that novelists are the last people who should be allowed to adapt their own books. His version had its admirers but was never used.

In 1999, The Bridge folded and Working Title finally came on board. All of a sudden, Birdsong had the most powerful British production company behind it. Surely, observers thought to themselves, this film will now get made. Faulks, having been paid a few hundred pounds when his novel was first optioned, was now rewarded with a far more generous settlement.

The price Working Title exacted for taking over the project was that Michael Whyte would be dropped as director and a bigger name brought on board. Whyte, currently making No Greater Love, a documentary about Carmelite nuns, can't conceal his disappointment about spending so long on Birdsong and then being removed.

"Tim [Bevan] wanted to make a Hollywood film with a Hollywood A-list director and star. Clearly, there was no room for me in that process." Yet he doesn't feel any bitterness. "It's the way of the world, and that's how feature films operate. It was rather depressing... but you've just got to get your head down and get on with something else."

Take Three

Whyte's departure marked the beginning of a frantic game of musical chairs that has been going on for a decade. New directors have been announced and then dropped out. Meanwhile, the project still hasn't seemed any easier to crack.

"It's quite a complicated adaptation. There are three time frames. It's about the First World War and you've got to make that relevant to a contemporary audience," admits Working Title boss Tim Bevan. The three first choices for director on a wish-list drawn up by Working Title and Faulks himself were Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness), Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) and Sam Mendes (Jarhead, Revolutionary Road). Mendes, who had just completed American Beauty and had also been known to play cricket with Faulks, was tempted but eventually decided not to take on the project. Weir felt that he had already made a First World War film (Gallipoli) and didn't want to repeat himself. Mann passed entirely.

Another director, Iain Softley, was recruited. Softley had made both a tremendously popular film about The Beatles in their Hamburg years (Backbeat) and an impressive Henry James adaptation (The Wings of the Dove). He seemed to have the right stuff for Birdsong and was keen to do it. Nonetheless, like every other director later associated with the project, he wanted his own script.

"It's one of the banes of development, really, that directors get attached to projects," says Kevin Loader. "They come on, inherit a script, and then have to take a deep breath and commit to working quite hard. Quite rightly, they have to make the film their own and possess it. Usually, that involves remaking the script somewhat in their own image and with their own concerns and interests. What happens then, though, is that if they don't do the film, you're left with a script that no other director really wants."

In other words, movie development works along Sisyphean lines. Often, when you have almost pushed the rock to the top of the hill, it rolls down once more and you have to begin the arduous process all over again.

In the past 10 years, a "who's who of British directors" (in Bevan's own words) have been linked to the project. When Softley departed, the next director brought on board was Paul Greengrass. By then, Working Title had already commissioned yet another screenplay, this time by American writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. This was before Greengrass had made his Bourne movies. He didn't seem the obvious choice. But he had plenty of gumption and had recently won a Golden Bear for Bloody Sunday, his film about the infamous incident in Londonderry when British soldiers opened fired on a protest march. Again, it looked as if the film would finally get made.

Greengrass, who wrote his own Birdsong screenplay in collaboration with Ol Parker, wanted Ewan McGregor to star, but eventually turned to Jake Gyllenhaal. The American was then a relatively unknown teenage actor, but the filmmakers joked to themselves that by the time they were ready to shoot, he would have matured sufficiently to play Stephen. Gyllenhaal was reportedly desperate for the role. He sent in audition tapes and campaigned to be cast. Then he changed his mind and decided he didn't want to make the movie. Down the hill rolled the rock all over again.

In this period, Working Title had many other projects on the boil, among them its adaptation of Louis de Bernières' Second World War-set Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001). When it finally appeared, Corelli, starring Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz, was given a pasting by many reviewers. Meanwhile, another Faulks screen adaptation, Charlotte Gray (2002), made by Ecosse Films, Film4 and Warner Bros, also underperformed.

All of a sudden, the producers began to wonder whether Birdsong was such a good idea for a film after all. Big-budget literary adaptations set in wartime seemed like box-office poison – or at least to bring the critics out in hives.

Take Four

Paul Greengrass eventually left the project to direct Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. Next on the conveyor belt of would-be directors was Joe Wright. Wright did end up directing a fine war-themed period drama for Working Title. But it wasn't Birdsong. He made Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007). After his success with that film, it wasn't likely that he would want to repeat himself by making another movie in the same vein.

The upside, from the producers' point of view, was that the popularity of Atonement helped exorcise the memories of Captain Corelli and Charlotte Gray. The film's box-office success proved that there was an appetite for biggish-budget, war-themed, period literary adaptations.

Yet the game of musical chairs wasn't over. Next director in line was Justin Chadwick (who had made a sterling job of the BBC's Bleak House). A new screenplay was commissioned from Abi Morgan (writer of the award-winning TV drama Sex Traffic, who had also adapted Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane for the screen). Chadwick came close to shooting but the chairs were shuffled again after he went off to direct The Other Boleyn Girl. Next for Birdsong was Rupert Wyatt, who made the thoughtful prison drama The Escapist.

What's startling about Working Title's approach to Birdsong isn't just the fact that the company has been sitting on the project for a decade without managing to make it, but how bold it has been in its attempts to kick-start the film. The WT bosses haven't turned to obvious names but, again and again, have recruited young and relatively unsung writers and directors; always those with what Bevan likes to call "a bit of fizz" about them. At this point, there are at least half a dozen completed Birdsong scripts available – by Foster, Faulks, Greengrass, Jaffa and Silver, Morgan and Rupert Wyatt – and possibly several more. You can't help but wonder why they don't just cobble together the best bits from each of them.

It's now 16 years since Faulks was first approached about a film adaptation of Birdsong. There have been at least three announcements that "production is due to start in May". Reconnaissance teams have been sent to the Somme to scout out locations. "Every time I hear that they are about to go on that Somme recce again, my heart slightly sinks," says Loader. "I think, is this displacement for actually making the film?"

Simon Relph of Skreba Films who, along with Ann Skinner, has remained involved in the project for the full 16 years, points out that the battle of the Somme took place from July to November. So a summer start date is crucial. If it's missed, the project has to be put on the backburner for a year. Whenever this has happened, the directors attached have gone off to make other movies.

Is Birdsong any closer to the screen than it was in 1994? An upbeat Tim Bevan suggests the film may finally be "green-lit" this year. Rupert Wyatt, the present incumbent in the director's chair, has been on a scouting trip to the Somme and has been looking round Belgium for towns that resemble 1910 Amiens. Bevan can't help but note the irony that after the many different versions mooted of Birdsong, Wyatt is proposing a film that will has gone back to the book. His screenplay cleaves closely to Faulks's novel.

The casting remains crucial. Stephen is not an easy part. He is a cold and aloof figure who would need, nonetheless, to elicit the audience's curiosity and sympathy. Ralph Fiennes and Jake Gyllenhaal would now be too old to play the role.

An alternative would be Sam Riley. He played Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control. Meanwhile, former Bond girl Eva Green is keen to portray Isabelle, the beautiful married woman with whom the young Stephen has a fateful affair.

Faulks is maintaining a tone of cheerful equanimity about his novel's epic yet uncompleted journey toward the screen. "I stopped following the progress of this project closely some time in the last century. However, I have a friendly relationship with Working Title, and Tim Bevan rings me every so often to give me an update," he says. "I felt when I sold the rights to WT that they were the only producers who could make the film, and I still believe that. But I would rather no film than a bad film, and I think Tim feels the same. WT should feel confident after the deserved success of Atonement, and I continue to wish them all the very best of luck in landing this elusive fish."

A Hollywood ending?

If there is one quality the British film industry has always had in abundance, it is optimism – and few producers are more optimistic than Bevan. Faulks's novel remains as popular as ever. That, though, promises to be a mixed blessing. Fans of the book will make very demanding spectators. As the Working Title boss puts it: "There is no doubt that with a more serious book like an Atonement or a Captain Corelli or a Birdsong, when the audience has had a colossal literary reaction to the piece and conjured up the imagery of the story in their heads, you're on much thinner ice than when you're making a Bridget Jones or an About a Boy. You've got to get it right." The producers can console themselves that if one director drops out, there is bound to be another who can step into the breach. The financing has never been the real problem – it's the creative elements that haven't coalesced. If anything, Birdsong may be easier to make now than it would have been in 1994. Thanks to advances in CGI, the filmmakers should be able to recreate the horror of mass warfare without having to blow their budget.

To do justice to the full scope of the Somme scenes as described by Faulks, the film would need a hint of Apocalypse Now-like, Francis Coppola-style megalomania. "What Sebastian invites really is the helicopter shot that starts at Amiens and just goes down the front line for four or five minutes and you still see it tailing off into the horizon," suggests Loader. "That's what the book does for you. It just gives you a sense of the miles and miles and miles and hundreds of thousands of lives that were devastated that summer [in 1916]."

There have been so many false starts that it's hard to know how seriously to take Bevan's assertion that the film may shoot in months. As he acknowledges, it's a film "that you get made by smoke and mirrors". The real interest in Birdsong, he points out, is less from the US than from the Europeans. He adds that the First World War hasn't been especially well depicted on film in recent years and that Birdsong remains as topical as ever. "At the heart of the book is this juxtaposition of a character between extreme ecstasy and extreme hell, and that is a very interesting thing to follow through a movie."

Nobody is giving up on making the film yet. Simon Relph insists everything is in place; Bevan remains unapologetic about how long Working Title has taken to reach this point. "We're lucky we've got the resources to keep something in development until the constellation for getting it made is right. The Interpreter took 15 years to get to the screen. Some of Richard Curtis's films have been ideas for years. In terms of making a successful film out of one of these literary pieces, there is no doubt that the bullseye is quite small. You've got to get all the elements absolutely right."

Trench footage: The First World War on film

Paths of Glory, 1957

Stanley Kubrick took on a controversial practice carried out by the French army, with innocent soldiers executed by their superiors to strengthen the resolve of their brothers in arms.

Gallipoli, 1981

Mel Gibson stars in this story of a group of soldiers from Western Australia who are sent to Turkey to fight in the Gallipoli campaign, the attempt to capture what is now Istanbul. Directed by Peter Weir (who also directed 1989's 'Dead Poets Society').

All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930

This harrowing and bleak account of war, directed by Lewis Milestone, follows a group of German soldiers locked in trench warfare with the French army.

La Grande Illusion, 1937

Jean Renoir's masterpiece follows the service and imprisonment of two officers in the French army. The film was the first foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards.

Oh! What A Lovely War, 1969

A star-studded cast, Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud and John Mills to name but three, are directed by Richard Attenborough in this cinematic adaptation of the famous stage musical.

Hell's Angels, 1930

Howard Hughes directs this tale of two British pilot brothers who fall for the same woman (Jean Harlow). The brothers are pitted against a German friend of theirs who has joined his own country's air force.

Sergeant York, 1941

This biopic, directed by Howard Hawks, told the story of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), the most highly decorated American soldier during the First World War.

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