It’s only to be expected that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy should have all the right lines, and he dutifully trots them when we catch up with him at this year’s Bradford International Festival. He’s particularly keen to point out that his most successful film, Slumdog Millionaire, is not a rags to riches tale, because he has no interest in riches, and that he’s grateful to both Yorkshire and India for inspiring him.
But even with a writer like Simon, actions speak louder than words. For example, it’s remarkable that he should return as a guest to this festival in the first place, when it would be easy to decline, claiming a busy schedule, exhaustion or family time after months on the awards trail. In fact, not only does he return, but he does so as the festival’s new patron – an invaluable endorsement to the place he grew up in – even stepping up to do an impromptu screentalk for the audience at Slumdog’s screening.
But, most telling of all, he brings his little gold friend with him to Bradford. “It’s not even in a protective case or anything”, whispers a member of staff at the National Media Museum. And he happily hands his Oscar to anyone who asks, posing with festival-goers at the museum until everyone has a picture.
“Everyone wants to pick it up, then they go ‘wow, it’s heavy’, and then they smile,” says Simon. “It’s a very lovely thing, I’ve been surrounded by people smiling for the past few weeks.”
The Full Monty (1997) was Simon’s first hit film, which won 33 awards worldwide and gave him his first Oscar nomination. Although it was unique at the time, pioneering a new Brit flick formula, its success was a surprise to everyone involved, says Simon: “The lovely thing about The Full Monty was that it was done entirely un-cynically. It was just done on a low budget with a bunch of people who managed to scrabble the money together, and really believed in the little film we were all trying to make.”
It’s a running theme. Just over a decade later, and June finally sees the UK release of Slumdog Millionaire on DVD, which won eight Oscars this year. DVD is where the film would have stayed had Fox Searchlight not stepped in, after Warner Brothers decided they wouldn’t be able to sell it. “There’s no reason why Slumdog Millionaire was ever going to win an Oscar,” says Simon. “No one ever thought it was going to win any awards when we started out on the work, because it didn’t have any of the things that those sort of award films need, they need big stars, they certainly don’t need subtitles, they certainly don’t need to be in Mumbai, which most Americans have never heard of, quite genuinely.”
Based on the book Q&A, by Vikas Swarup, and directed by Trainspotting’s Danny Boyle, it follows the story of Jamal, a slum kid from Mumbai who finds himself on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
It has brought the attention of worldwide audiences back to British film-making. But more than that, it has opened up new possibilities for Bollywood, which until now has been restricted to pure escapism. “There was a very interesting debate about whether you should show slums in a film,” explains Simon.
“Bollywood films are very aspirational, they’re about very rich people getting married really. They never look down towards the slums. They were outraged that we’d done that for a while; there was a debate about whether you should do that in a film at all, and why a bunch of Westerners should come in and do it.
“We pointed out that Danny and me had spent most of our lives talking about working class Britain, I mean Trainspotting was not Heritage Scotland, no stags bounding across the moors, and The Full Monty’s the same. You could see Indian filmmakers going ‘yeah, we could stop making these flipping films about getting married’. I think Bollywood’s going to shift itself slightly. Not very much, because it’s a very strong tradition, but I think they’ll start using elements that were off-limits before.”
Simon has been very keen to talk about being intoxicated by India on trips there, both as a backpacking student and a working writer: “The generosity of the people, the open-heartedness, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on the side of the road, living in a tin shack, or very rich, because Mumbai has some of the richest people in the world, they would treat each other and me the same. People in the slums just wanted to come up and chat, but they would meet you as equals and I found it very humbling. I took that away from the place, that sense of generosity of spirit.”
Simon also explains what an inspiration Yorkshire has been to his work: “That sense of cultures coming together in a really unlikely place, because really, it’s kind of bizarre that a place like Keighley or Bradford should have such a large Indian and Pakistani population, because it’s so inhospitable to the Indian temperament, it’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s overcast, so it’s always interested me how these worlds have come together and how they cope together.”
Although he could command huge sums of money now, Simon insists it’s still the last thing on his mind when it comes to his work. “When I started reading the book I thought ‘oh no, I don’t want to make a rags to riches story, it has to be about more than that’ because money is not a great motivator in my life or, I believe, in most people’s lives really, there are more important things.”
He actually means it though. Reports that Simon turned down huge money to write a Hollywood blockbuster are apparently true: “I never got into film-making for the money in the first place, and I’m getting extremely well paid for what I do now without having to do blockbusters. Someone said ‘would you like to write Wolverine II’, and my manager said ‘yes he would’. I said ‘I’ve never even saw Wolverine I’, but she said ‘it’s alright, it hasn’t been out yet’. It’s a whole other world, doing sequels to a film that hasn’t been released yet, and I don’t even know who Wolverine is. I think I’d do a terrible job at writing about Wolverines.” Chartering new territory yet again, Simon’s work in progress include adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Truckers’, about a race of tiny people called Nomes, and Steven Hall’s ‘The Raw Shark Texts’, about conceptual sharks that eat people’s memories. Suffice to say that Simon doesn’t expect either of them to be massive hits, which means he should start clearing space for more awards.
“I’ve written five films set in Yorkshire, so it must have had a big impact on me. This theme of the triumph of hope, no matter how bad things get, has probably come out of being born and brought up here.”
Yasmin (2004) – A young Muslim woman living in Britain campaigns for the release of her immigrant husband from his detainment in a holding centre.
The Full Monty (1997) – Six unemployed steel workers from Sheffield form a male striptease act.
Blow Dry (2001) – The annual British Hairdressing Championship comes to Keighley.
Among Giants (1998) – A triangular love story about pylon painters in Yorkshire.
The Darkest Light (1999) – A young Catholic girl claims to have seen a vision on the Yorkshire Dales.