Gary Young is the Newcastle-based screenwriter behind such films as SHOOTERS (2002), SPIVS (2004), THE LAST DROP (2005) and THE TOURNAMENT (2009). He also directed the short film HENRY (2012), and wrote the graphic novel series MADAM SAMURAI (2010-11). I spoke to him about the writing and making of his most well-known project, the controversial 'British DEATH WISH', HARRY BROWN (2009), which featured Michael Caine.  

How did you come to write HARRY BROWN?
I had been working on a lot of other people's material and hadn't written a spec script for a very long time. I'd had a miserable experience on a previous film. I met the producer Keith Bell in Newcastle, where we are both from, in January 2008. We wanted to see if we could do a project together that had a quick turnaround and could be done for a million or under. Keith had produced a movie I worked on called THE TOURNAMENT (2009), as well as a couple of Neil Marshall films, DOG SOLDIERS (2002) and THE DESCENT (2005). We discussed various ideas, but one of the things that had been running in the back of my mind was to do a British DEATH WISH (1974). My late grandfather had been a Royal Marine in the Second World War, fighting in the Pacific, and I found myself telling Keith that the lead character should be ''an old man''. I imagined a similar character but who had lost his wife, his child and best friend. What would such a guy think of the way society was going? I'm attracted to 'What if...?' stories and the news was full of violent stories about modern youth. There seemed to be this undertow of anger about the state of things amongst people. 

I basically told Keith the whole story of the movie there and then. We had met on a Tuesday and by Thursday or Friday I had written the first twenty pages, up to the death of Len. Keith read it on the weekend and liked it. He told me to go and finish it. By March I had a first draft that was pretty much what we shot. I knew immediately that this was the best thing I had ever written. Sometimes the movie gods are upon you. It was the quickest turnaround of a script I have ever had in my career. Sometimes it can take up to twelve drafts. Paul Schrader said that writing TAXI DRIVER (1976) was like an animal escaping him, and that's how it felt writing HARRY BROWN. Once in a while scripts just come to you. My first movie, SHOOTERS (2002), took eight years to get made. HARRY BROWN was in UK theatres by November 2009. 

Were there any particular experiences or events that informed the script?
The riot at the end of the film was based on the Meadowell riot in Newcastle in September 1991. It lasted four or five days. I was a student at the time, and was there visiting a friend. We watched the riot police and cars on fire from his window. The character of the gun dealer Stretch, played by Sean Harris, is slightly based on a guy I saw casually inject heroin in his calf at a dodgy party I went to in Newcastle. He was a much bigger guy than Sean, but he had all the scars. Funnily enough, a few years after HARRY BROWN, I saw the guy in Asda supermarket one day and he came over to talk to me. The underpass is based on the Metro subway station near where I live in Newcastle. It's always full of these feral kids.   

Apart from DEATH WISH, what were some other influences upon your script?
That was the biggest influence. The franchise became a parody of itself very quickly but the first film is one of the best things Michael Winner ever did. The book by Brian Garfield is great and was on my mind because I read it again before I wrote the script. My favourite Caine film is THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), and I named Harry Brown after Harry Palmer. The police operation in HARRY BROWN is named Operation Bluejay, which is the codename of the villain in that film. Caine actually picked up on it and mentioned it to me! Other influences included TAXI DRIVER (1976), which is one of my favourite movies, FALLING DOWN (1993), Neil Jordan's debut ANGEL (1982), and the work of Abel Ferrara, such as BAD LIEUTENANT (1992). Keith and I also discussed Alan Clarke films like MADE IN BRITAIN (1982) and THE FIRM (1989). Although we decided that Clarke would probably make the kids the heroes and Harry the villain!

Which screenwriters have inspired you over the years? 
That's a long list! Richard Price is brilliant, particularly his dialogue. William Goldman is still The Master. Paul Schrader has a voice that just comes through in his scripts. There's a very literary quality to them. TAXI DRIVER was one of the first scripts I ever read. I also admire Harold Pinter and John Logan. Tony Gilroy is great. I was blown away by his script for THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997), particularly his visual descriptions. From that script I learned that it was okay to write visually and that it wasn't just the domain of the director.     

How did Michael Caine come to play the title role?
Once I had finished the first draft in March, Keith got it to Marv Films, which is Matthew Vaughn's production company. Keith knew a development guy there, Charlie Mitchell, who liked my writing. Charlie thought it was great and passed it on to Kris Thykier, who instantly saw like me that it would be a great Michael Caine vehicle. I remember I was there in the Marv office when the script got picked up by a bicycle courier to go to Caine. On the train ride back to Newcastle I got really depressed. I thought Caine would take months to read the script and then he would say no anyway. I turned my cellphone off for the weekend and when I turned it back on Monday morning there was a message from Keith saying ''Caine's in.'' We had to start shooting soon because Caine had to go off and do his scenes for INCEPTION (2010). The plan was to start before Christmas, but because of availability and other issues, we actually started in January 2009. 

With his company producing, was Matthew Vaughn ever in the frame to direct?
No, that was never the idea, and Matthew was off doing KICK-ASS (2010) anyway. We got Daniel Barber through Kris. Kris had produced THE DEBT (2010), and Daniel was one of the directors they looked at. He didn't end up directing the film because they needed someone more established but Kris had been very impressed with his short film THE TONTO WOMAN (2008), a Western that had been nominated for an Oscar. He handed him the HARRY BROWN script and told him to think of Michael Caine. Daniel liked the script and Caine got on well with him, and really liked his short film. Caine loves his Westerns. We did the deal for the movie at Cannes in May. Apart from those who were unavailable, we got every actor we wanted. Everybody wanted to work with Caine.   

Did you and Barber differ in any way in your approach to the material?
Daniel saw it as as a Western and tried to make it like UNFORGIVEN (1992), and he's right.We were both also after that cold, dark, gritty, noir-ish thriller that the British do so well and is ingrained us. The gangster film or the spy film is like our version of the Western. Daniel always maintained that Harry dies at the end, and so when he walks into the subway at the end he made everything white and took out all the cars and the people with CGI. Daniel deleted a shot where  Harry walked into the light. In my script I signified that Harry gets lost in the light, but we decided to make it more open-ended because of the possibility of a sequel. I didn't get pages of notes on this movie. Everyone seemed to just go with it.  

What did you end up removing from the script?
There were a couple of scenes that got cut because of costs. We had a character called Mrs. Singh, who ran a corner shop that Harry went to. Harry saves her from a mugging by killing the mugger, and she doesn't say anything about Harry to the police. The shootout in the underpass was initially a bit more elaborate, with Harry firebombing the kids, but we simplified it. Daniel came up with the idea of the rope around the kid's neck. There were some snips with dialogue. My favourite lost line was Harry saying ''All these kids today, they know their rights but none of them want to take responsibility.''  

Was the original script set in London or Newcastle?
There was no reference to any city. HARRY BROWN wouldn't have happened without GET CARTER (1971), but if we had made it in Newcastle, people would've thought we were just doing 'Get Carter 2'. It became London when Caine said yes. It was sheer coincidence that we filmed on the Highgate estate, around the corner from where Caine grew up. Had Caine turned us down, the next name on the list was Albert Finney, so that would've been Manchester. I told Caine about this at the wrap party and he said ''Alby would've done something interesting.'' Next on the list was Brian Cox, so that would've been Glasgow. 

How did the locals feel about Caine filming there?
There's a shot where Caine walks out of the pub and is followed by Joey Gilligan. If you'd have panned to the left you would've seen a huge mural someone had painted of Caine as Carter, staring down the barrel of a shotgun. I was on set at that time and I remember all the Indian women, young and old, in their saris asking him for an autograph or a picture. I don't think he ever refused. Pretty soon all the tough neighborhood kids turned up and all they wanted to know was ''How did you get out of here?''  

Did you have many opportunities to talk with Caine about the film?
When I first met him he asked me where the story came from. I explained what I had seen growing up and living in Newcastle. He laughed and said ''I had a bit of bother last time I was there!'', referring to GET CARTER. He asked me questions about my grandfather and told me I had gotten the world of the criminals right because he knew the kinds of people in the story. The script just struck a chord with him it seemed.  

Was there anything that particularly surprised you about Caine?
Film sets are the dullest places on Earth so I usually only go for a couple of days. Plus nobody really wants the writer there. and it's just better to let them get on with it. I was there when they were filming the scene of Harry and Len playing chess in the pub. Len asks Harry ''Have you ever killed anyone?'' and Harry responds with ''You can't ask me that.'' Well, Caine would do all these subtle variations of his tone of voice, phrasing or gestures in the takes. He was giving the director all these different choices. He's technically brilliant, and has such command of his craft. He always knew where the camera was. Keith told me that every day Caine would tell a story that seemed innocuous but was helping put him in the right emotional place. When they were filming Harry visiting Len in the hospital, Caine talked to everyone about visiting his mother in hospital. I was surprised at how accessible his emotions are to him. He is very good at sense memory.

How did you feel when Clint Eastwood's GRAN TORINO (2008) beat your film to the theatres?
I grew up watching Clint's movies and am a big fan. I think the film both helped and hindered us. They have surface similarities but they are different movies. Clint had a very different take on his character and the story follows a different path. It's an odd thing, though. Sometimes I hear about people getting asked ''Are you a GRAN TORINO or HARRY BROWN guy?''   

What is your feeling about the divided reaction to the movie?
The movie deliberately sets out to show violence as dark and upsetting because that's how it really is. Caine summed it up well when he said ''HARRY BROWN is about violence''. It's also about the effects violence has on people. Nobody comes out of this movie well. Harry's actions cause a lot of mayhem that just mushroom and he gains nothing in the end. He's on a suicide mission because he has lost everything. Harry even asks the bartender (Liam Cunningham) to kill him because he realises he has gotten the police officer (Emily Mortimer) killed. In the tradition of noir thrillers, HARRY BROWN is a cautionary tale. 

The movie divides people right down the middle. They either like it or are offended by it. I set out to make a violent thriller not a piece of social commentary. That came later as I realised I was touching on things happening in society. The world of the movie is not alien to me. It's outside my window. We could have heightened the violence and gone the Guy Ritchie way, which would've been fine, but that wasn't what we wanted to do and I don't think Caine would've been interested in making that kind of movie. 

Do you feel writers should accept the responsibility of trying to offer solutions if they tackle social issues?
If I genuinely thought I had a solution I would have offered one. I wanted to hold up a mirror to society. I do know there's a huge disenfranchised generation in the UK.  When the film came out I did a couple of Q and A's. At one of them there was a group of kids straight out of the film staring at me throughout from the back row. They later asked me how I knew about their world. They couldn't believe a middle-aged guy from Newcastle could capture their world. They thought their experiences were only valid to them.  

Would you ever consider writing a sequel to HARRY BROWN?
I actually wrote a treatment for a sequel. The first film was about revenge, street violence and youth gangs. The second film was going to be about redemption, vice and pornography. The premise was that an old, dying soldier friend of Harry's turns up on his doorstep from Scotland and wants him to find his teenage granddaughter, who has run away from home and has disappeared into the vice world. The man saved Harry's life in the War and is calling his debt. Harry goes looking and uncovers a conspiracy. At the end of the first film, Harry arguably loses his soul. This was about him gaining it back. Caine was very keen to do it but there were certain financial issues that prevented it from being made. 

How happy are you with the finished film?
Daniel shot my script, which is like music to a screenwriter's ears. I liked the simple style he used. Of all the films I've done, it is the one that I can say looks as I imagined it. I couldn't be any happier with it.  

Have you seen any kind of legacy that the film has left behind?
When the riots happened in London a few years after HARRY BROWN, I was in the city. I got sent a Twitter message that said ''HARRY BROWN - Prediction Not Fiction.'' I also got told that someone had left graffiti on a wall that said ''Harry Brown, where are you when we need you?''   

I spoke to Gary by telephone on 23rd October 2013 and would like to thank him for his time. 
Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2013. All rights reserved.

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