Noel Clarke’s a funny guy. Inspiring, too. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival at the end of October, the one-man British film industry was asked if he saw himself primarily as a writer, an actor or a director. “I see myself as a bill-payer,” was his pragmatic answer. “I only wanted to be an actor at first, then I realised it wasn’t going to pay the bills.”
That’s especially true for a black actor. “I’d be reading for the part of Bank Robber No 2, or Gang member No 1. Then, finally a character with a name! Yes! You’d look (through the script) – what’s his first line? Oh. ‘Open the safe!’”
He started to think, auditioning for these scripts, that even he could write better. “And after a while, you have to stop complaining and start doing it.”
He wrote three or four spec screenplays – science-fiction, multiple-narrative drama — but the first that got made was Kidulthood. No one would back it at first. “They all said, ‘take out the swearing. Kids don’t behave like that, our kids certainly don’t.’ I told them, ‘I f***ing think they might do!’”
So his team cobbled some cash together independently, mostly from the owner of a coffee shop. People liked the finished film, edgy and raw as it was, but no one dared release it. It sat on the shelf for nearly two years before finding a distributor who thought they could at least get some money from DVD sales. And the fact that Noel Clarke had landed a role in the relaunched Doctor Who didn’t hurt – another reason to diversify.
The film was a cult hit. I doubt there’s a teenager in south London who hasn’t seen it. Now, Noel thought, he could get his other scripts produced. Wrong. They kept asking, “But where’s your voice?” Meaning, why don’t you stick to writing inner-city gang films? So eventually, he gave them what they wanted: Adulthood, a low-budget sequel that made an impressive £3.7m, which he also directed.
Only now, finally, can he get other projects made: Storage 24 (sci-fi), The Knot (rom-com) and Fast Girls (sports drama) all came out this summer. Even so, he says, you have to just keep writing. He has two co-writers, and together they churn out half a dozen screenplays a year, in order to get one made.
He gave me some one-on-one time after the panel, and it’s heartening how he dares to dream big: Storage 24 was made very much with an eye to global sales on a micro-budget, and has now sold, he proudly says, in every territory in the world, including China and America. He was recently in LA for two months, acting in the new Star Trek, setting up meetings of his own. “If I was of a lighter persuasion,” he admits, “yeah, I would be living in the ‘H’ in ‘Hollywood’.”
But for now, fortunately, he’s staying. His energy is infectious. If there’s one message scriptwriters can take home, it’s don’t be precious. Write a bunch of spec screenplays, including one calling-card script that is your “unique voice”. Keep plugging away, and one day you too will have some project power. Until then, dream big.