The Intel: Tom Grass

Tom GrassWe reviewed Tom Grass’s high-octane re-imagining of Twist last week. It’s a clever heist thriller full of jumping and climbing and driving set on the streets and rooftops of London, as Twist, Fagin, Dodge and the gang take down some greedy art dealers.

We described it as Oliver Twist meets GTA, Grass describes it as Oliver Twist meets Point Break — we’ll split the difference.

Grass is a fascinating man, with a career in movies and computer games, and he’s got some interesting things to say about updating a classic novel, about the evolution of London — and about reimagining The Smoke all the way from Rwanda,

And, of course, he gives the lowdown on his writing process. Tom Grass gives the intel on Twist…

Where did you get the idea for a contemporary version of the Dickens classic?

While I was working at Pure Grass films with my brother, TV producer Ben we were always looking for good stories to turn into web series and films. At that time we met a pair of young creatives called the Lynch Brothers who had had the idea of combining ‘Oliver Twist’ with ‘Point Break.’ I worked with them brainstorming how that could actually work. Substituting the big wave surfing of the with parkour and armed bank robberies with art heists was the easy bit. Far harder was bringing Dickens characters to life in contemporary London in a way that made sense.

What is it about those characters – Twist, Dodge, Fagin, Sikes — that makes them ripe for updating?

Jaguar cars did an ad recently that asked why the best Hollywood villains are played by Brits? No surprise that my favourite actor in the ad is Ben Kingsley who played Fagin in Roman Polanski’s film version of ‘Oliver Twist.’

In Sebastian Faulks’ book on fiction, he selects a whole section on villains and chooses Fagin, that “loathsome reptile” as his favourite because he displays those traits that he finds most despicable in himself;  the laziness, the greediness, the lies, the squalor…

So there’s something in that self recognition but also in the relationship the boys have with their false father figure which transcends national boundaries so that the archetypal British villain has become a template for gang masters everywhere (just re-watch Slumdog Millionaire if you don’t believe me!).

And he’s one of our best loved villains because he’s not all bad (as compared with say; Sauron or Richard III). A survivor/scavenger whose function is to redistribute wealth in a grossly unequal society.

The counterpoint to his low down ways in the original story is Oliver. As a character Oliver is too young in the original to be much more than a foil. An innocent child whose innocence and good nature act as a touchstone to the villainy around him.

But by making him older I had to be sure that the audience would identify with him. Not by making him a cool graffiti kid but as someone who is alone and hungry and desperately wants to belong. To be part of a gang – to be a member of a family.

Who hasn’t needed a father figure at one time or another to bring us in out of the cold and give us a job and put a bottle of gin in our hand?

As in the Dickens original, the London in your novel is a place of huge contrasts in wealth – the action roams from Newham to Mayfair. Do you seem many similarities between modern London and the city from Dickensian times?

I was nervous about setting Oliver’s squat in an abandoned council estate in Newham because I didn’t want to upset anyone, but a year on my choice seems to have been vindicated.

The young mothers of Focus E15 who are fighting for their right to live in decent, local social housing in Newham, the place where they grew up are not alone. People are being displaced every day from boroughs across London and being told that if they can’t afford to live there, they’ll have to go.

At the same time in Mayfair, you have big properties owned by foreigners who never live in them standing empty and artificially buoying house price rises while young people sleep rough on the street.

So to answer your question – has London changed? Yes, in many extraordinary and good ways (just think about the London Underground and the sewage system) but the song remains the same in terms of the gulf between the rich and the poor as those on low and middle incomes are being driven out in a relentless wave of gentrification.

TwistTwist is also a heist thriller about the robbery of lost artworks – how difficult was it to come up with a clever scam?

Planning a good heist involves team work and I was lucky enough to work with a great British crime screenwriter called John Wrathall plotting the set ups in the novel.

Research was very helpful but also posed a big question of authenticity. I read an excellent book called ‘Hot Art’ which described the career of the character who most resembled Fagin, a poacher turned gamekeeper who now advises clients and police forces around the world when they seek to recover stolen works of art.

His own career describes a threshold of value for art work at around the £100,000 mark above which it’s impossible to sell on work without being detected on one of the international missing art databases.

The notion of stealing priceless works is a bit of a tall order in real life so when it does happen, like the theft of Munch’s ‘Scream’ from Oslo’s ‘Munch’ museum, it is rare and tends to be carried out by armed robbers who then try to either claim a reward or get the owner to pay a ransom.

And because I wanted to move away from violent crime we had to think about using confidence trickery to pull off something more subtle, the kind of thing audiences’ loved in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’

Getting the plans for Losberne’s art gallery from the architect across the road was a good place to start and involved some play acting from Fagin and Dodge then Nancy seducing the gallery owner.

The actual parkour isn’t actually useful in breaking and entering the buildings but in getting away from the cops after the thefts have taken place. This is especially true of the end of Twist when Dodge and Twist have to use the elevator shafts to escape detection before zero jumping from the observation floor.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I was working on ‘Twist’ I was living in Rwanda. I used to get up at 6am every day and be at my desk with a big pot of coffee by 7am at the latest. The work would carry on until mid afternoon when I’d clock off and send emails and manage my other projects.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Whereas in film, the director imposes his own vision on the script, in which character is expressed in action and dialogue, in a novel one is forced to describe everything in words (including the thoughts that are going on in your characters head).

This is hard work especially on bad days when what you put down on paper bears absolutely no resemblance to the idea that is in your head!

How do you deal with feedback?

Feedback from the publisher on Twist was amazing but sometimes it can be so unhelpful.  The worst kind is when you get lots of issues but no solutions to these problems.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

When I started to write Twist I read a lot of Elmore Leonard. He’s a genius at dialogue. Read: Killshot.

I also read a lot of Lee Child as preparation. He says he never plots his books and writes each page fresh as if he were reading it for the first time. He also says he’s written all his books stoned, but please don’t try this at home kids.

I’m a big fan of Stephen Pressfield. An American military historical novelist who fought in Vietnam as a US marine and really understands how and why armies fight from the grunt’s eye view up. Read: Gates of Fire (the story of Thermopylae). Superb research that lets you into the mind of a Spartan warrior.

Give me some advice about writing…

When asked the secret of his success, the legendary Lancashire fell runner and sheep farmer Joss Naylor would say:

‘Just gid on wid it.’

A little regularly is better than big lumps late at night or at weekends. Of course not having children helps.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a TV treatment for Twist. I’ve also just finished the script of my first comic – a Viking supernatural adventure called ‘STORM’ which I’m co-creating as a TV series with Jake Michie (creator of BBC’s ‘Merlin’).

History is full of stories. You just have to know where to look.

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