How the agony of adaption took me to the ecstasy of the Empire

19 May 2014

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Dougie Brimson is the screenwriter of Green Street and Top Dog and the best-selling author of 15 fiction and non-ficton books.

There is only one person to thank for my novel Top Dog hitting the screen and the truth is, I have no idea who they are or where they reside. Nor I suspect, does anyone else.

Call it fate, luck or coincidence but when that anonymous soul hit that retweet button and sent Leo Gregory’s name onto my twitter feed, they sent both of our lives off on a journey. A journey which would last a little under 18 months later and would end with the two of us accepting awards at the British Independent Film Festival in London’s Leicester Square.

Now I could go into a long winded account of exactly how that happened but I won’t because if you wrote it in a novel, it would be laughed at as being too far fetched. Even I struggle to believe it sometimes and I lived through it. So the short version is that I was looking for someone to attach to a comedy script I’d written called Wings of a Sparrow and when Leo’s name suddenly popped up, it struck me that he was the ideal man for the job. I immediately fired off a tweet and thankfully, he remembered me from Green Street so we arranged to meet. That’s when we had the idea to adapt one of my early novels, Top Dog.

Within a matter of a week or so, Leo had managed to blag a meeting with producer Jonathan Sothcott who, having enjoyed success with White Collar Hooligan and Fall of the Essex Boys amongst others, seemed the perfect fit for the project. Thankfully, he also liked the premise and so I sent him a copy of the novel which he loved. So much so that on 6 January 2013, he called me and told me to get working on a script because we were going to make it. That was that and the rest, as they say, is history.

Yes, I know that makes it all sound easy and it was of course, far from that, especially for me. I might well have enjoyed some success as an author but I’m no screenwriter. OK, I wrote Green Street which didn’t do too badly, but I’ve got by purely on a talent for winging it and whilst that’s hardly unique, adapting one’s own novel for the screen is an entirely different ball game. One that involved overcoming challenges I hadn’t even considered when I set to work.

The greatest obstacle to me was letting go. Top Dog is actually the sequel to my first novel, The Crew, and I wrote that in 1999. As a consequence, the central characters are like old mates to me. I know what they look, sound and even think like. Yet suddenly, Billy Evans wasn’t the chubby cockney who I knew and loved, he was Leo Gregory. When you write visually, as I do, that’s a really tough thing to get your head around.

We also had to change the location of the movie from the East End to North London (the UK really doesn’t need another movie about West Ham and Millwall) which meant getting to know different locations and even different histories.

But equally as difficult was the process of deciding what to leave out. The novel actually features three distinct threads which come together at the end in quite dramatic fashion so I had to find a way to take the viewer on the same recognisable journey as the reader but without using the bulk of the book. Trust me, when every single word has a function, that isn’t easy. In truth, it was a major struggle.

However, I realised fairly quickly that there was only one way to do it and that was to do what I would normally do and focus not on what I wanted, but on what the director wanted. For as any screenwriter worth his salt must surely know, the second they hand over a script, be it to a producer or a director, it becomes theirs. Lock, stock and smouldering barrel.


Thankfully, the man I handed it to was musician and actor Martin Kemp who from day one, let me know exactly what he wanted to do with it. From that point on it was about bouncing ideas around to get it to that point but that’s not to say it was easy, it certainly wasn’t. Sitting and listening to your work being ripped to shreds gives new meaning to the term soul-destroying but -and this is the lesson I’d give to any writer who finds themselves in the same position- when you are confident in the people doing the shredding and know that all they want to do is to get the best out of you, it becomes an incredible learning experience. More so when that trust is reciprocated and you are working with someone who is receptive to ideas and input as Martin thankfully was.

By the time we signed off on a shooting script, I think we had done something like nine full rewrites and whilst it captured the essence of the novel, it was in many ways quite different. It was at that point that I finally went back into author mode and for the first time began to wonder how this might sit with my readers. They’ve been incredibly loyal and supportive of my work over the years and the last thing I would ever want to do is alienate them in any way.

However, after talking to a few mates and being told to get a grip on myself, I decided to follow their advice and instead, settled back to enjoy the experience of the shoot. And what an experience it was.

Watching great actors at work is an amazing thing (and we had GREAT actors on Top Dog) but as Martin had drummed into me, they are at their best when the writer leaves them room to actually act because that’s how they bring scripts to life. So that’s what I did, and boy, did they deliver.

Indeed it’s no exaggeration to say that I learnt more about how scripts work by listening to Martin and the actors than I ever did anywhere else and the feeling of looking on as scenes I’d played out in my head a million times unfolded in 3D in front of my very eyes was indescribable. More so when they worked, looked and sounded exactly, and I mean exactly, as I had imagined them.

But without wishing to sound arrogant, the best thing about the whole process for me was much more personal. For there is something very special about being on a film set surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things and knowing that they’re only there because of you. Not because it’s a power trip (it isn’t) but because it’s validation for all the hours, days, weeks and months spent at a keyboard.

I’m fairly certain that all writers have doubts about their ability, I know I do, but trust me when I tell you that nothing will ever dispel them faster than the sound of a director saying ‘Cut! That’s brilliant’. Mind you, ‘The winner is… ‘ comes close.

Which brings me nicely to where we are now. A flurry of screenings, press, social media and thankfully, congratulations. At the aforementioned awards Top Dog took best feature, best actor, best supporting actor and best supporting actress. That’ll do nicely thanks.

Would I do it again? Are you nuts! I already have. Even as I’m sitting here typing this I have another movie shooting in East London.

So if perchance the person who retweeted that tweet onto my timeline is reading this,  I owe you a debt greater than I can ever repay. Because this, all of this, really is all down to you.

Top Dog is out to own on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 26th May through Universal Pictures