A writer for film, television and radio, David Lemon’s second feature, Containment, premiered at the 2015 East End Film Festival and has been critically acclaimed by publications including The Guardian, Sight and Sound and Total Film. He is also the writer of Faintheart, a feature comedy starring Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner and Jessica Hynes. His radio work includes The Man In Black, starring Mark Gatiss.
GR: Legend has it (well, IMDb does) that you once had a story read on the BBC Childrens’ series Jackanory. Tell us about that.
DL: I did indeed (full disclosure: I put it on IMDb myself in an effort to appear more colourful, like a delightful child prodigy in a Wes Anderson film. Now it just gives my age away). It was a story called the ‘Bloated Buffoon of Blotch Street’ and followed the adventures of a kid who ate a lot. This was before gastric bands, Jamie Oliver and self-loathing. It was read out on TV and everything. I was an extremely happy nine-year-old, though I had hoped they’d use my drawings instead of a professional grown up illustrator. I also wished Kenneth Williams had read it, but he was too busy doing ‘Will O’ The Wisp’ and being desperately unhappy.
What was your next writing gig after Jackanory?
That was a lot later. After art college I got on a sort of apprenticeship scheme at Carlton Television (don’t look for it. It’s no longer there. However, David Cameron apparently worked there so you can guess by the scorched black earth where once it stood).
As part of that I got the chance to pitch to the heads of the drama, factual, entertainment and childrens’ departments. Luckily for me, I was the only one to pitch to Childrens’ ITV. The idea became my first commission. It never got made, but when they were making a series based on Malroie Blackman’s Whizziwig series, I managed to get a couple of episodes. This got me an agent and gigs on other shows such as Doctors (tip: If you get the chance to write for it, call it a ‘continuing drama’ rather than a ‘soap’ as it sounds posher).
What was it like writing the screenplay for Faintheart, “the world’s first MySpace movie”, and how did you come to be part of the project?
Ah, MySpace. As timeless as the music of Babylon Zoo…
Faintheart started life as a pilot for a TV series. I’d always been fascinated by battle re-enactors (I spent a bit too much of my childhood pretending to be Robin Of Sherwood) and thought the idea was rich in comic potential. By the time MySpace became involved the feature version of this story was already being developed by a company called Slingshot Studios (again, don’t look for them, they’re not there.) and we were several drafts in. While the involvement of MySpace, Film 4 etc. meant our micro-budget project became a slightly more lavish prospect -and we got a terrific cast in Eddie Marsan, Jessica Hynes, Ewen Bremner, Anne Reid- it also became billed as a film ‘written by MySpace.’
Leaving aside how a film could be written by everyone on MySpace (okay in 2015 that’s probably the case as it’s probably just everyone’s ‘first friend’ Tom on there now), this was a tiny bit annoying as I wrote every word. Still it did mean more visibility for what became my first produced feature (out of an ‘oeuvre’ that now stands at two).
You’ve written a fair bit of radio for the BBC. How do you find working in that medium, and do you think radio drama has a future?
Radio’s wonderful for writers. For a start, they want you there during production and you have an active role to play as last minute tweaks and edits aren’t nearly as difficult as in film or TV. It’s a much more relaxed process with the actors happy to be cast solely on how they sound rather than how they look. For example, on radio David Tennant could play Louis Armstrong along with Mrs Armstrong and all the little Armstrongs. Such is its magic. Seriously though, I love it. There’s vast scope and far fewer hoops to jump through before something gets made.
My first commission was for an episode of long-running horror series called The Man In Black. The titular character (think Rod Serling by way of Roald Dahl) was the ridiculously clever and prolific Mark Gatiss, though sadly I never got to meet him as all his intros and outros were, understandably, recorded all at once.
Given Mr Gatiss’ comedy pedigree, I pitched a few spoofy ideas their way, assuming that was more in keeping with the series’ tone. In the end, it was a pretty bleak tale of a grieving Mum working in a self-storage facility that got commissioned. It was called ‘Containment’ but has nothing whatsoever to do with the subsequent film, which shows how rubbish I am at titles.
As to Radio drama’s future, I think there’s definitely one as it’s a medium that’s never really gone away. As well as the BBC (thankfully) continuing to invest in new comedy and drama there are also podcasts such as Welcome to Nightvale which have introduced a whole load of new people to the delights of having an invisible person (or people) whisper in your ear.
You wrote the recent movie Containment, a quarantine thriller that’s been described by Starburst Magazine as, “Stark, brittle, disquieting and with an ending to rival The Mist for bleakness.” Tell us a little about Containment’s journey from page to screen.
Containment came about through one of the film’s producers, the lovely and incredibly hard-working Christine Hartland, putting me in touch with director Neil McEnery West, who turned out to be brilliant, a lovely chap and not nearly as posh as his name would suggest.
He had the idea of a man trapped in his flat, but hadn’t yet worked out why and how. Together we worked up the story of a very ordinary man -a failed artist rather than some Liam Neeson type guy with a ‘special set of skills’- trapped inside by a mysterious group of people wearing hazmat (hazardous materials) suits. We wanted it to be a sort of social realist disaster movie; Ken Loach’s Cloverfield. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Where did the inspiration from Containment come from?
During production, I was a little concerned that it might look as if we were somehow ‘cashing in’ on the Ebola crisis (for the record we were several drafts in before the news reports really kicked in). Whilst you can’t exactly inoculate yourself from rolling news, the real inspiration for Neil and myself came from the likes of early John Carpenter (we both worship at the altar of The Thing), George Romero and JG Ballard’s High Rise (can’t wait to see what Ben Wheatley’s done with it). We also loved low/micro-budget features that made their limited perspectives part of the story. Right at Your Door and the Canadian horror Pontypool were definite sources of inspiration.
What were the main things you learned from working on this project?
Perhaps the main thing is that when you work with people you like and trust -which was definitely the case on Containment- you should try to repeat the experience again as soon as possible. It also brought home just how important casting is. We were lucky to get a brilliant group together who each gave it their all, from our lead Lee Ross to Sheila Reid. She was Clara Oswald’s Nan. And she was in Brazil!
What advice would you give to someone starting out in screenwriting who wants to see their film made?
Finally, don’t try to chase trends. If you write a screwball stoner zombie flick it has to be because you genuinely love screwball stoner zombie flicks.
Have you ever tried your handsome hand at writing a book?
Writing a novel is something I’ve long talked about… and very little else. Whilst I love reading, especially genre stuff (read M.R Carey’s The Girl With all the Gifts before the movie comes out; it’s a masterpiece), I find the prospect both exciting and terrifying.
Unlike the ‘blueprint’ of a script, the novel is sort of everything, isn’t it? You have to paint the whole picture in detail. And so many words. I’ll probably take a ‘nursery slope’ approach with a few short stories then expand the one that’s the best/least terrible. And eat a lot of Jaffa Cakes in the process (if McVities wish to send me free Jaffa Cakes I would not be offended).
What’s next in the pipeline?
I’m writing a drama for Radio 4 as part of their ‘Dangerous Visions’ season of dystopian sci-fi. I also have a genre-y sitcom in development with a company called Hat Trick and have a couple of feature projects on the go; one with Containment director Neil McEnery West.
How much money did you make last year (after taxes)?
Not nearly as much as the ermine onesie I’m currently wearing would suggest.
Finally, what question do you wish I’d asked but didn’t?
“Why did you write all of Breaking Bad on your own, under a pseudonym?”
Containment’s official site is HERE.
The DVD is available in the US/Canada and in the UK.