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SPADA 2010: in conversation with Neil Cross

At the first SPADA conference I attended, the guest writer from the other side of the globe was Jimmy McGovern, creator of (and scriptwriter for) the highly regarded TV series Cracker. McGovern was so inspirational that any other writer appearing in this type of environment would have a lot to live up to! But in ex-pat-Brit Neil Cross, Finlay Macdonald found an equally energetic, intelligent and passionate interviewee, with a full bag of anecdotes, quips and one-liners.

Cross is a novelist (eight so far) and more recently a TV scriptwriter, best known for the series Spooks, and his latest success, Luther. With Spooks, Cross went from being a total newbie to being Head Writer in just two series.

How did Cross manage to be so prolific? No friends, no social life, and living in Wellington’s Crofton Downs. “I just don’t do anything else, that’s it.”

In it for the money? Yes… But also for the fear – fear of deadlines – deadlines are good for ideas! Cross points out though that the ideas for the horrible things that happen in his scripts are not things he’d like to do; rather they’re things he’s afraid someone might do to him!

Luther is a blend of every crime show Cross has ever seen. The series Columbo, featuring Peter Falk, has been an inspiration – this led to the comment that American crime writing is about solving a problem, while British crime writing is about restoring order, usually with the involvement of an upper-class eccentric. In Luther, however, the twist is that each story starts with the audience seeing the crime, and the criminal, and therefore is always ahead of the protagonist.

Cross noted how the audience has over the years become more sophisticated: in 1974, for example, Starsky and Hutch had only one story strand; in 1984 Dallas had two or three; while in 1994 E.R. had many strands running. Cross’s maxim is “Trust your audience!” – hence the decision not to subtitle Luther, despite the difficult accents used.

Genre labels? For Cross, the only true difference is between good and bad writers.

So what would be a perfect script in Cross’s eyes? Something that’s a product of love, and not cynicism. Genuine emotion in an audience is sparked only by something genuine on the screen.

Moving from novels to scriptwriting was an accident. On Robert McKee’s book: “Some love it, some hate it. I was mystified by it.” So Cross decided to teach himself, by adapting one of his own novels. He soon learnt the golden rule: All a script tells you is Who, Where, and What They Say.

He has also leant over the years to remember, especially whenever he feels like throwing a hissy fit, that he’s spending someone else’s money – and that screenwork is expensive!

The statement that the English never get away from perpetual embarrassment about everything led to the question: Did he bring any particular sensibilities to NZ? Cross honestly doesn’t know – but he notices he’s changed since being here. Whether that’s a specific result of being in NZ, or just growing older, he cannot say…

Cross has been working with Guillermo del Toro on Midnight Delivery. On the recommendation of an assistant, del Toro read one of Cross’s novels. “Find me the writer!” “He’s in Wellington.” “No way!”
What does Cross like about del Toro? “He knows everything – he’s seen everything. He knows the names of individual episodes of Columbo!”

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