The Long And Winding Road Of The Barber Barney Thomson To The Big Screen
24 July 2015
One morning in November 1998 a letter arrived from the screen agent Rod Hall. There was a lot of movie interest in my yet-to-be-published first book The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson. An American producer had already made an offer, and several other companies were also seriously looking at it. It was the beginning of a process that would take almost seventeen years to come to fruition.
The week after the letter arrived I went up to London to meet Rod and hear the latest news on the rights sale. It was a Friday afternoon. He said that at that very minute people at Tribeca, Robert De Niro’s company, were reading the book in New York. They’d given them a deadline, as we already had an offer on the table, so they were expecting the call at any moment. We all sat around for a few minutes, staring at the phone as though it was going to ring that second. No one actually said the words De Niro could be Barney Thomson, but they hung in the air like heavily pregnant stardust.
De Niro didn’t call. Too busy signing up for The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.
The film option was taken by a fellow named Martin Rosen, who had written, produced and directed the movie Watership Down. I went up to London to meet him and his business partner in the enterprise, James Lee. As I sat down the conversation began:
‘Hi, I’m Douglas.’
‘Great to meet you. How are we going to make Barney more likeable for a film audience?’
The book was published a few months later. Reviews were great, sales not so much. It never cracked anyone’s top ten. There was decent publicity over the launch, because the publishers were able to announce a six-figure movie deal, which sounded exciting for a first book. Of course, the six figures were only ever going to happen if the movie got made, but no one wanted to hear that.
Newspapers just wanted to imply that some poor schmuck who was more or less eating cockroaches for breakfast that morning, was now driving a Ferrari and flushing the toilet using leftover bottles of Chablis.
I was interviewed by John Kay for BBC South West and had the spirit-draining experience of unexpectedly hearing myself on Five Live while driving home from work that evening.
The producers and I discussed the movie several times over lunch, which was great fun. The movie didn’t seem to be getting made, but these guys were good company, had been around the business for decades, they had a tonne of stories and as I sat there in various London bars and restaurants, it felt like I was in the film business.
A year later the Scottish director David Mackenzie was attached to the project, and David and I went out to a large farmhouse in Kent to finally get the ball rolling on the movie. At the end of another lunch, I was sent away with my final instructions on writing the script.
‘How long will you need?’ asked Martin.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m writing a book at the moment, we have a one year-old and my wife’s eight months pregnant, and I’ve got a nine to five job, which involves a couple of hours travel every day.’
‘Great, you’ve got a month.’
I wrote the script, and Martin went out to the business looking for funds. For the independent producer this is the classic Catch-22 moment. It’s hard to get funding without names attached, it’s hard to get names without the funding. All Martin had were David, who was just directing his first film at the time, and me, who’d written a couple of books that no one had really paid any attention to.
David was also trying to get his movie Young Adam underway, starring Ewan McGregor. This led to the notion, popular with the producers, that he could persuade the then twenty-nine year old McGregor, to play Barney, a dour man in his fifties. So that never happened.
Martin and James tried for a few years, but the movie never got made. I had a great call from my agent near the end of this period; James had met someone at a party who’d told him that Robin Williams was keen to make a movie in Scotland. The plan was to get Billy Connolly on board, he would rope in his mate Robin, and then if we could also get Sean Connery, that’d be perfect.
Filmmakers usually start with a fantasy cast and work their way down, so this was either a brilliant and opportunistic plan set to unexpectedly pull the movie out the bag, or ludicrous wishful thinking borne of desperation.
I doubt Robin Williams ever saw the script. Or Connolly or Connery for that matter.
By this time, the book had come to the end of its print run and the publishers, who had given up on the movie, decided not to reprint. At round about the same time my literary agent went off to repair motorcycles in France and never came back. Meanwhile, Rod Hall had shown a total lack of enthusiasm for everything else I’d written.
This was the point in any movie when everything seems lost. There was not, however, a hastily compiled thirty-second montage scene to rescue the situation.
Glasgow’s Sigma Films had become interested in the project through David, and now they took up the option. They let it be known from the beginning, however, that I wouldn’t be writing the script. It took a while for the details to come together, further set back by the death of Rod Hall, but they finally took the option in early 2005.
As for how things were developed at Sigma, I have to pull a Jon Snow. My understanding was that they wanted to make the movie with Ford Keirnan, but I’ve no idea how close that came to happening.
When the option was up at the end of the year, Sigma chose not to renew it, and that was the end of their interest.
A few years previously I’d also taken a call from a fellow who was, at the time, working as First Assistant Director on motion picture event, Scooby Doo 2 – Monsters Unleashed. He was interested in the rights, but would be totally independent and obviously starting from scratch, and Rod had preferred to hang around to get the deal done with Sigma.
Rich Cowan, the Scooby Doo guy, came looking for the book a few times, and eventually, when Sigma were out the picture, my new agent did the deal.
I knew that Rich wanted to write the script, but I sent him an e-mail at the start of proceedings hoping that at the very least he’d want to do lunch. However, he was in Vancouver and I was in Warsaw, and a shared dining experience was never really an option.
Years passed. Newspapers filled up with stories of people getting book deals and some of those book deals were accompanied by film deals. We sat at home eating gruel and beans, like characters in a Springsteen song, talking about the glory days, with our memories of John Kay and that time I’d been on the news.
Every August Rich would renew his option, and for one month of the year I’d make more money that my wife. I could do things like take her out for dinner and pay for the shopping. Every August Rich would sound optimistic, with updates on actors they were hoping to get involved and producers who were interested.
Robert Carlyle was first mentioned five years ago, in the same sentence as Ewan McGregor (again). [This was in an e-mail from exec producer Doug Apatow, that also name-checked Geoffrey Rush, Tim Roth and Robbie Coltrane.] At the time Carlyle was just another star name to add to the list, and it was hard at first to imagine him as Barney Thomson, who in my head had always been more of a Ken Stott type of character.
Unexpectedly, however, Robert Carlyle was also mentioned the following August, and this time there was talk of him directing the film.
Another year passed. Generally, as these years went, I would hear nothing. Life went on. I wrote other books. My kids got older and started beating me at sport. We moved country.
In August 2012 Rich sounded at his most optimistic, with the bold statement that they hoped to shoot the film the following spring. Carlyle would definitely be starring and directing.
Spring 2013 came and went without any further news.
We got the same e-mail in August 2013. Hoping to shoot next spring, in between gaps in filming for Carlyle’s US TV show, Once Upon A Time.
The first hint that things might be a little different that year arrived in the autumn. For the previous seven years Rich, my agent and I had worked off the same basic two-page option contract. Now, suddenly, came a much more detailed contract, written in small print, over pages too numerous to mention, looking like just the kind of thing that an actual Hollywood movie lawyer would write in order to earn his $10,000/hour. It talked of movie rights being guaranteed in “the entire universe” and detailed the font size my name would be in the credits, it listed how many times I could visit the set and how many tickets I’d get to the premiere.
Still, by this point, it had been fifteen years since the rights had first been sold, so no one was getting carried away.
One day the following January, we discovered a Canadian movie website that listed the Barney Thomson project as being taken to the Berlin film festival for networking purposes, and that it would be starring Carlyle, Emma Thompson, Ewan Bremner and Ray Winstone. That evening, Variety had the news, it was all over the Internet, and then shortly afterwards, Rich wrote to tell me about it.
Despite the great cast, there has never been a major movie studio attached to the project, so at no time have the producers been able to take anything for granted. Funding went down to the wire, but finally they managed to get the shoot underway last June.
They only had Carlyle for a few weeks, before he had to return to Canada for OUAT filming; they only had Emma Thompson for a few days; they lost Ewan Bremner; they had to share Ray Winstone with the Point Break remake. In the end, however, they got the job done in a few hectic weeks in Glasgow and thereabouts.
I went to visit the set once, even though it was written in my Hollywood contract that I could go six times if I chose. They filmed outside Barrowland, late at night, as the drunks spilled out the pubs, and the crew worried over getting the scenes done before daylight appeared and ruined the quality of the darkness.
There it was, my book being turned into a film. And Robert Carlyle was Barney Thomson, right enough. Edgy and alone, hapless, a bit useless but not really all that bad a barber. Just the kind of guy that bad shit happens to. That’s all.
The film opened the Edinburgh Film Festival last month, some twenty years after the book was written and over sixteen and a half years since the film option was first taken.
Despite this, I’ve been pretty lucky. Most books are never even considered for film in the first place. Who knows how many crime novels there actually are, particularly in Scotland where we seem very partial to them? Thousands? Ten of thousands? My fear throughout the process wasn’t so much that Rich Cowan, co-producer John Lenic and Robert Carlyle wouldn’t be able to get the film made, just more that they’d find something else to do in the meantime, another story would grab their attention, and off they’d go leaving Barney behind for someone else to start all over again from the beginning.
They stayed the course, however, suffering for their art far more than I have done sitting on the writer’s substitutes bench all this time.
And so we come to it at last – as Gandalf The White would say if he could be with us now – the great barbershop movie of our time. The Legend of Barney Thomson.