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Screenwriter Louis Mellis on Starting Out and What an Idea Is

The guy who wrote the film Sexy Beast has a story in our June Fiction Issue, so we had fiction writer April Ayers Lawson interview him. As suspected, he's brilliant and...

by April Ayers Lawson
Jun 24 2014, 2:03pm

Illustration by Geffen Refaeli

When I called movie stores asking if they had the 2000 film Sexy Beast I was initially embarrassed because to me it sounded like a porno. I had never heard of the film but the second video store manager I spoke with sighed and said, “Oh, that’s a good one,” and then in a tone of newfound respect agreed to hold it behind the counter until I could come by to get it in the evening. Still I felt doubtful. I knew that it was about gangsters. I didn’t care about gangsters. Yet from the moment it began, with the character Gal, played by Ray Winstone, lying in front of his pool in a yellow man-bikini, I was hooked. A former safe-cracker who has retired to an idyll in Spain, Gal is blonde, middle-aged, bloated, and hot. He seems happy.  You get the feeling something strange and (most likely) bad is about to happen to him. It does: A boulder falls from the mountainside right into his pool. No doubt, one suspects, an omen of what is to come. Before long, you understand that the blissful existence he has found in Spain, with his beautiful former porn-star wife Deedee and friends (a fellow criminal-retiree Aitch and his wife Jackie) is about to be disrupted by the arrival of Don, a psychopath played by Ben Kingsley, who wants to wrap Gal into a bank heist. The style of the film is dream-like, sometimes nightmarish, with a nonlinear narrative structure and, at times, a Shakespearean tone. Don’s irritation with the happiness of the others—his clearly meaning to disturb it, and his obsession with Jackie, the wife of Aitch—is chemically explosive, and in response to him each of the characters seems to become electrified.

Louis Mellis, who along with David Scinto wrote the screenplay for Sexy Beast, was born in Edinburgh. He moved to London when he was 16 and worked as a rat-catcher, zoo-keeper, gardener, door-to-door salesman, barman, and chef, and then went to drama school and became an actor. He stopped acting in 1991 and has been writing ever since. He is now writing the film The Pleasure (set in England and France in 1792) and a pilot for an HBO series called SSSucker (in which a ripped off inventor seeks revenge). Soon he will be directing his own film, Respectable. Louis's story "We're Watching the Trees" was published in our June fiction issue.

VICE: What is the origin of Sexy Beast? What inspired you to write it?
Louis Mellis: A passing thought. A whim becomes an idea. A "what if?" Is there a film in it? A story worth telling? If such a notion stands up to scrutiny after being examined from various angles and it is decided that it could make a film—I like to think that the film it will become is already out there floating in the ether, waiting to be written. And it's the screenwriter's task to find it and hone it and get it down on paper as a set of clearly discernible plans.

Sexy Beast was the middle film of a trilogy planned by myself and my then writing partner David Scinto, sandwiched between Gangster No. 1 (which we originally wrote as a stageplay) and 44 Inch Chest. We wrote the screenplay for Gangster No. 1 and had Jonathan Glazer on board to direct but the situation became untenable and all three of us walked. Rare I guess on a first film, which I've still not seen. So we had to come up with something quick or that would have been that. David and I locked ourselves away for three weeks and wrote Sexy Beast. The initial idea was how possible is it for someone to "split the program." To escape from the past and create an idyll in Spain. What are the human logistics?

So you began writing for the stage? How did that lead to the screenplay? Did someone encourage you to make it into a film?
We were approached to make the stageplay Gangster No. 1 into a film and wrote several drafts, which for legal reasons could not be used.

May I ask what happened that made you all three walk?
Simplest thing to say RE the three of us walking away from Gangster No. 1 is "artistic differences." Because it was our first film we were expected to put up with all manner of ridiculousness RE casting, tone, themes, etc. These stuck in our throats and so we left them to it (and walked into the London snow).

I can’t imagine how much pressure you must have felt to write it in three weeks. That’s amazing. Would you describe what those three weeks were like and how you felt at the end of the time period?
I remember the three-week period during which Sexy Beast was born as intense, manic, fun. We had no idea what the film would be—it started with a guy basking in the Spanish heat and from there we improvised most of the rest. Fortuitously it flowed and as is always the best way, it "wrote itself." Incidentally both films wrapped on the same day, so we were in effect in competition with our own work. 

Often writers get credit when in reality they've merely been the conduit. i.e., the classic question: "How did you get the idea?" is impossible. An idea comes from nowhere. The "work" bit is getting it down.

Did you set out to write characters that were gangsters? Or did what you want to write about end up requiring gangsters?
I think the attraction of working in the gangster genre is that the characters and situations can easily become more Shakespearean than in, say, a rom-com.

Now that you mention Shakespeare, I see that very much in both Sexy Beast and 44 Inch Chest. What are your favorite Shakespeare plays? Did specific ones influence these films?
I have no particular favorites amongst Shakespeare's plays—maybe there's a bit of Iago in Don Logan?

Do you know any gangsters
Can't say I fraternize with gangsters (or would want to). Interestingly amongst the criminal fraternity of thieves, pick-pockets, con-men etc., gangsters have always been looked down on as the lowest of the low: unskilled, no-class, gaining only through violence, and lacking expertise.

Whose idea was it to have Don pee on the rug in the bathroom? This crystallizes something about his character for me. And maybe part of the reason this interests me is that a woman would never do that. It just wouldn’t occur to her. 
Don Logan in SB peeing on the rug came out in an improvisation between myself and David Scinto (as did most of that film). It's petty, mean-spirited, child-like, cat-like (spraying). Territorial. Would a woman do the same? Don't see why not if she was Don-like in demeanor.

What was it like to write with a partner? What would you say to other writers who were wondering if this is the way to go? (I have noticed that with screenplays people often partner, but this would never happen with a short story or novella, and so this fascinates me—how it works.)
Yes, it's strange how two people can concoct a screenplay but hardly ever happens with a novel. Must be because film is a collaborative venture. By necessity working with a partner already involves compromise. (We had a hard and fast rule: If we both didn't agree on something, it was out. No discussion or case-pleading. It was gone and we'd find another solution.

Do you believe in God? 
Sometimes... but mainly I believe in good!

Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?
Regarding creating film scripts, the thing I adhere to is something Chekov (I think) said (and I paraphrase): "A guy walks into a casino, places 20 grand on black, loses, goes home and shoots himself. This is what we generally see.

But, a guy walks into a casino, places 20 grand on black, wins, goes home and shoots himself... that's drama!