When I started work on the screenplay of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I was clear about two things: I wanted to write a film with no flashbacks, and I wanted to add new material. Of course, there were whole chunks and characters that would need to be cut, and there were plot lines that would need to be straitjacketed, but I also proposed this completely fresh take. What I finally handed in after many drafts and months - if not years - of work, was a screenplay with flashbacks. And my new material ended up where it deserved to be: on the floor of the edit suite. Most of it didn’t even make it that far.
Even though I have been writing radio drama for most of my adult life, I had never written a full-length screenplay before I began work on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. How to transpose a book of 80,000 words into a film of an hour and a bit? What I realised almost instantly is that there are hundreds of thousands of ways of telling a story through film, and that if I tried all of them, I would never get to the end. Without flashbacks, however, the narrative would all happen in the present. I was also a little snooty about flashbacks. I had heard them spoken of by film people as if they were on a level with voice-overs and subtitles: if an audience can’t get the story without them, then the story isn’t working hard enough.
Instead of using those devices, I decided that the Queenie and David stories would come to the audience as and when Harold spoke about them. But, of course, Harold is not a man who is comfortable with words or his feelings. He is not a person who says much – that is the whole point. So every time I gave Harold a speech where he explained to a stranger what had happened in the past – be it his friendship with Queenie, or his failure with his son – it felt wrong and I crossed it out.
I ended up with a draft that was basically about a man who doesn’t really say anything going on a long walk, and while that was interesting to a point, it was never going to persuade anyone to fund the film. It certainly wasn’t going to intrigue, delight or move an audience. There was no way for the viewer to get close to Harold or understand his motives: he was strangely absent from his own film. So I scrapped that draft. I began again.
I read a lot about film structure, hoping this might equip me with fresh tools. Someone read the next draft and said it wasn’t political enough, so I tried to add more edge. Someone else said there weren’t enough obstacles (there still weren’t any flashbacks, either). So I had Harold falling over dead badgers and being arrested by the police for being on the A38. I think someone even mugged the poor man.
At this point, the director, Hettie Macdonald, became attached to the film, and pretty much the first thing she said to me was: “But I don’t understand. The book is beautiful. Why don’t you stick to the book?” I showed her an image that I often went back to: Blake’s illustration for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress where Pilgrim staggers onwards, bent double by the burden of the weight he is carrying upon his back. And again, Hettie said, “Yes. I agree. But this is not the Harold you have given us in the film. We need to understand what that burden is.”
Often, when I begin to work on a project, I think of Rosalind’s words in the epilogue of As You Like It: “My way is to conjure you”. Storytelling is about creating a spell. It is about conjuring a world in which your audience believes that the things that are about to happen might just happen. It is all pretend, and yet within its mirrored orb of pretence there is a contract made at the beginning – between the film or the book or the play and its audience – that belief will be suspended and a new kind of truth will emerge, in which (in this instance) a retired man who has never walked anywhere might walk the length of England to save a woman from dying.
I abandoned my no-flashback rule. I abandoned my new-material promise as well. I even abandoned my beat sheets. I went back to the book. I thought about Harold’s burden – his need to be forgiven. I wrote what I believed to be true, or at least might possibly be true, if you were to step one day into 13 Fossebridge Road and meet a man called Harold and his wife, Maureen.
I found them in their house, her hoovering and him upstairs, and I put a pink letter between them and followed the consequences, trying out scenes, or moments, over and over until I believed them. I allowed Harold and Maureen to speak to one another in their small, compressed way – the words so plain and spartan there was a space around them that contained all the couple’s grief and loss and thwarted love. I lifted almost every scene from the book and tried to dramatise it. Even, yes, the flashbacks. Like a thief, I took almost everything, and left the joint bare.
There are scenes in the book that I have always regarded as key. These scenes act like structural walls – the kind of walls that stop a house from falling down. Every scene in a script or a book has work to do, but those structural scenes are where the stakes are seriously heightened, or the action takes a whole new direction – the one, for instance, where Maureen tries to stop Harold walking and they have tea and cake in a café, until she finally realises she can’t make him come home.
Similarly, when Harold phones, asking her to fetch him, and she realises that the thing she has wanted all along – for him to stop – is actually the thing that he will never recover from, and so she persuades him to carry on. All the time that I wrote and re-wrote, I was asking myself the questions, Why is Harold walking? What did Queenie do? Where is David? How are Queenie and David linked? I wrote the questions on Post-it notes that I stuck at the top of every page, knowing they would be at the front of the audience’s minds and that it was my duty as a writer to keep throwing out fresh clues. They were like pieces in a mosaic, revealed one at a time.
It quickly became clear which episodes within the book were going to be of use and which were now superfluous. Harold’s meetings with the Silver-Haired Gentleman, Martina who washes his feet, and the oncologist are all scenes where he learns something new that dynamically changes how he continues his pilgrimage. They stayed. But those meetings in the book with, say, the pub landlord in Devon or the famous actor in Bath took up too much space and didn’t actually add anything new: they quickly left the film script.
And finally we had it: A film about a man walking to atone for a past that we learn about piece by piece. A film with flashbacks and even, yes, a voice-over. All my snooty ideas were disproved, by this screenplay at least. In the end you have to trust the energy of what you are writing and be true to it. It is not about other people’s rules. It is about telling the story.
There is only one scene that I still miss. It was my single piece of fresh material, which stayed in the script right up to a few days before it was due to be filmed. In this scene, Harold meets a desperate young woman doing a lottery card. Until this point, he has felt enriched by empathising with strangers, but he realises that this young woman’s struggle will be almost unbearable to take on board. It came a few scenes before Harold’s collapse outside Martina’s house: it was supposed to be another reason why that happens. And even though it is a little story in its own right and I believe it, it tripped up the rhythm of the film and got in the way of the bigger meeting with Martina. It was almost like seeing the same encounter twice. Hettie and I spoke at length about it, because we both loved that scene. And then we cut it.
A year later, I look back to that time of endless writing and re-writing, trying to tell Harold’s story on screen, and it seems to me that screenplays are about ellipsis. Write everything and then take out as much as you can. Go into a scene as late as you dare and get out quickly. Make cuts to shake up rhythm. Make cuts to shake up sense. There are even points in the screenplay now when Harold talks to the past. I do not know how to explain this, but if you cut boldly, the ghost of something remains. But first you have to write too much. It has to be there, before you can have fun removing it. And cuts are exciting. The audience can make leaps you don’t think are possible, or maybe can’t even see, when you first set out with all your scenes in place. It is in the cutting that the imaginative work really happens.