The Butterfly Tattoo

Today, I did something morally reprehensible. Something that I am utterly opposed to and regularly speak out against. Something that would genuinely shock those who know me well. Something that goes not just against my ethics but against my livelihood and that of a lot of people I care about.

I illegally downloaded a film.

Actually, I had to get a friend to do it for me and burn the film onto DVD as I don’t – and have never wanted to – understand all this bit-torrent stuff. I had the film illegally downloaded, I watched it, I have no intention of buying the official DVD, seeing the film in the cinema or recommending the film to anybody. I feel no regret or remorse and rather enjoyed playing a small role in it’s commercial failure.

This doesn’t reflect any shift in my moral balance and, yes, it’s an isolated case. I remain as opposed to illegal download and bootlegging as ever. But not for this film.

This all started last week when I got an email from one of my ex screenwriting students. He sent me a link to this blog….

It’s an interesting read, written by first-time feature film director Phil Hawkins, detailing his recent experiences in which the low-budget feature film he directed – an adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s novel The Butterfly Tattoo had been victim to over 200,000 illegal downloads before even securing a cinema or worldwide DVD release.  He remains somewhat chipper about the experience – and seems glad that, despite the entire cast, crew and team of investors being left literally penniless from the experience, at least the film has – in it’s own way – found a wide audience.

The film was a profit-share arrangement. It was made completely independently and it’s commercial failure means that the investors who supported it have lost their investments completely, with no hope of any profit or even remuneration. The cast and crew were apparently completely unpaid but worked for profit points – with the film being so cheap to make and bearing the commercial hallmark of Philip Pullman’s name, they were practically guaranteed a healthy return. But it looks as if that will now never happen.

This was the film I chose to illegally download.

I have a little history with the project.

In 2007, I was told by the guys who run the non-profit film workshop that I teach at here in Oxford that some Dutch film producers were looking for a local screenwriter to adapt one of Philip Pullman’s early novels into a screenplay, which would be shot in Oxford that summer. I was immediately intrigued, although suspicious – these things are rarely as good as they sound. I did a little research and found out the facts behind the project. It was definitely a strange one.

It seemed that a bunch of Pullman fans had managed to get the man himself to give them the film rights to this obscure non-fantasy novel on the basis that the shoot would be a kind of educational experiment – all of the cast and crew would be relative newcomers and young aspiring filmmakers would be invited to participate and ‘shadow’ key crew members. It would be funded entirely by private investors (with Pullman’s best selling books about to undergo huge multi-million dollar Hollywood adaptations, this was a sound commercial venture) and all cast and crew would be paid mainly by profit share once the film was released. I was still a bit skeptical, but began a correspondence with the producer – Rik Visser. He enthused about the project and his passion was infectious.

The director had already been selected and Rik seemed to refer to him exclusively as ‘Award Winning Director Phil Hawkins’. This always raises an eyebrow with me. Once you’ve seen the reality of the film festival circuit, you realise how easy it is to be an ‘award winning filmmaker’. I’ve won awards at film festivals, so technically I can claim this mantle too. But I’ll hold off until I win one at Sundance, the Oscars or the Baftas. (I’m actually friends with Bafta winners and have never heard them referred to as award-winning filmmakers, they’d probably cringe at the prospect). Awards are utterly meaningless. Rik linked me to Phil’s website – – and I was disheartened trawling through the competently filmed, uninspired clips. It seems his main source of income now is directing segments for Top gear rip-off ‘Fifth Gear’ and that’s kind of where I would have placed his talents even back then – a competent lower-end TV director.

So, I was kind of skeptical of the project and, having watched shitty TV directors destroy my scripts previously, not too enamoured with the idea of the project as a whole.

But then I read the book.

Oh my god.

I read it cover to cover in a single sitting and then re-read it the following day. You know that song ‘Killing Me Softly’ where, I think it’s, Roberta Flack sings about going to a gig and having the singer onstage’s lyrics strike such a chord with her own life that she felt he had been writing it for her and about her? I have never felt so close to a book as I still do to The Butterfly Tattoo. Set in Oxford in the early 90s, it tells the story of a doomed teenage love. The story was OK, but the rest was sublime. The angry, emotional teenage boy unable to control his rage and burning self-righteousness – that was me. The squats of Cowley Road, the gigs at The Jericho Tavern, the middle class parents, the smug old university, the junkies, student twats and alright blokes. Cowley, Jericho, Summertown. It was youth. It was my youth. I knew that I would get to write this script because I understood this book. I felt I probably understood the world it was set in even more than Pullman. I could do justice to the book but I could also bring something to it. Authenticity. It felt like a convergence – all of my years working to have become a professional screenwriter colliding with my years as a teenage waster dragging myself around the streets of Oxford.

The deal Rik was offering was that prospective writers had to send in an email detailing their vision of the film. The successful few shortlisted writers would then be invited to write a treatment. In return for submitting a 12 page treatment (a document that details the film on a scene-to-scene basis), these writers would each receive a 0.25% share of the film’s profits and one candidate would be chosen to actually be commissioned as the film’s screenwriter.

I made it through to the shortlist. I was sent a contract to sign but alarm bells were going off in my head, The potential financial returns were nowhere near even touching the writer’s guild advised minimum pay levels. I get the feeling the other writers complained too as a group email promised us a change to the contract and that we would be paid a small but fairish amount for the actual writing.

I waited a couple of nervous weeks to find out who would be the lucky writer, then received an email of congratulations from the producers. I’d been…. shortlisted. Again. Apparently they couldn’t decide between myself and one other writer, so they were inviting us to each submit a far more detailed 50 page treatment. Now, with the average screenplay coming in at 90 pages – a 50 page treatment is VERY thorough and detailed. It is also a LOT of work. I was disappointed that they were – firstly – changing the rules and – secondly – expecting so much more work, but I was game, I wanted to adapt this book.

Since we got 0.25% profit share and a contract to protect us legally for the submission of the 12 page treatment, I asked Rik what proft share and contract we would get for the 50 page effort. He told me none. No more ‘money’ is one thing, but a refusal of legal protection is insane. at 50 pages, we’d have written everything but the specific dialogue and, not being a finished screenplay, it would not be protected by the writer’s contracts. This means they could cherrypick from both writers’ 50 page treatments without ever paying or acknowledging us. I couldn’t believe the other writer was tolerating this and asked for his contact details – but was refused. Rik told me that the other writer was working on his 50 page treatment and that if I didn’t remain in the ‘race’, he would win by default.

I said no. Stephen Potts became the screenwriter. He’s 20 years older than me and this was his first attempt at screenwriting.

I took little comfort in knowing how sub-standard the film would be without me. They shot it in Oxford that summer and I got reports that it was a fun shoot but the direction and performances weren’t really up to scratch. The producers pulled a similar ‘competition’ for local bands to appear in the film and on the soundtrack and they wasted a lot of people’s time and effort doing so. One of my ex-students managed to get me a copy of the script.

It was shit.

A straight adaptation. This can sound like the best thing but you might be overlooking the fact that most books are written third person and deal almost exclusively with a characters innermost thoughts, feelings and secrets. Since The Butterfly Tattoo is really all about thoughts, feelings and secrets, a straight adaptation really just presents the scenes to an audience at face value. Potts had cut certain things that didn’t needed cutting but generally had remained faithful and boring. He brought nothing to the table. It utterly depressed me.

I was suspicious recently that the film – shot 2 years ago now – still hadn’t surfaced. Then I read Phil’s blog. I do feel a bit sorry for him. I get the impression he put his mediocre heart and uninteresting soul into that film and the producers have royally fucked it up. The reviews it got were lewk-warm at best and generally disparaging, dismissing it as a badly written piece that at least tries to have some emotional impact. Apparently it has been unable to secure any kind of release in the UK at all – which is very telling considering how popular Pullman is here. In the US, the producers sold the DVD rights and the DVD was released. It was instantly ripped and put online. It amazes me that the producers didn’t work to get it any kind of international profile – film festivals, cinema releases, but no – straight to US dvd. With a marketing/release scheme like that, they deserve this failure.

I just watched my illegal downloaded copy of it.

It was rubbish. The subtleties of the story and theme completely escape Potts and Hawkins, it’s poorly filmed and the pace is slow and boring. The characters are badly cast, although the male lead gives it his best shot (shame he looks and acts a good 5 years older than the hot-headed teenager he should have been). The mysterious female lead (her mystery stemming from an abusive childhood) has no nuance and will, doubtless, end up on Hollyoaks where her vacuous beauty and unengaging presence could truly shine. The role of barry (charismatic philanderer with a criminal past) is almost comically miscast to be played by a rotund end-of-the-pier type of podgy fool.
The film is abhorrently over-scored with annoying, intrusive orchestral music punctuating every single damn moment of emotion.

At the end of the day, I always tell my students that a coherent theme is the most important thing – what are you trying to say? What are you using the medium of film to express to your audience? There is no point to this film. It says nothing, explores nothing, just presents the superficialities of the story of a great book.

So, am I happy it has failed? No, I think some inexperienced people with their hearts in the right place took a solid stab at it. But I am glad it failed to make a mark. As one day, I’ll get my hands on the rights and turn it into the beautiful, heartbreaking, insightful film that it always should have been.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 1:36 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello Jon,
    You know, I don’t usually respond to overly negative comments or reviews about any film – you have the right to an opinion but personal, unfounded insults about my production team, producers and myself are uncalled for.

    I hope it isn’t just your biased “ex-students” who read this blog and will be able to see through your (quite ridiculously negative) statements as jealously. You wanted to write the script so badly – you said it so yourself – so ANY attempt at making an adaptation that wasn’t your own is obviously going to be rubbish in your eyes.

    I frankly don’t care that you don’t like the film. As I’ve said, every audience member is entitled to their opinion… but I won’t stand by and let you insult me or my team via a blog. Next time I’m in Oxford, I’d like to meet you. I’d be quite happy to let you attempt to have this opinion to my face. This isn’t a threat by any means, it will just highlight how easy is it to be negative over the internet. So let’s sit down, have a coffee and I’ll let you have your 5 minute rant. Not getting the job on my film has obviously deeply affected you. I hope, in this way, you’ll be able to move on.

    This attitude only confirms you were definitely the wrong man for the job. I’m glad that we didn’t hire you. I’m not going to sit here and insult you (like you did me) because, on the page, your work was good but your arrogance outweighs your talent. Yes, we made a few mistakes in the process of hiring a screenwriter. We apologised to you at the time – after all, we are human and we made a few mistakes.

    As for the film. I hope the smile from you “enjoying playing a small role in it’s commercial failure” is slowly disappearing during this next paragraph as I’ll actually inform you of some facts. The film has been theatrically released -albeit as limited – in the US… so, in the US, we’re not a “straight to DVD” movie. Since then (and some BECAUSE of the exposure from high downloads, so thank you Jon) the US DVD’s have been selling like hot cakes. The film has been licensed in most European countries and Russia. As for the UK, it’s been frustrating that they’ve been slow on the uptake but, if you knew anything about the distribution industry in the UK at the moment, you’d know why. We’re currently in talks over the theatrical release here. So commercial failure? Well we’re not quite the box office of Transformers, but we’re doing okay.

    “A competent lower-end TV director”, “competently filmed, uninspired clips”, “awards meaningless” – quite laughable. Seriously, why did you have to make this personal? My only income is from directing a “Top Gear rip-off” …ummm… are you also my accountant now? Please, before you rant, get some facts right or someone could throw your not-really-a-screenwriter-but-a-teacher-who-preaches-negativity-to-his-students-and-works-in-a-video-shop back in your face. Oops…

    And finally… you can personally insult me as much as you want (I’d rather, in person). It really just makes you come across as a sore loser. But what I won’t stand by and take are your insults of my writer, actors, composer and the hundreds of very talented people and technicians who worked their asses off to make the film JUST because you’re being petty. You say you support people within this industry? Well, please get over this tantrum (it’s been going on for way to long now) and start practicing what your preach.

    Have a great day!

    Phil Hawkins

    “One of the best new and upcoming directors” – Steven Spielberg
    “A competent lower-end TV director” -Jon Spira

  2. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for your impassioned response!

    I see you’ve removed any trace of this discussion from your own blog, that’s a shame. And a little Stalinist. Especially since you were trying to defend your project/crew/etc. You don’t feel you should do that on your own blog? No? Ok.

    I’m sorry that you felt that I insulted you and your producers, team et al. I kind of beg to differ, though. I was just being honest and critical. If you choose to take offence at the phrase ‘competent lower-end TV director’, it is entirely your choice but I’m pretty sure many would agree with that as a critical assessment. I didn’t call you a ‘hack’ or a ‘mawkish joke of a director’ or anything like that. You clearly understand basic camera moves and can sure put together a mean dewey-eyed close up, you just don’t really seem to come across as an auetur. Competent is not an insult, there are many incompetent directors out there. Lower-end TV director is also not an insult. A TV programme, for instance, which is derivative of BBC One’s Top Gear, called ‘Fifth Gear’ and airs on Channel 5? That seems inarguably the lower end of the spectrum. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t watch much Channel 5.

    Anyway, I really didn’t insult any of your bunch. I gave my critical and honest response. It was badly cast, that’s not insulting, that’s obvious to anyone with basic critical facilities – and especially if they are familiar with the source material. It’s a lot to ask two inexperienced young actors to carry a whole feature film which is dependent on their relationship being engaging and realistic. As I said, I think the male lead did a valiant job – had I not read the book and known the original intent and potential of that role – I think I would have been less disappointed. I stand by my assessment of the female lead, though. Too Hollyoaks. But she didn’t stand a chance – the screenplay managed to avoid all of the nuances of the character. Jenny wasn’t there on the page, so it would have taken a really charismatic performer to have given the role some depth. The guy who played Barry was rubbish and I think you secretly recognise that. Despite being physically wrongly cast (are we supposed to believe for a second that he can attract a string of extra-marital affairs and could have believably served as an armed policeman? I mean, at least tailor the part to him – had you instead said that he regularly used prostitutes, it would even have had a bigger emotional impact when Chris sees him with Jenny), the guy couldn’t give a single convincing line reading.

    The screenplay was rubbish, though. That might be insulting. But when I see such great source material drained of all point, nuance and beauty, I get a kneejerk reaction. I do some work as a script editor and teach the UK Film Council screenwriting course, so my critique is not unfounded, I know how scripts work. Your man did a hatchet job on it. He adapted the superficial story (which, if we’re being honest wasn’t THAT strong in the original book) to fit 90 minutes rather than doing the theme and character of the work justice.

    You’re absolutely right about how badly I wanted to write the script – I made no secret of that in the original blog. I feel a very deep connection to the source material and would have loved to have had a crack at it. Is there jealousy? I don’t know. Maybe jealousy that you got the chance to make it. Certainly not jealousy that I wasn’t involved with that actual production. I think it’s a rare thing that a writer and director synchronise perfectly and I think even if you’d been blessed with my script your casting choices, slow, boring staging and bad scoring choices probably would have caused me far more upset than never having gotten the gig in the first place. Not getting the film didn’t ‘deeply affect’ me, quite the opposite, in fact – I’ve spent the last two years completely independently making my own first feature film, which I will, in turn, welcome your opinions on.
    But you’re wrong to say that ANY attempt at an adaptation would have been rubbish in my eyes. I was genuinely hoping you’d do that fantastic book some justice. I take delight in great work and am really open-minded and very supportive of indie/low-budget/British film-making. Just ask any of my ‘biased ex-students’.
    Yes, it’s a film I’d like to make myself and I really hope to one day. To me, Oxford was as much a character of the book as the lead roles. But that Oxford was also the Oxford of the time it was written in. Your choice to contemporise lead to just some embarrasing cliches – we don’t have the evil posh aristocratic Oxford students anymore, there are no squats in Cowley anymore filled with cheech and chong rip-offs. Your supporting cast were out-of-time, old, tired cliches. But what do you expect? The odds are stacked against a fifty-two year old screenwriting writing a modern teen romance, anyway.

    By all means, come to Oxford, we’ll meet up, I’ll buy you a drink and I will gladly expound on these opinions ‘to your face’. I can intelligently and thoughtfully deconstruct this whole film for you. I think you’d realise that such a conversation upfront might have been hugely beneficial to the whole project. It has been for a lot of other people.

    I’m sure it’d be very convenient for you if I were a bitter failed screenwriter who works in a video shop and spends his days making snipey blogs about people who he jealously admires. But the internet negativity shoe doesn’t really fit with me. (my infrequently used blog is called Grumptimism because I like to express the view that just because certain things are undeniably shit, there is always hope and lessons to be learned)

    I like the bit in the reply you wrote where you said ‘I’m not going to sit here and insult you’ but then you go on to actually sit there and insult me. That was very sharp. I like that you put that my arrogance outweighs my talent – even though you have no concept of my talent and your own arrogance leads you to post a Steven Spielberg quote about you.
    I think my arrogance probably outweighs your talent. And I’m not even an arrogant person. ‘Oops’. Anyway, you’re right to say I was definitely the wrong man for the job. Talent and intelligence would have undoubtedly been squandered on your production ‘Oops’.

    To call someone ‘not-really-a-screenwriter-but-a-teacher-who-preaches-his-negativity-to-his-students-and-works-in-a-video-shop’, though? Well, How very dare you sir! How offensive can you get?
    Actually, there was an offensive bit in there – you hold up the role of ‘teacher’ as being in some way beneath you (oh mighty director of some segments of Channel 5’s ‘fifth gear’). The truth is that film education is the only way the industry can get out of the dirge it’s in. If your screenwriter had attended my classes, you might not be huffing and puffing on the internet defending the resulting mess one blog at a time.
    I’ve also not proclaimed myself a screenwriter for a good 8 years now, I think you have to be professionally engaged to do so and I chose to professionally disengage a long time ago. That said, I’m a far better screenwriter than your chap.
    If there is one thing I don’t preach to my students it’s negativity – I see from your blog that you love posting edited quotes about yourself in a self-congratulatory manner (you even posted a fake ten-star review on the butterfly tattoo imdb page where you talk about yourself in the third person, ya big goon). Feel free to read my biased ex-students quotes about me at:

    Incidentally, there’s a reason they’re biased – you might want to think about that?

    Oh, and I don’t work in a video shop (not that that is any kind of bad thing, you dick!), I own two of them. Which, admittedly, I work in. Oh, darn.

    I’m glad to be corrected that you are having limited success in ‘licensing’ the film around the world. I hope the investors make some money back.

    Hopefully this response puts right your thought that I was being petty or a sore loser, I guess I just felt inclicned to comment on the lacklustre adaptation of a book I really loved. I think that’s fair enough. Besides, why should the opinions of a well-thought-of screenwriting tutor/script editor shake you? As you said on your blog, a ‘woman’ told you that she thought it was better than Romeo and Juliet! Better than Shakespeare!!! Why would you ever waste your time responding to my informed opinions???

    I would never denigrate the hard work of your crew, some of whom I’m sure I know. I think slogging your guts out unpaid on an indie film is a highly respectable pursuit, I’ve done it myself often and will do again. I think they’re excellent people, as are most crews – professional or not. I think it’s far more insulting to their work to produce a lacklustre final offering, though.

    “One of the best new and upcoming directors” – Steven Spielberg
    “A competent lower-end TV director” -Jon Spira

    I would like to get that bit framed. That’s excellent. Here’s the thing, though. Out of me and Spielballs, which one was being more honest. I’d love to know the actual context of his quote because if he genuinely thinks that you’re one of the best new and upcoming directors, how come he hasn’t snapped you up?

    Maybe he has. Wait, is he working on Fifth Gear now???

    Well, look the tone of this response has admittedly been as confrontational – although hopefully a little less defensive – as yours was but I hope we’ve both got that out of our systems. Quite genuinely, I’d love to meet up with you next time you’re in Oxford. Let me know when you’re about.

    All the best,


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