All About Kelly Marcel
Kelly Marcel is a British screenwriter and producer. She co-wrote one of my favourite dramas Saving Mr Banks (eagle-eyed Bangers will remember it is a case study in my Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays book!). She also received a BAFTA nomination for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer for it.
In addition, Kelly is the screenwriter of Fifty Shades of Grey, Venom, Venom 2: Let There Be Carnage, plus she created and was exec producer on TV series Terra Nova. A fabulously eclectic mix there!
But how does a writer who started her working life in a video shop end up writing for Hollywood, counting Tom Hardy amongst her collaborators? Over to you, Kelly!
1) Taking risks is the key
For the uninitiated, Saving Mr Banks is about the author PL Travers, who is best known for her iconic children’s tale Mary Poppins. The script was about Travers’ decision to let Walt Disney adapt it for the screen.
True stories can be tough. It’s hard for writers to know what to keep in and what to leave out … and this was a dilemma for Kelly, too.
‘PL Travis’s life story is so interesting that you really don’t have to make any of it up. With Saving Mr Banks, though, we were focusing on this two-week window of her life that was only partially documented.’
After landing on the 2011 Black List, Saving Mr Banks was acquired by Disney. For a company that guards its creator’s image so closely, this was a real boon for the script and its production.
‘Once Disney took the movie on they opened up their archives to me and that’s when we found some real gold. There were 39 hours of tapes that were recorded in the room where Pamela worked with the Disney team to listen through,’ Kelly says, ‘Those tapes gave us our final draft.’
Disney is notorious for not liking ‘versions’ of their beloved Walt in movies or TV … Yet had Kelly and the Ruby Films team not taken the risk and written the script anyway, Disney would not have acquired the film and helped them create something special. Sometimes it’s all about jumping in!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Don’t play it safe. Creative risks are the lifeblood of the industry.
2) Emotional truth is SO important
‘Authenticity’ is a watchword in the 2020s, so true story and biopics are big business and have been for some time now. This has lead to a lot of discussions online, especially about the ‘responsibility of the artiste’. How has this affected Kelly and her projects?
‘There is always a responsibility in storytelling, but movies are movies and documentaries are documentaries,’ Kelly says, ‘I tend to lean towards the saying “never let the truth get in the way of a good story!”’
I can really relate to this. A lot of commentaries online focus on how ‘perfect’ a story is in its representation or fidelity to source material. Yet perfection is NOT the desired destination. Instead, storytelling should be more about EMOTIONAL TRUTH, rather than accuracy.
In addition, true stories simply cannot cover everything in a character’s life. This means we have to rein in our desire to shove in stuff that has no place … no matter how juicy – or true! – it might be.
Kelly illustrates how important this is: ‘PL Travers had an adopted son. She chose one of a set of twins and never told him. Then he met his twin brother in a bar! As much as I wanted to include that in the movie, it didn’t serve the story we were trying to tell.’
KEY TAKEAWAY: Emotional truth means authenticity over accuracy, every time. Similarly, don’t crowbar stuff in for the sake of it.
3) Popular stories come with pressure
Kelly has written for some BIG properties … and they don’t come much bigger than the Venom franchise! When fandoms can become toxic quickly, I asked Kelly whether she was nervous about adapting such a popular comic.
“Of course! Venom’s such a popular character and has such devoted fans, so we want to make sure we serve them first and foremost. Naturally, with that comes the pressure that Tom and I put on ourselves. Thankfully, the fans have been wonderful to us.”
Next up has to be Fifty Shades of Grey: a ‘controversial’ novel to say the least!
So, what were Kelly’s challenges adapting this one?
‘Well, to start with, I was a virgin when I wrote it. Kidding!’ says Kelly, ‘It’s hard to talk about the challenges of 50 because it was a unique experience and the circumstances under which it was adapted were not usual.’
This is a very tactful and classy response when we consider it is very well-known the novel’s author EL James was apparently very difficult to work with. (I recall going to an event where Sam Taylor-Johnson, 50’s director, said EL James insisted the film had to preserve her original dialogue, or she would boycott the film!).
‘It’s always challenging to adapt something that is absolutely beloved and trying to keep everyone happy, whilst also trying to realise your own creative vision.’ Kelly says, ‘I believe that everyone involved with 50 felt very passionately about bringing that book to the screen in the best way they possibly could.’
I can totally relate to what Kelly says here. Every job has its challenges, so the more high profile a property is? The more challenges it will bring. Before I sign on to a project, I always try and consider what these challenges might be. That way I can decide if it’s ‘worth it’ … or a deal-breaker.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Consider what your own ‘deal-breakers’ will be.
4) Luck plays its part in your career
Kelly really hit the ground running in her career … She sold her spec script Terra Nova to none other than Stephen Spielberg! This has to be the dream of many of us in the screenwriting trenches. I asked Kelly how she managed it.
‘To this day I have no idea how Terra Nova even got into the hands of Steven Spielberg. I really think things like that happen because a script just ends up in the right place at the right time. So much of it is luck.’
Dang it! But seriously, luck really does play its part in screenwriting. We often notice this most when it comes to BAD LUCK … Our film finance falls through; an interested producer moves on; or we lose out in some other way.
Yet it’s also true when it comes to good luck too. But it’s worth remembering Kelly worked hard on Terra Nova, had the guts to finish it and send it out. Too many of us hang on to our drafts and tinker with them forever.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Remember the old adage, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get’. Plus have the guts to FINISH too! MORE: Why Writer Luck Is More Than Throwing Spaghetti At The Wall
5) Writing can get lonely – so find collaborators!
Those Bangers who pay attention to movie credits will notice Tom Hardy has a ‘story by’ credit on Venom 2. I asked Kelly how that came about.
‘Tom and I have been friends and collaborators for a very long time,’ Kelly says, ‘We started way back in a little theatre space where actors would gather to workshop scenes.’
This is so illuminating because many screenwriters think of actors as meat puppets! Over the years I’ve heard countless writers complain how actors have ruined ‘their’ dialogue or done a scene in a way they didn’t approve of. Yet actors can be fantastic collaborators. They’re the ones who have to bring our words to life, after all.
‘Tom’s very involved with every aspect of whatever he’s working, he’s not an actor that’s just going to show up and say lines you’ve handed to him. He wants to talk about the who’s and what’s and why’s of a scene long before we get to shooting it. It was a natural and fair progression to have him get a ‘story by’ credit because he has always been involved in the creation.’
This is precisely why I always recommend Bangers workshop scenes with actors, or do read-throughs if they can. Actors can be idea machines and can have a unique POV that may not occur to us at the keyboard.
‘[Tom’s] brilliant to work with, his brain works so fast, he churns out ideas for hours.’ says Kelly, ‘Selfishly, writing can get lonely, so it’s a bonus to be able to collaborate with my mate!’
Whilst not every actor can become a big hitter like Hardy, ‘two heads are better than one’!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Don’t hide yourself away, find others to collaborate with … and don’t rule out actors. They may bring you fantastic inspiration, plus who knows where they will be in a few years? MORE: Want Your Script F***ing Read? Do This