“Stay True To Your Vision.” Morwenna Banks On ‘Miss You Already’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

With a catalogue of work including BBC’s The Thick of It, Ruddy Hell! It’s Harry and Paul, Saxondale with Steve Coogan, and even a short stint on SNL, a heartbreaking story like Miss You Already is miles away from the comedic realm where Morwenna Banks got her start. After the success of 2000’s The Announcement, her new story is another stepping stone in an ongoing career of uncovering emotional possibilities.

Toni Collette stars as Milly, a highly efficient executive with a rebellious side. Her lifelong friend Jess, played by Drew Barrymore, is a much more down-to-earth town planner who is moving towards her goal of raising a family. The two have shared everything during their friendship, including clothes, secrets, lovers and bad decisions. Now, at a time when life starts to separate the duo, their friendship and sanity is put to the test when Milly is diagnosed with breast cancer.

Drew Barrymore as Jess and Toni Collette as Milly in Miss You Already

What led you into screenwriting?

One of my first proper professional gigs was co-creating and performing a British television ensemble comedy sketch series. We set up a production company to make the shows and we were allowed a lot of control over the material. Later, I was lucky enough to work in the US doing short stints on some US TV comedy shows.

I still love writing comedy sketches because they conform to the three-act structure and that is not only pleasing but also a very good way to figure out how narrative works. It’s basically the same structure for a film. I learned so much from being in those environments and met some brilliant comedy minds that influenced me. I also learned the mechanics of production but writing a film was always the dream.

Eventually I wrote and co-produced a micro-budget feature called The Announcement, directed by Troy Miller (Mister Show, Arrested Development). The cast included Lenny James, Mark Addy, Tom Hollander, Joanna Scanlan, Toby Stephens, Fay Ripley and David Baddiel. At the time I was influenced by the ‘Dogme 95’ school of film making especially the films of Lars Von Trier and Festen by Thomas Vinterberg. The flexibility of this improvisational style of filmmaking was and is really good for comedy as well as drama.

The Announcement and now Miss You Already is where I am most comfortable; coming up with an original idea and plugging away until an actual movie appears. Of course they are also the hardest films to convince anyone to finance.

Ulrich Thomsen as Christian and Thomas Bo Larsen as Michael in Festen (The Celebration)

This seems like a very personal story. Where did the idea for Miss You Already come from?

I guess any original script digs into elements of experience and imagination. But Miss You Already is a work of fiction. There was a time in my life where it seemed that a ridiculous number of people I knew were diagnosed with breast cancer. So I was pretty familiar with the medical process. But the rest is constructed. And in terms of research, I talked to a lot of women of different ages and at different stages of the illness.

I also worked with the charity “Breast Cancer Now” and consulted a number of medical professionals working in the field of breast cancer. Ultimately a film is a collaboration. It starts out as one story and then goes in many different directions with contributions from many different collaborators and then ultimately you hand over to your director — in this case the brilliant Catharine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, Twilight). And when the cast comes on board, that completes the collective vision.

What were some of your influences for this film along with any that may have led you into the field?

I didn’t actually go back and revisit my favorite movies, as I was worried that I would be overwhelmed by their brilliance. Some of the films on my top films list would be Withnail and I, Annie Hall, Spinal Tap, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Terms of Endearment, Napoleon Dynamite, Don’t Look Now, Happiness, Taxi Driver, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and as a benchmark of a brilliant female buddy movie — I love Thelma and Louise — quite a mixed bag with no obvious through line, but they all reflect the kind of stories I like. Outsiders, misfits, complicated or tragic circumstances, but mainly grown ups talking about stuff.

Susan Sarandon as Louise and Geena Davis as Thelma in Thelma and Louise

How do you craft the characters for Milly and Jess? Did you write these parts for specific actresses?

Creating characters comes about in different ways. In terms off figuring out who they are and how they feel I think it probably helps being an actor too. I can hear the voices when I write. I think of emotional and social backgrounds, verbal quirks and defining characteristics as I would when approaching an acting role.

I always read the scenes out loud to myself and imagine some of my personal favorite actors doing the part. My acting crushes vary with different projects but to have Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore play the parts was, frankly, extraordinarily fortunate.

Did the plot of this film change throughout or did you always know the third act?

The plot for the third act changed a lot. But I always knew that things were not going to end well for Milly.

Drew Barrymore as Jess, Toni Collette as Milly and Dominic Cooper as Kit in Miss You Already

What are some of your writing rituals?

Rituals? Caffeine. Candle. Warm socks. Oh and if I can help it, I don’t start the day by answering emails. Because by the time I finish it’s lunchtime and something will have made me anxious. I’m pretty disciplined and do a full working day when I’m on a roll. And some all-nighters when I’ve got a deadline.

How much of an emotional toll did this film take on you during the writing process?

If I cry when I’m writing that’s usually a good sign. Though sometimes it’s just a sign that I’m hormonal. I never laugh at my own written jokes until I hear them read by someone else. But I’m a comedy geek and I crave a high funny count per page even in something dramatic and sad.

What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?

Getting notes and starting the first rewrite. I don’t mind notes, of course they can really help to make the film better, but holding on to your vision and staying confident when everyone has a strong opinion about something you made up in your own brain can be really hard. It’s difficult not to feel defeated by the mountain of work ahead. Once you start to unravel a plot it can feel like everything is falling apart. Also trying to find an original way of expressing even very mundane things can be irritating.

In your opinion, what makes a good story?

I’m not sure. Something that people can relate to even if it’s sci-fi or horror or surreal or just plain strange.

Toni Collette as Milly and Drew Barrymore as Jess in Miss You Already

What advice do you have for upcoming writers?

Don’t do it. It’s a long haul.

Actually, do it if you love it but I would say have an additional way of financially supporting yourself. I act and do voices for animations and so I try to use one discipline to support the other. And keep writing even when you think it’s shit. Get to the end, then go back and make it better.

Anything else you would like to add about the film?

Please go and see it! It is about a friendship and about what happens when that friendship is placed under intolerable pressure. Not everyone who is diagnosed with cancer instantly becomes a saint or a hero. So Miss You Already is about fighting back and fighting dirty. And finally, at risk of sounding like a bad parody of an awards acceptance speech, I’d like to thank my Producer Chris and my Literary Agent Katie who kept believing in the project even when I was ready to flush all 115 pages down the toilet.

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