How did you approach adapting Imran’s novel?
The first step with the adaptation was reading Imran’s novel and falling in love with it. The producers had read it and were already there, they were so deeply invested in it as a book and as a project, I was already primed to enjoy reading it and I really did. I think the clever thing about the novel is that it’s framed as a speech given, delivered to the jury. It’s very seductive and you go on that journey.
Hero is talking to you. You feel like the 13th jury member in a way, listening to him, being persuaded by him, and having to ask yourself whether what he’s saying can possibly be true, or whether it is sophisticated self-interest in the face of a 25-year murder sentence.
I think one of the other really moving things to the book as well is it paints quite a delicate love story and it frames it with the question of who has killed Jamil, and whether Hero is responsible. But really, the thing that grabs you after a while is how Hero wrestles with the question of trust himself. Even while he’s asking the jury to trust him and believe him, the heart of the book asks whether you can trust and believe the people you fall in love with and how deeply you know them. So, I thought that was very playfully done.
There are constant layers of questioning. And while it’s for the audience to decipher who this protagonist is, he is also attempting to discover the truth of the people around him and the people he has loved. I thought it was beautifully rendered and that formed the core of the approach, really bringing out those elements to the fore.
And of course, the challenge of taking a picture painted in words, a long speech given to the jury, and finding out how to render that in the form of a drama. To ensure it is as immersive when it’s done in sound and pictures, as it is when it’s unfolding in your head.
What’s the process between you and Imran to make sure that you’re maintaining the truth of the book? What was that relationship like?
Imran, from the very beginning, was clear that he trusted me to adapt the novel and that I should feel at liberty to make whichever changes were required. He has continued to be wonderfully collaborative. He’s also been very helpful at every turn, especially with the legal stuff. Not having a legal background, I tend to make up judges screaming “you’re out of order” and brawls in the jury box! It’s probably more informed by American drama than an understanding of our judicial system. So he was great as a kind of check and balance on that.
What I would say is that one of the things that I think Imran and I agreed on really early was what the soul of the book was. I think that once he understood that we shared a view of what really matters in terms of how we feel about the protagonist, thereafter, how we got there was that was a matter of process and trust. I think if we differed widely on that, then I perhaps wouldn’t have been the right writer for it.
What research did you do to make sure that the language was correct and current?
I think on almost everything I write, the question of language emerges and it’s always something that has to be addressed. On another project [BBC One’s Vigil] I’ve been writing about the Royal Navy, and there too, there is a really particular way of speaking naval jargon, both kind of formal and informal, a way of giving orders, a way of doing things and I needed plenty of help there from naval advisors, to get that precisely right.
With You Don’t Know Me, there was a very similar thing going on, as there’s an instinct that you have for the language that you want to tell the scene, but there isn’t an assumption that you’ve got that right or that that will sit naturally with the actors. It’s a very collaborative process.
On the one hand, we had advisers to help govern and steer that, but we also have a good relationship with actors and asked them actively to make sure that the language felt like it sat well. And if they had grown up in similar areas, to bring that experience and to allow that to inform the nuance of their character’s dialogue. Sam our director was also very good at that, making sure that the language felt like it flowed naturally.
Can you introduce us to Hero and tell us how you wanted to portray him in the scripts?
The protagonist of You Don’t Know Me is a young man in his mid-20s who works as a car salesman. He has a strong relationship with his mother and with his younger sister, and he has a girlfriend, Kyra. His ambitions are limited, but are ones that he’s happy with, he wants to give his family a good life, to look after his girlfriend, to be a good son and a good brother.
His experiences with school have been fine. He’s an everyman. He expects his life to be made up of gradually working his way up the chain at the salesroom. He’s good at his job and it’s not an unreasonable thing to expect to move in with his girlfriend after a while. The things that he has his mind on are where they might go away on holiday this year. This is how he sees his life going and his life is profoundly disrupted when one day, out of nowhere, his girlfriend goes missing. As he tries to find her and tries to discover why she went missing, the little ties that have bound his life together are completely broken apart.
When we meet him in court, he stands accused of murdering a boy who lives locally and who is a drug dealer and who would seem to have no connection to Hero the way he lives, his life, or indeed, the disappearance of Hero’s girlfriend. The story that Hero then lays out for us is his last-minute explanation given in court, when his opportunity to give evidence formally has been declined. It’s his attempt to convince the jury, beyond what the prosecution have told them and the mound of evidence to suggest that he’s guilty.
In the book, Hero is unnamed, and I think for Imran, that’s because he wants him to stand as an everyman. The character has specificity in terms of where he’s from and what his life is made up of.
But there’s a political bent to some of what Imran is exploring, which is how the assumptions that we might bring to a young black man in the dock charged with murder mean that we might be quick to judge him and quick to decide that we know exactly who he is. And in withholding his name, I think Imran points us towards the universality of the story.
You could argue that You Don’t Know Me is ostensibly a love story. Can you introduce us to Kyra and tell us about her, but also how her presence helps to reinforce that love story aspect?
Hero’s girlfriend, Kyra, in some ways, carries the tropes of a classic femme fatale in the noir tradition. She’s a woman who seems to be reluctant to talk about her past and where she’s from. What truly matters to her is books, and she has her nose in a book all the time.
Hero will later have cause to reflect on whether she worked hard enough to answer any questions that he might have had, but also says in counterpoint that when you detect resistance from someone, it feels like it’s unfair to push and prod, and to demand that they share things that discomfort them.
In the story, Kyra forms a major part of Hero’s happy but relatively unexamined life. She’s beautiful. She loves reading. They get on well together. Their days have a simplicity, and it’s only really when the life they have together is broken apart, through her disappearance and the subsequent revelations about why she disappeared, that he truly gets to know her on some level.
And that’s a really interesting game that the book and the adaptation plays: the question of how and when you get to know someone, and once you know the truth of them, whether that changes how you see them and perhaps what you’ll do for them.
What makes the love story so poignant?
I think one of the things I really loved about Hero in the book was his relationship with Kyra and the instincts that he has for her. People talk about emotional intelligence, and I think one of his gifts is reading people closely. That’s not to say that he’s any kind of people detective, but I think it’s the same things that make him a good salesman, a good son and a good boyfriend, is the capacity to perhaps understand what someone needs and to find a way to help them, and I think Kyra enables him to do that.
At the beginning of their relationship it’s in a limited way, and I think one of the things that I really enjoyed writing about them was how he comes to question whether he was drawn to a beautiful girl first and foremost, but he does finally come to know her, the totality of her. I think it’s the fact that he sort of loves her better for that, despite the complications that mark out their relationship as being special.
I think we root for them initially as they’re two beautiful young people falling in love with each other, but later because we see how they are prepared to give up the world for each other and for the others that they love around them.
We also see another interesting sort of dynamic between Hero and his sister, Bless. Can you explain the importance of that?
In the book, a lot more detail is given about Hero and Bless and their shared background, and we didn’t necessarily have the time and the space for that, we wanted to focus on their relationship as we find it today, but there are notes scattered throughout.
One of the things Hero does early on is to tell a story about how he went out to find his sister’s dropped hairband. It was a cheap, old, stained hairband but it mattered to her and even though he is perhaps a little embarrassed to make too much of it, we understand quickly that he is the kind of kid who would go out and look for three hours in various London parks to find some abandoned scrunchie because it matters to her.
I think Bless loves Kyra as well, and it’s obviously a different relationship, but it’s close to sisterly and we see the depth of the affection there. So she matters in this story and to more than just Hero.
There’s a moment where Hero is so hurt by what he discovers about Kyra that he is ready to call that relationship done, and it’s Bless who makes the argument that loving someone substantially and honestly and in the best way possible, means setting aside your own hurts and pains and helping them if they require that help, even if they’ve broken your heart.
She acts as a strong moral voice in that regard, and I think in the end, Hero sees that about his sister as well. She becomes the way that he can measure how he feels about the things that he has done.
His little sister remains his moral compass even though he must take responsibility for tracking her into those difficult places with him.
As part of the screenplay you’ve had to create scenes and scenarios that weren’t in the book. How true do you have to be to the book to make sure that they don’t feel out of place?
I think, when approaching the adaptation of the book, what I’m always trying to get to is the feeling that the book generates. The book can offer the voice of the protagonist as he tells you how he felt at various points, but unless we cover the world in voiceover, we have to kind of look to dramatise those moments and find a way to see him through action, and so some invention is a necessity.
But it’s not sort of invention for its own sake. It’s never trying to simply find something for the camera to do. It’s trying to find a way to articulate in a very different medium, to summon the same emotions as the book.
Those were the things that govern the shape of the adaptation, even if events differed and there was some invention, from innocence to being pulled into a kind of nightmare, to someone who experiences the profound grief and the bewilderment of not understanding how to help someone else.
And then finally, into somebody who makes some profound choices about what he is prepared to do to protect the people he loves.
I think the book offers us a portrait of a young man who is given a series of impossible decisions to make and navigates them as best he can, always questioning how far he’s prepared to go, and at what point his desire to help the people he loves turns him into someone that he ultimately won’t be able to live with.
I was aiming for the adaptation to deliver those feelings and those emotions and to take the audience on that same journey.
The book clearly has a very strong political message about the nature of British society and the legal system. How much weight do you have to give that when you were adapting the story?
Imran has a lot of experience as a criminal barrister, and that’s what he drew from when he came up with the idea for this book.
One of the things that I was really struck by when talking to him, and I think he comments on this and in the book’s introduction as well, is that so many times Imran has dealt with clever young people who he could readily see in a different life.
These people would have been doing great things, they’d have been using their talents to achieve a huge amount and instead, but events conspire to restrict their view of what’s possible.
He has come to have a great deal of affection for a lot of the people who he’s represented. There is that note of real regret that by the time they are in his charge their choices have narrowed and are narrowing further. There is that sort of thread of anger that runs through the book but it’s also very human and very empathetic, and we try to carry that forward into the adaptation.
It would be reductive to simply offer a world where gangsters have drugs and guns and knives and all the money and there is nothing more to them. Instead, we’ve tried to honour the book’s intentions by laying out the complexity of some of these choices, how for some people, it is a lack of opportunity. While there is greed and a desire to have more and to get ahead, the way in which they use crime is a shortcut to get to those places is no less plausible than the shortcuts that wealthier or more privileged people frequently avail themselves of.
I hope in characters like Jamil we see that complexity, that desire to keep his options open and to move quicker than the world perhaps will allow him to, and to be a good son to his parents and to keep their respect and to try and find his way through that.
We also see the hubris of imagining that you can make the choices that he makes and emerge unscathed, and that too is Imran’s experience by the time he sees people in court. They have not gotten away with it, even if they walk free.
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