BFI Working Class Heroes - Bullet Boy (2004), with Catherine Johnson

Our own Theo Jones speaks to Catherine Johnson, co-writer of the screenplay for Bullet Boy (2004).

The BFI’s forthcoming Working Class Heroes festival will see the 2004 film Bullet Boy make a return to the big screen complete with the original screenplay that you co-wrote with the film’s director, Saul Dibb. Can you tell us a little about how the collaboration came about?

I was working at Holloway prison as writer in residence when I got a call - which was unusual as I didn't have an office (or a mobile at that time).  The production company had called Centerprise (the now closed community and lit dev centre in Dalston) and asked for recommendations of writers who;

  1. Knew Hackney
  2. Could write families

And Centerprise had recommended me. To be honest when they called me in for a meeting I had cold feet - even over ten years ago it seemed like the only story that ever got told about black Britain was boys and guns - but my writing group reminded me that if I didn't do it someone else would.

Then amazingly the director turned out to be my next door (but one) neighbour. So I knew where he lived!

I had trained at film school and my first ever paid writing job was screenwriting so it seemed like something I could do.


Bullet Boy has been celebrated for its naturalistic tone, with the dialogue often appearing improvised. How important were issues of authenticity to you in writing the script?

Saul Dibb came out of documentaries and this was what he wanted. The dialogue was improvised but the structure of the film wasn't. As a youngish mother living in Hackney at the time I wanted it to show crime as completely unglamorous.


The film was to quickly become the most commercially successful black British film to date. Did you take any particular inspiration from (or want to offer a reaction to) any pre-existing works of cinema originating either from the UK or abroad [for example the widely-celebrated 1995 French drama ‘La Haine’ directed and written by Mathieu Kassovitz]?

Film is a massive joint enterprise, we were lucky to have a phenomenal cast, director and crew. My only input was the script and all i wanted was that it should be a 'classic' tragedy.


What would you say the casting of former So Solid Crew member Ashley Walters brought to the film?

Ashley is such a great actor. It was incredible to see him work. He did change the film as once he was cast it seemed clear that the focus should go from Curtis, the younger brother, to Ricky, the character he played.


Bullet Boy was also acclaimed for its soundtrack by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja which was subsequently released as an album. How important was the interplay between the music and the script – which of course includes not just words spoken but extends to settings and scene development - to you? Were you surprised by any moments that perhaps you felt had been lent new meaning or nuance by the addition of the music?

Again I had no input with this! The writers work is done before the film goes into production. I thought it was beautiful though and so well judged.


The initial release of the film was met with a certain degree of controversy. Would you anticipate the receipt of the film by today’s audiences to be contrasting in any way?

What's depressing is the lack of different stories/films that get into production about black Britain. It's only recently that we’ve seen films that aren't about gangs or guns, Belle and Been So Long come to mind. Let's hope for more. I would imagine that today's audiences might imagine that the film is a sort of rip off of the first series of Top Boy.....


What cinematic releases are you enjoying at the moment?

Oooh, I don't get out as much as I'd like. And as I live in Hastings it is ages before the new stuff gets down here. I like Black Panther - didn't everyone! - and I am looking forward to The Favourite and BlacKkKlansman. The other film I have really enjoyed in the past years include the UK made on a shoestring Lady Macbeth.


What advice would you give to an emerging writer with particular interest in screenplay?

Write loads and watch a lot of films!


What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on a film project that has been funded by the BFI but am not sure if I'll jinx it if I talk about it! Also a few books....


What do you see as the being the most significant trend in cinema currently?

God, I feel out of the loop on this. I have been lucky enough to write one feature which got made. I live in Hastings and I like to go swimming and knitting, I'm not in the heart of anything or any trends....


What change would you most like to see to the film industry?

Inclusivity. There are not enough POC or women helming projects.


What inspires you?

At the moment? I would say the sea. It's a different colour every day!

The BFI are offering our members 2 for 1 on ticket sales when booking online, in person or via phone. The code WORKING241 should be quoted at the time of booking. Valid for standard price screenings only and not the £6.50 events.


For more information and to book tickets please click here.