• Industry

Gaby Chiappe: An Ordinary Woman Doing Extraordinary Things

It was very clear to Gaby Chiappe that the lead character in AMC’s The Beast Must Die would have to be a woman. The screenwriter, who was about to adapt Nicholas Blake’s 1938 novel into a TV thriller series, felt that the story about a parent who loses a child to a traffic accident would be easier for her to relate to if the character were a woman. In the original story, the lead was a man. However, the character’s mindset in seeking to find the person responsible for the death and kill him or her was less familiar to Gaby Chiappe; and from pondering that, the psyche of a woman who is on a mission to become a killer became fascinating to her. How does an ordinary woman do such an extraordinary thing? How do you go from having the instinct to kill and seek revenge to actually doing it? We spoke about this to Gaby Chiappe, who is also the writer behind The Finest (2016), The Level (2016) and Shetland (2014-2016) from her office in Leeds, United Kingdom.

The Beast Must Die is based on a book by Cecil Day-Lewis, written as Nicholas Blake, from 1938, which you have adapted into a series for television. What attracted you to the project?

The original story is about a man whose only child is hit and killed by a speeding car – the police fail to find the driver and he becomes obsessed with finding them himself and killing them. He’s a single parent and his child is gone and there is nobody else. He’s trying to find a reason to stay alive, and revenge becomes his reason and his purpose. But it’s such a dangerous lifeline to reach for, because if you achieve it, what is different? What has changed? Your loss has not changed. I think the idea of somebody holding on to that feeling of murderousness, keeping it alive in order to have a purpose in life is what really gripped me. Then I watched the film (it’s a partial adaptation made in the 1960s by Claude Chabrol) and I found that I kept imagining the lead character as a woman, a mother. The idea of the avenging father perhaps feels more familiar now than it did when the book was written; but also, I felt I’d watched an awful lot of films with men driving the action and I realized I had a hunger to be watching a woman doing these things: an ordinary woman doing something absolutely extraordinary. That’s one of the other things that drew me to the project – the character’s ordinariness. It’s sort of the opposite of Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, where he has a special set of skills. Frances, the bereaved mother, has no skills or experience which equips her to become a murderer. The book really mines the truthfulness of that experience. You have quite a grand proposition – I am going to find him and kill him – but in real life, how would that work? How would it feel moment by moment? How would you become a liar? A manipulator? That is what I found fascinating. The idea of a woman – the character that Cush Jumbo plays so amazingly – is on a tightrope where she cannot afford to look down. She cannot afford to look anywhere but in front of her – the stakes are getting higher and higher. And the risk that she will be found out becomes greater and greater and she just keeps pushing on. It’s such a compelling idea.


Apart from that, what were the most significant changes you made to the story, and why did you decide to make them?

The book was written with a very strong sense that it was a contemporary novel – quite edgy and very much based in the modern world. If I’d left it in the 1930s it would have lost that sense of happening now, in the world we all live in. And there was a danger it would have felt safer, tamer – part of the genre of heritage crime, which wouldn’t have felt at all true to the spirit of the book. So, I set it now, in our present. And once you make the decision to set it in the present, there are all sorts of knock-on changes you have to make: police forensics have changed, the class system has changed, social mores have changed. As is often the case with adaptation, to preserve the spirit you end up changing the mechanics. But the emotional core of the novel is unchanged.

It is a very dark show that deals with grief, trauma, PTSD and emotional abuse. And it is a show about a mother whose grief is all-consuming. You mentioned that you felt you would relate more to the character if she were a woman. Do you prefer writing female characters?

No. I don’t prefer writing female characters. I do relate to Frances, although she is much braver than I am. I’m the mother of sons so I guess I understand that part of the experience – but I am not like her. George, who is the person she thinks killed her son, is a monster, but he is a really believable monster, and I tried really hard to bring out something in him that I felt I could recognize. He’s the kind of man who constantly tries to make you complicit: inviting you to collude, to agree with things and opinions with which you’re uncomfortable. He’s controlling the conversation, always. If men like George were not also charming and often funny to be around, they would not succeed in the way they do. The character of Strangeways, the detective, also really drew me. So, I had three characters who all fascinated me in different ways.

Do you think women have a different voice from men? Is there such a thing as a “female voice?”

I don’t know. I think there are different sensibilities, but I am not sure that you can be so clear-cut about it. I think your voice has to do with your lived experiences: I suppose that is what diversity in the creative industry is about – you need a proper variety of lived experiences. As a woman, I never mind watching something that has no women in it, but I really mind watching things that have token women who behave like no woman that I have ever met. That really bothers me. 

Do you think it is more challenging being a female in this business?

Not long ago the Writers Guild of Great Britain analyzed the number of women who write screenplays and write prime-time television, and the statistics were appalling. I have been very, very lucky.

You worked with a male director, Dome Karukoski, on The Beast Must Die, but you have also worked with two female directors in the past – Lone Scherfig on Their Finest and Philippa Lowthorpe on Misbehavior. Is there a difference?

That is really interesting. I think it is hard for me to see it as any other thing than the personalities of the people involved. The thing that Dome and I had to contend with was Covid striking before we started filming – we had been working together in the same room and then suddenly that had to become a long-distance relationship, and so we would send emails back and forth and talk on Zoom, and the practicalities of that dominated. I didn’t have time to think about gender. 

When I talk to actors about working with Lone Scherfig, they always describe her as very maternal. What was your experience with her?

When I worked with Lone, I had nothing to compare her to. But now I do, and yes, she is very mothering and very nurturing. The two female film directors I worked with both kept an incredibly calm set. They are not similar people but they both have a very maternal energy. You feel very safe. You feel very sure the work will get done and you feel very nurtured. They are both brilliant mothers.

Your previous works were The Finest (2016), The Level (2016) and Shetland (2014-2016) – do you see a common thread in what you work on?

Well, the common thread for me is that I have been interested in all those stories. Often, I have been sent projects to read, and I can see that they would make good television, but I don’t have any chemistry with them. I would watch them, but there is no fire in me that makes me want to write them. There are some projects you just know you’re the audience for, not the writer. And when you do find something that you want to write, it is like meeting somebody you want to be with. You are anxious that somebody else might get there first or get chosen over you. If I know that I will be heartbroken if it goes to another writer, then I know it’s the right chemistry. To work on something, you have to live with it for years, so you have to really, really love it. If you are not fed by the material, if it is not giving you energy, then it is just too hard a slog.

It is about attraction.

Yes! It is exactly like meeting a person and having an attraction for them. It is exactly the same feeling. 

Talk about your working environment, where you are the most creative.

When my sons were teenagers, I started renting an office around the corner because I was so tired of having my computer screen (the best in the house) hi-jacked by the boys. I would literally go to the toilet, and I would come back and my eldest son would be on my computer playing a game of Rome Total War and he would be like, “No, no, no – just let me finish this.” So, for that reason, and also to have a divide between home and work, I got an office. Also, now I look out of a big window onto the real world, and when you are spending all your time in your own head, it is quite good to look out at real things happening and real people because otherwise, it is not really good for your mental health.

What are you working on now?

I have just finished a pilot for a potential second series of The Beast Must Die and I am waiting to hear if that will happen – I very much hope it will. And I have other things in development that I am very excited about.