Interview: Black Watch playwright Gregory Burke talks ’71, and moving from theatre to film
‘I'm not into theatre! Even when I was working in theatre, I never went to the theatre!’
‘I've always wanted to shirk responsibility wherever I can in life,’ laughs Gregory Burke. The Fife-born playwright is best known for the Olivier Award-winning drama Black Watch about British soldiers in Iraq – and he jumped at the chance to write his first feature, '71. ‘In film, it's the director who carries the can,’ he says, ‘which I quite enjoyed after spending many a theatre opening night going, “I hate this because it's going to be me that gets judged.”’
That's not to say Burke, 46, is detaching himself from the film. Directed by Yann Demange, '71 has already garnered plaudits and prizes, beginning at the Berlin Film Festival where it premiered and picked up an award from the Ecumenical Jury. A pulsating political thriller set in Belfast in 1971, it follows young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) as he gets separated from his platoon.
Burke was partly inspired by Mel Gibson's Mayan-set action-adventure Apocalypto - which also features a man on the run in a foreign environment. ‘That was basically it - Apocalypto set in Belfast.’ Well, that and Homer's The Odyssey, where the hero journeys across islands facing friends or foes. ‘He's just a young man, out of his depth,’ says Burke. ‘All of a sudden, he just has to survive by animal cunning.’
While the film shows various factions on the hunt for the missing soldier, Hook's scenes are almost stripped bare of dialogue - a deliberate choice by Burke to avoid accusations of being 'too theatrical'. ‘I'm not into theatre!’ he protests. ‘Even when I was working in theatre, I never went to the theatre! I like films. I've always liked films and television. That's what I grew up on.’
It seems a strange thing to say, given his success as a dramatist. But Burke maintains that when he sat down to write his debut, Gagarin Way, it simply emerged, unintentionally, as a play. Picked up and produced by Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, before transferring to London, suddenly he was snowed under with more theatre commissions. ‘I became a playwright by accident,’ he laughs.
His last play was 2009's Hoors, and the Dunfermline-based writer has now turned his attention fully towards TV and film. He's working on a series for Channel 4 and has several movies in development - all of which he's too superstitious to talk about. And Hollywood? He's been for meetings, but there’s been nothing so far. ‘You can see it on the horizon but it's not quite there yet,’ he nods. Expect that to change.
'71 opens on Fri 10 Oct.