Mike Carey on The Girl with All the Gifts
Mike Carey on writing simultaneously in two media, drawing inspiration from myth, and throwing away the How-To guides
For most people, writing either a novel or a screenplay would be challenge enough. But not Mike Carey.
Not content with a successful career in comics (X-Men, The Fantastic Four), he recently created a story as both a novel and a screenplay simultaneously. The result? The Girl with All the Gifts, both a bestselling book, and an upcoming film starring Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton.
The Girl’s post-apocalyptic narrative focuses on a talented young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who is infected by the fungus which turns humans into zombies. But the heart of the film is Melanie’s relationship with her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who can see past Melanie’s bestial exterior to the innocent within.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Carey about writing simultaneously in two media, drawing inspiration from myth, and throwing away the How-To guides.
Spoiler Alert: This article contains important story reveals.
What was your elevator pitch or logline for The Girl with All the Gifts?
The pitching process was very unusual, because I was working with Camille Gatin on a completely different project, and we’d got quite a long way forward in that development process. Then the rights were entailed away from us, and we couldn’t proceed any more.
So there was a point when Camille turned to me and said, “Well, what else could we work on?” I said, “Maybe something post-apocalyptic?” She said “yes”, so I handed her my short story Iphigenia In Aulis.
The short story was the pitch for the movie, just as it was the pitch for the novel. Everything flowed from that.
What was it like writing the novel and the screenplay simultaneously?
It was very liberating, and creatively very exciting. People have sometimes asked me, “Didn’t they get in each other’s way? Wasn’t it hard for you to keep the two versions straight in your head?” But actually what I found was that working on the two back to back was like inhabiting that narrative space, that world, the whole time I was awake for something like the best part of a year.
It was finding two different sets of solutions for the same narrative problems, because there are some things that work really well in the movie but don’t work in the novel, and vice versa. Although they converge on the same ending, they travel along different roads for good and sufficient reasons.
Can you think of aspects of one that educated you with the other?
Point of view. In the novel we have five different points of view. It’s Melanie to start with, and then we feed in Justineau, Parks, Caldwell and Gallagher. The movie is entirely Melanie’s point of view.
I think novels are extremely well-adapted for showing the interiority of characters. It is one of the things they do very well, and is a relatively easy thing in a novel to switch point of view. You can signal it very economically just by changing the style of the prose, or just by having a chapter break. There are formal conventions that cue it up for the reader.
Having noodled with a version of the movie that worked in that way, I decided – or we decided, Colm, Camille and I – it was never going to work. Movies don’t lend themselves to that in the same way, and having continual shifts of point of view in the movie would have been disorientating and would have weakened Melanie’s emotional through-line, which is crucial to the story.
That means we have to handle some of the exposition completely differently than the way it’s handled in the novel.
In the novel you know what Caldwell’s research is because you are privy to her thoughts and feelings about it. That doesn’t happen in the movie, so it has to happen through dialogue.
There were some things which we kept trying to put in and couldn’t. I very badly wanted to have the David Attenborough footage of Cordyceps at the end, and the fungal mycelia growing up, the fruiting body coming up out of the ant’s head.
I kept trying to put that in, and it kept not quite working. It was a good scene – we moved it from spot to spot around the film and in the end we decided there was no place for it.
David Attenborough’s Cordyceps footage.
Warning: this video contains disturbing imagery
Would you recommend doing the two at once?
It was a breakthrough for me. I’d done a fair bit of screenwriting before and a lot of the work that I’d done previously had suffered from an over specificity, from being written like a comic with extremely detailed art direction.
I did a lot of TV, mostly for animated series coming out of small European studios. Oddly the highest profile thing I did was called Sphericks, a sci-fi cartoon featuring the mascots from the 2002 World Cup. I think it was broadcast throughout the world, but in strange, niche channels!
Doing the two side by side clarified certain things for me, and I came out of it much, much more confident, and much more skilled at pacing a screenplay.
A screenplay has multiple audiences. It’s got to work as a template for the director, the actors, and the cinematographer. It’s also got to be a selling document for potential production partners.
Before writing The Girl with All the Gifts, I don’t think I’d ever succeeded in cracking the conundrum of addressing the different constituencies.
In the screenplay, Melanie initially kills soldiers not junkers, doesn’t save Park’s life at the gates, and most certainly doesn’t “Save the Cat!”. Why this darker protagonist?
Is she darker? We’re certainly not fighting shy of that darker side of her nature.
When you’re seeing an actress embody that role, then you’re looking at a child, so a lot of the stuff that has to be signalled in the novel about her innocence and her vulnerability, is already there in front of you in the film. Therefore you don’t have to dwell on it.
Part of the answer is that you’ve got that counter-balance, so you go dark because you can.
There was one dark thing that you didn’t have happen in the screenplay, which is the horror of figuring out Caldwell’s vivisection mentality.
In both of the versions the scene where Melanie is on the dissection table and is about to be cut up was one of the harder scenes to write.
When I was doing the scene in the novel I was writing in a subway carriage, and I got to that point and I had this strange claustrophobia. I had to close my machine down and stop. It was a few hours before I could come back to it.
In the movie I think that it is quite a visually-shocking moment, when she is strapped down and you see the tray of scalpels next to her head, and you realise what’s going to happen. Caldwell has the line “I’m not going to cut through a cranial strand.” It’s hard to contemplate, isn’t it?
I’m working on a screenplay at the moment that included in the first draft a seven-year-old child who self harms. The producers have said “We can’t do this, we simply can’t do this; there’s a visual spectacle that is just too dislocating and too disturbing.”
We found another way to get that beat in. Children being harmed, or children being threatened with harm, is the last taboo in visual media.
In either the book or the screenplay, did you ever consider a more conventional conclusion?
Very early on we did. I can remember working on drafts in which they get to Beacon, and the question was “What’s awaiting them when they get to Beacon?”
I was toying with a version where they get there and they find the walls already down and the whole place deserted, and it would be a question of what they did then. But very early on I got the idea for Melanie as Pandora, and it being about her decision to give the world to humanity 2.0. To the children.
It was a fairly quick decision. We did toy with ending the quest with the arrival, and then we decided it was much better not.
What’s the connection between The Girl with All the Gifts and the mythical story of Pandora?
There is a line of dialogue, when Justineau is telling the story in class, she translates Pandora as ‘she who brings gifts’, which was our original working title for the movie. So it’s there, but it is “blink and you’ll miss it.”
There are different myths in the different versions of the story. In the short story it’s Iphigenia, the story of the Trojan War. The novel it’s Pandora, and in the movie it’s both Pandora and The Odyssey.
There is a scene in the classroom where Justineau is reading the bit from The Odyssey where they’ve arrived on Circe’s island, and Odysseus’s crew have been transformed into pigs. Odysseus says, “If that were to happen to me I would rather die by my own hand than become an animal,” which prefigures Parks’s request at the end to Melanie to shoot him rather than allow him to become a Hungry.
I think the important thing in each case was that this is a child who has no experience of the real world at all. She’s grown up in this very confined space, two rooms and a corridor. All she’s got to make a map of her own experience, to draw any conclusion about what the world is and what she is, are the stories that she’s been exposed to in class.
Stories are part of our internal furniture. That’s an obsession of mine, because it’s something I come back to in a lot of the things I write.
Did the studio apply any pressure to rename the film “Zombie Girl”?
Not at all. But it was the studio that eventually took us back from She Who Brings Gifts to The Girl with All the Gifts.
A lot of the production partners favoured She Who Brings Gifts, because they thought it was pithier, and they thought it avoided the “The Girl” because there are so many movies and novels that have that formulation.
But Warner said “If you change the title from the title of the book, you are then forced to use part of the marketing spend to tell people that this is the same story as that of the book. You’re diluting that word of mouth effect.” They persuaded the other production partners to go with the change back to The Girl with All the Gifts.
Which made me very happy on the whole, because although I can see the attractions of both titles, I’ve always loved the alliteration of The Girl with All the Gifts.
I also like it because there’s an ambiguity about the word “gift” in The Girl with All the Gifts – does that mean presents, or does that mean attributes? Whereas She Who Brings Gifts, it has to be physical gifts.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
Yes, I wish I had one!
I work very long hours, but I work in a very unstructured way. I get up early, I sit at the machine, I pooter about answering emails and visiting Twitter until I feel the spirit move. I start writing, then I get very easily distracted…
Whenever I hit an obstacle in a script or in a story, I’ll stop and do something else, play a little game, or do a little surfing of websites… then come back a little bit later on. I might just have a cup of tea or coffee, then come back, stare out the window…There was a period of life when I used to play a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog on an old Sega Megadrive.
So I start early, finish late, but it would be misleading to say that I work long hours, because a lot of the time in between is footling. I think I would be dangerous if I were organised!
For a long time, I used to feel really guilty about the hours that I spent doing silly unproductive things. Finally, I made my peace with it, because I think in a way they are on times as well as off times. When you’re not working, your mind is processing the thing you’ve blocked on. When you come back, the block has gone. You can actually carry on, move forward.
Having said that, it’s different for each medium. If I’m writing a comic, I know exactly how long it takes me to write a comic strip. It’s one day to plan, one day to block, one day to write. I can do that without any problem whatsoever.
If I’m writing a novel, a good day is 2000 words. I can sometimes do more than that, but if I do 2000 words, I feel like I’ve earned my right to live.
Screenplays, I haven’t clue! On a good day I can write ten pages, twelve pages, on a bad day I can write one. It’s much, much harder to budget time for screenwriting.
Screenwriting is the most compressed form of writing I’ve ever done. In terms of the sort of data loading of each beat it is the most intense.
Every single beat has to count in a screenplay. There can’t be a wasted word or a wasted moment. When you’re taking edit notes in a screenplay it comes down to “What is that line doing? Why is that line there?” You have to justify every single word on the page.
You don’t have to do that in a novel, you don’t have to do that in a comic. There is more room for grace notes and there’s more room for just pissing around.
Does your background in comics support your eye for a good scene in a screenplay?
I think writing comics is an excellent teacher for other forms of writing.
It was a breakthrough for me in terms of structuring a story because when you’re writing prose, the canvas is of infinite size.
When I started writing novels, I wrote them with no structure whatsoever. They were long, they were rambly, and they were unpublishable for those reasons.
When you’re writing in a monthly comic you have 17, 20, or 22 pages, and there’s no negotiating about that. If you run out of pages before you run out of story, you’re screwed.
Writing comics forces you to budget consciously both at the macro level of the issue, and the micro level of the scene. “How long is this scene? If I can cut it down to one page, I can have a splash page over here.”
It teaches you that discipline. Coming back off that into writing novels, it is much easier to use the freedom, having worked within the restraints.
I think the other thing it teaches you is to use the graphic medium, use the visual dimension first, and then use the dialogue alongside and around the visuals.
The visual effect of the page is crucial in a comic. You add in, you layer in commentary through captions and dialogue and sound effects or whatever. But you start with the visuals. The art direction comes first.
I think that is a very useful way of approaching a screenplay: to see dialogue as in some way the last resort, rather than the first.
The Girl with All the Gifts throws a lot of classic rules of screenplays out the window. Say, the Disney-Pixar model, the idea of someone who has got a flaw that has to be fixed so that they can triumph. This goes in a different direction, but in the end you realise, “That makes complete sense.”
I wasn’t being consciously iconoclastic.
There’s a sense in which it functions on a lot of different levels. Most movies do I suppose. But it’s partly a coming-of-age story, it’s partly an etiological myth, an origin story for a new civilisation, it’s partly a road movie. There are, I guess, conventions that are working against each other in ways which sometimes turned out to be quite productive and interesting.
But I tend not to read How-To guides. I’ve read a little bit of Syd Field, I’ve read a little bit of Vogler, and I’ve read a little bit of McKee on story. But at a certain point I tend to get discouraged and stop because I don’t like structuralism.
I see the point of structuralism, but there seems to be a stultifying effect that comes from dwelling on the fact that when you take away all the things that make stories unique, yes, they start resembling each other.
That doesn’t strike me as a deep insight. I would rather get things wrong by playing with a set of ideas, a set of characters, a set of situations, and then seeing what structure arises. I’d rather do that than start from the sense that “This story needs to do X, Y and Z in order to be shapely,” in order to be fit for purpose.
You often make use of myth in your writing. Is this something you tap into, instead of structure in the Vogler sense, to give your stories their backbone?
That is certainly something that I do a lot. I think it’s something that most writers do unconsciously, even if there’s not aware that they’re doing it.
All stories are haunted by other stories, by the semi-digested remnants of other stories. There is an American critic, Bloom, who wrote a book called The Anxiety of Influence, and another called A Map of Misreading, which basically claims that you can look at any text at all and see it as a creative misunderstanding or misinterpretation of another text. While that is probably over-stating the point, I do think all stories have other stories virtually present within them.
One of the things that teaches you to write stories is loving stories as a member of the audience. When you write, you are recapitulating your experience as a reader. Those are structural models, aren’t they? Though they are much more implicit structural models.
I’m fascinated by story. I’m fascinated by story as one of the cornerstones of existence. I really do believe that we are story.
You know the witness effect, in social psychology? The bystander effect, I think it’s called. People behave differently according to who is with them. So if you’re seeing a crime in progress and no one else intervenes, you won’t intervene.
There’s a lot of research like that which suggests that our personalities are much more situational than we realise. As we move from one role to another, from one situation to another, our behavioural and attitudinal sets change. We have different toolboxes for who we are. I think a lot of those toolboxes come from story.
Some psychologist reckoned that our sense of self has a narrative structure to it. That as you go from situation to situation, changing, changing, changing, the through-line is the story that you tell yourself about who you are, and why you did this, and what it was that you did. In that sense we are stories.
Film adaptations of graphic novels are sometimes criticised for focussing on appearance and action over characterisation and emotional content. Do you think this is a fair analysis?
My go-to example for this is Watchmen. Having been influenced by the comic book, as my generation of comics writers were, I came to Zack Snyder’s movie with very high expectations.
For the first I guess half hour or 40 minutes, I was thinking, “This is so, so good. This gets everything right.” Then I ended up bitterly disappointed and somewhat disgusted as I gradually realised that what it had gotten right was the veneer. The surface textures were perfect, but soul, the emotional core, was simply absent.
I think Snyder looks at a comic page and then he reproduces perfectly the beats of that page. He gets so wrapped up in that, he forgets that that landscape has to have figures in it.
You get to the moment in Watchmen when Laurie finds out who her dad is, which in the comic hits you like a runaway train. It’s incredibly powerful, and incredibly moving. But in the film it’s just not there, it has no presence.
I wonder whether Snyder would have done Watchmen differently if he hadn’t come straight from 300. Because 300 is a comic that is all about visual style, and I’ve watched 300 and I’ve enjoyed it a lot, because it is great eye candy and really the comic is no more than that. But Watchmen is so much more, so the movie therefore falls a lot shorter.
The interesting thing about Watchmen, which I only noticed watching it the second time, with my kids – who are all grown up, I hasten to add – was where he’s deviated from the iconography of the actual comic, he’s done it by adding in visceral violence. The scene where Dan and Laurie walk down the alley and are trapped by the bikers, and they have that cathartic fight which leads them to their sexual moment, he adds in bones breaking, arms bending backwards, bone coming through flesh, much more blood.
The comic is pretty oblique at that point. I think there’s one scene in the comic, one panel where Laurie uses her fingers to break someone’s nose. That’s as visceral as it gets. Whereas the movie is an orgy at that point.
Do you have any advice for screenwriters?
I think that it really helps to read other screenplays. Look at a range of styles to see how other people have solved the problems you are now facing.
I think it is a very difficult form to master, and I think one of the greatest tools you have is this online database of screenplays. Especially when you can get multiple drafts of the same screenplays and look at how the film developed.
Stay away from the How-To guides. McKee is a smart man, but I don’t think that’s a great book.
I think Story is in some ways a trap for the unwary, because it leads you to the conclusion that there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. There are a lot of different ways to do it, and you have to find the way or ways that works for you.
Weirdly, it is going to be different for every project. You’re not going to do the same thing again and again. Or if you are, you’re not going to be very good!
You solve a set of problems in a way that works for the story you are on. That certainly helps you to do the same process for another story, but it will be a different set of problems.