Jonathan Asser and Olivia Hetreed

‘Overnight success as a writer took me 20 years’

“Tough and terrific”, “violently poetic”, “brutal and brilliant” represent just some of the critical acclaim piled upon prison drama Starred Up when it was released in cinemas (in the UK, in March 2014).

It was the debut screenplay for its writer Jonathan Asser, who went on to garner awards including Best British Newcomer at the London Film Festival 2014 and the Writers’ Guild Award for Best First Screenplay 2015.

The film focuses on 19-year-old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a young offender who is transferred to an adult prison early because of his violence (‘starred up’). Here he meets his father Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), who he hasn’t seen since he was placed into care when he was five years old. He also undergoes group therapy with Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), a character which draws heavily upon Asser’s own experience as a therapist in prisons.

The film was an overnight success, although Asser – in conversation with Writers’ Guild President Olivia Hetreed following the recent WGGB screening of Starred Up – qualifies this modestly.

“I’m 51 now and I started writing in my 20s. So really, by the time I got my break, it was 20 years of overnight success. I did 15 years of Arvon courses. I started with novels, but that didn’t feel quite right. I moved on to poetry… and then to film, which felt 100 per cent right.”

Along the way of his long journey to success as a screenwriter Asser trained as an English teacher, underwent therapy following a breakdown, became a performance poet and a prison therapist working with violent offenders, using SVI (Shame/Violence Intervention) – which works on the theory that violence can be used by some people as a way of moving from feeling belittled to feeling grandiose.

Describing himself as “institutionalised through the boarding school system”, Asser recalls walking into a prison for the first time to perform his poetry and “feeling safe again… It felt like going home.” He describes the “real connection” he felt with “prisoners who had problems with reactive violence when they felt shamed”, and talks about how therapy had helped him, unlike a boarding school associate of his who committed murder. “I attacked myself instead, and broke down, and then went into therapy.”

The father-son relationship is central to Starred Up, although it started off as a nephew-uncle relationship until “someone at Arvon suggested making it more intense”. In fact, Asser highlights the support and encouragement he received from other writers in the six years he was working on the script as essential to his success. A L Kennedy, one of his tutors at Arvon, showed the script to somebody at Sigma Films, and there followed a further two-year period of development with director David Mackenzie.

On set in Northern Ireland, in a disused prison, Asser says he was intimately involved with the filming: “I went on a journey… The actors and director bring huge input but everyone is working from the blueprint you have created.”

The character of prison therapist Oliver might draw heavily on Asser’s experience, but “he’s definitely not me – he becomes violent.” In fact he says all three of the main characters have “aspects of myself… in Freudian terms Eric is my ‘id’, Nev my ‘super ego’ and Oliver the ego that negotiates between those opposing forces.”

When Olivia Hetreed observes that there are few women in the film, he replies that this was part of his experience of being institutionalised: “At boarding school girls were an alien species. However, the third film that I have written has a female lead character. I feel I have nailed it!”

Success as a screenwriter has brought many opportunities but also overwhelming demands.“There is a lot of pressure to take everything on but I’ve learnt to assert myself. In a similar way to SVI where you have to get in early before the shame builds up, I’ve learnt to say no.”

The screening of Starred Up and Q&A with Olivia Hetreed and Jonathan Asser were part of WGGB’s Celebrating the Writer series, organised by the WGGB Film Committee. Keep up-to-date with other film events in the film section of our website.

Above photo of Jonathan Asser (left) and Olivia Hetreed (right): Sarah Woodley