From Stage to Screen with ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ Screenwriter Tom MacRae
By Sadie Dean • September 16, 2021
Screenwriter Tom MacRae talks about his new film and musical 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie', writing in historical and personal significance into the movie and adapting his stage play to a film. Plus, he shares insight on his lyric writing process and offers advice for scribes interested in writing a musical.
Inspired by true events, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is the film adaptation of the award-winning hit musical from London’s West End, about Jamie New (newcomer Max Harwood), a teenager in a blue collar English town with a dream of life on stage. While his classmates plan their livelihoods after graduation, Jamie contemplates revealing his secret career ambition as a fierce and proud drag queen. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving mom (Sarah Lancashire) shower him with endless support while local drag legend Miss Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant) mentors him toward his debut stage performance. But it’s not all rainbows for Jamie as his unsupportive dad (Ralph Ineson), an uninspired career advisor (Sharon Horgan), and some ignorant school kids attempt to rain on his sensational aspirations. In rousing and colorful musical numbers, Jamie and his community inspire one another to be more accepting, and to see the value in facing adversity and stepping out of the darkness into the spotlight.
I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with screenwriter Tom MacRae about his new film and musical Everybody's Talking About Jamie, and how a TV documentary about a young boy named Jamie seared itself into his brain, writing in historical and personal significance into the movie and adapting his stage play to a film. Plus, he shares insight on his lyric writing process and offers advice for scribes interested in writing a musical.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was it about the documentary that caught your eyes specifically about Jamie and his mom?
Tom MacRae: Jonathan Bottrell, the director and Dan Sells, the co-creator saw the documentary just by chance, just flicking through TV channels one night. And so, we met with Jonathan because he had an almost go project, it had been sort of tentatively picked up by the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, which is where Jonathan is from. And that's why we set Jamie there, because the actual Jamie Campbell is from Newcastle. Dan and I who have been friends for a long time, we met and completely by chance we were both looking to kind of pool our expertise and make a musical, which we didn't know how to do. And obviously, well, obviously to us, Johnny was very experienced, because he had done all these shows on Broadway, but he'd never seen a project through from inception as a director. It was new territory for him as well. But as soon as I saw the documentary, I only watched it once, I watched it and then I had to go away and create a new world.
That's why it's called Jamie New. Whereas Jamie's actually Jamie Campbell. And that was literally me doing that thing that Dickens used to do, where he'd come up with the character names and then invent the character around them. I thought, well, he's got to be new. By doing that, it kind of gave Jamie Campbell, permission to say, ‘Well, I didn't do that. And that's not quite right. It's not quite me.’ Actually, he's embraced it fully and said that even the bits I made up, to the point where the family found it quite spooky at first I kind of got right to conversations with Jamie and his dad, which the documentary only follows Jamie's mom. Pritta, Dean, all of that is invention, we never see inside the school, they weren't allowed to film there. We never meet Jamie's dad; he didn't want to be on camera. What is entirely true to life and happens in the documentary just as it does in the film and the stage show is at the end when Jamie goes to the prom and he's told he can't go in, and all of his class come out and say, “if you don't let him in, then we're not going in,” that really happened. That's all on film. It's the end of the documentary. And it's an extraordinary moment because you really don't expect it and it's very moving. As soon as Dan and I saw it we were like, yeah, we can see how this works as a musical. A story that sang.
So, I watched it once and I didn't look at it again until after it had been on stage. And I was amazed by things that I didn't think I remembered, like Margaret saying, “He's my boy.” Which is a big song. That's just a line she has in the documentary. And I sort of thought I'd made that up. Whereas when Jamie says, “I'm a boy who sometimes wants to be a girl.” I thought that was from the documentary. And then when I re-watched, it, I realized, ‘No, I had made that up.’ It was a kind of deliberately a sort of slightly vague dreamy space as to where the documentary ended and we began, because I just wanted to go off and have the freedom to create. But in doing that, it took us full circle back to where the Campbells lives had actually been. And when we got to meet them, they were sort of bowled over, Margaret kept saying to me, “how did you know, but how did you know?” and I just made it up. But that was the stage show. And we got two weeks on the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield at the end of the first week walk, our producers came to see it and said we want to do a movie. At the end of the second week, Nica Burns, who's our producer in the West End, she came and said I want to take you to the West End. We only thought we'd have two weeks and then suddenly it snowballed from there.
By the time we were seriously talking about doing the movie, because you know how slow these deals are, you got the paperwork together, you know, it's another six months are gone. But then we suddenly had kind of a hit show. Then we got a much bigger budget and we got to have Richard E. Grant. and it just got bigger and bigger really not to the point where it became bloated. It’s never lost its roots, it’s kind of a scrappy, heartfelt human interest show. And now I look back and think, ‘Oh, we didn't have a clue what we were doing.’ But the idea carried us, it really was like the fourth person in the mix, it was me and Dan and Johnny, and always has been all the way through. And then just the spirit of Jamie that kind of guided it.
Sadie: I think that's beautiful, and the eeriness of how you're able to tap into the essence of Jamie and his family.
Tom: I remember playing “He’s My Boy” when it was a demo for a friend of mines mom. And I had it on my iPad, it's just a piano demo, but I played it and I remember she was crying. She went, “How did you know? How did you know?” I remember it's shooting emotional fish in the barrel, the mother's heart. I love my son, but he's gonna leave me, it's just obvious, isn't it? Isn't it obvious to everyone? That's why every mother can respond to it. But then with Margaret, we didn't meet Margaret until the night before we opened the show. And we met her and Margaret said to me, “What is normal anyway is normal for him.” And that's literally a line in the show that I've written. And there's a couple of other things she said that she was quoting my pretend Margaret in the show. And before we left, we said, “Look, when you see the show tomorrow, you're going to think that we went home and rewrote it on what you said, but I promise you we didn't. I didn't really know who Margaret was, I knew who Margaret New was because I'd spent so long inventing her. Margaret Campbell didn't really exist to me, Margaret New did and then when I met her I realized I know she'd been there all along, that the documentary had seared itself kind of so profoundly in me and then I guess just my heart and her heart were aligned and whenever I thought in a scene what would Margaret do, pushed her to do what I thought it turned out that's what she would have done. I've never had anything like that happen before probably never will again, it's very odd.
Sadie: That's incredible. I have goosebumps just hearing that story. It’s nearly every creative person's dream to have that emotional connection. It’s very rare that the writer has created their own source material and gets to adapt from it for a film. Were there any road bumps in that adaptation process? Or were you finding that you're able to pretty much carry over everything scene by scene word for word over into the film that you had in the play?
Tom: Stage and screen have a lot in common, but they're very different. And I think principally that on stage, you don't have the close up and you can't change costume, change setting like that. The whole Jamie stage show I think has about 18 scenes, something like that and18 scenes in the movie doesn't get you to page eight, because you're cutting through and you don't really have a stage show scene that has no dialogue. I mean you might do it to make a clever point, but you're not gonna do it regularly. In the movie, loads of scenes have no dialogue, it's just a look, a glance, it's just someone cycling down the street doing the paper round as we had in the movie. And so, you can't there's no point going, this data is perfect. I'm not changing a word. It doesn't work like that. I changed loads. But everything that's different is because I changed it. Every song that's cut, I cut, nothing was forced on me. And everything is the same I kept because I interrogated and thought this really is the best way of doing it. But scenes on stage can be easily 12 to 14 pages long. And I don't actually know how to write a proper play layout. I was writing in Final Draft as a screenplay, I had to relearn so many things, to write a theater show and to write a musical but I couldn't deal with having to learn how to formulate a page as well.
There are only two speeches in the stage show because these characters don't talk in speeches. The teacher can lecture a bit from the front because they won't interrupt her. The other speeches where Jamie, at the end of Pritti’s song, he tells you the story of his dad catching him dressing up. Because in the movie, the first thing you do is cut that speech and show that it's a flashback, you literally see it. There's nothing to say, you don't need any of that dialogue. Sometimes in a stage production, you're never going to have a photorealistic set or contain a naturalistic set, there's a lot of atmosphere setting. The drag queens outside the club in the stage show, they come out, and they just stand there having a cigarette break on the curb. And they just tell each other dirty jokes. And it’s because we don't get to see the world of the drag club, that just sets up a tone. In the movie, you literally see Jamie walk in, you see him be nervous, you go to the dressing room and hears a couple of the same jokes, you're leaning on those actors to build a whole world around you and you don't need a whole song to sell an idea often.
I love theater, I love film, and I want to make a good film. And a lot of I think when musical movies fail, it's because they're either not brave enough to move away from the source material or in some way the stage creators have got too much power in the process and aren't allowing it and I say that as someone who had all the power in the world and I was going through cutting lines, cutting scenes, cutting songs, I mean the three of us collectively, you know, we talk it through, we would come up with an idea we will like to go with. The fact that we made it as collectively the three of us as a film meant that there's nothing in there that I don't stand behind, there's nothing in there that was a shock or a surprise and we went at it with a hacksaw. And actually, at one point Johnny the director said you need to put some of the stage show stuff back in. I want to write new things. We wrote a few new songs, particularly “This Was Me” which is the big storytelling song which I really love. And we cut one of our favorite songs to make space for it. The songs often are creating not just tone but literally explaining space and making a world feel like it's got more people than it has. We were kind of liberated in a different way. And then we just went with it.
Sadie: There’s that wonderful number from Hugo about the drag culture and it really makes you stop and think especially for Jamie and why he thinks he wants to become a drag queen. How much research were you doing? Were you engaging with drag queens, learning their lingo and mannerisms, to infuse these characters?
Tom: I did a lot of that for the stage show. The way British drag works in the 80s is very different from RuPaul now. It's such a different thing. And it has been around for a very long time, it has been around for a lot longer than AIDS has. But during the 80s, it was almost the kind of the cultural antidote to that, within that world. There’s a line, “every weekend was awake,” because it wasn't, you know, burying their friends every weekend, but every wake was a party. And that's how they dealt with this, how they carried on they were warrior goddesses as it says in the in the screenplay. And with the stage show, characters like Jamie don't get to be central characters very often, I'm sure it's going to change, but I think we may be the first that's really done that where you take this effeminate gay boy, Jamie's never really come out, because there's nothing to say, everyone knows, it's completely clear, and he is very strong, and very feminine at the same time. And those kind of kids normally would be the best friend kind of comic foil to the lead, or they'd die of AIDS in act three. And when we did the stage show, I just want him to win big. He gets everything at the end, and he changes the world around him. And he's 16, he doesn't know about any of the baggage, he just gets on with it.
In the stage show when he meets Hugo for the first time, he has a different song called “The Legend of Loco Chanel and the Blood Red Dress” which is a big bombastic number, which is about saying you have to invent a persona, which is the bad advice Jamie gets because he should just do what he says he wants to do and go to prom in a dress, which is what he ends up doing. But along the way he thinks I've got to become this thing because that's what they used to do. And so, in the song on the stage show, Hugo just sings a story, which is this invented backstory for his character, which is a mix of real things, and deliberately kind of over the top of exaggeration. And so, Jamie takes from that. ‘I've got to become this creation, it’s me, me, me.’ And so when he says to Hugo, “What was it like in the 80s in London?” Hugo lies and tells him this great big parable full of truth but presented as this amazing kind of comic number. And I thought, well, in the movie, why not when Jamie says to Hugo, “What happened in the 80s?” Hugo just tells him the truth. Now maybe we can have a bit of a history lesson. Because in the most part, gay kids don't have gay parents and gay parents don't have gay kids. These stories aren't passed on in the same way. And maybe not until you're older or maybe not ever. So, Jamie, for him drag is RuPaul. It's not his fault. He doesn't know the other stuff. It wasn't on TV. He doesn't know about that other world where they fought and they literally died. And so when he discovers that, it shocks him to his core.
I wanted to kind of engage with that truth and go into that story and have a really sad moment because it's so defining for Hugo and I thought it was really moving to shoot it when we built the AIDS ward where Hugo's love was dying. I was very pleased with the lyrics, I thought they were probably the best ones I'd ever written. And there was some quite tricky rhymes in it that don't sound tricky when you hear it. They just sound very conversational, which is always the hardest thing to do. Try and come up with three "irds" rhymes, birds, words and herds and make that feel like it's organic in a sentence. It took about two weeks to figure out those three lines. And I was so pleased with it. I thought it was wonderful, this lovely box that we built, me and Dan, and it was full of ribbons and bows and lovely detail. And I haven't really actually listened to the lyrics weirdly, having written in my head and listened to them. It was only when we were shooting, and we had the playback. And I heard it and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is so powerful, this is going to really impact people.’ And I actually had to leave because I was genuinely crying. And then when I saw that the first cut of it, I didn't realize it, Johnny put the Diana footage in. And as soon as that came up, again, I was just crying because I remember it happening. I remember the fear of it. And I thought this is the time to go back and reexamine these things. And to do it in a big song sung by Holly Johnson of all people, essentially duetting with Richard just felt so fantastic.
Paul O'Grady was a very mainstream, beloved TV presenter, he wrote a fantastic autobiography, which talks about him being in the AIDS wards. And actually, I was very inspired by that for the scene where young locals visit the AIDS ward, and there's a scene in Paul's book where he wants a cigarette, and the guy was visiting because you could smoke in hospitals, then amazingly, he lights the cigarette, then gives it to him as you do. And Paul, as Lily Savage hesitates for a moment, because no one really knows at this point, how it’s transmitted, AIDS is just a thing, if I don't smoke this, it's going to be the biggest slap in the face. And so, he smokes it, but just that moment of doubt and hesitation, not that that is literally in this script, but that he went to see his friend, he turned up in full makeup, full hair, everyone's staring him and he put on this amazing show for his friend. And so I read that a long time ago, like 10 years ago, so I guess I've been looking for somewhere to place that. And this kind of grubby British world of SoHo drag queens and AIDS hospital wards, and everyone being scared and you know, wet cobbles in neon and all that. And I thought, ‘Yeah, let's celebrate that.’ It's the one moment where the movie really veers off from where the stage show is. And it takes a while for it to quite come back into the same place. And I think if that song was in the stage show it will just be too sad. Jamie's being energized and being told you can do this. And of course, in the movie, he's basically saying, ‘I'm kind of angry now.’ Whereas in the stage, it’s going to be fun. I'm taking a risk, but it's gonna be fun. It's gonna be terrifying, but it's going to be fun.
And Dan has lesbian moms, and his mom was a big activist at that time. And actually, in the scene when they go into the flashback, where it goes from the first outdoor shot in that flashback, the single shot on the drag nuns, which is me and Dan, and behind me is my dad with a little placard and behind Dan's mom is a little boy and his mom who we cast to play his mom when Dan was about 12 because there's a quite famous picture of him and his mom in black and white, not that Dan's that old, but he’s holding a placard that says “My mom is a lesbian and I love her.” And we turn to these people and we have to explain the significance of what their part is.
Sadie: Oh, wow, that is amazing, again, goosebumps.
Tom: That was the first shot on the first day of filming and although it's supposed to be in London, it was in Sheffield. And literally on the other side of the street is the Crucible Theatre where it all began. If we turned around, we could see the front door. We had the staff hanging out, waving at us. It was this amazing thing to go back after all this time and start the movie journey right on the doorstep of where we began our theatrical journey.
Sadie: That's incredible. It's all meant to be for you guys to have watched that documentary to now this film and just that personal touch that all three of you put into this is amazing. As a lyricist in writing musicals, what is a thing that you're tapping into to write your lyrics? Are you following a theme or looking for like an emotional connection to the character for a specific scene?
Tom: Jamie's what's made me a lyricist. And I think you are the first person to ever ask me a question as a lyricist. I've literally never been asked about lyrics before. What do I tap into? Mostly with Dan, he does the footwork. The way we do it is we figure out probably what the song's called, which generally will be the hook. So, “He's My Boy” or “And You Don't Even Know It” And sometimes nobody will be together for that. Maybe when I'm writing it, I'll come up with an idea on my own. Although I'm talking about all the new things we're working on now how we're doing it now is a little different from how we did Jamie, because that was where we were practicing and figuring it out, but we'd normally come up with what's the hook. And then Dan would write a tune. It’d be [hums a melody] and he'd record that. And I'd have all the gaps and then I record on my phone, and then I go away and listen to it until I'd learn the tune. And then I would just fill in the words and sing it out loud or sing in the shower, sing around the house. Because when you say it out loud, you realize that that sound just trips a little, that combination of constants is a bit too "bap-bap-bap" you just enter the vowel there. And that long note, you need an “ooh” sound for longer or we can't have a constant there and just make it really simple. And just finessing, finessing, finessing. Is there any way I can tell this idea and fewer syllables, that's where you're kind of driven.
Occasionally, I do the lyrics first and in Jamie, it was only two songs. One was the cut song, “If I Met Myself Again” we wrote like eight versions of that song, each one different more for that moment, we never knew what it was. And I was a run one day and it just came to me. I wrote it all in my head and then came back and wrote it up. Normally it is the idea and then the tune. And then I guess I just like with dialogue, I think, is this a funny song? Is it a sad song? Is it a romantic song or an angry song? Or whatever it is, and hopefully something will pop into my head. That's enough to go on. And I just follow it. And then finesse, finesse, finesse. The polishing makes all the difference, just finding a way to make those eight syllables you've got to play with. And the idea is very intuitive. I don't I just completely commit to it. And that fills up my head and in everything like waiting for the bus, queuing up to pay for something, going to the gym, whatever, it just beats around my head the whole time. Some of the songs I can remember, like in “Spotlight”, “when someone has a party that can't start without you some of the DJs playing your song.” I think what is this about because it's not that he wants to be a drag queen. It’s not I'm going to be a star, “hello Hollywood!” or any of that because for the most part, drag queens don't become famous. And if they do, they’re contestants on a reality TV show, not as performers, even if they feed into their acts, that fame helps their act. But I'd say it's more about someone unleashing something. And then it's just instinct and then finessing. I wish I had more of a process than that.
Sadie: You make it seem so easy.
Tom: That's the trick. Sometimes it is, “It Means Beautiful” Dan and I wrote almost in real time, it took about half an hour to write the whole song. And then something like “If I Met Myself Again” we did so many versions to get to that so many different ways into that moment. And then “This Was Me” it took me, “Betty Davis doing Joan of Arc” that line took me about three days and you don't want an arc rhyme. “Let's go just arc.” Don't do that. I said, who's a parallel? Eventually realized Betty Davis was, it just sounded the best. I had Carrie Fisher at one point because she just died, we'd like to put her in a song. But just “Betty Davis doing Joan of Arc” just sounds better than anything else.
Sadie: I mean, Betty Davis in anything, right?
Tom: Yeah, she's good. It's nice to say and it's nice to think about. Every day, I think about Betty Davis.
Sadie: Any general advice for writers who want to write a musical for the big screen?
Tom: God, I think it really helps to write the stage show first. And I think as flippant as that might sound, I think because that's your crucible. That's your testing ground and it's your training ground as well. Musicals are really hard to write. Dan and I, we talk about this often, you get your story, and that's one layer of the cake, and then you get to have your characters to tell the story. And that's good and then you've got your beginning and middle around the structure there and that's your cake and then you put this music on the top, and that's the icing. But it's not, the music is a fucking sledgehammer, and it smashes your whole cake apart, and you have to figure out how to put it back together. And there's no reason why any one song works in any particular way. As much as you figure out one song, it doesn't help you, you learn nothing from that, that helps you with any other song, they're all so unique. And if you do it wrong, when you go from scene to song, it will just seem stupid, and people will literally laugh in the audience. But why one way is wrong and one way is right, I've no idea, you just feel it.
Even having done a musical, that is successful, I don't know how much I've learned, because I'd only know how to do Jamie again, as soon as you go to the next thing, it's all different again. I am working on a movie musical at the moment, which will just be a movie and then maybe a stage show at a later date. And I'm thinking we're gonna have to workshop this because I need to do that. Because that's how you literally make sure the song works is you have to just do these live performances, even though it will end up being a film performance, and you have to interrogate it, and you have to cut and you have to be so sure, because once you lock into those decisions, it's really hard to then fiddle around with them later, without the whole thing falling apart. Whereas if you take the songs out, you can re-edit in so many ways, you can ADR stuff. And even to an extent with a musical, but it's really hard because those songs become the building blocks everything else sits on.
And so, my advice would be to do it on stage first, if you can. And if you can't, then I mean, God who makes musicals anymore? The chance of getting it made is so tiny. So, just do what you want to do. And find some good friends whose opinions you really trust. Be prepared to rewrite everything twenty times. And also, every now and again some of it just falls into your lap. It's so complete and so easy and so perfect. You can't believe it happened. And it's almost like terrifying to admit to people how easy this thing was, but sometimes you're lucky and find really great collaborators. I think that's the secret. I mean, I'm lucky that Dan and John are my best friends and we got through this together. But then West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time, and by the time they were finished making it, they all hated each other. But then she dies in the end, spoiler sorry. Ours don't die [laughs]. It’s a really hard thing to do, so be prepared for a long slog.
Sadie: I think that's wonderful advice, Tom. It was so wonderful speaking with you and talking about your movie and your process. I look forward to everything else that you have in the pipeline.
Tom: Thanks so much, so nice to talk with you.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie will be available on Amazon Prime Video on September 17, 2021 globally.