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My Splendid Stranger

After catching her live-in lover cheating on her, 30-year old Martine moves out into an apartment on her own. A miscarriage leads to a nervous breakdown. Martine starts seeing a therapist. Shortly after, she encounters a mysterious young woman called Anna. Anna is as glamorous and outgoing as Martine is reserved and self-conscious. Anna takes Martine out of herself and the two become inseparable friends. But then small, troubling incidents occur which suggest Anna is trying to undermine her. Worse is to come when Martine finds herself as the prime suspect in a local murder enquiry - and the victim turns out to be Martine's own mother, whom she thought had died in a car crash when Martine was five years old. Is Anna framing her? If so, why? Or has Martine become delusional? Determined to prove her innocence (and her sanity), Martine sets out to discover who exactly Anna is... Think Persona not Single White Female.

Michael John Nelson Baker started working in media as a TV documentary filmmaker and then in the early 1980s he went on to become a freelance writer of screenplays and non-fiction books. This went well until the late '90s, when the film and TV commissions began to dry up and he went into teaching. History had always been a great passion for him, and he taught the subject for over 15 years in various schools and colleges. Now that he is retired, he spends his time on writing screenplays and books. It is our pleasure to speak to him about his lates feature screenplay.

What draws you to writing scripts?

I have always been a fan of cinema and the moving image. As a student, I loved the French New Wave (indeed, I watched all the French greats – Rene Clair, Georges Clouzot, Truffaut, Chabrol) but also grew up with Hollywood classic directors like Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and John Ford. So after starting work in TV as a documentary maker, I soon graduated to writing drama scripts. What still intrigues me about writing for the screen is how you achieve that difficult goal of less means more – I still have a lot to learn in that department.

How and when did you start studying screenwriting?

I never had a formal training as such, like at a film school. Working in TV from the 1980s, I always wanted to get into Drama and I suppose I learned some of the basics from watching a lot of TV soaps and drama series – and talking to writers and directors I came across who worked in the fiction field. I began, tentatively, to write long treatments for projects, sending them to drama producers who might be interested. Eventually, I got work on a series and that led to other openings as a scriptwriter.

What makes screenwriting stand out to you in the language of the cinema?

Hitchcock once said something like ‘Three things make a good film: 1) The script 2) The script 3) The script.’ For me, that’s true in the sense that without a really good script, you can never make a really good film. So-so screenplays, in the hands of a very good director, can make a very watchable film – but never a great one. Why this should be so is more difficult to say precisely. It’s obviously something to do with engaging dialogue but it goes much further than that, embodying elements that are to do with the emotional journey of the protagonists and the structure and pacing which frames that. Great performances and striking direction will always help, but without the essentials of compelling characters and a gripping storyline they can only achieve so much.

Do you ever plan to direct and produce one of your scripts?

Produce? No. I would be useless at that, and the financial and organizational aspects of the job would leave me cold (though I have enormous respect for good producers, who are essential to getting films made). I do hanker to direct – and I have made some short films in my time – but I suspect that writers should not, on the whole, direct their own material: another pair of eyes, if talented, can always add something and make a difference.

Tell us more about your latest script and the inspiration behind its writing.

When I was in my 20s, I read a novel written by James Hogg, a late 18 th -century Scottish poet and writer who knew the great romantic novelist Walter Scott. The book was called The Confessions of a Justified Sinner and told the strange tale of a zealous, puritanical young man who befriends a companion who, over time, exerts such a controlling influence that our protagonist is led down a destructive spiral of sin and murder. The haunting qualities of the story, and its psychological authenticity, advanced for the time, never left me. It’s obvious that, in the book, the ever-present companion is the Devil and the whole story is meaningless without the heavily religious backdrop of the Scottish Covenanting tradition (at the end, the young man commits suicide in a fit of remorse). I made many attempts over the years to adapt the book for the screen but in the end decided that it could really only be done within a modern idiom and a post-Freudian world. The result, after many drafts, is my screenplay My Splendid Stranger. In many ways it bears almost no resemblance now to Hogg’s work – and yet the central motif of a friend who insinuates herself into my protagonist Martine’s life and takes it over, with troubling consequences, is the essential core of the Confessions narrative.

What were some of the challenges of writing your script and the research that went into it?

As my previous answer suggests, the script has gone through a pretty lengthy gestation period, emerging the other end as a very different beast from the story that inspired it. Once I had taken the decision to give it a modern setting, it became important to create a protagonist who could plausibly get caught up befriending someone who then, by stealth, takes over her life. This was not so hard in the sense that mental health is today a big issue, many people regularly visit therapists, and ID theft (of diverse kinds, including imposter syndrome) is clearly a widespread modern phenomenon. So, for example, my research included reading up about different kinds of psychiatric therapy as I wanted the scenes with the psychoanalyst not only to suggest some of Martine’s deep-seated personal issues but to ‘predispose’ her towards Anna, the friend she takes to so readily. As always, finding a balance between how much is revealed when – and how this is done without too much exposition – was a big challenge in writing this script as a thriller (and indeed probably needs more work still!)

What would you like to achieve, cinematically, as a writer?

Well, it would certainly be nice to get the script made into a feature that went into cinemas! In the end, as a screenwriter, that’s really the only goal worth achieving – nobody (or very few people) reads scripts for their intrinsic literary merit! The job on the page is really not complete without it being transformed into moving images and talking characters and the particular world they inhabit.


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