Wellington's top Hollywood talent
Crime writer Neil Cross has been frantically busy on several overseas projects - including the TV show Luther. But he's happy living in suburban Wellington, he tells Rebecca Palmer.
Neil Cross was typing away in his usual two-fingered manner in Guillermo del Toro's Los Angeles mansion when there was a knock on the door. It was director del Toro with actor Willem Dafoe, stopping by to say a quick hello.
"I said 'Hello, Willem Dafoe'. And off they went to lunch."
The moment they were gone, a schoolboy giggle erupted in Cross' head. "I was 'He-he-he-he, that was Willem Dafoe."'
The Wellington writer has been based in Los Angeles for the past few weeks, writing in del Toro's "Bleak House" - the horror memorabilia- filled mansion the director uses as his offices. He can't say what script he's working on, only that it's a "big film for Universal" directed by del Toro.
Cross has been based in the "Dickens Room", surrounded by busts of Charles Dickens and books about Jack the Ripper. A life-size waxwork of Frankenstein stands outside his door.
It's a long way from his usual writing environment - the house he shares with his wife and two sons in the Wellington suburb of Crofton Downs - "a dead, unknown space between Ngaio and Karori".
"It's really not the cool side of town, which is why I love it so much."
His sense of novelty at meeting Dafoe helps explain why he still lives in Wellington, instead of Los Angeles. He could equally live in London, where he has been working on several television projects with the BBC - including Luther, the first series of which is screening here now.
He likes to feel that he doesn't belong in Hollywood. If he did, he would get bored.
"As long as it's strange and unusual, as long as I can go back to my wife and say 'Look, the weirdest thing happened today, Willem Dafoe came in to say hello'.
"As long as that's weird . . . as long as I feel like I don't belong and it's not natural and it's not right and it's not proper and that I'm somehow kind of getting away with it, then I'm OK."
The Bristol-born writer moved to Wellington from London eight years ago with his Kiwi wife, Nadya Kooznetzoff. He has written several novels, including Always the Sun, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
He was the lead writer for two seasons of Spooks, meaning much of the content for the BBC spy drama was written in Wellington, with regular trips to England. He took pride in sneaking a Kiwi reference into each episode.
He has since honed down travel to the bare minimum. For the first series of Luther, he spent just three weeks in Britain.
"For Luther series 2, I wasn't in the UK at all. I did it all from Wellington.
"Because of broadband and technology, I wake up in the morning and I've got that day's rushes ready to download . . . and I get to see all the audition tapes, and all the design work is sent to me.
"There's really no element of the production I can't do from Wellington. Which is great, I never have to leave my house."
LUTHER centres on a brilliant murder detective, Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, who had been hanging around in his creator's head for a long time.
Cross describes Luther as "a far more morally ambiguous character I think than we're used to seeing investigating crimes and murders".
The detective is played by Idris Elba, best-known for his role as Baltimore gangster Russell "Stringer" Bell in American drama series The Wire. His performance in Luther earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a miniseries or TV movie.
"Any writer will bang on ad infinitum about how wonderful The Wire was, because it really was," Cross says.
"The first day I met Idris, it was 'Oh my gosh, I've just met Stringer Bell.' And very shortly thereafter we went to a read-through with the cast. The minute he picked up the script, he was John Luther."
He is also very fond of Luther's other central character, murderous Alice Morgan. Audiences have been divided over whether Alice is "very, very scary" or "very, very sexy". For himself, he describes her as his perfect woman - a label that horrified the actor who plays her, Ruth Wilson. "You should never describe a functional psychopath as your perfect woman."
Cross admits it was a challenge to find a point of difference in a world saturated with cop shows.
"As a function of algebra, it's quite tough. If you break a cop show down into its constituent parts, every possible combination of parts has in some way been used not just once but kind of multiple times.
"The history of crime television is little bits of the charred remains of genius detectives past . . .
"I think the only way really to do a new kind of cop show is just to do it with love.
"Luther wasn't done cynically by any of us. I wrote a show that I really, really wanted to write, featuring characters that I really, really wanted to tell stories about."
He has employed the inverted detective format used in one of his favourite shows, Columbo, for Luther. "We all know [who] did it. This is who did it.
"The question is how on earth is Luther going to catch them?"
Luther is the kind of TV show he wanted to watch himself. "I watch more TV than possibly could be good for me. If you name a show, I watch it, on the whole."
He and his wife watch both America's Next Top Model and New Zealand's Next Top Model - he even got a reference to the show in the second episode of Luther.
Reviews of Luther were mostly positive, but Cross is particularly proud of getting a printed apology from Guardian entertainment writer Stuart Heritage, who wrote a "sick- makingly bad review" of the first episode, but later proclaimed it a "genuinely great cop show".
"It was an event that none of us had ever seen before. It kind of made the bad review worth it," Cross says.
T HE second series of Luther will screen in Britain later this year. Meanwhile, Cross has plenty of other projects to keep him busy. The list is overwhelming.
Aside from the current Guillermo del Toro project, he has worked on two other scripts with the film-maker. He has already written the film Midnight Delivery, which will be produced by del Toro, and is doing a rewrite of a horror movie for him.
The pair struck up a friendship when the film-maker was based in Wellington for pre-production on The Hobbit, a project he later quit.
Del Toro read one of Cross' novels, and asked his production executive to find the author.
Cross is also working on an "old-fashioned adventure show" for the BBC. He's writing a script for three two-hour films on the life of Queen Victoria. He's working on a film version of the Iain Banks novel The Wasp Factory, and writing a low-budget Kiwi thriller for Richard Fletcher, a producer for Under The Mountain.
Despite all the screenwriting work, novels remain his first love. He has several book-writing contracts to fulfil, including Luther ones, which will act as a kind of prequel for the TV series. "Even if I wasn't paid to write the novels, I would still write them because it's what I've been compelled to do since I was a kid."
But after all these years, he could still make some improvements to his writing. He types by hammering down on the keyboard with only two fingers, a habit that dates back to his teenage years when he was given a manual typewriter for Christmas. He has considered learning touch-typing, but his wife reckons he's too old.
His typing has disturbed his fellow housemates at del Toro's mansion. "They have to close the door on me because my typing is so loud on a laptop."
The Dominion Post