Luther writer Neil Cross on creating a dark world from his Wellington home video

As the writer of crime series Luther, you might find one of Neil Cross's biggest fears surprising.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

As the writer of crime series Luther, you might find one of Neil Cross's biggest fears surprising.

This interview was originally published in February, 2016. 

Neil Cross' Wellington home is large, light and airy: all wooden floors, white walls and fresh flowers. It's hard to imagine that this is where one of television's darkest crime series is conceived.

In a room off the kitchen, a large bookshelf bears neatly-ordered figurines, film memorabilia, a framed poster advertising Cross' first novel, Mr In Between and a clapperboard from his television show, Luther.

UK author and screenwriter Neil Cross, who writes Luther and has worked on Doctor Who, has lived in Wellington for 13 years.

UK author and screenwriter Neil Cross, who writes Luther and has worked on Doctor Who, has lived in Wellington for 13 years.

A white desk beneath it is where Cross creates monstrous criminals and the troubled life of complicated cop John Luther, played on screen by Idris Elba.

The Emmy Award-winning psycho-thriller series centres on a dedicated London detective who, as well as dealing with some of the most twisted crooks imaginable, must battle his own demons.

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Cross says that he now has Elba in his mind when he writes Luther, that it is difficult for him to imagine a time when they were not the same.

His writing ideas, or moments of "mental ovulation", as he calls them, can happen at any time.

Wellington writer Neil Cross writes the TV  psychological thriller Luther, now in its forth season.
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington writer Neil Cross writes the TV psychological thriller Luther, now in its forth season.

He could be shaving, doing the laundry, making his 10th cup of coffee for the day, or on his fifth check of the letter box, just to stretch his legs - and a new villain may enter his head.

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But his neighbours needn't worry. "It's kind of that cliche that comedians are thought of as funny professionally and miserable in their real lives, well I'm kind of the opposite to a comedian. Really dark and scary professionally, but in real life I'm just cheery and normal."

Cross doesn't know the genesis of his characters. "The truth is, I don't write what I'd like to do to other people, I write about what I'm scared other people might do to me.

Screenwriter Neil Cross on the set of Luther with actor Idris Elba.

Screenwriter Neil Cross on the set of Luther with actor Idris Elba.

"I love the fact that I'm in a position where I can frighten people, because I love being frightened in horror movies and novels. So the fact we can scare people always gives me a surge of joy."

One of Cross' real fears, believe it or not, is the dark.

"If I'm alone in the house I have to have every light on. I'm out of my mid-forties now and when I was in my 20s and winsome with a full head of hair, to say I was afraid of the dark might have seemed a bit cute and characterful. But now I'm like this broken old man, it's embarrassing."

Cross moved to Wellington 13 years ago from his native UK and now lives in the capital with his Kiwi wife Nadia, two teenage sons and three dogs. It helps to live in a nice house if you are working from home, but Cross says he could work almost anywhere. 

"I started writing in shitty, horrible bedsits," he says, before recalling a favourite anecdote from one his one his biggest inspirations, Stephen King.

"He wrote Carrie, his first novel, on a manual typewriter that didn't have a functioning "S", and he was living in a caravan with his wife and two children.

"He wrote it with the typewriter on on his knees in the toilet in the caravan and when he'd finish a page, he had to take it out and write in the "S's" with a biro .

"The book made him a very rich man and he bought a large house with an office that ran the entire length of the attic, he put a huge desk in the middle and bought some huge speakers and it was paradise. But he couldn't work. So he had to push his desk into the corner to work.

"There's a little bit of me in that, if I get stuck I'll go and find a horrible corner somewhere."

Yes, even a writer like Cross is not immune to writer's block.

"I used to go to Nadia, 'Right, that's it, I've got to start looking for an alternative career, it's all over, everybody gets a finite number of ideas in their life and I've had all of mine'.

"A couple of years ago she said to me, 'you do realise you do this at least once every single episode?' which is true."

It is easy to "faff around" when you work from home, so Cross tries to keep his work life as disciplined as possible.

"Because we've got kids, it's a very normal, very domestic life that we've got. They have to be up at a certain time and they set the timetable."

So how does he manage his work/life balance?

"I don't have one. I do nothing but work, it's all I do. I've got some good friends in New Zealand but I don't have a social life per se.

"Because I grew up wanting to be a writer, and because working as a writer is a very privileged position, I never take it for granted.

"Although I pick and choose my projects very carefully, I probably take on more than I should, just because while I've got the opportunity to write I want to do it."

He recently returned from a family holiday, his first in many years, in Hawaii.

"My wife told me I needed a holiday, I was very stressed before Christmas and i didn't quite realise how much I needed to relax, I'd forgotten how to do it. I did nothing, it was lovely, it was the first time since I was about 8-years-old that I didn't read a book for a week."

Cross might not have much of a social life, but the a multiple Emmy nominee makes exceptions for award ceremonies.

"This is going to sound awful, but I go largely out of anthropological interest. It's a really interesting thing to be at and see how it all works. I never go along expecting to win."

Work-wise, it could be easier for Cross to live overseas, but he now considers Wellington home.

"The point of living here is that I've got a lot of friends in the 'industry', but I don't like the idea of my entire life being spent with people in the industry."

It is no secret in Cross' street what he does, but he is just simply one of the neighbours.

"One of the things I like about Kiwis is that they are, by nature, curious, interested and at the same time unimpressed. If there's a party at a neighbour's house people will ask me something and while they might think what I tell them is interesting, they won't be impressed. But not in a negative way, they're happy for you and they think its awesome, but there's an in-built lack of chippiness I like."

Cross is currently working on the BBC pre-apocalyptic crime drama Hard Sun, is in talks for a US version of Luther, and is writing the screenplay for a reboot of the 1981 Kurt Russell film Escape from New York.

So will season 4 be the last we see of Luther? "Never say never," Cross says.

"I know both Idris and I would love to keep doing it, as long as we think there are new stories to tell."

Luther 9.30pm, Monday, UKTV.

 - Stuff

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