Hauling Like A Brooligan

Stephen Gallagher

Milla, Jude, and The Boat House

Here’s an oddity, and a lesson in why you should never entirely trust the internet for information. An Empire Online News and Biography entry for director Iain Softley reads, “Softley also has been developing an adaptation of Stephen Gallagher’s novel The Boat House for Dimension Films, set in the English Lake District. He previously attempted to film the book in 1999, with Milla Jovovich in the lead role of a haunted and driven Russian émigré.” And for some time a number of sites featured The Boat House as a completed movie on Milla Jovovich’s CV, complete with a dodgy plot synopsis.

Iain Softley first optioned the book in the late 90s – although to be more precise it was his partner, producer Sarah Curtis, who first took the option, and Iain wasn’t part of the picture. Sarah and I went along to pitch the project to the Film Council (or whatever the main UK development fund was called before it was the Film Council), which is how we secured the finance for the screenplay.

We started making a wish list of directors. Top of mine, as I recall, was Peter Weir, whose imperfect-but-superior The Last Wave had stayed in my mind as an example of the kind of charged reality I was reaching for; a fantasy film whose content you can’t dismiss as fantasy. I also remember that Sarah was particularly enthusiastic about George Romero, and suggested Tilda Swinton to play the ethereal Russian emigre at the heart of the story. As I recall it, Iain was added to the directors’ list at my suggestion. Sarah needed some persuading; she was concerned not to see their careers merge for the wrong reasons.

After three drafts and a polish, I was no longer on the team. Was that painful? Are you kidding? But over the next five or so years my agent continued to send out my screenplay as a writing sample. It got me through a number of doors and I reckon it was instrumental in landing me at least three jobs.

Production designer John Beard went scouting for Lake District locations and the brilliant Eduardo Serra was lined up as DP. Milla Jovovich was to play Alina, and they had Jude Law in mind for boatyard hand/viewpoint character Peter McCarthy. Law wasn’t a big star then; he was just breaking out, and this was the first I’d really heard of him.

The movie was planned to shoot in 1998 for a 1999 release, but it fell through for reasons that I’m not party to. I saw a couple of the scripts they went out with and they bore no relation to mine. The rights came back to me after that, albeit with a turnaround charge attached; the book’s still mine to sell but my version of a script has to be negotiated for. If someone else were to write it, no problem. I had a couple of interested approaches, but they were from people looking simply to rip out the central idea and Americanise it. So when Iain came back a few years later with the backing of Dimension Films, I was minded to let him take another crack at it.

A bullet dodged when that one didn’t work out; Dimension being one of the production companies run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

Paperback cover for The Boat House, a young Russian woman under water, hair floating, looking straight at us.