A Night with Rob Sprackling

Guest blog by Barry Johns

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at The Chiswick Calendar’s Media Club by Rob Sprackling, writer of Gnomeo and Juliet, Mike Bassett: England Manager, and the eagerly awaited The Queen’s Corgi. Add to that the fact that he is currently writing the feature screenplay for his kids book Born-Again Ben, for which he recently sold the film rights, and it is easy to see why I couldn’t believe my luck when it turned out to be quite an intimate gathering.

Rob began by admitting that he wasn’t the most studious kid in school. He was the one that disrupted the class, made a joke of anything and everything, and lacked any real drive or ambition. This work ethic, or lack thereof, continued throughout most of college career until a friend of his wrote a play, the success of which transformed Rob’s way of thinking forever. His friend’s accomplishment and can-do attitude inspired Rob to write his own play. “It made me immensely proud”, Rob said when explaining that his play had also done well. “It was a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I wanted more”.

That was his one and only endeavour as a playwright. Rob’s sights were set on the big screen, and with that in mind he wrote and directed his first short film, Green Monkey. It won several awards worldwide, and opened some important doors. “Of course, it was easier to win awards for short films back in 1997. There were fewer being made back then and it was easier to stand out”, Rob added modestly.

He went on to explain that what followed was one disappointment after another. In 1999 (five years before the release of Madagascar), Rob and his writing partner, John R. Smith, wrote Blackwater Zoo: an animated feature about a group of zoo animals plotting their escape. Fox loved it and immediately set the production wheels in motion. “We were so excited. But just when I thought we were going to have something made, the studio released Titan AE. It was a huge flop, and of course, they lost all confidence in animated features after that, and Blackwater Zoo was shelved.” With the huge success of “Ice Age” in 2002, Fox’s confidence in animated features was restored. When they got the call from Fox announcing that Blackwater Zoo was back on the table they were ecstatic. “However, our excitement was short-lived. When we learned of Dreamworks’ plans to release Madagascar, well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next.”

Rob continued writing, and in 2003 his tenacity paid off. “Hollywood loved The Queen’s Corgi. My agent sent it out to everyone and I found myself in a situation screenwriters dream of: a bidding war”. Rob had to laugh when he told us what happened next. “I had to go to a media centre in the heart London for a video conference call with the successful bidder. This was before the days of Skype and the like you understand”. He told us how the conversation went something like this:

HOLLYWOOD EXEC: Rob, I can’t tell you how excited we are about this project.

ROB:  Great, me too!

HOLLYWOOD EXEC: We want you to change a few things…set it in the US and write a part for a new star of ours, Chris Rock.

ROB: But it’s the Queen’s corgi. The Queen of Great Britain. Everyone knows the Queen and that she loves her corgis. How am I supposed to relocate it to the US?

HOLLYWOOD EXEC: I’m sure you’ll think of a way. Can’t wait to read it.

He told us how over the next 6 months he submitted rewrite after rewrite trying to fulfill their expectations. After all, what choice did he have? They’d already bought the rights. In the end however, he was fired and they brought in other writers to make it work. They also failed, and the project died a death.

Unhindered by this turn of events, Rob and John wrote “Gnomeo and Juliet”, a massive hit for all concerned. “I love mash-ups”, Rob said. “The Great Escape, only with animals in a zoo; Romeo and Juliet only they’re gnomes. Finally, all the stars were in alignment and everything went ahead as planned. We got one of our scripts made!”

“I never gave up on “The Queen’s Corgi”. I loved the story. So, almost 15 years after completing the original draft, I revisited it. It needed work. William and Harry were children when I first wrote it, and times had changed. And don’t you know, no sooner had I finished it I got a call from some guy in Belgium:

nWAVE EXEC: Hey Rob, we came across a script of yours from years ago; The Queen’s Corgi.

ROB: Wow, what a coincidence. I only just finished rewriting it.

nWAVE EXEC: Great. Let’s make it.

ROB: There’s one problem. I don’t own the rights.

nWAVE EXEC: Leave it with us.

Rob said he didn’t think anything of it. He’d heard it all before. However, a few weeks later:

nWAVE EXEC:  Hey Rob, we’ve bought the rights. Let’s make this happen!

ROB:  What? Really?

“And that’s how it happened. They had the money. They had the studio. Everything. The Queen’s Corgi is set for release early 2019.”

He went on to tell us about all the hoops he had to jump through to get Mike Bassett – England Manager made. I don’t have the word count to tell you all about it. Suffice to say that it was a labour of love years in the making and a constant battle from start to finish. Which leads me nicely onto my conclusion….

What was clear from Rob’s talk, and the few beers I had with him after, is that the film industry is a fickle one. That’s certainly not news to anyone who has ever sat in a room and listened to just about anyone in the industry. But what was also clear from his talk is that if you have aspirations of becoming a screenwriter you have to keep going. You have to keep plugging away at it. Before Green Monkey, before the bittersweet success of Blackwater Zoo, there were scripts that Rob described simply as “shit”. They ended up in the bin, never to see the light of day. He kept writing despite disappointment after disappointment, and it eventually (some would say inevitably) paid off.

I asked Rob what advice he would give screenwriters pursuing that first big break. He said, “That’s simple. Make a decision and do it”.

Barry Johns is a script writer