As Film4 plays the network premiere of female-fronted comedy Powder Room starring Sheridan Smith and Jaime Winstone, Beth Webb speaks with writer Rachel Hirons about her first feature screenplay.
1. Your inspiration for Powder Room came from your own experience in a London nightclub. How did you expand a quick chat in the loo that you’d overheard into a feature length script?
Well before it became a feature film, it was a play, When Women Wee, which started life at the Edinburgh Festival. The play was set in a female toilet of a nightclub and is what Damian Jones (the producer) saw before asking if I could turn it into a film script. The play itself was more of a series of comedic sketches – the cast of 6 played 25 characters between them – depicting various women at all stages of love, life and intoxication, without much of a narrative or any judgment on their behaviour.
Oona Chaplin and Kate Nash in Powder Room
When it came to writing the film, I focused in on the characters I believed had the biggest opportunity for a journey over the course of one night and took it from there. The main character, Sam, was actually somewhat indistinct in the play. That potential for development and creative licence is what attracted me to her most. I was able to decide exactly what story I wanted to tell and dump it all onto her.
2. The screenplay mainly focuses on the relationships between Sheridan Smith’s character Sam and her friends. Did you draw on any of your own friendships when developing their stories?
Yes, of course. Sam is a woman in her early 30s who is fraught with the fear that everyone around her has got it made – whether they’re in great relationships, successful careers or have the confidence and security of having ‘found themselves’ – while she is perpetually stuck in an adolescent state, uncertain of what she wants and unsure how to get it. I think everyone feels like that – if not constantly then at certain times.
It’s easy to look around at your friends and colleagues and believe they all have it made: ‘she’s the beautiful one, she’s the successful one, she’s the one who married the perfect guy’. We all know people who ‘fit’ those categories and we define them as ‘having it all’. Of course no-one can objectively see themselves how they are and the tendency is to view ourselves as the one that doesn’t ‘fit’, so writing those characters was an embellishment and exaggeration of those traits – echoing Sam’s point of view. In reality ‘the successful one’ in your opinion will see herself as the one who ‘doesn’t fit’ and will have a nice, clean title for you – something that she wishes she was or had.
3. The Vodka Diaries is also based around a group of young women and their friendships. There is definitely a platform for female friendships in comedy that didn’t exist before – why do you think that is?
There’s a really unromantic answer for that in my opinion. It’s difficult to get any film away (funded, made, distributed) and with every film comes a high risk of loss for everyone involved, so you find that little risk is taken – people only want to invest in models that are proven hits. Comedy is, overall, the cheapest genre to make – there’s seldom any need for CGI, elaborate sets or period designs, as they are most often present day and heavily based in reality – so there’s less risk of loss, making them the ideal platform for ‘experimentation’ e.g. female leads, which in turn creates opportunity. Off the back of that, so many female-led comedies have proven a success which creates more demand and opportunity.
The film is based on Hiron’s play When Women Wee
In the more expensive genres – action and fantasy, for example – this change is less apparent because there has been less precedence that female leads can sell. But there is evidence of change even there, it’s just a slower progression.
4. What was the biggest challenge you faced when developing the play into your first feature screenplay?
The biggest challenge that faces anyone writing their first screenplay: how the hell do I write a screenplay? As much as I’d love to answer this in a way that makes me sound like some innately gifted screenwriter – that would be a lie, unfortunately, and totally unhelpful to anyone reading this… The truth is, in hindsight, the main thing that got me through it was a (fairly sensical) assumption that I’d write something and then Damian would hire a ‘proper writer’ to re-write it how it ‘should be’…
I sat there – laptop on one side, Syd Field’s book on screenwriting on the other – and did my best to fit what I thought the story was into something recognisable as a film, with this imagined safety net that someone would ultimately ‘fix it’. I wrote it within a few weeks, which sounds impressive, but came from not quite knowing what I was doing. That naivety was actually a saving grace in the end, because if I’d known that was going to be the final script, I’d have been crippled by anxiety.
I remember being on the set and watching the crew furiously working to get a particular shot to work and I was like ‘shit, sorry guys – you know I can just take that bit out if it’s easier’… It’s crazy that a thought you had when you were sat on your couch, by yourself in undies will ever result in a massive crew and expensive equipment to realise it later down the line.
5. You have a brief cameo in the film, did you spend a lot of time on set? It looks like it would’ve been a fun shoot.
Haha, that cameo – the beginning and end of my acting career. That wasn’t planned at all, obviously, and came about because I was on set that day (it was the club scene and they needed extras) and MJ Delaney (the director) thought it would be funny if I spilled wine on Sheridan. I actually wasn’t on set much at all – maybe three days? – and I only ever went there if there was a reason, like needing extras or a bit of an emergency re-write. The whole process was so fast (it was nine months from my first meeting with Damian to actually shooting the film), that there was little time for indulgence. There’s nothing funny about making a comedy.
Powder Room plays on Film4 on Sunday 12th June at 11.05pm