The Sister: Interview With Neil Cross

We speak to The Sister writer Neil Cross about adapting his novel for ITV…

The Sister

Following the story of Nathan (Russell Tovey), The Sister (originally called Burial… then renamed Before The Night) is a tense four-part series that has a tinge of the supernatural.

Ten years into his married life with Holly, Nathan is unnerved when Bob (Bertie Carvel) – an unwelcome face from the past – turns up at his door with some shocking news. Harbouring a terrible secret and trying to escape his past, Nathan is rocked to the core at the visit, which triggers a series of catastrophic decisions…

Directed by Niall MacCormick and adapted by Luther’s Neil Cross from his novel Burial, The Sister is a psychological thriller with a dark twist. We spoke to Neil about adaptations, the supernatural and spreadsheets…

The series was originally named Burial, then Because The Night and now it’s The Sister. Why the renames?

I never liked the name Burial, so I didn’t want the show to be named Burial. Burial was a compromise title between me and my publisher back when I was young enough to make such accommodations. But I’ve never been entirely happy with it. I really liked Because The Night, but it was focus-grouped and disliked, which threw me into a whirlwind of despair because I couldn’t think what the hell to call it. However, when I was stuck in Mexico City as things started to go really insane, I decided to divert myself by trying to think of a definitive title for the show, and it’s now called The Sister.

I’m very pleased with [the name], it’s great. I don’t want to apply the word ‘great’ to us, but like all good scary stories it’s both every day and inexplicably sinister. Like The Lodger! I’ve always found The Lodger to be one of those. It’s the most everyday phrase in the world, but it’s really scary. But yeah it sounds like a Daphne Du Maurier short story, or a great unmade Hitchcock, but it’s one of those titles that’s never been used. It’s like trying to name a band, all the good ones are already taken!

What can you tell us about the show and what to expect from it?

I haven’t thought about an answer to this question, ridiculously. It is… I’m going to use the word ‘dark’, because that’s inevitable, but it is in essence it’s a psychological thriller about how the mistakes and misjudgments of the past can come back to haunt us. And the word ‘haunt’ there is not accidental.

What was the kernel at the heart of the story that made you really want to tell it?

It’s based on a novel that I published quite a few years ago now, when I had a full head of hair, and a heart full of optimism! A novel that was published under the name Burial. I was at that time reading an awful lot of Patricia Highsmith, repeatedly, and an awful lot of Daphne Du Maurier. I really, just in terms of narrative taste at the time, I wanted to write that kind of psychological thriller than Highsmith would tell, where two – always men, in Highsmith’s world – two men who reflect and contrast one another take a step into a different moral universe.

I wanted to tell a story of a Hitchcockian everyman – I use the word advisedly – albeit somewhat younger, [who] does what could happen to so many of us, which is on a bad night does a bad thing, and spends the rest of his life tormented by guilt over this thing that he did and got away with.

The actual inspiration was the most quotidian thing you can imagine. In common with almost every other living Briton” I spent my teens, my twenties and my early adulthood drinking far too much. The drink itself and the effect on health and stuff, and the effect on my bank balance, never particularly worried me. I never had a drink problem, I had what Billy Connolly once described as a ‘behaviour problem’.

Again, I’m making no special claims to this experience and its universality, which is the point, really. What stopped me drinking, what I hated about drinking, was the moment where you wake up in the morning and there’s that oceanic surge of self-recrimination and self-hatred where you think ‘oh sweet Jesus Christ, what did I do? What did I say?’ and the anxiety that follows that. Looking back now I spent most of my young adulthood perpetually anxious about stupid shit that I’d said and done, and the way to deal with that anxiety was to drink a little bit more so that I had something new to be anxious about.

So there was that experience, coupled with a very quotidian statistic, which was the vast majority of murders in the UK are carried out not only by people that we know and love, but by people who are drunk. I just extrapolated from my own experience of being an asshole at parties to think ‘what must it be like to wake up in the morning and remember that you killed someone the night before? How must that feel? What does that do to you as a person? How do you rebuild your life?’ That was the nugget that led to the story, really.

Neil wanted to tell the story of a ‘Hitchcockian everyman’ who does a bad thing and spends the rest of his life tormented by it.

How was the process of adapting your own work many years later?

It was good fun. I’m very fond of Burial. Burial is one of those – this isn’t an attribute of everything I’ve ever written – but Burial is one of those stories which has always been with me, it’s always been alive. I never felt like it was finished. Going back and reading the novel was a bit like reading a teenage diary. I’ve never read a sentence I’ve ever written without cringing in self-hatred and embarrassment, thinking about how much better it should have been. So that was interesting.

I’m still very fond of the story, but I agreed with myself several years ago, in discussion with another writer about this kind of thing, that we should ban from our industry the word ‘adaptation’. The word should be ‘transformation’. Because everybody knows that what appears on screen at best bears only the most tangential relationship with the source material you can imagine. There’s that rule: only mediocre books make good films. The Godfather – although I fucking hate it, The Godfather is the ‘My Way’ of cinema. It’s loved by mediocrities. But it’s a capital-G Great film inspired by a mediocre novel, at best.

So I knew that when it came to moving Burial to the screen, it had to be transformed, and that was the single biggest, not emotional but narrative challenge. It was deciding the form it was going to take – that decision took me longer than the actual writing process. On the page, I’m a very linear writer. I start at the beginning and I write through to the end. There are no fancy tricks, there’s no post-modern jiggery-pokery [laughs], it’s telling a story in the leanest, cleanest, most tense narrative I can. I realised for various reasons that wouldn’t be appropriate to an ITV adaptation. It’s a medium and message question. It’s going to be screened on ITV over four hours with part breaks. Writing for part breaks, advert breaks, is in itself this learned skill. It’s really hard! [Laughs] who knew?! It’s really difficult because every ten minutes has to be a little three-act structure in its own right. I reinvented a very linear novel, transformed a very linear novel, into what, on screen, is a series of three nested timelines – 2010, 2013 and present day, which is something I’ve never tried before. It was really good fun and stupidly hard. But I love how it works on screen.

Did you have to have lots of spreadsheets on the go?

Oh my God, I lost my mind! I did. I just lost my mind. Weirdly the first episode, episode one, I wrote incredibly quickly. Once I had the idea of the timelines, I sat down and I wrote episode one in four days, and I haven’t had that experience for years. I thought: ‘God, this is going to be easy! Good decision, Cross’. And it just got progressively harder until episode four was like yomping on Port Stanley. It was really hard [laughs]. But worth the effort, obviously.

Could you tell us a little bit more about Bob and his relationship with Nathan…?

Well, I don’t know what to say about Bob, really, other than that I love him. Bob’s a monster, various versions of whom I have met over the course of my life. He’s also kind of a part of me. Bob is the monstrous part of myself. But the character is owned and transformed and brought to glorious life by Bertie Carvel. Bertie has done an amazing job making Bob incredibly compelling and charismatic and sinister and sad and funny. Bertie is really, really funny. I think Bertie enjoyed playing him, and I think the glee he took in inhabiting this character shows on every frame of footage. I wasn’t on set for Burial because I was on set for another show, but I’d watch the rushes every day and watching Bertie… watching dailies, watching rushes can be a great experience. It can be a terrifying, soul-crushing experience [too] but watching Bertie as Bob every day was a thing of joy. It always brought me happiness.

Neil enjoyed watching Bertie Carvel bring the character of Bob to life…

You get to blend genres with The Sister – psychological thriller, supernatural horror – do you find that gives you more creative flexibility?

Yes and no. It’s interesting… I grew up associating psychological thrillers with a slight fizz of supernatural at the edges. I think in some ways its source was just the way that books were packaged when I was a child. You’d walk into a book shop in the early- to mid-Seventies and Agatha Christies all looked like Dennis Wheatleys. I think in some sense in my mind the two genres are Lego’d together anyway.

What interests me about the treatment of the supernatural in Burial and in The Sister, is that… I give these words to Bob, but there’s something called I believe ‘post bereavement hallucinatory experience’ – [when] an overwhelming number of people experience in some way, post-bereavement, the presence of a dead loved one. Be it a parent or a spouse or a child or a brother or a sister. People might see them or smell them or hear them. What that said to me – and indeed what that said to Bob –  is the quote ‘supernatural’. Whatever the nature of the objective experience, whether people are objectively experiencing the objective post-death presence of a loved one, or whether it’s some kind of psychological compensation method, or whether it’s some sort of blur between the two, is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the experience of the quote ‘supernatural’ is almost universal.

At some point, it will happen to all of us. So weirdly the supernatural elements of the story are more every day than the thriller elements of the story. It’s the kind of thing that is more likely to happen to you in your every day life than murder and redemption. They did it in Coronation Street! Vera Duckworth saw Ivy’s ghost at the top of the stairs and that was the end of the episode. It was fucking terrifying! We don’t see her. We saw Vera, we saw her face, we saw her looking upstairs; there was a close-up of her and she just went ‘Ivy?’ And that was the end of the episode. It scared the shit out of me. I don’t think it was ever resolved as to whether she’d actually seen Ivy or hallucinated Ivy. But the fact that it is a part of everyday life. People experience ghosts, whatever they might be.

After doing a show like Luther do you find yourself being typecast as a crime thriller writer? Do you resist that, and if so how?

The truth is that I am scared of that. The reason I wasn’t on set for The Sister is because I was in California and Mexico making a show for Apple, called Mosquito Coast, which has got no elements of the supernatural or serial killers or any of that stuff. I love writing outside the genre. I do, it’s liberating. I can tell different kinds of stories and create different kinds of worlds, but there’s always this gravitational pull back to it. The truth is that I’m most comfortable in dark and scary stories. It’s just what I enjoy reading and watching and writing. I don’t know if it’s typecasting or if it’s psychological limitations, or if it’s a limitation of my skillset, but ultimately it’s something that I always come back to, and when I’m back in it I feel most at home.

The Sister is coming out at an interesting time with the current epidemic. Do you think it will provide the escapism that people will be craving at this time?

Do you know what? I have no idea, I genuinely do not. Clearly we’re going through a liminal and transformative cultural experience, and it’s very interesting in as much as we are simultaneously experiencing it together and alone. I don’t think there’s ever been an experience quite like that before; where we’re all locked away from each other, and yet able to communicate with each other. I can’t pretend to have an idea about what it’s going to do to the kind of stories that we want to tell each other. I really have no idea…

The Sister currently available on-demand on ITV Hub.