Set against the backdrop of 1960s Tangier, this thriller tells the story of Arnold Turner, a repressed English schoolmaster on holiday in Morocco, where he meets Ewing Baird, a wealthy American expat with a dark secret. As Turner becomes more involved with Ewing he realises he has been lured into a dangerous trap.
So, obviously, David and I had a chat…
JOHN: The Wrong People… Very definitely a million miles away from the world of comedy. You’re directing it…
DAVID: It’s happening this summer.
JOHN: It’s described as “a thriller” but it sounds Arty to me.
DAVID: It’s a brilliant piece of writing and indeed a thrilling adventure as well as being a searing piece of social comment.
JOHN: …from the 1960s. Making movies is not easy.
DAVID: Well, the story of trying to get this film made starts 50 years ago when I was writing House of Whipcord and Frightmare for director Pete Walker and he was telling me about his Hollywood actor chum Sal Mineo, who was in London at the time, trying to set up The Wrong People as a film.
Around that same time The Wrong People was re-published in paperback under Robin Maugham’s own name. Earlier, he had published it under a pseudonym – David Griffin – because that’s what his uncle Somerset Maugham recommended.
DAVID: Because of the subject matter. Sal Mineo was trying to set up the film but Pete Walker said to me: “They’ll never make it.” So I went and bought the book and, like Somerset Maugham, I read it in one sitting. I went back into Mr Walker’s office the next day and said: “You’re right. They’ll never make a film of it.”
Sal Mineo went to all manner of screenwriters. (Peter Shaffer, Edna O’Brien, David Sherwin etc) They all said No because they found the subject matter distasteful. He did get a script out of a children’s writer who had I think written episodes of Doctor Who. But his script was deemed not really suitable and they ended up with – what a surprise – Pete Walker’s screenwriter Murray Smith. I’ve never seen his script. There may have been other scripts – maybe one by Robin Maugham himself – but they have all disappeared. Anyway, Murray did one that Sal also didn’t like. So the whole project was doomed, really.
Sal was unable to make the film. He returned to Los Angeles in 1974 and two years later was murdered. After that, I never thought a thing about The Wrong People until I found Sal Mineo: A Biography winking at me on the shelf. It was published in 2010 and there is an entire chapter on The Wrong People.
I read the original Maugham book again and decided that night: Right! I’m going to make the film myself!
JOHN: When I talked to you about The Wrong People back in 2019, you were looking for a director at that point. You were not going to direct it yourself.
DAVID: I ended up seeing a lot of people who weren’t that keen on directing it in the first place and, in all honesty, with whom – half of them – I didn’t want to work. One or two of them had the most extraordinary ideas about what they wanted to do with the material.
Then, when I was on a 65 bus, I decided Oh! This is going to go on for years! I’ll direct it myself.
So I scripted a version and contacted a distributor who had put out a couple of my other films. He liked it, but said it needed a re-write. So I contacted my old friend Peter Benedict and we are now up to Draft 7. He’s very good on structure.
JOHN: Why did you originally not want to direct it?
DAVID: I’m not a born director. I’m more of a producer. I’m not bad at organising. But, during the intervening years since 2014, my confidence has grown; I think I can make a fist of it now.
JOHN: Ooh… So what is the audience for the film? It’s an arty, gay, adventurous thriller?
DAVID: Obviously it’s never going to play the Odeon, Leicester Square. It’s an arthouse picture that will have a limited audience. That’s fine with me. I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely.
JOHN: It’s your own money?
DAVID: Of course, as always. Nobody would ever dream of giving me a penny.
JOHN: When we chatted in 2019, you did say it would be quite expensive to film.
DAVID: Yes… well… the budget has been… reduced… We have had to compromise; it’s the name of the game. I’ve done it all my life. So it’s no longer three weeks location in Morocco. It’s now going to be done via the miracle of green screen.
Maugham was an under-rated talent. He’s only really known for The Servant. The Wrong People is written very filmically and that’s because he worked on quite a few films. He understood cinema and that was the reason I loved it when I read it. I could picture it all. He writes like a screenwriter.
JOHN: I’ve never seen The Servant, but it’s a gay film and made in 1963…
DAVID: The Servant was heterosexualised. It was straightened up and, unless you were in the know, you would never be aware that it’s a gay story. It was, again, based on Maugham’s own experiences and, although the novel is slightly gay, it was mostly straightened up because the market wouldn’t have accepted it in those days.
The film is brilliant but bizarre. I mean, there’s an orgy in it with Dirk Bogarde and a load of women and Robin Maugham quite rightly said: “The orgy scene at the end of the film was a cock-up. It was obvious to anyone that neither (screenwriter Harold) Pinter nor (director) Joe Losey had ever been to one.” And he’s right; it looks just so unreal.
JOHN: And you have experience of orgies?
DAVID: I wouldn’t say orgies exactly, John. Did I admit to orgies in my autobiography? I think you’ll find I don’t mention any orgies.
DAVID: I didn’t go to any.
JOHN: But your house was a den of iniquity.
DAVID: We didn’t have orgies there, John. Other things went on in that house.
JOHN: Such as…?
DAVID: Didn’t we have this conversation three years ago?
JOHN: But my reader in Guatemala may have forgotten.,,
DAVID: It’s all in my autobiography Little Did You Know. It is well worth a read.
JOHN: You’ve said Maugham created “a moral dilemma” in The Wrong People – What moral dilemma?
DAVID: Because The Wrong People is about child abuse. It was a difficult subject then; it’s a difficult subject today. But for different reasons… Now almost nobody will even discuss the subject. I’m going to bring it out into the open again. Because the subject has to be discussed. Child abuse goes on. It’s been swept under the carpet.
JOHN: Really? I’ve written down here: Jeffrey Epstein; Kevin Spacey.
DAVID: Well, these high-profile cases peek out from the top of the parapets, but what we’re concerned with is what Maugham was concerned with in his book – the secret child abuse that goes on that is never reported. It was far more common in 1967 because people turned a blind eye to it. Now we KNOW it goes on but, as I say, we can’t discuss it.
Maugham very cleverly invents a situation that makes the reader – as I’m going to make the cinema audience – think twice about this subject and you’ll have to see the film in order to find out more.
JOHN: There is, the publicity blurb says, a “shockingly unexpected conclusion”.
DAVID: I don’t think the audience will know what’s going to happen next. That’s the genius of Maugham’s writing. You can’t imagine where this story is going. Towards the end, there are some marvellous twists. And the ending is… Alright, I’m going to tell you – I don’t think I’ve admitted this before – I have changed the ending. Well, it was Peter Benedict originally, to give him the credit. But it makes it even more powerful.
JOHN: He wakes up in the shower and it’s all been a dream?
DAVID: It’s a lovely idea but, of course, that’s not what happens.
JOHN: …and then the aliens arrive…?
DAVID: There are no aliens in The Wrong People, John.
JOHN: Is there a car chase?
DAVID: I’m afraid it’s not that kind of a film. It’s an arthouse movie for a specific audience.
JOHN: Well I guess, despite the lack of a car chase, I’m just gonna have to see it to the end…