In days gone by, Ye Cracke’s War Room was the tucked-away corner of the pub where Boer War veterans were banished so they could carry on their reminiscences unabated. Today, as I sit in the same room opposite Kevin Sampson, one half of Red Union Films and the man behind the cult classic Awaydays, I can’t help but recall a scene from his novel currently undergoing the silver screen treatment, Powder.
Sitting at the very tables where The Grams and their manager Wheezer plotted their route to success, it somehow makes them all feel a bit more real. “Agreed,” says Sampson. “This room where we’re sitting, this is where it all started.”
The journey of Powder the novel, an ‘everyday story of rock ‘n’ roll people’, to Powder the film, released later this month and starring Liam Boyle, Alfie Allen and Stephen Walters, echoes the cathartic journey of the film and book’s lead character, Keva McCluskey. Charting the trajectory of The Grams, the band fronted by the melancholic Keva (Boyle), Powder documents the band’s rise from nobodies to acclaimed stars, and how this is driven by Keva’s pain and inner torments. Whereas the book is a fast-paced, rollicking tale of the band clambering through the murky workings of the music industry, the film focuses its glare solely on Keva’s redemptive story and personal battles. The madcap trappings of fame and popularity that make the book’s version of The Grams so exciting are lifted (directly and indirectly) from Sampson’s anecdotal remembrances of his time in the ‘music business’, as a writer for NME and The Face, and as manager of The Farm. Drug-fuelled excesses, deviant sexual escapades and scenes of self debasement in wardrobes have been cut from the script, with the film version delivering a slower-paced and more personal documentation of one musician’s transformation through his art.
With initial reaction to screenings going “pretty badly to be honest,” Sampson could be forgiven for feeling nothing but trepidation for the release. “I find it quite enjoyable in a way!” he laughs. “If you’re gonna get a kicking you want it to be brutal.” Though the press screening in London suffered some technical issues, I ask whether the antipathy for the early versions of Powder stems from something else: not so much that it doesn’t tick the right filmic boxes, but more an element of the press and critics being disheartened that the film is devoid of the industry cut and thrust that drives the book? “Could be. I mean that does happen when there is something with a devoted following which people are passionate about. You’re always kind of asking for it when you do a film version of a book cos no-one ever likes the film version the same as they like the book.” This is true of many classic novels that have not travelled well from page to screen, and was something that was a bit of a disappointment for many hardcore fans of Sampson’s previous adaptation Awaydays. “I think that’s because the relationship between a book and a reader is a purely one-on-one thing,” explains Sampson, “and everybody is imagining it differently to the next person. And when that comes up on screen, there is no ambiguity or room for manoeuvre.” The fact is that the film stands on its own as a piece of art, separate from the book, and far more credible than a straight-up companion piece would be.
The Liverpool settings that provide the book with a vivid backdrop are also used in the film to add some authenticity; the regular city centre reveller will easily be able to pick out Korova, Parr Street Studios and the O2 Academy in various scenes, and eagle-eyed viewers may also spot Hope Street Hotel and Knowlsey Hall as locations. I ask Sampson if it was important to keep the film tethered to these roots by using some of Liverpool’s most easily recognisable locations: “Oh yeh, definitely. You stand or fall on the authenticity that you can offer. So many of the buildings and panoramas in Liverpool are matchless, and I think Liverpool comes across beautifully.”
Keeping the vistas and characters of Liverpool underpinning the action is a consequence of Sampson having an input in all aspects of the production. Red Union Films, the independent film company he set up with friend and collaborator David A. Hughes in order to bring his books to screen, enabled him to stay with the project of shaping his original ideas in to the final product as an executive producer on the film. “That really is the joy of doing it,” confirms Sampson. “We wanted to get our hands dirty, for better or for worse, and to be involved right to the end in terms of moulding it and making sure we got this release that was in tune with our philosophies as a company.” In true independent style, and sticking with the courage of their convictions, they seem to have pulled it off. “We thought, if we love it then other people will too. That’s the philosophy in a nutshell.”