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Set in the mid-1980s and featuring a killer New Wave soundtrack, director Tom Vaughn's romantic comedy stars James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) as Brian, a working-class student from Essex struggling to make his way in the rarified world of an upper-class British university. On his way to achieving his long-held ambition to appear on the British TV quiz show University Challenge, he falls in love with his beautiful teammate and forms a plan to win her heart through his advanced general knowledge skills. A bittersweet comedy about loyalty, class, falling in love and the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Co-starring Alice Eve and Rebecca Hall. Written by David Nicholls, based on his novel.
 

 Starter for 10

When David Nicholls’ novel Starter for 10 was first sent to me three years ago, I hurriedly read the first page then, alarmed, immediately closed it and buried it out of sight on a shelf in my bedroom. I did this not because I’d received the book unbound and faintly photocopied and certainly not because I didn’t want to read it. In fact, it took all my powers of restraint to stop myself from enjoying it in one greedy go. But after a single page, and with great effort, I stopped reading. My reason for this strange and pleasure-denying behaviour was simple: self-preservation.

I had been a fellow student with David at Bristol University in the late ’80s and I’d subsequently had a very happy time working with him when I directed his first television film. Furthermore, I’d been told his novel was a campus-based coming-of-age comedy set in the 1980s and, knowing his screenwriting, it was certain to be very funny, insightful and moving. After reading the first page I realised two things: firstly, that I desperately wanted to make the novel into a film but, secondly, that the odds of me being the director chosen to undertake this task were more than remote. When I heard that Tom Hanks had optioned Starter for 10 I knew my decision not to read it was the right one. Surely the project would be whisked off to Hollywood and into the hands of an established movie director. I wished David all the luck in the world but I knew I was right to spare myself the torment of having the book in my head and then watching another director’s version of it on the big screen. I was going to have to find something else to make as my first feature film—but what?

Finding novels, biographies, short stories or magazine articles to turn into movies is an all-consuming activity engaged in by virtually everyone who works or wants to work in the film business. It’s the primary function for legions of dedicated individuals in studio development departments, production companies and talent agencies. There seems to be no escape from the pressure to process material.

The film business is haunted by stories of the “unfilmable” book or screenplay that lay around for years, but was eventually picked up by a filmmaker who saw something in it and went on to make an Oscar-winning smash hit from the same piece of “material” that so many talented others had passed on. The lesson is that there are no shortcuts. You can’t rely on someone else to do the reading for you—however good his or her judgment.

As a result I can’t remember the last time I read a novel purely for pleasure. Always in the back of my mind are the nagging questions, “Could this be a film? Has this been optioned? Why hasn’t this been filmed already?” It’s a terrible habit to develop (one I’m trying to kick) whereby you approach each new book with a sense of hope and expectation. Could this be the one? A feeling that so often turns to disappointment the more you read, spoiling any hope of simply enjoying the fiction on its own terms.

Directors Carol Reed and David Lean once bumped into each other in the bookshop Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road in London. Both men were gazing at the packed shelves of novels before them, eyes scanning every title; speed reading sections, wondering about their potential as films. Lean turned to Reed and sighed, “It’s infuriating. I know I’m five feet away from my next picture but it will take me months if not years to find it.” As I searched for a book to turn into my first movie, I couldn’t shake this image of two of England’s greatest film directors pan-handling for their next project, sifting through the stream of world literature, searching for that telltale glint of printed gold that would lead them to their next film.

So after many months of trying to ignore David’s novel, the phone rang. It was Pippa Harris, the film’s U.K. producer. She asked me if I had read Starter for 10 and would I like to come in for a meeting about it, “Yes,” I lied, “of course I’ve read it.” And then truthfully, “I love it. It’s my favourite book.”