Writers Tracey Malone and Kate Ashfield discuss Born to Kill
Why did you want to tackle this subject matter? What drew you to the story? T: I think we’re both interested in people’s dark sides and where that darkness comes from. Is it nature or nurture? We’re fascinated, as many people are, with serial killers. We really wanted to subvert the classic idea of a serial killer, the man in his 30s living in a basement, we wanted to challenge that view by looking down the other end of the telescope, making Sam a boy. Would we feel differently about a serial killer if he was a boy? Could we get closer to the root of the cause? Seeing an emerging killer, struggling with his urges, at the same time he’s struggling with puberty, which is what everyone reads it as.
K: And it meant we could go on the journey with him a bit as well, to see how the urges come upon him – how he acts upon them rather than it being some kind of evil – there’s something compulsive about what he does.
Have there been teenage serial killers in real life? K: Yeah, it’s really interesting – just as we were writing this, there seemed to be cases of teenage murderers in the papers all the time. Case after case. It’s more prevalent than you’d imagine. One of the books that I read was about children who kill. I’m not sure about serial killers, but there are plenty of teens who have killed people.
T: [Lead character Sam] is definitely on the young side. I think generally serial killers are more likely to be in their twenties or thirties. So he’s on the young side, but not impossibly so. Yes, there have been some teen serial killers, though not many.
What did you do in the way of research? T: We did a lot of research online. We went to some websites where we could read first-hand accounts of psychopaths, not necessarily murdering psychopaths. We wanted to understand how they really felt, what their differences were, how they lived their daily lives. We were fascinated by the jargon we found. For example, a psychopath’s name for a non-psychopath is a “neuro-typical”. They talk about the masks they wear so as not to appear totally callous, they are basically acting constantly. We also had two experts to help us on the show, we went to meet other experts, watched some compelling documentaries, and read books.
K: We found some really interesting pieces of research that let us into the way a psychopath’s mind works.
T: There is a lot of information out there, thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are things like Psychopath Poetry websites. We were able to find out a lot by questioning psychopaths online, via websites. And psychopath is such a shrouded term, people don’t really know what it means, it’s just bandied around to mean someone who’s likely to randomly kill you. But actually, of course, there are many functioning, non-murderous psychopaths. Ours is an extreme version.
With regards to nature and nurture, did you decide what’s at the root of Sam’s behaviour? T: I think we wanted to play with that – we were fascinated by this question, because the nature/nurture debate has swung backwards and forwards over time. There was certainly a time when it wasn’t cool at all to say that there was any nature involved at all, but now it’s swung back a bit. But it’s so difficult to find an answer, because your parents are both your nature and your nurture so it’s very difficult to divide the two, even in things like twin studies. And the negative nature input could be something as small as your parents not giving you enough eye contact as a baby if you’re predisposed to really need that.
This is the first time you’ve written together as a team. How did you come together? K: We were both living in the same place in Los Angeles, and our children were at the same school, and so we met each other socially, and we both knew that the other one wrote things. And we just thought it would be good to try and do something together. We sat and came up with an idea, because it was an area that interested us both. And that’s how it started.
T: We just started off by talking around it. Talking about our children growing up, and also about having these people in our society around us, and how we can’t see them, and whether it would be possible as a mother to not see that in your child. So we came up with the idea of Sam being a teenager and he developed very rapidly from there.
Writing as a pair, did you ever disagree on the direction of the show? K: No. It’s quite strange, I don’t know why, but we feel like we know these people really well. So we instinctively both felt the same. It’s true even now, with notes and rushes and redrafting things. For some reason we got a really strong hold on the characters, so we’ve not really disagreed. We always seem to have the same take on it.
Kate, you’ll be known to many as an actor. How long have you been writing? Do you think your experience as an actor makes you a better writer? K: I’ve been writing for about five years now. You hope the acting gives you something as a writer – I’ve read so many scripts, and I think that gives you some insight into what makes a good script with good dialogue, and also what kind of dialogue is uncomfortable to say. So I hope it’s helped, yeah.
T: And we usually read through the scripts together, and Kate’s obviously fantastic, which puts me to shame.
As a writer, is it hard to hand over a script that you’ve worked on to someone else to make the series?
T: Yeah, it’s very difficult. Especially on this subject particularly, as we were so protective of our characters – it really is like handing over your baby. That’s why we wanted to be executive producers on the project. But we’re thrilled with the outcome, and everyone’s done an amazing job.
K: And it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, in the end, because you have so much input from everyone, and the actors take over the roles and put so much of themselves in there. And there’s the design, the lighting, the camerawork, it all helps to add new aspects to the script, sometimes more than you can imagine.
Jack Rowan, who plays Sam, is extraordinary, isn’t he? T: He’s amazing. When we saw his [auditon] tapes and we were absolutely blown away. He’s a total chameleon, he can switch from emotions completely, from one moment to the next. He’s quite incredible.
K: And he fundamentally understood what a psychopath is. You can see it in bits when he’s not speaking. Or it’s little things like in the scene where he’s offered a crisp in the canteen and he just takes a handful. All of that’s his own doing. He must have done his own research, I guess, because it’s pretty impressive to see.
Born To Kill launches on Channel 4 this April
April 5, 2017 9:58am ET by Channel 4