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28 October 2014

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Alexander Masters
Author Alexander Masters

Stuart: A Life Backwards

The cameras are rolling as filming begins on a production of Alexander Masters' acclaimed Cambridge-based novel, Stuart: A Life Backwards

Sitting on an old sofa in the house where he lived as a student, Alexander Masters tells us what it's like being back in the city, watching the filming of his debut novel, Stuart: A Life Backwards.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch will play Masters

It was his friendship with a homeless man, Stuart Shorter, that inspired Masters to put pen to paper and record the details of a colourful but difficult life. At the time they met, Masters was working as a volunteer at Winter Comfort in Cambridge.

"Stuart was marvelous," says Masters.  "Having been homeless, having been in prison a lot, having done all sorts of things wrong, he came to the day centre and gave us all little insights into prison life and street life about which I knew very little."

"Alexander, I want a bestseller. I want a book like Tom Clancy writes"
Stuart Shorter

And now, a collaboration between BBC Two and American giants HBO Films will bring a 90-minute adaptation of the story to our screens in early 2007. The crews have taken over various locations in the city including Midsummer Common and the house in Hertford Street where the author lived as a mature student.

The film is being executively produced by Sam Mendes (yes, he of American Beauty fame) and will star Tom Hardy (Blackhawk Down) as Stuart, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Hawking) as Masters.

Alexander Masters
Alexander Masters

The book, which was shortlisted for a Whitbread Award, is a combination of biography and memoir.  "It's about [Stuart's] life," explains Masters.  "How he got to be in that state, how he managed to survive and how he managed to pull himself out a bit.

"I suggested to him that we write a book about his life and a memoir of our friendship.  It's called A Life Backwards because I tried to write it forwards to begin with, but when Stuart read the first manuscript his comment was "it's *!*! boring".  I have to admit it was.  It bored even me.

"I had tried to smooth his life out.  I tried to describe a life on the streets that was deeply chaotic and deeply disturbed.  I had written it like a traditional biography and although I was saying that this person was disturbed and traumatic - you couldn't picture it.  The reader wasn't able to FEEL it.

"Stuart's idea was that if I wrote it backwards, you'd get a sense of mystery - what made him the boy he was and what murdered the boy he was.  But you also got a sense of the chaos and the disruption of a life.

Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy takes the role of Stuart

"He said to me: "Alexander, I want a bestseller.  I want a book like Tom Clancy writes."  I said I'd do my best but that he wasn't really much like a Tom Clancy hero!

Although he'd seen the first draft, and a few chapters from the 'backwards' rewrite, Stuart died before Masters had completed the book. But Masters is adamant that he would have approved and would be thrilled to know his life story was going to be made into a film. "That's a first Stuart would have enjoyed," says Masters. "Somebody actually wanting to be him!"

And his own personal reaction to filming? "It's a delight. I'm pleased as punch about it.  It's great!  Wonderful!"

Alexander Masters
Masters wrote the screenplay of Stuart

Masters wrote the screenplay for the film himself, but says that's where his involvement ends, although he admitted that being on the set in Cambridge brought back memories and wasn't always easy.  "There have been various times when I've simply had to walk off set, thinking 'I just can't do this.'"

So, what's next for Mr Masters once the film's in the bag?  He ponders the idea of taking a nice long holiday but admits that he does have other writing projects on the go at the moment. He smiles wryly and adds, "you know, I think it would make a wonderful play..."

last updated: 23/11/06
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