On Tuesday BBC3 will show the concluding part of thought provoking teen drama The Crash. The two-part teen drama is based on real life events, and tells the story of a group teenage friends who are involved in an horrific car accident.
I recently got in touch with writer Terry Cafolla to ask about the challenges of writing such a sensitive piece of TV drama and what he hopes viewers will take from The Crash.
Where did the idea of The Crash come from?
I was approached by Dominic Barlow – the exec producer. They had been doing research on road accidents and had been shocked by the findings. 75% of all female passengers killed were in a car driven by a young male driver. Or, the one that stood out to me – there is a young person killed or seriously injured on our roads every two hours. Every two hours!! That meant by the end of our programme, there could be another serious accident.
The idea was originally pitched to me as a trial where we flashback and forth and have a verdict at the end. I read the research, and to be truthful, I really didn’t think I could write the script. I put it aside and worked out how I was going to tell Dominic I didn’t think it was right for me. But the more I tried not to think about it, the more images from the research played through my mind. The Prom. The proposal. The shoes and nail varnish scene in ep 2. Luckily my partner read the idea, and said this was a family story. Once I had that, I knew I could write it. This was the story of families being torn apart and then having to try to put their lives back together. After listening to the parents talk, I suggested not focusing on the trial but on the cost and devastation to family and friends. This was the territory I was interested in writing. It would have worked as a trial, but as I had done two seasons on Law and Order, I knew the limitations and restrictions that a court room set entail and I was worried I couldn’t tell the story properly this way.
The series is based on real life events. How much research did you do on such a difficult subject. Did you speak to any families who had been affected by a similar event?
The process was very research heavy. Our researcher Lucy King (who was amazing) spoke to the police, the fire brigade, the ambulance service, hospital staff and of course friends and family who had been affected by KSI accidents (Killed or seriously Injured) I didn’t actually meet the families, although in a weird way I feel like I have. I read the transcripts and listened to the audio recordings, and that was very difficult. Listening to parents, years after the event, talk about their child’s death, was humbling and very emotional. Brave doesn’t describe what they did in opening up their lives to us. I think it was a selfless act on their parts telling their stories. The one phrase that kept coming out again and again was…if something good comes from making this programme, then it will have been worth talking and thinking about it again. I can’t thank the parents and families who spoke to us enough. I hope they feel something good will come from this and that we treated their stories with respect.
How difficult were the Crash scenes to write?
Very difficult. I already felt like I knew some of the people who died from listening to their families talk about them. So even though our characters are fictional, I was aware that there were elements of the real world, as it were, in them. Plus it’s always hard when a character you care about dies, never mind when you’re also representing a real event.
From the point of view of the writing itself, when I wrote my first draft, the structure of the story was different. Originally we were going to end episode one on the crash. By the time I got to that point in the script I knew it wasn’t working. It took too long to get there. I restructured it before sending it in. It was a blessing in disguise though. It meant that by the time I got to writing the crash scenes, I had fallen in love with the characters, all of which made it harder killing them.
How did you decide who would live and who would die?
I cant give too much away with episode 2 coming up. So I’ll talk about Ashley. I knew I was going to tell the crash though the POV of Ashley, I knew we’d expect it to be Kate, but I liked how adult Ashley was compared to the other teenagers. I didn’t know Ashley’s fate until I knew she was safe, and away from the crash site. I actually felt sick to my stomach when I realised she was going to die. Some of the research I read suggested that people may seem ok but then become ill. Ashley as a character resonates with me, she’s slightly wiser in a way, she’s dealt with loss already in her life, the death of her mum, and she’s watching her father disappear bit by bit through his dementia. And she’s been a hero at the crash site. Sarah Walker – our brilliant, brilliant director – told me, she flipped back and forth through the script, she thought ‘no they cant kill Ashley!!!’ I knew then it was the right decision. A hard one, but one that hopefully hits home.
Do you feel we should have more informative TV drama of this kind to speak to young viewers?
If it’s done well, I don’t see why not. I think the trick with programmes like this is to avoid preaching, TV is supposed to be entertaining, it can be informative, but it works best if you can move the viewer or connect them emotionally with the characters.
How conscious were you to deal with the subject matter for families have been through such an awful situation?
At the start, of course I was really aware of the families because I was listening to their voices and reading their stories over and over. But then when I was writing the script, I needed to start to focus on the characters because they had to take on their own lives. Once I’m writing, I was focused on the story and how it was tracking.
Our researcher Lucy went back to the parents periodically, and informed them about the direction of the scripts and all the big changes along the way. So for example, in the first draft, there was another death in the accident. The parents voiced a concern that that was too, and they were right it was. We changed it. As a writer I was trying to tell a story that if they didn’t recognise, they would hopefully at least feel was emotionally true to their experiences.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
It seems trite, but be careful behind the wheel. We’ve all done stupid things when we’re driving. I have, overtaken when I shouldn’t or been in a hurry somewhere. I think we all feel invincible and safe inside the bubble of the car. But the car is much more fragile than you think. Add to that how invincible we all feel when we’re young and we never think these things can happen to us or more importantly our families they live with the consequences of our actions for the rest of their lives too. I also hope they realise how important compassion is – I think this is something that we explore in the second episode. Compassion is the only way through these horrible events.
What can you tell us about the concluding part of the series?
This isn’t a story about kids taking drugs or drinking and then getting behind a wheel, it’s about an ordinary teenager who makes a bad judgement call with tragic results. The second episode is about the emotional fallout of that judgement call. It’s about the effect the loss will have on the families, the effect on the kids who have survived the accident. Even though life goes on, for them and for Tom in particular, this thing that happened will be with him for the rest of his life. That’s going to be his struggle.
I think there an optimism in this episode as well, there is forgiveness where you least expect it. That was one of the things that really struck me about the research. In cases like this you normally think of revenge and people banging on vans outside court. In this case, the community came together, their compassion was staggering, in particular the young people and they rallied and were there for each other. I wanted to show all the consequences of the crash, positive and negative, how people can step up and be there for each other. I hope we did this.
What do you think of the state of UK television drama at the moment?
From Broadchurch to Ripper Street to Being Human it seems to be in very good health, better than it has for years!! I think this is down to one thing. Dick Wolf has a sign on his desk. It reads It’s the writing stupid. I couldn’t agree more. We have great writers working in Telly and long may it continue. Though I must admit to a continued fascination with US TV as well.
What are you working on next?
We’re in prep for The Whale. It’s the true story set in 1819 that inspired Moby Dick. I tell the story through the eyes of the cabin boy, who was only 14 when he joined a whale hunting ship and was one of the few to survive. His ship The Essex was attacked by a whale and sunk, the crew were as far away from land as it was possible to be. They spent 80 days in 3 small boats and resorted to cannibalism to survive. We start filming that next month for BBC1. I’m also working on a couple of ideas set in Belfast. (where I live) A young offenders piece looking at their lives, called Making Good. And a cop show with a twist called The Station.
Do you think The Crash should be shown in schools to hammer the point home to young viewers?
Parts of it will be. BBC Learning have chosen relevant sections and have designed learning materials to go with it. I remember as a kid watching BBC educational programs in school. And I’m not joking, it’s a real thrill to think that something I’ve worked on will now be seen in schools across the UK – even though it’s very dark subject matter. I think that’s why everyone who worked on this felt a responsibility to the piece and went the extra mile. Our cast and crew were filming for 4 or 5 nights in freezing temperatures on the coldest nights of the year in Scotland!! Most if not all of them got the flu!! That’s commitment!
The Crash Concludes Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC3