Screenwriter Ross Owen Williams on ‘Winter Ridge’ Debut, Upcoming Books & More

ATM: Why did the universe allow you to write Winter Ridge?

ROW: The idea of writing a thriller where degenerative conditions were a major element initially came to me in 2009, a while after my grandmother passed away. She’d been suffering with dementia for a long time and, for the last few years of her life, her body was there but she really wasn’t any more. What struck me the most about the situation was how much impact it must have had on my grandpa, seeing this woman who had been his wife for over 50 years essentially disappear in front of him. By the end, she didn’t know him as her husband any longer, she just knew he was the man who looked after her and fed her. I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been.  

The quality of life they shared together at that point was zero, so when she died, it gave him his life back. I remember being at the wake and thinking to myself, ‘Shouldn’t we all be sadder?’ but there was definitely a positive, upbeat feeling because we knew grandpa was going to be able to get on with living his life. Of course, he was going to miss his wife, but he’d had years to come to terms with her passing on as he saw her disappear deeper into dementia. When she died, it was an end to both of their suffering – I thought that was interesting because the standard thinking is that death is a cause for misery rather than relief.

ATM: What was his life like after your grandma passed away?

ROW: Grandpa had a good decade or so after that where he could live his life without having to keep a watchful eye on his wife every waking moment, so he could go traveling or cycling, enjoying what he did. Sadly, he also succumbed to dementia. I saw a little more of it first-hand this time, when I would go to visit, and he would recognize me a little less each time. The last time I saw him, he couldn’t quite grasp who I was anymore. He knew that my mum was his daughter but, when he was told who I was, he would say “no, Ross is only *this* tall”, indicating the height of a ten-year-old. In his mind, his grandson was a small boy, not a six-foot man with a beard.

During all of this, I found myself thinking about the, “What if?” That was where Winter Ridge began to take shape. ‘What if’ someone was going around and killing people who were physically alive but, to a large extent, mentally and emotionally dead or dying? What were the moral implications of that? How would the surviving family feel? Was it murder of a person already disappearing, or was it saving those closest to them from years of being burdened – not that caring for someone close to you is a burden we are unwilling to bear but there’s no denying the impact it has on quality of life. I certainly wouldn’t want to get to a point where I was a complete inhibitor on my kids’ lives, for example.

ATM: How much has your perspective on life in general changed since becoming a parent?

ROW: Hugely – and I think everyone who has had kids would agree. It’s a game changer that you can’t even imagine before they come along. But there’s a change in perspective brought on by simply getting older too, providing you’re open to it. Looking back at how I felt in my teens and my early 20s, my thought was that life is life and you live it to the last drop, you want every second because the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate. As I got into my thirties, I began to understand people later in their lives telling me that they were fine with dying. They weren’t seeking it out, for sure, but there are worse alternatives – like dementia and the impact is has on the people they love. I don’t think a lot of younger people understand that, so I’m hoping Winter Ridge will raise a little awareness amongst the under-30s around Alzheimer’s and other degenerative conditions.

ATM: Explain the process of when Winter Ridge started to come together on paper.

ROW: I had just sold my business – that was back in 2008. I’d been building a recruitment agency and got it to a place where someone was interested in buying it and integrating it into their existing company. Since leaving University, I’d always wanted to write but I’d never been able to find much time to do it because recruitment is such a time-consuming career – at least, if you’re doing it properly! You can’t find more than scraps of time here or there in which to write and it’s extremely difficult to get into the flow of anything when you’re chipping away at writing a page or two every few days. Once I’d sold my company, I finally had the time to commit to getting stuck into a script. There was an online challenge called NaNoWriMo, which stood for National Novel Writing Month, encouraging aspiring writers to get at least 50,000 words of a novel done in a single month.

I think it was November 2008. I used that as a motivator and didn’t do much else apart from writing. By the end of the month, I had more than 50,000 words and more than half of a novel I finished writing that December. I’ve done nothing with that since, but it was a good starting point to getting a work ethic in place when it came to writing. The next year, there was a similar challenge but this one was based around screenplays. I took the idea I’d come up with and began fleshing it out, figuring out the characters and the elements of the story, and then got as much of it on paper as I could in the month of the challenge.

I ended up cutting off changing most of what I wrote in that very first draft, but that’s part of the creative process. You have to start somewhere and just get it down on paper. The first draft is a way to get to the second draft and so on. The whole thing is going to change and adapt and evolve beneath your fingertips as you move forward, and once you’ve signed the story and script over to the producers, the chances are that it’s going to continue changing without you having any further input.

ATM: How do you go from being a business owner to a screenwriter?

ROW: Not overnight, that’s for sure! It’s difficult to get anyone with the ability to get things done to consider your work because you’ve got no track record. It’s a chicken and egg situation – it felt like everything I’d done in my life up until that point didn’t matter at all when I was being considered as a screenwriter. ‘So, what have you done?’ was the usual question I’d get whenever I approached a literary agent or a producer to pitch my idea. Even when I mentioned I’d had a book published in 2013, The Hardcore Truth, they weren’t interested because it wasn’t a film. I could write a book, but it didn’t follow that I’d be able to write a screenplay. I understand the mentality a lot more now but, when you’re trying to get started in the industry, it’s incredibly frustrating because it’s hard to see even the smallest glimmer of hope at times. You just have to keep writing, re-writing, and talking to people about your ideas. With a combination of hard work, persistence, talent and luck, maybe something will happen but even that’s no guarantee.

ATM: What was it that finally got things moving forward?

ROW: I believe that it was a combination of all the above. I started doing some acting in 2012 – again, something I’d always wanted to do, given I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama. I’d just got wrapped up in my business career after graduating and never had the time to commit properly to it until then. One of the earlier projects I was involved with was a Virgin Media Shorts film called A Hero’s Journey. You should check it out, it’s a fun little piece and won several awards. While I was on set, I met a guy named Dom Lenoir, who was the DOP for the short. He and I got to talking about our ideas and hopes for careers and kept in touch after we’d finished the shoot. I showed him what I had for Winter Ridge – which was, at that point, called Terms of Execution, and he liked it. We began working on another idea together, that one called In Another Life, and he began talking to people he knew within the industry to pitch our ideas and see if anyone was interested in getting involved. After a few false starts on In Another Life with producers who talked a good game but couldn’t back up the big talk, we got talking to Matt Hookings, who’d worked with Dom on Shoe Polish. Matt was building a production company and looking for a project as a first feature – he’d seen the script for Winter Ridge and was interested in going with that, as well as playing the lead role of Detective Ryan Barnes. We went through several further rewrites – including a frenzied one from a hotel room in Spain when my partner and I were in Alicante going for IVF treatment! – and I handed it over and checked out of the project creatively at the end of 2016.

Dom and Matt drove it forward, assembled a great crew and an amazing cast, including Alan Ford (Snatch), Hannah Waddingham (Game of Thrones) and Michael McKell (Doctors), and shot the film in 17 days during April 2017. After it had been edited and scored, it hit the independent festival circuit where, to date, it’s won sixteen awards I believe. It’s also had a limited cinema release in the UK, showing on 25 screens, and is now available on Amazon, Google Play, Sky Movies, iTunes, Hulu, and assorted other VOD services.

ATM: So now Winter Ridge is ‘out there’, what’s is in the future on how you plan to embark your next endeavors?

ROW: 2019 is looking very positive so far, in that I’ve got a couple of books scheduled for release this year. They’re both autobiographies of pro wrestlers that I’ve been the writer on and I’m very happy with how they’ve turned out. The first, which will be released in May I believe, has the awesome title of Self-Help: Life Lessons from the Bizarre wrestling career of Al Snow, and the second is something I’ve written with Dylan Postl, the little person wrestler who played Hornswoggle for WWE, called Life is Short and So Am I. I’ve got no doubt that wrestling fans will love them, but we’ve taken care to write them so they’re accessible to people who’ve never seen a wrestling match in their whole life. Al’s book is absolutely hilarious, with so many great stories about bizarre but true things he’s experienced over the course of his 35-year career, and Dylan’s book is hugely inspirational, about a boy born with achondroplasia, who had to have two major back surgeries before he was seven, overcoming the odds and living his dream.

ATM: How about anything for the screen?

ROW: I’ve got a couple of things up my sleeve – there’s a sports drama in the world of Mixed Martial Arts that I’m redrafting right now for a producer and that looks promising to go somewhere. I think that could do very well because it’s not about MMA, per se, it’s based in that world but it’s not the central point. It’s a rites of passage story about a guy figuring out that short cuts might get him his childhood dream, but commitment and integrity are more important to becoming the adult he needs to be. There’s also a road trip comedy loosely based on Al Snow’s book which is at an early stage, and a couple of other comedies I’ve had hidden away for some time which need a solid polish but could definitely go somewhere in the right hands. I’ll keep working on them and talking to people and we’ll see what happens.

ATM: You mention commitment and integrity being things that drive change in the main character of your MMA film – have these been important elements in your own personal growth?

ROW: I think – or, at least, I hope – they’re two of the main things behind people who are successful in the long run. In my business career, I’ve seen a lot of people come in, try and take short cuts and achieve some quick success but it doesn’t work out long-term. It’s the people who are committed to their work, their colleagues and associates, committed to quality, committed to making a difference rather than making a quick buck – those are the people who develop relationships worth having, personally and professionally. Integrity goes hand in hand with all of that. And both integrity and commitment to give your best are vital parts of becoming an adult and a parent, since then you’ve got to teach your kids how to get ahead in the world without taking those tempting short cuts.

ATM: How do you balance the time-constraints and pressures of being a writer and a businessperson with being an effective parent?

ROW: I think every parent has those moments where they doubt themselves and ask ‘am I doing this right?’ I’ve definitely had more than a few but I think the most important thing I can do for my kids is lead by example. No hypocrisy, no ‘do as I say, not as I do’, and complete honesty. There have been a number of times when my daughter has asked me something where it would be easier or more comfortable to tell her what she wants to hear but I don’t think that’s going to help her in the long term. If I placate her with a dishonest answer, she’ll figure it out eventually and won’t trust my responses. For example, if she’ll come to me with a piece of homework that she thinks is good, but I know it’s not hitting the mark, I’m going to tell her that I think she can do better. I’ll be polite and gentle with it, and she’ll initially be disappointed, but by doing this, she learns that I only say “that’s great, well done” when I genuinely mean it – and we build trust with each other that way. It’s the same relationship as I have with my parents. If my dad tells me, “Son, you’ve got this one wrong…”, I’m going to listen to him – he’s got a lot more life experience than me and he’s got my best interests at heart always. I might not agree with him but I’m definitely going to hear him out and consider his points seriously. And, more often than not, he’s right. Age will do that for you!

ATM: That life experience element is so important, but it has to be hard when you need to play that card with your children and say “I’ve got 25+ years more experience than you, listen to me…”

ROW: There’s a brilliant quote by Mark Twain that hits the mark here – he said “when I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” My daughter is 12 right now and of course she’s going to think she knows it all, if not right now, certainly within the next few years. I can remember just how right I was about everything when I was in my teens. What did my dad know? It turns out quite a lot – but he didn’t humble or humiliate me, he listened, guided, advised, and let me figure it out by myself while he stood back and was ready to catch me if – and definitely when – I fell. To me, that’s being a great parent.

Al Snow put it all into words for me while we were writing his book. He explained that when we’re kids, we don’t get to make the decisions because we aren’t able to bear the consequences. The parent has to deal with the consequences of the child’s actions, so they need to be involved in the decision-making process. As the kid grows up and is increasingly able to accept the fallout of their choices, that’s when the parent can begin to relinquish that necessary control and settle into the role of guide and advisor. Right now, my boy Rex can’t be left to make decisions because he’s a toddler. He’ll put his finger in a socket or try to roll down the stairs because he doesn’t understand the consequence. Grace, at 12, knows full well what’s going to happen if she does that! There are going to be plenty of other challenges upcoming for her where I might do things differently, but her life’s her journey and her failures will be her learning experiences. All I can do is offer her my perspective, then offer her my encouragement when she gets it right and offer her my support when things don’t go so well.  

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