Sophie Hannah: ‘I became my own Hollywood and made a movie’
Best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah has turned herself into a movie mogul after unexpectedly making millions investing in a friend’s tech start-up.
Her first-ever film, a murder mystery musical called The Mystery of Mr E, is launching this month at a London premiere and is set to be streamed on Amazon Prime.
It starts when twin brothers John and George Danes are visited by a stranger who knows where they are heading, announces himself as ‘the murderer’ then disappears. On their arrival at Idlewyld country manor, it isn’t long before a guest is found dead in mysterious circumstances and the young men must turn detective.
The film began as a musical play that the author wrote for her children’s Cambridge school, but it soon became a hit at literary festivals around the country and that’s where Sophie thought the story had ended – until she suddenly found herself with cash to spare and a Hollywood dream to turn into reality.
Sophie says: “I wrote it to be a school play, which both of my children performed in. They were two of the stars of the original stage production at their school in Cambridge. My daughter played Harriet Landrigan, the late, great romantic novelist, and my son played naughty schoolboy Oscar Landrigan.
“Musicals are the most fun ever and I first had this idea for the show when I went to see my daughter in a school production of Romeo and Juliet. The music and drama teachers had the idea to turn it into a musical. They just added pop songs to Romeo and Juliet and it made it so much fun. That was when I thought to myself, I love musicals. I write murder mysteries. Has there ever been a murder mystery musical?
“I didn’t think there had been. Now, as it turned out, I was wrong about that.
“There’s a brilliant murder mystery musical called Murder for Two which is literally performed by two guys and a piano and they play all the suspects and the detectives and the victims. It’s just an absolute tour de force. And I wish more people knew about it, but I didn’t know about it at the time. So I thought, why don’t I write a murder mystery musical? So even though The Mystery of Mr E didn’t turn out to be the first ever murder mystery musical, I’m fairly sure that it is in fact the first ever murder mystery musical movie.”
The first incarnation of the play was at Sancton Wood School in Cambridge, where Sophie worked on it with music teacher Annette Armitage, who wrote the songs to go with the show.
“I set out to write a classic family friendly puzzle-based murder mystery musical with a country house and suspects and clues, but also with a lot of very catchy songs,” says Sophie.
The result is a hugely enjoyable tongue-in-cheek take on a Golden Age mystery. It visits the home of the late romantic novelist Harriet Landrigan – who was the number one bestselling writer in her genre – where many guests are currently staying, including an obsessed fan.
As a successful author of psychological crime fiction and a writer of a series of novels continuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, Sophie knows the genre inside out.
In 2014, with the blessing of Agatha Christie’s family and estate, Sophie published a new Hercule Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was a bestseller in more than 15 countries. She has since published four more best-selling Poirot novels.
Sophie says: “Having worked with the Christie estate, I’m very interested in the meanings other people ascribe to a very famous person’s legacy. I’d seen through my work with Agatha Christie that all kinds of people are interested in her for all kinds of reasons: publishers are and actors, fine art dealers might be and students and academics.
“I really wanted my cast of suspects, the people in Idlewyld House, to be not only the dead famous writer’s family, but also a range of house guests who have a particular interest or obsession relating to the late famous writer.
“So that was really what I wanted, rather than to make any comment about Christie herself.”
A couple of years after the play’s success, Sophie and her family found themselves despairing at the latest disappointing Hollywood blockbuster. What she had hoped would be a fun family evening around the box watching a stream of the latest big budget film turned out to be a massive flop. And that’s when she set in motion an idea to create a better film on a tiny budget.
Sophie says: “When the play was performed at St Michael’s Catholic school in Watford, the partner of the head of drama at the time was an independent filmmaker, Martyn Tott, and he said he was interested in doing it as a movie rather than just a filmed stage play. So we discussed it, but nothing really happened at the time and we didn’t have any budget and, although he was very skilled at making films on next to no budget, I really wanted a lavish country house setting. If you haven’t got Hollywood studio money at your disposal, you need to develop some pretty amazing skills to get good quality films made.”
But in 2021, the author had sold her shares in the Cambridge tech company CMR Surgical for a “multi-million pound” deal.
Sophie explains: “In 2012, I invested in a tech start-up company in Cambridge. A friend of mine had an idea and he said to me, ‘This is a brilliant idea and it could change the world. But I’ve got absolutely no money. And I don’t know anybody who’s got any money apart from you’. He asked me if I would give him £35,000 seed capital, just to give up his job for a bit and try and get this thing going.
“I decided to take a gamble on him and his idea. He was incredibly grateful and as a result gave me a huge proportion of shares in the company. A company that didn’t exist yet. And to cut a long story very short, that then attracted more venture capital funding. The whole thing became a huge success. And by 2021, it was worth £3.5bn.”
CMR Surgical now sells its Versius surgical robots around the world – and Royal Papworth Hospital is among the sites to use one.
After the sale of her shares, which were worth several million, Sophie was able to go back to her dream of making the film.
“We had just finished watching a long-awaited Hollywood blockbuster movie as a family,” she recalls. “And it was absolutely terrible. We looked at each other and said ‘How can you spend so much money on a film and it still be so bad?’
“I had always said to the filmmaker, Martyn, that I didn’t want to do a film with no budget because it couldn’t possibly be good enough. But now I said maybe a low budget film can be much better than a Hollywood movie. And my husband agreed, saying that the strength of a movie depends on whether it has a good script. And then he said ‘We’ve just made a load of money selling those shares, so if you wanted to make the film now with Martyn you could give him a budget’.
“I thought, ‘oh my God, I could!’. I will never forget the moment that dawned on me. As a novelist, you just assume that if a movie is going to be made of one of their pieces of writing, Hollywood will come knocking at your door. That happens to very few people. I just thought my husband was totally right. Instead of waiting for Hollywood to knock at my door, what if I could be my own Hollywood?”
She set talks in motion with Martyn, giving him a budget of just under £200,000, and he set about casting the film while Sophie persuaded friends in Yorkshire to allow their house to be used as the location.
“It makes it so much more exciting to me that we just did it,” says Sophie. “I put in the money and Martyn put in the vast amounts of time. He not only directed the movie, he also produced it.
“He cast it and he basically put everything together. He used his skills and connections to find an incredibly talented cast who were as committed to it as he and I were.
“He put in years and years of round the clock work and expertise. And I put in the raw material of the story, the characters, songs, the money and we just did it ourselves. I’m so proud of it. And I just think when you look at it as well, it looks so impressive.
“I still think it is incredible it was done on a small budget and it can be so much better than, for example, the big Hollywood movie I watched last week, which was again terrible.”
The detectives are played by twins James and Harry Knight who were chosen after starring in the Watford school production.
They play two “Generalists” who can be hired for unusual jobs. Sophie says: “They do all kinds of strange jobs for all kinds of peculiar people, and the people who come to them are people who have something they want to solve but which there isn’t another category of professional to deal with.”
This includes going on a self-help course for someone who is too embarrassed to attend.
The spark for the story originally came after Sophie saw Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap.
“I remember thinking, if I was trying to write a suspense or murder mystery play, rather than a novel, what would I write if my ambition for it was to be as popular and long-running as The Mousetrap? And almost immediately I had the idea of an inverted murder mystery where the murderer announces himself at the start and then disappears but the detective doesn’t know what the crime is yet and has to find out.”
Sophie reveals she certainly has plenty more ideas but she is going to see whether this film is a success before committing to another.
“If the world gives us the message that they like our first murder mystery musical movie, then we’d certainly do something else,” she laughs.
The Mystery of Mr E will stream on Amazon Prime from November 25.