The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Phantom of the Open.
Simon, this is an incredible true story. How did you come to write the script?
Simon Farnaby: I was brought up around golf. My father was a greenskeeper at a little club in northeast England. Golf’s a game I love, but I came at it like Maurice [Flitcroft], from a lower-class angle. The greenskeepers were the great unwashed. You were supposed to stay in the shed and not venture out onto the course. When the juniors at our club heard about Maurice, he became a folk hero. If you were a junior, or in fact a woman, you only had a small amount of time to tee off, and you were looked down upon by all the men. So, he was a huge folk hero for us all, but then I kind of forgot about him. And then I eventually realized I wasn’t good enough at golf to be a professional, unlike Maurice. I got into comedy, I got into making films, and then Maurice died in 2007 and I read the obituary in the newspaper and was reminded, oh, that guy! I hadn’t heard of him between those two periods, so I immediately did a bit of research and wrote a very bad screenplay based on very few facts. Then I thought, I’d better look into this more, so I did loads of research and teamed up with a journalist and met the family, including the twins, who are featured in the film. And the big moment came when I asked if they had any letters or postcards, any written material of their dad’s that might have given insight into his mind. And they initially they said, no, we don’t, and they offered me a drink and then about two hours later, they said, “actually we do! We’ve got his autobiography.” And they bring out from under the bed this 500-page hand-written autobiography that Maurice wrote but was never published. That was just a gold mine. It brought tears to my eyes. Everything he was thinking about, all the stuff that happens in the film, there were lots of things that are straight from the autobiography… the way he took six sugars in his coffee, the speech he gives to his wife at the end, that was glued into the book from when he had written it down in Michigan. The speech to Jean was all verbatim. He kept the letters between him and Keith Mackenzie, every word of their exchanges in the film comes from those letters, and there were more in the book! Until Mackenzie gave up corresponding. So then I wrote a better screenplay, and got an amazing director who shared my vision. He wanted it to be colorful and fun and not too kitchen-sinky, and here we are.
it’s about someone really wanting to do something in a world that tells them they can’t
Craig, how did you come to the film and what aspect of the story drew you in?
Craig Roberts: I loved Simon’s script. I had made two films before this that I had written myself, and I suppose I had this pretentious idea that I would be an auteur that would only direct his own scripts. But when I read Simon’s script, I loved it and wished I had written it myself. Sally Hawkins had played a paranoid-schizophrenic in my second film, Eternal Beauty. And much like in that film, the whole way we framed this movie was to take someone’s perceived weakness and turn it into a strength. It was a comedy, and I suppose you’re not laughing at her, you’re laughing with her, when she’s making jokes. I think that helped me understand Maurice’s story, and that’s what Simon and the producers saw in me. I pitched for it, I begged to do it, and I got it. And there were a few things that drew me in. When you’re telling a story about a real person, most of the time people know that real person, so there’s an expectation. That was fun to explore. And it’s a class story and a birth lottery story, but it’s about someone really wanting to do something in a world that tells them they can’t, and that’s what I really loved about it. It had so much heart.
The cast is phenomenal. Did you encounter any challenges during the casting process?
CR: There were no challenges in casting this film. People are really fans of Simon’s work, so that helped when sending the script. We wanted Mark Rylance because we didn’t want a comedic actor in it, we wanted a character actor that was grounded and would make it real, one who would lean into the drama. The script was very funny anyway. We sent it Mark because we thought we should try for the very best. And he’d actually never been sent a comedy before. The timing was quite good. We both know Sally Hawkins quite well, and she’s amazing. She’s really the heart of this film and the support system. The hardest thing was actually finding the twins. We were worried that we wouldn’t find the right energy, but we did some self-tapes and I when I was shown their tape [Christian and Jonah Lees], I was blown away by how much life they had. In another world, they’d probably be in the movie even more because they’re just so fun.
SF: They weren’t very good dancers though, were they?
CR: No, they were terrible! That was something they had to learn.
Simon, how did your part in the film as the French golfer come about?
SF: Well, we needed someone who could swing a golf club. And luckily for me, there aren’t many professional golfers that are also good actors. I was forced into it, really! Jim Howard, who you see in the film, was the first Black PGA player and actually played with Maurice that day. He was so happy to be involved in the film and loved his day with Maurice. But there was another player that hated Maurice that didn’t want anything to do with the film, so I stepped in to fill his role as the one who thought Maurice was wasting everyone’s time. And it was a great excuse to dress up like one of the 1970s golfers.
Can you talk a bit collaborating with some of your crew members?
CR: It’s my favorite part of the process, really, the collaboration. When you’re making a movie—David Lynch says this—you have an idea, and when you collaborate, people put their ideas on top of your idea. I’ve worked with the same costumer designer for my past three movies now [Sian Jenkins], and interestingly the design all comes from a very weird reference… it’s Superman. When I read Simon’s script, there’s a moment where he opens his overalls, like Superman. One of my favorite movies is Punch Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson, where Adam Sandler has social anxiety but it’s framed in a way that he’s an alien and he’s Superman, so I took inspiration from that. That informed the whole design of the movie. His golf attire is all diamond shapes in the colors of Superman. The hat is kind of like his cape. The dog is the same dog that Superman had, and at the beginning you see a shooting star coming down, like Superman. Because Maurice has his own superpower, and it’s his confidence in himself.
My DP was Kit Fraser. We shot on 35mm, and then on 16mm for the golf scenes. I really like to preview most of the things we’re going to shoot. I’m sure if we were improvising the whole thing, it would be a lot more expensive. We wanted a 70s feel, so we referenced Boogie Nights, the King of Comedy a little bit, all the flashing cameras and the freeze frames. In terms of music, Isobel Waller-Bridge did the score. There’s a soap in the UK called Coronation Street, and that was the choice as a reference for the score. It was a bit of a strange choice, but I grew up with it, and it felt nostalgic and romantic.