THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN – Interview with director Craig Roberts

Based on the true story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a crane driver who set his mind on entering the British Open golf championship with no previous experience in the game.  Learning on the fly, he drew attention for repeatedly missing the hole and scoring the worst round in Open history. That didn’t stop him from entering again under a Frenchman’s disguise… and again. There’s no stopping this dreamer once he puts his mind to it…

Had you heard Maurice’s story before signing on to the film?
I hadn’t. When he was younger, my dad was into golf, and I ran it past him, and he didn’t know either. I didn’t know too much about golf, to be honest, before this, but once I started looking into it, and who he was, I was immediately drawn to it. It is such a great story.
Casting Mark Rylance in a comedic role is a stroke of genius. Did you know he was the right fit for Maurice?
We did know he was Maurice. We really wanted a character actor to ground it. The script was very, very funny, but we wanted to keep the heart in there as well. We knew that having a character actor like Mark would bring that, and he’s just so easy to connect to as an actor. It’s all in the eyes, and he’s fantastic at doing that. We knew it had to be Mark and we sent the script and then I wrote a letter. We were very fortunate that he responded that he’d never really been sent a comedy. There was a bit of luck involved in that nobody had taken the opportunity to cast him in a comedic role.
Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance have the most beautiful chemistry. Did you rehearse beforehand, or did it come naturally?
They didn’t need any help from me! They’re the masters of their craft. I knew that putting the two of them together would just be magic. They’re very kind people. They’re very beautiful humans. The first day in the rehearsal room, you could see that they got on, and there was immediate chemistry. It was important to have Sally in the movie because her character is the heart, and Sally, she’s able to ground the film. She’s able to be incredibly funny while grounding at the same time. We’re very lucky to have both.

You capture the comedy moments, heart, and more serious side of things. How did you balance the comedy with the drama?

The comedy was in the script. Simon Farnaby is a very funny writer. There are certain ways to capture comedy, and normally it’s on a wide shot; you do mediums and close-ups, and in the editing process, you cut it together for it to become funny. If somebody falls, you cut to the reaction of somebody else. It is how people react to it, and that’s the funniest aspect. When I first spoke to the producers about this movie, my reference was Boogie Nights, which is slightly different from a comedy. I think what helps with it is that the grammar of the movie isn’t shot like a comedy. The camera is moving all the time, and there aren’t loads of coverage. A lot of it is one-shot that develops into a two-shot with a zoom. It is almost playing against the comedy. I knew that the actors would be really funny, and that same script was very funny, so I suppose I shot it like a drama. We had the heart to fall back on when we wanted to.

There is a lot of footage of the real Maurice. Did you and Mark study it to know the real Maurice?
I watched all the videos that were available and took what I could from them. Mark did all that as well and visited one of Maurice’s sons. Mark got really deep into it. I had so much prep going on that I didn’t really get a chance to go into it as deeply, but also, at the same time, what was important for me was not to make an out and out biopic. You’re never really going to get extremely close to the real person because it’s just not the real person, then it becomes an impression. What was important with this was to capture the soul, his optimism and how beautiful his character was, and then for Mark to do his own thing with it, but he certainly did the research so that he felt safe that he was doing Maurice justice.

Jonah and Christian Lees play the couple’s twin sons, James and Gene. How did you go about casting twins?
We really lucked out. I was super nervous about casting the twins; they were the hardest characters to cast. We were in pre-production, we had an amazing casting director, Shaheen Baig; I trusted that she would find the right people. We got lots of tape submissions and watched them all, but there was something about Christian and Jonah. It was really effortless, and they had such great energy. They are the energy of the movie; every time they come in, people want more of them. They were a real discovery. They worked a bit before, but this is the first big picture. I felt safe having them.

As an actor and a director, does your actor side ever take over and want to jump in the scene and do your two brains work together or can you separate them?
I think they do work together. I’ve never looked at Mark Rylance as an actor and thought I would do that better. The same as Sally, all of them really, they’ve all got it figured out. It’s all about tastes and your opinion on what it is. I’d hoped that I understand what comedy is, so if I thought it could be funnier, or if it was about leaving a beat before reaction, I certainly wouldn’t be afraid to suggest that to people. For me, it’s about creating a safe space so that actors can just really have fun. When things get too serious it takes the fun out of it, and then the best stuff doesn’t come from the actors. It was about just giving them the freedom to explore at the same time; it was making sure we got all the material that we needed. But it is interesting, I’ve acted in one thing that I directed, and I said I’d never do it again. I feel easier watching other actors, to be honest. I put the director hat on rather than the actor hat when directing.

The film is beautifully shot, and you depart from traditional biopic cinematography at times. Are you the type of director who has a singular vision of how you want it to look, or do you collaborate with your cinematographer?
It’s a bit of both. I have a great cinematographer that I work with, Kit Fraser, he’s amazing, but I definitely have ideas going into it. I have references, and we watch those references, talk about them, and talk about what lenses we are using. We set out a grammar for the whole thing beforehand that you know whether we should be looking up at Maurice during certain moments or looking down at him. I really love to be prepared, so I never really turned up on set not knowing what the shots are about. I like giving people the freedom to move around, not like stand there and we’ll shoot, but yeah, everything’s prepared, even the colours and the colour schemes. We had a very weird reference which was Superman, for the whole thing. In the script, he opens up his overalls and reveals his golf outfit and how Simon scripted it, it’s described like Superman. I took that and ran with it; we created Maurice’s vest in the Superman colours with diamond shapes. Small, weird things help you put a lock on it.

How did you film the golf action sequences? Is it CGI?
It was a lot of work. The fields are so big, and you got to carry all the equipment across them. In terms of shooting it, Mark was pretty good. He did all of it. Really. There are a few CGI shots of the ball going in the air, but he did it all the rest. It’s really hard to be bad on purpose, but Mark is talented at golf; he was able to make it look bad. So yeah, he was amazing. We wanted to try and keep it as interesting as possible. We knew that somebody who stood in a greenfield would get boring after a while. That’s where Boogie Nights came into it; we kept moving the camera and tried to keep it as kinetic as possible.

Mark Lewis Jones has a small but integral role. As a Welsh person, do you like to cast Welsh actors?
I feel safe with Welsh people around me. I worked with Mark on my first film. He is like an institution in Wales. He works so much. He’s so fantastic. I’ll take any chance to work with him. He knew Mark; they did a theatre job together. When I mentioned to Mark Rylance that we’d offered the part to Mark Lewis Jones, he was very happy.

What was it like filming in a pandemic?
I felt very grateful to be shooting in the pandemic because so many people weren’t working. It wasn’t as hard as you think it was for me; it was hard for the producers and everybody putting it together. It was extremely stressful because they had to add so much money to achieve everything. But in terms of filming it, I didn’t feel it too much and props to the producers for not letting it filter down. It just meant that not as many people were behind the monitors, not many people were on set, which was fine for me.

When you were filming, did you think you would get to see the film in the cinema?
No! We showed it at a London Film Festival last year to about 2000 people at the Royal Festival Hall, and that was bizarre and wonderful. It was great to hear people reacting to it because for so long, it was just me in an editing suite losing my mind.

Do you enjoy underdog films?

One of my favourite movies is Eight Mile, the rap movie with Eminem, and that’s an underdog story. Everybody loves a bit of Rocky. I see it as somebody defying or going against that birth lottery. You have the hand you’ve been dealt, and you are trying to flip it on the system. I love that. I really do. Hopefully, the timing of this movie is something that everybody really wants to see. It’s hopeful and escapism, and it’s about love and supporting one another and trying to figure out who you are and where you fit in in the world. I hope that that helps people.

Are you the type of director that wants people to take a message from a film, or do you like them just to go in and take from it what they want?
I think it depends on the film. With this movie, I want people to take whatever they want. I want them to take from it to be kinder to people and not to judge people. A lot of people laughed at Maurice, but they should have been laughing with him. He’s a very funny guy. But it depends. I suppose there are movies that I want to make in the future that probably have a message. It’s like the Kubrick/Spielberg debate. Stanley Kubrick makes you feel worse coming out of the movie, and Spielberg makes you feel fantastic. I think there’s space for both.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN is at Irish cinemas from March 18th