Celebrity Interview: Director Craig Roberts and Writer Simon Farnaby Talk on The Phantom of the Open

The Phantom of the Open, from SONY Pictures Classic, weaves a heartwarming true story of Maurice Flitcroft, an unrelenting optimist, who in a moment of either genius or madness sets his sights on playing in the British Open.

Academy award winner Mark Rylance plays Flitcroft, a humble crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, essentially, as he explains, a place where men go to die, managed to gain entry to The British Open Golf Championship qualifying in 1976, despite never playing a round of golf before. He shot the worst round in Open history and became a folk hero of sorts to those who are humbled by the game. Academy award nominee, Sally Hawkins plays his wife, Jean.

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What follows is brought to the screen by writer Simon Farnaby and Director Craig Roberts. I recently had the opportunity to interview both. Below is an excerpt of the interview.

Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it. So tell me a little bit about how the project came to you?

Simon Farnaby: Well, I found out about Morris from his, he died in 2007, and I read an obituary in the newspaper in The Guardian that I thought it was a joke. You know I thought it was April fool or something. And then I read in the other newspapers and found out that he was this sort of you know pretty big deal in the 1970s and I said he grew up around golf. So, it was a way of, because I sort of, I was doing comedy and acting and writing but I also had this sideline I keep quiet generally about my love of golf. So, this was this was really a way I thought here I can marry my two sort of passions and come at it from a point of view of a very unusual sports story. You know it's very unusual that you've got an underdog story where he doesn't actually achieve, I mean he gets a dream in another way. So, being an unusual story really drew it to me.

Craig Roberts: For me Janet, I got sent the script really and I've made two films before this that I've written myself and I didn't think I was going to be directing someone else script. The thought never really came into my mind. But when I read the script, I just loved it and I loved the heart and I just loved how funny it was and yeah, I just I loved Maurice, I loved the characters and I felt like I knew him, and I can see away and when that clicked, I felt like yeah, I really wanted to do it.

Janet Walker: I certainly understand that. I understand also that it all starts with a good script so why don't you tell me about your writing process Simon?

Simon Farnaby: Well, it's funny because I wrote a screenplay, it was actually the first screenplay I ever wrote so I wrote after that on the Paddington movies and film called Mind Torn, but this was my first script, and it was really bad. And it was bad because I only knew a few small facts about Maurice. And it was one of the intriguing things like when you know when I read his obituary's I thought they'd be more about him but really that was it. It was all anyone knew about him.

So, I had to do my own research and that's when the book came about and that meant visiting his family and friends you know we managed to get hold of his own published autobiography which is 500 pages of his innermost thoughts and everything that happened to him. And then actually the screenplay, because I never written a true story before, you know that there's a process when you're writing it just fiction because you can basically do what you want but it was really nice actually to have the parameters of the true story and go okay this is what happened to this person you have to do it justice because there's people alive who knew him and his family and stuff so you can't do any lies. Really it was nice. It was sort of more like curating moments in his life and to make it a satisfying screenplay which was a very different job than writing about a talking bear.

Janet Walker: Craig did you contribute any to the screenplay? Did you like make it over once you got it?

Craig Roberts: Not really. I mean to be honest not really. I mean it was really good. I went through and did like a pass maybe I changed some of the songs for tone for when we sent out to actors, and we sat down with Mark [Rylance] when Mark was on board, and we talked about absolutely everything and maybe small things changed but the main thing was there.

Janet Walker: That segues into my next question. So, Craig tell me about the filmmaking process and the casting process. You just mentioned Mark [Rylance].

Craig Roberts: We wanted him because he's the best and we aimed for that and we're very lucky that he'd never been sent a comedy and they just really loved the character and the world, like I did. So that was amazing. Because we kind of knew that we wanted to ground it and in reality, and we wanted him to, you know, it's a very funny script but there's also a lot of heart in it as well. I think he can absolutely do both, pivot very quickly. So, that was important to get him on board. Then in terms of, I suppose the look of it and stuff and the filmmaking process, for me it's important to shoot on film, we shot in 35 just to get that you know the period look.

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We shot 16 for the golf stuff so you know kind of emulate the TV stuff that would have been playing back then. And we wanted scale really, it was, I suppose it's you know he his ambition was big, and he ended up in America and therefore my references were mainly American movies like Boogie Nights and stuff like that. And I kind of wanted to try and transcend and also not make a kind of kitchen sink's steeped in social realism movie you know? He had a big dream, so we wanted to mirror his ambition and not his situation if that makes any sense?

Simon Farnaby: Yeah, that was a big thing for us in choosing Craig. I mean we've seen Craig's film Eternal Beauty which I thought was brilliant and managed to be moving and funny at the same time. And then Craig was, well, all his references were the same things I love, you know The Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson and really, I guess sort of films that had some color and some scale and some that weren't you know, there's a lot of British films, not to do British the film industry down, but it can be very grimy. And we met a few directors at gun you know this could be like a Ken Loach sort of film that was still quite gritty but found the humor through that and I was like "no" I wanted it to be The Big Lebowski. So, Craig and I totally saw eye to eye on that and I think that's how we how it turned out it really wasn't peculiarly British kind of film it has its own sort of unique sort of style and color to it.

Janet Walker: So, what surprised you most about making the project? Either of you can go first.

Simon Farnaby: What surprised us the most? That's an interesting question. Well, I suppose COVID surprised us the most. No one was expecting that. We filmed during the big lockdown you know where I thought we never going to manage this as well we had crowd scenes and stuff. And then I was surprised that it actually looked alright, you know considering we weren't allowed crowds.

Craig Roberts: Yeah, the day before we began filming I caught COVID so we were scheduled to start filming and we had to do the first day, so I did it in my bedroom remote. And then I couldn't do it anymore because it sucked. So, we stopped doing it and we pushed it to the next week, you know we had to shoot, we were supposed to be shooting a very hot summer and it needed to look really hot and actually that week we were meant to be filming it actually rained every day. So, luckily because we pushed it a week with me having COVID we actually got the sun a bit more which is great. Yeah, that's amazing.

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Janet Walker: So, from start to finish how long did the project take?

Craig Roberts: A lot longer for Simon than me.

Simon Farnaby: Oh, from writing wise about 12 years. Yeah, it was no, actually more than that because in 2007 was the obituary that I read and then where are we now 2022. Wow okay yeah 14 years.

Craig Roberts: Yeah, just over 12 months for me. Pretty much to be honest as soon as Mark said he wanted to do it and he had a window to do it kind of went very quickly. So, we had about 6 or 7 about six weeks prep and then we shot for about five to six weeks right.


Janet Walker: So, what was your most memorable moment of the entire process?

Craig Roberts: The last time when you finished because you know you've got it in the can that's always the best for me.

Simon Farnaby: I think for me being on being on set. Well, the first tee scene, which is actually pretty much the bad screenplay that I referenced that I scene is pretty much the same matches that script because that was some because lots of people you know we knew what happened on that first tee. But I played a one of Maurice's partners, a quite grumpy Frenchman and everyone had to hit the clubs from that era 1970s woods and the other guy in the group was a professional and he couldn't get it off the tee and then I blasted one straight down the middle at 240 yards well that was my best moment.

Craig Roberts: That was a great moment for us all.

Janet Walker. I'm being told to wrap it up. What's next for both of you?

Simon Farnaby: Well, we've just finished shooting on Wonka which is with Timothy Chalamet that I co-wrote with Paul King who added Paddington II  and so that's just sort of exciting things with getting that into shape.

Craig Roberts: I'm doing I think a relationship film that's kind of like an ecological kind of psycho thriller and in between that playing loads of PlayStation.

Janet Walker: Thank you so much. The film is great, I loved it. Much success to both of you.

The Phantom of The Open, a feel-good film that will leave you cheering again and again, opens in theaters June 3, 2022. See it.

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