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Interview / SPECIAL SCREENING 

"I walk up and down, sometimes for days, bullshitting this character, talking like this character, and sometimes, as the character, I say things I don't necessarily agree with, obviously."

Bruce Robinson
with Charlie Higson
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There are few British films that have reached iconic cult status quite like Bruce Robinson's 1987 masterpiece Withnail & I. Starring a then-unknown Richard E. Grand and Paul McGann, the film proved itself to be a modern classic that has stood the test of time. And based on the sold-out screening at the Prince Charles Cinema (one of two sold-out screenings), the love, admiration, and admiration for this most quotable of films aren't showing any signs of abating.

Ahead of the screening, Bruce was interviewed by Charlie Higson.

I was really pleased to be asked to write a piece for this book, this fabulous book edited by, Toby Benjamin, but I'm even more excited and honoured to be here tonight to actually talk to the man who created all this, the mighty Bruce Robinson.

 

Bruce Robinson (BR): When you're about to lick ass, you start behind the left knee and work your way up. That's very sweet of you.

 

Don’t worry about it.

 

BR: I mean, that was it, that's all we're going to do.

 

Thank you very much to Bruce Robinson. (Laughter) I can't pretend that I'm going to ask you any questions tonight, Bruce, that you probably haven't been asked a million times before, but nevertheless, these are questions that I want to ask. I'm going to do it in a very boring, linear, chronological way and go through how you ended up making this extraordinary film. First thing I'm just going to ask, do you enjoy doing this sort of thing, talking about yourself in public?

 

BR: No, infrequently do I do it. My public speaking is normally in the kitchen at home and I open The Guardian and the whole fucking room clears within seconds, they make a rush for the exits. I started life as an actor and I wasn't a very good one and I never enjoyed it and I always wanted to write, I love words. I genuinely do like them a lot, but I can't say that I necessarily go out of my way to do this kind of thing. I think the last time I did one of these was probably years ago.

 

I shall ensure tonight that you enjoy it so little you'll never do it again.

 

BR: You've already succeeded.

 

You said you didn't think you're a very good actor. I mean, you did quite a few films.

 

BR: I did a few. I was always like a bum-boy around the back because I was quite a pretty young man, so I used to get pretty young man roles. But I know I never really liked it very much. I was too shy really to act that was my problem with it.

 

At the risk of sounding like Michael Parkinson interviewing a young Helen Mirren you were absolutely gorgeous.

 

BR: Yeah, I can concur with that.

 

I'm sure Uncle Monty has several lines about time taking its toll.

 

BR: Of course he does. I mean, there are a few lines. As a matter of fact, one of my oldest friends is in the audience this evening, David Dundas, we were all at Central School of Speech and Drama together. My first ever job was with Franco Zeffirelli in Rome. I just talking to Davy about how there are a few lines in Withnail and I that I ripped off from other people. One of them was a line I ripped off from Franco Zeffirelli which is "are you a sponge or a stone”. What are you supposed to do? I was straight out of drama school. I'd never even been to Italy before. And I arrived in this apartment in a place called Villa Michelle in central Rome.

 

And he goes “you must be very tired, you take a shower.” So I did. I'm in the shower. Zeffirelli opens the door and I'm standing there, he’d just come back from Cairo and he put me in this blue silk kaftan and took me back into his sort of chamber of shame where he asked me that immortal question, are you a sponge or a stone? And I had to say a bit of both. It was a bloody awful night, I can tell you. I haven't recovered. When I came to do Uncle Monty, I’m not homophobic in any which way, one of the producers of the movie, one of my oldest friends, is a homosexual. But they never gave me any of that kind of routine. I was worried that when we where putting the film on, we'd have people with banners and sticks on fire you know, saying you're a homophobic asshole and all that.

Uncle Monty is actually portrayed, I think, very sensitively. He is predatory, but he's not presented in any way as a sort of caricature, he’s a very sad man.

 

BR: He is a sad man. I'm just writing a script at the moment that includes a character like Weinstein. And he is a genuinely sort of horrible person. But Uncle Monty, I wanted him to be a sympathetic character. It's Withnail that freaks the whole scene out, not him. He thinks he's up there for a bit of fun.

 

And you've given him some of the best lines in the film.

 

BR: He's got a few, hasn't he. 

 

It is an extraordinary film in that almost every line in it is quotable. My piece in the book is about the script and what an extraordinary script it is. It’s a beautifully written piece and it just draws you into that world and all those fabulous lines are in there and everybody has got their favourite lines.

 

BR: Who's got favourite line?

 

Audience: "We've come on holiday by Mistaken."

 

My favourite, and I use it all the time, and in fact, I got Bruce to sign my book with it. “Monty, you terrible cunt.”

 

BR: By the way this was in 1986/7 and we had terrific trouble from a film sensor using that word. I mean, it's a pretty dramatic word, and they didn't want it in the film. And it literally was argued for weeks. Why it was a very important line.  You're sitting there with these sort of formal types. They're saying, but the word is “cunt”. Yes, that's the word I want, I’ve got to have it. And finally they relented and we got it in and it's perfect for Withnail to have said that line at the time. But my favourite line in the film, I have to say, is “As a youth I used to weep in butcher's shops.”

 

Did that come from anyone or was it...

 

BR: It came from me. As a child, I used to weep. I really did. I would see all these lambs hanging up and stuff and I'd burst into tears. I kind of feel like that still about these poor animals that we scoff. Well, we don't, because we don't eat them anymore. They're lovely things and we shouldn't torture them like we do, should we? I live in the countryside. I was driving through the little village where we live and a big truck came the other way with these little pigs looking out through the slats, knowing they were off to slaughter and they were all crying like kids. I mean, it's just heartbreaking.

Oh, you little traitors. I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you'll agree, a certain 'je ne sais quoi' oh so very special about a firm, young carrot. - Uncle Monty

So you start as an actor and you got disillusioned with that and you turned to screenwriting?

 

BR: I was always writing. Acting is an incredibly difficult thing to do, I think, and an incredibly difficult way to earn your living. Me and Viv, who was a big stimulant for the character of Withnail, we used to go around Camden Town waste paper bins looking for Guinness bottles. You used to get fourpence on a bottle then, and you could get a big bag full of Guinness bottles with screw caps and take them back to the OFF licence and get a bottle of Greek Hock about nine and eleven or something.

 

Then we go back and drink the Hock and yak and yak and yak. It was Viv who was much better educated than me, who turned me on to my first ever screenplay that I ever wrote, a proper screenplay, because anyone who's read the introduction to Withnail will know this. He used to get up in the morning and have a thing he called the Baudelaire Principle, which is basically a cup of black coffee with cinnamon and hashish stirred in it. And so we used to get up, have a Baudelaire principal, and one day I said to him, but who is Baudelaire?

 

He’d say “I went to a private school and you're a secondary modern boy.” It was all of that kind of thing. Anyway, I didn't know who Baudelaire was. I got hold of a book of Baudelaire's poems and I was hooked instantly on this amazing writing. And so the first thing I ever tried to write as a screenwriter was a story based on Baudelaire that was deepened in those early Withnail days.

 

What's amazing is if you read your biography anywhere you decided to turn to script writing and you were commissioned to write the script for The Killing Fields. And that seems like that's a huge leap, that was a big film. How did that happen?

 

BR: It was an incredibly lucky break. The Baudelaire script was the first thing I remember writing and I carried on writing screenplays writing them back to back, daft stuff. I can't even remember what they were, but they were all sort of weird things. Oh, I know. ‘Private Pirates’ was one I wrote, which was about five friends who are all secretly pirates and wouldn’t tell their other friends that they were a pirate, and they get together for a pirate rave.

 

So I was writing that kind of stuff. And as a matter of fact, when we went up to the Lake District with my friend Mickey Feast, who was a really fab actor, who was again at Central School with me, as was Mike Elphick, who played the poacher ‘Jake’. We went up there together to try and write ‘Private Pirates’ and failed to do it, of course. And God, it was awful up there. It was so cold. It was like total winter. We were sleeping in the same bed, obviously, because we were frozen cold and we had the bags on our feet and the whole fucking show. It was absolutely absurd. And back then I had this old Jaguar car that went in the ditch and the farmer pulled us out and pulled the whole front of the car off, this beautiful old Jag. At that time writing was taking precedence over acting.

 

What was the piece of luck that brought you to David Puttnam and Roland Joffé with The Killing Fields?

 

BR: The piece of luck was David Puttnam. Well, I'd written a few scripts, and another friend of mine, Andrew Birkin, read Withnail and I when it was a novel.

 

So you wrote it first as a novel?

 

BR: Yeah, I wrote it as a novel then turned it into a script. He gave it to David Puttnam, but Puttnam read it, didn't like it, but said “the guy can write.” And somehow I went down to his offices and he said, “I'll tell you what, I'll give you 8000 pounds a year if you'll write screenplays for me.” And that was like monstrous amount of money. I was on four quid a week, National Assistance, so I leapt at it and I wrote two or three scripts for David. One day he sent through this story in the New York Times about Sidney Schaumburg, and he called me up and he said, “can you write it?” And I said, “damn, yeah I can.” And so I did.

 

You got an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA for it.

 

BR: That was my first ever thing that I got, probably.

 

It’s not a simple film, is it?

 

BR: No, it was tricky. And the weird thing is, I was getting four grand off him for a script for The Killing Field. Suddenly I was getting 250,000 quid within six months. I mean, it was madness. 

 

Which was nice.

 

BR: Not half and we moved on from pot, I can tell you.

What point then did you change Withnail and I from a novel?

 

BR: It was that thing, forgive me if I'm pronouncing it incorrectly, called samizdat in Russia, where they used to pass stuff round that was photocopied. A few friends had read the novel of Withnail and I, and it finally ended up with a guy called Mody Schreiber, whose dad was some oil shipping type of guy, and he commissioned me, it was not much money, to turn it into a screenplay, which I did. And then it took 16 years before it got made.

Was that all down to Handmade Films coming on board?

 

BR: It was down to the lovely, fabulous man George Harrison. Handmade Films was run by a guy called Dennis O'Brien, who I didn't get on with, and he thought Withnail was about as funny as lung cancer. But a friend of mine at Handmade Films, a guy called Ray Cooper handed the screenplay to George one night when George was going to New York and said “you've got to read this, George. I think it's good.” When George arrived in New York and phoned Ray and said, “we're making it.”

 

I mean, handmade films and George Harrison were so important to the history of British cinema through the 80s. Well, without him British cinema would have been quite shit.

 

BR: It was shit.

 

But you changed all that.

 

BR: Well, I don't know about that.

 

Did you have a lot of dealings with George.

 

BR: Yeah, I got on really well with him and liked him enormously. I mean, he was this guy as famous as you can possibly get, and he was a genuinely nice man, such humility. He was a considerate man and cared so much about so many different things and he was a lovely guy to be with. And of course, after Mr Lennon was murdered in New York, George got a flood of threatening letters saying things like ‘one down and three to go’. And so he was concerned.

 

There's an interview with him where he light heartedly bemoaning the fact that he’s basically sunk his entire fortune into Handmade Films, asking when he’s ever going to get any money back from this?

 

BR: I don't think he did. I don't think it was much of a profit making enterprise. Well, maybe in the long term.

 

Did you always insist, if the film was to be made, that you would direct it?

 

BR: No, I was introduced to this lovely guy who unfortunately is no longer with us, called Paul Heller, out in Los Angeles, and I was talking to him and I was saying “oh, I got this script, it would be great if we could do it, can we find someone to direct it?” And he said, “Why don't you direct it?” I had never considered doing such a thing. And he said, “If I get you the money, will you direct it?” It was as cheap as anything it could be. It was a million quid.

 

But it still looks amazing.

 

BR: Well, we had the great Peter Hannan, who is in the audience tonight. We talked to a lot of people making comedies and they'll say “oh, it doesn't matter what comedy looks like. It just needs to be funny.” I don't like comedy like that. I hate fucking jokes. I mean, absolutely. Comedy is about everything is so incredibly funny if you look at it slightly from a different angle. And that's the comedy I like. I can't bear jokes.

 

But Withnail and I is full of jokes.

 

BR: Is it? I never noticed. One of the funniest films I've ever seen, and I don’t really like his work, except for this one is the Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush, where he's starving in a hut in Alaska and he boils up one of his boots because he's got nothing else to eat. And he boils the boot and he's sitting in there and he's pulling the nails out of the soles and sucking them like chicken bones, twirling the laces like spaghetti. And it is so unbelievably brilliantly funny, I think. And he doesn't say, look at me being funny, he says, look at me being a starving man eating a boot. And that's why it's think it's funny, Withnail doesn't know he's funny.

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And you were very lucky or wise to get such an amazing cast.

 

BR: I was very lucky. It was a very slow process of casting, though. And Richard E. Grant came in. I think he came back four or five times. And we read the scene in the kitchen where the eye catches something floating up in the sink. Richard E. in the audition said, that line “fork it.” And I thought, if he can get that right, he can get the rest of it right. And he got the job on that one line.

 

Richard E. Grant, as many of you probably know, has kept journals of all his work that he's done, and his book With Nails is brilliant. And reading that when he's going through this audition process and he so desperately wants this film, he turns up and there are all these top male actors at the audition, and he’s thinking “I'm not going to get this job.” And reading it, even though, you know, he does get the job, you're going, no, don't give it to that actor. It's got to be Richard E. Is that exactly what you felt? How close did any of these other actors get to the role.

 

BR: I asked Daniel Day Lewis, before he was a big star, if he would do it, and he didn’t. He turned it down. And then there were all sorts of people. I mean, I knew a lot of these people because of my acting background but Richard E. was, even though he was completely unknown, hands down had a nasty enough streak in him to play that part. You could just smell it.

 

But he can't drink. 

 

BR: He doesn't no.

 

He doesn't have the enzymes to process alcohol. But to prepare him for the role, you got him absolutely hammered one night. 

 

BR: And I had to clean up the spew! He went rushing through the door and spewed all over the carpet, I made him get really drunk, I referred to it as a chemical memory because he'd never had a drink and he thought it was bullshit. But it was important that he knew what it was like to be smashed out of your brain, because I was at the time when he was doing hi audition, I don't know. There was lots of booze going on.

 

There is an interesting process in script writing, particularly if your starting point is inspired by a real person as it was in your case by your flatmate Vivian Mackerel. 

 

BR: It’s inspired by a whole bunch of people, I must say.

 

You have that initial idea of the character, you write the script, and then it starts to take on a life of its own. The third stage, hiring an actor to play the role, and they inevitably bring a lot of themselves to the character and it possibly changes the DNA of the character you’ve written. How much of a change did your script go through once Richard E., was cast, did he end up playing the character that you wrote?

 

BR: He played the character I wrote. I have a kind of a weird way of writing, actually. I don't know if it's weird. When I am writing a particular character I'll try and become him as much as I can. I walk up and down, sometimes for days, bullshitting this character, talking like this character, and sometimes, as the character, I say things I don't necessarily agree with, obviously. So sometimes the character will say something I don't agree with it, it can be shocking, “christ almighty, where did you get that from?”

 

I'll type that down on a piece of paper and then I'll bullshit either side of it until I feel there's a scene there. Then I start trying to write it in the right rhythm. Because comedy, I think, is all about the rhythm. 

There's a musical edge to it, no?

BR: Absolutely. I had the most gruesome time after the Killing Fields. I wrote a film about the atomic bomb. I’m not going to go down that street because it's not appropriate to do so. But the guy who directed it had not a clue about rhythm in drama. Not a clue. I mean, it completely fucked the film. A few people who are over 50 years old might have seen it, but I haven't seen it. I saw the first 20 minutes. It was so gruesome, I had to leave.

 

Paul McGann often gets overlooked in this film because Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths give such extravagant performances. And he's probably, in some ways, the most difficult role in the film. He's our eyes and he's our witness.

 

BR: In Withnail and I there's nothing in the movie that happens that he doesn't see until the separation at the end when obviously Withnail goes off and he's buggered and Paul goes on, hopefully to have a career. Paul I think plays a blinder in the film, I really do, because he supports Withnail. Withnail's got all the fireworks, all that stuff  and we've all been Withnail at some point, haven't we? I mean, we've all sort of had a laugh and been disgusting.

 

That's a whole other interview.

 

BR: We've all done stuff like that. But Paul has to hold the fort all the time with this guy. Someone pointed this out to me the other day that & I, throughout the movie, never goes along with Withnail. The only time he does is in the tea room scene where he goes along with Withnail:

 

“All right, Miss Blennerhassett, I'm warning you, if you do, you're fired. We are multimillionaires. We shall buy this place and fire you immediately.”

 

Normally he doesn't, though. He's trying to keep Withnail balanced and human. “I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Paul’s character doesn't get lines like that. No, but he is us. I mean, you say we're all Withnail, I've probably spent more time being Marwood.

 

Have you?

 

BR: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I'm sort of both of them because they're fictions. It wasn’t like I was running around with a notepad and a pencil chancing people in those days, you just sat down and you wrote the bugger.

 

And you hope that it comes alive.

 

BR: Yeah. I mean, it’s a struggle to get there.

 

I hadn't thought about this before. And maybe that's why that ending scene is so powerful. It is the first time they’re properly separated and Withnail is alone. Except for the wolves, he does his soliloquy to the wolves.

 

BR: Marwood was not there to see it and that was very consciously done to say, this is over boys. You are not Withnail and I you are Withnail and he's gone, and it's very sad. By the end I worked really closely with Richard E. to really get the feeling and emotion I wanted for Withnail.

 

I adore Shakespeare, but I can't bear actors acting Shakespeare. I just crawl when they act Shakespeare rather than the fucking character, please don't do me, your Shakespeare, play the character. And so to get Withnail playing his Hamlet, which Richard E. does brilliantly, I think, at the end, is no mean feat. He pulled that off which is a very difficult thing to do. That magnificent run of words, it's almost unbelievable, isn't it? Don't you think?

 

I mean, it is extraordinary. And because there's just so many other great scenes and lines that people sometimes forget that and then you get to it at the end of the film and it's like, oh, wow.

 

BR: Yeah, he knew a thing or two, didn't he? 

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