Interview – Craig Roberts, director of The Phantom of the Open, on creating a surreal underdog tale

The Phantom of the Open tells the heartwarming true story of Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance), a dreamer and unrelenting optimist. This humble crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness 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 drew the ire of the golfing elite, but became a folk hero in the process and, more importantly, showed his family the importance of pursuing your dreams.

To celebrate the Australian release of the film, in cinemas July 14, the team at Universal Picture put me in touch with the film’s director, Craig Roberts! We spoke about Flitcroft’s infamy, working with Mark Rylance, and how 8 Mile in some way inspired Craig to make this film.

Nick: Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the film. I really enjoyed it! I have a fascination with underdog stories and sports biopic, but I just wanted to start with an obvious question – or one that may seem obvious – are you yourself a golfer? Do you consider yourself a man who enjoys golf?

Craig Roberts: Well, first off, thanks for saying those nice things! That’s really kind. No, [laughs] I don’t play golf. I still don’t even play after having made the movie. My dad used to play it and he was very, very good. So, I think that’s the kind of my connection to this. Before this film, I had made a few movies, but they were kind of surreal, indie movies. I suppose this movie felt like a movie my dad would actually watch because he liked golf so much.

Nick: It’s interesting you say that regarding your directing career, there is that bit of surrealness in your previous work, but, I think there’s also an element of surrealness with the way you portray some of Maurice’s dream-like scenes. I’m interested in knowing when you read the script from Simon [Farnaby, screenwriter], were those sorts of scenes already in the script, or are these moments you both crafted together to give us an idea of what is happening in Maurice Flitcroff’s mind?

Craig: Yeah, they were already in the script. And that’s what really attracted me to it, you know, I love underdog stories to just like you. I mean, my favourite movie is 8 Mile, actually. And that’s what I tried to make, the golfing 8 Mile – no, I’m just kidding! [laughs] When I read the script, I loved it. There were these moments of surreal or heightened, I suppose, escape really! It was just about the escapism of it all that really attracted me to it.

One of my favourite movies is a movie called Billy Liar, which is a movie that was released, I think the 60s, with Tom Courtney. And it’s about a kid who lived in like a small town and his way of escaping was to have this fantasy. We kind of saw that as a good reference for this. To the point where, before he goes into the TV for the first time, there’s like a clip of Billy Liar on the TV as a nod. So yeah, it was already in the script. And it was just about finding the visuals and the colours and stuff that would add to you know, I suppose add to his [Flitcroff’s] story and really elevate it. Those colours were purely inspired by Superman: The Movie.

Nick: That makes a lot of sense. Something clicked for me as soon as you said ‘Superman’ because with the way you use the credits in the film, as well, I got the feeling that this like a love letter, a nod, to cinema of the 60s and cinema or the 70s. I think that comes across quite well.

Craig: Well, thanks very much. It is definitely a nod. I think. in terms of the production of it all and the design of it and trying to keep it as close to the period. The benchmark is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that movie so good. It’s so close to you just feeling like you’re there. So, anything we could do to get it towards that, I think was the aim.

Nick: I think the aim was right on target, for sure. I’d love to know about how this movie came to you initially. Were you aware of Maurice’s story before going into making this film? Were you aware of the folklore surrounding him?

Craig: I was aware of Simon [Farnaby] and his writing, and Paddington, and being great. I was a fan of his work. But no, I didn’t know about Maurice. I just got sent the script and I read it and it felt like The Big Lebowski to me for some reason. I loved it immediately, and was like: ‘oh my God, I’ve got I’ve got to do this, how do I do this?’ And then I met the producers, then I met Simon and read the book and couldn’t believe it was true! I watched the videos of him, and I think what was really appealing about this project, is the fact that when you’re making an underdog story, or you’re making a story about a true person, people most of the time know about that person. But with this, there are not that many people who know about Maurice, so it feels like a nice way to introduce him to the world.

Nick: Speaking of Maurice Flitcroft – how did Mark Rylance become involved with the project?

Craig: Well, we wanted like the best actor, so we were like, let’s aim for Mark and see how we get on. I think at the time it was during the first lockdown, he wasn’t doing anything, and he also hadn’t been offered a comedy before. So, we think the timing of it was very lucky. And he loved Simon’s script, which is great. I talked to him about the movie and the approach, and what the humour would be. We went back and forth a bit and then he said he was going to do it.

Nick: We briefly touched on the fact that you enjoy creating and watching underdog stories. And this is fascinating character study of an underdog, but it’s almost like a sports biopic that’s flipped on its own head, in a way. Did you find the foundations of the traditional ‘sports biopic’ helpful to create Maurice’s story, even though it’s sort of inverted in The Phantom of the Open?

Craig: It’s a great question. For me, probably not. I mean, maybe the script is written that way. But again, I guess I didn’t really look at any sports biopics before making the movie. We were kind of trying to avoid certain biopics like Eddie the Eagle, just because we knew that we’d be so close to it. There’s nothing worse than being compared. – not being compared – but you know, essentially the one line for the movie being it’s ‘Eddie-The-Eagle-like’. So, we were trying to avoid certain things, but that just meant I didn’t watch those sorts of movies. You know, the movies I watched before this were all like Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love and loads of PTA (Paul Thomas Anderson) movies.

Nick: It’s so funny you say Boogie Nights, because when I was writing some questions and doing some research for this after I watched the movie last night, Goodfellas popped into my brain, especially with the way you move the camera. There’s so many nice, sweeping shots that have that same energy!

Craig: Only when I was pitching the movie to certain people, I mentioned Goodfellas! And it didn’t get a great response. [laughs] So, I never mentioned again!

Nick: I’m so glad I brought that up because it’s incredible where inspiration can come from. This is ultimately a movie that families can enjoy, it’s got this really heartwarming and eccentric approach to the underdog story. But the inspiration you’re getting from the movies that you’ve been mentioning is, for cinema lovers like yourself and I, so much fun to pick up and point out!

Craig: Thank you. Well, that’s the aim. You know, it’s for everybody. It’s a family movie. And hopefully it’s accessible to absolutely everybody. Its themes are universal. But you know, it’s great if it plays in both ways, if people can watch the movie and let it wash over them and have a fun time. Or if people go in and see easter eggs of things and all that stuff. That’s what I love.

Nick: I’ve noticed a difference between how US and UK films portray an underdog story. I find these kinds of films coming out of America are quite dramatic and have severe emotional stakes. But a lot of the underdog stories in the UK are joyful and optimistic comedies that still manage to find grounding in the emotion. I’m curious if that’s something you’ve ever noticed as a comparison between American and UK films, and do you feel like the optimistic approach to a biopic creates more emotional investment for the audience?

Craig: Again, bloody good question! I’ve noticed it now that you’ve said it, I suppose. I don’t know what the main difference would be through our ideology is really like. America really believes that they can do absolutely everything. And that’s the beauty of being there. And then the UK are probably slightly more self-effacing and will doubt themselves more, if that makes sense.

Nick: All my family are from the UK, so that makes a lot of sense to me [laughs].

Craig: [laughs] That would make sense that there is, in some ways, more humour in that. I mean look at look at 8 Mile, that’s such a serious film. It couldn’t be any more serious. And it’s actually about a guy who’s very funny, like Marshall Mathers is a comedian almost. Whereas if that was made in the UK, yes, it probably would be the Ali-G version. Which I also want to watch!

Nick: I think I want to watch as well! I want to talk a bit a little bit about your career in general. You have a very prolific career as an actor, and I have to say that I love Submarine! What learnings have you found as an actor that has assisted you with your directing? And then perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, what are some of the bad traits you have found, where the actor mind can sometimes take over for the director’s mind?

Craig: I think probably the best thing I’ve learned crossing over from acting to directing is actors really need the time and the space to be able to do to discover what’s going on. So, if you clip people’s wings too early, you really don’t get the best out of people. So, it’s about creating a safe environment so that people feel, you know, as comfortable as possible to really explore what’s out there. I think the worst thing that I’ve carried across is that on the flip side of that, actors can get in their head a lot. And they can sometimes feel like they’re not getting it right when they are. It’s just about reassuring, and kind of being a friend as well as a colleague at the same time, I think so that’s probably what I’ve carried over. And that’s really through working with great directors as an actor. I’ve been very fortunate that my kind of film school has been working with great directors, as opposed to, you know, studying books and stuff. I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I do. I love it.

Nick: Craig, thank you so much for your time! I really appreciate it!

Craig: Thank you!

Thanks again to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with Craig Roberts! The Phantom of the Open is in Australian cinemas July 14.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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