Interview – Simon Farnaby, writer of The Phantom of the Open, on writing a sports biopic about a man who was bad at golf!

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 screenwriter, Simon Faranby! We spoke about putting a new spin on the underdog tale, the influence of The Big Lebowski, and golf snobbery!

Nick: Thank you so much for your time today to talk about The Phantom of the Open. It’s a film I enjoyed very much. I’m a fan of the underdog story and I’m a fan of sports biopics as well. I wanted to ask before we sort get into the movie – are you a golfer yourself? Do you consider yourself a man who is not too bad with the clubs?

Simon Farnaby: Yeah, I played as a junior and I got pretty good! I got down to a 4 (handicap) and could’ve turned pro and you know, worked in the shop and teach old ladies to play. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But, I let it go – I still play now with my dad. I play 8 off (par), so, I am still pretty handy.

Nick: Speaking of playing golf with your father, this feels like a movie that I feel like people would watch with their dad or granddad and get a big kick out of it. A lot of that comes down to Maurice himself as a person. But I’m curious to find out how you came aware of the story. You wrote the book, The Phantom of the Open almost a decade ago, I believe. How did you come across Maurice’s story? And what was it about this eccentric character that fascinated you to write about his life?

Simon: I recall, when I was a junior, I would hear about him through the golf club. People would talk about him, and I thought it sounded like quite a funny concept. And then I forgot about him. And then, I gave up on my golf dream and had gone into comedy and writing and movies. Then when he died in 2007, I read about it in the newspapers, he was in all the obituary columns, and I was really hearing a bit more about him. I just thought that this guy sounds great.

I mean, there was a quote from his press conference saying: “I would have done better if I hadn’t left my 4-wood in the boot of the car” and stuff like that. I thought it was really funny and he is the sort of character that I like, dreamers. People that try and do things that they’ll never hope to possibly achieve. That’s life. I think this is a great journey of failure, you know? That we all end up in the same place no matter what we achieve. Maurice was a guy who went: “why not”? And it intrigued me that he was from a very working-class background, because my dad was a green keeper. I was the ‘great unwashed’, you know. I was part of the lower classes. I always found it strange, all the snobbery and weird class hierarchy that golf has. I found it as peculiar as Maurice did. So, he appealed to me on that front as well because we were from similar backgrounds and had encountered that sort of snobbery.

Nick: I’m wondering if you’ve ever noticed in underdog stories, and the comparison I’ve made is that a lot of American underdog stories sort of go for a very serious, high emotional stakes drama, whereas all the films I’ve watched out of the UK that do follow someone’s underdog story, seem to be told with such joy and optimism. Maurice’s story is so engaging and uplifting, but it still has that grounded sense of emotion. Is that something you feel you’ve noticed whether it’s in scripts you’ve seen or written or the movies you’ve watched? And do you feel comedic approach creates more emotional investment with biopics?

Simon: This is the challenge for an underdog story. I mean, traditionally, your underdog becomes the over-dog, they achieve something. [laughs] And the challenge with Maurice is that it’s a story about a guy who’s bad at golf, and he stays bad at it, you know? It’s quite a weird but I had to twist the genre a little bit, but I was helped by, you know, just Maurice’s story. I knew I was dealing with a realised person. I think if you’re doing something that’s fiction not based on a true story, it’s harder in some ways, you sort of have to follow that formula. But I didn’t have that luxury. The whole tone of the story was sort of dictated to by what actually happened. I guess the finale to our underdog stories is different deliberately, and then you go: ‘what is what is success’? Obviously, if you’re trying to win the World Cup, then it is winning the world cup, but Maurice was never going to win the British Open. So, what was the success for him? Well, he inspires lots of people and people sort of love to that he failed in a way because that is most people’s experiences. We’re not Jack Nicklaus, we haven’t all won 18 majors. But we’ve all been bad at something. So that’s a rather long-winded way of saying this movie is an unusual addition to the underdog story.

Nick: When you were constructing the book and then the script ,did you find that focusing on the characters was where you found the most interest in the story, rather than the sport elements?

Simon: It was really just going with the character, because a lot of it is away from a golf course. You know, it’s not really about golf at all. It could have been any sport in some ways, but in a lot of ways, it’s about the family and what happened with his wife and his sons, you know? They’ve got their own story. But obviously, you’re aware of the sports biopic weaved in the narrative. And it’s so hard because the twins, you know, Jean and James actually did succeed. They did become disco dancing champions.

Nick: That was a lovely, uplifting moment at the end of the film!

Simon: It really was, and it’s really just a story about Maurice Flitcroft and his family. But, it just happens to have a nice sports angle to it.

Nick: I’d love to talk about the visual style of the film, in the sense of getting into the mind of Maurice Flitcroft. I asked Craig about this previously and he told me that the ‘dream-esque’ sequences were something that was in your script from the start! I’m interested in wondering, what was the reason for that more surreal look into his mindset? And did you feel like that would help sort of let audiences grab on to the fact that this man is a big dreamer? That he’s a bit larger than life.

Simon: Yeah, they were there from the start, because you’re dealing with a dreamer. I think you’ve got to see a little glimpse inside his head. I didn’t want it to be just a plain biopic. I wanted it to have a different feel. And I mean, one of the one of my favourite films is Billy Liar.

Nick: That’s hilarious – Craig said the exact same thing! This is a movie I really must check out now!

Simon: Yeah, it’s a great movie. It’s a guy who is a bit of a liar, you know – well, he’s not a liar, but more a fantasist. He has fantasies about himself, being the leader of a made-up country and you see what’s going on inside his head. And I think that’s the sort of job of cinema in a way, is to allow you to take a glimpse at that. The Big Lebowski, I love the bowling scene. I always thought be great to have a golf equivalent of that. That was always something that I wanted to make. I think it’s part of that thing, of trying to tweak this sports movie genre. Because it really was about one man’s sort of passion and slightly foolish ambition.

Nick: Simon, thank you so much for your time! I truly appreciate it! And, I just wanted to mention that I’m excited to see what we get with Wonka next year!

Simon: Thank you so much, and I really hope people enjoy the movie there in Australia!

Thanks again to Universal Pictures for giving the me the chance to chat with Simon! You can check out The Phantom of the Open, in cinemas from 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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