“I’d Rather Take the Risk, I’d Rather Go Somewhere That’s Unknown:” Steve Coogan on Screenwriting
On his latest film, Philomena – the story of journalist Martin Sixsmith’s quest to help the title character (Judi Dench) find the son who was taken from her 50 years previously – Steve Coogan is not only the lead actor but also the screenwriter, credited alongside co-scribe Jeff Pope. Coogan is a veteran performer who started out on British TV, where he created such characters as Alan Partridge, and moved into film, making both mainstream Hollywood funny fare like Night at the Museum and Tropic Thunder and more sophisticated humorous expeditions in the UK, such as Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip.
Though Coogan is primarily thought of as an actor and comedian, he has in fact been a writer since the start of his career, when he recognized that the best way to do work that showcased his talents was to develop it himself. Directed by Stephen Frears, Philomena is not only one of Coogan’s most serious films to date but arguably his most accomplished piece of screenwriting. It skillfully tells the moving true-life tale of two people each seeking redemption through their search for Philomena’s lost son, with some very funny moments seamlessly woven in, providing a perfect counterpoint to what otherwise might have become melodrama.
When Coogan was in New York to promote his new film, Filmmaker sat down with him to discuss the craft of screenwriting, the progression of his career and his feelings on Philomena – unbeknownst to him – being promoted as a comedy. Philomena is released by The Weinstein Company on November 27.
Filmmaker: I wanted to talk to you about writing today.
Filmmaker: Looking back to 20 years ago when you were starting out, did you see yourself as a writer then or was it more about the creation of characters?
Coogan: When I started out, it was a very odd route because I was on TV doing standup comedy and impersonations; it was light entertainment with a capital L and a capital E and it wasn’t even then what I wanted to be. I remember thinking, “This is cheesy, it’s not really me but it’s work and I’m getting attention so maybe, eventually I can get to where I really want to be.” Actually where I really want to be is where I am right now. And that’s taken a long time. It’s as though you’re going along and you try to shift sideways a bit and you keep trying to shift sideways a bit and you keep trying and eventually you get across to the other lane; that’s what it’s felt like for me. When I started out, I wasn’t get any work as an actor and writing to me was not something I sought to do. I did some material for my standup, I found out how to get a few laughs from it. I got this 20-minute act together, from different ideas floating around in my head. I didn’t have a burning desire to be a writer at all. No, I discovered writing almost by necessity.
What I found as a general observation in the last 20 years is that if I wanted [good work], I had to create my own work. That’s really what it boiled down to. So I ended up writing standup and I thought, “Well, I want to do acting so I’ll do standup characters. I’m already doing standup so what I’ll do is I’ll do characters but I’ll do them in a standup capacity then I’m going to write a monologue effectively. So I’d do this Paul Calf and Pauline Calf and these other standup characters.” Alan Partridge is eventually one of those who came out of radio really but it was writing material for just an individual. I started to write the more narrative stuff, and then we wrote talk shows, and then I wrote a sitcom. It was always with other writers; I’ve never written alone and I like to have a dialogue [with a collaborator]. So my writing started to evolve and you start to want to do things that are more nuanced or just more different than what you’ve seen before. I remember realizing you have to not just repeat: don’t just be derivative, always try and find something which is different. And it culminated in me becoming very efficient at writing comedy with various sets of people. I started writing Patrick Marber and then Armando [Iannucci], Peter Baynham and now the Gibbons brothers, and each time I tried to have more empathy and making things more rounded, that kind of stuff you change because the writers got better. The [writing] got more subtle because as you look at some of the other stuff it’s funny but it’s more…
Filmmaker: Partridge has become much more human over the years.
Coogan: He’s become much more human, he’s more empathetic than he was. He was just a figure of fun to look at and laugh at and now he’s become… his flaws are more human. Although he’s still funny, the audience don’t want to see him fail however flawed and prejudiced he might be, so he’s more of a rounded kind of character. I’ve always wanted to write things that are just more expansive and to break out of where I was. Sometimes my career’s on a plateau where all I can do is sort of repeat myself on this plateau even though it’s quite a high plateau. To change it again I’ve got to climb another mountain to get onto this next level. I was really, really flatlining, doing just bit parts in American comedy films that was really very unsatisfying; I felt like I was treading water, I wasn’t stretching myself and there was nothing exciting. I lost that excitement that I had when I was working with Armando on these radio shows and it was interesting and I felt like I was pushing the boundaries. I was looking for something. I just got fed up with listening to other people’s advice because people give me this advice, this shit advice basically. “Do this, you need to do that, you should do that, oh what you need to do is…” I thought, “Right, I’m just going to try to find something that I want to do.” I saw the story in the paper about Philomena, and I thought, “I’m going to pursue this.”
For the writing, I hooked up with Jeff and all the things I wanted to do I was able to do with Jeff. Jeff had written dramatic stuff before but he’s got a good sense of humor and I’ve written lots of comedy stuff but I’m interested in using drama to illuminate truths, explore humanity and all the rest of it. I use comedy as a tool to shed light on the human condition. Writing with Jeff, I do it I do all the dialogue, I do all the character stuff. I get very specific with dialogue because you can make a misstep so easily by a turn of phrase. To navigate between those rocks, sometimes you get a dramatic moment and it’s flawed with problems; you get clichés so easily. It’s just [finding] a way of going around those clichés and finding a way through that is truthful, authentic, does the things those scenes are supposed to do without making it look like one of those scenes. Sometimes if a scene sounded right to quickly, that would be a sign that it was wrong. It would be like, “oh that sounds right… Well, hang on because that makes me nervous. It sounds too familiar, it sounds too…”
Filmmaker: It’s almost like it should remind you of your life rather than other films.
Coogan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Actually, that’s a really good observation because you go, “That sounds unusual but strangely familiar.” You know that it’s not cliché but you know that it’s not distorted for its own sake. It’s like, “Well, actually I’ve never seen that before but why haven’t I seen that before because that’s so clearly truthful?” That’s why I think comedy sits well when it’s butted up against tragedy because in real life you might be laughing when you get a bad phone call. When something awful happens, something funny happens straight afterwards. I remember at my grandfather’s funeral, when the priest dipped this metal object to shake over the coffin, he passed it to my dad to do it and my dad grabbed the wet end and it all went down his sleeve and we all started laughing. That’s very, very real and human and so, in terms of writing, I look for opportunities where I can say, “Ah, comedy happened there very naturally and truthfully.” You can fashion it a bit more to help nudge the comedy to the fore without it being contrivance.
Filmmaker: The trailer for Philomena describes it as a comedy but I don’t think of it as that. It has a lot of humor in it but I think it’s…
Coogan: Is that true? [To publicist] Is this being billed as a comedy? Where did you hear that because that bothers me that. That’s someone’s doing something that I haven’t looked over. That’s interesting because that makes me go, “What?” Go on, sorry. Carry on.
Filmmaker: The film has a lot of humor in it but I think of it fundamentally as a dramatic piece that skillfully uses humor without making the humor dominant.
Coogan: Sometimes you have to have the guts to back off. I remember writing with Jeff in a scene, and him saying, “We’ve earned the right for a dramatic moment.” You earn the audience’s trust and at [certain] points you say, “Well, if they aren’t invested at this point then we’re fucked, frankly. At this point we’re allowed to let this moment just be.” Although comedy is a great way of sugaring the pill, it’s also – taking a phrase Jeff uses in writing which I really like – it takes the curse off the scene. It takes the curse off something. When something inherently has a curse in it because it’s a dramatic moment it, you can see how this could be leaden or a big tick in a box that the audience is going to go, “Oh, they’re supposed to be doing that,” the comedy will take the curse off of it, make you laugh. When you’re laughing, you can shove something under the door really quickly. Although comedy can be used like that, sometimes you have to have the guts not to… Comedy is also a get out of jail free card; sometimes you have to say, “Don’t use that, just stay in jail,” [laughs] and let a moment rest and don’t hurry a moment, let it be. If it’s good enough, have the guts to stand by it; comedy can be a coward’s way out sometimes, so it’s about deciding when and where to let that happen or where it’s appropriate.
Filmmaker: I think your use of comedy is actually very brave, particularly in Michael Winterbottom’s films. The way that you depict yourself in those films is really fascinating and it almost feels like you want to shed much of the comedy. The portrayals of yourself are so dark and self-critical.
Coogan: I know how to do comedy, so if I’m improvising the advantage is that it makes me [look] very clever. Philomena, there’s no improvisation whatsoever; it almost religiously – if you’ll forgive the expression – sticks to the script. It’s exactly what was written, almost to the T. It’s very unlike working with Michael, where it’s much more freeform. Rob [Brydon] and I are adept enough at it to know that we’re OK sparring partners. He and I will talk about it beforehand and say, “Why don’t we do this, do that and maybe I’ll say this and I’ll say that and then we’ll see where it goes.” But when I improvise comedy, I get comfortable; I know how to do comedy so I don’t feel that I need to prove that I’m funny. I know how to be funny. I don’t need approbation from others, like, “Please find me funny all the time.” So when I’m improvising, I feel like, “I could do that or I could say that which is kind of funny, or I could say that which is not really funny but much more interesting and it might be funny as well.” And I’ll always go for that [second] option because I’d rather take the risk, I’d rather go somewhere that’s unknown and a bit unusual and unsympathetic because it’s like playing for higher stakes. Especially when you get older, you think, “I just want to see what’s out there.” It’s like an adventurous thing, and sometimes the adventurous choice can mean that often it looks like I’m dark and interesting but it’s just, “I’m bored, I want to do something exciting that could fail.” When you go to the dark area, there’s always the risk that it’s not interesting and not funny. So I gravitate more towards those things.
Filmmaker: The scenes I was thinking of were more when you were on your own, like in The Trip when you’re in the hotel and you’re trying to do Rob’s impression of the tiny man stuck in the box. There’s a lot of pathos there, and when you don’t have somebody else there you don’t have a safety net, in a way.
Coogan: You have to write from a place where you’re secure enough to do things that are making you very vulnerable, even in a comic way. Think what’s interesting and say “Well, what do I really think when I’m in my own private space? How do I really feel?” Somehow if you give in to those things it… Anything that you think, “Oh God, I would hate someone to know that…” Well, do the thing that you most fear and that both becomes interesting and it sort of, in a weird way, exorcises it so that you no longer feel insecure about it. It’s a way of working where you turn all those things that you consider vulnerabilities into strengths by just throwing them all out there. I mean, it can’t just be therapeutic, otherwise that’s self-indulgent masturbation; it’s got to resonate with other people as well, otherwise it’s not valid.
Filmmaker: You were talking before about that process of inching towards where you want to be in your career. Do you have a next point or an end point in mind?
Coogan: I still want to do comedy, I don’t want to neglect that. I went straight from Philomena to the Partridge movie and that was quite enjoyable because it was a relief just to laugh without needing to try and change the world. It was really good, solid, delicious laughter. I want to be more judicious with comedy. If you look at all these frat boy comedies that become more and more lazy and formulaic and they just look like they’ve got three good jokes in them, they’re just “Ehhh, so wha,t and there’s loads of them everywhere.” I’m sure they make money but I don’t want to be part of that. I want to do the odd comedy that I feel is strong, and I might do another Partridge [film or series]. I’ve got a project that I’m writing now and [I want to pursue] stuff that feels familiar to me and write go with my instincts more. I’m very, very lucky in that I can afford to – as long as it’s not too expensive – have an idea. Just as long as it has a couple of other people to agree with it, I can pursue that idea. I don’t have any great plan of I want to do, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. If I can do films like Philomena, films that resonate with people, then I’ll be happy doing that.