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Craig Roberts on working with Mark Rylance in The Phantom of the Open

Craig Roberts discusses directing The Phantom of the Open, a great British underdog story, starring Mark Rylance and Sally Hawkins

The Phantom of the Open

The Phantom of the Open is a comedy movie that tells the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a golf enthusiast who managed to talk his way into the British Open in 1976. He subsequently shot the worst round of golf that the sport had ever seen at that level, but won the hearts of the nation. It’s a charming underdog story, along the lines of Eddie the Eagle.

Simon Farnaby (the writer of Paddington 2) adapted his own book for the screen. Maurice is played by Mark Rylance, Sally Hawkins plays his wife Jean, and Rhys Ifans plays Keith Mackenzie – the secretary of the golf club in St Andrews where the British Open takes place.

Craig Roberts is an actor, known for Submarine (2010), Bad Neighbours (2014), 22 Jump Street (2014), The Fundamentals of Caring (2016), The Current War (2017), and Tolkien (2019). In 2015, he directed Just Jim, which he also starred in, and in 2019, he directed Eternal Beauty starring Sally Hawkins and David Thewlis. We met up with Roberts to discuss directing Mark Rylance, building the fantasy sequences, being an actor-director, and why we all love an underdog story.

What attracted you to the story of Maurice? How did you come across it – did you read the script first or the book first?

The script, actually. It was the script I read first, and I really loved it. I loved how funny it was and how there was so much heart and family values. I didn’t think I’d ever make a golf movie, but I don’t think it is a golf movie really.

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That’s kind of just the backdrop, he could have done anything. And then I read the book and that’s awesome. And then I begged my way into it, I tried to convince them I was the right person for it.

I want to ask you about working with actors because you’re from an acting background yourself. In your last two movies you’ve cast veterans such as Sally Hawkins, David Thewlis, and obviously now Mark Rylance. How do you feel on set, when you’re so much younger than them, but you do have acting experience of your own – do you have the confidence to give them notes?

I’m always surprised when anyone takes me seriously, in any respect, because I don’t take myself very seriously. It’s interesting, I look very young I suppose, but it’s really about building trust. I get the best actors because that makes my job a lot easier.

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If you have bad actors, but the best camera in the world, and all the equipment and all the money – you’re not going to make a great film. Whereas you can make a film with the greatest actor on an iPhone and have a killer film.

It’s really all about the actors, and a good script – and that was there from Simon. It’s about building the trust, really. Making it a safe place for them to play, to explore, and they’ll produce their best work that way.

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Do you have any time for rehearsal? I know it’s not always possible on low-budget films.

We did, we had a week or two, I think. But some of that was the twins dancing, they had to learn a few moves. A lot of it was accent work with Mark and Sally, to get into character.

I don’t really rehearse that much, it’s not really rehearsing, it’s more sitting around talking about it, rather than putting it on its feet. My fear is that you rehearse it so much that it doesn’t feel fresh.

My favourite parts of the film are the fantasy sequences – eg. when Maurice imagines the moon as a golf ball and flies up to it. How do you approach these as a director, and was this your first time working with CGI?

Yeah, it was, and it was interesting because you kind of hand it off to a team of people and they put it all together and make it magical. It’s really interesting, I’m glad I’ve had the experience of it.

That was in the script from Day One, all the fantasy stuff and that’s what really attracted me to it. Me and Simon talked about Billy Liar, the Tom Courtenay movie, and it felt important to visualise his escapism, his dreaming.

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Rather than it be exposition in the script and him talking about doing it, it’s great to see him actually do it and visualise how he wants to get out. So that was always important.

In terms of the Starry Night stuff, Maurice was actually a painter, (it’s not in the film) and it was very much in that vein – the Starry Night style. So, that’s what inspired it, that was in the script from Simon, I just had to make sure it was executed OK.

Phantom of the Open

What do you think it is about underdog stories that appeal to the Brits, in particular? We’ve got Eddie the Eagle, as a great example. Do you think it’s to do with class, and the fact that it’s a working class character doing good and getting one-over certain other people eg. Rhys Ifans’ character?

I think it is, yeah. I see this movie as a kind of birth lottery movie, like he’s been given these cards that he’s been dealt, and he has to flip it. He wants to do something in a world that’s telling him he can’t do it. I don’t know why people love underdog movies so much, but I mean, I do. I love 8 Mile – it’s one of my favourite movies – I love that movie.

I think it’s because of the fear. I dream and daydream all the time, but I don’t do that much and in those movies, it’s all about doing it and actually giving it a go. That’s certainly something I’ve learned from Maurice, that I dream a lot, but I don’t do enough.

Mark Rylance was primarily known for theatre for years, before making the shift to film and TV in 2015. I was wondering if you noticed any difference working with him as a theatre actor, compared to other actors more used to film?

Oh, interesting. I suppose I was anticipating that he may want to rehearse more, but not really, no. He just needed to know the character, and once he knew the character, we were pretty much ready to go. We chopped and changed, it wasn’t the same method always, every day. Sometimes we’d rehearse a scene, or sometimes he’d come in and say “let’s actually go for it.”

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I suppose it’s not that different to other film actors that I’ve worked with. I think all actors really want is just enough time to do it. With independent films, a lot of sets waste their time in the morning.

Doing these elaborate set-pieces and thinking “this is going to look awesome,” but when you get to the evening, you’ve got no time for the big monologue where people have to cry. It’s about constructing a schedule and giving those actors enough time to do what they want because it’s all on that, really.

I am interested in your career as an actor-director. Your first starring role was in Submarine (directed by Richard Ayoade, another actor-director), you played an aspiring director in Red Oaks, in Yuletide Kid you played an actor-director. Is this a theme that might keep going in your career?

It’s probably because I have imposter syndrome, I probably feel that it’s performative in some way and I shouldn’t be doing it. It’s maybe why I’ve played those roles. But to be honest, no, it’s not been a conscious decision to do that, at all.

Red Oaks was a great opportunity, I learned so much on that show, and worked with so many great directors (including Hal Hartley, David Gordon Green, and Amy Heckerling) that informed me and helped me figure out who I wanna be and how I wanna operate as a filmmaker.

Craig Roberts in Submarine

And also Richard Ayoade, I owe a lot to Richard, he opened up my mind and introduced me to the world of film really, that was my first introduction to it and yeah – he’s a smart dude.

Your next film is called Honey and I was wondering if you can tell me anything about eg. casting?

I can’t, on the casting front. We’re going to shoot it in January I believe, we are cast and I’ll get killed if I say who is in it. Nobody I’ve worked with before, and it’s a relationship drama, it’s pretty dark.

The Phantom of the Open is in select US theatres from June 3.