We've seen so many biopics over the years about a musician's or band's rise to fame, but what about the 99 percent of acts that don't hit it big?
Nick Hamm proves stories of failure can be just as tantalizing with "Killing Bono," a wacky comedy about Neil (Ben Barnes) and Ivan McCormick (Robert Sheen), real-life brothers from Dublin who toiled in obscurity (and frustration) while their childhood chums became one of the world's biggest bands, U2.
NextMovie's own Kevin Polowy moderated a Q&A with Hamm at the recent 2011 CMJ Music Marathon & Film Festival, and the below back-and-forth is an excerpt from the event.
I'm going to start with the obvious here. Is Bono aware of this film? And if so, what does he think about that title?
Yes, he's aware of the film, and he's seen the movie, and he suggested the title. There were a couple of writers on the movie that were working on the film "Across the Universe," and he was in that movie. One day when he was on set they said, "We're working on this picture based on Neil's book, what would be an appropriate title?" And he said, "You should call it 'Killing Bono.'" The book in England was called "I Was Bono's Doppelganger," which was a bit of a mouthful both for the cinema audience in England and a huge mouthful for anybody in America, so they decided to shorten it and call it "Killing Bono."
That's pretty fitting that a film about the frustrations of coming up in Bono's shadow would then be titled by Bono himself.
Exactly, that's the ultimate irony, that the guy that wrote it spent most of his adult life trying to search for success and fame, and finds it, ironically, through his own book, not through what he wanted to do in the first place.
Music obviously plays a key role in the film. Was it exciting to go back and relive the retro sounds of the late '70s and early '80s?
Musically it's sort of a strange film to do because when you do a music film all of the music has to be worked out in advance. So you're defining a lot of the film way in advance of when you're shooting, and sometimes when you're shooting you want to have an organic response to what's going on onscreen, either in front of you or on a daily basis. You want to be able to shift, change and alter stuff.
So when you were writing music you had to have a map, for a start. You had to say, "Okay, this was the journey of music in the '80s." Music in the '80s was a kaleidoscope of very, very different styles. Some of it was appalling, some of it was dreadful, some of it was fashion-conscious, some of it was based on the synthesizer that was overused in ridiculous amounts. But there were very, very different styles at that point. You know in the '80s there was post-punk, there was romanticism, there was rock, there was hard rock. I mean there were so many different styles, and our band, they just don't know who they are. So at any given moment, whoever's famous, they would then appropriate that niche and make it themselves.
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Like all films that are based on true stories, this one takes some liberties and becomes exaggerated. How close did the film stick to its source material, which was McCormick's book?
Somewhat. McCormick's book is a rather loose tale of his journey through the English rock scene in the '80s, with no real narrative spine. So what we had to do in this was use elements of that, condense certain characters in that, and certain things we wanted to say were litigious. There were certain characters in the book that you can't get away with that said certain things that still exist today in the music business, and we couldn't do that, so we had to amalgamate certain characters and make them fictional. There were certain events in the film that were fact.
It was a fact that U2 put this sign on the school corridor notice board and said, "Sign here if you want to join." It was a fact that they all played in Larry's mum's kitchen, and Larry's mum's kitchen was tiny and the drum kit didn't fit into the room. So there were certain moments in the movie that were raw fact, and to a certain extent we wanted to get those right because they were part of rock history. And some moments we just fictionalized completely and just said, "Look, this is the essence of this."
I have to ask about the late, great Pete Postlethwaite. This is actually the last time we'll see him onscreen in a film. So he was actually originally supposed to play a gangster but had to change roles when he became sick?
Pete was always a mate of mine from years back when we worked together in the theatre, and we spent quite a few years together at The Royal Shakespeare Company … We never got a chance to make a film together, and when this script came about I told Pete what was going on and said, "Look, I'm going to do this movie about this idiot failed musician, I'm going to do a film about literally not making it rather than making it." So he wanted to be involved in that, and he was very supportive. Halfway through the process of production I got a phone call one day in the production office. It was Pete and he had cancer.
And at that moment it was private, it wasn't something that was public. It certainly wasn't something that was known in the business because when an actor gets ill like that then for obvious reasons their career immediately suffers. So what happened was -- which was almost a blessing -- the insurance company decided that they couldn’t insure Pete Postlethwaite for the role. An actor has to be insured to finish the entire film, which I thought was a rather ridiculous thing to say to an actor of that stature, and who'd done so much work and contributed so much to the medium, that somehow he couldn't -- at this moment in his career -- go and play a tiny role.
So we wrote a role for him. We wrote a role which you saw is a camp, intelligent, wild, crazy gay guy from the '80s in London. And he came to the set. He was quite sick, but he managed to get himself together, and he enjoyed himself. And the most important thing about that whole process for him was that he wanted to do that. He was going through chemotherapy, he was going through the treatment, but he wanted to perform and he wanted to act, and we wanted to give him the ability to do it. To a certain extent it's kind of great, after all of Pete's roles, that he could be seen in something ridiculously funny.