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You have to see this film. You just have to.
One of the things I keep coming back to is that Steve in this movie is a lot like Charles Bovary in “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert. They’re cuckolded, emotionally beaten yet the two of them share that sense of ignorance that makes them endure. Steve Coogan’s turn as a teacher who is inspired more by the thought of succeeding than the actual succeeding itself makes for a few moments where you’re just pulling for the guy who needs to taste a little bit of triumph. However, it wouldn’t be a comedy if he actually did so it is his continual downward spiral of bad decision after bad decision that makes this not only funny but poignant in that you wonder if he will ever rise above the odds that seem inexorably against him.
And that’s what makes this movie so vital for people to see themselves. It’s a movie filled with diametric opposites that add to the film’s greater comment on the movies we’ve all seen where the inspirational teacher is the one who brings order to chaos. It’s Steve who brings chaos and he’s wickedly sharp about where to draw the line between believability and complete farce. Dana Marschz is a consummate positive thinker who genuinely believes in the world around him and it’s a story filled with the dark truth about how smart and resourceful students really are, teachers always seem to be the primary fount of inspiration in these films, and how he gets caught up in his own psychological issues to put on the one movie musical where you will honestly be humming the soundtrack on the way out.
I know a lot has been made of Steve Coogan’s “almost there”-ness here in the States, his brilliance seemingly ignored by everyone with a modicum of influence, but it’s going to be how consistently be funny that will allow people to feel this man’s power as a comic performer who deserves a lot more than he’s been given. Thankfully, HAMLET 2 is all Steve’s to helm and he does so with the kind of orchestration that should have him in more prominent projects. Aside from all that, the man does have a nice ass.
I met up with Steve the morning after the HAMLET 2 screening at the San Diego Comic-Con and he was thankfully introspective about the work he conducted on the film.
HAMLET 2 opens today.
STEVE COOGAN: I heard the reaction was really good.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Yes. loved the movie. I didn’t know what to expect but that’s not what I was expecting.
COOGAN: Oh good. Great.
CS: It seems like it’s a chance for you to do what you have done in England for so long. What was your reaction when you got the script and saw what you would be able to do with Dana?
COOGAN: Well, being on the sidelines of the movie industry here, scripts come my way, I’m pretty low down, but I’m on that list…
So scripts come my way and sometimes they are formulatic and they don’t have any heart or backbone or have no attitude – they are hacky. And this one came along and it had a real – felt like someone had written it from the gut themselves. The voice of the writing was authentic and it made me laugh in a way – and I read a lot of scripts and I write comedy so I think I’m a pretty tough audience – it made me laugh in a real fresh way.
It also wasn’t just cynical – it was smart and edgy but there’s a little bit of love in there too. I’ve always been a fan of Pam’s writing and I love South Park and Teen America and read other scripts she’s written and I met up with her and was very keen to get the script off the ground. The studios passed on it because they couldn’t see how it could work or who would be right for the part so it was a privately financed movie. That was the only way to get it going because it’s not easy to pitch the movie in one light. It’s hard to describe. People would say, ” What’s it like, an inspiration teacher movie? But there’s laughing. It’s called HAMLET 2. Is it serious? Is it like Hamlet?” And I would say, “Not really, no.” So it’s a tough one. The only thing that makes the movie work is for people to go and see it and tell other people about it. That’s the only way it’s going to work.
CS: Right. And it’s absolutely something that lends itself – it’s got Pam’s sensibility, it’s got that cynical edge - but you’re right and I think one of the things that – leading all the way to that final moment when the kids actually put on Hamlet 2 it’s one movie. But, honestly, it was that one moment when Dana – the triumphant moment when he says he forgives his own father that it becomes something else entirely but was always there. I think that had one of the most genuine moments I had ever seen in a comedy. Did that come though on the page, that one part that brings everything back?
COOGAN: Yeah. It was salvation but not in a – it’s very difficult to do those things in both a comical to make you laugh but also touch you a little and you can’t do it all the time but there are moments when you can do it and it’s hard but, yes, it did come through on the page and I felt like I wanted to do that character.
I had a take on it.
And Andy, Pam and I talked regularly and hung out and talked about all this stuff – about our attitude to what’s funny and we just felt very in sync – not the cliché of doing things and following your gut instinct. What was great about this is that it was not run by committee – it was privately financed – no one saying change this, change that and because of that, the film is an authentic voice and not the result of marketing consultants establishing or instilling what’s going to make the movie work. So, it’s just got a feeling of genuine authenticity.
And still has edge, and takes risk, and sail close to the wind.
CS: One of the things about Dana is that he seems – and that’s other thing about this movie too is that Dana could be almost be a foppish kind of man but the way you played him you root for him – you feel kind of bad for him – he’s given up alcohol so you obviously have that back story there – you feel genuinely for this man who seems to be trying and trying and nothing is working in his life. How did you want to get that across? When you got the script and this Dana is failing – a failed actor, can’t even do high school drama right, when you saw it how did you…
COOGAN: What you see is someone who believes in himself – someone who is passionate someone - who’s a bit of an ass but not selfish, not cynical, he really believes in something and in that kind of postmodern world it’s very fashionable to blame everything else but he has this, in some ways, a little bit of naivete but another way…belief. He has moments of self-doubt but he believes in art, believes in trying to make people’s lives better.
Well, you can imagine, you can’t see it in the film, you see the head teacher but – you imagine that the head teacher is kind of cynical, obviously living in a world where they are just servicing these kind of students, not really inspiring them and he’s trying to inspire them so, however bad his judgment is, and it’s true of his character and true of the movie, there is kind of a – he has some sort of a vision, however, skewed or distorted it is. At least he has some idea and some passion and in a way, my theory was – I said to Andy, “How will you make the script that people believe that this play from this guy who is a bit of a buffoon? How are they going to believe that this play will become successful?” And he said it’s not really the concept of the play, it’s the fact that it’s done with passion by people who are passion about it - students who are inspired to give the best performances - that itself is just life enhancing. People can be charmed by the sheer chutzpa of something and it just enhances your life having seen it a tiny bit. I think that’s true of the movie and the play within the movie. You can believe that it goes on to become a success.
CS: I absolutely agree. I think the Gay Men’s Choir of Tucson – that was a brilliant musical choice when they were actually singing, Someone Saved My Life Tonight. It was utterly brilliant.
COOGAN: When I watched it the first time I thought something you don’t feel when you are making because it all has to be pieced together…This was something – you kind of have to stay with the movie because first you really have to find your feet and once it starts motoring, then you are with it and it does build. When I watched it I felt like I really feel for this guy and this strange bizarre mutant play. It touched me. I thought it worked.
CS: The musical numbers – when you saw what you would be doing - the very titles of the songs…
COOGAN: Again, I was a little nervous some of these songs like Raped in the Face….
Rock Me Sexy Jesus…you have to – when you do comedy that is risqué there is a danger that comedy can just be – “Look at me, look at me, trying to be offensive.” Almost like adolescent type of comedy. “Get a load of me!” That can be – sometimes people who are starting out in comedy or who have the type of comedy that has the potential to be offensive but manages to get the balance right the mistake they make is, “Oh yeah, it’s about pissing people off.” No, it’s not. But when I read it I thought…that concerned me but I know enough that to do good comedy – comedy that is ambitious you have to be slightly scared by it. When you look at it crazily, like I do, you have to have a little bit of fear because if you’re not worried about it, then chances are you are not really being bold. You have to feel slightly scared. Which I was. But I also knew that if you go forward and run across the hot coals concentrating, as it were, and focusing, then you can come out on a level that is less offensive. So, what should be offensive ends up not being offensive.
CS: And to that point, one of the things that has made you so recognizable outside of America is your British comedy. Is there really a subtle difference between the comedies between American and British? Especially with Dana as you did this – are there sensibilities that you have to be aware of that American audiences respond to?
COOGAN: Yes, I think so, yeah. I think – only subtle ones. I think in the sense that American audiences want to be reassured or given elevation emotionally in the comedies they watch and the characters they like. British are more predicated to losers and failures. We like failures. The British are often more cynical audiences. They tend to shy away from sentiment because they see it as a weakness or morkish or unrealistic or a rose-tinted view. That’s my observation. America is such a huge, huge, the USA is a huge nation – so many different tastes there is room for all kinds of comedy. Just by facts of numbers the amount of people in America, the niche taste, the people that want that can be sustained because there are enough people to make economic sense. Programs like Curb Your Enthusiasm can sustain itself.
But I think just the shear facts of numbers it’s very disparate. You just can’t make generalizations. It’s easy to make a generalization about British comedy because it’s smaller. The taste seems to be a bit more uniform. Over here, people would say “American comedy is not as good as our comedy” but I would say, “Hold on a second.” There is Larry Sanders of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld…consistently good quality – even Friends – consistently good quality stuff that manages to be both broad – I look at South Park, Family Guy…they are knocking it out of the park.
So, like I say the Americans are more professional about it. There is more structure and is more of a business. But that business can produce some really exciting comedy. In Britain, there are a few maverick people who find their voice, find a way for their comedy to come through.
CS: Who are some of the leading edge guys in Britain?
COOGAN: Simon Pegg who is here in town is a good friend of mine. Simon supported me when I did my last live tour; he was my support act. He filled in on stage while I was getting changed.
COOGAN: Yeah. If you Google “Steve Coogan Live” you might find some stuff that Simon and I did together.
And then he went bang. But Simon is someone I worked a lot with about 10 years ago and we share – he’s someone who can make me laugh – those are the kind of people who can just make you laugh a lot. Sometimes when you meet someone you respect creatively, there’s kind of a competitive edge but what it means is it’s the nicest kind of competition because you both are trying to see who can make the other one laugh the most.
And you can do things – you can indulge in the kind of taboo comedy that you couldn’t really do publicly because you are doing it in a way that you both understand the sophistication and know exactly where the other person is coming from because you know the mechanics. Anyway, he’s a person that is really great. And, there’s Sasha Baron Cohen – all these guys I’ve known for a few years. Although I came along a little before they did in the UK. I’m playing catch up with them now.
CS: And I know we only have a couple minutes left but the last question I really have – when people see the movie, especially the way when you read the script, how does Dana change from the beginning where he starts to the end – how does he come out through the other side?
COOGAN: I don’t think he really does change a lot to be honest with you. I think everyone else changes. It’s everyone else – he doesn’t become enlightened or change his attitude – he stays pretty much true and pure to what he believes in the first place. It was the doubters who fell in line with him. I think he’s just vindicated. Maybe he’s lost some of his neurosis because he finally gets approval. But what’s nice is that however much people knock him or set him back he doesn’t change. He stays true to who he is. Not a lot I guess.
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