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TALKING ABOUT ‘Withnail & I’ to Bruce Robinson brings to mind a story a friend once told me about meeting Neil Armstrong at a public function. Sitting down to dinner, the famous astronaut followed the introductions with, “Just don’t ask me about the fuckin’ moon!”
One-time actor turned screenwriter, director and novelist Robinson knows the feeling only too well.
“It’s that kind of thing,” he admits. “I have a great affection for ‘Withnail’ but it’s a bit of a sea anchor to me in a sense that it was all anyone ever wanted to talk about. It’s 14 fucking years ago, and it’s like the only thing I ever wrote was that. Anyway, it’s better to be remembered for that than the fucking ‘Sound Of Music’ I guess.”
Bruce Robinson was born 55 years ago, the product of his mother’s wartime extra-marital affair, something he only found out about at the age of 30 when he heard it from his dying grandmother. Indeed, the young Robinson’s upbringing was about as dysfunctional as it gets, a nightmare recalled in the savage black humour of his first novel, ‘The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman,’ published in 1998 after he effectively terminated a long and very chequered relationship with mainstream Hollywood.
Robinson’s career began when he enrolled in the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1964. He landed the part of Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in 1968 and, a pretty boy, was subject to the Italian director’s amorous advances on his first night in Rome, an ordeal which would inform the lecherous figure of Uncle Monty in ‘Withnail & I’ years later.
Robinson landed a couple of other acting gigs, in theatre and with film directors such as Francois Truffaut and Ken Russell before chucking it in to write screenplays. In 1984, after years of graft, he earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Roland Joffe’s ‘The Killing Fields,’ which lead onto ‘Fat Man And Little Boy,’ the story of the birth of the atomic bomb. This was the first of Robinson’s many conflicts with the studio system. For ‘Fat Man’ he undertook the kind of mammoth two-and-a-half year research and writing process that would put most investigative journalists in the shade, worrying away at what he perceived to be a conspiracy involving the possible murder of Oppenheimer’s mistress by the precursor of the CIA. Again, Roland Joffe made the film, but by the time it reached the screen the script had been substantially rewritten and, in Robinson’s opinion, ruined.
Nevertheless, he was well enough respected at this stage to be given the opportunity to write and direct his own feature, ‘Withnail & I,’ one of those films which has come to define the term cult classic. Based on the experiences of Robinson and his friend Viv, a pair of penniless actors in London in the late ’60s, ‘Withnail’ was packed with vicious toerag wit, a sort of ‘Fear & Loathing’ meets ‘Steptoe & Son,’ and it launched the careers of Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, not to mention yielding some of British cinema’s most immortal characters, including the aforementioned Uncle Monty and the space-cake drug dealer Danny. Even today, Robinson gets accosted by cranks in long leather coats quoting chunks of his own dialogue back at him.
“What’s weird is they kind of discover it 10 years on, so all the Withnails now are all like 18-25,” he speculates. “It’s, y’know, ‘Let’s have a curry and watch ‘Withnail And I,’ at University. I think that’s how it happens, because my fan base, if you like, are 18 or 19 year old boys.”
And as the writer, he gets all the pestering but none of the perks of stardom.
“That’s it,” he rues. “I don’t get any women, I get sent an enormous amount of awful material. I can’t cope with it. What can you do? Even if I liked it, I’m not an agent.”
Robinson followed ‘Withnail’ with ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising,’ again starring Richard E Grant, a surreal satire levelled against Thatcher’s Britain. Although featuring another tour de force from its lead actor, ‘Advertising’ became something of a victim of its own polemic, rather like a great punk band playing too loud.
After that, Bruce’s career went a bit ‘Barton Fink.’ ‘Jennifer 8,’ directed by its author and released in 1992, starring Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman and John Malkovich, was a potentially great thriller spoiled by studio machinations and enforced edits which only served to confuse the narrative. Next, Robinson wrote the serial killer flick ‘In Dreams’ for Steven Spielberg, which ended up being rewritten and directed by Neil Jordan. A similar fate befell ‘Return To Paradise,’ directed by Josef Ruben and starring Anne Heche and Vince Vaughan, also released in 1998.
Disgusted with Hollywood, Robinson holed up and wrote his hilarious and harrowing novel ‘The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman,’ published by Bloomsbury in ’98 to the kind of reviews for which most writers would pay good money. Then, a return to acting, as a rock star who comes out of the nuthouse for the reformation of the prog-rock band Strange Fruit in ‘Still Crazy.’ (“I’ll tell you why I did that, that was after the novel, and I’d been in the room I’m sitting in now for 14 months.”) Robinson is currently trying to get his comedy ‘The Block’ made, something that will only happen if he can be guaranteed total autonomy.
We’re talking for the purposes of promoting ‘Smoking In Bed,’ basically a book-long interview conducted by Alistair Owen, and recommended reading for any young screenwriter intending to enter the gates of Horrorwood, or indeed anyone with even a casual interest in the film trade.
Robinson currently lives in a big old rambling farmhouse in Herefordshire with his wife and two daughters. There, in a room full of books, he writes. Sometimes he guzzles red wine in an attempt to break through the block that keeps him from hearing the voices, voices like those of Withnail, of Oppenheimer, of Thomas Penman. Sometimes it works, sometimes he overdoes it and is skulled by breakfast time and has to go back to bed. But when he’s on the burn, he’ll pace the floor smoking cigarettes, knocking back the vino and talking to himself in a variety of dialects – hard-boiled Yank, lascivious French, pig-English – sometimes tugging at the paper sticking out of an old IBM, making notes in the margins, scrutinising it, shaking it. It’s pure theatre, like Keith strapping on his telecaster, or Pacino looking for the spirit of Richard III. There’s a hole in the cover of that computer where he once took a poker to it (“It wouldn’t do what I wanted”). There’s also a quote from Joyce stuck to the lid:
“Write it, damn you, what else are you good for?”
Peter Murphy: Presumably the writing of ‘The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman’ was a reaction to years of having your work chewed up and spat out by the major film studios.
Bruce Robinson: Yeah, exactly. What happened to me was I wrote for years and years and years, I mean literally about 14 years, and then the first thing I ever had done was ‘The Killing Fields,’ and suddenly it went from not being able to get anything read or bought, to everyone saying, “What have you got, what can we do?” Then I made ‘Withnail,’ and for about five minutes the sun shone out of my arse. Dimly, but nevertheless it was shining! I could do what I wanted. But after that it was pretty well downhill, and so, through my Hollywood experiences – which were great, I don’t knock 'em – but y’know, Hollywood . . . you can’t keep building planes that don’t fly if you work for Boeing. And when I was working for Hollywood the fucking things always crashed at the end of the runway through one reason or another, and the pivotal reason was they always fucking rewrote the thing, arseholes rewriting. I assume you’ve read ‘Smoking In Bed?’
PM: I have.
Well there’s a whole big chunk in there about the atomic bomb. How that could’ve happened to that (‘Fat Man And Little Boy’) which is the best thing I think I’ll ever do in my life . . . it’s completely soul destroying. That devastated me, that bomb thing. And then I wound up out there, and it was one worse thing piled on another until the point where I’d ceased to be a writer, I was kind of like a tourist in my own life, if that doesn’t sound too daft. I wasn’t in contact with what I was anymore, I was just someone sitting there in Los Angeles waiting to get fucked, y’know? And when I came back, my wife said after the Spielberg thing (‘In Dreams’),“Jesus Christ’s sake, look in the mirror man, you’re a writer.” And so I wrote ‘Penman.’
PM: Can you explain the processes whereby you write a script for Spielberg, it ends up with Neil Jordan’s, and – as also happened with ‘Fat Man And Little Boy’ – you don’t get so much as a phone call consulting you on the script.
It’s weird isn’t it? It’s really weird. It’s like if you hire an architect to design and build your house then you throw the plan away and say, “I’ll do it myself.” I mean it’s a very, very ugly and hurtful process. There’s an enormous amount of money and ego at the top end of the industry, i.e. big budget feature films, and y’know, the tragedy of great screenwriting is if the work shows, you haven’t worked hard enough. So consequently, if you write a script and it’s done right, it makes it look like anyone could fuckin’ do it. Before you know it the whole interrelationship . . . if you’ve got a watch with wheels ripped out of it because they appear not to be doing anything, the watch stops. And that happened to me so many times. Curiously, nobody can make a movie without a writer, but everybody can make the movie without the writer once it’s rolling.
PM: Like you, a lot of writers seem to be driven from their beds at six in the morning by guilt, afraid that they’re worthless, that they’ll never amount to anything.
It’s very much an obsessive experience, it’s rather like an alcoholic, if you like. No matter how much I write, it’s only for that day, I’ve (only) got a penny a day in the piggy bank, because anything that I’ve done in the past doesn’t make me a writer. It’s that gnaw, that feeling: “Fuck, here it is again!” It’s rather like being a bloody serial killer or something: “I haven’t got it yet.” You never can get it. I talk to alcoholics about that very thing, people say, “I’ve got 15 years of sobriety.” Well, you’d think with 15 years of sobriety stored up, you must be able to go out on a bender for two or three weeks, but you haven’t, you’ve got the day. And I feel like that about writing.
PM: While we’re using that analogy, don’t you ever feel like you’re dabbling with the devil by drinking wine to help you break down your inhibitions to the point where you can hear the voices and write the dialogue?
Yeah, I do. I mean there are probably . . . you could join the Catholic Church and spend 40 years trying to get somewhere, but one whack of LSD will take you further, it’s that kind of thing. I’ve never been into drugs, people don’t believe it, but booze has always been a place where, as I say in ‘Smoking In Bed,’ were it not for the fact that I’m a writer, it would be like being a schizoid because I have to hear it, and I always say to my wife, “Fuck, I can’t hear this bastard!” But if I take a certain amount of wine, I go to a hinterland of where suddenly (it’s): “What did you say?” Y’know, they can talk so fucking fast. Tennessee Williams used to call it ‘The Click’, and I know that he was known for using alcohol to obtain it.
PM: In ‘Smoking In Bed,’ you pinpoint the possible source of all the paranoia and guilt – and by extension the writing – back to when your stepfather told you were a “loud-mouthed little cunt.” This incident is re-enacted in ‘Penman.’
Yeah, I mean, being called a cunt’s no fun, and being called a cunt by your father’s even less than fun. “A loud mouthed little cunt” is a very dangerous assembly of words to lay on what is ostensibly your son. He brought me up, and so did my mother I have to say, under certain set conditions of childhood. One was that my sister was highly intelligent and the other was that I wasn’t. You don’t need to read a paperback to find out that if somebody’s telling you you’re thick, you’ll behave like a thickhead. I say in the book about playing tennis with my childhood, it’s true. I wasn’t a thick headed kid, I was a poorly educated kid and I guess there’s a residual rage that my mother has to tolerate rather than him, because he’s dead and gone. I don’t see my mother very often but I recently saw her and took her out to dinner and all the rest, and I gave her ‘Smoking In Bed,’ I said, “This is the last thing that’s come out.” You’d think that she might say, “Oh, enjoyed the read, how’s the kids?” But she doesn’t, and I still find that kind of hurtful. It’s juvenile but that’s part of being a writer I guess. Even when I got nominated for a fucking Oscar, the only telegram I didn’t get, which was the only one I wanted to frame, was the blank one from my mother. Maybe you wanna get told, “Hey, I was wrong. It’s great to earn your living doing what you do.”
PM: I know you love rain in films - what did you make of ‘Angela’s Ashes?!!’
(Laughs) I thought it was a very honourable film, but I kinda made a mistake in a sense, when I saw it. Alan invited me along to go see it, we had the best seats, and the lights came on again and the lady sitting beside me says, “What do you think of the movie?’ and I said, “Well, it’s all wallpaper and no wall”. And she’s the fucking producer! And there was a party after the film and I said, “Oh God, I can’t go”. So we didn’t go to the party. I thought it was all the things you expect from Alan, and at his best he’s made fabulous films, but I thought that it was all surface, y’know, how many potatoes could you peel on screen? And let’s all share the potato and carve it like a leg of lamb. In those terms I wasn’t very taken with it. I really like Alan’s work a lot – ‘Mississippi Burning’ for me was straying into the edges of being one of the best fucking movies I’ve ever seen – but I didn’t like ‘Evita’ and I didn’t like that.
PM: You’re unfortunate comment to the producer seems to sum up your relationship with Hollywood. You’re always shooting yourself in the foot.
I just can’t hack the bullshit, y’know? That’s one of the reasons I live in the middle of nowhere in the English countryside. I’m quite a political guy and the distress I feel at my age is the distress that you should feel when you’re 25 when you’ve got the fucking energy to get up and shout. I can’t even bear to look at the fuckin’ Guardian anymore and I certainly can’t watch the news on TV. I’m so tired of all of it now that I can’t react, I can’t get it up for that kind of anger, I simply can’t. It sucks, so I stay away from it. Now when I go to Hollywood and sit there, it’s like the apogee of that facile stupidity on which everything in this country seems to be heading. That’s not to say there’s real exceptions, there’s some very bright guys out there, but one of our problems is we don’t generally face the reality of what the American film industry is about. It’s about building fucking cars in Detroit, it’s about extracting money from the public ’cos that’s an industry, that’s what it does. If they made a movie about two Tamagotches falling in love and that’s gonna take $160 million, they’ll make the fucking picture.”
PM: The dumbing down of mainstream pictures seems to be reaching an absolute crisis point. There’s barely any dialogue left in thrillers anymore.
I’m sick of seeing Americans running away from special effects. That’s basically what US cinema is about. Let’s get a couple of stars and threaten them with a special effect, a tidal wave, a volcano, a fuckin’ Martian, a nuclear weapon, anything you like. Even 25 years ago there were things like ‘The Sting’, ‘Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid,’ ‘The China Syndrome,’ they were stories about people, and that’s what I wanna do. How the hell can I involve myself with a volcano or an earthquake?
PM: Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ plays over a key scene in ‘The Killing Fields’ where Sam Waterston is watching Nixon on the television. King Curtis’ version of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ sets the tone for ‘Withnail And I.’ I’m curious to know what kind of music you listen to for pleasure.
These days? Well, I’m in a time warp I fear. I still listen to Clapton and Peter Green, people like that. I like the electric guitar as an instrument played by virtuosos, so I still listen to that, and Dylan of course, I still listen to Bob. But my biggest listening is the heavyweight emotional Russkies I suppose, Shostakovich, Rachmanonov, very highly coloured emotional music is what grabs me, even Tchaikovsky I love. I don’t really listen to contemporary music. Via my 14 year old daughter I hear some of the stuff, but what’s going on with them (the boy bands) is exactly what’s going on with the movies; they are product, they’re put together, they’re inventions to sell, and they are like Beanie Babies and Tamagotches and whatever the fuck the next one will be.
PM: Is that just our age though?
That isn’t a dad saying, “Oh what are you doing with the Rolling Stones, in my day it was Glenn Miller,” this is just being an intelligent objective observer of what’s going on with popular music. It is pretty fucking, and the whole ambience now is, “Listen to that on your fucking headphones day and night, come home and eat your Marks & Spencer’s chicken fucking tikka – there’s a luxury for you – and sit in front of Brookside till you die with PS two weeks in some slob Thomas Cook holiday.” That’s the aspiration, you know, you go to those motorway fucking service stations in England and you see a representation of reality in England, moving, passing through all the time, there it is, a fat-arsed, munching society with junk being shoved down it. I live about two hours out of London on an express train – it took me seven hours to get home from Paddington station the other day, fucking terrible. In Paddington now, there is a bar where you can have vodka shots and caviar if you’ve got ninety quid, but you can’t get on the fucking train because it doesn’t run. And this is how the whole fucking thing’s happening: every time you open an envelope now from the phone or electricity company there’s this glossy brochure that you’ve paid for, the consumer, telling you how fucking fabulous they are, until you try and get something done by them. That freaks me out. It’s all phoney. We’re living with those pop groups backing it up. Where are we gonna go?
PM: In ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising,’ your response to all this was satire. You don’t go for jokes so much as peculiar turns of phrase, like in the novel where Penman soils himself, and he looks down and says in horror, “It was agricultural”. It’s almost like that old cliché about Irish comedians – comedy with no punch lines.
I don’t write jokes, I don’t like jokes. I do quite like some high top-end stand up comics y’know, the pope of them all obviously is somebody like Lenny Bruce. My comedy I wanna do now, ‘The Block,’ is, I think, very fucking funny. But y’know, people read it and say, “Why is this funny?” And if you don’t get it I can’t fucking tell you. I’m simply not prepared, at 55 years old, to explain. I was reading in the fucking Observer last weekend y’know, £460 million has been blown on 28 pieces of junk, only nine of which were released in this country. The last thing that I am in my life is a bitter guy, I couldn’t give a fuck, I’ll do something else, but that distresses me that I can’t make my fucking low budget comedy when they’re blowing that kind of money on rubbish.
PM: Ralph Steadman designed the titles for the Adrian Sibley/Channel 4 documentary on you, plus the cover for the video release of ‘Withnail & I.’ But also, he did illustrations for an edition of Flann O’ Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth,’ which has a very similar morbid humour to ‘Penman.’
Well Ireland is particularly good at comedy I think, y’know so many fucking great comedic writers, not least of which I’m thinking of now, he’s a bit jokey for me, but Wilde, I still love the fucker you know, and if that dreadful movie hadn’t been made (Wilde starring Stephen Fry) . . . can you imagine the comedy you could make about the life of Wilde? Fuck, it could be such a . . . I fiddled with that for ages.
PM: Did your experience as, as you called it, “Bendovrio” with Zeffirelli give you any more affinity with young females confronted with the casting couch syndrome in Hollywood?
Yeah, I dunno, I like a nice pair of tits like the next guy, but I wouldn’t dream if I was in power of . . . I’m perfectly happily married, but I just couldn’t conceive of doing that to a young kid. I mean, it’s strange, when I started ‘Jennifer 8’ this very pretty girl came around to the house where we were living in the Hollywood hills and she had the short skirt, the heels and the whole thing. She hadn’t read it. Anyway, she’s sitting there with these tits stuck at me, and her knees about a yard apart on the chair, and I start telling her about the movie. And as I start telling her it’s about a blind girl and stuff, you see these knees very, very surreptitiously coming together and her hand coming up to cover the tits, so by the time she’d heard who the part was, she’s sitting there with her tits hidden and her legs very firmly crossed and her skirt pulled down. (Laughs.) But if I’d said to her, “Yeah, you could be very interesting”, next thing you’re having dinner with her and telling her, “You can play it if I can fuck you”. It happens all the time. But I find that a disreputable way to go about your business, that’s the business of slob politicians.
PM: ’Jennifer 8’ was almost the last instalment in your LA nightmare, a film that many thought was great at 120 minutes, but was compromised by you having to edit it down for the three-shows-a -night factor.
‘Jennifer 8’ just got shafted, there were four different heads of studio on that movie, they all wanted different things. The worst thing happened before we made the movie and that was having Andy (Garcia), great guy that he is, on the movie. I didn’t write it for a handsome young lead, I wrote it for a shagged out old cop like . . . who was the guy who was in the French Connection?
PM: Gene Hackman.
Hackman. Hackman would’ve been fantastic. Pacino wanted to play it and they wouldn’t let him ’cos he’d just crashed with that ‘Frankie And Johnny’ or whatever it was called and he was asking his fee and was persona non gratis for a fortnight with Paramount, and they wouldn’t pay him. The problem is the moment you see Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman on screen together you think,“That ain’t bad. A couple of romantic leads, that’s nice.” The whole point was that he was this fucked guy; he was Rod Steiger if you like.
PM: Consequently John Malkovich runs away with the movie.
Malkovich played that part brilliantly, I thought. I had to lose some things of him . . . he did some stuff which is as good as I’ve ever seen on screen, there’s a scene there for a minute and 10 seconds where he’s just looking at Andy and it was so . . . you just knew this guy was going to fuck his head up. So here’s a minute and ten seconds of dead screen time and everyone who’d seen the assembly said that’s the most chilling moment in the whole film, that bit. But it went. It was a shame, ‘Jennifer 8.’ It kind of inoculated me against any other activities.
PM: Once you get stuck in the Hollywood dunce’s corner, how do you get out?
Well I can’t. I honestly don’t think that you can. The only way I figure I can get out is by being a writer again. I’m lucky in the sense that I can get publishing deals. Because I haven’t got any power, if I’m offered to direct something, it comes with all those sea anchors, those anvils hanging off it: “Alright, you can cut that, but we’re gonna fuck you. We’re telling you now we’re gonna fuck you.” And I know they’re gonna fuck me so I stay away. As I said, I’d love to make ‘The Block,’ but only if I can do it my way. Yes I’ll listen to the fucking clapper boy or the caterer’s wife if she’s got an idea, but I can’t have five people writing my novel, you know what I mean? It is a conspiracy making a film, and to conspire means to breathe with, to talk with, and it is a multi-faceted activity, but at the end the director’s gotta say what he wants. And if you can’t say what you want as a director then don’t direct.
Reproduced with permission
One of Ireland’s foremost music and pop culture writers, Peter Murphy (b. 1968, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford) got a taste for journalism at the age of 17 when he won first place in an EU sponsored competition for young essayists. After ten days of being wined, dined and chauffeured around Europe on someone else’s tab, the only proviso being that he file a report at the end of it, he figured this was the way to live. But first, he had to get the rock ‘n’ roll bug out of his system, and spent most of the next decade playing drums with a succession of bands. He quit music to become a journalist in 1996, quickly establishing himself as a senior contributor to Hot Press. Since then he has written over 30 cover stories for the magazine, accumulating a portfolio of interviews that includes Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Radiohead, Public Enemy, Shane MacGowan, George Clinton, Sonic Youth, Television, Henry Rollins, PJ Harvey, Richard Hell, David Johansen, Warren Zevon, Wim Wenders, Iain Banks, Will Self, William Gibson, Billy Bob Thornton, FW De Klerk and many others. His work has also appeared in the Bloodaxe Books anthology Dublines, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) plus international publications such as Rolling Stone (Australia) and Request (US). Miscellaneous assignments include writing the programme notes for jazz legend Miles Davis’ art exhibition hosted by the Davis Gallery in Dublin (2000), collaborations with cult author JT LeRoy for the American magazine Razor (2002), and co-producing Revelations, a two-hour radio documentary about The Frames (2003). He is frequently employed as a rent-a-mouth by the BBC and Irish national radio and television, is a contributor to the online archive Rocksbackpages.com and more recently gave a talk entitled Nocturnal Emissions at the ReJoyce symposium in the National College of Ireland, tracing the influence of James Joyce’s writings on Irish music. He has also been invited to contribute an essay to the liner notes of the 2004 remastered edition of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, and is currently writing his first novel.
Interviewed by Peter Murphy
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