The formula of many sports movies is classically simple but satisfying. First step: introduce an outsider. Second step: training assembly. Third step: win the trophy. It’s a successful formula that’s been used for decades. For “The Phantom of the Open” director Craig Roberts and screenwriter Simon Farnaby, however, they are not interested in following that model.
“As a sports movie, it just doesn’t work,” Farnaby said. Variety. “Because usually you get an underdog and then they’re good at the end. But the trophy Maurice gets is very different. He didn’t win the British Open, but he captured the hearts and minds of people around the world.
“The Phantom of the Open,” which premieres June 3 in the United States, follows the true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a shipyard worker in England turned golf folk hero. Flitcroft, who had never played a round of golf in his life, made history at the 1976 British Open for shooting the worst score ever: 121, 49 strokes over par (that number may even be too low – a question mark is labeled on the scorecard next to hole seven). The film follows Flitcroft as he repeatedly cheats his way into the tournament in order to pursue his new dream of being a professional golfer. However, the filmmakers are not so convinced that this is a golf movie.
“For me, it’s about changing the definition of success,” Roberts explained. “I think as a company we think it’s about being number one. But [Maurice] was very successful. He was very successful because he did what made him happy.
Variety spoke with Roberts and Farnaby about their experience bringing Flitcroft’s story to the big screen, how they think Flitcroft is essentially Kanye West, their thoughts on a sports movie that isn’t about sports at all, and why Roberts wanted to direct a golf movie despite his dangerously horrible golf skills.
Why do you think this story is worth telling?
Craig Robert: We needed to be paid? Ok, no, no I’m kidding. I think that [Maurice’s] looking at the world is a truly wonderful thing. The optimism he has, and the courage, and he believes in himself so much. People laugh at me every time I say that, but I mean it. He looks like Kanye West to me. For example, he walks around telling people he can do something and everyone says “No”. And in a world that always tells you no, it’s really hard to keep choosing yourself. We all dream, but there is so much courage to do.
Simon Farnaby: When I first read about him, I just thought it was funny, and I loved that someone took that. We all live in fear of humiliation and stepping out of our comfort zone. And here is someone who brazenly, with all his heart, opted for something he had no right to go for. Of his class and his background and everything. Even his physique, you know. He was a tiny little guy. And he got into it and failed. And got up. I love that.
What first interested you in history?
Farnaby: Well, I grew up around golf. My father was a greenkeeper at a golf club. Golf has a very strange hierarchical structure around which they build golf clubs. It’s a bit like a parliament. You have a president, captain, and treasurer, and no one is allowed to park in each other’s parking spot. Now I was really good at golf, but I was a gardener’s son. So I was despised. And I remember hearing about Maurice. I mean, he was a popular hero among the juniors – we loved him because all the members hated him. Then I kinda forgot about it and gave up my golf career because it wasn’t very cool back then. That’s still not the case, honestly. And then in 2007, when I was doing well in my career, Maurice resurfaced because he died. It seemed like a great way to bring together my old passion for golf and my chosen career, I guess. And through a truly unusual story, this is no normal sports story. It’s about a guy who plays golf and is bad and stays that way.
Craig, do you also have a relationship with golf?
Robert: Certainly not, no. My dad was very good at it, and I’m embarrassing for him. In fact, Simon and I were playing yesterday and I almost killed people with the ball. As if I was really no good. The last thing I would do is make a golf movie, if I’m being totally honest with you.
So why did you want to get involved in something like this?
Robert: Well, the script. Definitely the script. It was very, very funny. I felt like I knew Maurice, oddly enough. He felt like an uncle. And I loved how ambitious the script was. There were plenty of scenes. Lots of scenes. In fact, we probably shot the most scenes in the time we had for an independent British film. Because I think we did about 150 scenes. What I loved was that my first thing was like, “OK, well, this is going to be a quick movie.” I’m going to move the camera really quickly and fly over it all and get that energy that makes it kinetic. That’s what I loved. And the American side too. My sensibility is very American. The movies I like are very American. And it was a nice way to go further in that direction.
When you were doing this, did you know of any other really loved golf comedies? Do you think of something like “Caddyshack” or “Happy Gilmore” in the back of your mind?
Robert: I didn’t, actually. I kind of avoided them.
Farnaby: Yeah, I mean, I love “Caddyshack”. But that’s definitely not what we wanted to do with it. Because it’s a true story and it needs to be less of an outright comedy. Now, “Happy Gilmore”, I hate. He likes that.
Robert: I love it. I love it. I mean, it’s really a hockey movie. And it’s a fucking good one!
Farnaby: Anyway, I mean, they’re usually pretty bad. Like, “Tin Cup” is OK. But, I think golf somehow struggles on screen. That’s why I say it’s a little easier, sort of, since Maurice is so bad. It’s more accessible because, all along the line, you explain golf to people because Maurice doesn’t know. A lot of people have been worried in the UK, especially about “Will women like this movie?” Will people who don’t like golf like it? But I think it helps if you don’t like golf! Because it kind of shows that he is who he is. It’s a great game, but it has ridiculous elements. And it’s all in the movie.
I know we talked a lot about golf. But do you think this film is about golf?
Farnaby: No, no, it’s not about golf at all. I mean, look, you can get what you want out of this, really, but it’s about making your dreams come true. Because what else to do? None of us will get out of here alive. No one comes to the end of life and says, “I’m glad I didn’t try anything. And this is what defines success. I mean, as a sports movie, it just doesn’t work. Because usually you get an underdog and then they’re good in the end. But the trophy Maurice gets is very different. He didn’t win the British Open, but he captured the hearts and minds of people around the world. It’s kind of a life thing, you know, because we’re all a bit of a loser in the end.
What influences have you brought from other movies or TV shows?
Robert: “Superman.” You know, one of my favorite movies is “Punch Drunk Love”. And, in the movie, he has anxiety and all that, but PTA frames him in a way that he’s actually Clark Kent. So I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do the UK version of this.’ So I ran with it. It really informed the whole iconography of all of this, really. All production and design of everything is in Superman colors. The car’s license plate is his Kryptonian name and he has the same dog as Superman. And then also the costume designer, Sian, made his Superman diamond golf sweater with all the colors of Superman. I mean, nobody gives a fuck, but I liked that it was all in there.
I’m curious what you think of the idea of the “comforting” movie. Critics sometimes find a heartwarming story too superficial or unrealistic. What do you think?
Farnaby: You know, we didn’t start out saying, “Let’s make a heart-warming movie.” It’s a true story, and there are bound to be comforting elements in a true story. And also, for me as a screenwriter, you’re writing about someone else’s life. Giving this a sad ending or an ending that didn’t happen or that they didn’t deserve just for the sake of our movie isn’t what I wanted to do. It’s there because it’s his life. And that’s what it meant to him.
Robert: It’s also good to have both, you know. I love both, whether the movie gives you a hug or a headache. This is the Spielberg versus Stanley Kubrick debate. You can go to a Stanley Kubrick movie and come out questioning absolutely everything about yourself and the world. And then you come out of a Spielberg movie and you can feel really good. And I think both can exist.
What does this film and this story mean to you? What do you hope audiences remember most about it?
Robert: For me, it’s about changing the definition of success. Most likely. I think as a company we think it’s about being number one. But [Maurice] was very successful. He was very successful because he did what made him happy. I think if people go out and be kinder to people and support people and encourage people to pursue their dreams, no matter what they are, then I think the job is done.
Farnaby: And, for me, the film was a long journey. I think it’s been about 15 years since I came across the story. And it’s his own Maurice Flitcroft. It was unlikely, it was a dream. And I thought nobody would care about this niche story about this guy that nobody heard of. He had his own Flitcroftian trip. Hopefully it gets its own heartwarming happy ending.