The formula for many sports movies is classically simple yet satisfying. Step one: introduce an underdog. Step two: training montage. Step three: win the trophy. It’s a successful formula that has been used for decades. For “The Phantom of the Open” director Craig Roberts and screenwriter Simon Farnaby, though, they’re not interested in following that pattern.
“As a sports movie, it doesn’t work,” Farnaby told Variety. “Because usually you’re getting 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 won the hearts and minds of people all over the world.”
“The Phantom of the Open,” which premieres June 3 in the U.S., 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 in the 1976 British Open for shooting the worst score ever recorded: 121, 49 shots 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 deceives his way into the tournament in order to follow his newfound dream of being a professional golfer. The filmmakers aren’t so sold on the idea that this is a film about golf, though.
“For me, it’s about changing the definition of success,” Roberts explained. “I think that, as a society, we think it’s about being number one. But [Maurice] was very successful. He was very successful because he was doing what made him happy.”
Variety spoke with Roberts and Farnaby about their experience in taking Flitcroft’s story to the big screen, how they think Flitcroft is essentially Kanye West, their thoughts on a sports movie that isn’t at all about sports and why Roberts wanted to direct a golf movie despite his dangerously horrible golf skills.
Why do you think this is a story worth being told?
Craig Roberts: We needed to get paid? Ok, no, no I’m kidding. I think that [Maurice’s] outlook on the world is a really wonderful thing. The optimism he has, and the courage, and he believes in himself so much. People laugh at me every time I say this, but I mean it. He feels like Kanye West to me. Like, he’s just going around telling people he can do something and everyone’s saying “No.” And in a world that’s always telling you no, it’s really hard to keep picking yourself. We all dream, but there’s so much courage in doing.
Simon Farnaby: When I first read about him I just thought it was funny, and I loved that someone would take that on. We all live in fear of humiliation and of stepping out of our comfort zone. And here’s someone who just brazenly, wholeheartedly went for something that he had no right to go for. From his class and from his background and from everything. Even his physicality, you know. He was quite a little guy. And he just went for it and failed. And got up again. I just love that.
What first made you interested in the story?
Farnaby: Well, I grew up around golf. My dad was a greenkeeper at a golf club. Golf has a very strange hierarchical structure that they build golf clubs around. It’s sort of like a parliament. You have a president and a captain and a treasurer, and no one’s allowed to park in each other’s car parking space. Now, I was really good at golf, but I was a greenkeepers’ son. So I was looked down upon. And I remember hearing about Maurice. I mean, he was a folk hero amongst juniors — we loved him because all the members hated him. Then I forgot about him for a bit and I gave up my golf career because it wasn’t very cool at that time. Still isn’t, honestly. And then in 2007, when I was doing OK in my career, Maurice resurfaced because he died. It seemed a great way of bringing my old passion for golf and my chosen career together, I suppose. And through a really unusual story, like, this is not a normal sports story. It’s about guy who plays golf and is bad and stays bad.
Craig, do you have a relationship to golf, too?
Roberts: Definitely not, no. My dad was very good at it, and I’m an embarrassment to him. Actually, Simon and I were playing yesterday and I almost killed people with the ball. Like I’m really not good. The last thing I’d ever do is make a golf movie, if I’m totally honest with you.
So why did you want to get involved in something like this?
Roberts: Well, the script. Definitely the script. It was very, very funny. I felt like I knew Maurice, weirdly. He felt like an uncle. And I loved how ambitious the script was. There were loads of scenes. Loads of scenes. Actually, we probably shot the most scenes in the amount of time we had for a British independent film. Because I think we did about 150 scenes. What I loved about that is, my first thing was like, “OK, well, this is gonna be a fast movie.” I’ll move the camera really quick and fly through all this stuff and get that energy that makes it feel kinetic. That’s what I loved about it. And the American side of it as well. My sensibilities are very American. The movies I love are very American. And it felt like a nice way of of going more towards that.
When you were making this, did you have an awareness of other really loved golf comedies out there? Are you thinking of something like “Caddyshack” or “Happy Gilmore” in the back of your mind?
Roberts: I didn’t, actually. I kind of avoided them.
Farnaby: Yeah, I mean, I love “Caddyshack.” But it’s definitely not what we wanted to do with this. Because this is a true story and it has to be less of an out and out comedy. Now, “Happy Gilmore,” I hate. He loves it.
Roberts: I love it. I love it. I mean, it’s really a hockey movie. And it’s a bloody good one!
Farnaby: Anyway, I mean, they’re usually quite bad. Like, “Tin Cup” is OK. But, I think golf struggles somehow on the screen. This is why I say it’s sort of easier, in a way, since Maurice is so bad. It’s more accessible because, all the way along the line, you’re explaining to people about golf because Maurice doesn’t know. We’ve had a lot of people worried in the U.K., 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 it up to be what it is. It’s a great game, but it has ridiculous elements to it. And all that is in the movie.
I know we’ve been talking about golf a lot. But do you think this movie is about golf?
Farnaby: No, no, it’s not about golf at all. I mean, look, you can take from it what you want, really, but, it’s about going for your dreams. Because what else is there to do? None of us are getting out of here alive. No one gets to the end of the life and goes, “I’m glad I didn’t try to do anything.” And it’s about what defines success. I mean, as a sports movie, it doesn’t work. Because usually you’re getting 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 won the hearts and minds of people all over the world. It’s sort of about life, you know, because we’re all kinda losers in the end.
What are some influences that you brought in from other movies or TV shows?
Roberts: “Superman.” You know, one of my favorite movies is “Punch Drunk Love.” And, in the film, he’s got anxiety and stuff, but PTA frames it in a way that he’s actually Clark Kent. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll do the British version of that.” So I ran with that. That really informed the whole iconography of it all, really. All the production and the design of everything is all Superman colors. The number plate for the car is his Kryptonian name, and he has the same dog as Superman. And then also the costume designer, Sian, made his golf jumper with the Superman diamond with all the Superman colors. I mean, nobody gives a shit about it, but I liked that it’s all in there.
I’m curious what you think about the idea of the “heartwarming” movie. Critics sometimes find a heartwarming tale too shallow or unrealistic. What do you guys think about that?
Farnaby: You know, we didn’t set out and go, “Let’s make a heartwarming film.” It’s a true story, and there’s bound to be heartwarming elements to a true story. And also, for me as a screenwriter, you’re writing about someone else’s life. To give that a sad ending or an ending that didn’t happen or they didn’t deserve just for the sake of our film isn’t what I wanted to do. It’s there because that’s his life. And that’s what it meant to him.
Roberts: It’s also good to have both, you know. I like both, whether the movie is gonna give you a hug or a flipping headache. It’s the Spielberg vs. Stanley Kubrick debate. You can go to a Stanley Kubrick film and come out questioning absolutely everything about yourself and the world. And then you come out of a Spielberg film 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 the most about it?
Roberts: For me, it’s about changing the definition of success. Probably. I think that, as a society, we think it’s about being number one. But [Maurice] was very successful. He was very successful because he was doing what made him happy. I think if people come out and are kinder to people and prop people up and encourage people to follow their dreams, no matter what they are, then I think job’s done.
Farnaby: And, for me, the film has been a long journey. I think it’s been about 15 years since I came across the story. And it’s its own Maurice Flitcroft. It was unlikely, it was a dream. And I thought no one’s gonna care about this extremely niche story about this guy that no one’s heard about. It’s had its own Flitcroftian journey. Let’s hope it has its own heartwarming, happy ending.