Declan Lowney: directing Alan Partridge, Cruise Of The Gods

We chat to the director of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Cruise Of The Gods, Mr Declan Lowney...

Whereas many of the team behind the Alan Partridge movie have worked on shows surrounding the character for years, director Declan Lowney is a newcomer to Partridgeland. A veteran of lots of TV, and the director of the wonderful Cruise Of The Gods, he chatted to us about Alan, Norwich, and a big sinking ship.

Please note: this interview talks loosely about things that happen in the film. We don’t think what’s here spoils anything, but if you want to see the film 100% cold, it’s probably best to come back to this interview afterwards.

Watching The Guard a few years ago, it’s got a great end action sequence. Until I saw Alpha Papa, outside of Arctic-based films, that seemed to be the most freezing cold looking action sequence I’d seen. But yours looking incredibly cold!

Was that Norwich in December near the end there [no spoilers!]?

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No, it was actually maybe the end of February, but it was bloody freezing.

It looked it.

It wasn’t so bad for Colm [Meaney], as he had his coat buttoned up. Although he did spend some time thinking I ran out of the bus, my coat was open, and now it’s closed. I’m fucked if I’m going to spend three days out here with my coat open, so I’ve got to close it somewhere. But Alan? He had to be down to his jacket. And lying on the floor as well.

We were so lucky, because it was suitably grey and overcast from day to day.

That’s not luck though, is it? That’s just the odds of the English seaside!

Yeah, but if the sun had come out on one of those days, we would have been scuppered!

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A couple of years ago, a Hollywood western – Cowboys And Aliens – was trounced at the box office by a film based on a British TV show, The Inbetweeners Movie. You’re opening almost directly against The Lone Ranger. What expectations do you have for your film?

[Laughs] I don’t know anything about The Lone Ranger movie, really, although someone was telling me about the premiere, and the horse having a shit on the carpet! [Laughs] I don’t imagine Alan will have a shit on the carpet.

I guess this summer you also have The World’s End out there. But I guess people have enough money to go to the summer that they don’t mind going to more than one comedy.

Certainly it seems as though the British comedies are working better. For my money at the moment, Hollywood comedies have two things wrong with them: they’re generally too long, and too nasty.

Anything that Judd Apatow makes, and I love his films… Funny People, it’s two hours and 20 minutes. Bridesmaids, it’s two hours 10 minutes. Just lose 40 minutes – at least.

The first cut of this was two hours 45 minutes. And I said oh fuck, it’s funny, but it’s just too long to keep people, and on a slim pretence as well. This is now 90 minutes, and I think it’s the right length. It’s painful, because we had to lose so much stuff. Even at 100 minutes, we were saying it’s almost there. But no, just make it shorter, and people will thank you for it.

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You say there that the pretence of it is quite slim, but is that partly because you’re not looking to take Alan too much out of…

… his comfort zone?

Yeah. The roots are very firmly in the television shows here, whereas previously when we’ve had television properties go to the big screen, there’s a temptation to fly them away from their natural surroundings.

Yeah, yeah. Dog Day Afternoon was for the most part shot in a room, but it was still very cinematic, and it was still a very engaging movie. That was our reference point. We still wanted to make it interesting, and every now and then go outside. And hey, let’s go to the seaside for the end. And it’s a beautiful place! 

I watched The Wolverine last week, and there was a distinction there that there was a part of the world that I don’t usually see in a film of that ilk on the screen. It gave it something. I’ve never seen Norwich at the cinema before, and there did seem to be a determination here to show the town off a bit?

Yeah. I almost felt slightly cheated that Partridge never explored Norwich or Norfolk more, and when we did this, I was keen we did. I walked around, plotted a route through the city centre that made vague geographical sense if you were from Norwich, but still would work for the shots we needed. I was just keen that we see a bit more of Norwich. It’s a smashing place.

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When did you come in then? Because the Partridge film has been talked about…

… for years and year and years, yeah!

I think about a year ago. There was a gap in Steve’s schedule, Rob and Neil had written quite a lot of the script. And they felt they were in a good place. I’d been working with Steve, I did Moone Boy with Chris O’Dowd, and Steve did a cameo in it. I’d worked with him before – we did Cruise Of The Gods. So I think he was keen to have me involved. He asked Armando [Ianucci] to meet me, who had obvious concerns about handing Partridge over to anybody.

You’re a Partridge outsider.

I am an outsider to that group.

But presumably you have to play that as an advantage?

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Well, yeah. But I didn’t bring it up [Laughs loudly]. I think being an outsider has probably helped though! 

I’ve always found that the ultimate Partridge gold was back in the original Radio 4 Knowing Me Knowing You shows, because it pared it down to voices in a studio. Something very simple. I really liked in the film that you could have gone very showcase-y about two people being sat in a shitty radio station, but you played that straight?

They wouldn’t let us run away with him too much. Always the sensibility is to keep it real. Alan does normal things, and that’s what’s funny. If you start doing big glamorous things with him, it just goes against the grain.

Else you can’t warm to him…

If you take him out of his environment. You’re probably right actually.

Putting him at the centre of a 90 minute film alone presents a whole different raft of challenges. In an episode, it doesn’t matter if you don’t warm to him a great deal…

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Also, the other difference it that in a TV sitcom, in a half hour format, your characters can’t learn anything. If he’s not as stupid next week as he is this week, then he’s not going to make the same mistakes. In a movie, if you want to care about people, they have to have some sort of arc. And in this, Alan starts off being a shit, he realises, and he does something about. His intention proved to be good. He has a bit of journey here.

But I like the fact that, across everything, Partridge is never full redeemed.

No he’s not. He’s still who he is.

Is he deliberately left in a place here so carry on to a specific other project?

Well they want to make more Mid-Morning Matters with him, another 10 or 15 of those I think. And who knows if there’s going to be an Alpha Papa 2 or not. We don’t know, but people are asking about it. This transfer has worked very well, better than we thought it would. It survived the journey. 

What did you cut, then? What were the big things that needed to go to lose over an hour from the running time?

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Well, most of the stuff that went was stuff that didn’t involve Alan. In the Alan Partridge movie, it’s best when Alan Partridge is in the movie. So there’s a sub-plot where Lynn had got another job, with somebody else that she’s met, so you knew she’d gone out of his life. Then she heard him on the radio and raced back. So we got rid of her doing her other job interview and all that stuff.

There was a subplot with the police, a romance there, that you get a sense of in the movie. That was developed much more, there were a whole bunch more scenes. In the bigger context though, you just wanted to see how Alan was doing.

This is your director’s cut, then?

Well, this is everyone’s cut. I deliver a cut, and then they sit with me, and let’s just make it shorter and shorter and shorter and shorter. Your first cut has to show everything, so that was the two hour 45 minute cut.

So no big behind the scenes stories of punch ups you want to share, then?

No, no, no! [Laughs]

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Can you just make something up?!

[Laughs] Often you can tell when you’re shooting stuff that something’s not going to work. This isn’t going to survive, it’s too off story. And then there’s the fact that the average scene in this movie might have run for five pages on paper, but by the end of the movie, it’s two pages. Alan has four major speeches in that scene, and only one is funny enough to survive.

This did seem tightly scripted. I got no sense that this was a film where 20% was in the script, 80% was improvisation.

The script was 155 pages! And the best stuff stayed, and the weak stuff goes. I don’t know if it’s unique to Steve, but there’s a comedy way of working where you write stuff – ten gags maybe – and only four of them will make the film. That’s how tough and demanding they are on themselves. That they have to generate ten gags to get four. So there’s an awful lot of really good stuff that’s thrown away.

From a schedule point of view, you were still shooting in February, so what, you wrapped in March?

Yeah, we wrapped the shoot in March. 

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It’s August now, so you’ve had five months to lock it down. And my understanding was this still wasn’t locked down as late as last week [this interview took place two weeks ago].

Yeah, about ten days ago we finished mixing it. And apparently that’s short for a movie post-production. I thought it was very long, because I’m used to TV. But it was purely making it funnier, every day. Just reshaping it and reshaping it. What can we add? We haven’t shot him saying this, but he could say it off camera? We were doing a lot of that stuff, right up to the last minute. They really only finished writing two weeks ago!

That’s quite a television approach.

Yeah, because the guys come from TV, and none of us are really movie people.

But then you did Cruise Of The Gods. And if you came to that project now, it’d be a film.

Yeah. Cruise Of The Gods, it just got buried over Christmas.

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But it still keeps hitting.

Do they show it every now and then?

Yeah, it’s popped up in the schedules. That’s interesting, though. From your perspective, Cruise Of The Gods kind of came and went, and is just lost? You don’t get the sense that it’s still talked about?

Well, the industry sometimes says ah, that’s brilliant. Or the odd geek will come and talk about it…

Don’t knock odd geeks…!

[Laughs] It was just frustrating at the time that not many people saw it, and we think that it’s a really good piece.

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It’s the perfect double bill with Galaxy Quest

Yeah! [Laughs] It’s slightly Partridge the whole Cruise Of The Gods world anyway. When I came to it, Steve was going to play the Andy part, that was played by Rob Brydon. I’d never met Steve, and I was asked to go and see him at his agent’s office. And he said that I don’t want to play the lead. There’s this guy called Rob Brydon. And I’d never heard of him, he was kind of unknown. Steve thought he should play what’s now the Steve Coogan part, the actor who went to Hollywood and was very successful. 

So how late in the day did that switch take place?

Probably about six weeks before shooting. It was very, very late. And because we shot on a real cruise ship… The cruise ship hit a rock four or five days into the shoot. It started to tilt, and in the making of that’s on the DVD, that actually happens. We’re shooting, and it happens, you see lights going all over the place, people screaming, lights going out. So the boat sat like that [makes tilting gesture with hands] for most of the afternoon and evening.

They took us off the boat, we had to evacuate. So they put it in dry dock, and gave us the ship back. Then we had the complete run of the ship inside – we couldn’t go outside – so we carried on shooting, and had complete control. We didn’t have to work around people. Then we got on another cruise ship, spent a week on that doing all the outsides, and then came back and with the insurance money, built the rest of the boat in Shepperton!

That’s why it feels like a bigger film that it is. The scale of it.

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I first got to it on DVD, because I’d been nagged by so many people to watch it. It feels like it doesn’t belong on telly. There was talk of a big screen remake at one stage?

Yeah. Stuart Cornfeld bought it, he’s Ben Stiller’s producer. They were really interested in doing something with it, and had spoken to Steve about maybe being in it as well. I don’t know what’s happened with it, though.

The other one you’ve been linked with is the Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards movie?

Yeah. Again, we had four or five years trying to get it off the ground. But Steve and various people and producers eventually thought they’d spent enough money on this, and it wasn’t going to happen. It’d be a very expensive film to make, and the Americans always struggled with it because he didn’t win! ‘We’re going to root for the guy who comes last all the time?’.

Have you got another project you’re going to move onto?

No, I’m going to see how this goes, and for once, I’m not going to take on any work for a bit!

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Declan Lowney, thank you very much!

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is out in UK cinemas now.

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