Matthew Warchus and Stephen Beresford interview: Pride

Ahead of its release in UK cinemas, we talk to the director and writer of the funniest film of the year, Pride. It's one of the best, too.

Regular readers will know that we’ve been banging the drum for the film Pride for a little while now. It’s a fabulous comedy, whose laughs are as fierce as its politics, and it arrives in UK cinemas this Friday.

In advance of that, we chatted to its director Matthew Warchus (returning to cinema for the first time since 1999’s Simpatico) and writer Stephen Beresford. Both come from a theatre background (Warchus is taking over from Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic next, and his hugely impressive theatre credits include the Matilda musical), and both were in fine form when we met them…

What particularly intrigued me about Pride is why you chose to tell such an unusual story this way. And I wonder whether the pair of you, as storytellers, think that fiction and/or comedy can make true stories – particularly seemingly unbelievable true stories – more believable? Because there are lots of ways you could attack the subject matter, and you went for a relatively broad comedy? So why go that way?

SB: From a writing point of view, I think if I’m honest, you can only write what you’re good at. I wouldn’t have been able to write another version of the story. It’s what I enjoy, and when I first met Matthew, it was our first conversation: the idea of making things funny and popular. But at the same time being full of subjects that are difficult or dark.

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It strikes that the truth of every situation is it’s always funny. Everything is funny. It seems that it’s more truthful. I find I believe it more if people are making jokes because that’s how it works. Even if the jokes are little, and even if the jokes are happening at very inappropriate moments. People do always crack a joke, no matter what the situation.

In terms of whether it could have been a different film? It could have been, but it wouldn’t have been written by me. And I don’t think Matthew would have done it!

MW: No. It wasn’t a cynical exercise in any way as to how to bring a story to a wide audience. Although somebody who could do that would be a smart person! But I think we were aware. There’s a moment in the film where a bright red minivan with a pink triangle on it literally pulls up on the lawn in deep suburbia during a christening party.

And I sort of think about the film like that. By the time we’re that far into the film, the deepest issues – political issues, personal relationships, tough stuff, AIDS, the gay and lesbian activism stand – all of that has been brought into the heart of mainstream. And, unlike in the film, it’s welcome there, and belongs there. That’s all been done because of the comedy. I agree with Stephen. I think truth is funny plus other things, and I think that makes it more honest.

Sometimes, tortured stories actually feel quite contrived.

Chris Morris, when he was making Four Lions, said that the reason he decided to make it was that he read a story of a terrorist who loaded a boat with explosives, only for the boat to sink. He let out an involuntary laugh when he read that, and that was his catalyst.

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SB: Exactly. Because that’s what comedy is. It’s the way in which human beings process things such as trauma.

People do tend to disbelieve true stories though. And I wonder if you grounding the film this way was in part about making sure it felt believable?

SB: I quite like to subvert that. When you see ‘based on a true story’, and it’s Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field… 

I remember that! The Alfred Molina one?

SB: Yeah! And you see the ‘based on a true story’ and you go ‘fucking hell’. You’ve got people there, and nobody makes a joke, particularly to Sally – and she’s a great actress, don’t get me wrong. But I like when it says ‘based on a true story’, and that the first thing you get is jokes.

MW: The other thing about humour is that humour is completed by an audience. So there are lots of situations in the film where people are very in earnest. Stephen has done something – it’s not that the actors are particularly funny, because they’re not playing comedy in the film – he’s written some lines that will make an audience laugh. It almost happens despite the earnestness of the characters, rather than because of the comic skills of the actors. For example, Mark turning up and speaking for the first time is a very painful scene, and nobody is playing comedy anywhere near it. But the tension gives rise to some laughter.

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There are a few one liners and some zingers, but it’s the situation and watching that in a group of people. I think the other thing to say is that potentially there’s a bit of apprehension when watching this film, that it’s going to exclude you somewhere along the line. That it’s going to be a bit dry, a bit political, a bit agenda-ish. And there’s a feeling of real delight, I think, when you realise that it’s speaking directly to you. And that predisposes you to a feeling of enjoyment and engagement. Which feels like you’ve been watching comedy, but it’s not exactly that. It’s almost entirely without gags, and a lot of it is very gritty.

You have Menna Trussler who does one or two lines that bring the house down, for instance. But she does very little to do a lot.

SB: I love that kind of comedy.

The kind of comedy I hate is characters who know they’re funny. I find it impossible, which is one of the reasons why – even when people are geniuses – I’ve never been able to watch a stand-up. I find there’s something about the conceit that makes it impossible for me to enjoy myself, because they know they’re funny.

What I find funny is people who don’t realise quite how funny they are. So when I write a line, I see it as the first stage in a collaboration with three groups: Matthew, and the actor.

In Noel Coward plays, there are lines that bring down the house for four minutes. One of them is “this haddock is disgusting”. There’s nothing funny about that line, but the collaboration between the actor, the situation and the way it’s directed… once you get those things together. I just like going ‘bop’ with the ball and letting two other people pick it up. I find that more satisfying to watch. 

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One of my favourite stories of a writer and director working together was when a much younger Aaron Sorkin was adapting his play of A Few Good Men into a screenplay for Rob Reiner. Apparently, Reiner would ring him up at unsociable hours bellowing at him, and it took Sorkin a while to realise Reiner was improving it. I may have remembered that wrongly, but I wonder how you two work together? It seems far more cordial!

SB: It’s very dark, very dark! It’s savage!

Matthew, I read about when you were putting the stage show of Matilda together for instance, and I think it was Tim Minchin who gave an interview, saying that basically everybody disagreed about everything? How has this one worked?

MW [Laughs]: Well, the script was the best script that I’ve read in ages. Best script that I’ve been offered ever, and you’d probably be surprised just how much of the film is on the page. One of the biggest responsibilities I took was to just not mess it up, which in itself is quite a hard thing. I’m not saying it’s an easy job to turn a good script into a good film, but it certainly helps that the script was great.

We did work together. Structurally, the story lasts a year, so you’ve got to get through it with a certain amount of rhythm. There’s a lot of pace at the beginning, and a killer ending, but then there’s a change of tone in the middle. So there was a little bit of exploring that.

There was a certain amount of financial pressure about whether we could reduce the number of characters or cut any scenes. Really, we bonded together in pushing back against that. I said that I know I won’t have any time if there’s this many characters in the film, I know I won’t have time to shoot it, the money to pay for more time… But we are committed to telling this story about large groups of people. We didn’t want to distil it down to heroes.

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So we just fundamentally agreed. I thought Stephen had got it right when he wrote the script, and I wanted to work out how to make that script. We changed little bits and pieces, and then in the editing, Stephen would come in a lot. I’d ask if it was okay to chop off the beginning of a scene a couple of times, or come in a bit later. We had discussions like that.

And importantly, the thing about coming from theatre is that you trust your writer. If you decide you’re going to do the piece, you’re doing it because you love the writing. And so I wanted to get it right for Stephen. I wanted to be the next person to get it right.

LGSM [Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners] did a great thing for a lot of people. Stephen worked out a way to tell the story. I wanted to be the person who then continued to get it right. In order to help me do that, Stephen sat with me in casting, and I ran by him my choices for music, and he sat next to me every day shooting, at the monitor. Costume fittings too! It was like having a co-director.

I do remember some conversations where I said ‘is it possible to do this’, and you said ‘actually no, I don’t want that, and I’ll tell you why’! I think it may be a fairly unusual relationship though. 

It’s hugely unusual!

SB: But I do think it’s rooted in the fact that we’ve both had a background in theatre. It’s much less unusual for the writer to make nuisance of themselves there, or for the writer to be interested in what the director has to say. In film that’s not the case, but in this film it was. That’s thanks to Matthew: they would have eventually bundled me off the set.

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But also, I think we just have the same taste. At the bottom line. I trusted Matthew. I thought it was very important that whoever was going to direct the film, the thing I cared about most of all was that there was somebody who understood the comedy, the tone of it, and the precise language. I knew Matthew’s work, so I knew he had the right touch. But we find the same things funny. If it wasn’t for the intense personal animosity we feel for each other, it could have been a friendship too [grins].

MW: The other thing is that Stephen was my access to all of the truth as well. He’s the person who did all the research and spoke to people. Plus having the writer there it’s possible to say ‘is it possible to change that line there to something else’.

SB: The answer is always no, but it was interesting to ask the question!

Matthew, will it be 15 years until you make another film now?

MW: I think I’m going to make a film of Matilda in about two or three years’ time. I think I’ll do another film then. The reason for the long gap is because I enjoy my work in theatre enormously, and I’ve been always lucky enough to get the very best projects in theatre. But I was never on that list of directors in film, so it was hard to find the most exciting material. I still don’t know why David Livingstone, the producer, sent me the script. I’m scared to ask. I’ve no idea whether I was first, fourth, firth…

SB: 19th!

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MW: But when it arrived, it was like a bullseye, and that just doesn’t happen. But I’m in a privileged position, I don’t just have to go and make another film. I’ve got another job, so I hope that I can hold out for the special ones!

And is Matilda a known about project now?

MW: It’s not a secret. But it can’t be released before 2019.

Last question then. I’ve tried this before and it didn’t work, though. Still, I’m willing to bet that there are going to be BAFTAs for Pride, so before I’m chucked out, are you willing to commit to trying to get a random work into your acceptance speeches?


MW: I didn’t realise that was the deal! Random work…

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Ostrich, something like that. Get that in, and I’ll donate a pound to the charity of your choice.

MW: How about ‘union’? [laughs]

Stephen and Matthew, thank you for your time.

Pride is released in cinemas on September 12th. Our review is here.

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