The Den Of Geek interview: Mark Herman

The writer-director behind Brassed Off and Little Voices talks about his new film, Dudley Moore, and the best quick break he ever had..

Mark Herman has proven himself to be one of Britain’s best writer-directors of recent times, primarily down to the superb Brassed Off and Little Voice. As he puts the finishing touches to his next film, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, he spared us some time for a natter…

Your early career seemed to indicate you were heading towards animation. What happened to move you towards film?

I suppose it was probably the notion of having to spend a whole year on one joke. I’d gone to art school, quite late at 25, in Hull and then on to a three year Graphic Design degree at Leeds Poly [now Leeds Met].  At the end of the first year there we had to choose a specific route for the final two years: illustration, printmaking, graphics, or film.  I tried to get into all the other options but for some strange reason was rejected by all of them, so the reason I ended up in film is that, basically, that was the only department that would actually have me. 

So it was in the film department there in Leeds where I first got into drawn animation, more because of the college’s budget limitations than through any grand desire, but I eventually did enough of it, and presumably did it well enough, to get into the National Film School.  I think it was my touching depiction of an inflatable woman getting her own back that swung it.  This was around 1984. 

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That first year at the National was a little demoralising.  I was working alongside animation geniuses like Tony Collingwood and Nick Park, who was at the time shooting his first Wallace & Gromit, A Grand Day Out.  I don’t usually have a defeatist nature, but I did then.  If I was so far behind everyone else in this little cupboard in Buckinghamshire, what would it be like out in the big wide world?  It’s not that there weren’t a whole load of very talented writers and directors in the live action department at the Film School either, but I just suspected I might enjoy failure a little more there, so I moved across.  I did a documentary and then wrote and directed a half hour film for my graduation – a comedy about a wedding clashing with a cup semi-final – which was fortunate enough to win an Academy Award, so it seemed like it must have been the right decision.

Did you also really write lyrics for The Christians? How did you get the job?

Why does it sound so ludicrous?  Yes, I wrote a few songs on their first album – Ideal World, Hooverville, Sad Songs.  I’ve been mates with the Christians’ Henry Priestman since we were kids, and over the years I’d occasionally dabbled in song-writing.  Henry had done a song for my graduation film, and I’d done some lyrics for it, but it didn’t work.  It only took an half an hour or so to change the subject matter from football to racial prejudice and it promptly became Ideal World, and the royalties certainly helped in what were a few very lean years.  I was about to spend months, sometimes years, writing scripts and not getting a penny, so it was helpful, and lucky, if a little weird, that the time of a tea-break spent on a sideline hobby should keep the wolf from the door.

One of your first films, Blame It On The Bellboy, was one of Dudley Moore’s last. Two questions, really:  How was Dudley Moore to work with? And did you find yourself intimidated by working with him in any way? He was brilliant to work with.  He was a pretty big star to be working with on my first time out, but certainly not intimidating.  He was actually, deep down, quite a serious guy, and I think a little tired of having to be ‘the clown’ all the time.  One of my lasting memories of Bellboy was nipping off set for a smoke. We were shooting in one of the Palaces on the Grand Canal in Venice, and I went up a few floors to get away from everyone.  The further I climbed, the more I could hear this wonderful music.  Eventually, I got to the top, and there was Dudley on his own playing some Bach on a piano.  I apologised for interrupting, but he beckoned me in on the condition that I didn’t ask him to be funny.  The cigarette break lasted about half an hour, my own little private concert.  It was fantastic.

There were indications even back then of what was to come.  He did occasionally slur his words.  I think he got ‘released’ from his next film for supposedly drinking, which I thought was odd at the time because he wasn’t really a drinking man.  It wasn’t long after that when his awful illness was out in the open, and not long after that before he was gone.  A really sad loss, not only to the world of comedy, but to the world of music.

What did you make of the reception to Blame it on the Bellboy?

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Pretty much the same as the reception made of Blame It On The Bellboy.  There were some pretty grim, quite offensive films around at the time and I couldn’t quite work out why it was us that was getting such a hammering.  I remember at a press junket, sitting at a table next to Dudley, and one journalist asking him why, after so many years, does he “continue to do such crap?”.  I had an inkling then that we weren’t going to be up for any Critic’s Awards. After that, you presumably penned the script to Brassed Off? What do you remember about that time?

I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy nobody would touch me with a bargepole.  I couldn’t get arrested.  Over the next few years I had more children than pay cheques, and I only had two children.  Eventually, the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about.  It wasn’t easy to forget about the financial situation, but it was good advice, and it’s where Brassed Off came from. What inspired you to write it, and how tricky was it to balance the comedy and the drama? 

One day I got stuck in a traffic jam on the A1 near Doncaster and decided to try and cut across to the M1.  The drive took me through the town of Grimethorpe.  I used to know the town quite well in the mid-70s in my former life as bacon salesman.  I used to occasionally ‘rep’ in that region, full of then thriving mining communities.  Obviously, I was aware of the ’84 strike, and to a lesser degree the much more recent closures – this was early 90s.  What I hadn’t been aware of was the disastrous effect they had had on the communities.  The Miners’ Strike was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media.  Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it.

I didn’t want to write some dreary political polemic, though, so had to think of something to hide the message behind.  I’d been musing for a while when I heard a radio report about a brass band in the north-east that had had to close down due to lack of subs, and that gave me what I was looking for.  But even then, brass band music isn’t any more appealing to a movie audience than pit closures, so there also needed to be that layer of humour.  And that needed to be very carefully handled.  You don’t want to be making a farce about these people’s very real tragedy.  So that balance of comedy and drama, one that is tricky and one that I work very hard at achieving, was in this instance even more crucial.  The humour in Brassed Off is very dry, very specific to the area in which it’s set.  Much of the humour in that area is almost a self-defence mechanism, especially useful during what were, and still are, pretty hard times.  ‘If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry’ is an oft-used phrase, but there are times and places when it couldn’t be more true.

Was it easy to get funded?

No, funding wasn’t particularly easy.  As a pitch, a tale of suicidal trumpet-blowing miners is hardly mouth-watering.  We looked everywhere, but in the UK could only get the interest of Film Four.  They put up half the money, but we had to go to America for the rest.  To their eternal credit, Harvey Weinstein and Miramax came in with the rest, without altering a word of the script.  After the film came out and was a big success, a whole load of British companies kept coming up and saying “Why didn’t you bring it to us?”.  The answer to which, in every instance, was “We did.” You gathered together a terrific cast on Brassed Off, and Stephen Tompkinson and Pete Postlethwaite in particular are superb in it. How tricky was it to pull that group of actors together?

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Without blowing my own trumpet – sorry! – I think the script seemed to do the trick.  All the actors, not just Stephen and Pete, but also people like Phil Jackson, Sue Johnson, and Ewan McGregor, felt passionately about it.  And once we moved into the area to start filming, they became even more passionate.  The crew, too.  I think they all, like me, had been unaware of the devastation that had happened under our noses without us really being aware, and the atmosphere on set, the passion for the project, grew from day one onwards. Did you realise that you were on to something special with the film?

Not really.  I thought we were making something very special, but something special only a small audience from around a twenty mile radius of Barnsley would appreciate.  To see it reach such a wide audience, to see it touch people as far afield as Europe and even Japan, was very rewarding.  Of course, I saw it play in LA and it was like they were watching a film from Mars, but you can’t have everything.   Are you still in touch with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band? Occasionally.  I’ve been to see them play quite a few times and they’re still the best band in the world.  They still have very affectionate memories of the film, the cast and the crew, and the feeling is mutual.

Brassed Off was successful at international awards ceremonies; how did that affect you, and the kind of work you were offered?

After Bellboy I taught myself not to pay any attention to critics, they don’t know anything.  Of course, when the reviews for Brassed Off came out, that was a difficult policy to uphold.  Critics are marvellous and everything they say is absolutely spot on. 

The international awards and reactions were obviously very pleasing but the only real affect they had on me, though an important one, was to confirm to me that you don’t need to have vast budgets and special effects to touch people, that small films like this can do it.  You see films where entire cities are blown up, thousands die, but you don’t give a monkey’s.  Our biggest special effect was Pete Postlethwaite on a bicycle, but for some reason this one moved people.  It was back to the original agent’s advice, don’t concern yourself with how many tickets the film will sell, just care about it and the rest will hopefully look after itself.

From Brassed Off, you then moved on to Little Voice, another superb production, that you took over after Sam Mendes had moved on. How much of it was in place when you took it over and what brought you to the film?Elizabeth Karlsen, the producer, asked me in after Sam Mendes had left the project.  He’d gone over to do American Beauty.  What an awful career move that was!   Again, Harvey Weinstein at Miramax was involved, and I suppose with Brassed Off dealing with northern grit and music and all that, I was perhaps naturally on his list of possible replacements.  There had been a few screenplays.  Jim Cartwright  – who wrote the original play – had done one, and so had Sam.  I felt they were all a bit stage-bound so felt I could only direct it if I could have a fresh run at the screenplay.  There were also some casting issues to agree upon.  I had heard some ugly rumours and wanted to be absolutely sure Jane Horrocks would be playing Little Voice, otherwise the project didn’t appeal to me.  The rumours were that it was to be set in America, with an American cast, and having been knocked out by the stage play a couple of years earlier, I couldn’t quite get a grasp on that. There are, again, some super performances in Little Voice. Jane Horrocks is gobsmacking in it, and Michael Caine puts in a better turn than the one that won him an Oscar a year or two later. ere you disappointed that America didn’t give the pair, and the film in general, the recognition it warranted?

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Well they both got Golden Globe nominations, and Michael won, and Brenda got an Oscar nomination, so hardly cause for complaint.  Michael went for Best Actor for the Oscars – he said he’d already got a Supporting Actor one so didn’t need another – but if he’d gone for Supporting I think he’d have had a good chance.  James Coburn won that that year for Affliction, which I don’t remember.If my chronology is right, you were working with Ewan McGregor around the time he got the Star Wars role? Is that true, and if so, did that have any impact?

He came straight off Star Wars to do Little Voice.  Straight from lightsabers in Hollywood to pigeons in Scarborough.   I think he loved the change.  I think after the hectic time he’d had over there the notion of sitting in a pub in an off-season seaside resort and occasionally doing a bit of acting with someone like Jane was a bit of a Godsend for him. How do you feel about the warm reception for both Little Voice and Brassed Off in particular, and how well they’ve endured?

As I’ve said, it’s very rewarding.  It’s good that so long after the fact we’re still here talking about them.  But then, I suppose we’ve also been talking about Blame It On The Bellboy.  After Brassed Off and Little Voice, I’d imagine you would have had quite a choice ahead of you. Did you deliberately go for something smaller, with Purely Belter? I don’t really know why, I just felt at the time I wanted to step back a bit and do a much smaller film, perhaps with no big stars in.  I was sent the novel Season Ticket by Jonathan Tulloch, and really enjoyed it, and I really enjoyed adapting it for the screen.  After working with the likes of Ewan and Michael Caine, it was also interesting to work with a couple of kids who’d never really been in front of a camera before.  It was never going to be a hit on the same scale as the two previous films, but again it was a film I really cared about and enjoyed making.

In Brassed Off, there was a passion for music, in Purely Belter, a passion for football. Are these the kind of stories you look for?

I guess I’ve already answered that question?  It’s a great deal easier to find projects that deal with my passion for music than it is to find ones that deal with my passion for football.

I support Hull City, and have done for over forty years.  It’s interesting that at the time of ‘Purely Belter’, which dealt with the riches of the Premier League and the way it prices out the ‘ordinary man’, the People’s Game no longer being accessible to the People, Hull City were at the bottom of the bottom division and there was absolutely no trouble getting a season ticket, in fact you’d probably be sectioned if you applied for one.  Now, only a few years later, we’re in the Premier League and I see the same thing happening at my own club. I’ve read one or two interviews about your time on Hope Springs, and it comes across as a difficult shoot? as it, and what are your memories of the film?

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My abiding memory is rain.  Something like 48 days out of a 50 day shoot we had rain.  Not just rain, but heavy rain.  That was the only real difficulty.  Everything else seemed to go okay, it’s just that bad weather has a big knock on effect, not just on the schedule, which we somehow managed to keep to, but also on morale.  It was all a bit Dunkirk on occasion, but it doesn’t seem to show on the final product. Hope Springs saw you working with Heather Graham at a time when her star was sky high. Does that change the working mechanic in any way?

No, not really.  Colin Firth was also sky high at the time.  Again they were both very professional and a delight to work with.

It also saw you shoot in the States for the first time. Was it an American project you were looking for?

Well, it was Canada, actually.  And an Ealing production for Disney.  Again, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, American or otherwise.  I just got sent the novel by Charles Webb, whose The Graduate is an all time favourite of mine, and it really appealed to me.  I suppose I was interested in trying my hand at a romantic comedy, but not of the slushy variety so prevalent at the time.  This was quite quirky, at times off the wall, and that was what appealed to me.  I don’t think quite enough of that quirkiness survived the process, but it’s still pretty off-beat.  I think in that respect it was largely misunderstood.  People looked at it as just another rom-com when in fact it’s a bit less conventional than that. What brought you to your new film, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas? Can you tell us about it?

For all that I’ve been saying about making films that you care about, I suppose this is the epitome.   I was very moved by John Boyne’s novel.  If you don’t know it, it deals with matters far less frivolous than disenfranchised miners or dysfunctional, reclusive singers.  In fact it deals with a subject so powerful and so sensitive that it’s notoriously difficult to successfully depict it on a movie screen.  Having said that, the unique angle that John had taken – the Holocaust seen through the innocent eyes of not only a young child, but a young German child – I found really fascinating.  I found the book very moving, and I thought if we could transfer even a fraction of that emotion onto a screen then this would be a film really worth making. 

I was surprised at the time that nobody had snapped up the film rights already.  I put this down most obviously to the subject matter.  It’s by no means an easy story, and I imagine a lot of film studios might have decided that by far the easiest thing to do is to stay clear.  I suppose, in a way, that is exactly why I was interested.  This is a difficult story to tell, but one with enormous heart and passion, and the challenge of adapting it, and then directing it, was a challenge that I didn’t want to let pass.  I also felt that certain film studios might feel differently about investing in the film if they read it as a screenplay rather than a novel – they sometimes find it easier that way.  The only way of making that happen, though, was to take the risk and buy the film rights myself, which is what I did in the summer of 2005.  Once I’d bought the rights and written the screenplay, I took it to Miramax, who immediately made the decision to finance the film.  Rather than see the subject matter as in any way a problem, I think they suddenly agreed that this had the makings of a very special film.  Which is what I think we’ve made.  It comes out in the UK on September 12th, so people can judge for themselves. Finally, according to the oracle of everything, Wikipedia, you’re a pencil collector. Is this true, and if so, what’s the most you’ve paid for a pencil?

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For some reason, I see this has now been removed by the Guardians of Fact of said oracle on the possibly misguided presumption that it is false.  As for that price, mind your own business.

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