In 2005, Michael Winterbottom directed the period comedy Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which was a movie-in-a-movie adaptation of the British tome that reteamed him with Steve Coogan following 24 Hour Party People. People who saw the movie walked away from it charmed by the interplay between Coogan and British comic Rob Brydon, who was and still is virtually unknown on this side of the pond despite being hugely popular in Britain.
Now, Coogan and Brydon have been reunited for The Trip, a pseudo-documentary about the duo’s trip through Northern England visiting various restaurants and landmarks, which ran in the UK as a six-episode series and Winterbottom has cut down to a two-hour film that’s being released in the States. Most people who see it will think that it’s a real documentation of the trip and all its highs and lows, but it’s very much a showcase for the comic talents of the duo and their strained relationship as they each deal with the other’s quirks and trying to balance their respective statuses in the world of entertainment. Besides being one of the funniest movies of the year–most of that coming from their dueling impressions of the likes of Michael Caine, Pacino and others–it’s also one filled with poignancy, making you wonder how much of it Winterbottom pulled from out of his frequent collaborators’ real personalities.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with the two comics for a rousing 20-minute interview where they got into the nitty-gritty of doing comedy and how working with Winterbotton on The Trip was unlike anything else they’d ever done before. And really, they are so much like the “characters” they play in the movie as they banter back and forth riffing, that it’s even more amazing how perfectly Winterbottom captures that in The Trip.
ComingSoon.net: It’s an amazing film; I’ve seen it a couple times now. I was impressed because I spoke to Michael maybe a year ago and he mentioned doing something with you two, and he was very laissez faire about it, but then five months later it was done and at Toronto
Rob Brydon: (laughs) That’s Michael.
Steve Coogan: Yeah, I know, I know.
CS: It’s coming out at an interesting time when people are questioning “What’s a doc? What’s fiction, what’s non-fiction?” There was the Banksy movie and “Catfish”
Coogan: Oh, yes, yes. “Catfish,” yeah.
Brydon: (sort of to Steve) Did you see “Catfish”? It was the thing about Facebook. Julia (Rob’s wife) saw it, and she thought it was great but then I read stuff about it and now they’re not sure if it was a con or not.
Coogan: Oh, it’s the one online about the kid and the relationship.
CS: Yeah, that one. So how did this come together? Were you actually writing an article for a magazine at any time?
Brydon: It was Michael’s idea. We had done “A Cock and Bull Story” together and there were two little improvised scenes
Coogan: He wanted to invent a reason why I would have to have Rob accompany me, not with great enthusiasm, and carry on this, “Well, we’re not very close friends, we’re sort of friends but not close friends in reality” and Michael wanted to preserve that and justify a reason why Rob and I would have to travel around together, and then use the elements of ourselves which we tapped into for “Cock and Bull Story” to build on that and try and make some sort of narrative about it, but it was Michael’s idea. Michael wants to get the thing off the ground. We were reluctant. We didn’t think there was enough to it.
Brydon: There was no script, you see, that was scary.
Coogan: But there was a treatment he came up with, and the treatment started to look interesting. We had worked with him before, and we’d never done this with any other director and we knew that Michael was capable of pulling something out. I’ve done two other films with him that seemed slightly chaotic to the untrained eye, as mine was then, as it were. But he seems to fashion something out of this miasma, so I thought he’s as good a bet. If this is going to work with anyone, it’s going to work with him, and Bob and I were eventually persuaded to give it a shot, and I thought, “Well, let’s just have a shot.” We still had the reservations but we thought it wasn’t going to kill us if it doesn’t work
Brydon: That uncertainty also made it exciting.
Coogan: Yes, there was also a little bit of “Oooh ” (to Rob) I remember saying to you,”It could be really good, it’s one of those things.”
CS: We see a lot of independent filmmakers who have these inexpensive digital cameras and make these improvised movies, but he had the BBC pick it up as a show, so he must have sold others on doing it to finance it.
Coogan: Well, no, it’s very simple. What we did was we went to the BBC, all of us, and said, “Do you want this? There’s no script but it’s got me and him and Michael’s directing it and it’s sort of about this,” and they’re, “Mmm, ah, um, go on then” and they, probably reluctantly, chucked some money at us, knowing that we’d spend on the making the film or TV series as it were. I think It was sort of a cheap way of making a film, because he got a series out of it and a film about it, cause he said, “We’ll get the money from the BBC, we’ll turn it into a TV series, and we’ll make a movie out of it, so we’ll get two fo the price of one.” That’s being simplistic, but that’s sort of but also he thought no one’s made two things out of one thing before, so it was all premeditated.
CS: And I assume it came together rather organically. Did he approach the two of you together or separately?
Coogan: Yeah, together.
Brydon: Yeah, yeah, because I think we all wanted to do something after “A Cock and Bull Story”
Coogan: “Let’s do something else. It’s been too long ”
Brydon: “What are we going to do? What are going to do?” Then he came up and said, “Well, I got this idea. You’re going to go to restaurants.” And my reaction was, “I dunno. There’s no script.” I know we’d improvised some of “Cock and Bull Story” but the whole thing? But then the more we talked and talked about how the food would play a role, how the landscape would play a role, what the themes would be about relationshipsI’m the family man, Steven’s having relationship troubleswe’re both in this mid-life situation. There’s lots more to it than sitting doing Michael Caine impressions. He said to me that he’d want the impressions. The funny thing about Michael is that if you look a lot of his serious films like “Guantanamo” and “The Killer Inside Me” and yet my memory of him with his headphones on and his monitor is “Do more impressions,” which you wouldn’t believe of the man if you looked at his output. He makes a very creative atmosphere, a very safe atmosphere where you’re willing to try and fail.
Coogan: You get comfortablewell, I’ve certainly found that with Michaelwith not being entirely sure what you’re doing. For a comic, it’s very, very unnerving, but at the same time liberating, because when you get down to it, most conventional comedy inverted commasor the comedy we’re doing when we’re not working with Michael Winterbottom, it’s about being very specific about comic moments and knowing that that has to be there and there has to be a beat there and a pause there. It’s all quiet mathematical sometimes, a combination of maths and music, most conventional comedy is really. There’s certain rhythms to it, but with Michael, you’re sort of happy to let go and not be entirely sure what you’re doing and enjoying that random feeling of chance about things.
Brydon: Yeah, yeah.
CS: It must be amazing to see the final movie and how he edited it together.
Brydon: Yeah, it was wonderful, and the use of Michael Nyman’s music, I thought that brings another layer again to it, the wonderful way he composed his landscape shots.
Coogan: If you try for example to have me my phone would never work in the hotel. To deliberately say you’d have me whenever I was on the phone against beautiful backdrops, so he just invented the factit was true sometimesthat I could never get a signal in the hotel
Brydon: Then actually it’s outdoors and you’re getting those shots, because you could have easily done it .
Coogan: In the bedroom.
Brydon: He could have just used the landline in the bedroom, but he took us out and he got some fantastic shots, but that whole part of England, specifically the Lake District, also the Yorkshiredales, but specifically the Lake District has a magical other-worldliness to it, and it’s quite a splendid place, it really is.
Coogan: It’s not forgotten, because lots of tourists go there, but it’s all, on and of itself, it’s on a slight peninsula, so you don’t go through it. If you’re going from England to Scotland, you bypass it.
Brydon: You have to go to it.
Coogan: Yeah, and because it’s a national park, it’s sort of preserved in formaldehyde, so you sort of slightly step back in the past. It’s where all the romantics it’s where hiking was invented. Most people attribute it to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who decided to walk for pleasure, for no other reason than to walk, for its sake, and he did that with Wordsworth, so it’s sort of where the birth of hill-walking and hiking originated.
Brydon: (joking, we think) Bungee-jumping as well. No, that was Byron.
Coogan: And Shelley was famous of quad-biking.
Brydon: Quad-biking, and wasn’t Shelley the one who brought in all the rules of wearing a helmet?
Coogan: Yeah, that’s right.
CS: Wow, I learned something new there. In the movie, you both seem very knowledgeable about Coleridge and the history of that area, so did you do any kind of research or studying or did you know a lot of stuff from university?
Brydon: (Steve)’s a very well-read man.
Coogan: I was slightly miffed by the fact that Michael wanted to give Look, I’m supposed to know a lot about geology and I don’t. I have a very, very rudimentary knowledge of geology. I get by in a conversationI’m not completely stupidbut I was supposed to know about geology and I didn’t, that was manufactured. I was more annoyed obviouslyit didn’t bother Rob but it slightly bothered meI did know a little bit about Lake District poets and the romantics, and it was made to look like Rob knew more, which was genuinely manufactured, because Rob knows something but he certainly doesn’t know the poets to the extent that he quoted them on the trip. That was basically provided for him, and in fact, I sort of sabotaged him at Bolton Abbey where I said, “Did you stay up all night learning that so you could make me look stupid?” Which is sort of partly true. (Brydon laughs in amusement at this story.) That was a bit frustrating, but that frustration is fine, because you make it work for you.
Brydon: I don’t really know that much about wine, but I know what I like.
CS: Does Michael know a lot about food and he picked all of the restaurants himself?
Coogan: He did pick them and he’s from the North. Part of his mission was to rid people of the cliché of the North being a very dull working class, bleak, uninteresting a cliché that people in the South of England have about the North, so he wanted to kill that myth.
Brydon: You know the funny thing was that there was some hotels and restaurants that refused. They didn’t want to take part, because they were worried there was no script
Coogan: Oh, really?
Brydon:Yes, they didn’t know how their restaurant would come across, but since it has gone out, the business in all the hotels has gone WOOSH! Oh, yeah. There are people on the internet I’ve read that are following the same route, filming themselves, talking like us across tables.
CS: Right, I noticed in the press notes, they had all the web addresses for all these establishments
Brydon: Some of their websites crashed, and they made more money from bookings in a week than they normally have in a month, all that kind of stuff.
Coogan: Yeah, and I’m really pleased for them, but slightly sort of miffed for all of the other places that sort of struggle that are just as good. There are other places we could have gone, but
Brydon: They had their chance, Steve.
Coogan: The thing is that you’re right because they stuck their neck out
Brydon: Yeah, they took a chance, they did.
Coogan: Which is slightly what we do with this. If you think you’ve got the chops, then do it cause life ain’t the rehearsal. There you go. Write that down.
Brydon: That’s something profound. It’s a performance, is that what you’re saying? I don’t understand what you mean.
Coogan: Oh, shut up.
Brydon: Is it a tech run?
Coogan: There’s a chutzpah and a carpe diem about the restaurant’s approach that echoes our approach to the work.
Brydon: (still riffing) Let’s clear this up. Is it the read-through or just a meeting?
Coogan: (seemingly getting annoyed) Oh, yeah, alright. Oy, okay? It works, it works.
Brydon: That’s funny.
CS: When I heard you two were having lunch earlier, I thought that some people might assume you’re filming a sequel to “The Trip.” How worrying is it that Michael knows you both so well that he knows he can give each of you something to do or say that will set the other one off or vice versa?
Brydon: He would throw things in, wouldn’t he? A little bit like we’re performing seals. He’d throw us a pitch there.
Coogan: It was a bit like that, that we were the monkeys to his organ grinder, but
Brydon: (laughs at some inside joke he was about to make)
Coogan: Don’t. I like to think of myself as his muse, I suppose. I think there is something to that, sort of a male heterosexual muse.
Brydon: Or his performing monkey.
Coogan: Or his performing monkey. (laughs)
CS: You played a bit with your image in “Coffee and Cigarettes” which was a while ago. This one, you do a bit more of that, but how far can you take that before
Coogan: Well, I thought we’d taken it as far as we could already before we did this, to be honest.
Brydon: Which is one of the reasons why we were reluctant to do it.
Coogan: “We’ve done this. We’re flogging this f*cking this thing about me playing me. It’s like change the record,” but he was like, “No, it will be more than that.” He satisfied that. How much further can we take it? If it’s really good, you can do another one. If you do another one that’s really good, you clearly can take it further, if you do another one that’s bad, then clearly we couldn’t. At what point do you decide ? I don’t know. You can do something that’s similar, but you have to change it slightly, do something different, inject something new into it.
CS: But I think if people see this movie, they’ll think, “Steve Coogan is someone who sleeps with any woman that comes along.” Is that amusing to you that this might be perceived by people, especially in America?
Coogan: I mean, they’re wrong, because that’s only partly true. The way I come acrossand Rob said it in a different wayis an exaggeration of who we are, but if people do think that I used to be, but I’m not anymore, pre-occupied with what people think of me as long as the people in my life If people go around worrying about whether they come across as politicians do this. They think if they reveal a flaw in their character, somehow they are ergo a failure, but it doesn’t bother me that people think I’m imperfect, it doesn’t really bother me. If somebody will think I’m a complete twat, as long as they’re not people in my life, and they don’t affect my employment prospects, then I really don’t mind.
CS: But while you were shooting the movie, were there ever any concerns like, “Okay, Michael, this is going too far”?
Coogan: Yeah, yeah, sure, I think there was, but at one point you just have to go, “Okay, that’s just ” but it wasn’t really Michael, it was Rob and I with each other. Michael would probably do anything.
Brydon: Yeah, he would.
Coogan: Yeah, there were things we talked about, and we’d decide if we’d do this or we’d do that, or “Let’s not do this.” I’m a bit more relaxed than I was, but yes, there were times where we thought we’d crossed the line, but we felt safe, because we knew it was in our control to veto something if we didn’t like it.
CS: The strange thing is that I haven’t seen the actual show, but I’ve only seen the two-hour movie a couple times, which has a really beautiful arc, so I wasn’t sure how it would work as a half-hour serialized show.
Coogan: It’s interesting. Neil Gibbons (British comedy writer) said he preferred it as a movie.
Brydon: Oh, did he really?
Coogan: Most of the people who’ve seen the TV series first prefer that, because each week it was a different restaurant, six restaurant, six episodeseach one with the name of the restaurant, that was an episode, with certain tight diversions within it. People really enjoyed spending a half hour in our company, they looked forward to the next weekthat’s the impression I got. “Oh, good. I can spend another half an hour with Steve and Rob, even if it sort of the same thing.” They looked forward to spending time with us and having a laugh and reflecting on things. I think that was part of the charm.
Brydon: It being the same each week is in the conversations, and in fact, we say at one point, “We have the same conversations” but that’s life, isn’t it?
Coogan: Yes, absolutely. If anything, that’s what made me think the film wouldn’t work, because, “Well, half an hour of conversations then a week later, you have another half hour that’s the same, and that’s nice, but an hour 40 of just us gassing on? It’s like poof.”
CS: So stuff like the dream sequences were those done just for the movie?
Brydon: No, that’s in the show.
Coogan: That’s on TV as well.
CS: Oh, it is. I hope they release the show in some form here. I assume BBC America might show them
Brydon: Well, you can get the DVD if you want to see it.
Coogan: Can you get it in America?
Brydon: Well, you can buy it on the net
Coogan: No, what I mean is you can’t buy it in American format here yet before the film. Once the film is out, I’m sure they’ll it would be wise.
Brydon: I wonder if when they release the film on DVD here, maybe they’ll do a two-disc set and put on the episodes as well.
Coogan: Well, that would be great. I’d buy that even if I wasn’t in it.
Brydon: I wouldn’t buy it if I wasn’t in it, but
Coogan: You can borrow it.
Brydon: I’d borrow it, yeah.
CS: Where do you guys go from here, either alone or together? I saw “My Idiot Brother” at Sundance which I loved.
Coogan: Really? I haven’t seen it yet.
CS: It went over really well at Sundance, and I hope the Weinsteins will do well by it because I think it’s hilarious.
Coogan: I think they cut my penis from the movie.
CS: Oh, that’s right, you have some nudity in the movie.
Coogan: I do, I do. I have full frontal nudity.
Brydon: But it’s gone, is it?
Coogan: No, my arse is still in but my penis is gone, which I’m genuinely disappointed with.
Brydon: (always with the joke) Awww it’s not a big thing.
CS: (awkwardly) It had a good reaction at Sundance, your penis.
Brydon: His penis was at Sundance.
Coogan: It’s in the Sundance version, yeah. (Explains to Rob the joke he makes that exposes himself.)
CS: Do you have other projects you’re developing?
Coogan: I’m doing a bunch of stuff. I’m writing a couple of screenplays and I’m doing the (Alan) Partridge movie, I’m doing some Alan Partridge websites. I’m writing an Alan Partridge book, but I’m doing lots of other things other than Alan Partridge but mainly Alan Partridge.
Brydon: I’m involved in a few pyramid-selling schemes in the UK where if you can sell a certain amount each month from the people you employee underneath you. It’s kind of Tupperware, plastics that’s not true. I’m making that up.
Coogan: I was thinking, “Oh, he’s doing one of those things again, I can help him out now!”
I can put a fuel on there and keep it burning.
Brydon: I’m doing a stageplay with Kenneth Branagah. (This part is true, we asked him about it and he talked about it here.)
Coogan: Yeah, that’s good. I’m shooting in July in New York with Julianne Moore and Evan Rachel Wood. I’m playing her husband in a movie called “Maysie” in Manhattan
Brydon: I’m writing and publishing my autobiography.
Coogan: Hey, hey, hey!
Brydon: But you said it? Now you.
Coogan: So Julianne Moore and Evan Rachel Wood, you got that down, right? (Note: It’s actually called What Maisie Knew, a modern adaptation of Henry James’ 19th Century novel directed by Scott McGeehee and David Siegel of The Deep End; Wood isn’t confirmed yet, but Coogan and Moore are a married couple going through a custody battle for the 6-year-old title character after marrying someone younger. Moore marries a man played by “True Blood” star Alexander Skarsgard, while Coogan? Well, we’ll just have to see if it’s Wood or another actress.)
CS: You have a really good relationship with New York, so have you done any theater here?
Coogan: Never done theater, but I did the Will Ferrell movie here with Adam McKay (The Other Guys).
Brydon: I did “The Merchant of Venice” here. Well, I saw it. Pacino, I did that for one night.
The Trip opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.