We speak to director Craig Roberts about his new film The Phantom Of The Open and the movies that inspired him. 

Craig Roberts had never intended to direct someone else’s script. Having segued from his acting career into writing and directing, he had two films under his belt that he’d penned himself: 2015’s Just Jim and 2019’s Eternal Beauty. And then he read Simon Farnaby’s script for what would become The Phantom Of The Open.

It’s a 1970s-set movie telling the real life story of Maurice Flitcroft, a man who managed to blag his way into the British Open golf championships, in spite of never having played the game in his life.

“I had a pretentious idea that I’d be an author that would write his own stuff. And then that would be it. To be honest, it was silly”, he grins as we chat. “And when I read Simon’s script, number one I loved how accessible and just commercial it was. It felt really big to me, even though it’s a small story. It felt huge, and it felt like it could transcend the place it’s in, and I haven’t really written anything like that before, and don’t know if I ever will”.

He contrasts it with his earlier films, that he argues don’t have that much story in them, but they’re more character studies. “I compare them to first person computer games, where it’s like Grand Theft Auto, walking around and what have you. And when I read this, there’s so much story in there, I was overwhelmed with it, with excitement”.

And the human reaction to Flitcroft’s tale? “Fair play! I loved that he believed in himself that much, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was a real dreamer. I’ve been using a strange reference recently, but I’ve been watching the Kanye West documentary, and he reminds me of him. Not in his views, but more in the beginning of his career, he believed he was going to be as good and popular as he is now in terms of his music. I think that’s a wonderful thing to have – I question myself every day! I’m a card-carrying member of the imposter syndrome society. I really love seeing people who really believed in themselves”.

When he landed the job of directing the film, Roberts has talked already about how he sought Mark Rylance to take the role of Maurice. He was surprised to learn from Rylance that he’d never been offered a comedy role like this before – “but we didn’t want to frame him like Rupert Pupkin”, grins Roberts, for The King Of Comedy fans. Roberts wrote Rylance a letter and chatted about the tone of the movie on the phone too before he signed on. The idea that Rylance would play it serious, and that’d help make the comedy sing. He didn’t talk to him directly about this, but he cites Robert De Niro’s performance in Meet The Parents as a cast-iron example of how well playing against type can work. “He grounds it and makes it real”, he argues.

Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft (left) in The Phantom Of The Open

Roberts has cited the work of Paul Thomas Anderson as a touchpoint for how he shot The Phantom Of The Open, in particular how much the camera moves when he goes outdoors to shoot the golf scenes in the movie. He admits that he’d been taken to task for the films he references in his earlier work – “I know what filmmakers I love, and maybe I showed that a little too much” – but here, he wanted to capture the movement of something like Boogie Nights. He also didn’t watch any films immediately ahead of making this one, nor as he went into post-production. He’d kept in mind films such as Punch-Drunk Love and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But he also followed his own track more.

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In fact, they used lots of a different kind of track on the shoot of this one. To facilitate the camera moves, plenty of track had to be laid down. “A
person standing in a green field can become very boring very quickly. The golf was a challenge, and movies like Catch Me If You Can and stuff like that felt appropriate really: move the camera as much as possible. Go with the rhythm of the music, and make it feel as kinetic as possible”.

What they couldn’t really do with the movie was put it in front of a test audience. There was one they could do, but the vast majority of decisions had to be made on gut instinct. There’s a sequence when Maurice takes his first shot at the Open that’s really quite something, and that was a moment that was heavily debated. “We tested it once, but not with many people in there. It was a lot of trying to step away from it. We’ve been with it for so long!”

One more thing to look at should you check the film out: the colour palette, as it was in Eternal Beauty, is very specific. But Roberts, with a huge smile, reveals that the palette is reflecting Richard Donner’s Superman movies. “You know, it doesn’t make that much sense to anybody that doesn’t hear this, but when I read the script, there was a moment where he opens his overalls like Superman, and that was amazing to me. His dog is the same dog that Superman had, and at the beginning of the movie you can see a comet shoot to the Earth, and that’s him. The number plate is his Kryptonian name and stuff like that”.

“Strange little Easter eggs that nobody will care about”, he smiles, with justifiable pride.

Next for Roberts now that The Phantom Of The Open is finally opening? Well, there’s playing a whole host of PlayStation games first and foremost. Then, once he’s earned a few more trophies there, he’s making his fourth film as director, Honey, this summer. It’s a relationship drama, and on the basis of his work to date, it’s already worth popping on your radar.

For now, The Phantom Of The Open is a real treat. And it heads into UK cinemas today.

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