From director Declan Lowney, Alan Partridge is the big-screen story of the character that first appeared over 20 years ago as a BBC sports reporter on the radio show, On The Hour. Since then, the wonderfully conceited and quirky comic creation has been the host of his own TV chat show and the star of a sitcom. Now, Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) finds himself at the center of a siege when disgruntled fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) decides to hold their station hostage after learning that he’s getting fired by the new management.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Declan Lowney talked about how he came to be directing the big-screen story of Alan Partridge, how working with Steve Coogan on this character is almost like co-directing with him, the challenges of expanding this character for film, giving the film a sense of jeopardy, getting so many versions of things from Steve Coogan to choose from later, why this is such a lasting character, and how there’s already talk of a sequel. He also talked about the ABC comedy pilot that he’s directing, called Damaged Goods, and why he wanted to work in American television. Check out our Declan Lowney interview after the jump.
DECLAN LOWNEY: I’ve been a fan of Partridge from the early days. It’s been around for 20 years, and I’ve been in England that long. When I moved to London, Partridge was just starting, so I’ve been a fan, all that time. I’ve worked with Steve [Coogan] a few times, in the part. I had just finished shooting something in Ireland with him for Moone Boy, the Chris O’Dowd show. He did a cameo in that, and a lot of people didn’t actually realize it was him because he played it so believably Irish. And he asked me just after that. I’ve always gotten on with him. One of the things I like about Steve is that, as a performer, he needs to be protected sometimes from the mechanics of the process. Within days of starting the shoot of this movie, he thought the script wasn’t funny enough and he wanted to start rewriting it. So, we gave him the space where he could rewrite it at night and bring in pages in the morning, and we’d then shoot those pages.
There were times we didn’t really know what was happening, but it was important to let him do that. That was the only way it was going to happen. So, he wasn’t difficult. He just said, “This isn’t funny enough. I know I can make it funnier. I just need time.” He did Philomena with Judi Dench, which wasn’t supposed to happen as early as it did. She became available, and he pushed up the production of that movie forward and pushed Alan Partridge back three months, so there was a bit of waiting around. But he literally came straight from that onto Partridge and because of that, he hadn’t been as involved as he should have been and wanted to be with the script. It took him quite awhile to get up to speed on it. You have to protect that and acknowledge that and look after him, in that regard.
When you work with an actor like that, who has played a character for so long, does it feel almost like you’re co-directing with him?
LOWNEY: Well, absolutely! After two or three takes, I’d go, “I think we’ve got it,” and he’d go, “No we haven’t. It’s not there. I know I can do better.” He’s a very good judge of knowing when the character has and hasn’t performed to the best of his ability. That’s all in his head. There’s no point in me telling him to do something differently. If you’ve got a suggestion, he’ll listen, if it’s a way of making it funnier. But, it is all inside his head.
LOWNEY: It feels like a natural extension of the character. He has a huge fan base. As well as having broad appeal, the character does have a nerdy audience that has followed him for so long, and they’re very loyal fans. He’s always been keen to make sure that they’re catered to first. He wants to make Alan interesting enough for the fans, and make sure he’s slightly quirky and a bit weird. Often when a sitcom gets a big budget and goes to do a movie, they do crazy stuff that the characters wouldn’t really do. They take them out of their environment and transport them to New York or Hollywood. But this film is very funny because nothing unusual happens to Alan. He’s still at home. He’s still doing his radio show. Life is as boring as ever. And then, this weird thing happens and he wanders into it. A lot of making this work, for me as a director, was about unlearning stuff that we already knew. You always want to make stuff look good, but we strived to keep the Partridge messiness. Things aren’t neat. Things aren’t packaged. Things fall apart. That’s what they love and look for with Alan Partridge. As a director, you always want things to look good. You’re always trying to make things look tidy. That’s what we’re all trained to do. With this, we had to unlearn a lot of that. We had to do the opposite and subvert everything. We made it about the most basic thing.
LOWNEY: That was a fine balance. For the film to have any jeopardy, you had to believe that character could flip, at any minute, and shoot somebody. And I think Colm Meaney did that so brilliantly well. The scenes on the pier at the end are the perfect balance, with Alan carrying on being a buffoon, even though the man standing up to him is talking about his dead wife and how he scattered her ashes there. It’s such a lovely coming together of the two strands of comedy and drama, and Colm Meaney was fantastic at keeping that balance. You believe that guy could flip out, at any minute, but you also feel for him. Your heart goes out to him because his story is very poignant and very sad. At this time, with the economy, people are being let go and TV and radio has become homogenized. People can identify with that and understand why Pat has done what he’s done. You feel for him.
When you have someone like Steve Coogan, who likes to just keep going and gives you so many versions of things, does that ultimately make it easier or more challenging to edit the film together later?
LOWNEY: Well, it certainly gives you lots of options. The film was an hour longer than it is now, when we first cut it. It was almost three hours. Anything that wasn’t up to scratch just went. And the great thing about having so many choices is that you could cherry pick the best moments and construct the story around that a bit. There was a lot of rewriting and writing and stuff just didn’t pay off sometimes, and a lot of the edit was about making those things come together. I would say that it made it easier, ultimately, but it did mean that we had a lot of material to wade through.
LOWNEY: It’s so layered and nuanced and textured, on Steve’s part, with the amount of detail he puts in there. Certainly in Britain, a lot of men of his age really get every little nuance and detail. He’s such a brilliant observer of character and of people. He plays a buffoon, but you actually love the guy and you feel for him. Because he’s deluded, you go, “Oh, the poor guy,” when he does the wrong thing. I think you feel a lot for the character, and that’s part of Steve’s gift. He can play a buffoon, but make you love him.
Do you worry about the humor translating for and appealing to audiences in other countries, or do you think the universal aspects that you can relate to will help audiences in other countries to get it too?
LOWNEY: I think there’s enough universality in the character. Small town radio is [in the States], as much as it’s in the U.K., and it’s full of people like that who have a very solid opinion of themselves. He was very keen that we didn’t dumb down or try to pander to a foreign audience. We made this film for the fans and for new people, but in the U.K. We didn’t really try to accommodate other audiences. It’s lovely to let the other audiences come to find the film. And there are enough intelligent viewers out there who love comedy, who will find this and make it work for themselves. It’s never going to have broad appeal here.
What is it that ultimately makes you decide to sign on for a project?
LOWNEY: It would have been very hard to say no to Partridge because every comedy director in Britain wanted the gig. It was very coveted, and it wasn’t something I could turn down. I knew it was going to be a bloody nightmare and I knew it was going to be extraordinarily hard work, and it was, but we all came out the other end and we’re still friends, and we’ve got a very funny film to show, as a result. I think it’s fantastic that people [in the States] are getting it. It’s a great 90 minutes of fun.
LOWNEY: There’s talk of a sequel. I think he’ll only do it when he’s ready to do it. But in the meantime, I’m carrying on doing comedy. I love comedy. It’s where my heart is. Moone Boy is getting popular here, as well. It’s a real buzz to see your work traveling and to see people in different countries getting it.
And you’re directing an ABC show?
LOWNEY: Yeah, it’s called Damaged Goods and it’s written by Lauren Iungerich, who did the MTV sitcom Awkward. It’s a 30-something girl comedy, and I’m very excited about it. It’s only the pilot, so we don’t know yet if it’s going to series, but I’m shooting that.
If it does go to series, will you be involved and direct more episodes?
LOWNEY: I’d hope to come back and set it up and do the first few episodes. It’s great to be with a show like that at the beginning.
What attracted you to that show? Had you been looking to do comedy in the States?
LOWNEY: Yeah, I really wanted to do some work over here. The cross-over between TV and film here is very exciting. I would love to work over here. What I learned from the Partridge experience really was what I can contribute to someone like Steve, and there are a lot of people here who write and create their own material. In a way, they’re directing themselves, but they need a director to work with to realize their vision. That’s the sort of thing that I wanted to do more of, and I thought there was an opportunity to do that here. So, on the way to doing that, Damaged Goods came along and I thought it was a really good show to be involved in.
Alan Partridge ia now playing in theaters.