From director Toby Haynes and screenwriter James Graham, the biographical drama Brexit (airing on HBO and available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On-Demand) connects all of the dots to illustrate how Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), the lead strategist of the Vote Leave campaign, launched a micro-targeted social media campaign that played on emotion rather than facts to convince British voters to leave the European Union. The result and the consequences of this referendum campaign are still playing out in Britain today, and will have an effect long into the future.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, screenwriter/playwright James Graham talked about the challenges of explaining what Brexit is and how it happened, in such a limited amount of time, why he thinks it’s important to tell this story now, what made Dominic Cummings the focus and point of view of his this film, the approach Benedict Cumberbatch took with his performance, how it felt to have the first draft of his script stolen and leaked online, and what he’s working on next.
Collider: First of all, thank you for giving me a better understanding of what Brexit is and what it means, with this film. As an American, that was much appreciated.
JAMES GRAHAM: We spend most of our time here in the UK not understanding it either. It’s absolutely bizarre and crazy, especially this week. So, you’re welcome.
What were the biggest challenges in getting across what Brexit is and what it means in a script, in such a limited amount of time?
GRAHAM: Good question. The first challenge is how partisan this issue is. There was no appetite, from me or any of the program makers, at all, to make a show for one particular side or the other. And if we’re being brutally honest, the expectations, from a playwright and a director and a broadcaster like HBO and Channel 4, was that it would be a Remain show for a Remain audience, made by Liberal progressive metropolitan elites, so it was a fight against that. I come from a mining town in the north of the country, and the majority there voted to Leave, so I wanted to try to give each side an equal hearing and compartmentalize my own natural political baggage. This is a story that is very complex and hasn’t finished yet, and it won’t finish, for many years and decades to come. I believe, very passionately, that this is the right time to be doing it because you want to contribute to the national conversation and try to help make sense of it, when it’s at its most insensible. In a way, the choice was to just look at the beginning, the middle, and the end of that campaign, two and a half years ago. I hope that protected us a bit from new revelations and what’s currently happening in our Parliament.
When you wrote this, could you have imagined or anticipated that things would be where they are now, with it coming out on HBO while Britain is in even further turmoil?
GRAHAM: Absolutely not a clue, but I knew that my predictions, in the past five years, have been awful. In my alternative universe, Hilary Clinton is President and there’s a United Kingdom in the EU, so I’m rubbish. It speaks to why I think a drama like this is important, weirdly. I’m not saying that we answered all of the questions, and I hope other filmmakers will continue to add to this story. Something is going drastically, seriously wrong in our politics when, two and a half years later, we still have no idea who we want to be, what we want our relationship with the world to be, and how to be an independent country, outside of the European Union. We’re tearing ourselves apart, and I think it’s a really valuable exercise to go back to that campaign and the origins of this crisis, to see if somehow, by making sense of what happened there, we can try to understand how we got to where we are today.
It seems as though it would be impossible to tell one definitive story about Brexit, without it being many hours long and following many different threads about many different people. What was it about Dominic Cummings in particular, that made him an interesting character to center this around and to tell the story of?
GRAHAM: That’s a good question, and that’s exactly why I chose a character like that to provide a focus and a point of view for what may have potentially been something quite sprawling and unmanageable, partly because he’s completely unfamiliar to a British audience, in the way that he would be to an American audience. Nobody knows who Dominic Cummings is in the UK. He’s a strategist who lives behind the scenes and works in the shadows, like all strategists do. It’s the politicians and the elected officials who go out there in front of the TV cameras to sell the messages, but they’re not the ones pulling the levers. It’s these people who we know very little about and who are fundamentally unaccountable, so that was one thing where I did desire to surprise an audience, by showing completely unfamiliar people in politics, as the real power behind the scenes. And then, Dominic, himself, is just a gift. He’s a disrupter. He’s a transgressor. He says the unsayable. He gets up people’s backs. He’s unpredictable. I hope it’s not too unfair to say that I always imagined him having a Heath Ledger Joker quality to him, where he really does want to burn everything down and start again. People can agree or disagree with him, but to him, this wasn’t just about, “Should we be in this trading block with Europe?” It was about something bigger. It was about, “Is our democracy working? Are our systems working?” To him, they aren’t. He wanted to use the chaos of Brexit to build something else.
What did you get from meeting and spending time with the real guy? Were there ways that he directly affected the way that you portrayed him in the film?
GRAHAM: We don’t know what he thinks about the film yet. He’s not gotten back in touch with me, so I’m not quite sure if he’s seen it yet. But a lot of his team, who helped me on the show, did. I confess that my weakness, as a playwright, is that when I meet people, I instantly quite like them, no matter what they’ve done, so even though I voted against him, and I voted Remain, I was immediately slightly taken with him. I’d expected someone who was quite difficult, quite dogmatic and inflexible in his thinking, and when I met him, he was infinitely more considered and open and curious, and just so generous. He also spent time with Benedict, even though Benedict was a very public figure for Remain. In a way, that was symbolic about what I wanted the drama to achieve, to bring people together who think different things and vote different ways, to try to listen to and understand each other more.
I know that you conducted some different interviews yourself, as you were trying to figure out what the story was, and how to make it more interesting and accessible to people. What did you feel you needed to dig into and break down, in order to do that?
GRAHAM: Good question. I’m a bit of a dweeb for this stuff. I really love geeky stuff that nobody else finds interesting, like processes and systems. A lot of my stage plays are not about ideology or about policy, but they’re about systems and rituals. I did a play here in the UK, at the National Theater, called This House, which was about how you get legislation through the Houses of Parliament. That sounds very dry, but into that, I put the human story of what it costs, on a human level, to achieve success, in that way, and how you balance your principals with the pragmatism of politics. I think that stuff makes what feels very difficult and distant to an average audience, like how do you run a referendum campaign in the 21st century with technology and data and funding, more accessible. You unpick that, and you try to put the anatomy of the campaign on screen and make it exciting and interesting, and then you make it completely human. You put humans at the forefront of that, and you try to understand the personalities, and the emotional and the psychological drivers for them, and about what motivates them to push for the most radical change that’s happened in our country, in its modern history.
When I spoke to Benedict Cumberbatch about this, he told me that he didn’t really need much convincing to take on the role because he’s such a fan of your stage work, and he was intrigued by the script and loved how it read. How do you feel about the work that he did, in bringing this portrayal to life? What most impressed you about his performance?
GRAHAM: Well, he’s one of our greatest actors on stage and screen. I’d never worked with him before, and I don’t mind admitting that I was a little bit starstruck, but not because of his fame, just because I think he’s generally really brilliant at what he does. He brings such an intellectual, cerebral, quality to all of his roles, but also has an intuitive, emotional intelligence. He understands what gets under the skin of people, and his biggest fear was that the film would portray Cummings as actually villainous and as someone that the film might judge. Benedict cannot play that. You can’t play someone, if you feel there is no empathy, no compassion, and no understanding for that person and what motivated them. He was constantly trying to interrogate that. Wherever possible, we worked on the script together with the director, Toby [Haynes], who always wanted to check in on that, to make sure that we were being fair and getting under the skin of this guy and trying to understand what he was doing, even if people disagreed with him. We wanted to do the most generous interpretation we could, of someone who at least 50% of our country thinks has destroyed the prospects of the nation.
Were there times, throughout the process of writing this, that you either had to catch yourself leaning too far to one side or the other, or were there times where you found an interesting thread in the story that you weren’t expecting, but had to stop yourself from following it because you just didn’t have time to tell any other aspects of the story?
GRAHAM: Oh, god, yeah, all the time, but it was just mainly about cutting characters. There were times when I got really interested in the politicians, who feature more now in this version, on the peripheries, but the struggles that they faced, coming out on one side or the other, and the personal friendships that were lost in doing that, and the way that it divided much of the United Kingdom, was so interesting. It divided families and friends, who don’t speak to each other anymore. So, I was interested in that, but in the end, I actually had to limit it to what I thought the journey of Cummings was. It was a balance of how much to focus on certain things. There have been many, many articles and column inches and social media posts, in the days since we broadcast the film in the UK, with people saying, “I think it should have been more about this . . .,” or “I think it should have been less about this . . .” People have their own Brexit movie in their head, and the events that they think are the reasons why what happened, happened, and you just have to try to balance that, as much as possible.
You had a first draft of this film stolen and leaked online, which must feel like a huge violation for a writer.
GRAHAM: That’s the right word. I don’t want to be over dramatic about it, but because it was something that I was still working on, I was playing around with it and being a bit mischievous, and there were bits that I hadn’t researched yet. It was like someone had come into my house and gone through my drawers because it felt very exposing, especially the absolute surrealness of Steve Bannon reading it and responding online. You go, “What the fuck is Steve Bannon doing in my bedroom, reading my stuff?” It felt incredibly weird, and it was upsetting, but it also made us all realize that the responsibility to get this right, given the level of scrutiny, was something that we had to live up to.
When you’re stuck in a situation like that, where it would be bad enough to have something like that happen, at all, but it’s even more horrible when it’s not a true representation of the work and people are commenting on it, how do you get through that, deal with it, and move past it, to keep working on the project?
GRAHAM: I suppose the one thing that I was frustrated at was that I normally take great pride in trying to sensitively introduce the idea of work about difficult issues into the public imagination. For example, I’ve got a play opening on Broadway in the spring, which we did here [in the UK], last year, about Rupert Murdoch, and it’s about very difficult subject matter, for some people, so you try to control how you introduce that into the world. What frustrated me was that we had incredible talent on the film, all of whom felt very keenly and very sensitively about the benefits of doing a film about Brexit, and we wanted to be very delicate in how it dealt with certain issues. The appearance of the leaked script and the descent that it caused created an image around the film that felt like we were being quite opportunistic and quite careless, and that wasn’t the feeling on set. Every day, we’d all sit around, talking about different scenes and the right way to introduce certain ideas into the film. So, that was upsetting, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how good the film could be, and how useful the film could be to a domestic audience, but also to an international audience, in making sense of what is just absolutely unprecedented in its madness.
When you dig so deeply into something that is still currently going on, do you look at it differently now? Are you watching it all with a little bit different eye, now that you’ve dug into it deeper than many other people?
GRAHAM: Yeah, that’s a really good point, and I actually do. The framework with which you view it – the prism of the present – affects how you see what you’ve done. I hope it’s a benefit of the movie that, no matter what changes with events, as they unfold on a daily basis, it’s a really worthwhile and vital exercise to go back to the campaign and look at what it set in motion, that will then justify and explain what’s happening right now. Obviously, something didn’t work about that democratic exercise, to turn a relatively boring, safe, stable, country like Britain into absolute chaos, at the moment. We are in utter free fall, so something about the conditions of that referendum, and the way it was asked and answered, didn’t work, otherwise we wouldn’t be in this mess that we’re in now, whether you voted Leave or Remain. So, I hope an audience finds it useful to re-examine the very starting point that was the origin of this chaos.
I can’t think of another time where I’ve watched a film, and then felt like I was watching the sequel in real time.
GRAHAM: Right?! It’s crazy! The film treads this line between entertainment, which we don’t apologize for because we want a popular audience to be able to access this difficult material and enjoy it, and a political responsibility of holding people to account and making sense of it. It’s weird. I was watching our Prime Minister (Theresa May) lose a vote by more than anyone in history, both excited by the entertainment level, and absolutely mortified and horrified by what’s happened to my country because nobody knows how this story’s gonna end. I guess there’ll be many more Brexit films, in the years to come, that’ll try to make sense of the aftermath.
Do you have any idea what’s next for you?
GRAHAM: Yeah, so it’s a mixture of stage and screen. I still consider myself a playwright, wo works on stage. That’s why I’m really excited to bring Ink to Broadway in the spring, on the MTC (Manhattan Theatre Club). I’m also doing a play about the Cold War and spies, and I’m working on a couple of screenplays. There’s always that kind of stuff. I’m always going into the recent or distant past, to try to make sense of what’s happening now because, as is happening in the United States, across the West, I just think we’re living through the most extraordinary political moments of our lifetime and there is a value to trying to find historical equivalents, to make sense of what feels like the most unpredictable period that we’re living through.
Brexit airs on HBO on Saturday, January 19th.