Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back at it in top form in The Trip to Italy – director Michael Winterbottom‘s follow up to the delightful 2010 film The Trip, which saw the comedic duo dining at the finest culinary establishments in the English countryside, trying to one-up each other’s impressions, and making absolute hilarity out of some of life’s bleakest subjects. The sequel offers much of the same, but set against the backdrop of the stunning Italian countryside, and where the first film centered on Coogan’s malaise, it’s Brydon who steps into the spotlight now as he struggles with ambition, fidelity, and the ravages of time.
I recently jumped on the phone for an exclusive interview with Brydon. He talked about the balance between scripting and improv, how he and Coogan work on set, watching their impressions go viral, what he’d like to see in future trips, whether he recommends the film or the series, and more. Check out what he had to say after the jump. The Trip to Italy opens today in limited release.
BRYDON: Michael Winterbottom, really. Michael came to us maybe three years after the first one and said, “Look, here’s the idea. We go to Italy this time and here are the restaurants I think we should do. I think we should be following in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley.” He had it all mapped out. He said, “Rob you should have this dalliance with the girl on the boat. You’re more restless this time. You want adventure. Steve, you’re a little more settled and content.” So there’s that change, that was appealing, to have that slightly different dynamic going on. And that was it. Off we went.
Was it something you were eager to do or did the idea of a sequel take a little convincing?
BRYDON: No, I think enough time had passed, and the first one had gone down very well and had been a very enjoyable experience. But for me it was also the change of the dynamic was appealing, rather than just doing exactly – I mean, it’s very much like the first one I must say, but there are changes, subtle changes, but big enough to interest me. Also, at the bottom of it I love working with Michael and Steve. It’s pretty unique in the work that I do – the creativity that is in it. It’s democratic while we’re filming it then once he gets to the edit that’s Michael’s thing. If there’s stuff that we really don’t want in, he’ll take it out, but we always say that he’s the author of it. It’s his voice that comes out more than me and Steve. So no, I didn’t need much persuading really.
It’s interesting you call it a democratic process. I understand you guys are given an outline and subjects to discuss and you kind of color in the rest. What is that process like on set?
BRYDON: We’ll have a scene – I’m trying to think of an example – we’ll have a scene we’ll be sat at the table and Michael will say, in the script document it will say, “Rob and Steve will talk about aging” or “How they don’t get noticed by women any more,” or “Being remembered after they’ve gone, like Byron and Shelly, how they think they’ll be remembered.” And we’ll just go off, we’ll just start improvising. Sometimes great stuff comes quickly and sometimes it doesn’t and you’ve got to dig in for the long haul, don’t loose heart, and wait for something to come along. Which is something you learn the more you do it, that if it isn’t coming straight away just hang in there and something will come.
Those subjects you just mentioned – aging, will I be remembered after I’m dead? – these don’t seem like subjects that lend themselves to laughs, but you guys go back and forth between the comedy and the drama so nimbly. Is that a challenge?
BRYDON: [Laughs] I would say that’s kind of what we do, that’s my job. I know it sounds a bit flippant, but that is my answer really. I couldn’t fit a new tire on a car, but somebody would say “Yeah, that’s what I do.” And it’s kind of the same with this. That’s what I do, that’s my life [laughs] trying to find the funny angle on things. That’s how my mind works. It’s sometimes easier than others. When we sat in Pompeii in the amphitheater I remember it being quite hard to come up with anything there, but we stayed until we did and it was fine. You just learn that with experience, I suppose. You don’t panic, you don’t worry. You just sit there until it comes.
Its interesting that you call Michael Winterbottom the author when you guys are coming up with so much of the dialogue in the moment on set.
BRYDON: That’s cool, but he – certainly all the plot-y scenes he’ll have written. The things that are required for the structure of the piece to work, for there to be a semblance of story running through it. There isn’t much but there is some, so he’ll have written that. We’re entirely comfortable with it and he takes away a ton of footage and then works it down. As always there will be stuff that doesn’t make it. We’ll say, “Why on earth didn’t you use X, Y, or Z?” And he’ll say, “There wasn’t enough room,” or “I didn’t get the coverage I needed for that bit to work.” You’ll often remember things working wonderfully well on the day and then sometimes you watch them back and they weren’t as good as you remember. And the opposite is true too, there will be stuff that you thought was pretty pedestrian and, in fact, it flies. He is very much the author of the piece. He takes it away and he molds it. It’s as if he has all this raw material then he goes off with it and he makes something. He is the author of what is made, definitely.
You mention how you never know what will work the day, was there anything that surprised you that really caught on with audiences from the first film? Did you anticipate the Michael Cane impressions going viral like they did?
BRYDON: [Laughs] No, no. Certainly on the first one, no. I mean a lot of people watched those. They caught on hugely. I know Michael Caine enjoyed them himself, and that was great. I know that Anthony Hopkins has seen the Anthony Hopkins impressions and he laughs a lot at that, so that’s all good. I don’t know what Roger Moore thinks, because there’s quite a bit of Roger Moore in there as well. No, you can never know. To some degree, at some level, you’re sort of surprised that anybody responds at all. So no is the answer to that, but it’s fantastic when they do. Sometimes I’ve done bits, in this and in all my work, there will be things that I think are funny and no one seems to pick up on. There’s a bit in this one where we get served our meal and we tuck in, Steve takes a bite and he says “Oh god!” And I say, “Oh dear, no good?” I find that hilarious, but I don’t think I’ve seen anybody laugh at it [laughs]. To me it’s very funny.
Have you watched these films with an American audience?
What is that like? Do they get the humor in the same way or laugh at different things?
BRYDON: Well it’s great, because when we did the first one a lot of English people were hoping to slightly rain on our parade said, “It won’t work in America, because you’ve got to know something about Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. You’ve got to know something about the real people and their kind of public reputations for this to work.” And that’s not the case. I’ve sat there with American audiences – I think if you’re British and you know me and Steve maybe some other levels will come into play. But it’s like The Simpsons. The analogy I always make is that there are references to American culture that we’re not aware of, but we understand the rhythm of the joke. We get it anyway. And also, The Trip is essentially two middle aged men bickering, that’s kind of universal, and also being concerned with aging and the passing of time. I think those are universal themes.
Definitely. I find the aging and the passing of time very interesting because you guys took a four year break.
BRYDON: Yeah! Which I love. I love that about this and if we do another one I would personally want there to be a similar, if not lengthier, gap. I love the fact that we do look older and time has passed. I think that really adds to the – because in terms of doing another one, obviously there’s a part of you that thinks “Quit while you’re ahead.” But there seems something quite honest and true, there seems some kind of quiet integrity to doing it again just to observe the passing of time and its effects. That interests me hugely.
Yeah, I watched the first one again to prep for this one and it was pretty fascinating to watch how you guys have changed. I certainly have a desire to check in with these guys in a few years and see what time has wrought.
BRYDON: That’s great. That’s what I would hope would happen and then who knows how long we’d do it? Obviously if you’ve got to the point where you felt the quality was dropping off that would be a time to stop, but I don’t think that’s happened with this one. And I think if enough time was left and new things to come up, and yet at the same time some of the old ones to come up too, because that’s life. I think that’s what a lot of people like about this is that we do talk about the same things, because that’s what you do. I have a skiing holiday every year with my best friends. I’m pretty sure that the conversations we have are the same year in, year out. That’s what we talk about. But it’s interesting to see the protagonists age as time goes by.
One of the other interesting aspects is that since you guys are playing alternate versions of yourselves, who are actors and artists, we get to see a side of the artist’s quest for fulfillment that audiences aren’t usually exposed to. Did that feel vulnerable for you?
BRYDON: It can do, but part of the appeal – in the same way that when we signed on to do the first one there were a lot of unknowns and what-ifs, which to start put me off doing it but then became the attraction because it was taking a risk. I think that becomes part of the appeal actually. It’s a very interesting way to work. You’re using yourself. Sometimes it’s completely me and then other times it will be a perversion, an exaggeration, a warping just to serve the comedic or dramatic dynamic. Because we’re improvising it’s a wonderfully, for me, wonderfully purely creative experience, making stuff up on the hoof, as it were, not in a studio but on location. You don’t get to do that very often.
Yeah, talk a little bit about your approach to the improv and how you guys approach developing this sort of contentious, but still friendly relationship.
BRYDON: Yeah, that’s interesting because you can find yourself in these scenes and think, “Oh does he really think that about me?” And I’m sure sometimes, with some of Steve’s barbs, I bet he probably does think that and vice versa, but other times – we’re also both willing to take a bullet for the team. I sometimes see a response to this, I was surprised the response to the first one was in such a sporting, competitive vein. Like, “Coogan nailed that one. Brydon nailed that one.” I can understand looking back why they would do that, but we’re really working together. We’re often teeing, to use an expression, teeing each other up. We set each other up to win. Not always, sometimes we’re genuinely being competitive trying to be the one that comes out on top, but there will be other times when I think the two of us sense a dynamic and realize, “I could pop the ball in the air here for you and you could slam it home.” That’s working far more in harmony than it might appear on the screen.
BRYDON: I would say probably watch the film first and then if you like it you’ve got a treat in store. You can buy the DVD of the series and you’ve got all this extra stuff. I think that if I’d seen a film I liked and then heard there was actually a lot more of it paced out into episodes – it’s hard for me to say because I’m in it. There’s more in the series, certainly. I think it’s interesting to see what stays in and what doesn’t and how the tone is effected. But it’s probably more for others to say than me. Certainly, I think given that it is coming out as a film in America I would urge people to see the film [laughs].
Do you think the media, the difference between series and film, changes the function of the idea or do you think it remains pretty close?
BRYDON: Oh well that’s interesting, isn’t it? Especially now with all these amazing episodic things on the television. I’m only just into Breaking Bad now, House of Cards, all those. It’s like in Dickens times, with Dickens all those books were written episodically and you would go through it week to week. That’s very interesting now and how that’s effecting storytelling. I don’t know that I have a particularly insightful answer [laughs]. I suppose we fit into that equation somewhere now, don’t we? So many movies are – I have to be careful what I say here – but so many movies are kind of big tentpole wham-bam films, that it’s lovely when you watch – a lot of George Clooney’s movies are great, they’re films for grown ups. Michael Clayton I love, Up in the Air. They’re telling stories that as an adult you’re interested in. I think a lot of the TV stuff does that. I think the difference between the film and the series fits in there somewhere.