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Bruce Robinson on 'Withnail and I'

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 14, 2006 7:52 am    Post subject: Bruce Robinson on 'Withnail and I' Reply with quote

The writer director discusses the cult classic that is playing as part of Time Out's London on Screen series (see

From Time Out | Sep 14 2006

Camden Town, the close of the '60s, and Withnail (Richard E Grant) and 'I' (Paul McGann) are two out-of-work actors, living on a diet of booze and paranoia. Half of Bruce Robinson's semi-autobiographical movie from 1986 takes place in the rain-soaked Lake District, but it begins and ends in the city, and there's a strong sense of London at the time.

The night before we were due to start shooting, I'm sitting in the bar of this hotel in Penrith with a bottle of vodka. It's three in the morning, and I'm smoking myself silly, drinking myself daft to try and get arseholed so I could get to sleep – anything to escape or somehow navigate this fear that was coursing through my veins. And I couldn't get drunk. I couldn't get anything out of it and David Wimbury [a co-producer on the film], my old pal David, came in, sat down with me in this empty bar and had a couple of glasses and said something to me that is so true about the film industry. He said, 'The thing is Bruce, it doesn't matter how good your script is, how good your actors are, how good you may be as a director, if you haven't got luck, you're fucked.'

The thing about 'Withnail…' is that we had luck. That's why the film worked. Can you imagine how obscenely horrible a film like 'Withnail…' would be, if it didn't work? Goddamn. I was lucky I found those fabulous actors, I had a fabulous casting director, I had a fabulous crew, I had fabulous weather. I was just lucky and the symbiosis between me and all those elements worked in the right way.

The essence of these two guys in 'Withnail and I', and Monty and Danny the Dealer and everybody else in the film is that they don't know that they're funny. That's the important part, the most vital ingredient in this piece of comedy. I have sometimes sat in pubs when I used to booze and hear these old bastards talking dialogue as good as anything by Pinter – and I love Pinter – or Beckett. It is absolutely phenomenal and so funny, but if you told them it was funny or copied it down and gave it back to them and said, 'Do it again', they couldn't do it. The moment they knew it was funny they would fuck it up.

So, on the set, I didn't want the slightest edge of awareness of what I believed was going to be a very funny film. I tried very hard not to laugh myself. I only did once, when Richard E Grant got that piece of pastry trapped in his teeth and he's sort of grinning when the wanker's going to come and waste him. You couldn't have written it, you couldn't have rehearsed it. We were shooting the thing and he opened his mouth. I saw that piece of pastry in there and it creased me.

I had the most appalling experience in London [when the film was finished]. The publicity people put on a screening with about 200 kids, young kids, in this screening and I'm at the back and this is a fucking comedy, right? Not one laugh. Half and hour in, nothing. Total silence. And I'm hysterical. What's going on here? Surely something's funny? Nothing. And then I heard [says something unintelligible in mock German] or something like that. 'Wait a minute. What the fuck's all this?' The whole audience had been recruited from German students, not one of whom could speak a word of English. What a terrible thing to do. Honestly, I was levitating with anxiety at the back.

A week later, we're in New York for a screening and they all come in, lots and lots of Americans, a harsh audience and it's, 'Does comedy travel?' I had no idea. We put the film up and they start laughing. Not immediately, but ten minutes in. There's that sense of, 'Oh this is a funny film.' 'Is it funny' 'Yeah.' There were two girls in front of me. By about 30 minutes in, they were standing up to laugh, hanging over the seats in front of them. I thought they were going to choke to death and it was the best noise I've ever heard. I'm staring at their arses as they're rolling on these seats and the whole theatre was screeching, so that was one of the best experiences of my life, because that's what we were all about. That's what we did it for. To make people laugh.

'Withnail and I' will screen at the Cineworld Shaftesbury Ave (Sept 13), Everyman, Hampstead (Sept 16 and 17), Cineworld Wandsworth (Sept 20) and Ritzy, Brixton (Sept 24) as part of Time Out's London on Screen season and will be available on DVD from Oct 2.

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