If you were anywhere in or around the United Kingdom during the last stretch of the noughties–or anywhere else with easy access to Channel 4’s streaming platform, for that matter–chances are you witnessed the pandemonium stirred up by a cult TV comedy series, The Inbetweeners. From the minds of creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris came a show that chronicled the banter, mess, joys, and sorrows of four high school students stranded in an unidentified stretch of British suburbia–an endlessly watchable, endlessly quotable sitcom that later birthed two spinoff features (The Inbetweeners Movie, 2011; The Inbetweeners 2, 2014) and crystallized the show’s acting quartet as household names.
I am sitting in the lounge room of Locarno’s Belvedere Hotel waiting to interview one of them, actor-turned-director Simon Bird (The Inbetweeners’ put-upon Will McKenzie), moments before the Locarno Film Festival will draw the curtains on his Days of the Bagnold Summer. This is not the first time Bird has taken a seat behind the camera: in 2016, he traveled to SXSW with his short Ernestine & Kit, the road trip chronicles of two cantankerous seventy-something women, but it is the first he grapples with a feature-length project.
Days of the Bagnold Summer is a gentle, heartfelt portrait of a preternaturally shy middle-aged mother, and her moody, laconic metalhead son. It’s a chronicle of the summer they’re forced to spend together once the boy’s much-awaited trip to the States falls through, and it unfurls as a twofold coming-of-age tale, zeroing in on both leads with equal affection, crafting each as loners struggling to open up to the world. A quirky and endearing first feature enriched by the terrific performances of co-leads Monica Dolan and Earl Cave, Nick’s son, and graced with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian.
By the time I sit down with Bird, it’s been a few hours since Bagnold bowed for its first press screening, stirring chuckles all throughout its brisk 86-minute running time. “It’s weird to know people have now seen the film,” Bird smiles as we begin chatting. “I almost forgot that happened.”
The Film Stage: How long ago did you shoot it?
Simon Bird: We filmed it in September last year, which I guess it’s not too long ago, in the context of how long it normally takes to make films.
This is not the first time you sit at the director’s chair, and I was wondering if there was a specific moment during your acting career in which you sort of felt: I want to switch, and embrace directing instead.
I think I’ve probably always known. Everything I did before I started acting on TV, when I was doing comedy shows at university–it was always somewhat collaborative: we were always involved in every aspect of the show. We’d write them, and cast them together, and think about what the set design would look like, and we would direct ourselves. You were always involved in everything. And once I got the job with The Inbetweeners I sort of realized: oh, right, I was only really involved in this tiny slither of everything that happens around you, as an actor, you just show up and that’s it. Being on set made me realize that I was much more interested in–or maybe just a lot more jealous of–people who got to be a lot more involved in the overall process than I did. The edit, for instance: that’s where the show actually happens! You can totally re-write something in the edit room. And it was just amazing in The Inbetweeners, working with [series creators] Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, who had this vision and were able to see it through. It was their production company–and they were certainly involved in every aspect of it. I got to see what that looked like, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.
How much do you reckon your work in the TV show helped pave your directorial career?
I’m sure it did help, I’m under no illusions here [laughs]. I think it helped me get a meeting with Matthew James Wilkinson, who then went on to produce my short. It probably helped us raise money for that short, too, and beyond that–it just opened all the doors for those initial meetings. That said, I hope that the short was good and interesting enough that people would have thought: ok, we will back this person, even if he wasn’t semi-famous.
When did you come across Joff Winterhart’s graphical novel?
I think it was the year after it came out. It came out in 2012, if I’m not wrong, so it must have been 2013.
And what brought you to it? What made you think that it was something that could be turned into a film?
Well, it wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: this has to be turned into a film. It was much more cynical than that. Once I made the short, the natural next step was to make a feature, and I was sort of going around looking for what that may be. I knew that I didn’t want to write it myself, or come up with an original story. I read a lot, so the next step was to sort of go back to all the novels and short stories I’d read in recent years and see which ones had stayed with me. And initially, when I was looking through my library, I sort of glossed over it, and it was actually my wife [Bagnold’s script writer Lisa Owens] who went, “Oh, there could be something there.” I just dismissed it because it was so small, and I thought there wasn’t a story there. It just didn’t feel filmic. But Lisa, to her credit, thought there was plenty already, and she ended up writing the screenplay. And I think she did a pretty good job–I mean, there isn’t much of a story in the film. That’s something I love–films that are very small, more character-driven than heavy on narrative. But really, the story that’s in the film, tiny that may be, is gigantic compared to what’s in the book. The book really has no story–it’s just this series of vignettes, with no real arc. And Lisa’s done a great job at drawing a story out of it. So yeah, it definitely wasn’t a case of me reading it and going: yeah, this has to turn into a film, but the more I thought about it the more I realized there was lots of it that felt right. It was small, but also practically very manageable for a first film. And there was an element of The Inbetweeners to it, which could convince the financiers who may have only gotten aboard because of that link to the show. There are definitely things in common, but hopefully people will notice different elements, too.
I came in thinking you’d served as director and writer, and I was genuinely surprised when the end credits told me otherwise. I say this because there was so much harmony between your direction and the script, the kind of synch you’d normally register in a one person’s show. Which makes me wonder, ever toyed with the idea of writing your own scripts?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I never really considered it for this feature, or for the short, just because directing is still so new to me, and I wanted to approach it in its own terms, and not be worried. I wanted to be sure that if the film was terrible it’d be because I directed it badly, not because I wrote it poorly! [laughs] That said, I instinctively felt like I’d be able to direct, as though I had the necessary skill set for that. Whereas I didn’t necessary feel that for writing. I’ve written stuff in the past, and will definitely write again in the future, but it felt natural to me to work with someone whom I know is a great writer–and in this case, it was my wife. It was a very enjoyable process, and I’d definitely be up for working with writers again in the future.
Days of the Bagnold Summer essentially unfolds as a twofold coming of age tale. By that I mean, both mother and son struggle to overcome their insecurities, and open up to the world.
Yes, and I thought I hadn’t really seen that before. Again, that’s all from the book. I knew when I read it that it felt very interesting and unique, and I was very aware that we wanted to retain that. And again, it would have been really easy to ditch that and say: this is Daniel’s story, or: this is Sue’s story–which would have made it much more of a genre film, something people could understand, and would be easier to sell. But we were very careful to ensure it stayed even-handed. Even down to the script: we actually counted how many pages were Dan’s scenes, and how many were Sue’s scenes. Just to make sure. Just because we’ve all been through teenage years, and a lot of us will go through the parental admin as well.
You said you hope this new work will be somewhat different from The Inbetweeners, and I remember you stating that Bagnold is a “celebration of life in the suburbs.” To some extent, The Inbetweeners felt a bit like that too: a tale set in an ostensibly ordinary, uneventful world, far away from the hype and thrills of the city. Why this fascination for suburbia?
I don’t know, really. I think you’ve hit it on the head: that’s the big similarity between the show and the film. I guess the fascination must be there, somewhere in my consciousness [laughs]. But like I said, this was the book that jumped out at me. It could have easily been another text, not set in British suburbia. It wasn’t a case of: oh, I have to make a film in the British suburbs, what stories can be set there? But at the same time, I grew up in the suburbs, it’s a world I know, so it felt like a story that was relevant to me. Again, much like I felt for The Inbetweeners at the time, I felt like it filled a niche. And, perhaps on a cynical level, I thought there was an opportunity to say something new.
Both Earl Cave and Monica Dolan are pitch-perfect choices as Daniel and Sue. How did the casting process go?
Well, the casting of Sue, Monica Dolan, was pretty easy and effortless. I’ve been following Monica’s career for years, I’m a huge fan of hers. And there’s something about Sue, in the book as much as in the script, that made Monica stand out as the first person I thought of. I just knew she’d be perfect. I offered her the role, and I met up with her, and it all happened very easily. Daniel, on the other hand, was a lot harder to cast. Purely because, you know, you’re casting a teenager and you’re bound to find fewer experienced teenage actors out there. But also because I think his is a very hard part. You’re playing someone who’s very introverted, and very quiet. Much as he may share the lead role with Sue, he doesn’t have many lines, so it’s like having to do quite a lot with quite little. And it’s also an inherently unlikable character, you know. I think Daniel’s lovely, but he’s obviously going through a tough phase in his life. He’s very rude to his mom, he shouts a lot, hides behind his hair, but I needed someone whom the audience could root for, as well.
Still, he’s not a one-note teen. He’s never really a stereotype, as much as he may sometimes veer into the “grumpy, frustrated teen boy” archetype.
Totally, and that’s all down to Earl, and probably why the casting process took so long: it was very hard to find someone who could do that. And he was brilliant–he can definitely do the moody stuff, but he also has a screen presence, and a magnetism to himself.
And a certain vulnerability.
And a sense of humor. It’s all in there. You watch Daniel and you think: he’s definitely going to be fine in the future. He’s going to be likable, and will have friends, and will have a nice life once he gets through this tough time. And that’s really important, I think. For it to be uplifting, you have to be likable underneath it all.
Another brilliant ingredient to your feature is the score. You were blessed to count with original tracks by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian.
Oh, it was just amazing when they joined. I mean, I’d spoken to the music supervisor, and he asked me what composer I had in mind, and I said I didn’t really know any, and he told me to think big: if you could have any major band or artist in the world, who would you go for? And I said Belle and Sebastian would be perfect a fit for the kind of vibe we were going for. And he spoke to them, and well, three days later they got onboard. We were very lucky–they had a break in their schedule, and were very keen to work on a film, and do some instrumental stuff. So that all happened very seamlessly. The challenge with the music was to balance that style with the kind of heavy metal tunes Daniel likes, just because music is such a big part of his character.
And yet the juxtaposition never really feels too strident, in the sense that Belle and Sebastian’s score somewhat meshes with the metal soundtrack, and both morph into a whole just as complex and multifaceted as Daniel’s persona.
I’m glad to hear that! It was a bit of a challenge–getting that balance right was something we were hoping to achieve. There are two sides to Daniel, and overdoing the heavy metal part would have been detrimental. That side, after all, is also partly just a show he puts on.
Days of the Bagnold Summer world premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.