By Toby Venables @
Bill – a new British comedy about Shakespeare’s lost years – brings the Horrible Histories crew together on the big screen for the first time, and on familiar territory. It’s already wowed audiences at the premiere at Cambridge Film Festival – but will it bring about a rock lute revival? Toby Venables talked to director Richard Bracewell.
In a nutshell, Bill is a comedy about Shakespeare. What Life of Brian does for Brian, Bill does for Shakespeare! Bill is a man with dreams. When we meet him he’s a wannabe lute rock star, and it transpires he’s tried lots of jobs – including interpretive dance – and he finally comes up with this notion to become a great writer. So, he leaves his family and heads to London to follow his dream – sort of an origins story. He then gets involved in a plot to blow up Queen Elizabeth. And I can’t say much more than that because I’ll give it away…
How did you first become involved with the Horrible Histories crew?
The connection is Ben Willbond, one of the screenwriters, who was in the first film I made, The Gigolos. I’d worked with him before on a number of things and thought he was very funny – a great person to work with – so when The Gigolos happened I got him in that. A few years elapsed, then just when Horrible Histories was starting to take off one of my kids spotted a clip of it on YouTube, showed it to me and said ‘Dad, why don’t you make a film for kids?’ I saw Ben was in it – doing Henry VIII – and in that moment it came to me that there was a great film in this, in that brand of humour transferred to the big screen. So I got in touch with Ben and said: ‘I’d be really interested in doing something…’
So, it was your idea, initially?
Yes, it was. But Ben was the connection. The other element was that I was in Berlin with Tony [Bracewell, Richard’s producer brother] and they were premiering Anonymous, the Roland Emmerich film about the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. It wasn’t well reviewed, but I thought: ‘There’s a comedy in here somewhere…’ I had already been thinking ‘Who is the most famous historical figure that I could do a film about?’ I knew I couldn’t do anything Roman, or King Arthur, because they had been done by the Pythons. I didn’t want to do Winston Churchill, because that had been done quite recently. But Shakespeare is the obvious famous Briton who is recognised worldwide. And the premise of Anonymous was that there was this gap in Shakespeare’s life about which scholars argue even now, because they really don’t know what he did during that time. That was a gift to someone writing a comedy – a blank period that you could basically fill with whatever you wanted. Who’s to say Shakespeare wasn’t lute rock star?
In the past you’ve written your own screenplays. What was the process with Bill?
After I suggested it, Ben brought in Larry – Laurence Rickard – and the three of us worked out the story together, and the two of them went away and wrote it. They came back with it very quickly, pretty much fully formed. But it took about eighteen months from the moment we first sat down to having the completed script. There were a lot of different drafts, but it gets better with every one. The success of a film will often come down to the work that is done on the script beforehand. And there’s a lot of them in it – writers writing about a writer who dreams of making it big. But it is also a pretty universal theme. We’ve probably all thought about doing something else, whether we pursued that dream or not.
Did new material develop once the cast was together?
People would suggest lines to each other, and Laurence and Ben were happy for those to go in. There are actually characters in the film who existed only as a line or two in the screenplay. There’s a customs man who had two lines in the script, which Matt Baynton developed into a very funny scene. But the film is a caper, quite fast-paced and with lots of strands, so we couldn’t be too fast and loose with the script. I think it was a key ingredient, though, that Ben and Larry were writing for a group of performers who they new and who had worked together. Going back to The Gigolos, the thing that was thrilling about that was that the key cast members had worked together a lot, and there’s something about a group of people who are comfortable with each other that makes them quite generous when you’re filming. They’re prepared to give the limelight to somebody else.
Is it at all daunting, directing cast members who are already so familiar with each other?
It was quite daunting! But I realised that what people would be interested in, aside from it being a comedy about Shakespeare, was that it was the cast from Horrible Histories. My job was to get on screen what was already funny about what these people did, so it was a real collaboration in that sense. I thought they were really funny, I loved the writing and I loved the performance – why would I want to change that? Bringing that to the big screen was the really exciting thing. But it’s hard making that transition, not because it’s comedy, particularly, but just because making films is more of a challenge. There’s a great quote from Ginger Rogers where she says she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards. It’s kind of like that. With comedy, you’ve got to do everything other films do, plus it’s got to be funny.
Bill is a bit of a departure from what you’ve done before…
I love Python, love John Landis films, love broad comedy – but to be honest, I didn’t really think about it like that, it was really just the idea, and working with that group of people. What’s great about doing a film like this, though, is that it’s like going on stage and doing a naked dance. There’s nowhere to hide – it’s either funny or it’s not. But it’s kind of liberating, just to think: ‘Is it funny? Yes – then in it goes…’ and not to worry too much about what it means.
You have some other distinguished cast members, beyond the HH crew…
Helen McRory takes on the most amazing role, that has been taken on by so many great actresses, but by the end of the film I guarantee you’ll be thinking ‘Yep, that’s a great Queen Elizabeth to add to the hall of fame…’
And there’s also, Mr Helen McRory – Damien Lewis – back in Tudor mode after his stint as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall…
He opens the film and plays a pivotal character in the story – but I can’t say too much about it… We didn’t need him for very long, but we were asking him to do quite a big thing. He knew the show because his kids were big fans and he came along to the set and watched on a monitor before he agreeing to do it, but amazingly he said yes. And fans of Damien Lewis will not be disappointed. He wears a fantastic costume and gets to flourish a sword. Larry, who is in the receiving end, was slightly terrified, I think. He hasn’t really done much sword work in his career and I think he thought he was going to be killed.
So, will this stimulate new interest in rock lute playing, or does that not come out too well in the film?
No, it does! Again, I can’t tell you too much without giving the plot away… I’ll just say we’ve re-recorded some well-known movie score tracks for lute, with the UK’s top lute player. And amazingly they work… So I think we will definitely see a lute resurgence. Lute’s are going to be big!
Bill is on general release from 18 September, with a preview screening and Q&A at the BFI on 13 September.
Photo credit Nick Wall.