In Killing Bono, based on Neil McCormick’s 2005 memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelganger, all Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) wants to do is form a band with his brother Ivan (Robet Sheehan), get signed, become world famous and “pull off the biggest rock and roll invasion of America since the Beatles.” Is that too much to ask? Unfortunately for the McCormicks, while their band doesn’t exactly ascend to the heights of superstardom, some old school friends of theirs manage to form a band that’s quite a bit more successful: U2 (Ivan: “It sounds like a bleedin’ submarine!”). Director Nick Hamm gave MovieMaker the inside scoop on the blend of fact and fiction in his dark comedy, U2’s involvement in the film and working with the late Pete Postlethwaite, whose performance as the McCormicks’ randy landlord Karl marked his final film role before his passing last January.
Directors are constantly looking for original areas in which to work; we are always searching for the unique and different. Indeed, every story has its challenges, and even though Neil McCormick’s had more than most, it was so original I couldn’t resist.
This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill biopic charting the rise to stardom of a now very famous band. This was a story of failure. A tale of how hubris and jealousy can both motivate and destroy. It was funny, touching, provocative and true. Our hero—or anti-hero, in this case—was an everyman whose story asks the audience to reflect upon the question of who among us, at one point in our lives, has not stood in front of the mirror and dreamed of stardom? Most of us give up on the idea very quickly; we either recognize that we posses no discernible talent, or we don’t have the stomach for the fight. Lack of talent or belief did not affect Neil McCormick. He pursued his dream regardless, and he failed—but he failed gloriously.
So why make a movie about failure? Because failure is, ultimately, a more interesting narrative drive than success. It enables and forces introspection, and it spurs and sets up wonderfully comedic situations. Anger and resentment are great motivators for comedy, and in this character I saw the potential for a true anti-hero for our times.
Fact or Fiction?
Neil McCormick’s book I Was Bono’s Doppelganger is a rambling, often hilarious account of his journey through the London rock scene in the 1980s. Our first task was to streamline the story and focus the events.
We were also aware that certain parts of the story are factual, and we retained them because they had some significance beyond our film. Larry Mullen did put a notice up in the school corridor to invite kids to sign up for the band… that was how U2 got started. Subsequently, they did all meet in his mum’s kitchen for their first rehearsal. The Edge turned up with a guitar he made himself, and Larry’s drum kit, because of the diminutive size of the kitchen, stuck halfway out into the back garden.
We went to the original school, we visited their houses and we spoke to their contemporaries. I wanted this part of the film to be accurate; I’m a fan of the band, and I enjoyed replicating those events. But most of the film doesn’t deal with U2. We see the band members in their teenage years and then begin focusing on Neil’s story. U2’s success acts as a comic counterpoint to Neil’s failure; U2 represents everything Neil wanted, everything he needed. As the story progresses, we watch Neil’s relationship with his brother twist and turn as Bono and U2 become more successful.
So, as the film progresses, we are less interested in the reality or historical truth than we are in the character and his journey. I amalgamated some events and characters and focused on an impression of the music scene that I knew would be cinematic and interesting. I fictionalized fact and factualized fiction. I mixed the truth with the dramatically necessary.
Unsurprisingly, conversations with financiers often centered on U2’s involvement or endorsement. Thankfully, one of my partners on the film, Ian Flooks, had been U2’s agent for many years and managed to create a level of trust and ease of work. I had a delightful lunch with The Edge, followed by a meeting with U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, in London. They both trusted that I wasn’t going to do anything spiteful to the band and subsequently regaled me with further hilarious stories about Neil.
As we put everything together we constantly re-worked the story, but the elephant in the room was Neil’s music. We obviously needed to redo it, and by that I mean rewrite and re-produce it. The debate was complex: We couldn’t just do covers or try to write hits—our band never made it, and the music had to reflect that. It had to be good enough to warrant our attention but not good enough to succeed. It was a fantastic musical era to explore, and we all dived in. Joe Echo of INXS wrote some new material, music producer Mike Hedges came on to produce, and four months before filming began I found myself in one of Van Morrison’s favorite recording studios in Northern Ireland, working with Ben and Robbie on the songs.
We would later film to playback, so the entire musical map had to be worked out months in advance. This was new to me: Here I was, months before stepping on set, making very fixed decisions about the film. I like a certain level of improvisation when I shoot, and in this case I was denying myself that option.
We shot the film in Northern Ireland. I was born in Belfast and attended school there, so it was surreal to find myself returning to the same period I grew up in and making a film on those same streets. It was a period of history I knew well.
Every film you make defines you as a director; it defines forever a period of your life and then presents you with a permanent record of it. Here I was, 30 years later, standing at my old school gate, telling a story set at the time I went to school, about a music scene I grew up with.
The young actors were full of energy; they were alive with ideas. Watching actors who are passionate about their craft grow and develop is one of the great joys of being a director; capturing truth between people is why we direct.
As Neil, Ben Barnes had a difficult job: He had to play the comedy and the emotion. He had to be dislikable but endearing enough for the audience to forgive him. He was constantly juggling these aspects and pushing himself in different ways. Robert Sheehan was an explosion of raw talent as Ivan. Martin McCann’s portrayal of Bono caught everyone off guard: He had humility mixed with arrogance, both swagger and deference, and as we watched rushes, we wrote more material for him. We rewrote, reworked and shot into the night. We all enjoyed jumping in and telling a story that could apply to any of us.
Perhaps one of the hardest challenges, and one that couldn’t have been anticipated from the outset, was the emotional journey that we all embarked upon when the great Pete Postlethwaite joined us on set. Despite his illness, he was stoic and brilliant. He made us all aware of ourselves and, as he spoke what was to be one of the most poignant lines in the film, we knew we had made something that was cutting to a core of truth, no matter how fabricated the story may have been in the end: “The measure of a man is what’s left when fame falls away.”
Killing Bono opens in New York on November 4th and hits theaters in Los Angeles the following Friday (November 11th). For more information on the film, and to watch the trailer, head to www.killingbono.com.