Tuesday’s Column: The Damned United

Read the column here.

Check out the trailer.

BTW, one of the worst parts of any soccer movie is invariably the soccer scenes played by actors. That’s not the case with The Damned United. Why? Because the soccer scenes are mercifully brief. Here’s producer Andy Harries explaining why:

“Part of the tricks is not feature football too much. We’ve chosen judicious moments and we’re playing a lot of it off reaction shots off Clough and Taylor so you’re watching football, you’re seeing football, but you’re not emotionally involved in the game. You’re emotionally involved in their watching it – and through their reactions you know what’s happening on the pitch.”

I had the pleasure of speaking recently with actor Michael Sheen about the film and his role as Brian Clough. Below is our Q&A almost verbatim. I just wished we were talking at a pub rather than on the phone.

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Question: Do you find yourself having to do a lot of explaining over here about the significance of Leeds United and Brian Clough?
Answer: Yeah, I knew that nobody was ever going to hear of Brian Clough over here so that wasn’t much of a surprise. I don’t think you need to know much about Brian Clough or football itself to enjoy the film. I was kind of heartened in Britain by how many people said, “I’ve got no interest in football, (I) didn’t know anything about Brian Clough, but I still really loved the film.” I think, obviously, there’s a whole (further) level of enjoyment if you are into football and you do know Brian Clough that you get from it.

Q: Are you a football fan?
A: Yeah, I was a huge football fan. That’s all I wanted to do when I was a kid. When I was 12 I was offered an apprenticeship at Arsenal. But it would have meant our whole family relocating to London – I’m from a small town in Wales – so my dad said, well if he’s still interested when he’s 16 he can decide for himself. So that was that. By the time I was that age it was too late. You’ve got to go when you’re young and by then I was into other stuff – I was into acting – so it wasn’t a path I went down. But part of the attraction of doing the film was to be able to sort of live out that life.

Q: So is Arsenal your team? Because considering they did the (league and cup) double in 1971 you must bloody well hate Leeds.
A: No, Arsenal is not my team. In fact when I was young my team was the Liverpool team that I walk out next to in the Charity Shield match in the film. It was (Kevin) Keegan, (John) Toshack, Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes’ team. I lived in Liverpool for three years between age five and eight so they were my team at that point. And then my dad was a rugby man, he wasn’t a soccer man. So when we moved from Liverpool when I was eight back to Wales again I thought you could only support teams if you lived in the area. So I thought I had to stop supporting Liverpool then and nobody ever explained to me that wasn’t the case, so I sort of ending up growing up without a team really.

Q: Nigel Clough, Brian’s son, is now manager at Derby County. Did you go spend time with Nigel or what kind of research did you do for the role?
A: Nigel became manager of Derby not long before the film came out after we finished filming. The research I did, there’s a lot of footage of Brian, there’s a lot of books written about him, there’s a lot of stuff you can get your hands on, so I did all that. I knew I was going to be doing the film about two, two and a half years before we started shooting and then I did a solid three or four months (of research) before we started doing the film so I just watched everything I could watch, I just read everything I could read and ended up knowing more about his life than I know about my own really. And reading the book the film is based on – it’s an adaptation of (the novel) “The Damned United” by David Peace. So it was really just trying to immerse myself in Brian’s life and his world.

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Q: You pointed out that the character of Clough in the movie is based upon a novel that itself was an extremely liberal novelization of events and not everything that occurred in the film actually occurred in real life.
A: That’s right. David Peace, who wrote it, called it a fictionalization of Brian Clough’s time at Leeds.

Q: In your career you seem to have specialized in this sort of fictionalization – I saw “Frost/Nixon” last night and then you also did a turn as Tony Blair in “The Queen.” So here you are playing famous people and yet you get to take liberties with who they are as a person and their character. Is that part of the appeal of taking these roles?
A: I don’t know if I’m taking liberties. The scripts to all these (movies) are written by the same man – they’re written by a man called Peter Morgan – so it’s not like I go out seeking these characters. It’s just that they’re all written by the same man and they’re the best scripts that come my way. I enjoy the process. I really enjoy researching and finding out about these people’s lives because they’re all fascinating characters. I like the discipline of sort of having to work within an existing framework of someone’s life, but at the same time having to find a way to connect with them to sort of make that imaginative connection. I try to find a way to make it accessible to an audience so people can empathize with it and sympathize with it and go on a journey with this character. I find it’s an exciting mixture of the work that you need to do on fictional characters, but with the added dimension that a lot of people are going to be very familiar with this character. They’re great roles and great stories and he’s a great writer so it’s coincidence. … It’s not like I set out to only play roles that are based on real people.

Q: The character of Brian Clough in the novel is more of a brooding, introspective loner kind of character and in the movie you play him as a in your face maverick who delights in actually daring people to like him. How did that difference come about?
A: The book takes place inside Brian’s head where you hear his every thought and you get a real sense of this claustrophobic sense of being in this one man’s mind. It’s a very dark, obsessive, alcoholic world that’s depicted in the novel. That would mean we’d have to do the film all in voice over, which y’know wouldn’t have worked. So inevitably once it’s not inside someone’s head and you see him from the outside then a lot of that stuff is covered up. I’m sure everyone would agree that if everyone heard everything that was going on inside our heads all the time it would be a very different view of ourselves that people would have. So inevitably there’s a certain amount of covering up of that and disguising it. I think the Clough I play in the film is a man who covers up his vulnerabilities and his insecurities and his anxieties with all kinds of things. One of them is his humor and wit and sometimes his arrogance and self-confidence and outrageousness and all those kinds of things. So I think in the film … we wanted it to be more celebratory of this man, a more rounded portrayal of him and to show different facets of his character that everyone was aware of.

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Q: Football movies in general have a patchy reputation. There’s been some pretty awful ones. Do you have a favorite soccer movie?
A: (Laughs). There’s not many to draw on really. My favorite sports movie would probably be “Raging Bull” because ostensibly it’s about a boxer, but it’s (really) about a man and his relationships and that’s sort of what our film is a bit like. For pure fun I love “Escape To Victory.” Just to see Sylvester Stallone as a goalkeeper is always good fun in the same scenes as Mike Summerbee, the Manchester City player – that’s always a good partnership on film. Seeing the 1970s Ipswich (Town) and Manchester City teams mixing with Michael Caine and Pele is great. There’s things like “This Sporting Life” that Richard Harris did about Rugby League, which I think is a terrific film as well. There’s precious few to choose from in terms of soccer films, I think.

Q: What’s the strongest part of this movie?
A: The strongest thing is the character it’s about. He’s such a compelling character I hope we do him justice. He’s such a fascinating, complex character. If you’re going to make a film about someone it’s a pretty good starting point you’ve got someone like Brian Clough to make it about.

Q: Do you think Brian Clough would have liked your portrayal of him – after he had removed his fingers from your neck?
A: Yeah, exactly. I think he’d want to know why if “Lord of the Rings” can have a trilogy of films made about a book why can’t he?

Q: What kind of reception did this movie get in England?
A: Everybody in Britain knows who Brian Clough is football fan or not, I think. I’ve never felt so much pressure in the build up to this film. Everyone was saying ‘oh, I’m really looking forward to that film, I love Cloughie.’ Everyone had something to say about Brian Clough. The reception was very positive – amazing, really to be honest – from within the football world, but also across the board. There’s so much affection for Brian Clough. Back in the day when he was managing he used to really divide people and people used to love to hate him, but it’s all turned into affection I think because he symbolizes a period of time when in Britain, certainly in football, but also in the country (in general) that’s sort of gone now. Sport has changed so much, football has certainly changed so much and Clough represents a time that was very different. No one like him could come along now. His achievements can’t be emulated because you would never get a team (like Derby County) coming from the bottom of the second division to the top of the Premiership (and) winning the European Cup. It just couldn’t happen. You wouldn’t get a top-flight manager managing a team like that. Something has definitely gone. That age is over with so I think there’s a lot of affection for him and for that period of time.

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Q: One can argue this film isn’t about soccer, but about the relationship between Peter Taylor and Cloughie.
A: These were two men who loved each other. They had a hugely intimate relationship with each other. It was like a marriage really with all its complexity and love and intimacy and resentment. What happened eventually after they did get back together again – they had all the achievements at Nottingham Forest – but then they fell out again and didn’t speak to each other right up to Peter Taylor’s death. And Clough, when he was interviewed or talked about Taylor after that, would be choking back the tears literally because he loved him so much and yet their relationship ended. So it’s a hugely powerful relationship that these two men had with each other. The structure of the story really is about a relationship, about a love story. We’re not in any way suggesting there’s anything homoerotic about it, but it’s certainly a story about a very loving relationship, a very complicated love story between these two men. It was definitely something we wanted to explore, what that relationship was between them and the fact they do come back together at the end was very important. It was the climax of the film.

Q: And that’s probably an apt place to end this conversation. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I hope you get nominated for something or other.
A: I hope I just keep getting work.

Here’s a clip from the movie showing Cloughie’s first day as Leeds United manager

Updated:
At the request of readers, here’s where the film opens on Friday:

Laemmle’s Town Ctr 5
17200 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA 91316

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7
673 East Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91101

The Landmark
10850 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90064

Finally, there’s lots of Leeds United/Brian Clough related stuff on YouTube. Those of you planning to see the movie might want to skip the video below; it’s the original Don Revie-Brian Clough TV debate after he was fired as Leeds manager:

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group soccer columnist and blogger Nick Green writes at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!
  • Studs Up

    Great interview. Looking forward to the movie. I wonder if Eddie Lewis has any interest in his old club’s history. An in depth interview with him about troubles at Leeds should be a good read. Didn’t he go down to the Championship with them when relegated?

    PS – My favorite soccer movie was “The Cup” about young Tibetan monks efforts to watch the World Cup on TV.