Funny Cow is a unique and heartfelt character study of a woman with a funny bone for a backbone. She finds an escape from the hardships of her life in the world of stand up comedy. It’s a dark but hilarious journey into the dark heart of British comedy with a powerful central performance from Maxine Peake.
We here at Screen Mayhem were very privileged to speak with first time producer Kevin Proctor about the development and realisation of the project. We talked about the history of British comedy, the rigours of being a film producer, and putting together such a stellar cast.
How did you get involved with Funny Cow?
I got involved with Funny Cow because of my relationship with Tony Pitts (screenwriter), who I met a while ago, in 2010. Tony and I formed a very brotherly bond and when he said he had this project he wanted me to read, I said I would love to read it. I read it and immediately knew that this is the film that I would want to go and see. I wanted this to be my debut as a producer because it made me laugh, it was the most original script I’d ever read and it was a film I’d never seen before.Absolutely. The role of a producer tends to differ from project to project, what was your role within Funny Cow?
Funny Cow was hard to make. When you have a film as bold and defining as Funny Cow it’s very hard to walk into a room of financiers and put your finger on what it is. As I say, it’s the most interesting script I’d ever read, so as a producer it was my job to ensure that the project wasn’t diluted, it wasn’t changed, Tony’s voice remained the same throughout. It was about putting the best people in the best places. So as a producer what I did was take the script and then ran with it and went headlong into making, as far as I’m concerned, something that is inspiring, heartwarming, hilarious, life affirming. And as a producer it’s my job to make sure that that is transposed onto the screen. I’m a very creative producer.
Did you, prior to the film, have any experience of what The Guardian referred to, in its review of Funny Cow, as “The dark days of British Standup”?
Yes! I’m from a town in the Midlands and every weekend we would go to the working men’s clubs and the social clubs and there would be an act. There would be a ventriloquist or a singer, a dancer or a magician and you would sit round with all your family and you’d watch it. Again going back to when I first read the script; it was something I’d never seen before. It’s never been put on screen – a story about the working men’s clubs, and a story about a strong female in this world. It just makes you understand that, once again, this story needed to be told. It’s a picture postcard of a dying aspect of our culture, of our history. We don’t have the working men’s clubs anymore which is a shame. So yes, my experience of these environments was first hand. The carpets, the tables, the desperation when the act fails. It all sticks with you.
Were there any of these clubs that you were able to find and film in or was it mainly studio work?
We shot entirely on location. There was no studio work in Funny Cow. We shot in actual working men’s clubs in Bradford, Leeds and Saltaire. So every location that you see in Funny Cow has been dressed. Funny Cow’s childhood home was in fact a home that was about to be rented out and was empty. So they allowed us to go in there and completely recreate it as a 50s home. I’d actually like to say that the whole of Bradford and Yorkshire were enormously helpful in terms of shooting on location. It’s very hard to do a period film these days because sadly society changes and we knock down old buildings and old relics and we replace them with new, cheaper indescribable things. So, it was all on location. These working men’s clubs did exist and they still do exist and we shot in them.
That authenticity really shows within the film. The film has a certain amount of nostalgia for the working men’s clubs and the comics within, but it’s never rose tinted. Being a comedian at the time is portrayed as being a very difficult and fairly dispiriting thing at times. Was there the fear of breaking the hearts of some old comedy fans?
Rather interestingly Bobby Ball has gotten in contact recently and said how authentic it was to him. When I make a film, when I look at a script, I don’t look at it in terms of how much money is this film going to make? Is this going to please everybody? If a script makes me laugh, is original, and I know I want to go and see it, then that for me is the litmus test. So, Tony wrote a very honest film and I think that what we’ve portrayed is the truth. Not only the truth of the time, it’s also the truth of the characters.
You’ve got some fantastic cameos by comedians like Vic Reeves, Kevin Eldon and Diane Morgan, just naming a few. What strikes me about them is that they were largely alternative comedians or came up in the alternative circuit. Did you find a certain amount of sympathy with them and the dark portrayal of comedy as a career path?
We had John Bishop as well. John was in there. My background always has been comedy. You talked about alternative comedy there. The very first obsession I had was with The Comic Strip and so I grew up with alternative comedy. When comedians are discussing and talking about comedy and how it’s changed, and how it’s moved on, it’s a very broad understanding of what was acceptable in the seventies and what changed during the 80s. Comedy has had many movements and I feel we captured that movement of the 70s as pitch perfectly as we could.
The comedians who are relevant these days have a completely different agenda and style to what we’ve captured on camera. The important thing to note about comedy is how it has changed. To see how politicised it did become in the 80s and then how alternative it became. And then in the 90s how it actually became a career. You could sell out a stadium. You could go to an arena. The story that we told resonated because those comedians that you mentioned were wholeheartedly aware of the forefathers of comedy who brought it into the mainstream. It went from the clubs onto the television, and from that we moved into comedians hosting gameshows like Bullseye… Jim Bowen. That’s when comedy started to infiltrate television. Then of course alternative comedy took over and it became a very different landscape. There was no more room for what we considered the dinosaurs of comedy. But it’s very important to remember that without their input we wouldn’t have the broad landscape we have now.
Absolutely and it’s really interesting to recast the familiar modern faces of comedy in the context of struggling to get attention in these clubs. It’s also really interesting that you’ve shown comedy to be fuelled by the audience. Because you have Alun Armstrong’s character trying to do the innocent stuff and the stuff he finds funny and it dies. He has to do the racist, broader stuff to get people onboard. What Funny Cow then does is she gets up and offers something the audience didn’t know they wanted which is a female sassy comedian. So she breaks through to them in a way that Armstrong’s character never did.
Yes, and I feel that comedy is always subjective. Because you’re always telling stories. Tony didn’t just sit down and write jokes that were of the time. He really thought hard about those jokes. It wasn’t just a case of “let’s stick in some stereotypes because we’re in the 70s.” Joke tellers were story tellers and they took the culture… There’s a very wonderful interview we did with Corinne Bailey Rae behind the scenes, where she calls herself a product of the embracing of cultures. Because cultures were starting to mix at this time. My parents are Irish so I am essentially an immigrant. So instead of pointing a finger and saying “That’s different” comedians were embracing the culture and utilising it in their acts. It’s inclusion. It’s not ostracising, and there’s a very distinct difference between ostracising with jokes and inclusion with jokes. And If you look at that joke at the very end that Funny Cow tells – who is the joke about? Who is the brunt of that joke? That’s a very clever joke because you’re giving the stereotypes, you’re creating a laugh, but nobody in that room is looking round and pointing at anyone who’s different, going “Yeah, yeah it’s about you. You’re less than me.” They’re not. It’s all about inclusion. And I think that’s an interesting dynamic that we captured in Funny Cow. Because you cannot do a film, absolutely cannot do a film, set in the 70s and not have a reference to the jokes that were being told then. The authenticity would be lost.
Coming on to Maxine Peake, she is perfect in the lead role. At what stage was she considered?
Maxine read the script and she had to be involved. It completely resonated with her. She met with Tony and said “I have to do this.” She had the same feeling I had. It’s the originality of it. I’ve not seen this before. And it was capturing a part of our history that had never really been fully explored. So of course she is perfect for it because she is Funny Cow and Tony specifically wrote the script for her. And again, it just made perfect sense for her to continue on this project whilst we stitched it together and made this film with very little assistance. I’ll put it that way.
Peake demonstrates that she is capable of being very funny but always in the context of this very disturbing environment of abuse and alcoholism and various other vices. Were you ever concerned about managing the tone of the film?
Well, Peake’s character never cries in the film. The scene which I adore is the scene where she laughs in the face of danger, where Bob assaults her and she breaks into hysterical laughing. It’s a poignant scene and I did say if this film encourages one person to leave an abusive relationship, or if it encourages one person to follow their dream then the job’s done. For me, the story and the originality and the resonance of the film is more important to me than making a film that has a happy ending, where you go home and you forget about the film. I wanted to make a film where people said “That’s changed my perception of everything. That’s really affected me, in a way that you don’t get anymore.” As well as capturing those heart-warming moments, it’s life affirming as well. The character of Funny Cow is life-affirming in every aspect of her journey. She becomes the person that she knows she is. She doesn’t change. There are some moments where we feel she could have taken an easier path but she doesn’t change. She doesn’t cry, she laughs in the face of danger and as far as I’m concerned she’s a hero. She’s as strong as Francis McDormand. She’s as strong as any of the contenders for this year’s [Academy] award. The tone of the film never once crossed my mind. All I knew was that it was heart-warming, life affirming and it made me laugh. It was hilarious. I read it three times and I laughed and cried. And immediately after reading it I phoned Tony and said, “I have to do this.”
She’s also supported by this solid troupe of character actors like Stephen Graham, Paddy Considine and Alun Armstrong, again just naming a few. How was it getting these guys involved?
Again, it all comes down to the script. Stephen read the script, Paddy read the script, Alun read the script and they all had to be involved. They all wanted to be involved. For us the key thing about this is that these cast members, the talent that you’ve described, would not do a film unless they were 100% in love with the story and what it was saying. That’s how we got them. It was absolutely down to the script. It was not down to anything else. They read it and they loved it. They all agreed in equal measure: heart-warming, hilarious, life affirming. That’s when you know that you have a film that is going to appeal to a wide variety of audience members.
Funny Cow is your first producing credit on a theatrically released film, but you’ve had a long and very illustrious line of production assistant and secretary credits in film and TV. Did working on films like Hot Fuzz, Eastern Promises, Adulthood and Inception amidst many, many others, help prepare you for the rigours of being a full on producer?
Yes. It gives you a complete understanding of what makes a film work. I’m very proud that I started off making tea for Peter Kay, many years ago in 2004. That was my first credited role. If you are going to succeed in this industry and if you are going to make films that are different, you really do need to know every single aspect of production. I moved from co-ordinating, to production management, to line producing, to producing. I would not have been able to make this film the way that it was made if I had walked in from a weekend course or after reading a book on producing. This business is hard, in fact it’s more than hard, it’s exhausting. Funny Cow took five years to be made and in those five years there’s a lot of rejection, a lot of pain, but that is why Tony and I have created our bond and it’s stronger. Now we have Studio POW, my company, which is moving forward, and the key to Studio POW is the creativity, putting the script first. You can do as many budgets as you want and you can do as many schedules as you want, but if you haven’t got the right script you will not get your defining, original career.
So Studio POW is now moving forward with Cordelia, which I’m shooting with Adrian Shergold (director of Funny Cow). After Cordelia we are shooting Disco Pier, which is Tony’s next film. Again, these scripts are original, they are stories that I have never seen before. It’s very tempting to do a film that will do well on DVD or is essentially a tried and tested template, but if you take a script and you give it to an actor and they say they’ve never read anything like this before, then you know that your creative radar is correct. And we are in a creative industry, so creativity comes first.
Fabulous, and is Cordelia going to be your next producing credit.
Yes, we start shooting in seven weeks at Twickenham Studios so it’s ready to go!
And can you tell us anything about it?
Yes. Cordelia is a studio film, so we are building sets at Twickenham. It is different to Funny Cow. It’s a psychological thriller that Adrian Shergold has written and is directing. I read it on the set of Funny Cow and immediately sensed the originality of the story. Something I’d never seen before. I was quite humbled that Adrian gave it to me. Because these kinds of projects are very rare and it was a very personal project to him. It’s the trust that you build up, and I think once creative people such as writers, directors and actors, find a producer that is very understanding of their needs and their creativity… Because as a producer you are there to protect the talent. You’re not there to exploit anybody and you’re not there to push things through. You’re there to make the film in the best medium possible. Which is why we’re building the sets and shooting on film as well. Kodak have gotten involved and we’re shooting on 16mm film. Studio POW is building a very diverse database of films that are for a very wide audience. There will be no pigeonholing, each script is always different and, as I say, the creativity of the project always comes first.
That’s brilliant, and Cordelia sounds really interesting. My final question would be the question that should be on everybody’s lips: where and how can everyone see Funny Cow?
Funny Cow will be nation-wide on April the 20th. Thankfully eOne have run with this project and they are giving it a broad release. Just to note, my heartfelt thanks to eOne for taking this project and giving it the platform that it deserves. It’s important to note that eOne came onboard at script stage. So they were with us from the start and due to their admiration of the project, they left us alone. We made the film we wanted to make, and I think that’s why it stands out as being such an original and diverse film. Because we were allowed to do what we wanted to do.
Absolutely and that really shows. Kevin Proctor, thank you so much for speaking with me.
No, I’m really happy. Thank you so much!
Funny Cow is in cinemas nationwide on Friday the 20th of April. Read Screen Mayhem’s review here.