The Inside Story Of James Mullinger’s Movie About His Life
Critically acclaimed British comedian James Mullinger is returning to Montreal’s Comedyworks this Thursday to Saturday, performing five shows over three nights. Back by popular demand after a barnstorming run in May, he was nominated for the Just For Laughs Best Comedy Show Award at last year’s Montreal Fringe and was recently nominated for Best Live Solo Show at the Canadian Comedy Awards. He was recently profiled by the Globe & Mail and despite the fact he was promoting a headline run in Toronto, he talked of his love to Montreal. A big budget British movie about his life was recently completed starring Jimmy Carr, Mike Ward, Derek Seguin, Gilbert Gottfried, Mike Wilmot and actors from Twilight, Notting Hill and Downton Abbey. Tell us more James…
I just can’t seem to stay away from Montreal. I wrote at length for this superb website about my love of your beautiful city earlier this year.
Those five shows at Comedyworks in May were some of my most enjoyable this year. Working with one of my oldest friends Derek Seguin was both a professional pleasure and a health failure. My liver is still recovering. Of course the club is one of the best in the country. We all know this. The brickwork, the stage, the seating – all perfect. And Dawn, Ian and Walter all make you feel so welcome and, most importantly, they all really understand stand up comedy and how to make a perfect show. That special weekend was filmed for my Bell Aliant television show Blimey! An Englishman In Atlantic Canada and will be appearing early next year in a feature length special.
The day after my final show in Montreal in May, I flew back to my new home of Saint John, New Brunswick. That same day, the award-winning British film director Mark Murphy arrived in Saint John from London to spend a week polishing a script we had been working on since our first visit to Montreal four years ago where we conceived the story.
When Mark and I began writing the screenplay four years ago about my early years as a stand up comic, neither of us could have imagined it would become a $7.5m feature film starring some of our favourite comedians. A friendship that began at school and continued six years ago when we began making a TV show called Movie Kingdom. This became the world’s first funny film review show and months of seven-day weeks and twenty-hour days went into producing this labour of love for very little, if any, money. The show was very low budget and we pumped the pennies we made from it back into it to fulfil our vision. While it looked cheap I am still enormously proud of the show because we did well with what we had and most importantly it was funny. Funny enough that the likes of Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Terry Gilliam and Daniel Craig appeared in it. It also caught the attention of the head of commissioning at Comedy Central, Sarah Farrell.
She liked what we saw and commissioned us to make a web series for Comedy Central that consisted of me interviewing my favourite comedians and despatched us to the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal to do so, which was obviously a dream come true. Lewis Black, Orny Adams, Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Jim Jefferies, Greg Davies and many more all appeared in the show. But Mark always thought it was hilarious that after a day of chatting with Jackie Mason or Judd Apatow about the secrets of stand up that I would jump in my car and drive for three hours to die on stage in front of five people. So he conceived the script idea that became The Comedian’s Guide To Survival about James Mullinger, a magazine journalist who is struggling to balance his day job and his wife and children with his desire to become a successful stand up comedian. An underdog story about following your dreams, Mark and producer Alan Latham secured funding for the film and as soon as my Montreal run in May ended, Mark and I holed ourselves up in the Hilton in Saint John to ensure the script was as funny and tight as we wanted it to be.
At the end of that long week of 12-hour days remembering and reciting all the nightmare experiences from the start of my comedy career we had a script we were proud of. We were ready. The script was the best it could be.
Luckily, a whole host of actors and comedians agreed with us. MyAnna Buring (Twilight, Downton Abbey), Paul Kaye (Game Of Thrones), Gilbert Gottfried and Tim McInnerny (Notting Hill), Jimmy Carr all came on board. James Buckley signed on to play the lead character after reading the script. He loved it and related somewhat to the character – a man who wants the best for his family but is equally devoted to the art of comedy even though he is already the star of the biggest comedy film in England of all time (In Inbetweeners 2). I had been a huge fan of his work for years but we didn’t meet until the first day of filming. Without wanting to give away any of the plot, the first week of filming was in Montreal in July during the festival. And the first scene was the most ambitious of all, taking place during JFL’s epic Nasty Show with Buckley playing me and me playing a character named Brad Macey who is a British stand up gone to Hollywood and become a bit of a dick. No it’s not based on Russell Brand. Much.
Luckily we had the greatest crew imaginable thanks to our Montreal producers Fayçal Hajji, owner of Fh-Studio. An amazing and talented man with an incredible crew. Everything was made easy by the Montreal crew despite some gruelling days and very difficult shots to achieve. James and I shot the scene together and then he did a scene with Jimmy Carr who plays himself in the film. Buckley wisely chose not to try and emulate me or any of my mannerisms. At the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell, he has made the character his own. And good thing too because obviously the character needs to be likeable and I don’t think my real life paranoia, insecurities or nervousness would play well on screen.
Buckley’s last film before Comedian’s Guide was with Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman and Andy Samberg in Hollywood so his improvisation skills are spectacular right now. I have never laughed so much as when he was shooting scenes of the character interviewing the best comedians in the world – Omid Djalili, Pete Zedlacher, Mike Ward, Brendon Burns, Mike Wilmot, Derek Seguin, Gina Yashere. With their riffing skills honed on the stand up circuit over decades and Buckley’s from film sets with Apatow, these scenes are some of the funniest in the film. This was especially surreal for me because we shot these scenes in the same hotel in Montreal that Mark (the writer and director) and I did the real interviews with these comedians three years ago. So to see an actor I greatly admire sit in the same chair I was in three years ago, ask the same stupid questions I was asking felt like I was in an alternative universe.
Montreal’s own Mike Ward pretty much steals the film. Fans of his will know him to be a comedy genius capable of anything. Well he is so insanely funny in that that his scene which was very carefully structured to take place midway through the film, now looks like it will be opening the film. I have watched this sequence with Mike over a hundred times now and I genuinely think – with no exaggeration – that it is one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Which is why it opens the first and last big screen movie that I will probably ever write and produce.
The success of the Montreal filming was also down to Brent Schiess and Bruce Hills from Just For Laughs who did what they always do: which is make the impossible possible. Again, I can’t reveal the ending of the film but all of its awesomeness and epicness is down to Bruce and Brent. Not only two of the most talented people I am lucky enough to call friends, but also two of the nicest.
We are planning to ensure that Montreal is the first city in North America to see The Comedian’s Guide To Survival as we are hoping to premiere it at the festival next year.
The most bizarre thing for me was watching Buckley perform my stand up. All of his live performances in the film use my real material. Of course it’s hard to watch your own act being used for scenes in which the character dies on stage and gets booed off but that’s the reality of stand up and we wanted this film to be real. Of course it is a movie and is supposed to be fun but we were determined to make it authentic. I want comedians to watch it and recognise what is happening on screen. Too often when films are set in a particular environment, they don’t resemble what it’s really like to work in that profession. I would like to think that – with a bit of artistic licence – for the most part this is the reality of life for a stand up on the bottom rung of the ladder. Worryingly I think he delivers some of the gags better than I do.
All of the awful things that happen to the character at corporate gigs happened to me. Almost word for word. Such as the time I arrived to do a Christmas gig for an insurance company in the north of England and was told that there was no free bar because the boss decided to spend the money on the comedian instead. They quite rightly hated me. I hated me. I was the reason there was no free booze. That is the most unforgivable sin imaginable. It was such a horrible night I could barely bear to watch the scene being filmed.
Luckily though it is easy to relive the awful indignities that befell you early in your career when your dreams come true and you get to play clubs like Comedyworks for a living. Some people strive for fame, riches, Hollywood. All I ever wanted since I was a shy, bullied, suicidal 12-year old schoolboy was to make a living as a stand up comedian. That’s a reality now. I can’t quite believe it but it makes me inordinately, indescribably, insanely happy.
See you this weekend Montreal. It will be a party. Even if Derek Seguin is out of town.