Director Declan Lowney brings radio host Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) to the big screen in his outrageously funny new comedy, “Alan Partridge,” that’s filled with incisive wit and satirical humor. In his feature debut, Alan (Coogan) finds himself at the center of a siege when a disgruntled fellow DJ (Colm Meaney) holds their Norfolk radio station hostage after learning that he’s getting sacked by the new management. Since the multi-platform fictional character first appeared over 20 years ago as a BBC sports reporter on the radio show, “On The Hour,” this wonderfully conceited, idiosyncratic comic creation has flourished across virtually every medium imaginable. The film is now available on iTunes/OnDemand and opening in limited release in U.S. theaters April 4th.
Lowney has worked on some of the most iconic comedies of the past few decades including “Father Ted,” “Little Britain” and “Mr. Stink.” His previous collaborations with Coogan include 2002’s “Cruise of the Gods” and 2012’s “Alan Partridge on Open Books with Martin Bryce.” In an exclusive interview in Los Angeles, Lowney spoke about their latest reteaming, what Coogan and Meany brought to their roles, why directing a film where the script changed daily is all about serving the storytelling, capturing the comedy, and standing back to let the actors do their thing, why he believes the character has remained so popular with audiences, the possibility of a sequel, and his upcoming ABC pilot, “Damaged Goods.”
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: Can you talk about how this project came about?
DECLAN LOWNEY: The character went from being quite an obscure cult figure to being a huge, very popular comedy character, and there’s been pressure on Steve (Coogan) for years to do a movie, so they’ve been kicking around ideas for years and year. I haven’t been involved with Alan Partridge, but I have worked with Steve a lot in the past, so that’s how I came to the project. It was just a question of his schedule and everybody else’s schedule and the writers and coming up with the right idea, and seemingly it all came together about two years ago for them, so they started writing and writing and writing. But still, by the time it came to shoot it, Steve wasn’t happy with the script so he constantly rewrote while we were shooting as well. I mean, he’s that sort of comedian. When he’s there doing it, that’s when he’s the most creative for the character. So that’s kind of how it came about. He was also at the same time pushing that other film, “Philomena,” and Judi Dench become available, so he pushed us back a few months to accommodate that film. So literally, he shot these two films back to back and put himself under enormous pressure. By the time he came to “Alan Partridge,” he just was focusing on the script properly for the first time as we were shooting. There was a lot of tweaking and changing and rewriting, but at the end of the day, it’s all for the best. It was to make the film as good as it could be. He’s a real comedy perfectionist and really is something of a comedy genius, so he was a brilliant guy to be working with and an amazing character to be around to see that happening.
Q: What do you think it is about the character of Alan Partridge that makes him so endearing, and 20 years later, audiences are still in love with him?
LOWNEY: Well, he is such a buffoon and there is something. The character is very deluded, and it’s always fun to watch a deluded character, especially when things start to go wrong for them, and the lengths to which they will go to rescue themselves. I think the character is very fun. He’s fun to watch and observe and look at, but then Steve does bring some humanity to the character where you slightly feel for him. Alan does sometimes say things we all think but we wouldn’t dare say. He just says it without any regard to the consequences. And so, sometimes I think we are thinking the same sort of things and we are kind of glad he’s saying it for us. He does bring a humanity to the character that makes it hard to hate him. You enjoy laughing at him, but you do want to give him a hug sometimes. Well, maybe not, maybe you don’t. (Laughs) When things don’t work out for him, you go, “Oh poor Alan.” The journey to get to things not working out for him is always a joy to watch.
Q: How would you describe your directing approach for a film like this? How much latitude do you give your actors?
LOWNEY: (Laughs) I’ll tell you why I’m laughing. It’s about survival really. There was no point going into this going, “This is exactly how I’m going to shoot this scene. I see this…” It was never going to happen that way. A, we didn’t get the time, and B, by the time we came to shoot that scene, that scene was different than it was when you saw it in the script anyway. It really was about being loose enough in your style to accommodate anything that they threw at you. Somebody was asking about the toilet scene, the scene where he’s underneath it. I mean, he came up with that while we’d already starting shooting. So that structure was being built while we were shooting the earlier part of the film. We shot it very much in sequence, but that means he could actually be constantly thinking about the end and coming up with new stuff to do at the end and know that that was still a few weeks away in terms of shooting. My approach to shooting this was the gags are the most important thing. People are coming to the cinema to see Alan Partridge, not to see something that looks beautiful. I think it does look nice, but it wasn’t about how it looked. It was about capturing the comedy. I’m there to serve the storytelling and the gagtelling. When I first met Armando (producer Armando Iannucci), that was what he wanted to know. He didn’t know me. Steve knew me and wanted me to direct the film. Armando didn’t know me, so I had to convince Armando that I was the right one for it, but I did. One of the things I said to him is my job there is to protect the gags. It’s about protecting the gags. The more times people laugh, the better the film is. That really was the focus and that had to be your approach as a director. There wasn’t any room for another terroir.
Q: Does that allow you to bring out the best in your actors in a movie like this?
LOWNEY: I think it does, and particularly in comedy, it has to be like that. It is a group thing. You couldn’t hope to make a drama and have people rewriting on the day and having the actors making suggestions, “Wouldn’t it be funny if my character did this?” “No. You’re the actor. I’ll tell you what to do.” That wouldn’t work in a drama, would it? But it worked in this comedy certainly.
Q: Can you talk about what Steve Coogan and Colm Meaney brought to the film?
LOWNEY: Steve is an absolute comedy genius and takes the words and makes them funny. He’ll be reading the page and something funny comes out of his mouth, and he will play with that and play with that on camera sometimes for ten minutes while the camera is rolling until he feels he’s gotten the proper run of things. “I’ll do those three lines again” and bang, he’s gone again and he’s gone again. You just keep rolling and you just let him do it, and the other actors work with that. Colm was so outside of that world. That was so unlike, so alien to him. I mean, Steve called him up before he committed to the film and said, “Look, it’s going to be a bit of a fucking mess. The script’s not finished. You’ve got to be cool.” And he said, “I’ve done some improv. I did a Judd Apatow movie last year. I’ll be fine.” When he turned up, he wasn’t enjoying it at all. I remember him one day on Cromer Pier when we were all freezing cold shooting those scenes, and he said to me, “It’s like being in a fucking student film.” (Laughs) He constantly was irritated by the last minute script changes when I’d give him a line. That’s very tough for an actor if you’re not in that world. And so, I think he brought a lot of that anger to the part. You did at times feel that here’s a guy who’s a bit unhinged. He could fucking lash out. (Laughs) I think his performance just grounded that whole thing. You completely empathize with him. I think anybody couldn’t help but feel for him, and people completely understand that situation with so many people being made redundant, and at 55 you’re being let go. I think people completely buy into that as a real dramatic scenario. What was brilliant about Colm was that he made that actually feel completely real. I think that added to the danger for Alan who actually realized the guy could take his head off. I thought it was a fantastic combination. Colm came to the project late, so we were very, very lucky.
Q: You’ve got a satirical film with a lot of adept physical comedy. How do you go about finding the right tone for the film?
LOWNEY: It’s a bit of trial and error. There’s one big gag in that film that some people, the Partridge purists say, “Oh that gag could have been anybody. It didn’t have to be Alan.” That’s the one where he falls out the toilet window — I don’t want to give too much away, but you know the one I’m talking about — whereas a lot of the other things were very Alan specific. So, tonally amongst ourselves, there was doubt about whether that was the right thing to have done or not, but we had to keep the scene because we had to connect to the break-in. But it is trial and error. A lot of stuff we shot never went in and there were a few fantastic comedy ideas around. Armando was pushing some ideas that he really thought were right, but Steve said no, that tonally it’s not right. We just had to try things. We screened that film a lot for ourselves. We cut stuff, put it in, and then took it out again. It’s trial and error.
Q: There’s a funny moment in the parking lot when we hear what sound like gunshots and see flashes of light in the windows, but Alan doesn’t react.
LOWNEY: I’m really glad you got that because we played with that a lot and how loud those bangs should be and how quiet they should be.
Q: There are also some very funny moments where you intentionally subvert Hollywood action movie clichés. Was that fun to do?
LOWNEY: That was fun to do, but again I got a day to shoot it. That was my action scene where I had everybody running around the place with guns and things. It was a bit of fun to do that sort of thing. We just threw everything into that 40 or 50 seconds, into that moment. Again, I don’t want to give it away. It was great fun to do.
Q: How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
LOWNEY: (Laughs) Well, the script changed so much from what I read before we made it, but I’m delighted. I think it’s everything that I wanted it to be and more in many ways. I haven’t seen it for a few months and I’m seeing it with some people tonight. It will be a buzz to watch it with an audience because people do get it and people here get it, like you. There’s still enough there for you to get your teeth into. I’m thinking about Louis C.K. I’ve watched a couple of Louis C.K. shows on the plane and I didn’t know who he was. I’d seen him in “American Hustle” and I thought this guy was amazing. I’ve just started getting into him, so I don’t know what got him where he is, but I can tell there’s history there. I can tell there’s a real depth to that character. I’ll find out more about him, but I can get what he’s doing now. That show is really, really funny. I suppose it’s a bit like someone from England discovering someone like him. I hope people if they love the movie will then dig deep and find out more about Alan because there’s so much stuff available on line to watch of Alan’s.
Q: Can you talk about the financing for the film and how that came together?
LOWNEY: StudioCanal is a French and British company and they put about £3 million in. BBC Films put in a little over £1 million in. And the National Lottery Fund put £250,000 in through the U.K. Film Council as it used to be. It was kind of a simple financing structure and the budget would be based on what they reckon they can recoup in the U.K. in cinemas and DVD. It’s £4 million which isn’t bad for a British film. It’s a reasonable budget there. It took £7 million in at the box office upon the release in the cinema and then the DVD took another £7 million, I think. So, that was an exercise and they knew the audience would cover that sort of cost.
Q: How long did it take to shoot?
LOWNEY: It was six weeks shooting. We shot in January and February and we finished on the 3rd of March, and it was in cinemas the 7th of August, so it was an incredibly quick turnaround.
Q: Is there a possibility of a sequel?
LOWNEY: It has been talked about, but it will be when the time is right, not because he feels obliged to do it. But I think he will be up for it.
Q: What are you working on next?
LOWNEY: “Damaged Goods” is a pilot I’m making for ABC. It’s written by Lauren Iungerich who created the show “Awkward” for MTV four or five years ago, and that show is still running. This is more adult. It’s a female-centered comedy and we start shooting on Saturday. Hopefully, that will be picked up and go to series.