Our conversation started out, as most interviews tend to, with fairly bland questions, discussing the way the book and the film differ from McCormick’s life, but moved into far more interesting territory, with Hamm lambasting the anti-Bono bandwagon jumpers, and discussion of the insanity of the eighties music scene.
HUG: Obviously the book is based on your life story, and the film is based upon the book. How much have you edited, altered, made more dramatic as it were, because obviously in the film there’s all sorts of crazy…
Neil McCormick: There’s all sorts of extra, added drama. It’s like a Chinese whispers version of my life, and it gets worse with every retelling. There’s a lot of added things. There’s a lot of psychological and philosophical ideas bubbling under my book, told through disjointed anecdotes and internal monologues, and everything internal in a film, has to be externalised. And what is a metaphor, which is the metaphor of slaying your dragons, which is the very idea of Killing Bono, started to become a physical reality. So it’s a very different version of my story, my life in a parallel universe. I still don’t get to be a rock star, but I get played by a really handsome actor.
HUG: Nick, you’re translating, as it were, the book to the screen. At what point whilst reading these ‘disjointed anecdotes’ were you thinking, ‘right, these ones work, these ones definitely don’t’?
Nick Hamm: When you do a film like this you’re not telling a story of someone’s life, you’re telling a story of a character based on someone’s life, and you’re extrapolating from that all of the comedy you could get out of it, and you’re also condensing into an hour and a half of straightforward narrative, rather than a series of incidents that happened. So some of the film is authentic, some of the film actually happened: the U2 auditions, the stuff in the school, the hype tracks and all of that, that’s authentic rock and roll history. Neil did some of the other stuff, but proportionally quite small. There’s a fictionalisation, if you like, of what the character might have done in certain scenarios, and then used certain incidents. So the movie takes fact and fictionalises it, and takes fiction and makes it fact, but you kind of play with it, and you make it authentic to what it is at that moment, if that makes any sense. So you steer that course to try to get that narrative journey going.
HUG: Getting back to the real life cross over, Neil, are you still in contact with Bono at all?
NM: Yes, I’m in contact with Bono on a fairly regular basis. I wrote U2 on U2, I was his ghost writer. In fact, I lost contact with Bono for a few years, because he weighed down too heavily on me. His success was just a bit too big and overwhelming, and my failure at that point, the end of the band, was just a bit of a bitter pill that I had t o swallow and get over. There was a period of about five years where I just didn’t see him, but in the mid nineties we connected somewhere, it was actually at the funeral of a mutual friend, Bill Graham, a great writer, and after that we stayed very much in touch. I realised he was not this rock icon bestraddling the world, he was the same person I went to school with. When you’re in that position like his, you’re surrounded by a lot of voices; sometimes the older voices, the people who knew you before you were this idea, are the ones you can trust. He always knows I’ll l give him an opinion about anything, and he’s not afraid of opinions.
So we stay in touch, and he really liked the book. I discussed the book with him when I wrote it, and he loved it when it came out, because it’s the first time he had read himself, and recognised himself in print, because I knew him from a different bunch of dimensions than most people would ever see him. He was very in favour of the book, and he asked me to write his own book, so I went from a point in my life where the last thing I wanted to do was be involved with U2, to actually becoming his ghost writer. I spent two years hearing him tell me the story of his life, the whole lot of them, and seeing the U2 organisation from the inside. That was very interesting. It was interesting for them to tell their own story, because I saw so many points where everything was in jeopardy and it could have gone so wrong for them, and they might have just evaporated, and not become U2, and that’s what people forget, in those struggles, they weren’t born U2, a lot of things happened, and some of those things were accidents that made them the band. So I stay in touch with Bono, and he knew about the film, he even saw a script and he talked to me about it. He’s delighted with the idea of it. I think the big thing for all of us is the early stuff, particularly the school disco scene, which really just feels completely authentic, when the two bands are playing before you’ve become who you are, when you’re about to set out on that road. Practically everything in U2’s life from 1980 on is documented, there’s lots of photographs, and there’s demos and there’s videos and everything, but that’s a time before they became U2, and nobody was documenting it, and now here it is to be seen.
That scene just took me back, that pulled me back in a brutal way. It was like being in that disco, and watching our debut, and watching The Hype. I just loved that band, I loved that song. It’s a song that doesn’t exist anymore, and there it was, and the first time I heard them doing it, I still knew every word and nuance of it, because those were gigs. I must have seen U2 a hundred times before they even left Ireland.
HUG: You’ve clearly got a lot of affection for the band, and for Bono, and that translates onto the screen, but did you ever feel perhaps that, Bono in the film, is the nicest man on earth. He certainly comes across as such, and I wondered whether that was a decision, to offset him against the meanness, and the mean-spiritedness of some of the other characters on the screen, or whether it was accidental because he’s your friend.
NM: In my life he is a really nice guy. You talk to the other members of the band, about this image of Bono as a saint, and they’ll laugh at you, because in the rehearsal room with Bono, I think there’s a better chance that he might punch you than lift you up to heaven, but in my life, he’s my friend, and he’s tried to help me. I have always been reciprocal of that help, but I see him as a good guy, I’ve always seen him as a good guy I really think what he’s done is amazing, and the way his image has, in some ways, been demonised in a cartoonish fashion. I’ve seen too much of the other side of that; I know the truth, and I think it’s nice to see him presented as an actual, good natured human being, which is what he is.
NH: I don’t actually think that’s true that he comes across in the movie as a saint-like figure. Number one, I actually, personally find all of this anti-Bono stuff tiresome, and quite intellectually boring, and so ‘too cool for fucking school’, if you’re somehow, yeah, this is the bandwagon and we’re gonna… I mean grow up, for God’s sake. Have a fucking thought of your own once in a while. It’s nothing to do with any of that. This is a movie about the notion of failure. Represented in the movie is a guy who has success. This is his role in the picture, and I had no intention of being hyper-critical of somebody’s work who wasn’t a part of the movie.
HUG: I think you may have misunderstood my question.
NH: No, no. It wasn’t about you. That comment was about the rather fatuous comments about the title. If I read another crap thing on the internet about ‘I wish he was dead’. You just think, really, is that the extent…
NM: You know, Bono came up with the title. He understands that he’s not in control of how he’s perceived anymore, but he tries not to let it get in the way…
NH: You know, we’re obsessed with celebrity in a way which is like, you know, we laud these losers on a regular basis on tabloid television, and destroy talent with the same thing. We must address this. The movie isn’t about that, the movie’s just a romp.
HUG: Following on from that, one of the things that did strike me along the same lines of Bono being nice, it seems that Robert [Sheehan] and Ben [Barnes] are going through it as very normal guys, and throughout the film they meet people on a spectrum of utter bizarre. Peter Serafinowicz is amazing, but he’s a complete caricature of a man.
NM: Do you think so? I can’t agree with you. The eighties were nuts…
NH: I can walk you down the street and sit you in the middle of Soho now… I’m gonna introduce you to fifteen producers he’s less of a caricature than.
NM: I went into one place, I can’t say where it is, the head of A&R, we went for a meeting in the middle of the day, and he had all the lights down. He was lying on the sofa with his sunglasses on, and he’s like ‘hey man’. Twenty-one year old guys off the boat from Ireland, and this is what your being introduced to…
NH: Let me tell you about the eighties. The eighties was cocaine on the table, and lines at night, and if you think that’s an exaggeration, then Jesus. That’s an underplayed version…
NM: There was a guy called The Captain, who was the head of A&R at Island, and actually signed U2, and he used to watch the cricket while he was listening to your demos…
NH: Peter was way, way less caricatured than that.
Killing Bono is out in UK cinemas today.