For all of the sets we’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited on, few have been as accommodating and hospitable as that of The Comedian’s Guide to Survival (produced by Alan Latham at GSP Studios) – a piece based (somewhat loosely) on the life of stand-up comedian James Mullinger – who was on hand to greet us upon our arrival, and a key factor into what made for such a congenial experience.
Mullinger’s career, much like many others on the stand-up circuit, has been something of a mixed bag. There are highs – such as playing in front of a packed out Hammersmith Apollo, or moving to Canada (where he now resides) and making a name for himself on the other side of the Atlantic. To lows – playing in front of much smaller crowds, or turning up to an event that usually promises free drink, only for the perturbed crowd to discover that money has instead been spent on a comic. “In a situation like that, I’d hate me too”, Mullinger admitted. But all the while, the comedian was forging a successful career for himself in journalism, interviewing the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and working for GQ. It’s that double life he led which lays the foundations for this comedically inclined, and yet subtly dramatic character study – but Mullinger was quick to point out that this is by no means a biopic.
“Myself and Mark Murphy (the director) worked on a script years ago that this is based on – it had the same premise. Then he came to visit me in Canada a few months ago and we went back over it, and were just adding stories. But bar the stories I added, it’s all him. I’d like to think the character is a little more pathetic than I was!”
“So why did we use my name? I guess it made sense, and legally we could. Other characters are fictional though. I obviously had an editor, and in the film he’s played by Paul Kaye but he is not the same person. The relationship they have is not the relationship I had. My editor was extremely supportive and lovely. In the film he makes James’ life a misery. I do wonder if people are worried what’s going to come out of this though. I haven’t reassured anyone yet – but nobody has anything to worry about. But some of it is real, like when the character goes on stage and insults the corporate bosses’ daughter – that happened.”
We asked the comedian if he felt that being the subject of a movie could potentially be good for his career, putting his name out there, perhaps thriving in notion of ‘any publicity is good publicity’. But he wasn’t quite so convinced…
“The film could be good for for my co-producer role, but it’s not necessarily the best thing for my comedy, because it’s about me being a shit comedian,” he laughed. “If you Google my name now, the words ‘failed stand up’ come up, because of the synopsis for this movie. So suddenly if someone wants to book me and they Google my name, it’s going to say ‘failed stand up’. So the flip-side is that is could be bad for my career. Even if it’s a huge hit, which I hope it is, would you then want to pay to see the bloke it’s based on if you’ve watched a film about him being a shit comedian?”
Mullinger is starring in the film too, but not as himself – instead that job is bestowed upon James Buckley, and the former admits he never had any doubts that the role was best left in the hands of someone else.
“Years ago when working on it, it was a thought it might be me – but the second Mark wrote this brilliant script there was no way, because I’m not an actor,” he said. “This character needs an amazing actor to carry it. It never crossed my mind. We always knew it would be someone else, but I didn’t think it would be someone as brilliant as James Buckley.”
During our day on set we watched Buckley flex his comedic muscles, with a scene opposite MyAnna Buring – and with Murphy’s freedom to let the actor improvise, something he recently picked up in the States having collaborated with Judd Apatow, it made for a fun, unpredictable watch. Buckley explained to us – mid-haircut, no less – what attracted him to getting involved in this project.
“Having been on The Inbetweeners, it means there’s a lot of people who want you to be in their stuff, which is great – but for some reason I’ve become really stubborn and snooty and rarely work, which is probably damaging my career,” he said – in a self-deprecating fashion which set the tone for what was a dry, witty exchange. “But when I got this script I read it and emailed my agent back straight away and said I really liked it, and that I could do a good job of it. She nearly had a heart attack.”
“It would always be nice to look back over your career and think you had a go at everything – but comedy will always be what I’m best at, and also what is the most fun. That’s just a fact. It will always be my first love. People are more forgiving with comedy too, if you’re funny people can forgive you for not being a particularly good actor. Which is why I’m probably right for it.”
Though playing James Mullinger, and having met the man himself on a few occasions, Buckley was intent on fictionalising the character and taking solely from the page, and not from the man in real life – instead drawing more on his own experiences to help craft the role at hand.
“I didn’t know James before we started filming, so I read it and saw a guy who is married with kids who is chasing a dream and I can relate to that. So I know what it’s like to have the pressures of the people that mean the most to you in the world rely on you, and also the strange job I’ve managed to get myself in to. I shared that with the character.”
“Plus, I decide very early on how I approach a film, I know what my performance is going to be. Once I’ve decided something I can’t be bothered to rethink stuff and come up with another idea, you’re not gonna get that off of me.”
To see Buckley play a version for himself was intriguing and rather surreal for Mullinger, particularly when standing behind the monitor, watching scenes play out based on real life situations he had been involved in, just a handful of years previous.
“It’s fascinating to see James play this character, which he’s completely made his own, it’s very different to me,” he said. “A lot of the things that happens to him are real, but he’s created this character.”
“That being said, when we were filming James Buckley interviewing comedians that was surreal because Mark, the director of this film, was also the director of the Comedy Central series he and I did four years ago – so were in the same building in Montreal, sat there interviewing some of the same comedians. So being there with Mark, watching James Buckley playing me, interviewing people I had interviewed – that was surreal. It’s funny too because he is conveying a lot of the stuff I was only thinking.”
Watching somebody play you in one thing, but how about watching yourself on screen? That’s something that Buckley admits he’s never quite felt particularly comfortable with.
“I don’t get a buzz at all at seeing myself do anything, I really hate it and it makes me feel uncomfortable,” he admitted. “It makes me question my place in this line of work. I think most actors would give you that answer. I only see the stuff I did wrong, or know I could have done better. That is a million tiny stab wounds during the course of a whole film. Like The Inbetweeners, I like it a lot and am very proud of it, but the times I enjoy it is when I’m not in a scene, and can watch the other boys – who are the three funniest British actors of our generation. I love watching them, but hate watching myself.”
Perhaps that will be made easier when watching sequences back where Buckley stars alongside his wife Clair Meek – who is playing his actual spouse in the movie.
“My wife is coming in for the final two days to play my wife in the film,” he laughed. “The wife in the film finds her husband quite annoying and is fed up with him, and I thought, you know what, I know a person who could do that… Hopefully she can vent a lot of anger and frustration and then we’ll be happy when we get back home! Bless her. I’m a difficult person to live with. She’s a saint.”
Hopefully having his wife on set won’t disrupt the actor though, who admits he is easily put off when shooting a scene…
“I’m a complete hypocrite because I’m really easy to distract and put off, so if someone is whispering or talking or something like that, I go Christian Bale of them,” he said. “But then when someone else is doing their scene, I’m fucking around, chatting, singing – I do that a lot of the time. I like to joke around and show off wherever I am really. A proper actor would probably tell you they’d like to focus on what they’re doing.”
But ultimately, what’s important is that the film is funny – and both of the James’ we had the pleasure of spending time with during this indelible experience, are rather confident of this being the case.
“I’m so enormously proud of what Mark has written, and every scene that is hilarious means this film will be even better than I had hoped,” Mullinger beamed.
While Buckley – whose job it is to provide these laughs – is relatively hopeful of doing just that. “I just want to be funny, that’s all I want to do. I really like making people laugh and people like me for doing it , which is really good.”
Well, from what we saw on our day in Epsom – we think he may have just pulled it out of the bag.
Check back on the site later today for part two of our set visit report, where we speak to director Mark Murphy, and star MyAnna Buring.