Tony Wilson is a powerhouse combination of university professor and flamboyant ringmaster. From the late ’70s until the early ’90s, his particular circus was Factory, the influential record label that he founded in a crummy corner of Manchester, England. Factory launched the joyless throb of Joy Division (whose 23-year-old singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide on the eve of what would have been JD’s first U.S. tour), the desolate disco of New Order, and the rambunctious funk of Happy Mondays. The history of Factory, and of Wilson’s nightclub, the Hacienda, has always depended on hyperbole and gossip. Is it true that New Order’s hit single “Blue Monday” was so elaborately packaged that Factory lost money on each copy sold? Did the devoutly hedonistic Mondays really blow their budget on crack and other sundries when they decamped to Barbados to record an album? And did Wilson actually sign a contract in his own blood stating that Factory had no dominion over its own bands or their material? The truth is irrelevant: It’s the myth that counts.
So it’s appropriate that a new film about Factory should take as one of its themes the collision of fact and fiction. 24 Hour Party People (opening Friday), directed by Michael Winterbottom from a script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, is no straight-arrow biopic. Its on-screen admissions of willful fabrications, not to mention its trippy detours into fantasy (God admonishing Wilson for not signing the Smiths), leave the audience to complete the puzzle. Wilson is presented as flawed hero and unreliable narrator: As played by Steve Coogan, he rides through life on a wave of his own unself-conscious pomposity—addressing the camera to alert us to incidents of doubtful authenticity or blithely parading his erudition to blank-faced bystanders. The picture’s on-the-hoof vitality is persuasive enough that even those heathens without a Joy Division album in their CD rack should find something to admire.
THE MOVIE HAS GREAT ENERGY AND INFORMALITY. HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THAT? STEVE COOGAN: I suggested to the screenwriter that Tony should talk straight to camera. I just couldn’t imagine Tony Wilson being in a film and not knowing he was in a film. There was also a lot of improvisation. Some of the things that Tony said on set were actually incorporated into my dialogue. TONY WILSON: When Steve turns to camera and protests that it’s not his story, it’s about the musicians—that was something I screamed down the phone at the writer. Then it ended up in the film. SC: A lot of the film’s energy is really down to Michael. He told me that he was never sure what he was doing—he just wanted to make the film the way he thought Factory might have made it. In one scene, I was leaving a nightclub, and he said, “The camera might follow you, or we might stay in the club.” So I had to leave the club in character and walk off, not knowing whether or not I was being filmed.
IT SOUNDS VERY MIKE LEIGH. SC: It does. But I think Michael is the better filmmaker. Not that Mike Leigh isn’t a very nice man. TW: He’s not. He’s a cantankerous old sod. SC: There’s a hint of the voyeur about the way Leigh looks at his characters, whereas Michael gets right in there with them.
DID YOU KNOW EACH OTHER BEFORE THE MOVIE? SC: I knew Tony from seeing him on television. He also knew my aunt, and one time he came to my parents’ house for her birthday party. I was about 10. I thought, “Hey, he’s a star.” Then a ghost appeared to me and said in an echoey voice, “One day you will play this man.”
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR KEY TO PLAYING HIM—THE VOICE, THE CLOTHES? SC: I used to do an impression of Tony in my stand-up act, but I decided to use that only as a starting point here. I’m not a method actor. I like to do things from the outside in. Tony gesticulates a lot. He wears these very loose-fitting suits. You put one on and you instantly feel like a guru. But it was always going to be my take on him, rather than a factual representation. TW: It’s Steve Coogan playing his idea of himself doing what I was fortunate enough to do. The whole film is a pack of lies. You do understand that, don’t you? The miracle is that it still manages to tell the exact truth about punk, acid house, the whole Factory story. But you shouldn’t believe it all. I’m not pretentious; I’m not an egomaniac.
THE TONY WILSON WHOM WE SEE IN THE FILM CAN BE PRETTY ABSURD. WERE YOU WARY OF RIDICULING HIM? SC: For ethical and artistic reasons, I knew that I wanted Tony’s pluses to outnumber his minuses. I don’t mind taking the piss, but I never wanted to stitch him up. There was one thing I didn’t get right: I’m not as eloquent as Tony. But I am funnier. It was a trade-off. I made him wittier than he really is, but not quite intellectual enough. Sometimes he uses words that I’m not familiar with. I was never actually scared of playing him. He’s got so many idiosyncrasies, he’s just a gift to any actor.
ARE YOU HAPPY WITH THAT TRADE-OFF, TONY? TW: I’m very happy. I always say that my public image is none of my business. SC: I think Tony’s attitude toward the film was reminiscent of his attitude toward his bands. He never said, “You can’t put that in the film.” TW: I tried to. No one listened.
STEVE SAID HE DIDN’T WANT TO STITCH YOU UP, TONY. BUT THE BRITISH MARKETING FOR THE MOVIE FEATURED A PICTURE OF STEVE AS YOU, WITH THE WORD ‘TWAT’ SPLASHED ACROSS IT. TW: I approved that! SC: People in the north of England express affection by insulting one another. Northerners are not touchy-feely. TW: Except when they’re on E. SC: But there’s great civic affection for Tony. Peter Hook of New Order said that the film is about the biggest twat in Manchester being played by the second biggest twat in Manchester. Which I thought was lovely. TW: That’s how it is in Manchester. You just don’t praise your mates.
IS IT A SURREAL EXPERIENCE WATCHING THE FILM, TONY? TW: I can’t deal with it. It’s too strange. Last night I was on Sunset Boulevard, very stoned, and I saw the huge billboard with Steve as me, wearing my shades. The only words that came to mind were: Does Not Compute.
WAS IT DIFFICULT TO REVISIT IAN CURTIS’S DEATH? TW: Largely, I cut myself off from it. But when I stepped out of the car at Cannes and walked up the red carpet, the PA started booming out Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and I just burst into tears. Only then did it occur to me that I’d had a wonderful time working on this great film, but that it is actually about a lot of my dear friends, most of whom are dead. The film’s not nostalgic, though, and I’m pleased about that. I’m always against the past.
Also in this issue:
Dennis Lim’s review of 24 Hour Party People