Director Nick Hamm discusses Killing Bono, crafting this true story adaptation, assembling the cast, future projects, and more.
Director Nick Hamm has had a very diverse career so far, exploring several different genres. He's done comedy (The Very Thought of You), drama (Talk of Angels), and horror (The Hole, Godsend). Now the director is tackling a true story tale which is equal parts comedy and drama with the fantastic Killing Bono, which is currently available through video on demand formats, and hits theaters November 4. Killing Bono shows us both sides of the cutthroat music industry. The story centers on Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes), a childhood friend of the enormously successful band U2, who goes to maniacal lengths to outdo the band, despite lacking the talent to do so. I recently had the chance to speak with Nick Hamm over the phone about Killing Bono, and here's what he had to say below.
I'm always a sucker for movies based on true stories, but this is one hell of a true story.
Nick Hamm: I know, I know. Bless him. When I first read the book, and heard Neil McCormick being interviewed, I thought, 'My God, that's such an original idea for a film.' I wanted to do a story about failure, rather than success in the music business. I wanted to do a story where, in the third act, they didn't automatically play in Madison Square Garden and get signed and go live in the Hawaiian islands the rest of their lives. That actually doesn't happen to most people.
At what point did you first discover this story then? Were you involved in the writing process as well?
Nick Hamm: Yeah. I read the book, and I heard Neil McCormick being interviewed on the radio when he first brought the book out, so I acquired the film rights to the book, and I started to work with writers in trying to figure out a way into the story. The story, at that point, was quite an entangled and general story about his journey through the music business. We needed to focus certain elements of it, and tell it over a more condensed period of time. We spent a long time working on the screenplay, to make sure that the journey was accurate, but also that you could make certain things happen. It was a fact that Ivan did go and audition for U2. He had that audition, but the truth is, he got told he didn't get in. That's no good for a movie, so we extended the period where he didn't know, and had Neil McCormick's character lie to his own brother and to Bono, which stimulates his drive throughout the rest of the picture.
I was talking to Ben (Barnes) earlier, and we talked about this weird optimism, this aggressive optimism he has. He's so sure he's doing the right thing, that he has to do this on his own. Do you think there's value in that point of view? It is valid that he wants to do it on his own, but, at the same time, they could have been international rock stars.
Nick Hamm: Right. We all know people like this. This movie could be about the movie business, theater business, art business, any business or creative enterprise, where you're driven to succeed based on your own talent. The movie deals with those issues. This is a character, which is fatally flawed in his ability to make the right decision. He's not fantastic. His brother has a lot of talent, but he didn't. There's this complex soup of emotions going on between rivalry, jealousy, and admiration of Bono, and trying to make his career work for his brother's sake. His motive to succeed is quite honest and quite generous, but his failure to do so, condemns him as this weird anti-hero. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to say, 'Look, this is how it works for most people in garages and basements of their mom's house, putting their stuff on YouTube, trying to get signed. When it dissolves, they have to go be accountants or bankers or whatever else they want to do with their lives. This place is littered with people who haven't fulfilled their dreams.
Can you talk a bit about finding this cast? I loved Ben (Barnes) and Robert (Sheehan), but I also really loved Martin (McCann). He pulled off Bono in a way that I couldn't even imagine. It was really impressive.
Nick Hamm: Yeah, it's very interesting, isn't it? We auditioned quite a few people and we were looking, obviously, for the kids in the band, because we were representing the band at a certain age group. Initially, in the screenplay, I was only going to represent them as kids. When I found Martin, I hardly saw anybody for Bono, because I didn't know where to start. Pete Postlethwaite rang me up and said, 'You need to see this young actor that I just worked with. He's brilliant, he's Irish, and he's really interesting.' I got him down to my office in London, and I gave him the part right there. He embodied something about, I guess, the star quality. He had an enigmatic quality and I wasn't interested in showing the flaws of Bono and the intricacies of U2. That was not what the movie was about. I needed to represent them as a great talent and great musicians. I was lucky to find someone like Martin. Postlethwaite was the one who told me about him.
Yeah, it was also sad, though that this is Pete Postlethwaite's last movie. I read that his role was initially a lot bigger. Can you talk about crafting that role?
Nick Hamm: Yeah. He was originally going to play the gangster. When we were prepping the picture, he called me and said he had cancer, but we had to keep it secret for months, because it wasn't public knowledge. To put it bluntly, we couldn't get insurance for him to play the gangster. They wouldn't bond the picture, for some crazy reason, so we created a part for him, because he so believed in the project and wanted to be a part of the journey of the film, where he could come to Ireland, he could be comfortable and he could shoot in small bursts. We had his trailer right next to the set. Also, I wouldn't have done it with him, unless he wanted to do it. He wanted to do the role. He wanted, more than anything, to have this to aim for. He was going through chemo, and he wanted to know that after he had finished that, he was going to go and act. It wasn't about the money to him. He just needed to act, and I wanted to honor that, because he's a very dear friend.
When I spoke with Ben, we talked a bit about his music training. Was it a fairly extensive process, getting all of these actors looking like a band?
Nick Hamm: Yeah. As you probably know, when you do a music film, you record all of the music prior to shooting a single thing. Six months before you start shooting, you have to work out, what I call, the musical script of the film, or the musical map of the movie. You select the songs and you work the music out. You try to make a musical journey that's pertinent to the characters in the band of the story. You don't want to write music which is 2012, you have to write music from the 1980s. You also have to write music where they could've been successful, but it shouldn't be so bad that they could've never been successful. You try and navigate a line between success and failure. At some moments, they definitely could've been famous.
I noticed that too, because the music didn't sound terribly bad, but they were trying to be overly gimmicky and trying to do too much. The music itself isn't that bad.
Nick Hamm: The music itself is not that bad, but don't forget, that's not the original music from Shook Up.
I understand that Neil has seen it and has endorsed the film. Can you talk about working with him throughout this process, and how he's seen this story evolve?
Nick Hamm: The interesting thing about Neil, he's a darling friend and he's been lovely throughout the whole process, he gets his life story on celluloid. The ultimate irony of somebody who had no profile, is now they have a profile. He's famous for being not famous. He was always supportive, as have U2, the whole band. They've been incredibly gracious about our work and music and supporting the movie. It's not a movie about U2, it's not a U2 film, but they've been supportive in the way that they've helped us.
Is there anything you're working on as a follow-up that you can talk about?
Nick Hamm: I'm developing a picture about a completely different subject matter. It's a serial killer film about foreign war correspondents, and we're working on a lot of TV stuff.
Is there anything more you can say about the serial killer project? That sounds rather interesting.
Nick Hamm: No, it's too early, but I'll willingly share it with you when these things get going.
When I talked to Ben, he said this is the perfect movie for people who love Bono, and also for people who hate Bono. I think that's fairly accurate. What else what you like to say about who else would enjoy Killing Bono?
Nick Hamm: You watch a story, a comedic story, about a man trying to succeed, and failing, in the music business. Bono and U2 represent success. You do not have to like, admire, or even think they're any good to know they represent, within the context of the story, a band who has achieved success. Ben's right. You can be completely agnostic to U2, and still have a view of the movie. You can enjoy the journey of someone making the wrong decisions all the time. The movie feels the same as, and I'll paraphrase the Gore Vidal quote, 'You die a little bit, every time your friends succeed.' In that sense, it's pertinent to Hollywood. I think anyone who's in film school, drama school, who is at art college, should be mandated, at some point, to watch this film.
Excellent. That's about all I have. Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed the film.
Nick Hamm: All right, buddy. Take care.