Interview: Ghost of the Open writer Simon Farnaby celebrates ‘the world’s worst golfer’ and what inspires his comedic musings

A writer and performer whose resume includes works as acclaimed as The Mighty Boosh, horror storiesand both Paddington movies, Simon Farnaby and the comic genre practically go hand in hand.

For his latest big-screen outing, the English designer adapts his own work, bringing his thoughts on infamous golfer Maurice Flitcroft to life with The Phantom of the Openbased on his own book about “the worst golfer in the world”.

Spotlighting a character more people should know about and leaning his comedy styles towards laughing with his subject rather than against him, Farnaby spoke with our very own Peter Gray ahead of the film’s release (you can read our review here) on uncovering the rather hidden details of Maurice’s life, whose comedies proved formative for him as a writer, and why being a writer was a better career choice than exploring golf.

Before arriving at Phantom of the OpenI must note, oddly enough, I watched Your Highness the other night, before I even knew I was talking to you, and then I realized afterwards that you were in this movie. I thought that was a pretty funny coincidence, and I don’t know what you think of this movie, but personally I think it’s hilarious.

I had a great time doing it. I became friends with Danny McBride and David Gordon Green and that gang. We didn’t really know much about them – and by us I mean myself, Damian Lewis and Toby Jones – and we were just like, ‘Who are these guys?’, but then I looked East and down and knew they were amazing. I love the movie, but it really exploded in the US at the box office. I just don’t know if (the audience) got what they were looking for.

Well, I actually talked to David Gordon Green back in the Halloween Kills days, and I talked to him about it and he seemed pretty excited to know that there was at least one fan (laughs) .

Manious the Bold was my character, and he’s one of my favorites. We improvised a lot in this film, but it all ended up on the floor of the editing room.

This film, however, The Phantom of the Open, is so charming. I have to imagine one of the most appealing elements was Maurice’s character and he’s someone worth celebrating. Outside of the story itself, was he, as a person, someone who drew you into this?

Oh absolutely, yeah. I grew up around golf so I knew him and I thought it was kind of funny that there was this guy who is at the Open but couldn’t play. It was a funny concept. When I was a junior, I wanted to be a professional golfer. I got good enough but not good enough to go on tour, so I got into acting, writing and acting. I also have a lot more girlfriends like that (laughs). It was a good career choice.

But when (Maurice) died in 2007, I read his obituaries in all the newspapers, and I remember thinking how I knew him. Read the quotes about him, which were from his press conferences, which are actually in the movie. He said “Well, I would have done better if I hadn’t left my 4 in the trunk of the car” (laughs) things like that. I loved his positivity during this humiliation. This, for me, would be my worst nightmare. I have dreams where I’m on stage and I’ve forgotten my lines and everyone is looking at me, and that’s kind of the situation Maurice got himself into. He came out of it with great aplomb and dignity.

Like you said, you read his obituary and that inspired this look at his life. Was the writing of the book and then its adaptation fast enough?

It was a fairly quick process. I immediately wanted to write a film. I knew it would make a good movie. In a fairly flitcroftian effort, I wrote the script based on what little information was out there. It was a pretty bad idea, because I had to fill a lot of gaps with untruths. A friend of mine, a sports journalist, said to me, “Why don’t we do a book first? and that way we could take our time getting information about this guy. There wasn’t much about him online. Everything that is there, we have done. So I wrote a screenplay, wrote the book, and then wrote a better screenplay. We also found his unpublished autobiography, so that was a real key. His disco dancing sons had a box with some of Maurice’s belongings and there was this 500 page handwritten book with everything in it. What he was thinking, what he wanted to accomplish…so it was a huge moment to better understand his character.

You have a certain way of writing a comedy that is very naturalistic. Could you elaborate more on the search for comedy that is not so obvious. You have sons dancing disco and this guy sneaking into the Open with no intention other than just wanting to play, and that’s material that could be showcased so widely. How do you find that tone where it’s more subtle?

Talking to you, I can refer to that because there’s this movie called The castle, which you should know is one of my favorites. It has this tongue-in-cheek delivery, and the characters are of a certain class. I feel like I understand that being from the north of England, like Maurice. I didn’t want to make fun of him. I didn’t think it would be funny. I just wanted it to be real. From the first script, there’s a lot more physical comedy, but meeting his friends and family while writing the book, I realized I had a responsibility to tell the story as true as possible. That’s where Mark Rylance really helped too. He was like, “No, I think that’s a little too silly,” and that helped guide him. Mark didn’t want to indulge in laughs that weren’t naturally present in Maurice’s story. It’s not Caddyshack (Laughs).

Mark Rylance is really very endearing in there. Was he someone you imagined while writing?

No. I usually have someone in mind when I write, but I had Maurice in mind because I was looking at pictures, so that was the voice I had in my head. During our interviews with directors, Craig (Roberts) said “And Mark Rylance?”

I love Mark and thought yes if we could have him. I hadn’t known Mark for doing comedy, or even directing (a film). I know he had done stuff with Spielberg, and I think he said he was the greatest actor in the world, so when Craig got him, he said, “We have the greatest actor in the world. (laughs). He’s amazing and he threw himself into it, and he felt the same responsibility to (Maurice’s) family to put a fair portrayal of Maurice on screen.

Other than the mention of his family, I really enjoyed the fact that even though this movie was about his career, his family is just as important, if not more so. Was it something you knew you wanted to focus on specifically?

Yes it was. What I found amazing when we dug deeper was the search for his family, they were such a big part of him. They are an offshoot of him inasmuch as they too have reached the stars. You’re right that it’s not really about golf.

And you having such a long relationship with comedy, was there a performer or film that inspired you to explore the genre?

There is a movie called Withnail and me which was a big one for me. I have an older brother, Paul, who loved cinema. It’s really helpful to have (laughs) and he introduced me to this movie when I was about 13 and it had a huge impact on me. I would say Caddyshack and Plane (too much), just nonsense, but in terms of tone I would say Withnail and me and The castle.

Well, now that we know you love golf and you’ve made a movie about golf, maybe a Caddyshack remake is on the cards?

Hey, that’s not a bad idea. I mean they keep doing it all over again. We have about 12 Batman That much…

What is the other Caddyshack?

Exactly.

The Phantom of the Open is shown in Australian theaters from July 14, 2022, following early screenings from July 7-10.