Sarah Cook:Funny Cow is the most interesting character I’ve seen in a while where did she come from?
Tony Pitts: I met Maxine and instantly could see who she was. I just went “I want to write for you.” Up until that point, I hadn’t written specifically for someone. Then the idea came around about a comedienne. I didn’t want to do a biopic, I wasn’t interested in that. I just knew that time and place, as did Maxine. We had the same experiences that shaped us both.
Both Maxie and I are cuckoos, I think. Neither of us has really found anywhere and we didn’t fit into any group. I recognise that in her. I wanted to write something about being yourself.
It’s a film about having an inescapable personality. She doesn’t have a choice other than being herself, and realising all these things as a child and how powerful comedy is as a way of protecting herself.
SC: Even as a child you can see her confidence and personality shine through…
TP: And that girl (Hebe Beardsall) is amazing, isn’t she? We were all enchanted.
She is very difficult to define. As a character, she has an abusive Dad, a drunken Mum, and she doesn’t fit in. So she builds a camouflage of comedy around her.
SC: And it isn’t just a shield but she also wields it as a sword.
TP: Absolutely! It is something to make sense of the rest of her. It’s vocational. She can’t do anything else. It’s like there was kind of an epiphany where she is told by someone at school “oh you’re funny” and she’s like “yes, that’s what I am.” You flounder around until someone points it out. Then you find your tribe of people.
She does use it as a sword and it’s a visceral response to find everything funny. I’m interested in laughter against difficult times. Laughter when it’s inappropriate. That’s what I am interested in.
SC: Why was it so important, then, to have scenes where she laughs in the face of abuse?
TP: I felt the scene we absolutely had to include was with her partner Bob (played by Pitts) and they’re in the pub dancing and enjoying each other. That laughter is powerful because you realise Bob is just a fearful scared man who is trying to bash her to comply. And it’s all out of fear. He knows that he never would. It’s extraordinary to see that laughter. That’s all Maxine.
SC: Why do these men gravitate to her?
TP: She grew up with that type of man. But then at a point, she wasn’t prepared to take that anymore. Then she finds Angus (Paddy Considine) who is the complete opposite and he is equally controlling in his own way.
My viewpoint in life is; First you’re a child and then you flit through groups trying to find your people, and, hopefully, you become an individual. But some of us ever did the group thing, and that’s what Funny Cow is. She finds a space in which she can inhabit. She finds a little bit of room inside herself.
SC: Why did you write with a lucid time scale, flitting from past to present?
TP: Because I write pen and paper, I don’t think when I am writing and I gave it to Adrian Shergold. I’ve worked from Spielberg to Ken Loach, but – and I don’t like to use words like best – but he is the best I’ve worked with. It is so personal I’ve got to trust them completely and he said: “am I happy to move scenes around?” But I didn’t have scene numbers. I essentially wanted it to be a poem and Adrian made it into a film.
The ideas that you’re not supposed to know if she is doing an act, or who she is talking to or is this all in her head and the idea was therapists couch.
SC: That’s how I saw it, because I do that in my mind, do lectures about my life. So to me, she isn’t doing a comedy routine, it’s her looking at her past like it was an act.
TP: Yeah exactly. It opens with gags then gets more serious, looking at her hands and saying, “there’s no work in them. I’m not like you.” I wanted it to be my greatest pleasure to make something complex that needs a second or third viewing – something worth revisiting.
I should say that Maxine – I wrote it for her – and I think she was absolutely extraordinary. Even stood there with her watching her do it; she doesn’t miss a beat. I wrote things and you wonder if she’ll get that but she caught every moment. It’s like passing someone an instrument and watching them play greatly.
SC: Finally, how difficult was it to balance the comedy with the drama.
TP: We like to break things up. But everything happens at once. Everything isn’t comedy and tragedy. Everything just is. It’s life. It is simultaneous. It can go from laughter to tears or the other way round. I’m interested in that space.
SC: Thank you!
TP: Thank you!
Funny Cow is in cinemas now. Find your cinema and book tickets