By John Curley
Franc Roddam’s 1979 film Quadrophenia is being feted in the U.K. this year with celebrations marking the film’s 40th anniversary. Made by The Who Films Ltd. and co-produced by Roy Baird and The Who’s manager, Bill Curbishley, the film was based on The Who’s 1973 album of the same name. And the film took some of its visual inspiration from the book of black-and-white photos taken by Ethan Russell that came with The Who’s Quadrophenia album.
Keith Moon died shortly before filming was due to begin on Quadrophenia in September 1978. There was some uncertainty as to whether or not the film would proceed following Moon’s death. But Curbishley is credited with seeing to it that the filming would go ahead.
Starring Phil Daniels and Leslie Ash, the film also featured Phil Davis, Trevor Laird, Gary Shail, Toyah Wilcox, Mark Wingett, Ray Winstone and Garry Cooper. And it served as the feature-film debut of Sting, who portrayed Ace Face. In a nutshell, the film chronicles a period in 1964 in the life of Jimmy Cooper (Daniels), a London-based Mod who toils in an advertising agency mailroom and runs around with his equally fashion-conscious Mod friends — Chalky (Davis), Dave (Wingett), Spider (Shail), Monkey (Wilcox) and Ferdy (Laird), who sells amphetamines to Jimmy and his pals. Motor scooters accessorized with multiple mirrors and other embellishments are their mode of transportation. Jimmy pines for Steph (Ash), who works as a cashier at a grocery store. Bank Holiday weekend escapades in Brighton, the centerpiece of the film, have a seismic impact on Jimmy’s life and future.
Notable among the celebrations of Quadrophenia’s 40th anniversary were two programs aired by the U.K. TV channel Sky Arts on Saturday, September 21st. Quadrophenia - Reunited 40 Years On assembled eight members of the main cast to do a table read of the original film script. Hosted by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Lauren Laverne, the program was recorded in July in front of a live audience at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. The very entertaining documentary Quadrophenia - Our Generation features interviews with Roddam, Curbishley and all of the main cast, who reminisce about their work on the film as well as some of the things that went on behind the scenes. Of particular interest in the documentary is Shail’s story of hanging out with Sting and other cast members as The Police frontman played songs from the Outlandos d’Amour album (which had not yet been released) for them on his guitar.
Quadrophenia was Roddam’s first feature film as a director. In this Q&A with Goldmine, Roddam discusses his work on the film and its legacy:
GOLDMINE: How did you become attached to the Quadrophenia film?
FRANC RODDAM: I directed and produced a drama for British television, called Dummy. It was extraordinarily successful and won the Prix Italia Drama prize. Because of this, David Putnam and Alan Parker recommended me to the producers, as director of Quadrophenia. Having previously gone to film school, worked at an advertising agency and then working for the BBC, I was ready for my first feature. I would have done it for nothing.
GM: You met with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon early on in your involvement with the project. What happened in those meetings?
FR: Once the producers had asked me to direct the film, it was necessary for me to meet all the members of The Who. Pete Townshend’s approval was key. We had a meeting at the studio and got on extremely well. He originally thought it would be like Tommy and he would do an orchestrated version of the music and played me a version of Quadrophenia with strings, etc. I explained to him that I did not want to re-make Tommy, that this was a blue-collar street movie and that I wanted to use the original ‘rock-and-roll’ version. Pete got it immediately, he was incredibly gracious and said, “It’s your movie, go ahead.”
Keith was another matter. He was the last one that I met, he turned up in a Rolls-Royce with his bodyguard/chauffeur, who stayed in the room and laughed critically every time I spoke, without really knowing what I was talking about. This bodyguard had a fearsome reputation, allegedly having thrown a roadie down a lift-shaft to his death. Keith spoke like a pirate in the manner of Robert Newton in Treasure Island and posed the question, “Why don’t we direct this film together?” I was on my game, and came back with a quick reply: “Okay, if I can drum on the next Who album.” Apparently, I passed the audition.
GM: In addition to directing the film, you were also one of the screenwriters on the project. Since you were 18 in 1964, the time during which the film was set, did you and your fellow screenwriters bring any of your own experiences into the screenplay?
FR: Because I was 18 in 1964, at a time when the whole town became Mod, I was very familiar with the whole Mod movement — clothes, music, scooters, girls, etc. I was not a Mod, but I was best man at two Mod weddings. It was an incredible time, the birth-control pill had arrived, and for the first time, young boys and young girls hung around together in gangs — they were not separated. The scooter was a clean and cheap mode of transportation and young people started to define their own way of life. So, I was able to bring a lot of my own and my friends’ experiences into the screenplay, particularly in the party scene and the attitude of the characters.
GM: John Lydon (the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten) screen tested for the role of protagonist Jimmy Cooper. Why was the decision taken not to cast him in the role?
FR: John did a very good screentest, given that it was the punk era, we thought we’d better explore that possibility. He was, after all, the ultimate punk. The insurance company said they would not give the film a ‘bond’ if Lydon was involved, they thought he would be completely unreliable. Bill Curbishley never liked Lydon because he was insulting to The Who, calling them BOFs (Boring Old Farts).
GM: How did Sting come to be cast as Ace Face? And did your work with Sting on Quadrophenia convince you to work with him again on your 1985 film The Bride?
FR: I was meeting what had seemed like all the young actors and musicians in London, searching for the perfect actors for the film. The casting directors suggested I meet this guy called Sting, who was a music guy on the rise. He had yet to release an album. I met him and even though I had already cast Ace Face, I realized that he was a better option, so I then shifted the young actor Garry Cooper to the role of Pete, which was a better role for him anyway. Sting did a very good audition, I put two big, tough guys in front of him, and told them to intimidate him. I’d already told Sting to intimidate them. He scared them — I thought this guy is cool and good for the part.
By the time I made The Bride, Sting was possibly the hottest musician in the world. I intended to give him the small part as a handsome war hero, and the studio wanted him then to take the main role, alongside Jennifer Beals, who had just finished Flashdance. They thought we were on to a winner — didn’t work out like that.
GM: Phil Daniels was eventually chosen to play Jimmy Cooper. What was it about Daniels that convinced you that he was right for the role?
FR: Phil Daniels is a fantastic actor. He came from the Anna Scher Theatre School and the National Youth Theatre. He was an accomplished improvisational performer, given that we had such little time to write the script, I knew his skills would be very valuable. He also looked a bit like Pete.
GM: During preproduction, you immersed the cast in Mod culture. What did that entail and why was it important to you to do that?
FR: In my previous work, Dummy, I had employed certain techniques to give the actors, myself and the film as many advantages as possible. I like the actors to be immersed in their role, and I like those that are associated in the film to have real relationships outside the film. With the cast of Quadrophenia, because they were all new and not expensive, I was able to have them one month before shooting and teach them to ride scooters confidently, to have dance training, to wear their costumes and become familiar with each other so that whenever they were in a group, even if they didn’t speak, the audience would understand the dynamics.
GM: Two weeks into filming, the actor Mark Wingett, who played Dave in the film, told you that he wanted to quit the project. How did you convince him to remain with the film?
FR: Mark Wingett was the youngest of the cast members and was a bit immature and insecure, despite being a very fine young actor. He kept damaging his costume, etc. and being told off by production, so he decided to leave. He was a bona-fide punk, and I had in my possession a shirt once belonging to Sid Vicious. Apparently, he had come to Johnny (Rotten)’s house to attack him, and Johnny came out the door and hit him with the back end of an axe. Sid vomited on his shirt — I had the shirt with the vomit intact. I gave this to Mark and that was enough to keep him on the film. Later on, he became very upset because his mother washed the vomit off the shirt.
GM: Why did you decide to start the film at the end, with Jimmy walking away from the cliff at Beachy Head?
FR: We shot the film out of sequence because of weather considerations. We shot all the material from Brighton, including the sequence where the scooter goes over the cliff. We got lucky, we had two weeks of sunshine and then the weather turned and became a typical English fall. It was such a beautiful day and you saw this stream of gold on the water, and for some reason, without it being in the script and without even thinking about it, we just took the shoot. Something intuitively must have told me to have him walk away from the cliff. When I was editing the film, I thought I would keep the ending enigmatic — I had nineteenth-century poetic notions about suicide but when I worked with all these young people, their positivity and their energy moved me to move away from the original script. For those that want to ignore that shot, they can think that Jimmy went over the cliff but if you remember this opening shot, the ending become symbolic as an end, not of life, but a way of life.
GM: The scene in which the scooter came off the cliff almost went very wrong. Could you discuss what happened?
FR: Engineering and maths were required to launch the scooter off the cliff. I was told that they had used sandbags, etc. to practice the projection of the scooter and that it would drop at a certain point into the rocks below. I was in a helicopter with the cameraman, when I saw this scooter hurtling towards us. The maths and the calculations had been wrong, and, for some reason, the scooter travelled twice the distance than had been expected. I literally thought for a moment that the helicopter would be downed by a Lambretta missile. Fortunately, it dropped just in front of us. Death by scooter was avoided.
GM: The riot scenes in Brighton involved quite a few people. Were those scenes difficult to shoot?
FR:The riots in Brighton were a huge event but strangely enough, I’ve always found big crowd scenes very easy. It’s just a question of vision and planning. When you’re doing a more intimate, two-hander scene, you are very dependent on the skill of the actors. The riot scenes were just great fun for me. I laid it all out on paper with my art director and cameraman, and it went pretty much to plan. At one point, though, the policemen, who were the only professional extras on the film, were larking about on a very complicated and physically dangerous beach scene. This scene involved hundreds of extras and lots of different stunts, which included mounted policemen. There were 14 separate commands during this take, and to have it ruined by policemen extras wearing their hats backwards, laughing and joking, was very annoying. So, after telling the extras off, I went to the Mods and the Rockers, who were real Mods and Rockers, and said, “These bastards are screwing up the scene, go after them for real.” They had to fight for their lives. When you are a young director, you feel very passionate about what you are getting onscreen.
GM: What was your experience like working with John Entwistle on the film’s soundtrack?
FR: When the film was finished and edited, John Entwistle and I spent more than a month getting the soundtrack ready. I have the fondest memories of that time — he was a terrific guy.
GM: What do you think about how the two main female characters, Leslie Ash’s Steph and Toyah Wilcox’s Monkey, were portrayed in the film? And if you were directing Quadrophenia today, would you have done anything different with them?
FR: Leslie Ash’s role in the film is very up to date. I portrayed her character, Steph, as an independent person. She decides who she wants to have sex with, she is very casual about the relationships, and promiscuous. She is not sentimental and emotionally strong. Jimmy, on the other hand, is very romantic, and besotted. When it came to nudity, we decided only to use male nudity — in the Baths scene — and when Jimmy and Steph are making love in the alleyway, I think it’s the only sex scene in film where both are fully clothed.
With regard to Monkey, she didn’t have a lot of dialogue in the film, but she’s mad about Jimmy so I encouraged her to fight her way into scenes, always trying to get close to Jimmy, always copying him. Her character is more defined by her presence than her dialogue
GM: Four decades on from its release, Quadrophenia is revered by many. What do you think of the film’s legacy?
FR: It’s extraordinary to me that people are still watching Quadrophenia, forty years later. Every year, new teenagers seem to discover the film. I think the film’s longevity is a testament to the wonderful and skilled work by cast and crew, and the original concept by Pete Townshend. The film is about teenage angst — everybody goes through it and that’s why the film is still popular.