Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson – Writer Chris England

In Features by James Hay - Cinema Editor

As if writing for theatre wasn’t hard enough, Chris England decided to scribe an adaptation of his stage play ‘Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson’ for the big screen. It’s the charming story of a small town English rugby club and its inhabitants during the famous rugby World Cup final match of 2003.

Filmjuice’s James Hay spoke to Chris about the film, the process of adapting from theatre to the screen and how he approaches his writing. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, he stars in the film as well.

You’d already done an adaptation of your stage play ‘An evening with Gary Lineker’, how was it second time round? Had you learnt from the process last time?
Well the big difference between this one and ‘An evening with Gary Lineker’ is that we’re using a lot more of the actual match action, so Jonny Wilkinson feels a lot more like a character in it because you see so much of him on the screen compared to when we did it as a play, where he was an unseen element. I think the footage was used very well and has been very cleverly woven in, which we couldn’t do on the stage, and that part of the adaptation worked very well for me.

Having done these two adaptations now, would you write a screenplay or do you prefer writing for the stage and then adapting it?
Sometimes you get an idea and it feels like one or the other, I’ve written three other things in the last year or so. One of them is a book because it’s not cinematic or stagey at all, one of them is a play because it just feels like a play and I’ve also written an original screenplay.  It just depends on the idea really, on the scale of the idea that you have to start with. A lot of the idea for ‘Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson’ came from having done  ‘An evening with Gary Lineker’ before, it kind of started as a follow up to that, although it’s very different, the main difference of course is that England win this time!

It’s a really strong bunch of characters. Do you write with certain actors in mind or do you just write the characters?
I just write the characters. There’s an extent to which all characters start out as a version of yourself, you know, because yours is the only voice you hear. I think the process of getting a play from the script to the stage is a very collaborative one, and film is as well, but from a writer’s point of view the writer gets to work with the actors in the theatre a lot more than they do, habitually, on film because that’s much more a directors medium. Working with the director of the play, Johnny Guy Lewis, and the actors that played those parts they all contributed enormously to developing those characters. I think that’s why it’s been very satisfying for me to see Norman Pace, Beth Cordingly and Michael Beckley from the original cast realising that on screen because they made those characters far more three-dimensional and distinctive than they were to start with. I don’t really write with actors in mind because it’s hard to do that as then you run the risk of not getting them and you can box yourself in that way, if you’re not careful. But I’m very happy with the actors we have and I think that they’ve made a very good job of making their characters, each individually, very distinctive and strong. A lot of the credit is theirs as well as mine.

Obviously you also star in the film, as the easily despisable anti-hero Exley, is this so you could keep an eye on what they were doing with your baby?
No, it’s not so much that. I enjoy acting. I enjoy being on stage and being on camera, it’s just mainly I’m a writer. I do like to keep my hand in the acting and a good way to do that is by appearing in my own things.

As a film, do you think its limitations are also what provide its creative freedoms? Because it’s confined and constrained by its setting then the focus is on the story and the characters?
Yes, I do think that actually. I think that when you’re writing with a blank sheet of paper and you have infinite possibilities then sometimes it’s hard to turn things down, to see that something doesn’t fit, and sometimes writing in such a sort of straight-jacket is paradoxically liberating. It takes some decisions away from you, it removes some of the angles you could go off on and so it focuses the thing on those characters and on that period of time. Then you start working within that and you start to make sure that that’s working and yeah I quite enjoyed that, I quite liked that.

With a lot of comedians or comedic actors in the cast, was it a fun film to make?
It was loads of fun, yeah. There’s something about making a low budget film all in one place and because it’s an ensemble thing all seven of us were there pretty much all of the filming days. It was like our own little rugby club, a lot of team spirit, a lot of in-joking, so yeah it was a lot of fun to do.

We have to talk about George MacKay, he’s doing pretty well at the moment, how was it working with him?
I know he’s done really well hasn’t he? It’s been very obliging of him, actually, to become so much more famous since we finished the film! ‘Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson’ has been held back a little bit because of waiting for the 10th anniversary of the 2003 World Cup final, which is a great time to release the film, but it means that George has had the opportunity to do three more films in the mean time which have all come out first! Secretly, we’re all claiming to have discovered him but in the mean time he’s gone and discovered himself over and over again. Seriously though he was so far, head and shoulders, the best that we looked at for that part and I think we’re all expecting big things from him over the next ten years or so because he can be whatever he wants. He was great, you know, off camera he was doing impressions, he was very very funny. His kicking was very good, he nailed some brilliant kicks especially when we were filming at three o’clock in the morning and we all needed him to drop one over the posts because we were all freezing and he just nailed it perfectly.

So you’re happy with the finished film then?
Oh yeah, yeah, I think it’s great. It had so many things to overcome but people who’ve seen it, after having seen the play years ago, have said that it’s opened out really nicely from the stage production. But I think a real feather in the cap of the director, Simon Sprackling, is that it seems more like a film than a play to someone who hasn’t seen the stage version. It feels like a film, I think that’s the challenge when you’ve got such a small budget and something that’s stagey in origin and you’ve only got one location to explore, to make it look like a film, and a proper film, is a great achievement.

So what’s next for you? Another play?
Yeah, I have written another play which I’m going to try to get on, I’ve written a novel which is coming out next year called ‘The Fun Factory’ and I’ve written a screenplay which has a director attached. There are various other things that I’m trying to get off the ground, some TV scripts, so we shall see what the future holds.

Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson’ is out Friday 22nd November.