Tony Hawks Interview
‘Your job while we talk is to think about a film I can make in the USA,’ Tony Hawks casually mentions to me as he waits to introduce his new film, PLAYING THE MOLDOVANS AT TENNIS. He is in Cambridge with the film for a special one-off screening, and as he bounds down the stairs and fearlessly addresses the audience, I wonder how he could possibly think of an idea to top this film.
PLAYING THE MOLDOVANS AT TENNIS has the same concept as Hawks’ previous film venture, ROUND IRELAND WITH A FRIDGE (which was hugely successful at the 2010 Cambridge Film Festival): Based on a bizarre set of real events, Hawks is dared to play, and beat, the entire Moldovan football team at tennis. So he sets out to win the bet, and the tennis games…
Based on the premise, and the fact that he records the entire endeavour with a video camera, you might expect this to be a documentary. Rather, it is a fictional re-enactment of true events, which, if anything, is a fresh and different approach compared to the hand-held realism of modern independent British cinema. The result is a funny and charming film that recounts not only the misadventures of an Englishman on a crazy dare in Moldova, but also a heartfelt retelling of how Hawks fell in love with the country. So much so that he set up a charity care centre in Chisinau, the capital, and returns often.
For such a gifted comedian and showman, Tony Hawks also proves to be truly grounded and passionate about this film, as he describes his experiences as a relatively fledgeling filmmaker.
Mike Boyd: Tell us more about the background to the film and why you decided to make it this way rather than as a documentary?
Tony Hawks: Well we nearly made the film ROUND IRELAND WITH A FRIDGE in the normal Hollywood model, with American money and they wanted an American star to play me – Brendan Fraser was lined up. I stood to make quite a lot of money as the co-writer of the screenplay and the owner of the rights to the book. But they wanted to change it so dramatically; they wanted to get rid of the idea of a bet from it?! I was too fond and too close to the idea to just give it all up. So we ended up making a low-budget British film. That worked so we did the same with this.
The hard thing – well, it’s hard enough to make a low-budget British film anyway! – was getting started. We went over to Moldova and I met the foreign minister and the cultural minister and said, ‘Could we do this? Would you help us?’ They said, ‘We’ll do everything we can for you… except give you any money’. And they were true to their word. They didn’t give us any money – but they did help.
And now of course the hard thing about making a film is once you finish making it – you get to perhaps the hardest part of all: how do you get it out there? When you don’t have a big distributor behind you and big stars… so I’m so thankful to everyone who came out tonight and for supporting this. We’re hoping it will gain some traction.
MB: You essentially had to cast actors to play people you knew and loved. Tell us more about the casting process?
TH: Sometimes people say that when you make this film, because it’s based on a true story and because I’m playing myself, you would think it would be a documentary. But it isn’t at all, it’s a drama. You know, I wrote the story, the screenplay and cast the people. I knew it was it was really important to get things right. I had to get the family right especially – they are like a second family to me now. When I go to Moldova I’ve had offers of, ‘Would you like to stay in our lovely, fancy hotel?’ which has popped up somewhere. And I have to say, ‘No, I’ve got to go and stay with my family…’ They have a room for me now!
I think we were really lucky – there are only 300 registered actors in the whole of Moldova, basically. There’s not much opportunity to make a living as an actor outside of Chisinau – there is some good, cultural theatre in the city, but not really outside. Not only that, but not all of those 300 actors speak English. So we got every actor in the country that could speak English and hoped that there would be some people in there. The guy at the end, the driver of the car, said he could speak English but he had just learnt the whole script by sound – he didn’t speak a word of English! It came out as complete gobbledygook! Those takes that we used are just cut together with me saying the lines to him and him just repeating it back to me.
The family, I thought, were fantastic. Elena, the daughter, actually helped teach Anna, the actress, to learn the English for the part and all that. And the translator, obviously a crucial role, was a guy I met at a party who spoke really good English and I thought, ‘He’ll do’ – and he turned out to be fantastic.
MB: Has the film been shown to the family and what was the reaction?
TH: They saw it at the premiere! There were even a few tears afterwards… I’m not sure Adrian liked it very much. He didn’t like that he was portrayed exactly as he is!
MB: How close is the film to the truth, and how much does it vary from what happened?
TH: One of the things that I am most pleased about this film is that it really is the truth; the only thing that I have actually changed was the confrontation when the football manager finds the tapes – there was a confrontation of sorts in Belfast, but I had the upper hand because we were in the UK.
But I did stay with the family, and exactly as in the film, the little girl was the only one in Moldova who had any faith in me. Adrian said, ‘This will never work, you’ll never do this’. He didn’t smile very much and I only won him over with the prank at the orchestra, pretending to set up the interview – he smiled and laughed for the first time. One of the things that can happen when you go to Moldova is that you can think that the people look like quite a grim lot, looking really miserable and no eye contact. You wouldn’t believe how tough it is for some of the people there. But when you get invited into their homes, everything changes – out comes the wine and brandy – some real hospitality. When they embrace you as a friend, you’re a friend for life really. We go back regularly; they run the care centre there. They are wonderful people struggling against a system where they don’t get any help from the government, not even moral support. They are very much on their own.
MB: Tell us more about the care centre that you set up in Moldova?
TH: Well, after the collapse of the Soviet system, a lot of healthcare just dropped off the radar. People just didn’t have the money. The hospital in the film is a real hospital facility – children were badly brain damaged by the poor equipment, but survived. The way it works is that affected children come everyday for two weeks, and they get a treatment, a massage. One of their parents sits and learns how to do it – so the children can get this relief at home. Then they come back every three or six months. The demand is huge, so the idea is to bring as many children as we can from around Moldova. The system used to be that if you had a brain damaged or special needs child, you got rid of it. It was a shame on your family and you put it in an orphanage. They still get abuse on the streets and on buses. So there is a massive amount of cultural change that needs to happen. But it’s very slow. It’s lovely for them to think that people care about them in somewhere like the UK. Visit the website to find out more!
MB: So, would you accept a challenge like punting from Cambridge to Oxford – if you could get a good story out of it?
TH: No, no I wouldn’t. The reality of the bizarre life that I’ve ended up leading since I took that bet in Ireland, is that all of this has genuinely come out of real-life situations. I did see a bloke hitching with a fridge when I first went to Ireland – it intrigued me what would happen if you went to Ireland and put a fridge by the side of the road. It wasn’t contrived. The Moldovan endeavour was a genuine argument. I genuinely believed that I could beat the football team at tennis. And I was bloody right! But I’m not just somebody who would go off and do something – I have to think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’ The idea has to fascinate me. Not to trivialise the question, but I hope I’ve moved on from being the idiot that will do anything!
MB: So, the big question is what is your next bet?
TH: I told you to think of ideas! I don’t know – because this has taken such a long time to do, I’m so close to the film and I’m so passionate about trying to build this care centre in Moldova, I don’t know. My father has just remarried and lives in the States and he wants me to show the film there in a local hall… I just had this idea, taking on a sort of bet that you could raise a certain amount of money just by going around America with this film. I don’t know how I would do it – but I thought it would be nice to do a bet where I could write about a new country, but still link it in some way. There is so much work that would have to go into promoting this to get it out there which really involves a lot of travelling – so if I could combine the two, it would be ideal!
TAKE ONE will shortly be offering you the chance to win a copy of PLAYING THE MOLDOVANS AT TENNIS on DVD – keep an eye out on our Twitter and Facebook pages for more information!