“THERE will never be a film like this ever again,” is a big statement. Yet director Stephen Cookson isn’t shy of promoting his new film, Stanley, A Man of Variety, one of the most head turning films of the recent Manchester Film Festival.
Stanley is an equal part spine-tingling and laughter inducing surrealist one-man-prison show starring BAFTA nominated actor Timothy Spall – in every single role.
Cookson’s last project, 2011’s My Angel, won him a host of accolades including best film, director, newcomer, screenplay and more at Monaco International Film Festival. It also introduced him to this film’s star; Spall played a smaller, though no less brilliant role in that flick, scooping best actor at the same festival.
It was whilst working on My Angel that plans for the twisted single-actor drama began to float around Cookson’s sphere. The initial idea came from long time friend and first time screenwriter, Falcon Fields. Though little of that original script remains in Stanley, Fields is nonetheless afforded a writing credit for introducing the one-man idea.
For Cookson, the only actor who could carry Stanley was Spall. Initially, though, he was hard to convince:
“Tim read the script and said ‘I love the idea, but I don’t want to do it’” grins the director, relaxing back into the Raddison Blu hotel lobby sofa.
To assuage his fears, Cookson showed him the Stephen Knight film, Locke, staring Tom Hardy as the singular on-screen actor. Other voices, including Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott and Tom Holland are heard, but Hardy carries the show single-handedly for an hour and a half.
“Films [like Locke and Phone Booth exist that]have few actors but it is still quite an unusual thing to do. Tim was quite cautious about that – but I knew that he would give it integrity. When he’s doing humble acting, it’s very, very endearing and you can’t help but like him,” Cookson says.
It’s been five years since My Angel, but Cookson and Spall haven’t been twiddling their thumbs. Timothy was off winning plaudits in Hollywood blockbusters (Alice Through The Looking Glass) and critically acclaimed darlings (Mr. Turner) alike, in amongst workshopping on and off on the Stanley script for over two years.
In that time, the project went through various re-hauls and name changes.
“The Special One was an early draft where the film was going to be more about football, to be honest. [Falcon’s] original idea was a guy watching a football match – but Tim’s not very keen on football!” That element was remove swiftly, then.
The basic concept – a lonely guy watching TV – remains, but the details changed dramatically. Rather than sport, the script was retooled to fit Spall better, with a love of vintage drama and comedy.
The Stanley shoot took three weeks – with Spall performing as the titular character in the morning and a different supporting character each afternoon. There was an “intense” workshop the week before, but months and months of prepping beforehand had also gone into the project.
Despite this prep work, the script was being altered “right up till shooting,” per Cookson.
— Conor Ratcliffe (@ConorRatcliffe) March 3, 2017
In such a close work environment, it’d be easy for such an intimate project to get angsty. Yet Cookson and Spall have a close personal and professional relationship that keeps them from boiling over in time of disagreement, despite fatigue from a gruelling three week shoot:
“As with any collaboration with two guys, it does get heated. We were very passionate, the shoot itself was very tiring; we were all a bit on edge from time to time. Three weeks and leading up – at the end, [it’s like] ‘I don’t want to see you for two years!’”
Cookson speaks about his projects with such intense passion it’s hard not to root for his success.
“I know Terry Gilliam pretty well,” he says modestly.
“We used to run together. He once said to me that 98% of his life is raising money for films, only 2% is making them. So it’s not just me, it’s all film makers. Five years was a long time but I’ve made two features since Stanley – I’ve never been so busy!”
The most prominent of those upcoming films is Tell Tale Heart, an Edgar Allen Poe horror he adapted, starring Steven Berkoff (Clockwork Orange, The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) which was “great fun,” to shoot.
When pressed on what he wants the legacy of Stanley to be, Cookson hesitates before explaining.
“I hope people see this film. I hope it turns into something of a classic, you know – Locke has got other actors. Kind Hearts and Coronets has got other actors. This is different. This is Tim’s first writing credit – it’s special.”
Stanley, A Man of Variety will show at the Oxford film festival in May, before visiting America, Australia and looking onwards towards a wider release in the coming months.