Steve Coogan on making 24 Hour Party People: ‘I did my climactic speech – then took half an E’

‘We re-created the Haçienda nightclub in a Manchester warehouse,’ says the film’s director, Michael Winterbottom. ‘It was chaos – people were crying because they were so nostalgic’

Michael Winterbottom, director

This film was an allergic reaction to being in Canada on a depressing recce and getting snowed in at a logging town. We wanted to do something closer to home so we decided: “Let’s do something about Manchester, Tony Wilson, the Haçienda nightclub and the music of Factory Records from the late 70s onwards.”

The BBC, who we asked about financing it, weren’t convinced anyone was interested in Tony. But there was something intriguing about him that gave him comic possibilities as a central character: his day job doing silly reports on Granada TV, then running the Haçienda at night. He was someone people liked to take potshots at, yet was incredibly influential in creating that whole Manchester scene. From the beginning, we thought Steve Coogan was the perfect person to play him.

The idea was that Tony would be a slightly unreliable narrator. The writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and I talked about the model being Tristram Shandy, where you’ve got someone struggling to tell the story. We had Tony talk to camera because that was what he did as a TV presenter. The real-life Tony was very open right from the beginning, helping us to meet everyone involved in the scene. He claimed we made a lot of stuff up, but it was only stuff he told us in the first place.

People got on board as they saw we were trying to film in the spirit of Factory. We wanted to be a bit chaotic: out of that, really interesting things can happen. We wanted the actors to have the right attitude, rather than strike an absolute impersonation. Most met their real-life counterparts, apart from, of course, Sean Harris as Ian Curtis. But he was quite an intense person anyway, so he was perfect.

Even the musicians who were a bit reluctant ended up getting involved, especially after we re-created the Haçienda. The real building had been knocked down, so we made a replica – to the exact proportions – in another Manchester warehouse. We ran it as a club for a couple of nights: people were queueing up to get in. New Order came down, and we couldn’t get them out of the DJ booth. It was chaos, people were crying because they were so nostalgic. We had to stop them DJing, because the fire brigade were threatening to close us down.

These days, people are nostalgic for that era and its attitude. Does Factory represent my creative ideal? Film-making works the opposite way, unfortunately. In the process of getting people to give you a few million quid for your script, they have control. It’s hard to be free. I don’t really know how the film did commercially – which is quite a Factory type attitude. At least we didn’t go bankrupt like them.

Steve Coogan, actor

I read in a newspaper that Michael Winterbottom was going to make a film about the Manchester music scene and Steve Coogan was going to play Tony Wilson. This was the first I’d heard about it, so I rang him up and he said: “Sorry, I hadn’t got round to asking you. Will you do it?” I said yes because I didn’t want anyone else to.

I knew Tony a little already. He came to my house for a party when I was 10 , because my aunt was a makeup artist at Granada TV, and in 1990 I was the resident funnyman on one of his shows. I knew I could impersonate him, although I would have to do more than that in the film. I had the rhythms of his speech: he would veer between being very northern working-class and very effete, almost camp.

Doing the film saved my life. I’d had a lot of success doing comedy and Alan Partridge, but I was flatlining and felt typecast with this albatross. It was an escape. Michael came along and did a bit of a Tony Wilson on me. He saw me as being more interesting and edgy.

The way Michael shot was a revelation. I never had to hit a mark or find a light. There was a lot of improvisation. The only people on set were Michael, the director of photography Robby Müller and the sound guy, the three of them in a huddle that would just move around the room. I would frequently do scenes and not know where the camera was. It was a little creative epiphany for me. Working with Michael was free-form, it was about not over-engineering something. Comedy is quite a safe place to be if you get the laugh, but Michael taught me not to do the joke. Embrace the tension, the awkwardness.

We had a scene with Morrissey snogging Tony Wilson’s ex-wife in the back of a car while Tony’s trying to be postmodern about it. But Morrissey wouldn’t let us use it because it never happened. Maybe it’s good he’s not in it, after all the shite he’s been coming out with these days. Mick Hucknall stopped speaking to me after the joke about God calling his music rubbish. Peter Hook had a great antipathy to the film: he said it was the biggest cunt in Manchester being played by the second biggest cunt. But he ended up doing the DVD commentary.

I got goosebumps when I walked into the re-created Haçienda. One of my first gigs was there in 1986, supporting my brother’s band, the Mock Turtles. There was no legendary last night as depicted in the film. I got my climactic speech for that scene out of the way with a clear head, then took half an E. It was – what’s the fashionable word – an immersive experience. We weren’t particularly well behaved.

It was the first time I didn’t want a film to end because I felt we had created an alternative reality and I wanted to go on living in this little world. I haven’t seen the film for 18 years now. It would be like opening a shoebox of old photographs. It captured the last vestiges of grubby Manchester, before it was redeveloped. The romantic Manchester in my head will always be the one of 24 Hour Party People.


Interviews by Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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