How we made Closer – by Clive Owen and Patrick Marber

‘I wanted to write a Shakespearean scene with someone in disguise, so I went into a lesbian chatroom pretending to be a gay woman’

Patrick Marber, playwright

I was in Atlanta in 1996 with a tour of my play Dealer’s Choice and I was dragged along to a lap-dancing club. It seemed a potent, haunting place for a scene about power and sex. That night I wrote a version of the lap-dance scene in Closer with characters called A and B. I wanted to figure out who the guy was, who the young woman was, and what happened to them before and after.

I’d recently directed a Craig Raine play, 1953, which is a version of Racine’s Andromaque and is about power relations between two men and two women. So is Sex, Lies and Videotape, my other main influence. Soderbergh’s film was a commercially successful independent movie. I wanted to make a sort of indie play.

At a writers’ retreat in Ireland, in the director Tyrone Guthrie’s old house, I hammered it into shape over a week. My view was sheep, fields, emptiness. Nothing like the urban environment of the play. I wrote on a Toshiba laptop, a machine with a tiny screen that now looks like a piece of hilarity from the late 80s. It was my lucky computer. I wrote Alan Partridge and Dealer’s Choice on it. I’d work from 9pm to 5am then sleep until midday. It was brain-crackingly hard doing the plotting.

‘The plotting was brain-crackingly hard’ … Patrick Marber.
‘The plotting was brain-crackingly hard’ … Patrick Marber. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I wanted a sort of Shakespearean scene, with someone in disguise, so spent an hour in a cyber cafe and went into a lesbian chatroom pretending to be a gay woman. I just wanted to impersonate someone else. Then, while walking my dog in Postman’s Park in London, I stumbled on a memorial for Alice Ayres who saved three children from a burning house. I thought one of my characters could take her name. In the play, Alice saves Anna, Dan and Larry in a way. I knew Dan would be an obituarist and at one point my title was An Obituary for Alice Ayres. Not very racy. I took Closer from a Joy Division album.

The designer Vicki Mortimer and I set the play downstage and decided props would gradually be dumped upstage as a reminder of more innocent times for the characters. Some thought it looked like a junk shop, but I didn’t mind. It is a play about the terrible junk of jealousy, breakups, divorce and singleness.

Sam Mendes was going to direct but had to pull out. I’d directed Dealers’ Choice and felt ready to do it myself. When we opened in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe theatre I was really scared. It didn’t seem funny at all, just relentlessly grim. I was surprised when it got good reviews. By the time it closed on Broadway in 1999, I’d devoted three years to the play. It was so heavily reviewed and scrutinised that it was nice to tinker with it for each production, reminding myself I still owned this thing. Liza Walker stayed with it a long time – playing Alice at the National’s Cottesloe and then Lyttelton theatres, and then in the West End.

Clive Owen was Dan in the Cottesloe. He found a way of honouring all the cynicism of the character while mining dark, ironic humour. Then he played Larry in Mike Nichols’s film and got an Oscar nomination. When it was shot in London, I experienced the strangeness of there being a movie crew in little Postman’s Park. It’s odd how life works out: you stumble on a thing, put it in a play and years later hundreds of people are there rigging.

‘We got great reviews, but we had walkouts, too’ … Liza Walker as Alice and Clive Owen as Dan at the Cottesloe.
‘We got great reviews, but we had walkouts, too’ … Liza Walker as Alice and Clive Owen as Dan at the Cottesloe. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Clive Owen, actor

Patrick played cards with people I knew. Some of them inspired characters in Dealer’s Choice. Closer was one of the most exciting, visceral pieces of writing I’d read. I really wanted to play Larry, but Patrick thought I was too young. Ciarán Hinds was cast in that role but I got a message from my agent: would I like to play Dan instead? Yes, I would.

My strongest memory is Dan’s softness. Larry rips him apart and he is really exposed. He is in love with the idea of being in love and just has a brutal awakening. Closer is such an honest examination of the pain from relationships and what it feels like to be bereft.

It was as if we were going into the unknown. The internet chatroom scene, where the dialogue appears on a huge screen, felt very state of the art. We got great reviews and the play became a big thing but we had walkouts, too. It starts almost like a romantic comedy – witty and light – then slowly you’re pulled into something deeply unsettling. There’s a big scene that goes into the explicit details of the affair. Some people found that too much.

The impact was so powerful in the Cottesloe. I remember walking into the empty Lyttelton, where it was going to transfer into, and felt that I had loved the experience so much that I didn’t want to do it in the bigger space, so I left after the initial run.

Years later, I got a call from Mike Nichols asking if I wanted to play Larry. A part I’d really wanted was suddenly being offered to me, with an amazing director and cast.

As an actor you look at every piece from your character’s perspective. You read a play or film with one character in mind. To play two parts in a piece like Closer was a totally new thing for me. I knew the play, the rhythms of the language, the impact of certain things but was now looking from Larry’s perspective. It felt both new and familiar. It was like I’d been given the most incredible gift.

• Patrick Marber is directing Leopoldstadt at Wyndham’s theatre, London, 25 January-16 May 2020. Clive Owen is starring in The Night of the Iguana at the Noël Coward theatre, London, until 28 September.


Interviews by Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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