A character with real kick
The origins of “The Damned United,” an adaptation of David Peace’s novel about English soccer manager Brian Clough -- whose prodigious skill at coaching the beautiful game and brash persona made him a media sensation throughout his tumultuous career in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s -- stem from the 2006 Venice Film Festival premiere of “The Queen.”
Writer Peter Morgan was handed the book by director Stephen Frears, and soon Morgan, actor Michael Sheen and producer Andy Harries were all passing the copy around. “There were a couple of very hot, gorgeous days where I should have been out doing endless round table interviews for the European press,” said Morgan, “but I was actually holed up in a tiny little room in the hotel in Venice reading about soccer in the 1970s. I was just unable to put it down.
“Nowhere could be more inappropriate than the Venice Film Festival to be reading about Brian Clough, with everybody strutting around in Prada with their Blackberries and there we were thinking about footballers and that mud and mess of Yorkshire in the early ‘70s.”
Though Morgan would end up writing the script for the film, Sheen would star as Clough and Harries would produce, Frears would leave the project, to be replaced by Tom Hooper.
With his projects “Elizabeth I,” “Longford” (which Morgan also wrote) and “John Adams,” Hooper has directed the Golden Globe winner in the made-for-television movie or miniseries category for the last three years. “The Damned United,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is his first theatrical feature.
As portrayed in the movie, Clough (played with a cheeky, dark panache by Sheen) would rise to fame when he and his longtime assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) took their team, Derby County, from the bottom of the second division up into the top ranks of English soccer, winning the first division within three seasons. The relentlessly ambitious Clough would develop a fierce rivalry and obsession with Leeds United Coach Don Revie (Colm Meaney), which came to a head when Clough actually took over the Leeds team in 1974. He would last just 44 days.
As if to make plain Clough’s distinctive position in the cultural landscape of his times, those behind “The Damned United” all have their own memories of the larger-than-life manager who often made for volatile press appearances.
“Before I knew he was a football manager, I knew he was someone who made people shout at him on the TV,” recalled Sheen. “He seemed to have a kind of fizz of electricity around him when he was on TV because he seemed to have this unpredictability that I’d never seen in anybody. He was very compelling to me even as a kid and slightly unsettling as well. He wasn’t like anyone else.”
Sheen pointed out that where the previous historical dramas written by Morgan, including “The Last King Of Scotland” and Academy Award nominees “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon,” have placed strong personalities in opposition to each other -- Tony Blair versus Queen Elizabeth, David Frost versus Richard Nixon -- in “The Damned United” the opposing forces exist within the character of Clough himself as he is pulled between Peter Taylor and Don Revie.
“In any film about Brian Clough there’s never going to be a character of equal substance,” added Morgan. “He’s such a powerful and all-consuming character, so full of inner conflict and turmoil, that you don’t need to get him against anyone. He’s constantly his own most challenging adversary.”
In bringing “The Damned United” across the Atlantic, there is the obvious question of whether American audiences, who have long had a muted relationship with soccer and the devotion it inspires in the rest of the world, would turn up for such a distinctly British story, about a man who might be best described as the Billy Martin of English football.
“I don’t really see it as a soccer film, much less a sporting film,” said Hooper. “I’m not a football fan, and I chose to do the film as my follow-up to ‘John Adams’ because it takes on the Shakespearean themes of the perils of ego, ambition, hubris, this incredibly strong friendship between two men; it’s about betrayal and it’s about forgiveness. For me, the big themes are the things I’m interested in.”
The film ends with footage of the real Clough and Taylor, both of whom have now passed on. The moments were included even in the script -- Morgan wrote something similar into “The Last King Of Scotland” with footage of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin -- and bring into sharp relief the skillful verve of Sheen’s portrayal of the talented and troubled Clough.
“It’s not something where I feel like, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to show the real one because everyone will know I’m not like him,’ ” said Sheen of the appearance of the real Clough at the film’s conclusion. “That doesn’t worry me at all, really. I always find it very moving . . . because it brings home that this isn’t made up. It’s real.”