Neil McCormick was delighted when he heard his memoir about failing to become a rock star would be made into a film. But 'Killing Bono’ was not what he expected. Who was that pretentious loser on the screen?
4:22PM GMT 11 Mar 2011
In February last year, I found myself sitting in a ramshackle club outside Belfast, brooding over a Guinness while a band pranced about on a dingy stage beneath red and blue lights. Smoke hung in the air, near-naked girls were shaking nipple tassels in my direction. But I was distracted by the handsome singer on stage – posturing and hiccuping, reeking of youthful ego, ambition and pretension, while his deluded band murdered a half-decent song.
Which he had every right to trash within an inch of its life, because the naive, precocious, prancing idiot on stage was me, 30 years younger.
I sat there, grey-haired, stocky and wrinkled, caught in a vortex of conflicting emotions: nostalgia, shame, pity, empathy, pride, anger, embarrassment. It was as if a chasm in time had ripped open and was about to swallow me up when, mercifully, a voice called “cut”, the music stopped, the band froze, and a different thrum of chatter and activity filled the room.
As my narrow point of focus pulled back to take in the cameras, lights and microphones of the film set, a creamy English voice broke through the action, bringing me back to Earth. “So what did you think of that, darling?” said Nick Hamm, the director. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
What I had seen was an actor, Ben Barnes, playing me in Killing Bono, the film version of my rock-and-roll memoir. Most people who have films made about them have done something worthwhile, or at least of historical significance. Not me, though. All I did was fail, repeatedly, abjectly and quite unheroically. Then they made a film about it. I have been immortalised in celluloid as a total loser.
As a young man, I was obsessed with fame. I was convinced it was my destiny to become a world-beating rock star. I had it all mapped out: the concept albums, the sci-fi world tours, first band on the moon. Turned out my school mate, Paul Hewson, had the same idea. He started a band called Feedback, which briefly featured my younger brother, Ivan, on guitar. That didn’t work out and I grabbed Ivan for my own punk band, Frankie Corpse & the Undertakers. We played our first gig at the Mount Temple School disco in Dublin, in 1977, with Paul’s band, who had changed their name to the Hype.
And so began my personal odyssey through the world of rock and roll, 13 years of missed chances, blown deals, bad judgement and worse luck. The McCormick brothers moved to London, got courted by major labels and big management, seduced, signed and dropped without releasing a record.
So it was that by the end of the Eighties, I found myself playing a gig at the Coach & Horses in Wembley while our old school friends were down the road at Wembley Stadium. Paul had adopted his teenage nickname of Bono. The band called themselves U2.
Mine is really a very ordinary rock story of big dreams and thwarted ambition. More bands fail than make it. After all, the pyramid geometry of showbusiness requires greater numbers propping up the bottom than standing in glory at the peak. The twist in my tale was that my friend became the biggest rock star on the planet. I became a rock critic.
It took me a while to come to terms with this, to take stock of my envy, put my ambition in perspective and draw some life lessons. But eventually I wrote a book about our misadventures, I Was Bono’s Doppelganger. The title was inspired by Bono’s joking suggestion that we were cosmic opposites and I had soaked up his bad luck.
Neil McCormick with his childhood friend Bono in 2000
“If you want your life back, you’ll have to kill me,” he laughed. He thought I should call the book Killing Bono. “I know a lot of people who would wear that T-shirt.” He took to calling and leaving messages on my answer machine: “Neil, it’s Bono. You have to kill me. It’s for your own good. And mine.” He was right, of course, it’s a better title, which was preferred by the US publishers.
Nick Hamm contacted me after my book came out in 2003 to say that he wanted to option the film rights. Now that was a call I had been secretly waiting for my whole life. Still, I thought he was mad. It’s such a sprawling, anecdotal story, spread over a lifetime, in which redemption, if it occurs, is almost all internal, a slow acceptance that you have to deal with life as it is, not as you might wish it to be.
Nick saw it as an everyman tale, because most people have more experience of failure than success. He had made a few films with varying degrees of success and, more significantly, failure. Something about my story spoke to him and he told me he was determined to get it made.
It took six years from that first meeting to the cameras rolling in Belfast (chosen because it looks more like Dublin in the Seventies than Dublin does now). The movie business can be so soul destroying, it makes rock-and-roll look easy. You need so much money to make a film, so many people are involved and so many things can go wrong, that – watching from the sidelines as the production rose and fell, scripts were written and revised, money was offered and retracted, shooting dates came and went – I began to think it is a miracle any film ever gets made.
After a while, my initially rather delightful interactions with Nick became limited to annual phone calls to renew the rights, in which he tried to negotiate me down with pleas of impending poverty and nervous exhaustion. “You have ruined my life, darling,” he told me during one call. At least, in best theatrical tradition, he was still calling me darling.
Things began to heat up in 2009, with a new producer, Ian Flooks, on board, who used to be U2’s booking agent. We had a script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the comic maestros behind Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Commitments. But somewhere around the 10th rewrite, new issues emerged. “The problem with your life, darling,” Nick told me, “is that there’s no third act.”
“That is because it’s a life, Nick,” I pointed out.
“Don’t worry though,” he smirked. “We’re going to give you one.”
Film is a very different medium to the written word. Internal voices become dialogue, metaphor becomes action, and with each rewrite it became more detached from my life as I remembered it. Characters were compressed. New characters invented. Incidents exaggerated. The story started to take on a logic of its own. By the 14th draft, they had me running around Dublin with a gun, hunting down my old friend.
“I never really wanted to kill Bono,” I protested. “Well, maybe just maim him a little…” But at each stage, I would take a deep breath, then let them get on with it. The truth is, I never actually thought they were going to get it off the ground.
The first time I saw a screen test of an actor playing me I wanted to crawl out of the room. Writing my story, I was able to acknowledge my worst characteristics with the ironic awareness of an older and wiser self. Maybe I was the butt of the joke, but at least my narration allows me the grace of acknowledging that I am in on the joke.
But confronted with this unmediated vision of my youthful gaucheness, pretentiousness, tendency to overexcitement and propensity for bullshit, I wondered how I had ever convinced myself (let alone anyone around me) that I was destined for great things.
At least the actor eventually cast as me was good looking. Ben Barnes is among the most handsome, charismatic young leading men in Britain. He played Prince Caspian in the Narnia Chronicles, for goodness sake. This may have been pretty much how I always saw myself, but I am not sure everyone agreed with this assessment. I said to Nick, “With his looks and my talent we could have gone far.” Nick said: “It’s OK, he’s playing you as a kind of supergeek. That should be enough to put people off.”
I suggested we get Brendan Gleeson or Colm Meaney to play Bono, a good Irish character actor, preferably old, overweight and balding – the ultimate revenge. In the event, they cast young Irish actor Marty McCann. I was on set for a scene at the launch party of The Joshua Tree when Marty walked in, in character. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and turned, thinking, for a split second, ''It’s Bono. What’s he doing here?’’
Marty had a way of jutting his chin and pumping up his chest, the walk of a boxer getting ready for the big fight, that spun me back 20 years. Then he would drop the whole thing and chatter away in a Northern Ireland accent.
While they were shooting, I called Bono and told him the actor playing him was more like him than he was himself.
“Just as long as he’s tall,” said Bono. “And modest.” Perhaps not the characteristics most people would associate with Bono.
I didn’t hang around the set too much. There is only so much time I want to spend standing in the corner of freezing rooms, watching an actor portray me as an idiot. I have a real life to live, as the Telegraph’s rock critic. In a way, I wish I had been able to enjoy the process more but I am prone to over-thinking things and the whole experience was making me intensely self-conscious.
I saw the finished film for the first time with an invited audience in a small screening room in Soho. I thought I was ready for it. After all, I had read scripts, been on set, watched rushes. Then the projector started running and my head exploded. I had so many conflicting thoughts and reactions (That’s not my dad! I remember that poster! What’s my old boss going to make of being portrayed like that? Was I really such an idiot?) it was impossible to remain focused.
Each scene seemed to drag on for hours. And they gave me that third act, which is a more dramatic than anything I managed to come up with. I could feel a blush rise up my cheeks and I sat, burning with embarrassment for nearly two hours. Then the lights came up and there was a round of spontaneous applause.
People tell me it’s funny and moving. I hope so. I’ve only been able to watch it once more and it did make me laugh, the performances are great (with a lovely turn from Pete Postlethwaite as our gay landlord, in what would be his last ever film) but I also had to put up with the stranger seated next to me suddenly guffawing, “What a jerk!” at one of my youthful indiscretions.
I had to restrain myself from tapping on his shoulder and saying “that’s not how it really happened”. People ask how closely it sticks to my story, but I’ve given up pointing out digressions and fictionalisations because I can tell, from the way the conversation proceeds, it doesn’t really penetrate. What they have just seen is too tangible to dismiss.
After the first screening, I went out for dinner with my girlfriend, Gloria. Briefly in the Eighties she was manager of my band and appears as a character in the film, albeit changed from the level-headed, South African single-parent I fell in love with, to a hot, American, child-free ex-punk (played by Krysten Ritter).
Gloria was there, she knows the whole story, we have lived together for more than 20 years and have a child. But she was being really horrible to me over dinner and it eventually dawned on me that it was because my film character had cheated on her film character with another film character who never even existed. When I pointed out this, she said: “Well, it’s just like something you would have done!”
There is a deeper truth to be found here. We all fictionalise ourselves in the process of creating a story out of the raw materials of our life. For some it is a soap opera, for others an epic, but, for all of us, it’s an ongoing narrative that we constantly manipulate and reshape, improving (like the best anecdotes) in the retelling. This is not just true of writers. The story is one of the key ways we define and order our experiences as human beings: how we tell ourselves and others who we are. And our stories are full of omission and exaggeration, the stuff of subjective experience.
So, in a sense, I created a version of myself to suit my book, emphasising the comical tales of plucky failure. And by telling that story, I transformed my failure into success, which, of course, was my secret intention all along. I made capital of the one thing I had, my own story of struggle and hardship. Now, someone has created an alternative version, that threatens to become more widely accepted as the truth. Film embeds itself visually in your mind, taking on the quality of memory. To me, the film is a kind of riff on the themes of my book, my life in a parallel universe, where I still don’t get to be a rock star, but I do get the best lines.
My brother Ivan, on the other hand – who is played by the possibly even more handsome Irish actor Robert Sheehan (from Misfits) and comes out of the whole thing rather better than me – has been telling everyone the film is exactly the way it was. He was the real star in the family. And I ruined his life.
Well, maybe. But now I’ve made him a movie star, which must be some compensation.
As a deluded, fame-obsessed young man, of course, I never doubted that one day someone would make a film of my life. It just never occurred to me it would be a comedy.
Killing Bono is out April 1, the soundtrack on March 28. Neil McCormick’s memoir will be republished by Penguin on March 31. He blogs regularly at blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture
Ben talks about the movie, Robert Sheehan and being brothers, the Irish accent, and tight pants
Bonus bit about Will Poulter which is adorable.
THE Robbie Sheehan...
Confession: I've never seen Misfits, I've never seen Robert Sheehan in anything before. After this interview? OMG SWOON HE'S ADORABLE.
More Behind the Scenes vids:
I would see this movie just for them, tbh.
Also, no Binbons tag, mods? Where do we go to ask for those....
ps, I fixed the cut-text now. FUUUU not being able to preview the cut text...
WAIT THERE ARE YET MORE VIDEOS