England’s 4-0 demolition of Moldova in September of 1997 was much more than just a solid home win for Glenn Hoddle’s improving team. Yes, it was the first time David Seaman had captained the Thee Lions, but more importantly for comedian, writer and film maker Tony Hawks, it was the beginning of a long journey to win a small bet in which he subsequently played, and defeated, the entire Moldovan football team at tennis. The best selling book about his achievements, aptly titled Playing the Moldovans at Tennis has now been given the movie treatment: written, starring and co-directed by the man himself.
The story is based on your own bizarre story, and tackles a much broader range of emotions than your first film, Travelling Around Ireland With a Fridge. Was filming this more of an acting challenge?
It’s difficult to say! Although I’ve been sitting and watching myself act throughout the whole process, it’s still difficult to judge your own performance because you’re so wrapped up in it all. I just tried to feel how I felt when I saw those things and be as honest as I could - I just don’t know how well I did it!
Do you know if any of the original players you challenged to a tennis match have seen the film yet?
Yes, quite a few of them came along to the premier in Moldova. One of them, Ion Testimitanu, as a result of playing tennis with me originally introduced his daughter to the game, and she is now the number one player in Moldova.
Impressive! Do you think that the traditional British eccentricity that’s at the base of this film will appeal to a universal audience?
I think it will. Americans always seem to like that. We’re showing the film in America, just a little screening but it will be good to see how they respond to it. I have done stand up in America before, in New York. My particular brand of gentle English comedy went over quite well. We tend to think that the Americans don’t get irony, which is just part of the way we are with things. I think sharp people you meet in America will get it.
In the book you reference the famous movie theatre scene in Annie Hall, has Woody Allen been an influence on you in terms of comedy or filmmaking?
Certainly in comedy, but not in filmmaking. I’ve really gone off him now - I used to really like his films, but recently he has made some shockers. I think he has just made too many. He must have made 25 or 30 films, I can’t imagine it. I don’t know how he does it. But actors love working with him so he must be great.
Your reputation is as one of the nice guys of comedy. Has that ever hindered you?
Sometimes the easiest route to a laugh is saying something nasty about something or someone. I reject that, it just doesn’t seem right. Many years ago I was asked to appear on They Think It’s All Over just after Will Carling was alleged to have had an affair with Princess Diana. The producer was asking me for Will Carling gags and I said I didn’t have any. He couldn’t believe it and was asking me to get some for the show. I didn’t want to write jokes about Will Carling. I don’t know the bloke. He hasn’t done anything terrible or evil, he’s just like anybody else and they just wanted to spend half an hour tearing him apart. So that was a disadvantage, as I just felt that I didn’t belong on that kind of show. It definitely limits what you can do.
You co-directed this film with Mikolaj Jaroszewicz (cinematographer on the Oscar winning Peter and the Wolf). How was it sharing directing responsibilities?
Difficult. You’ve both got a vision in your head, and Mikolaj is a very good director of photography but very often didn’t understand the type of gentle performance I wanted. The way we got round it was he’d do it the way he wanted to do it and I’d say, “Ok, let’s do a few like this.” Then when we got back to the edit I’d pick my version.
So, in general, are you more inclined to work alone?
It is nice to collaborate, but with films there has to be a final decision and that’s when you don’t want a bloody committee, because you won’t get anything done. So you listen to everybody, get as many opinions as you can, but you have to decide somewhere along the line whose films it is. Although I co-directed it with Mikolaj, I made it clear at the beginning that it was my film, my story, my funding, everything. So he had to accept that. I felt his style was a bit heavy handed at times; he had a tendency to want to make everything terribly dramatic. But we got through it. We made it work. That’s the main thing.
All the proceeds from the film will go to The Tony Hawks Centre in Moldova. How will the money be used?
Basically what they’re doing is rebuilding. The place has already been up and running for ten years, but we’re building a new centre, so we want to try and finish off the building work. The centre treats kids with cerebral palsy, they come to get massaged and have various kinds of treatment and then we teach the parents how to do it, so they can go away and do it as well. It ensures that the kids are getting daily help.
Is it true that you funded the film yourself?
Yes, it cuts down on the amount of grief that you have reporting to investors, and you have control. You just put the money into an account and go off and start working. The process of making and funding films is utterly miserable. Also, the fact that I wanted to give the profits to the care centre didn’t make this project particularly appealing to potential investors.
The way you’ve distributed the film yourself - online at www.moldovansmovie.com - it is free to stream with an option to donate to The Tony Hawks Centre) is becoming ever more popular, particularly in comedy with Louis CK pioneering it in the States to unbelievable success. Do you think this is the future for comedy here in the UK?
I think it has to be the future for small independent projects. I don’t know whether it’s just for comedians. The difficult thing is the way it’s set up at the moment: if you go down a traditional route you end up not getting any income because you’ve just spent all your money just getting the project out there. It really is a conundrum. At least this way, when the money comes in you haven’t had to pay to produce the DVD, market it, pay a distributor or publicise it. Really, we need this to take off worldwide, for word to go out for it to really kick in. We want a little viral campaign.
Playing The Moldovans at Tennis will be screened at Broadway on Sunday 30 September at 6.30pm. The screening will be followed by an appearance by Tony Hawks.
Tony Hawks charity website