Climbing currently plays a big part in the private and professional life of Simon Beaufoy. Nick Ahad talked to him about his latest film and The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire.
You’ve just turned 30, you’re an Oxbridge graduate (and therefore, some might think, already imbued with a sense of entitlement) and the first film you write sees you nominated for an Oscar and a Bafta and becomes one of the most profitable British movies ever made.
You’re rolling in cash, living the high life, have the pick of film projects, the movie industry holds its collective breath, waiting for what magic your words might weave the next time you sit at your computer.
Cut to 14 years later – and another movie you’ve written has gone one better and this time has won an Oscar and a Bafta. A year after that, your very next movie sees you nominated for both these accolades again.
Can you imagine how “Hollywood” a person might become if all that happened to them?
It all happened to Simon Beaufoy – and here’s how Hollywood he is: when I arrive for our meeting, I’m early. I go into the bar he has asked to meet at, to get a drink and wait.
As I open the door to the bar, the first thing I notice is that the floor is made from a surprising material – like something you’d find in a fish and chip shop. The sort of flooring that is easy to swill down with water at chucking-out time and the barman – and I am not making this up – has no front teeth.
It’s the first clue that Beaufoy, the Keighley-born writer who produced the scripts for The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, might not be as Hollywood as his CV might first lead you to suspect.
We’re meeting in the Lake District, in what turns out to be a famous old climbers’ pub that sits in a valley surrounded on both sides by giant peaks.
You’ve probably read about “riders” and how awkward some famous people can be – demanding lilies in their dressing rooms, one particular colour of M&Ms and the like.
Well, it’s not a good start, is it, that Beaufoy asks us to travel all the way to the Lake District? Except it’s not really like that. The Yorkshire Post had to travel to the Lakes to meet him because he was willing to take time out of his holiday to do this interview. That’s not all. The holiday is not the sort you might expect a millionaire Oscar winning writer to be taking.
“I’ve been climbing that peak, just up there, today,” says Beaufoy as he arrives. He has a boyish topping of light ginger curly hair and offers endless thanks for being furnished with a pint of the local ale.
The pub is attached to the hotel where Beaufoy is holidaying and the flooring of the bar is an indication of how rough and ready his accommodation for the week is. Today was rock climbing, tomorrow, he declares with the smile of a 14-year-old boy preparing for adventure, is windsurfing.
The writer is giving himself a rare break away from the wife and children, to spend a week in a place where there is no mobile phone reception and all he has for company are other climbers and thrill seekers.
Fish and chips and a couple of pints of ale and a chance to chat about some of his favourite subjects appear to be all this writer needs to be happy.
As he mentions the rock climbing, we might as well start there. His last movie was 127 Hours, the Oscar-nominated story of Aron Ralston, the climber who found himself in a canyon in Utah, his arm stuck fast by a boulder. Trapped for five days, Ralston had little hope of being rescued. So he freed himself by amputating his arm.
Beaufoy spent a lot of time with Ralston, hearing all the details of the incident, of how the climber endured the worst agonies you might imagine. He is not exactly an advert for climbing, you might think. Yet here Beaufoy is today, one of very few people in the world to whom Ralston has shown the tapes on which he thought he was recording his final moments, exhilarated from a good climb on the hill face in the shadow of which we sit in the beer garden.
Beaufoy laughs at the absurdity of it. “Yes, I suppose it might seem strange that I would ever climb again after that movie.” He tucks into an evening meal that he still calls tea, despite having lost almost all trace of a Yorkshire accent. “It’s something I used to do all the time, but then when you’re living in London and have kids it becomes a little harder to find the time.
“When I went with Aron into Blue John Canyon (where Ralston was pinned by the boulder) to see what it was all about I suddenly thought “oh yeah, I love all this, why did I stop’? It actually got me started again.”
What is it that he enjoys about it? If anyone understands the dangers that come with an extreme pursuit, it must be Beaufoy. “There is a complete focus you get when you’re climbing. I haven’t thought about films or anything for the past eight hours. All you concentrate on when you’re climbing is exactly what’s in front of you and if you’ve put the safety clip in properly and what your next move is. It’s like working out a game of chess. You work out where the cracks are and eventually you find yourself at the top.”
Without wanting to crowbar the conversation back to films, it does sound like the making of a movie, I suggest. That sense of total concentration, the mountain to climb and the satisfaction of reaching the top. Beaufoy agrees – and he’s had a few mountains climb in his career.
He started out training as a documentary maker after reading English at Oxford. Nothing ever came of it. After embarking on BBC documentaries, he found himself in his late 20s in Sheffield with a girlfriend who was confined to hospital following a bad fall while climbing.
She was hospitalised for five months and Beaufoy found himself wandering the streets of Sheffield while she recovered in the Royal Hallamshire. It came to him in mid-stride he was in the middle of a story – one that was to become his first film and a worldwide smash hit.
“Unemployment was rife and I was wandering the streets of this city that was being destroyed around the people. The Steel City was turning into a shopping centre while you watched. The rolling mills where people worked were being turned into the car park for the shopping centre. I realised it was an amazing metaphor for what was happening to the North of England. But what really stood out was all that combined with this really great, funny spirit. The worse things became, the funnier the jokes got, which struck me as this real Northern, working class spirit – comedy as a survival mechanism.”
It was a film with a big heart which captured audiences around the world and catapulted Beaufoy into a hitherto unimagined world. But The Full Monty did not make him a rich man. The rumour is that he was paid very little for the film, signing away his rights to a cut of the profits on bad advice from an agent.
“It’s true. Everyone was going off being rich from the film and I was being sued by everybody,” says Beaufoy, able to laugh thanks to distance and time. “I wouldn’t say anything bad against my agent. He’s dead now and he was a great friend, but yes, it was just a terrible contract.”
But he was Oscar nominated and flown to a swanky hotel in LA by the distributors 20th Century Fox. “I turn up in LA, Mr Nobody, in a big flash hotel. As soon as I walk into the hotel, someone comes up to me and says ‘Are you Simon Beaufoy?’ I say ‘Yes, yes I am Simon Beaufoy’- thinking I have made it - and he hands me a letter and says ‘you’re served’. From that moment I knew never to get to pleased with myself.”
The letter was from someone who had written a play about male strippers and was suing Beaufoy for having stolen the idea. “I ended up in an 18-month nightmare. Every day for six months the lawyers rang me and would say, ‘look, if you did see the play, it’s fine, just tell us’. I ended up thinking maybe I had seen the play.
“The company wanted to settle but I wasn’t going to let that happen. I certainly wasn’t getting any money from the movie so the only thing I could make sure I took away was my reputation.”
Which, fortunately, he did. He was the hottest British film writer around. The world was at his feet. “I had offers flooding in and I went back to making low-budget films that nobody wanted to see,” he says. Why on earth would he not take the paycheck?
“I’m a bloody-minded Yorkshireman. I never went into it for the money or the fame.I went into this to make films and tell the stories I wanted to tell.”
Really not very Hollywood at all.
Simon Beaufoy will be talking about his career at The Magic Loungeabout Festival at Broughton Hall, July 29 to 31. He will be appearing in the Food For Thought Tent alongside Annie Nightingale, Howard Marks and comedian Robin Ince. Tickets on www.themagicloungeabout.net