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'Phantom of the Open:' Simon Farnaby shares his adaptation process with screenwriters

June 23, 2022
4 min read time

“This story means a lot to me,” director and writer Simon Farnaby tells Final Draft about his latest movie, Phantom of the Open, which is the true-life story of shipyard worker Maurice Flitcroft (played by Mark Rylance) who dared to dream and somehow found himself competing in the British Golf Open Championship in 1976 despite never having played a round of golf and making history as running up the worst score.

“I grew up around golf. My dad was a greenkeeper at a golf club in North England. Greenkeepers are typically working-class…Maurice was sort of a folk hero to the younger generation.”

While Farnaby forgot about Flitcroft as the years went by, when the golf legend died in 2007, he recalls reading about him and his story. “I thought he was this funny and interesting character. He spoke to me in the way that he was a fusion of my love of golf and my connection with my dad and how I grew up.”

He immediately wrote a screenplay but calls it “a really bad screenplay.”  

“I was so keen to write this screenplay that I wrote it straight away with not much research or information on Maurice’s character or life other than what I could find on the internet and newspapers,” he says. “I wrote this screenplay that had a lot of stuff made up and it was pretty formulaic. I realized quickly it was quite bad.”

 

Taking a step back

His friend, journalist Scott Murray, suggested writing a book together on Flitcroft, which resulted in 2010’s The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, the World’s Worst Golfer.

“I thought it was a great idea to find out all this information first before writing the screenplay,” Farnaby says. “I recommend to any screenwriter to write a book first because it’s a great way to learn more about your character if it's a true story. We spent a few years interviewing friends and family who knew Maurice and later I sat down and wrote a much better screenplay.”

While Farnaby had the upper hand in adapting his own book, he shared there were some challenges when it came to writing the script, particularly when it came to figuring out the ending.  

“[Writing the screenplay] was a case of reducing and curating Maurice’s life. I wanted a happy ending that has some redemption and that ended up being Maurice’s American adventure. So all the little structure things were head-scratchers but I did find it easier [to write] than others that were purely fictional.”

 

Painting Maurice's dreams

One of the most creative elements of the screenplay is the golf-based fantasy sequence that helps to expand Maurice’s world into something more expansive and magical, which Farnaby says was the point.

“It was important [to include] because Maurice was a dreamer and I wanted a representation of what was going on in his head. That was actually in the first version of the script. I didn’t want a straight biopic, I wanted something different to elevate it and connect it with Maurice and how he’s a dreamer. I was a fan of The Big Lebowski and I wanted something similar to the bowling dream sequence scene and adapt it into a golf situation.”

Flitcroft's disco-dancing twin sons and their quest to become disco-dancing champions (which became a reality in 1984) are featured prominently in the story as a sort of mirror to the theme of chasing wild dreams that are kicked off by his own golf fantasy.  

“For me, a good film can be a debate on something,” Farnaby says. “And if this movie is about dreams, you need to include more dreams and you need to ask, ‘What if you’re no good? What if you fail? Or what if you follow your dreams and they can come true but then, in the case of the disco dancing, they fall out of fashion?’ Which isn’t really your fault because times change. So I think that’s all part of it and the fabric of society and how our values change. What is one generation’s success isn’t another generation’s success. So that fell into the theme of what defines success.”

 

Your homework

In terms of what helps make a good biopic screenplay, Farnaby’s first words of wisdom for aspiring screenwriters are: “Lots of research.” Also, “don’t be afraid of the truth even if it doesn't fit your own narrative.”

He cites his own experience in his first draft where he had created a mentor figure for Flitcroft who gave him the odd lesson. He ultimately scrapped the idea.

“A lot of screenplay books say the hero needs a mentor and I think that’s the impulse to do it and I knew to throw it away because it wasn’t true. And I thought it might make the movie worse but it made it better. Maurice didn’t have the money for a mentor, he didn't take advice from anyone. And so that was a part of the strangeness of the story. So I think it’s that – stick with the truth of the story and the character. You will find something that will make you go, ‘Oh that’s much better than what I was going to make up and it will make your story better.’”

The Phantom of the Open is in theaters now and will be available on Premium Video On Demand on July 8th. 

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