In conversation with Bruce Robinson
FROM IDLER 12, NOVEMBER 1995
Bruce Robinson was one of our heroes, having written and directed one of the most quoted films of all time, the incomparable Withnail And I.
I got the train up to the Welsh border, where he had recently bought a sprawling farmhouse, having quit Hollywood after nearly a decade of agony working with studios.
He had sounded posh and distinguished on the phone, so on the station platform I approached a posh and distinguished-looking gent with short grey hair. He wasn’t Bruce.
Bruce was in the car park, leaning against his Land Rover, wearing shades, long hair and Levis. He looked like a Rolling Stone.
To my disappointment, he was on the wagon. He had asked if I’d like to stay the night, so I had anticipated sinking a few bottles of red with him. We did the interview in two parts, one that afternoon, and one the following morning.
Another original mind, great thinker and great talker.
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The writer of Withnail and I and The Killing Fields now lives with his family in rural Herefordshire, where we discussed speeding up and slowing down
IDLER: [gazing through the window at idyllic pastures] It must be fantastic waking up here.
ROBINSON: It’s fantastic waking up in an environment that hasn’t changed in so long – but really it’s you, what you bring with it. I get quite tired of cows. Sometimes you need that pile of sick on the pavement down the Earl’s Court Road just to get you into focus.
IDLER: There’s a kind of romance about London as well.
ROBINSON: Yeah, there is. Cities are best when there’s no one in them. At four or five in the morning they have a real magic to them. I remember coming back from Los Angeles and the first thing I wanted to do, partly because of the jet lag, was get in the car and drive around London as the light was coming up. It’s a phenomenal place because you own the town. Everything is yours and then you see the newspaper sellers and get on with the day. I guess you’re into the magic of it now in the same way that I was into it twenty years ago.
IDLER: New things round the corner all the time.
ROBINSON: But it’s the cost of it now. I used to go to a restaurant on the Brompton Road when I was on National Assistance, which was about eleven quid a week. Every Sunday you could go there and have lunch with full anaesthetic: a couple of bottles of red, and a plateful, and you’d get out of there for four quid.
IDLER: When you had no money and were living on the dole, what sort of techniques did you have for living?
ROBINSON: It was very difficult, but it was much much cheaper. My principle source of finance was I guess… we used to drink Guinness in the morning and wine after lunch – though lunch itself didn’t exist. We accumulated an enormous amount of Guinness bottles. So when we had two to three hundred Guinness bottles there would be a convoy of people taking them back to the off-licence for the deposit. Wine was about eleven and six a bottle or something. But it was extremely difficult.
IDLER: Were you paying rent?
ROBINSON: Well, ostensibly we were paying rent but the guy who owned the place we were living in was a friend and we never gave him any money – we probably still owe him about six hundred quid – no, we didn’t pay any rent. The thing you do when you haven’t got any money is cut out luxuries. If it was a question of fags or eating we would always go for the fags.
IDLER: It’s funny how your priorities end up with clothes and eating way down. You have beans on toast which is 40p, to save money. But you’ll easily go to the pub and have five pints, or go and buy a bottle of wine and not think anything of it. At lunch you’ll think, “Mmmm, I don’t know if I want to spend two pounds on that sandwich, I’ll have that cheaper one at one twenty.”
ROBINSON: Well that’s right. One twenty, it’s sort of a horrible currency. When a sandwich was one and six it seemed more amenable, more acceptable. We had a caf?� round the corner in Camden Town. It was an Italian one owned by a woman called Gina, a real old fat Italian mamma. She used to feed us if we didn’t have any money. And then when we did have money we’d go in there and pretend we didn’t. She was really sweet – you couldn’t get a steak out of her, but you could get an egg. I look back on those days in dread. Sometimes I have nightmares about going back to that flat. Because it got so bad by the end, when everyone had moved out and all the furniture was gone and I was there. I literally had one light bulb. I guarded it like a Russian prisoner of war. At night I’d take the light bulb up and put it in the bedroom, and in the day I’d go down and put it in the kitchen and – because the gas was still on at this point – get the oven open, sit there in your overcoat and get warm. But it’s ok because it is the classic thing of aspiring and going on to something else. And in a sense that’s what Withnail was. Being able to look at it and see how ridiculous it was. All that stuff with the bags on the feet in the countryside was all true. The worst thing that could happen was a burst bag… so we got six to eight bags per foot all burst, but which would slow down the intake of water.
IDLER: It’s that priorities thing – you’d get given some money for Wellington boots but it’d all get spent on booze.
ROBINSON: That’s exactly how it would happen.
Occasionally I’d go down and hit my parents. Scrape up the dough to get me the train fare down there and sort of lay on the couch – with hunger – and try and get some money. My grandmother, who I adored, used to give me a few quid. In those Withnail days my friend Vivian had parents who lived on the Isle of Islay, and all the people who worked in the whisky distilleries were forbidden to drink the stuff on site. So apparently there was a massive upsurge in spin drier sales and what these buggers were doing was getting the whisky filters – with 160 proof in them – and taking them home, sticking them in the spin-drier and sucking the whisky out – they called it Yon White Stuff and – it was like fucking aviation fuel. Every time Viv came back from Islay, he would have a crate of Yon White Stuff which we’d murder ourselves with. It was like the scene in Withnail where he drinks the lighter fuel – that actually happened. The events in Withnail and I that take place over about two weeks actually happened over four or five years. Various things I used, other things I made up and I integrated, squeezed, concertina-ed all this into one story. But the lighter fuel scene actually did happen. We always used to have those terrible, awful fucking English Sundays that extended for eleven months, because it’s always winter and always cold when you’ve got no money, you’re always shivering, living off the vitamins in cigarettes. I remember one Sunday we didn’t have the money to go to the flicks and Vivian was under the sink with the Guinness bottles after the dregs – some of the bottles you’d pour out a fag end trying to get enough together to have a drink. Freaking out, in a terrible mood, he picks up a newspaper – he read The Sun and I read The Guardian – he hated my paper and I hated his. He started ranting about The Guardian, “The Guardian, what do they fucking guard? What do they guard?” all of that, stamping around this flat with his Guinness dregs and – it was very acrimonious, nasty afternoon – his eyes finally alight on the Ronson. And he grabs the Ronson and tears off the top, “RAUGHH, glug, glug, glug!” He had a three or four day hangover, went blind in one eye and I often wonder – because it’s an incredible carcinogen, kerosene – whether that was the thing that kicked off his cancer of the throat. He drank a can of lighter fuel and was in a most terrible state.
IDLER: What must it do to your bowels?
ROBINSON: Well the thing is, there’s a big difference between methyl and ethyl alcohol isn’t there. Methyl alcohol is actually inconsumptable – human beings can’t drink it. You get a terrible crisis affecting your central nervous system. It was around this time that the whole thing was collapsing – I knew very clearly in the sane… the government side of my mind, that I had to stop doing this and get away from this environment. Because at this point I used to write quite a lot, and that’s what I wanted, even though I was in this totally destructive environment.
I’ve always had this epithet “art is the opposite of death”, and I still think about that whenever I feel really black about anything. I get in front of my typewriter. The function of writing is the opposite of being dead. You’re living. This is the thing that always motivates me, because I hate the process of writing. I find it hard and hateful to do. But at the end of the day, if I write a couple of good lines, or I write a page that I think is good work, I feel justified in being alive. I feel I’ve got the right to be, in a shoddy way, pleased – I don’t want to say, happy.
The nightmare for me is that over the years I’ve developed an obsessive way of writing. You know the way computers and typewriters justify the right hand margin – I justify the right hand margin, but I do it by hand. So if I’ve got a word like “fundamental” that spills one letter at the end of the line, I have to think of a different word so the margins all end straight. It’s crazy. I have to type it ten or twenty times. Say the flower I really want to use is a chrysanthemum, and it’s important to the plot it’s a chrysanthemum, sometimes I’ll have to go back and turn it into a dahlia or something.
IDLER: Why do you do that?
ROBINSON: I told a friend of mine who’s a journalist at The Sun that I did it and he literally fell off his barstool laughing. It is highly insane – I have actually gone to psychiatrists to try and stop it.
IDLER: Is it because you’re trying to impose order on the work or yourself?
ROBINSON: It makes you stay on it so when I finally get it, it is what I want to say – that is, generally, the only upside of it. But I’ve paid hundreds of pounds to a shrink in Harley Street to try and bust that, and he got me off it but I would get to page thirty and start getting very anxious like a rat deprived of its alcohol – and I have to go back and start again. Curiously, Withnail and I doesn’t follow any of the rules I use now – it’s a rambling fucking thing. I wrote it as a novel before I wrote it as a screenplay, and I was sitting there, writing with great joy as an amateur – it’s like a poker player who wins, you’ve never played poker before and you clear the fucking table – and I had that with Withnail. It was coming with ease and great joy and I’d be laughing my fucking head off as I’d be typing. I could hardly see the page because I was crying with laughter. So I figured, if it makes me laugh it’s going to make other people laugh.
But Viv hated me writing – he was a strange fucker. He could have been a writer – he used to talk like a writer – but he never wrote. He could have been an actor – he used to talk like an actor, look like an actor, but he never acted. He could never get a fucking job because he was always arseholed. He was too smart – an intellectual, erudite man. He’d go to an audition to play a priest, read up all this cackle of theological bollocks and then say, “It’s very strange you should be considering me for this part because before I became an actor I was considering the priesthood.” And they knew it was nonsense, so he’d never get a job.
He wanted – what’s that Bob Dylan line? “They want you to be down in the hole they’re in” – he wanted us to be in our hole forever, and I’m sure he’d be like us to be in fifty year old guys sitting there in the hole still.
IDLER: But there’s comfort in that – having an ego and ambition but never trying so you’re never going to fail.
ROBINSON: Yeah, you’ve precisely put your finger on where Vivian was at. He was such a dilettante, very lazy guy but very funny and I had some of the best days of my life with this bastard. He could have been a really good writer if he’d ever written – but he never wrote, so maybe he wasn’t a writer because the first function of trying to be a writer is trying to write. You’ve got to sit there week after month after year to learn how to do it. It’s not something you pick up from some book or ridiculous course. The only teacher for a writer, is the writer – that’s how you learn to write, by writing. You learn what will work and what won’t work, your own tricks of the trade. One of my rules of writing is never to tear up the stuff you hate, because if you pull it out of the machine, say “God, that is shit!” and throw it in the fucking litter bin – at the end of the day you’ve got three bottles of wine, sixty fag ends and loads of bits of torn up, stained paper and a bit of snot and quite a lot of phlegm that’s coughed up and thrown in there. Then you’re on your hands and knees at ten at night going through trying to find the bit to sellotape it together again because maybe it works better than what you’ve got. So I always crumple – that’s a kind of daft rule, but nevertheless one I use. Don’t tear it, crumple it. You can get all the balls out, flatten them and find your good bit. But that ain’t worth writing a book about.
IDLER: You say you find writing very difficult and yet Withnail came out very easily – do you ever want to get back to that?
ROBINSON: No. After Withnail came out, I had so many fucking screenplays sent to me, Withnail and I part two, three etc. You know the kind of thing: “It is now 1980. Marwood – the ‘I’ character is now a trader on the sugars exchange. Withnail is still living in Camden Town. The film opens with a tremendous explosion in a terraced house – out of the rubble staggers – guess who – Withnail.” And what’s he got round his neck? A fucking toilet seat. He’s lost his memory. Marwood reads about the explosion in the paper and goes up to see his old friend. Ha.
IDLER: Trying to be funny isn’t funny?
ROBINSON: I didn’t try to be funny when I wrote Withnail – it just made me laugh. There was that great book – Thompson’s Fear and Loathing- which is very similar. An American version of the same kind of relationship – the fat fucking Samoan lawyer and the mad bastard travelling across the States.
IDLER: But it’s not funny for them.
ROBINSON: No, it’s deadly serious. When we were tramping around in those fucking bags up some fell in Ullswater, there was nothing funny about it – it was fucking horrible. Awful. The comedy comes out of it post the event, taking an artistic view of it. For example, the drunken landlord in the pub in the Lake District was based on a publican from a dump called The Spreadeagle in Camden Town. He used to get completely wasted and very acerbic, and say, “Isn’t it time you two cunts left?” So I had him in my head, then I had us with these carrier bags on our feet, then I had the publican up the hill in Ullswater.
All those elements came together at the kitchen table in Albert Street. Incidentally, when I recently went to Camden Town to buy my kid a snake, I went to see the house in Albert Street, and it’s now a row of gleaming white, ��300,000 North London terraced houses. The house that I lived in is the only one in the street that’s wrecked – with these two huge bolts of timber nailed to the pavement holding it up. It gave me a great deal of pleasure. Another snippet about Albert Street is that it’s got thirty year old sycamores, very pretty trees everywhere, and I was totally responsible for those trees. I was very political – I’ve always been a lefty – opposed to the establishment, if only ever in an intellectual way. Anyway, I was walking from Primrose Hill one day, through Chalfont Square which is a very up-market area. Fuck me – I noticed Camden Council had planted hundreds of new trees in this already very salubrious area. I got back to my slummy, rubbed out area of Camden Town and a week later I’m looking out of the window and here comes a truck to put up the parking meters. I went fucking ballistic – they get trees, we get parking meters! I started a letter writing campaign, bombarding our MP with letters and trying to phone her at her office, saying, “This is an outrage – do you think that because I’m poor I don’t like trees?” After about three months they came along and planted rows of sycamore trees. And so Albert street is now full of trees – my one great social act.
IDLER: A good one though.
ROBINSON: Better than a kick in the balls.
IDLER: What steps did you take to escape that old life?
ROBINSON: Well, it’s like the end of the film which is symbolic of the end of the decade with the haircut – “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s man.” That’s exactly what happened – I got a job in a play called Journey’s End, the text that you see the I character reading – in Theatre 69 in Manchester. I came back one day with that very haircut. I was moving on, I was moving out. I still have nightmares about having my hair cut, because in the late Sixties it was something that fucked with your head. Everything was about long hair – Granny Takes A Trip Down The King’s Road and all of that. And when I came back and went for Sunday lunch with my friends in a restaurant I would be stared at like a Martian because I was the only guy with short hair. Because the rest of my clothes were like everyone else’s they’d all think I’d been in jail. The only positive side of that was that when I was in Manchester one night – and I never do this now, but it used to be a socially acceptable joke to drive the car from the back seat pushing the accelerator with a fucking billiard cue – but I used to finish the show at night, tank up with mates and drive home. One night I’m driving the Jag home with that little thing on the bonnet – the animal, the Jaguar! – trying to keep it in line with the fucking white thing coming at me on the road, thinking, “If I can keep that cocksucker just two feet to the side of that line I’m cool.” Suddenly I’m in the middle of a red light. I swerved round the light, no one hurt thank God. Drink driving – bad idea. Anyway this black cab called the cops. Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door of where I was living in Moss Side – it was the Drunk Squad. Here I am with a shaved head and a first world war moustache – and they think, “Oh, this guy’s all right because we’re always dealing with these long-haired fucking druggies.” And I got away with it. Alcohol caused some very near scrapes with death when I was younger. You don’t drink-drive do you?
IDLER: No – that campaign has been really successfully drummed into us.
ROBINSON: It is the most insane thing you can do. You have to change and you de facto do and will change. I’ve changed. I’m completely and fundamentally completely opposed to the death penalty, but emotionally – because I’ve got children now – if someone battered my kids to death I’d want them fucking dead! Is it a deterrent? Clearly not – America’s got the death penalty, it’s got more murders than anyone else. Is it wrong for society to take revenge? I suppose it is. But is it right for a ten year-old child to be raped and have her throat cut and this other cocksucker’s sitting there watching Brookside for the rest of his life – I couldn’t give a fuck. Dead him, is my view. I always remember my father – who was a real right-wing fucking geezer – storming in saying, “Hang the bastard, and if they want anyone to do it – I’m the BOY, I’m the BOY!” Every Christmas Day sitting there in a red paper hat having terrible rows about hanging and communism. I am intellectually opposed to the death penalty – but you find yourself becoming much more reactionary as you get older. Am I supposed to think at fifty what I though at twenty-five? I’d be a liar if I said I did and I’d also be someone who hadn’t in any way matured, in the sense of attitude changes. I’m still pretty much left establishment but I’m very establishment now in the sense that I’m lucky to live in a nice house and I’ve got some money. But my passion is still very much towards the left. I’m a classic champagne fucking socialist. But what’s wrong with that, two of the words are very nice – champagne and socialism.
I know what it’s like to have no money but I’ve only ever been broke – never poor. Because I’m educated, I could listen to Sibelius or read fucking Shakespeare even if I couldn’t eat. One of the worst indictments of the Conservatives is not educating people, not allowing them to be broke. The opposite of broke isn’t rich.
IDLER: If you are educated you are taught how to make productive use of your time, reading or talking. If you’re not, and don’t work, then you don’t know what to do with yourself. You just go barmy.
ROBINSON: Well you do. You start robbing shops or beating up your wife. Use your dole money to get arseholed and then beat your wife up. Or take fucking heroin, sit there all bloody day in sweet despair. Frankly, anyone on the dole who wants heroin should be given it, to take the crime and the bandits out of drugs – which I know is an extremely right wing point of view.
IDLER: We don’t like them at all, but there’s some right wing elements in America that you don’t feel totally unsympathetic to. The basic principles of freedom and libertarianism and letting people do what they want – not that you take away a social structure that supports the weaker elements.
ROBINSON: The far right want to totally destroy social provision and be totally libertarian – I would say bunk up massively on social provision. Let people have whatever fucking drugs they want.
The reason I used alcohol for many years as a writer is that it makes you drink-drive a typewriter, it allows you to do eighty miles an hour in a thirty-mile- an- hour limit. You sit in front of the typewriter and the first thing you have to deal with is the government of the mind, the super-ego, sitting up there on top of your head saying,. “Who are you kidding, they’re going to find you out on this one. You’re not going to get away with it – you can’t fucking write..” So I drink and that cop voice shuts up and the ego and the id are working and now I’m doing sixty in a thirty mile an hour limit. I don’t care. The reason I can use wine as a writer and not as a driver is the speed limit – and I want to bust the fucking speed limit when I’m writing.
IDLER: It’s a kind of focus narrower.
ROBINSON: But it also diminishes your working day because it sends in quite heavy bills – you’ve got to go to sleep now, you’ve got to have your headache now. But I don’t use it any more, and because of that I don’t think my writing’s as good as it was fifteen, twenty years ago. Technically it’s better than it’s ever been, but I don’t get that rush that I used to get. I do sometimes when I’m writing something political because one of the best motor-drives for writing is to be pissed off. But the comedy motor isn’t there like it used to be. At your age you can find it all much more farcical than I can – the whole notion that it’s all fucking rubbish. The thing about the Channel Tunnel and the IRA cease-fire all occurring in the same week. Johnny Major almost certainly doing that deal with Sinn Fein saying “don’t blow up our tunnel”, and we’ll give you a cease-fire. That is nice farce – but I don’t see it as farce anymore, I see it in a totally cynical way.
IDLER: When things like that happen, people vacillate between laughing and becoming depressed.
ROBINSON: Most people don’t even put the two together. But that might be just gold-plated cynicism on my part. However, I don’t put anything past anyone. These people in this government are doing things that even in the context of corruption of politics in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies they would have resigned over, would have been forced out of government – but no one’s culpable any more, no one’s responsible for anything.
IDLER: Isn’t that why it’s important to side step it – create your own little society with your friends.
ROBINSON: But that’s extreme right wing “only me matters, fuck the rest of them”.
IDLER: It’s not only you: it’s you plus you in a community.
ROBINSON: Some ridiculous people have criticised Withnail and I for being homophobic. The producer of that film is homosexual, he’s a very good friend of mine, I’ve known him for twenty-five fucking years, I love the guy. His sexuality is no more imposed on me than my sexuality is imposed on him. Whenever I get a downer on faggots, it’s exactly the same downer I get on heterosexuals: “Ooh look at that – I’d like to get my cock up that”. “She’s pregnant”. “Don’t matter, get sucked off at the same time”. When you get fey homosexuals laying that on you – “Oh darling”, you know – I don’t fucking like it. I don’t give a fuck what your sexuality is. Just don’t lay it on me, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what you had for lunch either. That’s my problem with homosexuals. I’ve got three very close friends who are gay, they know I’m not, so that’s the end of the argument.
IDLER: Where does the film you’re working on come from?
ROBINSON: Blue Vision is the working title. When we decided we weren’t going to live in Los Angeles any more, for many and various reasons, one of which was the earthquakes, I’d written a film for Disney which I was going to direct in South East Asia – curiously a film about drugs. A really fab story. Anyway, I fell out with the producers – two guys, one about 72, the other about seventy fucking six – sitting there on the couch listening to an opinion that was 150 years old. Fuck the pair of them. The film fell to bits for various reasons. Then we were coming back to England because we were buying the house here. So I asked my agent if there were any good writing gigs going and literally the next day I was sitting next to Spielberg.
SOPHIE: [Bruce's wife]: Are you finished?
ROBINSON: No. Anyway, he’s doing a film about Blue Vision. In some police departments in America, when the detectives run into a complete brick wall, they will go to the Blue Vision Department and see psychics who are actually on the police payroll. Some police departments like in Los Angeles, think it’s utter bullshit. But some states, Alabama, Tennessee – guys with chickens on their heads – go in for this type of stuff. They’ll go to the Blue Vision department and they’ll say, “We’re fucked. We can’t work this out. We’ve got this terrible serial killer – can you help?” He wanted to do a film about that.
Because of Jennifer 8 – which had been a very unhappy experience for me – I’d done a lot of research on cops. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the police, but I thought, it’s Steven Spielberg – it’d be great to work for you – but I can’t because I’m not going to do a police film. But what attracted him was the psychic side. So I got back to the Sunset Marquee and I’m eating walls for the next few days trying to use what he’s given me. I go back and I’ve got this page full of notes and I pitch him this idea back through my brain – and he loved it. I talked to him again a few months later – a very bright, smart man – and yeah let’s do it. I managed to write it with four minutes max of police in it. It’s a scary idea – in two lines: a psychic woman and a pretty vile child killer. She’s on to this guy who’s knocking these kids off but everyone thinks she’s wrong. What makes him interesting is that he too is psychic and so there’s this weird relationship between the woman and the killer. And in the last act they come together with disastrous consequences – and it’s as black as your hat. This woman bounces off the lino of hell. It’s a movie about paedophilia and about love.
IDLER: I don’t think there’s a movie that’s approached that.
ROBINSON: It’s a very touchy subject. [Sophie and Lily (Bruce's daughter) come in. They are discussing buying a cage for Lily's snake]
SOPHIE: Garter snakes grow really big and the woman in the pet shop in Hereford says you need a cage three times bigger than your snake.
ROBINSON: It’ll have to be nine feet long then – it’ll have to have a room of its own. I’ve seen anacondas curled up in a cage in the zoo – if she gets one of those, we’ll have to have a tube seventy feet long.
LILY: Daddy. Daddy, daddy, daddy. I’ve got twenty quid in my pot – do you want me to use that?
ROBINSON: No. You save it up.
SOPHIE: Do you know what I found on the floor the other day – a snake shit. By the piano. It smells like fish.
ROBINSON: I shall never forgive Andrew, a close friend of mine, a writer. Sitting in there, eating my dinner, a mouth full of food, and his kid comes round the back of me and sticks this saucer of fucking viper shit in my face. He thought it was amusing and so did his fucking father.
LILY: Dad got so angry he came into this room and sat in this chair like this [sits down looking grumpy, arms folded] with a glass of wine.
SOPHIE: And he didn’t speak to anyone else for the rest of the evening.
LILY: Snake’s poo is worse than cat’s pee.
[We drive to Hereford station]
IDLER: How do you organise your work?
ROBINSON: When I’m writing I normally get up at six, lay the breakfast for the kids, get the Alpen and the cornflakes out, and then I like to start writing about seven o’clock. Drink maybe twenty cups of coffee by noon. My wife brings me in a bun, and I work till about four in the afternoon. And that’s sort of it. Very obsessive. Sometimes I go for a walk. And I do that five days a week.
IDLER: Is it an act of will or do you just want to do that?
ROBINSON: Writing is an extremely disciplined thing – there’s no boss there. If I wanted to I could stay in bed till noon, go to bed at five. I can do what I like providing I turn in the goods – otherwise I don’t get paid. If there was a way of waking up one morning with 120 neatly typed pages next to the bed I’d take that route – but that isn’t the way it works. I write ten pages to get one. So I’ve written well over a thousand sheets to get that 120. It’s hard to do