It feels like several lifetimes ago that I talked to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon over Zoom about their upcoming film The Trip to Greece. It was late March, and the quarantine was new then (in both the U.S. and the U.K.), and we were all trying to figure what the next few weeks and months would be like. The first half of our conversation, which ran last month, focused partly on their feelings about this strange new time and the peculiar reality-fiction hybrid of the four-part film series (each installment of which premieres as a TV series in the U.K., and is then cut down to feature length). In the second half of our conversation, we get into more specific thoughts around The Trip to Greece, the differences between their fictional and real-life attitudes toward each other, some of their favorite bits that were cut, and why this seemed like the right time to end the whole thing.
I think part of the appeal of The Trip series is that even though you’re both fairly established in your fields, the idea that you still have anxiety and professional jealousies and things like that is charming and relatable. Even though you’ve clearly exaggerated and fictionalized it for the films.
Rob Brydon: I could be deluded here, but I do think one of the differences between how I am on The Trip and how I am in real life is that I don’t niggle away at Steve. I don’t belittle him. I’m quite the opposite. I say, “Tell me about this. I thought it was terrific. I thought it was wonderful.” So, that’s totally the opposite of reality. Also, I’m not that bothered about not getting things. My career is fine, you know, it’s good. I’m not ambitious. I don’t want to be further up. I want to stay where I am.
Steve Coogan: Yeah, I would say that what Rob and I have done over the four series is taken a kernel of truth and grown it into an oak tree of fiction, if you like. Do you like that? Kernel. Acorn.
RB: Lovely. Lovely.
SC: So, there is the acorn of truth, and of course the real oak tree is far more nuanced. It manifests itself because we do have dinner with each other, when filming stops. And if you were to film the real dinners we have, they’re probably less interesting, more boring, more cordial, and just less cantankerous. But no one wants to watch that, so we pick at each other’s peccadilloes. We mine the discomfort. So, by this fourth outing, we sort of knew how to do it. It was like putting on an old jacket.
RB: I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. I came back from [The Trip to Greece] thinking, Oh boy, that was more of the same. But you never see it the way other people see it. Especially when it’s something where we are in essence playing a version of ourselves. So, it’s quite hard to watch because there’s so much of us. We’re in every bloody shot, you know.
Was there anything from this show, or any of the shows, that didn’t make it into the final version that you really wish had been kept in?
RB: Yeah, there’s always bits. The Gemma Arterton stuff. Is it in The Trip to Spain? I remember thinking that was hilarious. We’re in the car and we’re driving along and I say to Steve, “This is lovely, isn’t it? Isn’t this perfect?” And he says, “Well, it’d be perfect if you weren’t here.” And I say, “Well, who would you rather be there?” And he said, “I don’t know, Gemma Arterton?” So, I start pretending to be Gemma Arterton, and he starts trying to chat me up. And then I would take offense at something very innocuous and slap his face. And I remember us thinking this was just hilarious.
SC: It sort of preempted Me Too. Insofar as we couldn’t do it anymore. [Laughs.]
RB: We’d be having a lovely, nice conversation and then Steve would say something perfectly normal like, “Look at that. That’s a lovely sunset over there.” And I go, “[Gasp.] Oh, Steve.” And slap him. So, there was that.
SC: And also, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” We sang a very rude version of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” which I always loved. Which is basically the words “bugger bugger bastard, bugger bugger bastard, fuck, cunt, bugger bugger bastard, bugger bugger bastard, fuck, cunt, tits.” We sang all those swear words to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and I still remember that with great affection, but no one else saw it.
RB: There was something in this new one, as well, and I remembered it just the other day. We did, in the bit where we’re in the caves and we do the Gregorian chant, we do a thing where Steve is Scaramanga [from The Man With the Golden Gun] and he’s saying, “Look, Mr. Bond, imagine when this whole underground complex of caves is turned into one giant discotheque.” And then I say, as Bond, [does a Roger Moore voice] “But you’ll never get it past the town planners.” And he says, “You forget, Mr. Bond, my brother is the town planner.” And I say, “Barry Manga?” And he says, “No, Larry.” That was rather funny.
SC: You know, there’s nuanced comedy and then there’s the comedy that’s just stupid and silly and forgettable. And somehow the stupid, forgettable, silly comedy seems to last longer in the imagination than the stuff that had depth, because it’s timelessly funny. It never grows old. That’s what I’m the most nostalgic about. The daftest stuff.
RB: We also did in that section, we did bits of Lennon and McCartney talking to each other. But then I realized Dana Carvey does this fantastic stuff as Lennon and McCartney where McCartney’s telling Lennon about modern stuff. And I’m very glad that our bit didn’t end up because it would have been very similar. But it was very funny. Do you remember that?
SC: Yeah, I remember you talking about that. I didn’t know about that. Remember in the first series I sang that song, “Everyone’s a Bit of a Cunt Sometimes,” and they put that out on YouTube as a sort of rogue bit? So maybe they’ll sort of drip feed these weird off-cuts as it were, as well.
There is generally more singing in The Trip to Greece, it seems.
SC: Oh yes, now you’ll love this, Rob. Guy Garvey sent me a message saying he absolutely loved our Swingle Singers. So that’s quite good, isn’t it? He really loved it.
RB: That’s great. There is more singing, but there’s singing that was left out.
SC: Is the Barry Gibb stuff in? I can’t remember what’s in the film or what’s in the series.
RB: Didn’t we do ABBA songs sung by the Bee Gees? I don’t think that’s made it.
SC: That’s when you know it’s time to pull up the drawbridge. “Let’s do the Bee Gees singing ABBA songs.” It sounds like you’re really rooting through the attic.
RB: It depends entirely on how it’s done!
SC: Yes, of course it does. But just on face value, it sounds like the sound of distant barrels being scraped.
[Warning: Some spoilers ahead.]
Steve, as I understand your father passed away a couple years ago. And there is a variation of this is in The Trip to Greece, though obviously different, with an actor and everything. What kind of conversation did you have beforehand with Michael Winterbottom about this plot development? I assume he checked with you before writing it into the film.
SC: Michael asked me about it, and would I mind it. And I was like, “Uh …” I thought about it for a second. But a little bit of distance has passed now. And, of course, it’s very sad, and it happened quite suddenly, and it’s one of those things where I could have said, “No, that’s too personal.” But I work with Michael so much, and The Trip is already a bit personal, so I thought, Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. I don’t really want at this stage to start saying, “This is out of bounds,” or anything. And I trust him. In actual fact, in parallel, the actor who played my father in the first film also died, in the interim.
Was there a sense when you were shooting The Trip to Greece that reality was intruding a bit more? Watching all four films, back to back, I did get the sense that there was a kind of reckoning in this one. Because the trip in this one is interrupted. Steve has to go back, and it’s quite open-ended and dark.
RB: I think, personally, in terms of the experience of making it, it still always divides into two things. There’s the plot-related stuff that Michael needs for the scaffolding of the piece that he will write and we will say a version of. And then there’s our flights of fancy where he’ll give us pointers and we’ll invent stuff. Typically it’ll be when we’re at a table, although often in the car. But it’s Michael’s thing. He creates from within that. If I’m being very honest, all it felt to me was — [Laughs.] — oh God, I shouldn’t say this, but it just felt like, Wow, more of the same. And I don’t remember it as being as funny as it is in the bits that I’ve seen now, because you need time to pass. Because there’s so much of us.
SC: I did feel, I have to say, when we were shooting the scenes of me back at home with the fictional mother of my fictional son, even though it’s a fiction and I’m in this house that I never lived in, imagining the past that I didn’t have with her, there’s an authenticity to it, and the poignancy is real for me. Sort of like a parallel reality. I imagine that if I developed dementia, I might watch it and think that was my life. Do you know what I mean? And think, Oh yes, I remember all that. Yes, that used to be my wife. Yes, that’s my son. I say that in a slightly facetious way, but what it means is that there’s definitely a resonance where I go, “Oh, yes, this seems authentic to me.”
Did you know this film would be the last one?
SC: No. Not at all. We always discuss the next one. This one was not definitely the last one when we were filming it, but it felt like it definitely had that power of, “Let’s jump before pushed.” And of course Homer’s Odyssey provided the perfect structure because it’s about finding yourself and discovering the journey to self-enlightenment and the physical journey and all that rolled into one presented itself as an endgame. So, it’s good not to jump the shark. But it wasn’t a definite decision. It became apparent and then Michael said, “This is the last.” I thought, “Well, good, well, fine, great.” And Rob I think felt the same.
RB: I felt it was the last when we finished doing it, because as I say, to me it felt like we got into this template of how we do it. But I like to think that maybe one day we’d return to it.
SC: Yeah, I think in ten years’ time.
RB: Although we’ve changed visually and physically through the [previous] ten, which is quite funny to look at, it would be great now to come back in ten years maybe.
SC: I think that there’s nothing new to say, but in ten years’ time there will be things to say. I’m certain of it. It’s like when a band gets back together. When I’m about 65. Well, retirement age.
Part One of this interview ran in April. The Trip to Greece will be available in the U.S. on May 22, 2020. The previous Trip films are currently streaming on IFC Films Unlimited.