The director of Pete Postlethwaite's final film before he died of cancer in January has revealed that the actor's last role was created specially for him.
Nick Hamm, who directed the Brit comedy Killing Bono, which opens on Friday, gave a unique insight into the last film role played by Postlethwaite, memorably described by Steven Spielberg as "the best actor in the world" and how deeply affected he was by working with the dying star.
The actor – whose best-known films include The Usual Suspects and In the Name of the Father – plays a flamboyant landlord in Killing Bono, an adaptation of journalist Neil McCormick's memoir about his failure to be a rock star while his schoolfriend ended up being U2's frontman.
Postlethwaite and Hamm reunited for the film three decades after meeting at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. "We used to live and hang out together and developed a strong relationship," he said. "We were in the theatre together for five or six years before we left, and then he had an amazing cinema career."
While Hamm, a former protégé of Harvey Weinstein, has made films with stars ranging from Keira Knightley to Robert de Niro, he had never previously directed his old friend onscreen: "We'd always wanted to work together but there was never a moment when there was a real part. Killing Bono was a subject that he liked because it was something funny; the notion of trying to succeed and failing miserably."
The original plan had been for Postlethwaite to play a gangster but that was scuppered for insurance reasons. "I couldn't guarantee to the insurance company that Pete could keep flying to Belfast or Dublin," Hamm, 53, said. "It was about whether he would be sustainable. I argued that he would be, but they said 'no'.
"Also Pete had played gangsters before. So with the writer Simon Maxwell, we created this bespoke character for Pete that beds him into the movie and gives him some fun. He was in the middle of chemotherapy so he needed to have in front of him the idea that he was going to shoot a picture. He needed that to drive him through his illness."
Postlethwaite spent four days filming Killing Bono in a Belfast warehouse a year before he died of pancreatic cancer aged 64.
"He plays this camp landlord, a cross between Derek Jarman and Karl Lagerfeld," Hamm said. "He was in pain but he had a ball doing it. It was so emotional: there were moments when I had to walk away, gather myself and come back because I was directing.
Hamm said the crew took pains for Postlethwaite: "Everybody worked twice as hard in his presence, everybody was still every time he spoke." But the actor, renowned for his committed approach, did not always appreciate these efforts.
"One time I tried to restage a scene by having him sit on a chair. Pete walked on set and said: 'Why is there a chair there?' The scene doesn't ask for a chair. Nick, I understand what you're doing but I'm not going to do it. I'm going to walk around.'
"That's why his career suffered sometimes," Hamm said. "He was articulate about what he felt should happen. He didn't suffer fools, and there are a lot of idiots [in film]."