Interview: Simon Beaufoy - And that's not all, folks...

Many people say he couldn't write a better film script - but the author of The Full Monty hopes to prove them wrong before the year is out. By Nick Hasted

They've pulled it off. They've beaten the opposition pants-down. It's the biggest (inflation-aided) British film of all time. It's been Oscar-nominated, critically-lauded. It's even been co-opted by Tony Blair, called a symbol of Cool Britannia. It is, unavoidably, The Full Monty. Out on video to buy today, the urge to see it at the cinema again may ease at last. Only The Full Monty, it seems, can pull The Full Monty from cinema-goers' hearts.

That it remains an unassuming film about unemployed steelworkers trying to reconstruct their lives in a post-feminist world has somehow been swamped in the swirl of its success. But one person isn't able to forget. He's Simon Beaufoy, the man who wrote it. And, you get the feeling, there are days he almost wishes he hadn't.

"None of us had any idea it was going to take off in this strange way," he sighs. "It really doesn't feel like my film any more. It's taken on a life of its own. It's just out there doing its thing. And it seems to be doing it forever."

Beaufoy's ambivalence is understandable. When he wrote The Full Monty, "it was just another film of mine that Channel 4 didn't want." He's written several scripts since, hopes to direct one soon. He'd like to put The Full Monty behind him. But at the same time, he feels cut off from its success. It can't help but nag.

"After a while, you become really irritated that you're not recognised as the person who wrote The Full Monty," he says. "Everyone goes on about how lovely the characters are. That's because they were written! `What a clever title.' Yeah, that's because I made up the title!"

He laughs. "It's odd. You just have to recognise that people don't understand about screenwriters. People don't believe that films are written, somehow.

"It becomes quite wearing. I met a doctor the other day who was treating a patient for clinical depression. He said the only time she'd laughed during 1997 was when she saw The Full Monty. It was the best moment in her year. That's fantastic. That's the biggest endorsement you could get. But in terms of how many awards, how successful, how much money, I could quite happily not hear another word."

If Beaufoy sounds bitter, he isn't really. A personable 30-year-old from Yorkshire, he's just bemused. When he began as a film-maker (he's directed several shorts and documentaries, as well as writing), he was influenced by the work of Tony Garnett, Ken Loach and Alan Plater, the tradition of the Wednesday Play, sharp, funny pieces in an "understood reality", the tradition that led to Kes. But his biggest inspiration was Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, a film so purely cinematic he found watching it a mystical experience. He wanted to make films that married social realism with that stark visual sense. The Full Monty was the most commercial script he'd written. But, with director Peter Cattaneo, he still looked to infuse it with East European qualities. It was hardly designed to be a hit.

"We made a conscious effort to emulate Milos Forman's early films," he remembers. "Blonde in Love in particular's got a sad feel to it, but it's a gentle comedy. I was very keen to do something cinematic, too, more than just a nice dialogue-led TV piece. In those films, there are scenes that go on for three or four minutes with no dialogue at all. They're just set pieces that build. The scene in the dole queue where they start dancing was a direct reference to those films. Can you make it funny and relevant and completely silent? Make it a moment that belongs in the cinema."

He wanted it to be political, too. "I didn't want to write something that was just a comedy. Every single scene has a subtext running through it. Every single scene is about role-reversals in that society, where women are doing men's jobs and men are doing women's jobs, and the desperate state that can leave people in. That is really important to me. I think that's what gives the whole film its grounding. I read bits out to people and said, not `Is it funny?', but `Do you get what I'm trying to say?'."

That didn't stop Beaufoy's Hollywood agents assuming, in the first flush of Monty's success, that they'd found their new comedy king. They sent him dozens of comedy scripts to polish, offered him riches. They still can't understand why he told them to stop. "It was gag-writing," he sighs, it was so far removed from anything I can do. I was dying for one to be even half-way good, so that I could sell my soul. When I first went there with Monty, they were so patronising. They tell you that their world's the only world. In the end, it was easy to say no."

Beaufoy plans to stay here instead, in a film industry he feels is now more vibrant than Hollywood itself. His next film, Among Giants, is about Sheffield again, and a love triangle among pylon workers. The film after that, The Darkest Light, which he'll direct, will be "the antithesis of The Full Monty. It's about three children, and one of them dies." It's set in Yorkshire, too. So is almost everything he's written. It's the landscape that formed him. He can still remember playing in the husks of power stations as a child, sensing that something huge had once happened in them, something he couldn't grasp. He felt like an archaeologist. You can see that grim beauty at The Full Monty's edges. Its writer's future films will have it at their heart.

"Everyone talks about the mythic properties of American film, and the American landscape," he says, "and I think, come to Leeds. It's here, if you want it. You've just been looking at it all your life, so you've stopped noticing. I don't see any reason to leave."

He hopes he'll be able to leave The Full Monty, though. It may be that his anonymity as its writer, galling as he's found it, will be the thing that saves him. He feels he's moved on since. He's just not sure people want him to.

"People want Monty 2, 3 and 4," he considers, "and I'm doing difficult films where children die. They're all going, `Hmm. Isn't there a scene where everybody takes their clothes off?'."

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