If you were out and about in central Bristol a year ago, you probably saw a film crew beavering away around St. Nicholas Market and on Broad Street. (See our set report here.) You might even have spotted the likes of Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna and Una Stubbs wandering around. Now locally made pensioner heist comedy Golden Years is being readied for a large, 108-screen nationwide release on April 29. We grabbed Henleaze’s greatest living film director, John Miller, for a chinwag about curious coincidences, shooting in Bristol, working with a senior cast, saving his local bowls club, the challenge of securing distribution and why Bernard Hill wants to move to the city.
You said you started writing the film five years ago. Since then we’ve had the Hatton Garden raid and the death of David Bowie. Now you’re releasing a film about a bunch of pensioner bank robbers entitled Golden Years. There’s something rather uncanny about your timing.
I know. It’s bizarre. In fact, the idea came to me about ten years ago and I started writing it about seven years ago with Nick Knowles [the TV presenter he first met when they worked on DIY SOS together]. Obviously, it takes a long time to get funding and get all the cast together. But yes, it’s bizarre. With the whole Hatton Garden thing, I think people think we’ve written it since then. It came from a very simple idea, which was a fascination with mobility scooters and one of those being a getaway vehicle.
I can tell you live in Henleaze.
Yeah, you can, can’t you? It was all around me. I was sitting in a café in Henleaze thinking, where do I set this? And I thought, there’s the gang over there having breakfast. It is that kind of place. So the idea grew from there. And of course everything that’s happened recently is quite bizarre. The fact that the Hatton Garden robbers were just so bad at it, a bit like our characters are, but somehow got away with it because you’d never suspect a group of over-70s. That was their biggest disguise. Then, of course, David Bowie dying. We’d been talking to his people a little while before. In fact, the film used to be called Gran Theft Ortho.
That would have been a great title.
Yeah, but the Americans didn’t get it. People of a certain age didn’t get it. Of course, we’re playing on the whole Grand Theft Auto game, but we had to keep explaining it.
That’s a little like Aardman’s experience with the Wallace and Gromit movie. Nick Park wanted to call it The Great Vegetable Plot but the American market researchers wouldn’t have it because vegetables “play negatively to children”.
Ha ha. Yeah, so we changed it. I was sitting in my sister’s car one day and she was playing Golden Years by David Bowie. And I thought, that’s perfect. It just fits with the whole idea. We’re very lucky that we got permission to use the track.
That’s not Bowie’s version on the soundtrack though, is it?
No. A mate of mine is Mark Shaw from Then Jericho, the ’80s band. He said he’d love to do a cover. So we thought maybe that’s how we can get David interested. We could have used the original, but it was much more expensive and the budget wasn’t huge. But as you say, everything else seems to be playing into our hands at the moment. When we arrived in Cannes last year, the jewellery store next to the Carlton had been robbed by a gang wearing old people masks. Everybody thought it was some kind of publicity stunt.
Does it worry you at all that your film might also inspire a spate of codger heists?
Well, I think it’s rather good that Hatton Garden happened before the film is released, because otherwise I think we might have got blamed for it. But who knows? Revolution among the over-seventies could happen.
Was the film always going to be set in Bristol?
Yeah. It’s because I live here and I realised the cast was almost around me. It’s a place I know so well. And the Ardagh bowling club which features heavily in the film actually sits at the top of my road. They were having similar issues with potential closure.
How has that been resolved?
Well, they obviously sit on a prime piece of land up there and I think they had to do a certain amount of repairs to the place so they were able to keep it going. We were able to give them a little bit of money for a location fee. That helped them put in a new floor and doors and stuff. So it kind of feels right to help them out. They were brilliant, because obviously they provided us with a whole host of extras. In fact, all the people you see in the background in those scenes are from the Ardagh. But I live here, this is what I know. Quite often, Bristol seems to double up for other places. I quite like the idea of it being what it is, because it’s a wonderful place to film. Location-wise, within five minutes of my house you’ve got such varied buildings and landscapes. It’s great for filmmaking.
You also really made a point of using the city with all those aerial and time-lapse shots. Were those expensive?
No, some of that stuff we did with a drone. Especially the stately homes. We wanted it to be a bit of a postcard to the UK and particularly to Bristol. When I moved here 26 years ago, I just fell in love with the place. I think a lot of people who visit end up staying. It has that kind of hold on you. We shot quite a lot up at Tyntesfield estate. We were trying to do more, but the drone ended up crashing into a tree and that was the end of the shoot.
Let’s talk about distribution. The great challenge facing low- and medium-budget British films is getting shown in cinemas. There are an awful lot of films that wind up sitting on the shelf, which must be heart-breaking for the filmmakers.
Well, obviously we’ve got a great ally in our producer Mark Foligno, who’s well known in the industry through films like The King’s Speech and Moon. So we used all his contacts and did some screenings. I have to say, we didn’t get a massive response from distributors. They didn’t know where to place this film, because it’s not a full-on heist movie and it’s not a full-on comedy. They were interested but nobody really wanted to go for it. So we got a company called Content, who are sales agents, to help us sell the film. Once you’ve got somebody like that, it gives you a bit of kudos. But distribution is one of the hardest things, because if somebody just doesn’t go for it, for whatever reason, then it’s never going to get out there. So what Content decided was that we’d distribute it ourselves. They got all the cinema chains in to take a look at the film. So all the main six came to see it and it ended up as a battle between Vue and Odeon. Odeon came out with the biggest offer – 108 cinemas – which is a huge release. Normally you might expect ten or twelve. Forty would be a dream. It’s great.
Your audience will be flocking from Henleaze in great swarms of mobility scooters.
I hope so – hordes of them, flying down the high street and tethering their scooters up outside. It’s interesting, because we tested it on younger audiences as well and they loved it. So it is pretty much a film for everyone. The certificate’s 12A. We wanted a PG, which we were going to put down as Pensioner Guidance. But there are a few bums in there that pushed it over the edge.
The film seeks to engage our sympathies for older people being thrown on the employment scrapheap and enduring the pensions crisis. But is there not a flipside to this argument, which is that they’re the luckiest generation ever, many of them having enjoyed full employment, cheapish property and generous final-salary pensions? It’s actually the young who are fucked, with vast student debts, zero hours contracts and no prospect of ever owning their own homes.
Yeah, that’s very true. But if you’ve saved all your life for your pension and suddenly that gets whipped away from you, as [Bernard Hill’s character] Arthur says in the film: “Surely that’s daylight robbery?” So they do have their homes, but some are selling them just to get by.
Let’s talk about the cast. Virginia McKenna hasn’t been on screen since Sliding Doors in 1998 How did you lure her back?
Well, Nick knew Virginia because he’s a big supporter of her charity, Born Free [the organisation that fights a David vs Goliath battle against the relentless cutesy propaganda onslaught of the zoo industry, challenging its conservation claims and campaigning for the phasing out of all zoos]. We’d talked about various people and he said, “What about Virginia?”. I was like, “Blimey, is she still up for acting?” And he said, “Well, she’s read the script and she loves it.” So I went to meet her and I thought, god, she’s got more energy than any of us. She was absolutely perfect for it. She really is as lovely as you’d think she would be.
Did you ask her why she’d dropped out of acting for so long?
I suspect that what tends to happen is that you get past a certain age and you think, maybe people don’t want to see me on screen anymore. Then you lose the confidence you had. Virginia stepped out of it a bit and got involved with her charity. So then it’s like, can I get back on the bike and ride it again? But what’s great about our cast – and the majority are over 70 – is that you have to be really good actors to still be doing it at that age. For me, it was a joy. All you’re doing is tweaking the performances a little bit, because they really got it.
Bernard Hill is your big name, though.
Yeah. I guess it depends who your talk to, though. Some people like to see Una Stubbs and Sue Johnston, because of Sherlock and Downton, which is massive in America. But Bernard’s probably the most high-profile because of Titanic and Lord of the Rings. He’s great. God, he’s a passionate man. He really throws himself into it wholeheartedly. He wants to be the very, very best he can. He’s a good laugh outside of work as well. We went for a few pints. He loved it here. He was talking about moving to Bristol because he fell in love with it.
He must have a few quid in the bank. He could probably afford Bristol property prices.
Well, he lives up in Suffolk at the moment. He came here for filming and then stayed with me and the family afterwards. He loves the pace of life here. Bristol gets its claws into you. He had a great day wandering down Gloucester Road going to various pubs and cafes.
It took seven years for your second film to come out. Will we have to wait as long for number three?
Oh, I hope not. What would be lovely with all of this is if it paves the way a little bit. It takes a good few years to make any film, but let’s hope it’s not seven because I think my wife would just leave me. She’s supported me through it all, and it can be quite tough. But we’ve got loads of ideas.
All set in Bristol?
Well, one of them is. There’s one that’s set in Mauritius, but that’s just because we want to go and have a holiday there.
Read more: Life as an extra: On the set of Golden Years