Interview with comedian David Baddiel, writer of The Infidel

I was delighted to have the opportunity last week to get together over the phone with one of Britain's favourite comedians, David Baddiel, to discuss, among other things, his new film The Infidel, which he wrote. The comedy stars Omid Djalili as a salt of the earth Muslim who discovers that he was born a Jew. 

A good place to begin would be the start of any film — the script. With The Infidel being your first feature film, at what point in your life did you sit down and think, “right, aside from all the TV and radio, I'm going to write a movie”?
I've written films before, they just haven't been made. The first film I wrote was for John Hughes [Home Alone], incredibly. I went to America in the early '90s pitching an idea. I've actually met him once before and he commissioned it, it was called Forsaking All Others, and it was a romantic comedy. John Hughes ran a company called Great Oaks, who had a deal with Disney, and just as I was writing it, Great Oaks' deal with Disney ended, and at that point they were no longer in a position to just make movies, so basically, to cut a long story short, we couldn't find the right talent to get behind the film, which is a shame, as I quite liked the idea for that movie.

Time for Bed, my first novel, was picked up by BBC Films, and that too wasn't made, but that's often the way it is with screenplays, so The Infidel is the first one that I've had made, but it's not the first script I've written.

As a writer, which I fundamentally see myself as, even though I do perform as well, I don't quite get the notion that you are a writer who might write TV sketches or stand up or novels, it seems to me that you go with the idea, so if you have an idea, which I had, about a Muslim who discovers that he was born a Jew, that feels to me like a big broad film comedy — it's in the tradition of body swap comedies and buddy movies, whereas other ideas I might have — like I have a novel coming out next year about the death of a great writer and its impact on his different extended families — that feels like a novel to me, so I'm going to try and write it as one, but fundamentally the same talent is the same thing, which is the ability to write, you just have to tune it to the right idea.

Can you elaborate on the film you had written for John Hughes, Forsaking All Others?
It was about a couple who had been going out since they were very young, sort of childhood sweethearts really, and then right at the top of the movie, they're 22/23, and all their friends are talking about their various promiscuities — all of them shag around, and some of them are gay, some of them just want to settle down, and the two main parts in the movie are kind of quiet about it. Finally, at the end of this long conversation about sex, these two announce that they are getting married, and everyone is really pleased for them, but both of them, the man and the woman, then confide to their best friends that they're really worried about spending their whole lives with just one person sexually, because both have never slept with anyone else, never kissed anyone else, and they feel that in this day and age that's not supportable. Where the sort of game of the movie happens is that they draw up a legal document which allows them to date and sleep with other people for six months after their engagement [laughs], but they have to agree in the document to get married whatever happens at the end of it, so it's kind of a movie about taking your cake and eating it, except that doesn't quite work out.

Do you think there's any possibility that Forsaking All Others will get produced based on the rumours that many of the scripts John Hughes was involved with will be getting made posthumously? Especially with your success in getting The Infidel produced.
I would be very pleased if Forsaking All Others could get made. I would have to go back to the script and rewrite it thoroughly because I have looked at it again and it's a bit immature and also quite '90s — it has a Friends vibe to it. It was written slightly before Friends, but it's about a group of friends in their twenties and their romantic adventures, so I would have to change it quite a lot, but hey, I have no idea how many of John Hughes' projects or unmade movies there are knocking about, and this may not be that high up the list, but he was really great about it, really positive about the project, and I worked quite a lot on the script with him and with other people in Great Oaks. But then I think it was just about the time where he was starting to withdraw a bit from Hollywood, because he then went off and basically lived on a farm, but he did carry on writing, just never really made anything else in the same way.

Yes, I believe Drillbit Taylor was the last film that he wrote or came up with the story for.
That's right, he also wrote under pseudonyms, didn't he?

Yes, he did, as Edmond Dantes.
He was a very shy bloke. If you've ever seen any footage or an interview of him, he was a very shy, couldn't look you in the eye, bloke, so I think it was probably always difficult for him in that world.

Fast forward to 2010 and you've got The Infidel released nationwide this Friday, with the world premiere on Thursday. When and what was your inspiration for the film?
I've always had an element of ethnic ambiguity hanging around me. I used to tell this story in stand-up which was completely true about being beaten up twice in my life: once for being Jewish and once for being a Pakistani. Similarly, when I first appeared on British TV, a lot of people thought I was Indian or Pakistani and I used to get people rushing up to me in the street saying, “You're the best Indian comedian I've ever seen”, which was a strange compliment because there weren't any others on British TV [laughs], and I wasn't Indian, but nonetheless it was still nice. In Britain particularly I think, if you're dark and you've got a slightly funny name, people don't quite know what culture you're from, and then when Omid [Djalili] appeared, that kind of crystallised while I was watching him, as like there are these people who it's not quite clear whether they're Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, and that's quite interesting, funny and comic. The social-political situation that we live in now where suddenly, which wasn't really the case about 15 years ago, these communities and cultures are seen as at war or polarised, or at opposite sides of the fence, which allows for a body swap sort of situation to arise.

So the film's star is your aforementioned friend and fellow comedian Omid Djalili. Was he always who you had in mind to play the leading role? And how do you feel his performance captures the character you put on paper?
Omid was always the person I thought would do it, I never really thought about anyone else. I wrote it for Omid, I wrote it in his voice. Omid himself has been in about 20 movies in fact, but he's never, I think, used his own voice before, he's always cast as ethnic Arab stereotypes, like in Gladiator and The Mummy, and so this was the first time he's speaking in his own voice. I wrote the character a bit around Omid, who is obviously an Iranian second-generation guy, but he's very British, there's something very slobby and likeable and easygoing about him and so that's how I wanted to make the character.

I personally think that Omid's performance is brilliant — I love it — I think he proves himself to be a very good comic actor, not just a stand-up, and someone who can sustain a feature film, but also I really like him in counterpoint to Richard Schiff, I think they form a really good double act together — an Albert and Costello kind of double act, one of them being American and the other who's kind of fat and clownish and British, I think that works very well.

The film has attracted a crop of talent, like Matt Lucas and Paul Kaye, and not just British, with The West Wing's Richard Schiff also having a role as you mentioned. What was the experience of working with him?
I was really lucky to get Richard Schiff. We were struggling a bit for the character of Lenny, to be honest. I'd written him British originally, and we couldn't find a British actor who was quite right. It's quite hard to think of someone who's convincingly Jewish, the right age and has got comic chops, and then I think the director's girlfriend suggested Richard Schiff. I hadn't really watched The West Wing, which is of course a huge thing in modern culture, and then I saw a few episodes and thought that he's brilliant, a really good actor. I didn't think that we'd get him, but we sent him the script and he really liked it. He's kind of a maverick bloke — he likes doing weird, offbeat stuff — and he's also a political animal, he liked the politics of the movie I guess.

As a writer and someone who was on set every day, I found him brilliant because he's got most of the wisecracks in this film, Lenny, and sometimes wisecracks can feel a bit written, as if you're writing them as jokes and not dialogue, but Richard has an ability to make almost any line, however ornate [laughs], sound like it's just naturally coming out of this character's mouth. He's great and a really nice bloke, I'm glad I got to know him, and he's coming over for the premiere.

Are you in any way phased by the possibility of a negative reaction from the Muslim and Jewish communities to the film's theme? When religion and comedy are mixed there is usually some kind of outpour somewhere.
There hasn't been so far, I mean some people on some of the sites that the trailer's on are getting hot under the collar about it, but there are lots of people who aren't, and so far the Muslims who, to be honest are the ones I'm more worried about, partly because one is more frightened of various Muslim reactions in history, but also because I'm not Muslim, so therefore I feel like I just need to know what I'm doing with them. I took lots of advice from Muslims, like a producer on the movie, but I want to know that they aren't offended by it. And the great thing is that when we've shown it to virtually all-Muslim audiences, they have really liked it. What they like about it, apart from the fact that they laugh at it and disprove the notion that Muslims have no sense of humour by doing so, they like the fact that it's a movie which doesn't define its main Muslim characters by their political and religious identity. Virtually all films about Muslims now, or TV dramas, have to define them in terms of if they are fundamentalist or not, or either they are fundamentalist or maybe they're working secretly for MI6 against fundamentalists. If you have a drama in which there's a young disaffected Muslim man in it, you know straight away he's going to end up a suicide bomber, or maybe nearly a suicide bomber or something, and I just thought how dull that must be to some extent for the Muslim audience, because 99 percent of them are not like that, they're just British, and actually I find that more and more and more as I've been working with an Asian PR company — I've been meeting loads of Muslims and, particularly young Muslims, are kind of absurdly grateful that there's at last a British film that portrays them as an ordinary British family.

As now a bonafied writer of cinema, are you interested in moving away from comedy and pursuing other genres? Would we ever see a David Baddiel-penned horror or crime thriller?
I've started writing a thriller, but it's not the next thing I'm writing because the guy who produced The Infidel had an idea for an American teen comedy which I really liked, so I'm now working with him on that and have stopped writing the thriller, which is a sort of existential, weird film about assisted suicide. As a novelist I've written books that aren't comedy; my third novel is a completely non-comic, historical novel, so I'd be fine not to, although I think of myself primarily as a comic writer, that's where I'm happiest, so I will always want to write comedy.

To wrap things up, can you shed any light on “Three Lions” redux for the World Cup this year?
There seems to be a lot of confusion about it and a lot of people seem to think that I'm behind it, but I'm not at all, Trevor Horn is. It's actually not very much to do with me, but I happen to be out and about at the moment talking about other stuff and so I've got you roped into talking about it [laughs]. Trevor Horn, the man behind The Buggles and the producer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, decided he wanted to do an orchestral, choral, massive operatic version of Three Lions, which he has done. At the moment there is a lot of discussion about who's going to do the vocals, and me and Frank [Skinner] have actually gone down to a studio and provided vocals, but I don't want it to be just me and Frank and Ian Brody. I think if we're going to do a new version of it we should get some other people along to sing it as well, so a lot of names have been banded around. I actually spoke to Russell Brand the other day and he was very keen on being one of the voices, which was nice, and I think Pete Doherty might be one of the voices, and possibly Robbie Williams, so I think the idea is to get a strange band of English eccentrics to put the vocals on it.

A big thanks to David for taking the time to talk with me. We will be attending the world premiere on April 8, so look out for coverage of the event on Friday.

The Infidel hits UK cinemas on April 9

 

Read our review of The Infidel  

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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