Simon Bird on directing Days of the Bagnold Summer

The Inbetweeners star Simon Bird introduces us to his debut feature film Days of the Bagnold Summer, a sweet comedy focused on the precarious relationship between a well-intentioned librarian mother and her metalhead teen son

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 17 Feb 2020
  • Simon Bird, Earl Cave and Monica Dolan

Best known for his leading roles in The Inbetweeners franchise and the still ongoing Friday Night Dinner, actor Simon Bird delivers a gentler comedic offering with his feature debut as a director, Days of the Bagnold Summer. It’s a sweet coming-of-age film that examines the wobbly relationship between a mother and son over one long summer in the suburbs. Mopey metalhead Daniel Bagnold (Earl Cave, son of Nick) was meant to be spending the season in Florida visiting his dad, who has a new partner expecting a baby. When the trip is cancelled, his well-intentioned librarian mum, Sue (Monica Dolan), attempts to both entertain the introverted lad and help him get his act together, while also trying to come out of her own shell.

We meet Bird at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival in August 2019, where his modest film, perhaps incongruously, had its world premiere at a night-time outdoor screening in the Piazza Grande, which seats about 8000 people. “I'm a bit of a control freak,” he says of his move into directing, having made one short before this. “I like being involved in something from the initial germ of the idea to its final thing. That became apparent when I started acting in stuff. I had the dawning realisation that acting actually is such a small part of the process of getting something made and there was so much I was missing out on. And it's all these other elements that I really love. I love the script development, the casting process, the edit. It’s so, so satisfying to be involved in every element of making something.”

Co-starring Alice Lowe, Rob Brydon and Tamsin Greig, Days of the Bagnold Summer is adapted from an 80-page graphic novel by Bristol-based illustrator and filmmaker Joff Winterhart, which was released to strong notices in 2012. “My wife [Lisa Owens, the film’s screenwriter] bought me the graphic novel as a present one year,” Bird tells us. “I read it, absolutely loved it and recommended it to a lot of people, and then forgot about it and moved on with my life. And then when I was scrambling around looking for an idea of what my first feature might be, it popped out at me from the bookshelves. Initially, I thought it was actually a really bad idea because it's such a slight book. Part of what's brilliant about it is it's so understated and economical, but I didn't think there was enough in it to translate into a film. And some might argue there isn't!

“The film itself is obviously a very small film,” he continues. “Even time-wise, it’s only 86 minutes. But while the subject matter is very small, it's actually much bigger than the book. The book is tiny. It’s lots of little vignettes and there's really no story to it at all. Lisa has done an amazing job of drawing what story there is out of the book.”

Was there any tension involved in his wife being the screenwriter of his debut feature? “It was surprisingly easy,” Bird says. “Well, not surprising because we get on very well! But there were definitely discussions at the get-go about whether it was a good idea, and I think the consensus was it probably wasn't, but we decided to do it anyway. I knew that I love Lisa's writing and that she would be true to the tone of the book that I loved. That felt like a really strong starting point and it seemed crazy to have to go through the whole process of finding somebody else who might end up being a lot worse. So, the script development was amazingly straightforward and there were no marital bust-ups.”

In contemporary reviews from the likes of The Guardian, Winterhart’s comic received favourable comparisons to the work of Raymond Briggs, in both writing and art style. Although there is a shared sense of minimalism, there wasn’t a conscious attempt by Bird to make the film visually resemble its illustrated source material in the vein of fellow Brit Edgar Wright’s admittedly more hyperactive and maximalist Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That said, he suggests such a plan was briefly on the cards: 

“It was definitely a consideration when we decided this was the story to tell,” he recalls. “I think my original vision for it was much closer to the book. We talked about doing a square aspect ratio like the square panels in the book and talked about doing it in black and white – just making it a scuzzy, grungier affair. For various reasons, we decided that wasn't the best route. The main one being that what I love about the book is that the explicit point of it, stated in the first line of the book, is to tell the story of two ordinary people whose story wouldn’t normally be told. And it felt a shame to be doing that in film form, with everything that a big screen has to offer you, and then to not fully celebrate them and not give them all the credit they deserve. We ended up doing the opposite of what my original idea was: full colour and widescreen to properly glorify them.”

Not to disparage any other films in particular, but one of Days of the Bagnold Summer’s many pleasures is that it’s a modern British comedy that has actual noticeable thought put into its blocking, compositions and all the things that can feel rare in a genre where improvisation and finding the scenes later on in an edit seems to be the dominant mode of mainstream comedy storytelling. “I think that's just something that I find hard not to do,” Bird says. “That just comes from the films that I love, lots of which are quite old. A lot of the films I love are comedy-dramas from the 70s, early-80s, like films by Elaine May, Mike Nichols and Peter Bogdanovich. And a lot of those films are very formal, quite classical in their composition. There’s something about that aesthetic that really appeals to me. It feels like when you go to the trouble of making a film, you should be thinking about what every frame looks like.”

Accompanying the visuals for much of Days of the Bagnold Summer’s runtime is a soundtrack by Belle & Sebastian, comprised of various new songs alongside some re-recorded favourites. The band’s frontman, Stuart Murdoch, made his own directorial debut with God Help the Girl in 2014, and Bird suggests his musical collaborator’s prior experience with filmmaking was of great benefit: 

“Stuart was amazingly involved and definitely had learned from his own experiences, both of directing his film but also for having done music for film before. I think he knew the pitfalls and wanted to avoid them. And I think the way to avoid them was to have conversations very early in the process. Amazingly, he got me the music before we filmed the film, which is sort of unheard of. That enabled me to have to crystallise the tone in my head and know roughly the style of stuff that we're going to be fitting to the shots, which obviously is going to make the whole thing feel more coherent. Well, hopefully, is the idea.”

Days of the Bagnold Summer has its Scottish premiere at GFF on 4 Mar, 6pm, with a second screening on Thu 5 Mar, 3.45pm
Simon Bird is joined by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch for a special recording of Soundtracking with Edith Bowman on 6 Mar, 5pm