As well as acting, David has also written numerous projects such as the feature film 'All The Queen's Men' and the BBC children's series 'Uncle Max.' I caught up with him this week to discuss how he first got started in the industry, how he deals with writers block -- and we took a closer look at some of his best work, as well as some of the stranger moments - for example, how Ikea flat-packing almost ruined a handshake with Woody Allen.
If you are a writer, an actor, or love comedy - this is essential reading.
How did you start out in the industry, you started doing stand up is that right?
Well my actual first job was as an actor at the National Theatre. I had done a bit of comedy at University, not so much stand up as sort of characters and sort of falling over really, visual comedy. But I did acting as well, and it was a very specific circumstance where they were doing a play at the National and needed a Yiddish speaking cabaret performer under eighty, and I was basically the only one in the country who fitted that bill.
So initially I was an actor and then I did stand up and because of the people I knew from University like Armando Iannucci. That's how I got more into comedy.
Was comedy always the thing you were interested in, or was it acting..
Yeah, well - comedy was always a thing I had a particular gift for, but I enjoy acting as well. But I suppose I've got a face for comedy shall we say.
Who are your biggest influences would you say, comedically?
The towering person who has influenced me is Woody Allen. He's the person who I love the most and have admired the most. And I actually got to work with him..
I was going to ask you about that. How was it? Did you get to talk to him much?
Well he's not a talkative chap.
I did get very excited about meeting people and saying "he doesn't even say hello to you," and "he just gets on with the job," but um-- I was really excited, and I shook his hand, which I shouldn't have done because I'd been doing Ikea flat-packing the day before and I had a blister on my hand. So I feel there was a bit of extra suction as our hands separated, which, knowing him, he'd be over-neurotic about.
But professionally it was marvellous. He gave me a bit of direction during the scene that I thought 'yeah, you know so much more than me'. And it's great, y'know, when you've been knocking around the business for a while to work with someone who clearly is in a Premier League to your League One.
I think as well, you may have been in the last film he'll act in. Because since 'Scoop,' I think, there's been no sign of him acting.
Yeah, no that's right. I mean he might have another go but I think 'Scoop' wasn't the greatest of successes, but I don't take that personally. But yeah, I hadn't thought about that.
You've written a lot as well, which I think a lot of people may not know about you. Do you see yourself as much as a writer as an actor?
Yeah I sort of do both and there's times when I'm doing more writing and times when I'm doing more acting. And the trick for me is to combine the two, I also direct as well. And y'know, it's not easy, and sometimes I think I should focus on one but I do enjoy doing both and get different things out of doing both, so um, I think - I don't know how I would advise younger people, but I think it's important to focus sometimes.
How is it when you've written something, like 'All The Queens Men' - how is it when it goes off and someone else directs that?
It's hard to let go of things but you have to learn to let that happen. I think part of, well -- my goal is to be like a Woody Allen who has total control and can direct his own thing. But then, what's great if you get someone who's good is they can add to your work and then there's things that you can't see that they can. And I think some of the flaws in some people who become so successful is that they don't listen to anyone else. They write and perform and sometimes direct their own stuff- is they don't, you know they don't have anyone to say "actually you shouldn't do that."
So that's the advantage of working with other people. It is great to work with other people if they're any good, but the truth of the business is sometimes you have to hand your work over to other people who have a different vision from you, shall we say, and that can be hard.
I remember when I was in a play that I'd written at the Hampstead theatre a few years ago - I was acting opposite someone who I felt wasn't delivering my lines quite right. And having that battle in my head, going 'I've got to concentrate on the acting', rather than suffering each time he delivered that joke slightly wrong.
That's more of a thing in comedy I'd imagine, right? Because comedy can be such a specific thing, in the way you write a line.
Yes, yes. It's more obvious in comedy, if a line is meant to get a laugh and it doesn't, it's more of a binary thing isn't it where you can actually sort of, one, zero, did it get a laugh or didn't it.
But I think in serious work, in drama, you can still think 'ah, that's drawn out.' So, certainly it's clearly in comedy but I think it applies to all genres.
It's really great to see when you get to work with a really great actor. Like, recently I was watching the scene in 'I'm Alan Partridge' at the dinner table, when Alan is trying to get a second series.
And that was such a perfect scene, so funny. When you're working with someone like Steve Coogan and with such great material, it must be a lot easier for you I'd imagine.
I was so spoilt in the 90's because I worked with such brilliant people, such inventive people, and people who just knew comedy so well. So it was a joy - a joy to go to work and know that you might nearly lose control of your bladder or in two cases actually lose control of your bladder just through rehearsals.
Steve's a very generous performer. If the laugh is to be yours, he'll allow it. And he'll improvise something that is so true to the character, and that's just very exciting at the time. So I feel, y'know, those were great because I was with such talented people, you can be spoilt.
Looking at 'Uncle Max' that you did with the BBC - how did that come about?
Umm, well I wanted to do, before I was too old and falling to pieces too much, a visual cartoon, a human cartoon - and I wanted to do stuff for kids.
It happened quite quickly in fact, thankfully - because, y'know, I am getting older. So, yeah-- it's been great and I'm proud of what we did there and the kids seemed to like it.
Is this something you had more creative control over having written it and performed in it as well, or was there a director who....
There was a director, and I was very lucky in the directors that I had, in that they were very very competent creatively and technically. But also that they were infinitely patient with my control-freakery.
I mean I do feel that, y'know, visual comedy is a very specific skill in how it should look. I mean the thing that makes me tear my hair out on television is stuff like 'Britain's Got Talent,' which I confess I do like. When they shoot a dance act and they keep cutting to different angles and cutting close, but really they should just stick it on a wide shot and let it happen.
I would nag my director's sometimes to , um-- if I felt..
To keep it simple.
Yeah but you know, I was very lucky that I had two different directors but both of them were very talented and nice as well, so it was good.
Is Chaplin an influence for you? I thought 'Uncle Max' had a Chaplin quality to it.
Yeah. Well I love Chaplin but above all I love Laurel and Hardy. Chaplin had an innocence, and so do Laurel and Hardy but um, it was Laurel and Hardy I really tuned it to as a kid. I like to think 'Uncle Max' is a cross between Laurel and Hardy and a cartoon. Well, that's what I aim for I mean obviously we have such limited finances and I would never ever compare myself to them.
I love the timing. There are bits of Uncle Max where I think, like that timing before the shoe falls on his head at the end is just like a Laurel and Hardy bit. And Buster Keaton, I do like Buster Keaton.
What is the writing process like for you.. does it come easily or do you struggle with it?
Err, yesterday being the first day back at school, it was a nightmare. But if you'd asked me this any other day of the year I would say no no it's alright, I don't really have writers block. But having just suffered the January 4th moment, it doesn't always come easily.
But you've got to be excited about what you're writing. Sometimes you take commissions. I've been quite lucky that I haven't had to take commissions, I can generate my own work and then that's always something where I'm going oh that'd be great, oh I love this character, I love that idea. And as long as you're doing that, things tend to flow. If you're not enjoying your idea, that's where you tend to get stuck.
But no doubt writers block happens and there are times when you have to leave the desk. I know how to trick my writers block now. I just say "yeah, I'm just going to have a shower.." and normally the block relaxes then and then, in the shower I have an idea, and think oh that's funny.
Or during the night, which is tricky.
It's always frustrating isn't it. You get an idea and 3am and you know you have to get up and write it.
Yeah yeah, and you write it down and sixty percent of the ideas are awful, but that's just part of the territory I think.
So can you tell us a bit about what you're working on now?
Well I'm finishing a draft of a film I've wanted to write for ten, fifteen years and I've always been too busy, so I said "I've got to write this film." I don't want to give too much away but it's kind of Woody Allen meets Charlie Kaufman.
It's sort of early Woody Allen and romantic, but y'know, Charlie Kaufman so it's really quirky and plays with concepts of time and stuff. It's either genius or mid-life wank. And I really don't know which one it is.
Have you shown it to anyone yet?
I'm about to print out a copy and show it to my girlfriend, she'll certainly tell me if it's mid-life wank.
I know yeah. She'll show me by packing her bag and going. I'm not sure, it's not going to be just alright. It's either going to be awful or brilliant.
Well, let's hope.. When you finish a screenplay what do you do with it then? I guess you've built up contacts through the years.
Well my agent helps me. And I've just got an LA agent now and she will hopefully take the script to people out there. With TV I know lots of people, y'know, yeah you do built up contacts through the work over the years. Getting an agent, a good agent is the main thing.
Can I ask - would you rather direct the film yourself on a small budget or get the giant paycheck and let someone in Hollywood have a go?
Oh my god [laugh], have you been in my head for the last six months just listening to what's going on? Yeah, that's a very difficult question.
I'm realizing that I'm not someone who can go round and hack people for money and schmooze. So I'd love to make it myself I will probably have to accept that's not going to happen. But yeah, we'll see. If it is genius, then I might be able to get some money behind me.
But you meet people who are directing their own films and they put three or four years of intense meetings and schmoozing to get the finance together. I don't know if I could do that.
Okay, well - finishing up really. With acting, there's so many, thousands of actors. When I'm making a short film even, and I put out an ad, I get hundreds of applications from actors - they really struggle to stand out, to y'know, show people what they can do. Do you have any advice for them?
I mean it is very hard. I mean, you've got to have self-belief. And you do have to take risks. If you find yourself going 'oh that person would never see me' don't- don't eliminate yourself from the casting process. let them eliminate you. Send that email that doesn't get replied to.
I think part of the battle for any creative person is um, not to reject themselves.
'Oh there's no way that Director would ever see me.' So just go for it.
Not let your inner-critic put you down.
Exactly, I would certainly say that.
28 Days Later, I thought that was quite interesting. A different role for you as well.
Yeah, yeah I think; I was really pleased to get that because it was, y'know, about as serious as you can get. And because it was such an intense role I sort of feel it met, it almost came around the other dark side of the comedy moon. It was almost comedic. When you're that extreme, y'know -- one of my strengths is I'll always make a fool of myself very easily comedically. Y'know, for a good cause, not being a twat. And I think that's what you have to do as an actor. You have to be totally open.
I'm waffling now, but I was very chuffed that he gave me that chance and it was very interesting to do it, and see that I could do it. I mean, he's a great director (Danny Boyle), even though he's fighting all these monkeys and trying to film them, it was crazy. I was in good hands there.
What other aspirations do you have for your career now? What do you want to achieve?
Yeah I mean, it's always been my goal to be Woody Allen. Whether I'll achieve that I really don't know. I've always wanted to be in my own sitcom, and make a wonderful film.
So y'know, I'm working away at getting closer to that. But the thing is, that's part of me - doing different things. I do like chopping and changing, I get bored very quickly. So as long as I'm stimulated and keep working then I'm happy really.
One last thing - what's your favourite film?
Uhhhh, I guess the one I quote the most is 'Annie Hall', I guess. There's others. 'Brazil,' 'Crimes and Misdemeanours' I really like. 'Downfall' - that's hilarious, really should have had a laughing track. So yeah, there's some I really like. And 'Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.'