EXCLUSIVE: The greatest showman director Michael Gracey to direct Better man, a fantastic coming-of-age story about the unlikely rise of famous singer / songwriter Robbie Williams. The package is coming out to the Berlin buying crowd shortly, for a film Gracey wrote with first-time writers Oliver Cole and Simon Gleeson. The film tells the story of Williams’ rise, exploring the experiences that made him who he is, and the demons he fought both on and off the stage as he became a huge star on the back of success as angels.
Jules Daly for Big Red Films (The war of tomorrow) Craig McMahon for McMahon International (Three thousand years of desire) and Gracey produce. Production is expected to begin this summer.
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Williams first rose to fame at age 16 as a singer in the sensation boy group Take That, but really hit the mark as a solo artist. It happened quickly, with 11 out of 12 studio albums topping the charts in the UK, and six of them among the 100 best-selling albums there. His tours are sold out and he made the Guinness Book for selling 1.6 million tickets for a one-day tour. He has long been a provocative and oversized personality, but strangely, the only place in the world where he has not reached superstar stature is in America, where he lives most of the time. Deadline spoke to Gracey and it’s clear the filmmaker is planning something exceptional here. He’s keeping some details under wraps, but after all, he’s surprised many with his hit hit musical on PT Barnum, and yearns for a repeat. You might glean some clues from his viewing of the film he describes below.
Gracey said the film was the result of hours of smooth conversations he had with Williams, a process that began after The greatest showman in Los Angeles and London, and took a few years to find the handle of a movie. Williams’ hit songs are part of the movie, but when I asked the filmmaker how Williams would be portrayed on screen and if he would be himself in the movie, Gracey got a little enigmatic.
“As to how we portray Robbie in the movie, it’s top secret,” Gracey said. “I want to do this in a really original way. I remember going to the movies when I was a kid and there were movies that blew me away and made me say while I was sitting there at the movies, “I’ve never seen that.” before. I just want the audience to have that feeling. It’s so important when they look at this story, and look at the screen, that they literally think, I’ve never seen this before. All I can say is that the approach is top secret, but the point is to generate that feeling that I just described. It’s this fantastic story, and I want to represent it in its harsh reality until these moments of pure fantasy.
Whether he’s there or not, Williams’ personality, ambition, and insecurities will be fully exposed, uncovered during these long conversations. It will be different from recent musical movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman in that Williams did not come into a prodigy like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.
“Unlike some people who are born prodigies or musical geniuses and you follow the world’s narrative catching up to their shine, it’s not that story,” Gracey told Deadline. “Robbie is this Everyman, who just dreamed big and followed those dreams and they took him to an amazing place. For this reason, hers is an incredibly tellable story. He is neither the best singer nor the best dancer, and yet he has managed to sell 80 million records worldwide. You can relate to the guy who doesn’t consider himself to have extraordinary talent, although of course he does. What he had was the will, the vision and the confidence to say, I will pursue my dream. For us, as an audience, it’s a window to the world, to what would happen if we went there and pursued this impossible dream that many of us put aside.
The film will include the low moments, including the realization and the thought that the extraordinary fame was not deserved.
“At times when he had this success, no one criticizes him more than him. There’s a little bit of that with all of us who when recognized feels like a fraud. It’s psychological and internal, but everyone looks in the mirror and criticizes themselves, no matter who you think you are, and especially in their teens. Robbie had incredible fame at 16, and they often say and I think it’s true, you stop your emotional and mental maturity at whatever age you become famous. You look at people who get famous at a young age, and all the challenges that make you grow taller, all the things that you should have to face on an emotional level, they are taken care of or put aside. You have a mechanism around you that allows you to stay immature, that allows you to get what you want, to have a temper tantrum. It doesn’t happen to the rest of us. It’s interesting to see someone who has it all at 16 and stays 16 all their life. This whole storyline grew out of hours Robbie and I got together in this recording studio he has at home. We would just leave the microphone recorded and chat for hours. Some sessions weren’t great and in the last five minutes he was saying something so honest and true it blew me away. I would think if I wrote a screenplay I could never find a line as brilliant as this.
“When I was talking to him, the details of what was going on inside of him when something completely different might have happened around him, not only is it unique, it’s an interesting way to come to a musical biopic, ”Gracey said. “It’s because he has such a unique way of talking about his life, and he’s been so open about it. If we can present it in an original way, that would reflect how original it is, but also how relatable it is. It’s not often that you can tell amazing fantastic stories that everyone can relate to. There’s a little bit of that in the superhero tale, like I’m a whole world and find something out and get this amazing superpower. It’s a fantasy we all subscribe to. It’s interesting when you can access it when it’s a rock star. “
Back to music.
“All of Robbie’s songs will be re-sung, for the emotion of the moment,” he says. “If in his life he is in the depths of despair, he is not going to sing a song like a flamboyant cabaret show; it’s going to be broken, acapella, stripped, because that’s where he is emotionally. In moments of pure joy, you will hear songs sung in this whirlwind of hysteria. So basically every song in the movie, Robbie will be singing, but it’s going to be performed for the emotion of that moment and that scene.
As to why Williams never skyrocketed in America like he has almost everywhere else in the world, Gracey thinks it may be a movie ally in America.
“All over the world it’s massive here in Australia and massive in Europe, and for some reason it hasn’t broken into that US market,” Gracey said. “That’s why he lives there, because he can walk down the street and not have his clothes ripped off. I look at it like, everywhere outside of the United States, people are going to hear these songs and they are going to know each one of them. In the US, they’ll hopefully greet him the same way they did when they met. The greatest showman. They didn’t know these songs, and yet people fell in love with them and made them their own. I think it will be the same with Better man. They will meet the music for the first time and it will be really beautiful, because it will be in the context of the film’s narrative.
I suggest that if the film meets Gracey’s high expectations, Williams may well be unable to walk any street, even in America where he lives.
“It would be my hope, but I don’t think it’s necessarily his hope,” Gracey said.
CAA Media Finance and Elevate Production Finance organize the financing of the film and represent the national distribution rights; Rocket Science manages international sales.
Gracey is represented by CAA, Partizan and Hirsch Wallerstein; Williams is replaced by CAA and ie: music ltd; and Daly is replaced by CAA.