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"Nothing was off-limits" in making Elton John biopic Rocketman

There's plenty of glitter but no sugar coating in the movie of Elton John's life, says its director, Dexter Fletcher

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Man playing piano on stage in front of crowd
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

Dexter Fletcher is the director who famously stepped in to complete the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody after the firing of its director, Bryan Singer. Now he parlays that experience into the making of Rocketman, another film about the life of a flamboyant UK pop star – Elton John – although one that takes an altogether less santised view of its subject as well as a more freewheeling approach to the storytelling.

A former child actor who appeared in the kids-as-gangsters cult film Bugsy Malone, Fletcher went on to act in several iconic UK movies including The Long Good Friday, The Elephant Man and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He made his directorial debut with crime comedy Wild Bill in 2011 and went on to direct the Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith as well as Winter Olympics comedy Eddie the Eagle starring Taron Egerton, who plays Elton John in Rocketman.    

Dexter, How do you look back on your role in making Bohemian Rhapsody?

[Producer] Matthew Vaughn called it my Rocketman boot camp. It was a very unique set of circumstances. I'm very proud to be part of it. I love Rami [Malek], I'm made-up for him [that he won the Oscar]. If it had gone badly and no one had gone to see it, I could have gone, "Well, nothing to do with me!" That's why I've not said anything, because it's not my project. I directed 30 per cent of it.

There's been suggestions that the film essentially ‘gay-washed’ Freddie Mercury’s character. Do you feel you need to defend it from those criticisms?

I'm not the spokesman for the film. The only thing I can say about it is that they set out to make a PG film and that's what they made. All the other issues are for other people to talk about. I understand the debates around it [but] I personally don't think it's answerable to it. There is a love scene in Rocketman, but it's an R-rated film. There's drugs. But in a PG film, you don't expect that. It's very different from Rocketman.

Has your favourite Elton song changed during the process of making the movie?

Yes, of course, because they're now synonymous for me with certain moments in the film and they have huge emotional content for me. It's not, "Oh, I'll just stick on a bit of 'Yellow Brick Road', now it's like, "Oh shit, that's the restaurant scene with Bernie [Taupin]." It's an incredible back catalogue.

Elton was producer on the film. What sort of boss was he?

That word doesn't spring to mind. Collaborator, maybe. It's a tricky one for him ... it's reality and it's his life. And he understands there's a certain amount of objectivity that he possibly can't possess. He watched the rushes but he understood that he had to be slightly removed from it. It was: "Do it," though not: "Do whatever the fuck you want."

Were there any red lines for him?

No, nothing was off limits, but how far I went with things, I had to be considerate. He's a married man with a family, he's got to sit and watch it. I don't want to humiliate him or make things uncomfortable for him; I just want to tell a good story. Sure, it's R-rated, but that's the lifestyle that he and other people were leading in the '70s and ’80s. We're not trying to pretend that didn't happen or sweep it under the carpet. Some people call it ‘warts and all’ – I don't like the phrase, but it's all in there. There's high and there's lows, and you can't show the lows in a PG way.

Would you call it a musical?

It kinda sits alone: it is a musical, it's got fantasy elements but it's got elements of social realism as well. The whole thing, really, is a fantasy, and Elton is our storyteller. I like the idea that Elton is our storyteller and he doesn't remember it properly. A biopic is a factual recounting of [events], this is an emotional recollection of a period in somebody's life. By its very nature, it's messed up and flawed. That's why he sings ‘Crocodile Rock’ at the Troubadour when that song wasn't even written then; it informs us emotionally of where the character is going and that's what's important.

Are you ready for Elton purists to come at you?

Of course, they'd be right, and god love 'em. I'm not trying to rewrite history. He also didn't sing ‘Rocketman’ at the bottom of a swimming pool [laughs]. Either people get that or they don't. I'm not trying to do a biopic or a docudrama.

Tom Hardy was going to play Elton for a while. Were you involved in the movie at that time?

No, I wasn't. I saw that and was like "Oh, interesting choice" but Tom's an incredible, versatile actor and I wouldn't be remotely surprised if you watched it and thought ‘Fuck me, he's amazing.’ But when I heard Taron was in the picture that seemed like a really smart fit. He's physically like Elton: more stocky and I knew he could sing because on Eddie the Eagle, for a laugh Gary Barlow asked if he wanted to record a single. He went to the studio, did it in three takes and then left. Gary phoned me and went [puts on Gary Barlow accent]: "He's fookin' amazing!"

You had some similar issues with addiction in your twenties. What did you connect with in the film?

As a director, you have to find something to connect with. That was certainly something that I had a handle on, and spoke to Elton and David [Furnish] about, who had their own recovery as well. It felt like something I could address with a certain authority. My own struggles with it are maybe a bit different from Elton's but the result is the same, it's something to get through. I understand where you get to when you're sniffing a line of coke and you're paranoid and feel like everyone's betraying you. There's absolutely no glamour or glorification around that.

Rocketman opens in cinemas on May 30.

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