Screening Bohemian Rhapsody for Brian May and Roger Taylor – two founding members, guitarist and drummer, with Queen, one of the giants of rock music – was an emotional experience for Oscar-winning producer Graham King. King is a Queen fan. “Oh yes, I bought the albums, I loved them,” he says with a smile. He was also pivotal in shepherding Bohemian Rhapsody on its long journey to the screen. It’s clearly been a labour of love.
Focusing on the extraordinary life of frontman Freddie Mercury – played brilliantly by Rami Malek – the film showcases Queen’s triumphant, show-stealing performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium in front of an estimated 1.9 billion global TV audience.
Gwilym Lee plays May, Ben Hardy is Taylor, Joseph Mazzello is bassist John Deacon and Tom Hollander is Queen’s manager Jim Beach. May, Taylor and Beach are co-producers on the film and, as King notes, telling a story involving the lives of real people brings an extra responsibility. At his very first meeting with May and Taylor, he told them that they would need to create a bond to work together to tell Mercury’s remarkable story.
“I’d done the Howard Hughes story [The Aviator], I’d done the Muhammad Ali story [Ali], I was involved in the Tony Mendez story [Argo] and it’s about becoming a family and it’s about trusting each other,” he says.
“I said to Brian and Roger ‘I do feel the pressure of telling the story of people who are still alive, a film that will play on 6,000 screens around the world and get talked about.’ Freddie is sadly no longer with us but the rest of the band is. So I said ‘I’m going to do my best to honour that but we all need to work together.’”
Screening an early cut of the film for May and Taylor – the men who were there every step of the way as Queen became one of the biggest bands of all time – was, he admits, quite an occasion. “It was one of the most emotional days I’ve ever had in this business. In fact, I was petrified,” says King. “And I didn’t watch the screening – I watched them watching the film. I sat in a seat where I could watch them and I could see the emotion they felt because you can only imagine the memories that would have come flowing back for them as they watched it. It was unbelievable. The silence afterwards was just chilling and it was because I knew they were letting it all sink in. It’s their story and they loved Freddie and it was very emotional for them to watch the film. And after a minute or so they looked at me and said ‘it’s great.’ They loved it.”
King was born in London and moved to the US in 1982. He won the Best Picture Oscar as a producer on Martin Scorsese’s 2006 crime drama The Departed, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. He has another two Academy Award Best Picture nominations – for The Aviator (2005) and Hugo (2011), both of which were directed by Scorsese. Over the last 30 years, King has produced or executive produced more than 45 films, grossing $1.2 billion at the US domestic box office and over $2.8 billion worldwide. His films have been nominated for 61 Academy Awards, 38 Golden Globe Awards and 52 BAFTAs.
Were you at the Live Aid concert?
No, my brother was there. I haven’t shown him the film yet but he came to the set when we were shooting the Live Aid scenes. He couldn’t believe how authentic it was. He saw a couple of shoots and I think we were doing Radio Ga Ga and my brother was like ‘That’s amazing.’ And you know it was funny because the whole world remembers that song and the crowd participation but coming from England we’re used to that. So for us it wasn’t something that we hadn’t seen before whereas internationally I don’t think they had. In the UK, it was like football crowds singing, but if you go to sporting events in America they have no idea of participation like that. So it was awesome for international audiences to see that. And of course, Queen absolutely stole the show that day.
How come your brother got to go to Live Aid and you didn’t?
I was living in Los Angeles. I watched it on TV and was blown away by Queen’s performance. And there was no Internet back then and no streaming. I used to listen to English football on a shortwave radio, the BBC World Service on a Saturday. But I remember my brother talking about Live Aid afterwards and just being blown away by it and also by Queen’s performance.
Talk us through the project and how it started.
I was in London shooting Hugo and Peter Morgan [screenwriter] called me and said ‘Are you a fan of Queen and Freddie Mercury?’ And I said ‘yes,’ which I was. I loved their music and I had bought all the albums. I was a huge fan and I still am. He said ‘I’m writing this script and I need someone to get involved and I think you’re the perfect guy. I think you would get along with Brian [May], Roger [Taylor] and Jim Beach, Queen’s manager. If you’re interested you should call this guy Miami Beach.’ I said ‘Miami Beach?’ And he said ‘yes, that’s what they call him, his name is Jim Beach and Freddie used to call him “Miami” and it stuck.” So I called him the next day and we had a three-hour phone call and then we all got together in a pub. Obviously I did my due diligence before I met them, as much as I could, and we hit it off really well and I said ‘I’d love to take this one but I’m going to need your help.’ It wasn’t a case of controlling the project or not controlling it but it’s about becoming a family and it’s about trusting each other.
So there’s a responsibility that comes with telling this story?
Yes there’s a weight on your shoulders when you are developing and putting on the screen someone’s life story when you are sitting there talking to that person – it’s tough. So we had this meeting and we all got along great and I told them that I wanted to think about the story and the structure and they said ‘we want the story to be about Freddie Mercury, it’s not about Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon.’
What was at the heart of the story for you?
It was how this man, Freddie Mercury, a young immigrant singer who once worked at Heathrow Airport, became Freddie the iconic Queen frontman who played in front of 350,000 people in Brazil and at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid, one of the greatest performances ever. It was about what that arc looks like.
How important was finding the right actor to play Freddie Mercury?
It starts and ends with who plays Freddie. And a guy that works with me, Denis O’Sullivan called me one day when I was in England shooting Allied and said ‘You’ve got to meet Rami Malek. I think he could be Freddie.’ I flew back to LA and Rami came into my office and we had a meeting that lasted three or four hours and he was bouncing off the ceiling because he was so excited.
And what convinced you that he was the one to play Freddie?
First of all, with someone like Rami, he has been in the business for a while. And just talking to him for three or four hours you could see that there was something there. You could see that he could get the look and he obviously had the ability. Denis and I just stared at him – I think it made him uncomfortable. We were transfixed by his mannerisms and it wasn’t that he came in trying to impersonate Freddie Mercury – he was Rami Malek – but there was something natural about him. There was something there. He had obviously done a lot of research on Freddie and there was a passion and an energy there and that’s what it’s about; the passion and energy that he brought to it. We were never looking for an impersonator. It was always part of my conversations with Brian and Roger – we were not making a documentary; we were making a theatrical experience.
Recreating Queen’s music and capturing the band playing live is a big part of the film. Did you want the actors you cast as the band to be able to play their instruments?
Yes, we wanted them to be able to play, but that wasn’t going to be the be all end all. And we made sure that they learnt as much as possible. Gwilym Lee spent a lot of time with Brian and Ben [Hardy] spent a lot of time with Roger Taylor. For me first and foremost it was ‘let’s get the acting right, let’s get the chemistry between the four guys in the band right’ and then we’ll work on the rest of it.
Because a band is like a gang and you needed to see that on screen?
Yes, they’re like a family. And we wanted to see that. We had them hang out together all the time and we didn’t have to push them to do that, they wanted to. We didn’t have any egos with the four guys – they are simply great actors. And the one thing that we all had in common was the passion to make this story. I remember saying to them ‘we have one great opportunity here and we have to give it our best shot and we have to cover every base.’ I wanted them to feel the pressure of the storytelling that we were about to do rather than just the pressure of playing their character because that puts pressure on everyone across the board. It’s not just Freddie, Brian, Roger, John and Jim Beach, all the actors in the film had to feel like we were making the right film.
What did Brian May and Roger Taylor say to you when they saw the film?
They’ve seen an early cut and they were speechless. It was one of the most emotional days I’ve ever had in this business. I was petrified. I sat in a seat where I could watch them and I could see the emotion they felt because you can only imagine the memories that would have come flowing back for them as they watched it. It was unbelievable. The silence afterwards was just chilling and it was because I knew they were letting it all sink in. It’s their story and they loved Freddie. They were in Barcelona with me recently and just to introduce them to an audience was so special. It makes me emotional watching the film and it made me emotional on the first day of shooting. I sat on the Live Aid stage and I couldn’t believe that we were finally making this film. I couldn’t believe that we’d actually got there.
So you got to go to Live Aid this time around.
Yes I did. It was an old airfield in Hertfordshire and just fantastic. Then [Live Aid co-organiser and musician] Bob Geldof came out to see us to say ‘hi’ and that was incredible. There was one moment when I just broke down and it was like ‘we’re here, we’ve done this.’
There have been some reports that the film hasn’t addressed Freddie’s homosexuality by focusing on his relationship with Mary Austin [Lucy Boynton]. Does the film show that part of his life?
Of course. The film doesn’t shy away from any of those aspects because they were part of who Freddie was. We are not trying to show Mary as anything other than what she was to him. The real fans know that Freddie left a large proportion of his estate to Mary Austin and at one point he was engaged to be married to her and was in love with her. She became his lover, his girlfriend, his fiancée and then became his best friend. A lot of people don’t know that and so straight away the finger was pointed. But those reactions are from people who haven’t seen the film. I have! As I say, we don’t shy away from any aspect of who Freddie was, but the story is structured far more triumphantly than tragically. As with any life story, you can focus on certain moments more than others. We were determined to capture as much of the facets of Freddie’s life as possible. We are proud of the storytelling and we can hold our heads up high and say ‘this was Freddie’s life – we didn’t embellish, we didn’t over do it.’ I think there is a fine balance.
How did you approach recreating Queen’s music and in particular Freddie’s voice?
Rami sings and we had Marc Martel, who is a great singer who sounds just like Freddie. He came into Abbey Road (studios in London) and pre-recorded so much for us and there were points when I don’t think even Brian May could tell who it was.
So it’s been an eventful journey but it’s been worth it?
Oh yes. I think Freddie was a perfectionist and he’s thrown some hurdles for us to get over. I truly believe that there was someone up there stopping us from making the film before but there was someone up there driving me to make the best version of the story.