BAFTA Award-winning producer Stephen Evans has made films about Henry V and George III. Here, he explains why he has chosen the life of Seve Ballesteros as his next project...
Stephen Evans leans back in his armchair, takes a lengthy draw from his cigar and cracks a gigantic grin. “For the first time in my life I am a cool dude,” he smiles. “I go down to Sunningdale and everyone wants to talk to me. I am cool. At the age of 66, I am finally cool. It is brilliant.”
Evans is cool for one reason that has nine syllables. Se-ve-ri-an-o Ball-est-er-os.
Just over a year ago, while watching the film Cinema Paradiso, the filmmaker and golf enthusiast had an idea. He would create a movie by mixing archive footage of Seve giving interviews and playing with film of children acting out the Spaniard’s formative years. The film – working title Ballesteros – would explain the man behind the man. It would tell the world why Seve acted and played the way he did.
Fast-forward a year and Evans has drunk a lot of wine with a lot of golfing decision makers. The Augusta National Golf Club, the Seve Ballesteros Foundation, the European Tour, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the PGA Tour, the USGA, you name them, Evans has wooed them in a laborious, liverscarring attempt to secure all the footage he needs to make a sporting movie of the calibre of Asif Kapadia’s critically acclaimed 2010 motor racing documentary Senna.
“It has taken me just over 12 months of lunches, dinners, meetings and presentations to get to the stage where I have 5,000 hours of footage to work with,” reveals Evans. “That may sound like a long time, but I can honestly say it would have taken another producer or golfer five or six years. I and I alone can make this movie, because I am in a unique position. I have connections in both the golf and film businesses.”
This statement may be narcissistic, but it is also true. Not only is Evans a long-term member of Sunningdale and Godfather to former Ryder Cup player Michael King’s first son, he is also friends with European Tour CEO George O’Grady. And in terms of film, as well as working with the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Sir Kenneth Branagh, George Clooney, Dame Helen Mirren and Emma Thompson, he has also secured a BAFTA for The Madness of King George and produced Oscar-winning movie Henry V. Evans is right: he is indeed the only man who could helm this movie.
But while Evans has the necessary contacts to be the public face of this movie, he is not a golf historian and he only witnessed Seve play a handful of times, so he does not have the depth of knowledge needed to pen a Seve screenplay. It is for this reason that he has assembled a crack team of Ballesteros experts to ensure the script is both authentic and accurate.
“Former Golf World editor Robert Green has been a tremendous help to me,” admits Evans. “He wrote the brilliant biography Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius and knows so much about Seve it is incredible. But whereas Robert’s expertise is unparalleled in terms of Seve the man, my other collaborator Robert Sloman’s knowledge of Seve the golfer is encyclopaedic. Rob made the great documentary Seve’s Story and he can remember 6-irons Seve hit to three feet in 1982.That type of knowledge is critical when you are trying to cut 5,000 hours of footage down to less than two hours.”
At this point Evans excuses himself for a couple of minutes and invites us to look around his flat. We don’t get out of the front room. Partly, because Evans has put on the rousing opera song he intends to use as the soundtrack for the opening scene in his movie, and partly because of the number of books he has on his shelves. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Piers Morgan’s autobiography, The New Yorker Book of Poems, TimeOut’s London Eating and Drinking Guide 2012, Martin Amis’ latest novel... the variety is incredible, but there is one striking omission. There are absolutely no books about Seve Ballesteros.
“That’s because, I was never actually a fan,” explains Evans. “I remember watching him play and thinking he had an amazing aura, but I didn’t root for him or anything. In fact, when I read Seve’s offi cial autobiography I wanted to pull out of this project, because I thought he was an idiot. But then I read what other people wrote about him and his upbringing and I thought ‘what a wonderful man’. “This is why it is so crucial that my film tells the story of his childhood. If you don’t understand Seve’s formative years then you can’t possibly grasp why he became the man he did.”
Evans has yet to cast the actors who will play the young Seve, but he can confirm that rumours about Cuban American actor Andy Garcia playing an adult Ballesteros are wide of the mark. “That was something Seve had mentioned when he was alive,” says Evans. “But while Andy’s very handsome and charismatic, he’s not as charismatic as Seve and he couldn’t play the shots.”
Finding the actors is part two of the filmmaking process and Evans insists it will be completed by the end of this year. Once it is done, filming will commence and if all goes to plan Ballesteros will be released in the summer of 2013, some two years after the idea popped into his head. “Two years may sound like a long time, but when it comes to making a movie it really isn’t,” insists the Londoner. “It took me eight years to make The Wings of The Dove. During that time I went so deeply into debt I had to sell my house. I thought that film was going to be the end of me but it got four Oscar nominations.”
Asif Kapadia’s aforementioned 2010 documentary on legendary Brazilian motor racing driver Ayrton Senna didn’t receive any Oscar nominations. But it did win two BAFTA awards and receive such critical acclaim that it attracted millions of cinemagoers, many of whom had little or no interest in Formula One. “That is pretty good, but a movie about Seve has the potential to be even more successful,” believes Evans. “Like Senna, Seve transcends his sport and like Senna, Seve was incredibly handsome and charismatic, but unlike Senna, Seve was not handed everything on a plate.
“Senna’s dad was a multi-millionaire, so when he said ‘Dad, I want a go-kart or Dad, I want a sports car,’ he got one. Seve’s upbringing couldn’t have been more different. He asked his dad to buy him a golf ball and his dad said ‘no’. He asked his dad for a set of golf clubs and his dad said ‘no’. But Seve wanted to be a golfer, so he kept going and eventually succeeded against all the odds. As a story, it is as romantic as it is joyous. His first ball was a pebble, for goodness’ sake. If I was trying to make this up nobody would believe it, but it is what the boyo did and it is why the more I read about him the more I admire him.”
At this point Evans heads for his CD player again. This time he puts on a placid orchestral piece that he intends to use as the backdrop for one of the scenes where a schoolboy Seve moulds his short game and swing alone on a sun-drenched beach. It is a moment of calm in an otherwise manic interview and one that leaves us all reminiscing about the majesty of Ballesteros. One moment he would be kicking the ground and scowling after losing an argument with a rules official. The next he would be flashing a lady-killing smile after chipping in for birdie. One moment he would be at odds with Nick Faldo. The next he would be in fits of tears hugging him.
This memorable embrace took place during the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, and unsurprisingly the biennial matches will receive plenty of screen time. “The Ryder Cup is Seve’s legacy, so, yes, it will feature prominently,” states Evans. “But I don’t want to ruin the movie’s story by telling you how or when.” What the filmmaker will reveal, however, is that he has no intention of attempting a similar project with any other golfers. “Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald are all wonderful players, but that is all they are,” says Evans. “There is no real story, so if you tried to make a movie about them people would fall asleep. Seve is different.
He might have only won five Majors, but he had that Spanish smile and he was lethal. I mean, I remember watching the putt he made to win the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews. You saw the ball hit the hole, you saw the fist punch and you saw the smile. I have never seen such a display of triumph and joy in my life. It was incredible, amazing and electric.”
Golf World witnessed that putt too, standing alongside the Old Course’s 18th fairway that day and can confirm it was indeed incredible, amazing and electric. But it was also more than that. It was Seve. Seve, the golfer who refused to take no for an answer. Seve, the golfer you couldn’t help but watch. Seve, the golfer who acted, looked, played and spoke like he was a movie star. Next year, thanks to Stephen Evans, it looks like he finally will be.