Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon always deliver their trademark witty banter and gourmet sampling on the fly during their sojourns — to Northern England (“The Trip,” 2010), followed by Italy (2014), Spain (2016) and finally, Greece — but it’s up to writer-director Michael Winterbottom to pick the locations and prep his stars before launching them on their next quest. All four trips were released first as six half-hour episodes on BBC TV, followed by a trimmed theatrical film. In this Covid year, IFC Films is taking what may be the ultimate “The Trip” straight to VOD on May 22.
The comedy duo, who follow in the “Road To” movie tradition of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, originally thought the boss would send them to Scandinavia, but Greece was the word. First, Winterbottom did a thorough location scout and brushed up on his Homer. “I went traveling around looking for places,” he said in a phone interview, “seeing which ones would look good, reading about things that connect to those places. I try and pick a route with great restaurants, and find places with starting points for conversations that the guys would have fun having. Greece has a massive amount of cultural material to think about.”
In their parallel story, Steve and Rob find themselves retracing the steps of Odysseus as Coogan’s son (Tim Leach) reaches out to his father by phone when his grandfather takes a turn for the worse. In what turns into a surprisingly moving family narrative, Winterbottom leaned into Homer’s father-son story from “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.”
“Both use bold storytelling flashbacks to when Odysseus was young,” said Winterbottom. “And stories within stories about the tricks he plays on people. Homer is cross-cutting between Odysseus and his men trying get back home after 10 years of war and traveling. He’s left his wife and child Telemachus as a baby. He’s trying to get home and Telemachus is trying to find him. It’s a very fresh and modern story, which I felt we could mold to comic effect.”
“Originality is overrated, isn’t it?” says Coogan in the film. The challenge for all was to find ways to keep their established routine from becoming overly familiar, including their impressions of “Marathon Man” costars Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. “They go to a different place with a different diet,” said Winterbottom. “They go through a new stimulus each time. People do repeat themselves. We’ve done one of these every three or four years. When two friends go on journeys, you tend to repeat yourself quite a lot. It’s the nature of life.”
It’s hard to deny the gorgeous scenery (no Acropolis — too touristy) with mountains falling into the beautiful sea. Winterbottom sticks to the same structure he’s followed on the other films, writing up a 60-page outline for his leads to work from while changing up the landscape, culture and cuisine. Every few years, the same small crew reunite “like a traveling troupe of players,” said Winterbottom. “We spend a month together listening to Steve and Rob tell jokes.”
Winterbottom and his production team do the heavy lifting of the physical logistics and prep, while Coogan and Brydon ramp up the energy in front of the cameras. Coogan does the real driving, acting as a straight man for Brydon’s comedic competitor — while opportunistically looking for ways to undermine his rival. Each three-course meal is repeated three times over about two days. “By the time I’m looking appreciative of the first dessert,” said Brydon in our Zoom interview above, “that’s award-winning acting.”
“Rob is looking for truffles in the woods and finding them,” said Coogan.
“As long as my basket is full, I am very happy,” said Brydon.
Why give up doing something that’s clearly so pleasant for all concerned? “No, this is it,” said Winterbottom. “It’s finished. The theme this year is back to the family. It’s a natural place to end.”
“Leave them wanting more,” said Coogan. “It felt like it was conclusive… It felt like we would really be pushing our luck.” During production, he and Brydon discussed coming back after a real hiatus. “Rob and I did say maybe in 10 years’ time, if we’re capable, and still relevant, that we might do another one. Right now, it’s the smart thing to do.”