The new film Iron Men, detailing the move from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium came out last week, and has had rave reviews. I sat down to talk to the Director Paul Crompton about his experiences filming the documentary and his views on the move in general.
I sat down to watch Iron Men, and I absolutely loved it. When it first announced, I assumed it would be a cash grab but then I watched it, and it just hit me. Its got a very good reception from people as well.
It’s nice to have real genuine hard-core West Ham fans say positive things, either to your face at the pub or on Twitter and Facebook or whatever. Its really nice, because, your first thought was a common one, we have had this a lot; that the film would be a puff piece for the club.
It is an independently made film from people who want to tell a true story and cover this seismic move. There’s a big responsibility in that, and you have to work with the club as well so there’s an interesting relationship there.
Talk me through how the idea for the film came about?
When I first moved to London a friend of mine had two season tickets at Upton Park, whenever his mate couldn’t turn up to a game he asked me, so from 12 or 13 years ago, I was going to Upton Park two or three times a season, that was all. It was enough to get a feel of the place. Even though I’m not a West Ham fan, I do have a sort of knowledge of what its like to be a West Ham fan.
I work with Steve Havers, like me, is a TV producer. Steve is a huge West Ham fan; his support goes back in his family for generations. He wanted to tell this story. About a year and a half or two years ago we emailed them, but we weren’t the first to ask about documenting the move. There’s a sort of beauty contest there, it happens all the time in TV.
You see a moment on the horizon that would be a great thing to film but so do 75 other people sat in offices up and down the country. But we pitched this and had meetings and in the end I think we won it because we were a small company, with the right spirit. It was like a job interview, so I think it was useful that Steve was a hard-core West Ham fan, and we got the gig. It’s a boring answer, but it’s one of those things that 95% of the time don’t go your way, but this time it did.
Talk me through the production of the film, you start with the Manchester United FA Cup quarter final replay, which was actually my last game at the Boleyn. How did you go about filming it all? The documentary does very well at weaving in and out of different narratives, how did you cope with that?
There are certain things that you don’t have control over – the Premier League fixture list is one of them. We were slaves to that. Because of the FA Cup replay, it meant West Ham would have to play their final game of the season on a weekday night against Manchester United. There is quite a bookend there already, two games against Manchester United, start with United beating West ham, and ending with a rousing victory.
But what goes in-between? That’s all decided in the editing suite. You know the characters you’ve found along the way, some are employees of the club and some are fans. When it comes the season we keep it in a very linear way. There are three matches in the film, the middle match, the Swansea game, the last Saturday match at Upton Park we used to find fans stories, and fans thoughts on leaving Upton Park. You don’t set out with a clear idea on paper. When you are doing documentaries, especially ones like this, you can see the timeline structure but you really don’t know the full story until you get into the editing suite
What was your favourite part of the film?
There are two answers to this, one, after the final Manchester United game, I knew instantly that we had a brilliant finale to the film. Football is a funny old game, but it ended up being a very fitting football match for the finale. On a smaller scale, the Rib Man, meeting him and trying out the best ribs in the world, that was fantastic, and I’d like to say he has become a bit of a friend and I hope to see him again soon (that’s not a plug but it sounds like a plug)
The strongest part of the documentary for me is that you do not shy away from the issues and concerns that really were a key part of the move. How did you go about portraying that in a way that the club would be happy about? Were you aware of how many issues the West Ham fans had with the move?
It was a story I followed as a football fan anyway, I read about it in the newspapers long before I was involved in the film, so I knew enough about it and I saw West Ham fans on the weekly news shouting and screaming about it not being right.
I thought that something was going on there, it was an inevitability with modern football that this would happen. Certain west ham fans were more vociferous than other ones, but even the quiet ones had major doubts and there is no way that we could do this film without putting the doubts and the concerns in it. One of the major people in the film stopped going, and even others only go to away games. Some didn’t feature that prominently but it is important to reflect that. This is a historic move that (without overdoing it) is the biggest thing that has happened to the club and you have to reflect that accurately and be fair to everyone. I am fairly sure the club would prefer it from a PR point of view that those voices weren’t in the film but that’s just how the way it is. They can’t deny that this was happening, and that it was the voice of the fans at the time.
Let’s talk about the final day and how it was portrayed in the film. The Manchester United bus arrived and the scenes surrounding it live in infamy. But the whole debacle was played down in the film. Why did you do that? Was it a case of driving the narrative forward or to avoid the unflattering parts of the final day?
I was thinking that if this film is going to be for more than just West Ham fans. Something bigger, something that anyone can watch, if you live in Australia or something. You can actually watch this film and get wrapped up in the story and I think that was my thought throughout it, the film wasn’t only for west ham fans but for everyone in the film. You can touch on it, you can very lightly touch on it, but it didn’t seem to me as an important part of the story. But its there if you know it.
It doesn’t draw you in and it doesn’t want to make you love the West Ham fans if you see those scenes on Green Street. It was definitely an editorial decision to add more emotion to those who watch the film who aren’t West Ham fans, who just want an entertaining story.
As a football fan you go into this final day, the narrative is set for something spectacular. Then again we are West Ham. Does the 3-2 win make the film? Would the film have had the same impact if it was a 0-0 draw or we lost 2-1?
I think that football match was an absolute gift for the film makers. It was beautifully shot and all the football action was absolutely terrific. I couldn’t have scripted it. So yes it made it a much stronger piece of storytelling and a fantastic piece. Being a Manchester United fan I had a quandary, we could have leapfrogged Manchester City and made it to the Champions League. West Ham beating us in that special way made it great for the film. At the same time, I don’t think we deserved to be in the Champions League that year, so the right thing happened.
What was it like working with the team and the board, the two key people are Mark Noble and David Gold. Was there a conscientious decision to spend more time with Gold than Sullivan?
From a story point of view, they both have stronger ties to the story. Noble was brought up in Canning town, and Gold brought up a stones throw from Upton Park. Where else in the world do you have the owner and the captain with that kind of backstory? It makes West Ham feel even more special and the story even more powerful. So there was a conscientious decision to spend time with those two character, not only because they are both interesting people but they are great on camera and that was another gift to the film.
One of the main issues with moving was that businesses and the area would be after moving, what’s your opinion on that?
My opinion doesn’t really matter but it is sad that the area has lost something major. I’ve been in the area since the move primarily to look at how Upton Park is doing with the Barrat Homes transformation. I actually filmed it but didn’t want to put it in because it was too sad. I’ve been in the Boleyn pub for a lunch break, it’s a big pub and now its empty. That’s sad. Where else is it going to get its business now? Same with Nathans pies across to the road, I don’t know how much they brought in on match days but it must be a lot less now. You’ve got to feel for these people, that’s livelihoods going down the drain.
But what can you do? It’s this migration of tens of thousands of people en masse. They go from being in that area for such a long time then not being there, its one of those awful things about the decision to move grounds. David Gold says in the film there will be winners and losers, in Stratford there are winners, and sadly around Upton Park, there’s definitely losers.
Have you managed to visit the new stadium yet? What do you think of it?
I’ve been quite a few times now, the first thing I realised was, the first time I went to Stratford station and saw the stadium, you walk towards it and half and hour later its still miles away!
I have thought about this quite a lot, and my long and painful calculation is that I think it’s the right thing to do. I know its controversial but it’s a bigger ground, there is no more halftime chaos that there was an Upton park. You couldn’t get a drink unless you set off halfway through the first half. Financially it’s the right thing to do. What West Ham have to do now is to learn to play without relying on the fans breathing down the necks of the opponents, you can’t do that at the London Stadium. West Ham have to learn to play better football. That’s a tip from an expert.
Are you happy with the feedback for the film?
Thrilled, its been warmly received, to the point where its sold out on Amazon. It’s in the club shop and HMV, they’re replenishing the shelves at Amazon as we peak. The comments from people have been fantastic, its been really well received, and West Ham guys are tough guys to pleased.
I’m really pleased Bilic has dragged the team through the first period where it looked like they couldn’t win at the new stadium. He’s a lovely guy and I hope he has a long and successful career at west ham.
You can follow James Gooderson on Twitter @james_Gooderson and Paul Crompton @Major_Rawles
This interview has been edited for optimum viewing.