Screenwriter Simon Uttley discusses the challenges of having rugby action in a film

Why don’t movies get rugby scenes right?

It’s rare that a die-hard fan sees a rugby scene in a movie and gives it a big thumbs-up. But it cannot be easy to capture the essence of such a complex game on the silver screen, whilst also conveying a sense of cinematic drama. We wondered: how difficult is it to get right?

So we asked an experienced screenwriter who knows their rugby what they thought. Simon Uttley gives us some considered thoughts on the inherent issues that surround showing an audience match action.

Here is what he says:

“Logistically it is interesting. Films are used to portraying large-scale carnage, so you would think rugby would be easy on that front. And I would say most sports films face the same kind of logistic hurdles – how do we fake something to make it look real?

“But in general, of what I have seen, most of the time it’s probably a slight rugby riff on the uncanny valley. If you’re used to playing or watching a lot of rugby then you innately know what feels right and what feels a little off.

Related: What is the best rugby movie?

“Movies – unless they’re using archive or documentary footage – aren’t always going for 100% verisimilitude or accuracy. So even if they get in a consultant (which I’m sure they do) to make sure the rugby scenes feel right, they’re probably not going to have two teams, stars included, of professional-level rugby players going at each other hammer and tongs.

“Which automatically reduces how ‘accurate’ the scene is going to feel, though maybe only by a degree or two. But sometimes that’s all it takes to take you out of the moment.

“On top of that, the angles used and the way they’ll need to set up and ultimately end updating around certain moments to fit the narrative will further remove that feeling of authenticity. Or can do. So the drop-goal scene in Invictus ramps up the slo-mo effect and sound design for dramatic effect, but if you spend a lot of time watching and/or playing rugby you’re probably distracted by that.

Why don't movies get rugby scenes right?

A still from the Invictus trailer

“It’s similar to the way soldiers (or other professionals) will often criticise the lack of accuracy on screen. But for the film-makers, and probably 95% of the audience, technical accuracy will usually – unless rigid accuracy is the point – come a distant second to the emotion of the characters and the narrative they’re going through. And maybe the writer has never played the game.

“I write a lot of action scenes and have never (yet) been in a car chase, shoot-out or battle with aliens. So they’re faking it. Maybe the director is faking it too, and the actors and so on. And to most people they’ll just see ‘rugby scene’ and think it looks fine as opposed to ‘that tighthead’s binding is all over the shop!’

Related: Matt Damon talks about learning rugby for Invictus

“So, unless they get it 100% spot on, or unless the drama is so satisfying you don’t care that it’s not 100% spot on, then you can get pulled out of the story.

“Not that you can’t script great sporting moments. Despite the cries of ‘you couldn’t make it up’, literally if you were attempting to write about the 2003 World Cup final you would probably make something up exactly like what happened.

“But so much of the true drama of sport comes because it’s unscripted and undirected. That’s where the real thrill comes. And when you’re used to that – and with rugby we’re also used to pretty great ‘on tour’ videos with the British & Irish Lions – anything that’s even slightly off sticks out. I think anyway.”

Uttley – the son of former England and Lions lock Roger and whose brother, Ben, helmed the last three Lions documentaries – says he would consider writing a screenplay for rugby. But it would depend very much on the story first.

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