‘West Ham let us shoot at Upton Park. We gave them a clean version of the script’: The making of Green Street
by, Roshane Thomas The Athletic Nov 28, 2023 Design by, Sam Richardson
Green Street is a film American golfer Billy Horschel has watched more than 30 times. It is a film which helped former West Ham United defender Fabian Balbuena learn English, a film that helped ex-striker Enner Valencia settle in and a film which, 18 years after its release, remains a cult classic.
Directed by Lexi Alexander, the film starred Elijah Wood of Lord of the Rings fame, Charlie Hunnam, who later featured in Sons of Anarchy, and established British actors Ross McCall and Marc Warren. The movie took 27 days to make, with a budget of £3.5million.
This is the story of Green Street. Of how the West Ham and Millwall rivalry storyline was inspired by two lower league clubs in Germany, why there were initial fears about casting Wood and why a member of the cast has a mural at a Tunisian football club.
‘I always wanted to make a film like Green Street because I grew up in a firm’
Dougie Brimson, one of the screenplay’s writers, is recalling his first encounter with Alexander. She had been nominated for an Oscar for her short film on U.S. boxer Johnny Flynton, which was released in 2002. But Alexander wanted to make a film based on her experiences.
“Someone got in touch about a woman who wanted to do a film about football hooliganism,” he says. “I eventually got in touch with Lexi and said, ‘I’m interested in helping.’ I flew to Hollywood, I was there for just over a week and we had a basic script.
“It constantly shocks me how much interest there still is in Green Street. When I’m out with Leo Gregory (who played Bovver) people always ask him for pictures. Leo will say, ‘Guys this is the bloke who wrote the film.’ Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, can you take a photo of me and Bovver please.’ No one gives a shit about me. It’s bizarre.”
Alexander, Brimson, Josh Shelov and Deborah Del Prete all played important roles in structuring the script. Green Street is in the borough of Newham, where West Ham’s former stadium, the Boleyn Ground, was located – and it was Alexander’s idea to base the film around the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall.
The rivalry between the two clubs is longstanding, stemming from the era when the clubs were called Millwall Athletic and Thames Ironworks. Their rivalry is embedded in British football largely due to the animosity between the club’s hooligan firms, the Inter City Firm (ICF) and the Millwall Bushwackers.
“For the film, I did research on which English clubs to use and West Ham reminded me the most of the club I supported, Waldhof Mannheim (now in the third tier of German football),” says Alexander. “It’s like, West Ham are never going to win the Premier League but they still dream of it. Waldhof Mannheim used to be in the second division, now they are this village church team that no one knows. But we had a fierce rivalry with Kaiserslautern ( currently in 2. Bundesliga) and it reminded me of West Ham and Millwall.
“West Ham and Millwall don’t play each other often because they’re not in the same league, but when they do it’s carnage. When Waldhof Mannheim and Kaiserslautern were in the same league it was like, ‘Holy fuck.’ It used to go off. So that’s why I wanted to highlight West Ham and Millwall’s rivalry.
“I always wanted to make a film like Green Street because I grew up in a firm in Germany. My brother dragged me along and with me being a girl no one wanted to fight me. In those groups, you can’t win fighting a girl because you get your mouth smacked by the firm, or get embarrassed by a girl beating you up. I wanted to run around with the firm and I had so much adrenaline. It doesn’t matter where the firm is whether it’s British, Dutch, French – except Americans because they don’t do that stuff – but in terms of hooligan firms, they all have the same mentality.
The firm I was in wanted to take photos so we could get them developed. On Saturdays, I would go into the pub and show everyone the photos of our fight and it would be one big celebration. If I captured someone in the firm getting punched, then everyone would start taking the piss out of that person. It was a lot of fun but there were times when it wasn’t enjoyable. There were moments when it got super dangerous and that’s when I started to back out. I remember we were attacked by a firm that caught us on the freeway to a game. We had multiple cars an they were in a bus and they checked us, ran over and smashed every window.
“It was at this moment when I thought, ‘I can’t do this forever.’ When it wasn’t bad, when it was just me standing on a ledge taking photos of the guys, it was fun. Being in a firm is like being in a family when you don’t have a family. One of the toughest guys in our firm was a social worker. Then we had another hard man who could’ve been a lawyer. It was far from workingclass. Just mainly people who found each other through football first, then they shared a bond of fighting after.”
Del Prete, a film producer, was a screenwriter for Green Street but she was in for a shock when she read the initial script.
“Dougie wrote an initial version of the film but the movie you all see was written by Lexi,” says Del Prete. “I read that script and I swear to you, all I could think was, ‘Wow, there’s gangs around soccer?’
“Here’s the funny part: I owned a building in Los Angeles called the Coronet Theatre. Downstairs in the basement were a few shops, a bar and a hairdresser. I used to always get my hair done there by a British guy. I read the script while he was doing my hair and he was looking over my shoulder and said, ‘Deb, look at this.’ He pulled up his sleeve and had the West Ham ‘irons’ tattoo. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this must be a sign.’ I asked him loads of questions about West Ham and we still talk about it.”
One of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes was largely thanks to Shelov.
“I was hoping to break into Hollywood and be a screenwriter and I’d been trying for 10 years,” says Shelov. “I was so close to giving up and getting a real job, then a good friend of mine called Alex told me about this film called Green Street and had the initial script from Dougie. They wanted to improve the script from a story standpoint and Alex asked if I’d have a look. I read it and it had a lot of good aspects but I felt it was important for Charlie Hunnam’s character (Pete Dunham, who runs West Ham’s firm Green Street Elite) to die at the end. That’s a good part of the reason the film has made such an impact on people.
“I spoke to Lexi, made some changes, the script got passed to the actors and that pretty much changed my life. Then I was told Elijah Wood liked the script and I ended up working in Hollywood. I was renting a little apartment in Brooklyn and thanks to Green Street, I was able to buy a house for my family. I saw it premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in America. My son is 15 and he watched it for the first time the other day. That was an amazing feeling. It’s the peak of my career and the thing that people recognize me the most for.”
In March 2004, Wood and his co-stars surprised West Ham fans in the lower tier of the Bobby Moore Stand when they attended their league game against Gillingham. The club granted access to the film crew thanks to a convincing sales pitch from Alexander, as Del Prete recalls.
“What’s funny is how Lexi talked West Ham into letting us shoot the film at Upton Park,” she says. “We gave them a clean version of the script. Me and her went through the script and took out the majority of the bad stuff. They wouldn’t have allowed us to be there if they knew it was about hooliganism. But Lexi’s charm talked them into it – it was a miracle we were able to shoot there.”
‘My response was, ‘He’d be fucking great.” But clearly the Americans don’t do sarcasm…’
Auditions took place in America and England with Des Hamilton, the casting director, and Alexander overseeing them. The main cast were Hunnam, Gregory, Warren, Claire Forlani, McCall and Geoff Bell. But when Brimson was informed of who Alexander had in mind for the lead role of Matt, he was initially concerned.
“I was in north London, I got a phone call and the person said, ‘What do you think of Elijah Wood?’. I said, ‘For what?’ and it was the role of Matt. My response was, ‘He’d be fucking great.’ But clearly the Americans didn’t do sarcasm because I was being sarcastic. Then I get a phone call to say, ‘Elijah is going to play Matt.” I thought, ‘Oh, shit.’ Because he played the role of a Hobbit in Lord of the Rings, I was worried we’d get nothing but Hobbit jokes.
Alexander recalls the moment she met Wood, how McCall’s audition left her speechless and why she was keen to have Hunnam on board.
“Elijah was one of 10 guys that I met and he and the others were all famous,” she says. “It was a role that a lot of guys wanted. Elijah was so recognizable from The Lord of the Rings and I remember we were near Soho recording and this woman went crazy because she got to meet him. She was like, ‘Holy shit, what are you doing here?’ That’s how big he was. We had to rush him away.
“To this day, Ross’ interview still impresses me. He spat a chewing gum at the casting director and normally that isn’t cool at all. But it was so authentic and it came about because they were both swearing at one another. I was shocked but it’s one of the best auditions I’ve seen. Ross would’ve got a bigger role in the film if I’d met him earlier.
“I can laugh about it now but nobody knew Charlie at the time. He was only in Queer as Folk and Nicholas Nickleby. So people didn’t understand why I wanted to cast Charlie as Pete but I kept telling them it will work. It was more important for his character to be likable than a tough, hard man. Although Charlie can beat people up, there had to be an attachment to the audience. Charlie was cast in Sons of Anarchy because of his role in Green Street.”
McCall, who was in Band of Brothers, thinks Wood joining the cast was a turning point. Wood’s character, Matt, is a wrongfully expelled Harvard journalism student who moves to London, where he is exposed to the world of football hooliganism.
“I got a call from my agent about Green Street but the film was initially called The Yank,” he says. “I remember reading this book about an American undercover journalist so it was quite similar to the script. But in all honesty, I was initially lukewarm about the script and now it’s a cult classic. I went to the studio to meet the casting director, Des Hamilton and we’re big Celtic fans so we had something in common.
“Then I met Lexi and I remember being told that Elijah and Charlie are involved. I knew the dangers of us doing the film and glorifying hooliganism but Elijah was a big catch. During my audition, I remember doing something that could’ve gone one way or the other. It was loosely based on improvisation and Des and I would throw insults at each other. I was chewing gum in my audition, which is a big no-no for an actor. Des wound me up so I just spat my gum in his face, which is horrible. But that’s the moment Lexi told me, ‘Yep, you’re definitely part of the cast.’
Gregory and Hunnam formed a close bond before and after filming Green Street.
“The director flew me out to America so I could hang out with Charlie,” Gregory says. “The reason behind it was I was someone who went to football a lot, so I had to impart that knowledge to Charlie. He spoke in a cockney accent and credit to him for giving it a go. When we came back from Los Angeles, we got a place in London and most of the cast was sorted by that point. I’m a massive Tottenham fan so me being in Green Street helped me pay for my season ticket. We had no idea it was going to be a cult film when we made it. The funniest thing is, there’s a team in Tunisia that has a massive mural of me because I was in Green Street. That blows my mind.”
But it was not just famous actors who were considered as members of the cast. Young members of the West Ham academy – including Dan Potts (now at Luton Town), Jack Powell ( currently at Crewe Alexandra), Billy Knott ( ex-Chelsea and Bradford City) and Blair Turgott (formerly of Coventry and Leyton Orient) – all feature in the film.
Del Prete adds: “Sometimes we had hooligans on set who were often there for our protection. We were shooting outside one of the London Underground stations and there was a huge set-up. I was in a monitor and me and Lexi were 20 or 30 feet from each other.
“Some guy, who looked like a businessman, decided he was annoyed that part of the road was shut off and started to hit one of the PAs with his umbrella. Lexi just transformed into Wonder Woman and leaped towards that guy to scare him off and protect the PA. Then all the hooligans on set came running in to protect her.”
‘They’re selling tickets outside because the guy at the door keeps saying the actor from Green Street is here’
Green Street won several awards, including Best Feature at the LA Femme Film Festival and the Special Jury Award and Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival, both in 2005.
“I still get so much love from people because I made this film,” says Alexander. “I would be somewhere speaking about a completely different film and some kid aged around 18 to 25 will get up and shout, ‘I love Green Street!’ And that happens constantly. The college kids want me to come and talk about that movie and it’s just wild how popular this film is. It also made way more money on DVD than in the theatre.
“I’ve experienced so many special memories since making this film. I was at a Starbucks in America and you have to give them your name. I was waiting for my order and they shouted, ‘Lexi, your Grande Mocha is ready.’ This guy turned to me and said, ‘Are you Lexi Alexander from Green Street Hooligans?’ I told him, ‘Well, it depends on how much you like the movie.’ But the craziest thing is it was like 7.30am and nowhere near the Hollywood area where the industry people are. I couldn’t stop laughing. He ended up telling me he’s a lawyer and Green Street is one of his favorite movies.
“Someone randomly messaged me on Twitter about an engaged couple from London that have three kids. He’s a football coach and she’s a creative writer. They said on their first date, they asked each other what their favorite film is and they both said Green Street. That’s when they knew they were meant to be together. It was so cute and jokingly I said, ‘I should send you something from the movie for your wedding’. Then they said, ‘We’d love to have you as a guest instead.’ I plan on attending.
“So it’s nice moments like that and I’m a huge West Ham fan now. I go to games whenever I’m in London and I always wear my shirt and my scarf.”
In an interview with The Athletic, golfer Billy Horschel spoke about his love for the film and how he is now friends with the likes of Mark Noble and Declan Rice. “I was in my sophomore year in college and moved into a new apartment,” he said. “The cable hadn’t been set up yet so I bought some DVDs and somehow Green Street was one. I watched it and was addicted – and became a massive West Ham fan. I’ve watched it over 30 times.”
Fabian Balbuena: ‘I know it’s about hooliganism but watching Green Street helped me settle in and learn English.’ Balbuena, who played for West Ham from 2018-21, has a similar story.
“I wasn’t nervous about moving to England but I only knew a little bit about West Ham, he said. “I knew that (fellow South Americans) Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano played for them. But what a lot of people don’t know is I watched the movie Green Street. I know it’s about hooliganism, but that movie helped my English. Then, after I was able to say hello and ask a few things, the club arranged my English lessons.”
For Brimson, the film has a personal attachment. “I remember asking Leo if he gets bored of being recognized. He said, ‘They still remember me 18 years later; why the hell would I get bored?’ I’ve watched Green Street a few times and the boy who gets killed in the terraces is my son, who is now 22 and the girl Elijah chats up in the bar is my daughter.”
“I just got back from Europe and I was stopped for Green Street constantly,” says McCall. “I’m known for other things but I still get recognized for being in Greet Street. I was in Thailand six years ago with a friend. We’re in a bar one night and it’s quiet, then all of sudden more and more people started coming in. You always know when people have an eye on you because they know you from something. This young lady comes over and says, ‘They’re selling tickets outside because the guy at the door keeps saying the actor from Green Street is here.’
“I was like, ‘Wow, this bar is earning money out of me.’ That entire trip was so funny because I’d walk down a road and all the lads from Europe would want a picture with me. Now it’s crazy that, 18 years later, I’m still recognized from it. I can’t go into a pub in the UK without people saying, ‘You’re the guy from Green Street.’ Last week, I was in Holland in a sushi restaurant and someone recognized me. There are fans of that film all over the place.”
Similar to Alexander, Del Prete has developed a special bond for West Ham.
“Green Street is honestly my favorite film,” she says. “We had so much fun making it. The cast was fun to work with and I knew almost straightaway we had something special. A year hasn’t gone by where I haven’t been asked about Green Street. College kids in America love that film and that’s where a lot of our fans came from.
“Now I have a deep emotional attachment to West Ham. I didn’t know much about soccer until that film. Now if a game is on I won’t watch it unless it’s West Ham. Right now, somewhere in the world, someone is watching Green Street; a film I played an important role in. That to me is the best feeling.”