Green Street is a film that American golfer Billy Horschel has watched more than 30 times.
It’s a film that helped former West Ham United defender Fabian Balbuena learn English, a film that helped ex-striker Enner Valencia settle down and a film that, 18 years after its release , remains a cult classic.
Directed by Lexi Alexander, the film starred Lord of the Rings’ Elijah Wood, Charlie Hunnam, who later appeared in Sons of Anarchy, and established British actors Ross McCall and Marc Warren. The film took 27 days to shoot, with a budget of £3.5 million.
This is the story of Green Street. On how the story of West Ham and Millwall’s rivalry was inspired by two lower league clubs in Germany, why there were initial fears about Wood’s casting and why one cast member has a mural in a Tunisian football club.
“I always wanted to make a film like Green Street because I grew up in a business”
Dougie Brimson, one of the script’s writers, remembers his first meeting with Alexander. She had been nominated for an Oscar for her short film about American boxer Johnny Flynton, released in 2002. But Alexander wanted to make a film based on her experiences.
“Someone contacted a woman who wanted to make a film about football hooliganism,” he says. “I finally contacted Lexi and said, ‘I’m interested in helping.’ I flew to Hollywood, stayed there for a little over a week, and we had a basic script.
“I am continually amazed at how much interest in Green Street persists. When I hang out with Leo Gregory (who played Bovver), people always ask him for photos. Leo will say, “Guys, this is the guy who wrote the movie.” Then they’ll say, “Oh, can you take a picture of me and Bovver please.” Nobody gives a damn about me. It’s weird.
Alexander, Brimson, Josh Shelov and Deborah Del Prete all played important roles in structuring the storyline. Green Street is in the borough of Newham, home to West Ham’s old stadium, the Boleyn Ground – and it was Alexander’s idea to base the film on the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall.
The rivalry between the two clubs is a long-standing one, dating back to when the clubs were called Millwall Athletic and Thames Ironworks. Their rivalry is entrenched in British football largely because of the animosity between the clubs’ hooligan companies, the Inter City Firm (ICF) and the Millwall Bushwackers.
“For the film, I researched 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 will never win the Premier League but they still dream of it. Waldhof Mannheim used to be in the second division, now it’s this village church team that no one knows. But we had a rivalry fierce 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 “Holy shit.” It was exploding. So why I wanted to highlight the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall.
“I always wanted to make a film like Green Street because I grew up in a company in Germany. My brother dragged me, and since I was a girl, no one wanted to fight me. In these groups you can’t win by fighting a girl because you get slapped by the company or because you are embarrassed by a girl beating you. I wanted to run with the company and I had so much adrenaline. It doesn’t matter where the company is, whether it’s British, Dutch, French – except American because they don’t do that sort of thing – but when it comes to hooligan companies, they all have the same mentality.
Alexander (middle) on set (Photo provided by Lexi Alexander)
“The company I worked for wanted me to take photos so we could develop them. On Saturdays I would go to the pub and show everyone the pictures of our fights and it would be a big party. If I captured someone in the company getting punched, then everyone would start picking on that person. It was a lot of fun but there were times when it wasn’t enjoyable. There were times when it got super dangerous and that’s when I started to back away. I remember we were attacked by a company that surprised us on the highway on our way to a game. We had several cars and they were on a bus and they checked us, smashed all the windows and broke all the windows.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I can’t do this forever.’ When it wasn’t bad, when it was just me standing on a ledge taking pictures of the guys, it was fun. Being in a business is like being in a family when you don’t have one. One of the toughest guys in our company was a social worker. Then we had another hard man who could have been a lawyer. It was far from working-class. Mainly people who first met through football and then shared a fighting bond afterwards.
Del Prete, a film producer, was a screenwriter for Green Street, but she was shocked when she read the initial script.
“Dougie wrote an early version of the film but the film you all see was written by Lexi,» Del Prete said. “I read that script and I swear, all I thought was, “Wow, there are gangs around football?
“Here’s the funny part, I owned a building in Los Angeles called the Coronet Theater. At the bottom of the base were a few shops, a bar and a hairdresser. I always used to get my hair done there by a Brit. I read the script while he was doing my hair and he looked over my shoulder and said, “Deb, look at this.” He rolled up his sleeve and got a tattoo of West Ham’s ‘irons’. I thought, “Oh my God, this must be a sign.” I asked him lots of questions about West Ham and we still talk about it.»
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film was largely due to Shelov.
“I was hoping to break into Hollywood and become a screenwriter and I had been trying for 10 years.» said Chelov. “I was so close to giving up and getting a real job, and then a good friend of mine, Alex, told me about this movie called Green Street and was given the initial script by Dougie. They wanted to improve the script from a story perspective and Alex asked me if I would take a look at it. I read it and there were a lot of good things, but I thought it was important that the character Charlie Hunnam (Pete Dunham, who runs West Ham’s Green Street Elite company) died at the end. This is a big part of why the film had such an impact on people.
“I talked to Lexi, made some changes, the script was passed to the actors and it changed my life a lot. Then I was told that Elijah liked the script and I ended up working in Hollywood. I was renting a small 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. It was an incredible feeling. It’s the pinnacle of my career and it’s the thing people recognize me for the most.»
In March 2004, Wood and his co-stars surprised West Ham fans in the lower level of the Bobby Moore Stand when they attended their Championship match against Gillingham. The club granted access to the film crew thanks to a compelling sales pitch from Alexander, Del Prete recalls.
Wood, middle, with the cast at a West Ham match in 2004 (Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
“The funny thing is how Lexi convinced West Ham to let us shoot the film at Upton Park,” She said. “We gave them a stripped down version of the script. She and I went through the script and eliminated the majority of the bad things. They would not have allowed us to be there if they had known it was hooliganism. But Lexi’s charm convinced them: it was a miracle that we were able to film there.»
‘My response was: ‘It would be really great‘. But it is clear that the Americans did not use sarcasm…”
Auditions were held in America and England under the supervision of Des Hamilton, the casting director, and Alexander. The main actors were Hunnam, Gregory, Warren, Claire Forlani, McCall and Geoff Bell.
But when Brimson learned who Alexander had in mind for the lead role of Matt, he was initially worried.
“I was in north London and 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 would be really great.” But clearly the Americans didn’t do the sarcasm because I was being sarcastic. Then I get a phone call saying, ” Elijah’s going to play Matt.’ I thought, ‘Oh, shit.’ Because he had played the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings, I was afraid we’d just have Hobbit jokes.»
The filming of The Green Street in London (Photo provided by Lexi Alexander)
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 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 Lord of the Rings and I remember we were near Soho recording and this woman went crazy because she got to meet him. She said to me, “Holy shit, what are you doing here?” That’s how big he was. We had to move him away urgently.
“To this day, Ross’ interview still impresses me. He spit gum at the casting director and normally that’s not cool at all. But it was so genuine and it happened because they were both swearing at each other. I was shocked but it was one of the best auditions I’ve seen. Ross would have had a bigger role in the film if I had met him earlier.
“I can laugh about it now but no one knew Charlie then. He was only in Queer as Folk and Nicholas Nickleby. So people didn’t understand why I wanted Charlie to play Pete, but I kept telling them it would work. It was more important that his character be likable than a tough, tough man. Even though 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 wrongly expelled Harvard journalism student who moves to London, where he is exposed to the world of soccer hooliganism.
“I got a call from my agent about Green Street but the movie was originally called The Yank,» he says. “I remember reading this book about an American undercover reporter, so it was quite similar to the storyline. But in all honesty, I was initially lukewarm about the storyline 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 were involved. I knew the dangers of making this film and glorifying hooliganism, but Elijah was a big catch. During my audition, I remember doing something that could have gone either way. It was loosely based on improvisation and Des and I would insult each other. I was chewing gum during my audition, which is a big no-no for an actor. Des hurt my feelings so I just spit my gum in his face, which is horrible. But that’s when Lexi said to me, “Yes, you’re definitely part of the cast.”»
Gregory and Hunnam formed a close bond before and after filming Green Street.
Wood, Alexander and Hunnam at the New York premiere of Green Street (Thos Robinson/Getty Images)
“The director took me to America so I could spend time with Charlie,» » said Gregory. “The reason behind it was that I was someone who went to football a lot, so I had to pass that knowledge on to Charlie. He spoke with a cockney accent and he gave him credit for trying. When we came back from LA, found a place in London and most of the cast was already sorted. I’m a huge Tottenham fan so being at Green Street helped pay for my season ticket. didn’t know it would be a cult film when we made it. The funny thing is there’s a team in Tunisia that has a huge mural of me because I was in the street Green. That amazes me.»
But it wasn’t just famous actors who were considered cast members.
West Ham’s young academy members – 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 filming outside one of the London Underground stations and there was a huge installation. I was in a monitor and Lexi and I were 20 or 30 feet apart.
“One guy, who looked like a businessman, decided he was annoyed that part of the road was closed and started hitting one of the attendants with his umbrella. Lexi just transformed into Wonder Woman and rushed towards this guy to scare him and protect the PA. Then all the thugs on set came running to protect her.»
“They’re selling tickets outside because the guy at the door keeps saying the Green Street actor is there”
Green Street has won several awards, including Best Feature Film at the LA Femme Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award at the SXSW Film Festival, both in 2005.
“I still get so much love from people because I made this film,” Alexander says. “I’d be somewhere talking about a completely different movie and some kid around 18 to 25 years old would stand up and shout, ‘I love Green Street!’ And it happens constantly. Students want me to come talk about this movie and it’s just crazy how popular this movie is. It also made significantly more money on DVD than it did in the theater.
“I have experienced so many special memories since filming this film. I was in a Starbucks in America and you have to tell them your name. I was waiting for my order and they shouted, “Lexi, your Grande Moka 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 crazy thing was that it was around 7:30 in the morning and far from the Hollywood area where the industry people are. I couldn’t stop laughing. He ended up telling me that he’s a lawyer and that Green Street is one of his favorite movies.
The cast of The Green Street on set (Photo provided by Lexi Alexander)
“Someone randomly messaged me on Twitter about an engaged couple from London who have three kids. He’s a soccer coach and she’s a creative writer. They said that on their first date , they asked each other what their favorite movie was and they both said Green Street. That’s when they realized they were meant to be together. It was so cute and joking, 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 to attend.
“So it’s nice times like that and I’m a big West Ham fan now. I go to matches whenever I’m in London and I always wear my shirt and scarf.
In an interview with Athleticism, golfer Horschel spoke about his love for the film and how he’s now friends with Mark Noble and Declan Rice: “I was a sophomore at college and I moved into a new apartment,” did he declare. “The cable hadn’t been installed yet, so I bought some DVDs and somehow Green Street was on them. I watched it and I was hooked – and I became a huge West Ham fan. I have watched it over 30 times.
Billy Horschel: ‘I’m lucky to have Mark Noble as a companion – he lifted me up at my lowest moment’
Balbuena, who played for West Ham from 2018 to 2021, has a similar story.
“I wasn’t nervous about moving to England but I knew very little about West Ham,” he said. “I knew (fellow South Americans) Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano played for them. But what many people don’t know is that I watched the movie Green Street. I know it’s about hooliganism, but that movie helped my English. Then after I was able say hello and ask a few questions, the club organized my English lessons.
Fabian Balbuena: “I know it’s about hooliganism, but watching Green Street helped me settle in and learn English”
For Brimson, the film has a personal connection. “I remember asking Leo if he missed being recognized. He said, ‘They still remember me 18 years later, why the hell bother me?‘. I have watched Green Street several times andThe boy who gets killed on the terraces is my son, who is now 22, and the girl Elijah is talking to at the bar is my daughter.
“I just came back from Europe and I was constantly being stopped on Green Street,” McCall said. “I’m known for other things, but I’m always known for being on Greet Street. I was in Thailand six years ago with a friend. We’re at a bar one night and it’s quiet, then all of a sudden more and more people started coming in. You always know when people are checking you out because they know you from something. This young lady comes in 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 making me money.’ This whole trip was so funny because I was walking down a road and all the guys in Europe wanted a photo with me. Now it’s crazy that 18 years later I’m still recognized for it. I can’t walk into a pub in the UK without people saying: ‘You’re the guy from Green Street’. Last week I was in Holland at a sushi restaurant and someone recognized me. There are fans of this film everywhere.
Similar to Alexander, Del Prete has developed a special bond with West Ham.
“Green Street is honestly my favorite movie,” she says. “We had so much fun making it. The cast was fun to work with and I knew almost right away that we had something special. Not a year went by without people asking me about Green Street. American students love this movie and that’s where a lot of our fans come from.
“Now I have a deep emotional attachment to West Ham. I didn’t know much about football before this film. Now if a match 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 in which I played an important role. It’s the best feeling for me.
(Photos: Getty images; design: Sam Richardson)