Dan Turner interview: The Man Inside, making a British film and snobbery

Writer/director Dan Turner talks about The Man Inside, Michelle Ryan, Peter Mullan, and why you shouldn’t hold Neighbours against Guy Pearce…

Arriving into UK multiplexes that are still full of superheroes and animated movies, The Man Inside is getting a small release by the standards of a blockbuster, but it’s a real achievement to get a British movie of this ilk on the big screen at all.

We chatted to the man responsible, writer/director Dan Turner, about how it came to be…

Where did the film come from? This comes across as a really quite personal piece of work?

The truth is that the main character is based on my best friend, and the character of Danny in the film largely represents me. We have known each other over 20 years, and over that time I’ve watched my friend overcome so much adversity and personal struggle in his family life that I wanted to write something that celebrated that triumph over adversity.

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It’s essentially a nature versus nurture story that looks at a simple question, “what is evil?” And, from that, “can someone be made evil?” The boxing element represents a positive avenue for the lead character to retreat into, but ultimately it’s somewhere he can go to release himself. The question is, how far?

I wrote the first draft in ten days! The fastest I’ve ever written anything, and then from that I developed it over two years until it became what it is now. But looking back at the early draft much remains the same.

It was John Hughes, I think, who was able to turn around screenplays even quicker than that. But then presumably the shaping of it, particularly in this case, was particularly tricky. How detached were you able to become?

I think subconsciously you pour stuff in, but the characters become individuals who take life and speak for themselves. I certainly never shoehorned in specific dialogue or situations that were based directly on reality. Instead it shaped and directed the characters.

How involved was your best friend?

I guess I could credit him with development after many years where we chatted about his and my own life! But aside from telling him what I was embarking on and showing it to him, I was independent.

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Screening the film to him was a very emotional experience. He was very moved.

How much do you disguise the parts that very much reflect you and your life? How does a filmmaker protect their own privacy, whilst injecting the film with genuine life?

That’s a very interesting question. So far in interviews I’ve always had to pause and decide how much I’m prepared to reveal. I think if you look at what happens to the character of Danny in the film you can see what I have personally brought to it, but there are other elements of the film I’m not directly referencing in any interviews as it really is too close to home.

I think the actors could all see how deeply this stuff ran in me, and subsequently they responded to that.

As a writer, presumably that’s a strong position to be in, that you’re so close to the material in that way. But the director’s role is very different, and almost dispassionate on some elements? How do you deal with key decisions on such personal moments?

Trust the material. You have to use the script as the starting point and adhere to its rules. It would be foolish to disregard two years of crafting on a directorial whim! The film is very layered and deals with multiple family characters so it’s still important to stick to the plan, and the script is the template.

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As the director on this film I had spent a lot of time with the DP [director of photography] Rich Swingle on developing the look of the film in the months leading to the actual shoot. But the shoot itself was all about the drama and working with the actors. That way I was always focused on those key decisions.

What was the key moment where this one came together? Peter Mullan’s interest and inclusion must have helped?

Having Peter onboard did make a big difference. it gives investors confidence, but I think the whole cast together was quite a compelling reason.

Personally, I think it’s a shame it’s come down to attaching names to scripts to get things made. But I have to accept that’s part of independent filmmaking nowadays.

Do you find that actors appreciate that, and are amenable to independent filmmakers? Did you find any who just wouldn’t even go near the screenplay?

I would say that everyone we approached responded to the script. To be honest, the key thing that convinced all the actors was the biographical side to it.

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As soon as actors know they have a director who is directing from the heart and not stuck behind a monitor, the project becomes interesting.

Was this always going to be a film you directed? Do you find it harder being a writer-director?

I had to direct this. No one else could. It’s too personal. Another director would have brought a different perspective and it would no longer be the story I wanted to tell.

I decided that once the script was complete and fully edited I would stop reading it, and I actually never once looked at it on-set. I confess I was nervous about this approach until Peter Mullan revealed he does exactly the same thing.

The script represents the blueprint of a scene, but once you start rehearsing you have to let the truth come from the scene. There was a time I would scoff at that kind of talk, but you honestly have to trust in your cast and yourself and give yourself the freedom to take every scene off the page and take it to another level.

When there are so many financiers involved, how hard is to get a coherent agreement on a final cut? Are you left to it, or are you balancing the views of many?

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It’s important to say that this was always going to be a difficult film to hand over to other people and get their say. However, I was lucky to be given a set of very thoughtful and intelligent notes that sought to improve the film and not undo it.

Of course there are a few scenes I’d like to be longer, but I challenge you to find a director who wouldn’t say that!

Michelle Ryan gives a performance here that’s going to surprise a lot of people, I think. Can you take us through how you went about directing her, and what made you think of her in the first place?

The thing is, and this annoys me, people will prejudge Michelle before they even see her. In the same way people will already like Peter Mullan and respect him, they will bring negative baggage to Michelle.

Firstly, Michelle is the dream actress. She’s committed, willing to go anywhere with her director, and utterly devoted to the part she’s playing. Her preparation and approach is fastidious and she feels every line. Secondly, I don’t understand why people need to knock actors who were in soaps. It’s a snobbery that I detest. Shows like Eastenders are incredible for the work they turn around week-in-week-out and they have given rise to some amazing talent.

Do we hold it against Guy Pearce that he’s in Neighbours? No. Why should we? I chose Michelle because she blew me away when I met her. Simple.

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It’s not just snobbery in her case though, is it? She’s veered towards commercial work, yet The Man Inside is a more intense, more personal, less mainstream film. I think that’s part of the surprise. It came across to me like – appreciating this is a cliche and a half – the right challenge at the right time?

I think Michelle had begun taking steps with roles like the one in Cleanskin, but Michelle is very versatile. People will see a very different side to her in this, and then again in Cockneys Vs Zombies, and then entirely differently again on the stage in Cabaret.

Was it important to you to film The Man Inside in the Newcastle area? Did you get local support?

I always wanted the film to escape the council estate vibe that’s become the identity of a lot of contemporary British films. My personal taste is a film like The Godfather, and as such, I wanted that grand operatic feel for The Man Inside.

Newcastle provided the most extraordinary backdrops, and the crews in the North East are wonderful too. I recommend anyone to go up there to make a movie. It’s such a versatile landscape for movie making.

When it comes to the release, your film is coming out the week after The Dark Knight Rises and on the same day as The Lorax. Is that deliberate counter-programming?

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You’d have to ask someone better qualified than me for that one! It certainly doesn’t make it easy getting on to screens that’s for sure!

I hope that people find the film and I hope it provides a welcome respite from the onslaught of prequels, reboots, remakes and sequels!

What are your hopes for the film from this point on?

I really hope a younger audience responds to the film and take something from the positive message I’m trying to put across. I’m not trying to bang the morality drum here but I do feel strongly about creating positivity, and holding up a magnifying glass to knife crime and showing it for what it is – futile.

How do you get a film like this to a young audience though? The BBFC, for instance, don’t seem to have done you too many favours?

I think a 15 certificate is fair. It’s a very adult film with adult themes, but I do think it’s important for that age group to find the film if they can. Ashley [‘Bashy’ Thomas] gives such a truthful performance that it will resonate with so many teens who look up to someone like him.

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What future projects can you talk about?

I have about three feature film projects currently on the go and two theatre projects. One of the films I’m very excited about, as it takes the idea of what I’m doing in The Man Inside to another level. It’s been written by another writer I work regularly with and we are looking to shoot it next year. It has the potential to be a real event film, which I don’t think Britain is producing right now.

Dan Turner, thank you very much.

The Man Inside is out in UK cinemas today. You can read our review here.

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