David Mackenzie interview: Starred Up, Rupert Friend, Journey Into Space

The director of Starred Up takes us through the release of the film, and adapting Journey Into Space...

An indie movie that broke out earlier this year was David Mackenzie’s extraordinary prison drama Starred Up. Powered by a superb performance from Jack O’Connell, it’s a brutal, unflinching look at the prison system, albeit with human light shone in there. As it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray, director David Mackenzie spared us some time to look back at the movie, and what he was looking to achieve with it…

Going back to the cinema release of Starred Up. You got strong reviews, and a relatively wide release. Given the subject matter of the film, it seemed like your distributor backed it quite hard.

When you started it, you can’t really have envisaged it’d be a huge commercial project. But Starred Up ended up with a relatively high profile.

I was really happy with the release of the film, and the way that Fox Searchlight put the profile out there. That the film did reach into areas, and got the crossover effect that we wanted. There was a pretty wide audience for it, and there seemed to be a positive response, particularly from young people.

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I was away for half of it, in the United States, but what I got from it was great, and I felt very happy with the way it was put out into the world. When you make a movie, you don’t know how it’ll turn out, you can only guess. You don’t have any understanding or expectations of the release, at least not on an indie scale. It’s not a pre-marketed studio film. It was a made very quickly indie movie that was picked up by Fox Searchlight and they did a really good job of bringing it to the audience. I hope the DVD will widen the audience. A lot of people said to me that they’d heard great things about the film, but didn’t have time to see it! Hopefully the DVD will open that up.

What was as interesting was where it played. That it was inner-city multiplexes where it was doing a great deal of its business. Do you think the casting of Jack O’Connell helped get that to a younger audience? That it was a welcome by-product?

In my career, I’ve never made a film thinking anything as cynically as that in terms of what to do with the cast. I cast Jack because he felt like he was the right guy for the job, and it seems like Jack’s career has taken off. I think the casting of him in [Angelina Jolie’s] Unbroken came as a direct result of seeing bits of him in Starred Up. He’s a great young actor, and he really through himself at the role. He really understood the character. It’s a great performance.

I kind of knew that was going to happen. We agreed that was what we were aiming for, and it was great when it came together. I don’t know whether the success is related to Jack, or related to the film and what Jack did in it.

I wasn’t implying cynicism, to be clear.

[Laughs] But obviously, in the world of making movies, you can set up things with an aim of hitting an audience. You can target things, and you can push things in certain directions. But that wasn’t what we did with this film. The script was a very, very honest script, about a teenager who’s a troubled person going to an adult jail. The casting of Jack was about finding someone who could give the authenticity to the role, not a marketing thing!

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Looking into the history of prison movies, Scum is an obvious stand-out, not least because it had a subsequent impact on legislation in the UK. A month or two before the release of Starred Up, figures were published showing that the suicide rate in UK prisons is at an all-time high. When you make film like Starred Up, do you hope it has a broader, legal ramification?

It’s a hard one, because the film is trying to shine a light into some realities within the prison system. I don’t think it’s specifically aiming to crusade or to change anything in particular. It’s showing something about the system. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some ramificiations there. Regularly there are headlines about the prison system being broken in all sorts of ways, particularly with young offenders and suicides. They’re definitely on the agenda. But the film itself is not particularly targeting any particular change.

The character that I wasn’t expecting so much from in the film was that of Oliver, played by Rupert Friend. It’s a great performance, and the way you peel back on the so-called ‘do-gooder’, without giving anything away, is really something. How much of that character was as fleshed out when you read the screenplay for the first time, because the film could conceivably exist with the focus on the main two leads alone?

The most important thing to say about Rupert’s character is that he’s a facsimile in many ways of Jonathan Asser, the writer. Who himself is a prison therapist who has pioneered a lot of the techniques that are used in the film. And so Rupert had to relate to Jonathan, who was there on the set. To work out how to turn the character as written into something. Jonathan himself is an anti-stereotype figure in many ways, and it’s a juggle between Rupert’s intelligence as an actor, my desire to push away from stereotypes, and Jonathan as both a writer and a model for the character.

I think what that character does, and the group scenes, for all their dynamics, they are the conduit of hope in what could be a fairly bleak picture. It’s really important that we got that write, and they were among my favourite scenes in the movie to shoot and to be part of.

To put three dimensions on the person who voluntarily goes into the prison enviroment with the intention of doing something good is not common.

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It’s very hard, because you don’t want to paint the stereotypical picture of the do-gooder. The social worker in prison… it’s quite hard to play that, and walk the line on it, and I think what Rupert did is very strong.

I’ve read about the slightly unusual way that you filmed this. That you didn’t use clapperboards, that you edited five hours behind the actually shooting, and that you shot the film sequentially. Is a consequence of that, as a filmmaker, that things stick out a lot earlier, that you wouldn’t otherwise get to until the editing room?

Yes. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is amazing about it. But you’re much closer to the end result, you’re closer to the process, and you’re in touch with what’s going on in a way you’re not normally with movies. Movies tend to be dislocated and non-linear in their process. You’re guessing a lot more things, and you’re having to consume energy guessing, and you’re not certain. There’s something about being so in touch with that process and in tune with the evolution of the film that I just thought was incredible in terms of allowing to know where we were.

One other unusual step: it didn’t seem to matter that I couldn’t hear all the dialogue. That there were moments were the exact words mattered less than the ferocity of their delivery? Can you explain why you went that way?

[Laughs] Well, it’s a real challenge. Within the prison system there’s a lot slang, a lexicon of words that are used. The script when it first came to us had a lot more obscure language in there, and it was a juggle about how to keep the authenticity of that alive, but not to make it alienating. It was a juggle that was going on to the last minute.

I was always of the strong feeling that you don’t need to follow every word. That when you physicalise the words, you get a real strong sense of what they mean, even if you don’t understand them. I like the idea of the audience absorbing the language, and getting to understand it as they journey through the film. It starts off being more obscure, but you get used to it. A Clockwork Orange thing. I read Clockwork Orange without any vocabulary and I got to understand the words as I went through it. I like that process. It immerses you. You have to do a little bit of work.

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But one of the hard things in a way is to let go of understanding everything. Some people want to know what every word means. But you don’t need to. You’re not missing everything out if you don’t get one slang word.  Jack’s character doesn’t know half the words himself at the start, and it’s about getting into that world. It was one of the challenges of the process to work out how far down the line that language we would be allowed to go before it became impenetrable.

Before we run out of time, can I ask how Journey Into Space is coming along? Last I heard, you were leaning towards a TV, rather than film adaptation?

It’s coming along, but I’ve got a 200 page script for a feature film! It’s 100 years in space, five generations, insane things happening, each generation rebelling against the last. I’m having to spend a lot of screen energy dealing with passage of time issues, which is doing my head in! I’m excited by the project, but I’m been confronted by the challenges… I don’t want to do an epic four parter. I want to do it in the one thing, because I think that’s the trick of it. But watch this space, and I will do it. It’ll be an extraordinary movie! [laughs]

There’s one other project I wanted to check in on too. A few years ago you mentioned in an interview that you were developing a western. There are lots of interesting non-American westerns at the moment – Calvary being one of them – but is yours a more traditional one? And is it still a live project?

It was an American western, and I don’t know whether it’s still active. I started it for Film 4, I didn’t finish it for Film 4, and Film 4 haven’t been knocking on my door about it! It’s not so active for me at the moment, but if they were happy for me to dive in there, I probably would!

David Mackenzie, thank you very much!

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