Mick Jackson has lived through several chapters of his directorial career. His background was television, in particular the stunning Threads, and his classy adaptation of Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup. Then he went to Hollywood, directing the likes of L.A. Story, The Bodyguard and Volcano.
He’s been away from cinema for a while, courtesy of some intriguing television projects. But he returns to the big screen this weekend with Denial, a classy courtroom drama that brings the story of Holocaust denier David Irving’s infamous libel action to the cinema. We snagged a chat with him ahead of its release, with the promise of further conversation about his 90s output at a later date too.
Can you talk us through this particular film, and why you wanted to bring it to the big screen?
For many years I’ve been abandoning the big screen for better material on TV, like a lot of feature directors in the US! Thinking that these are more relevant subjects, the approach is more thoughtful and exciting than the scripts I’d been sent from the studios. A number of movies I did for television. They’ve not made it to the big screen, yet nonetheless have been well received. The last one I did was Temple Grandin with Claire Danes for HBO. I’ve done a number of movies for HBO.
I don’t really make a distinction between big screen and small screen. John Frankenheimer once memorably said, you’ve got a crew of 200 people, you’ve got a camera, it’s the same experience. You do your best, and where it ends up is something different.
Bruce Beresford, who of course won a best director Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy, wrote a really interesting book in the mid-2000s, a diary of a year in his life. He effectively made the point in that that if you want to carry on making films for cinema release, you have to cede to the system a little too much. He ended up in eastern Europe by the end of that, making a film that by the sounds of it he didn’t really want to make. Were you consciously hunting for a different medium for the stories you wanted to tell?
No. Quite the reverse. I wanted to keep working, and to keep exercising my skills in whatever medium wanted them. And to work with good material. I did a run of things: Life Of Baghdad, The McMartin Trial, Temple Grandin for HBO, because that was a really good place to work.
It’s rare that you get good notes from a studio. You have to swallow hard to get them down, but the notes invariably from somewhere like Showtime or HBO were good notes. Things you needed to think about and you thought actually, I’d hate to do that as I’m already half way through constructing, but that is a very good note. I’m going to take that.
When it comes to this movie, Denial, I’ve read a few pieces that suggested the film could equally work as a stage or television piece. But I looked at it and thought that it’s only really film that’s got the patience for what you’re trying to do. That TV, for instance, would need something punchy and attention-grabbing up front. That it has to be fast, else you channel surf. Was patience pivotal to you here?
I think some find the film very slow, and others find it very fast. I think it’s to do with how much you’re willing to take in information and let things settle. Certainly it’s a film that could have been very, very different if it’d been done by the regular patterns of Hollywood movies. If you take as the model, Mr Smith Goes To Washington or Erin Brockovich. You take a principle character, whether male or female, and they are initially just an anonymous voice in the crowd with no particular point of view. Then circumstances thrust them into a situation where they have to ride an outrage or injustice, and through the movie, classically, they become a different person. By the end, they have an articulate voice, and you get a wonderful speech in the third act. Everybody leaves thinking that was good, that was catharsis, wasn’t it?
This is a different story [to ours], and if you choose – as David Hare [screenwriter] and I did – to hue to the truth as rigorously as you possibly can, you see this as not that story.
This is one about a protagonist who starts being that wonderfully empowered person, very good at expressing herself and not holding back. Then you reduce her to silence, and that’s quite the opposite of the normal routine. You have to make that silence into something positive. In this movie we had the idea of making her silence a brave act, an act of self-denial. The other character, David Irving, is essentially perverting the truth, denying the truth to serve himself and his own ideological beliefs. She is forced into a position where she has to deny herself over everything she wants to do. Like stand up and confront Irving in the court room. All to confront the truth.
In that is a reconciliation between her and her passion. Her emotion, her commitment, her dedication, and the logic of her lawyers, particularly the Tom Wilkinson character, Richard Rampton. She thinks him initially as a cold fish, and not only that, but antipathetical to what it is she’s feeling. She midjudges him. And in that moment of reconciliation there is a kind of emotional catharsis, but it’s very small.
Tom Wilkinson, I’m a huge fan of. The gravitas of him. I find with him that he has a steadiness and control, but also how matter of fact he has to be about something so horrifying, else he can’t do what he needs to do. Was that one of the hearts of the story you wanted to tell?
It was. I felt very personally involved in this story. When I started working on it six years ago with David Hare, it was obviously going to be a controversial film and a timely film.
Even then, before there was any suggestion of Donald Trump actually becoming President, he was a personality, and his waywardness with the truth was a factor about him. There was a miasma of climate change denial, science in all its forms all around. Even back then Trump was demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate. That was always topical but we didn’t think it’d have the topicality it’s now acquired, particularly in the last weekend. This is astonishing, that someone from the White House could use the phrase ‘alternative facts’!
One piece I read about Denial, and I think it’s IndieWire who deserve the credit here, said that Denial is “a movie that has no right to be so relevant”.
[Laughs] We knew it was going to be relevant, we just didn’t know in which area!
Obviously the main topic of the film is denial of the Holocaust. It’s a descendant of the phrase that Adolf Hitler used in Mein Kampf: ‘the big lie’. If you’re going to lie, do it on a huge scale, so that everybody will think that’s so outrageous it must be true. Nobody would dare to make that up. Repeating and repeating and repeating it over and over again so that it enters the language: ‘failing New York Times’ or ‘crooked Hillary Clinton’ or whatever. The lie gets bigger and bigger.
That was always going to be relevant whether it was about the Holocaust or voter fraud or vaccines cause autism or whatever. The relevance surprised us in the last month or so, and we though – yes, this is the time for this movie. We see parallels that we thought were obvious between David Irving and Donald Trump: both demagogues, both able to manipulate emotionally large crowds of people using techniques that were essentially stand-up comedy, both very loose with the truth, associating with extreme right-wing elements. Really all the things that define them as personalities are so similar. We see it as a metaphor as well as a factual story.
I have to mention the Auschwitz sequence in the film: it’s, rightly, utterly chilling. I admire how still you are there, too. There’s a lovely Howard Shore score underpinning the movie that you quieten down, for instance.
It’s interesting. It surprised me in the process. I conceived of a film that was a bit more directorial, a bit more cinematic. And increasingly, in the editing and the post-production, we refined it down. The material seemed to be sending a message saying be more simple. Cut it down, cut away all the frills, it’s about truth. Truth is not an on/off film. It’s not shades of truth, a fact is either true or it isn’t. That dictated the simplicity and restraint.
George Orwell’s work is having a revival right now, I read…
Alternative facts sounds George Orwell, doesn’t it?!
Your directorial career is fascinating. We’re in an era now when a director makes a relatively small scale production, and then quickly gets a big Hollywood movie if the does well. Your arc, though, has gone from television, then you did Hollywood in the 90s, and then you’ve come back to Denial. Was there a career plan?
The only planning is that I get bored easily. I try and challenge myself to do something completely different from what I just did. I didn’t want to be typecast if you like as an action director or a comedy director or a musical director or whatever. I think unless you challenge yourself each time, you’re not going to do your best work. You’ll fall into a pattern. Chattahoochee, my first film, was quite dark. Then L.A. Story was a comedy, a comedy of manners. The Bodyguard. Then to a series of films with much more of a social content.
Just centering on The Bodyguard for a minute. I can’t remember other movie stars who so often took a turn when they were at their peak as Kevin Costner did. Coming off The Bodyguard for you, I wonder about the offers there, having just made one of the most successful films of the decade. Was that the point where you had the greatest opportunity to say this is what I want to do?
Difficult question to answer, without going in to certain things. There was a sag in my career after that, for personal reasons, and I thought I’ll mark time and do something. I did a Dana Carvey comedy called Clean Slate, which unfortunately fell between administrations at MGM. It was a pet project of Alan Ladd Jr. Then the new administration took over, and in those weeks, the movie was released and didn’t belong to anyone. So it’s quite an interesting, surreal comedy of amnesia. I believe Christopher Nolan’s Memento was inspired by it.
I do love that Denial has been nominated for a Movies For Grown Ups award by the way. I’ve no idea what they are, but I’m determined to find out!
I saw that! [Laughs] I didn’t know what it was, but if you find out, let me know!
Where does Denial leave you now, and the projects you want to tackle? Are there still lots of stories you want to tell?
I don’t know and I say that quite honestly, and I think that talking to anybody in the artistic community, they’re feeling the same. The events of the past few months have knocked us all for such a spin, that we’re looking for a way, adequately, to respond to them. We think this is the time when our art should, in some way, express what’s happening around us. A great friend of mine is the writer and creator of Homeland, and he very skillfully in the new season is incorporating things. He has a President-elect, and a lot of what’s happening in the news is going into that show unchanged.
What I’m looking for is something that I can do in an oblique way that deals with the situation we find ourselves in, with a move to the right wing worldwide. Something like what Arthur Miller was able to do with The Crucible. Essentially a commentary on McCarthyism, without being about McCarthyism.
Are you tempted to write a memoir?
I’m not old enough!
Mick Jackson, thank you very much!