Interview: Director David Mackenzie on Brutal Reality of 'Starred Up'
by Alex Billington
September 3, 2014
"You need to experience the dynamite... to know that the dynamite can go off." Just last week we featured Starred Up as our latest Monthly Must See, an intense, brutal but incredible prison movie from English director David Mackenzie starring Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn. You may not recognize the name at first, but you should certainly recognize his films - David Mackenzie's filmography includes Young Adam, Asylum, Hallam Foe (or Mister Foe in the US), Spread with Ashton Kutcher, the sci-fi Perfect Sense and the music film Tonight You're Mine, all before he went on to make Starred Up. Last week I sat down for a chat with David on the realism of the film and finding actor Jack O'Connell, who plays inmate Eric Love.
As a big fan of Starred Up, I was anxious to get a chance to sit down with Mackenzie and drill him on how he made such a fantastic yet intense film. However, I realized I'm also a fan of some of his previous films, including even Spread (which got panned at Sundance when it premiered). He's an interesting director with such a diverse selection of films so far, and I'm curious to see what he makes next (he talks about three projects in the works at the end). I'm so glad I had a chance to talk with him, and I hope what we discuss provides some insight on the process of putting together Starred Up [watch the trailer]. Let's get into it...
I'm intrigued by your career choices because you seem to jump through films quickly. What interests you in each of these? What's your drive? Is it to tell as many stories as you can?
David Mackenzie: It was, I think, nearly two years between Starred Up and finishing the last movie. So it wasn't a very tight gap. But yeah, I'm always looking for the next project for obvious reasons. It's about what is... engaging within its own right as a great story. But also, if I've done one film before it's... To some extent, working on Starred Up is kind of a reaction to working on Perfect Sense, in a way. They're very different, so it's about me trying that and then trying a different direction, trying a different approach, and trying to keep the process of filmmaking interesting, challenging, alive and not... Filmmaking is hard. I mean it's not that hard, but it is hard to find your way through a system because there's a lot of people, there's money, there's a big machine to kind of make it - and how to find methods and processes that allow it to continue to be a lively process and a creative process. It's an ongoing challenge, how to make a process alive, basically.
Whenever I meet a filmmaker who has jumped the course of what you normally expect from them, I want to ask the question: why? You've already touched on that a bit, but why leap into something as brutal and visceral as Starred Up? Is it to challenge yourself as a filmmaker?
David: Before the script [by Jonathan Asser] came in I was looking for an opportunity to do something that was much more realistic, that was grounded in a kind of reality or a truth and that was playing a slightly more hardboiled straight game. Up until now I've never really made a proper genre movie. I've been trying to kind of fit between genres or mix genres or whatever, and [I was also] uncomfortable with pure realism. But this felt like it was a real opportunity to do something kind of – straight. That was really exciting for me.
From the get-go I took that idea and said, okay, we'll find a location where I don't have to fake stuff and where it's real, and try and sort of strip things down so your palette is limited, so you are into a place that's a bit more pure. You know all our friends in Denmark with their dogma or whatever. Every filmmaker will go through a process where you expand, to some extent, and then you want to thin down and get into the essential again. To some extent, Starred Up, to me, felt like that. That's what it gave an opportunity to do.
I've really enjoyed the slightly purifying process of that – I shot sequentially, my edit was quick and sort of concurrent with the shoot. All these things, just to strip it back and to make the connection between what you are shooting and what you are ending up with; a cleaner line and a shorter journey.
Are you saying, in a sense, that your vision of what you wanted to create at the start of Starred Up stayed through to what you ended up producing at the end?
David: Yeah. I think very much so.
Was that your goal? Do you find that that makes for a better film or did that work specifically for this film?
David: A film like Perfect Sense is a movie that, very subconsciously, from the beginning is a metaphorical movie. And it's trying to be kind of ridiculously epic in some sort of way, the sort of march of losing your sense, which is basically life. So it was very grand in its ideas, although it was trying to be minimal in some of the ways that we're showing it. It was overwhelming for me as a filmmaker dealing with those subjects. I spent most of the time going through that film feeling depressed, that I was only ever going to be able to touch the surface of this enormous subject.
So being able to find something that's a lot more specific and a lot more detailed, and a lot more focused, and a lot more contained was very, very attractive. And also, the realism for me, I've always been interested in what I sort of call a poetic truth. Or something where you are being honest, but you are not necessarily caring about the pure realism with it. For me doing this, I've become a born again realist and I like the idea of being able to ask those realist questions about everything, because, suddenly, it cuts to the chase and you are not... But that would mean I could never make a film like Perfect Sense again, but that's not [the case]...
What I like about your films is the way they explore bigger ideas without having to go into great depth, but with metaphors and what you present in a very honed and focused way.
David: Thank you.
I don't want to get into this too much because it's a bit of a taboo topic, but the violence in the film - do you think it is important to have that much violence for the sake of realism? Is it just about showing how important (and real) all of this is in life and to not hold back?
David: The film is an attempt at realism and the violence is part of that. Of course that [violence] is a stunt, and meshing all that stunt work into the realism of the rest of it was one of the biggest challenges of the movie in many, many ways. But I think the violence is kind of essential. A) It's the language, and the threat of it is what holds all the molecules in place. It's kind of the force that that thing is run on. And B) almost all the dramatic tension is all about when the next explosion is going to be. So you need to experience the dynamite, as it were, to know that the dynamite can go off.
Almost all of the actual violence in the film is either narratively essential or an expression of the struggles of the characters'... the father/son violence is a weirdly loving fight. And it's – here's a father/son almost teaching each other things along the way. I made a movie called Young Adam which had a lot of strong and quite painful sex in it. You could almost ask the same question: Does it need so much of it? The answer would be that's also part of the language, and it's part of the way of communication. It's part of the interaction. And it's never trying to either glorify or glamorize or even titillate, really. It's about trying to engage with the dramatic heart of what's going on.
The thought that comes to mind is that you could turn off certain viewers from essentially even seeing it or potentially understanding what you are trying to say because of the violence, and not that that's the case for me because, in the end, I actually like what you do, which is – you don't glorify it, but rather show it as here is reality for the sake of understanding reality.
David: Yeah, it's weird. I'm very bad... and I should be a bit more strategic about that... I'm very bad about thinking about whether I'm putting off an audience or not. I'm just trying to sort of engage with the material and do battle with ways of representing the material to do it as honestly as possible. Trying to think about whether it's putting off an audience or not is very low down on my agenda. And that's probably a failing in terms of trying to create mass media material like a film.
But have you noticed that the reaction has been more positive because of how much you show and the lengths you go? I've never seen anything this in depth in a prison. Even the prison movies of "modern times" never go to this length of showing how real it is in there. Has the reaction, therefore, from what you've heard – have more people been affected by it?
David: I think people find it a powerful experience. So I suppose, to some extent, yes. But I'm hoping they find it a powerful experience equally because of the emotions and all of the surprising elements, the humanity of the film, as they do the violence and oppressive and nasty aspects of it. But I'm hoping that the experience of watching the movie is an intense, dramatic experience. I guess they're the yin and yang to each other. And they do belong, sort of, together. I'm not alarmed by the idea of it being expressive without violence. I think it feels like it's part of the honest portrayal of what's there.
I have to ask about Jack O'Connell and how you found him. The funny part now is that he is well known now thanks to Angelina Jolie's Unbroken and Yann Demange's '71. But when I first saw Starred Up, it was, "Who is this guy?! He's incredible. He should be in everything."
David: Very, very simple. Simple audition process. He was the best guy. He was the bravest guy...
But you knew from that moment, "he's got it"?
David: Yeah. It was quite clear to me that he was the right person for the job. But the people who cast those other films that you mentioned... I know [Angelina Jolie] actually saw... part of the reason he got that job was because they saw clips from [our movie]. And '71 he did immediately afterwards. He literally had four days off.
David: He's been around for a while. That's what's interesting... There's a real sense that Jack has kind of popped out of nowhere. But he was in a very successful UK TV series [called "Skins"] as one of the most charismatic characters, filled with energy. The fan base of that, obviously they know him well. But he's also been in quite a few movies. I don't know why, but the sort of star quality didn't go until we got him.
I would say the way you use him in this film... He really takes on the character. He really becomes Eric. He's not Jack O'Connell to me, he is Eric. You are watching him. You are that lost in him.
David: Well, we shot the film sequentially. This kid arrives at the jail. We start with the close-up of him where he does *that* [motions]. He reveals himself. And you don't leave his side for the rest of the movie. And he doesn't say anything for the first 10 or 15 minutes. You have a lot of time to get to know him before he does anything that allows you to understand him. So you are with him and he's building weapons... That was the first thing we shot in the movie because we shot it in story order. I'm really pleased with the way that opening sequence works. And what it does to that character in terms of the ambiguity of who... you know you are going to be with him, but you don't know whether you are supposed to like him or not like him. You don't know whether he's an aggressor or a victim. All of that tension is a happy way to start the movie for me.
A happy way?
David: Well, I mean a good way to start the movie.
How did you pull all of this off? Did you go to an actual prison to shoot?
Were the other people in it, the extras, actual inmates? If not, how do you create such a real atmosphere? Are they talking with actual prisoners saying, "This is what it's like. This is the atmosphere. This is how you stand. This is how you walk around."
David: It was the intention to make it feel authentic. The script felt very authentic. The detail in the script was very much there. Jonathan, the writer, has worked as a therapist in jails. That was the game. We shot in a real former jail, so the architecture and the space just imbues everything. The film was shot sequentially, as I said. We had advisors who were former prisoners. We had advisors who were former prison officers. And we just wanted to make sure that every element of it felt like it was tangible reality.
Did you give all the extras places, like, "This is your cell. You stay here..."
David: As much as possible. We didn't have the luxury of having enough extras to do that, but as much as possible allowing them to... making sure that they could feel the struggle of the tension, particularly the prison officers never relaxing. Having my writer on set as well, also being one of the extras or sort of in the background was helpful. I didn't have any clapper boards. I had often two cameras running. We go to work for a 10-hour day and we're inhabiting that space. So everyone's on all the time. They're not – clap, wait, action, turn on. They are on all the time. That sense is there within everybody. It's almost a sort of nature documentary, to some extent. And that was the vibe we wanted to create on that.
Being able to persuade people to give up clapper boards is quite interesting. But you don't need it in modern filmmaking because your time clock can run [with digital] and all that. It means you have a sense of – the whole day is the film, rather than these particular moments. The aesthetic with the DP was to let the action dictate the shots rather than the shots dictate the action. Obviously we are trying to make it cinematic. And that space is very cinematic. And [DP] Michael [McDonough] and my instincts are very cinematic. But trying not to let that urge to be beautiful, or to make something look beautiful, dominate. So we don't have marks. Jack, wherever he moves, the camera is reacting to it as opposed to we know where you're going because we've done it; the mark is here and all that. So it's more fluid and more intuitive and more edgy and real, I guess, is the aim.
It really works. Finally - with this kind of leap in your career and what you pulled off, which I think is very impressive, where do you go from here? How do you challenge yourself next?
David: It's a very interesting question. I'm developing a few projects and I'm not sure. I think the stripped down, contained version of Starred Up is great. I would like to apply some of the things that I learned on that on a larger scale, if I'm allowed to, because the problem that you get on a larger scale, you suddenly have to deal with having to pay back a bigger budget and having to be more accessible to an audience and all those kind of things. But I would love to be able to take that and apply it to a big thing.
We've got a Scottish Medieval epic that we're trying to do and possibly a rescue mission action film which I'm talking to Warner Brothers about. So we'll see whether one of those might come off. And I've got a very, very bizarre sci-fi film which is 100 years in space on one ship where they have to breed through five generations. I haven't finished. I've written a very long script and I'm trying to condense it down. But it's epic. So that's something completely different.
I'd love to see all three of these! Make it happen!
David: Most of the films I've tried to make I've ended up making. And they don't necessarily go in the order you want to do. So I haven't got a huge list of undone films or stuff that's just been abandoned forever. So, hopefully chip away, chip away...
Thank you to David Mackenzie for his time, and to Tribeca Films for arranging the interview.
David Mackenzie's Starred Up is now in select theaters - full list from Tribeca. View the trailer here and find it on VOD here. We just featured the film as a Monthly Must See and it premiered at Telluride/Toronto.