Director Mark Gill talks about his new Morrissey bio-pic.
Check out the trailer for England Is Mine.
Growing up in Manchester did you find Morrissey an inspiration? After all, you’re an artist as well.
I grew up on the same street as Morrissey half a mile from where he lived. It was a very personal story I felt I could tell and I was very much interested in that voice writing those first few records and Stephen writing about where I lived. That was the reason why I wanted to make it, and Morrissey was a huge influence and inspiration on my career.
What inspired you to become a director?
I think it was probably all to blame from me seeing Blade Runner when I was about fourteen I think. I saw that film and just fell in love with that film and then with cinema and then I just worked toward a career doing that. I’m a bit like Smiths fans about the film as I am about the new Blade Runner film coming out this, hoping for the best but it seems to have had a really good response, so it’s good.
What interested you in directing and co-writing England Is Mine with William Thacker?
Well, I just felt it’s the story I could tell. I couldn’t make a film about an icon. I’ve got no idea how to but I can make a film about a young man who is struggling to find his way in the world, and that’s what me and Will found was the starting point and once you start digging, doing some research and you start finding out things, and that fills out the picture and backed up with the music and the lyrics you start seeing the character come alive on the page.
You were quoted as saying – “As much a film for non-Morrissey fans as it is for die-hard devotees” So what did you hope non-fans would get out of seeing England Is Mine?
I hope they’re inspired to try and do something with their lives I guess. It’s a good question, I didn’t want to overly politicise the film, but I think that the title England Is Mine is very much from The Smiths song Still Ill, but I think it’s weirdly reflective of the time we’re at now. The early 70’s which is when our film is set in England we’re just emerging from years of not being in Europe and then punk music exploded, and the youth certainly took the chance. And what you’ve got now is that we’ve turned our back on the world and you feel like a generation of young people have been dealt a really shitty card, so it’s really going to be down to them to control what the situation again and that is a certain defiance in the title. We think it’s important for young people to see the film because that they’ll understand that struggle and make something of their lives.
When you began work with author William Thacker, and you described the film as a “portrait” rather than a conventional biopic. What did you feel needed to be put in front of the audience?
Well, I didn’t want to do a Cradle to Grave type film, and I had no great desire to explore The Smiths period or his solo career because it’s very difficult to capture the creative process. For one thing so just finding the most interesting story elements really and we settled on a six year period that is a snapshot of his life which we felt was really crucial. You know punk played a big part in his life, his dad had left his family, he met his best friend during this period. It certainly became a film about how he felt he lived in a world he didn’t belong in; he just found a way out through books and music but also through the help of strong women. That was something I hadn’t seen in a film before, and this was more about how women had shaped somebody, and that was one of the things me and Will really focused on and strong characters, strong female characters instead of props for the main guy.
Because it is an intimate cast, there’s not many people in it so what I noticed was Morrissey seemed to be a young man defined by the women surrounding him. What was it like filling the roles of his mother and Linder Sterling?
You just go for the best actors, I definitely wanted Irish actors for his parents and I just feel like Simone (Kirby) is such an Irish mammy and she is such a strong Irish mammy herself and we got a very clear idea that Elizabeth(Morrissey) Steven’s mom is very strong, very perceptive, he comes from a very matriarchal Irish family so we just went for the best actors and Simone just sparkled in the audition and I fell in love with her and she did a brilliant job. And the same with Jessica (Brown Findlay) and all the girls in the film who were fantastic, you just go for the best actor at the end of the day and I champion Northern talent where I could.
So how long before you found your Morrissey, before you found Jack Lowden?
I think it took about six months to find Jack, we saw a lot of people and a lot of tapes but he was just the best actor probably one of the best actors I’ve seen in a long time and it became a no brainer. Looks weren’t important to me because you know if you’ve seen the film Steve doesn’t look anything like the Morrissey we know he’ll become but once you give someone that quiff and those glasses and they have that voice you’re halfway there anyway, so I think with Jack we just had simply the best in actor that could have done the job and he’s fiercely intelligent and ambitious and brave and he’s got his own ideas that he wants to bring to show for you and as a director I trust his instincts implicitly. He was a joy to work with and I’ll never forget working with him and hopefully we’ll do it again in the future.
A lot of directors find constraint and limits a fascinating challenge. With no access to The Smiths catalogue did you find that a thrilling handicap?
Well no because that was a creative decision. It’s not a film about that music because it didn’t exist in that period so it was a very conscious decision to steer away from it. There was some talk from our distributors who would have liked to have a Smiths song to use on the trailer or over the end of the film but I just felt that I wanted the film to be judged on its own two feet and the musical choices that I chose speak for the character and his emotional journey. There was a lot of research that went into those and there were songs that affected Morrissey growing up. Smith songs were never an issue for me because I knew I didn’t want them or need them.
The direction and cinematography of England Is Mine set up several scenes as potential album covers. Which to you was a particularly memorable scene to shoot?
I really liked the gig scene which was all done in one take, you known you step onto the stage with him and you see the audience as he see’s it and we get to see his reaction to that. That was a really enjoyable day. Maybe some of the smaller scenes, with the way that I work I knew exactly I wanted from half the film but with the other half I left it very open and it was like lets get the actors on the set and see how they move and then we’ll find where to put the camera. Maybe the scene with Linder and Steven after the party when they first properly interact, there’s a lovely visceral intimacy there which just came about from us not knowing if we were going to shoot it until we shot it. There’s an energy there and you feel like an invisible witness to those events and for me that’s exactly what directing should be.
What’s it been like with the Film Festival route? Have you been enjoying it?
Edinburgh was the first film festival we’ve actually done and there’s an incredible irony in that England Is Mine closes the Edinburgh Film Festival in Scotland but it was great and it sold out within hours, over 2000 seats. It was a real honour to be honest with you and a big thanks to Mark McAdams there to select the film and close the festival. I got to make my film which was a big success for me and got to see it on the big screen with an audience which was phenomenal, it was really cool to be there with the people that supported us. I got to look to my left and see my dad not quite believing what was going on. To see the audience reaction was really heartwarming because it was really electric in the room.
What have you found are the unique challenges to directing a biopic as opposed to films like The Voorman Problem and Full Time?
I didn’t see any difference in them really, obviously I’m making a film about a real person but they all have their different challenges. I think making short films prepares you a little bit but it’s nothing compared to making a feature because it’s so much more intense and goes over a longer period but I think I approach films in pretty much the same way. They all have challenges and they all have to be overcome.
Finally, in the final scene of the audience is given an iconic tease of the future. What was it like filming a scene that felt like a deep breath before the plunge?
It’s interesting you say that because water plays a big part in the film. What was interesting about that door was that I was looking for a door that I could use for the silhouette and what we didn’t notice was that when you walked towards it ot away from it you disappeared and we only found out about that on the day. So that was like a brilliant you know bit of movie magic accident or whatever you want to call it and it’s one of those things there I think that Morrissey’s a character who’s very difficult to bring into focus so to end on that shot where you know who’s on the other side of the door but you’re never really going to know this person I think is a really nice way to end the film because once you open the door it’s the end of Steven.
Words – Graham Day
ENGLAND IS MINE is at Irish cinemas from Aug 6th