Although he was the head of one of the biggest drug operations to ever hit the British Isles, Howard Marks was not your average drug-lord
After graduating from Oxford in the 60’s, he fell into the world of drug smuggling in an attempt to escape his boring life as a teacher. Mr.Nice is the chaotic, often hilarious story of his rise and fall directed by the acclaimed Bernard Rose, starring Rhys Ifans as the man himself and Chloe Sevigny as his long suffering wife.
Meeting up with Marks on his whirlwind trip to Dublin for the Irish premiere, we found the legendary raconteur in fine form, trading anecdotes with his on-screen self; long-time friend Rhys Ifans.
Q. Rhys and Howard, you’ve been friends for quite a while; how did you meet?
HM: Rhys wrote to me with sympathy, sincerity and wisdom but we didn’t meet each other til ‘96 which was the first time I met his band Super Furry Animals. The first thing he asked me was would I sign his packet of cigarette papers and I said yes and signed one of them and he said “No, every one please.” For some reason that made a proper bond between us.
RI: Howard and I, we’ve known each other since 13/14 years ago and we always kind of recall that gentleman’s contract and it was vivid in both our heads. But ya know the past plays tricks and thank God a member of Howard’s family has actually got it on film.
Q. Do you still have the signed cigarette papers?
RI: No I sold those and made a mint (laughs).
Q. Did you consider, when you spoke to Howard at that time, that you would love to play him in a movie?
RI: No. For my generation of Welsh youth, I remember a seminal moment in the months before Howard was incarcerated, (he) did an interview in Welsh. For us as Welsh speakers it was kind of a fresh way of going through our culture. Howard represented something that is innate in not just the Welsh but in the Celtic character, you know, our celebration of the outlaw, the pirate, and we’d been waiting for an elder spokesman and he arrived. Our Welsh generation needed someone like Howard.
Q. That’s a huge pressure on you; you’re playing your hero. RI: No he’s not my hero, he’s my best friend. Heroes die, ya know, my best friend’s still alive.
Q. Howard, it must be strange to see your life up on screen being played out in front of you; a lot of people are long gone by the time it happens for them!
HM: That’s what I thought would happen to me. I thought they wouldn’t want to make a film about someone who was clearly profiting from his illegal activities – vicariously perhaps but still profiting from activities in the past. So I assumed that it wouldn’t be made until after I was dead but then I thought, well if it makes me more money after I die it saves me writing the f**king will!
RI: I was so desperate to play him I was tempted to kill him! (laughs)
Q. There was a rumour that Sean Penn was to play you; what happened there? HM: I know what it’s based on, but it was never a strong intention of Sean’s to play me. His motivation was to somehow or other get a film made and offer his help whether on the production side or acting side. He didn’t come to me saying I” want to play you”, he came to me and said “why the f**k haven’t they made a film?”
Q. So you tried to keep it a Welsh thing then?
RI: Yeah, and ya know I’m cheap as f**k!
HM: He would do it as a favour!
Q. Were you involved behind the scenes Howard?
HM: Not at all, I had no creative input whatsoever. I was available obviously if anyone wanted to ask me a question and I’d give things like trial transcripts and the sort of information that wasn’t in the books to help Bernard in any way.
Q: How did (director) Bernard Rose get involved in the project? HM: Due to his desire to. It was floated around that somehow or other these rights could be available but the BBC were hanging on which sort of constrained the film rights. Bernard just thought he’d have a go and wrestle it away from them and with the help of (producer) Luc Roeg they did.
Q: As far as I know he worked on the last series of The Muppet Show. I was wondering if he took some of those comedic elements and put them into the film.
RI: Well no-one put their hand up my a**e!
HM: I don’t know how much influence that had. I doubt it somehow.
RI: Bernard is what I’d call a renegade filmmaker in the truest sense. He directed the Frankie Goes to Hollywood Relax video which was the first video to be banned in the UK because of its utter filth. I’ve been a huge fan of Bernard’s films, especially Ivans XTC which is a beautifully subversive critique on Hollywood. As a director, he operates the camera too. Generally when you do a film you’re working 16/17 hour days, 6 days a week; Bernard just rocks in there. We didn’t do more than two takes per scene a day. So when you work with Bernard you realise very early on that you have to be theatrically prepared as opposed to cinematically prepared. So that level of interaction is very vital and exciting and dangerous and frightening.
Q. How do you feel about the genre of the drug film; any favourites, are they realistic?
HM: I’ve never seen one that is realistic, other than the one about me to be honest. But that’s the best one for me to judge. Like Blow wasn’t realistic. RI: (Mr.Nice) is not a drugs film, drugs just happens to be the currency. It’s not Cheech & Chong! For me in the classical sense it’s a beautifully crafted odyssey.
Q: A lot of those drug films have this glamour that’s so far outside normal life…
HM: It’s true, especially films like Scarface or something – it’s insane! RI: What I love about (Mr.Nice) is anytime Howard has to communicate he has to have a f**king pocket full of fifty pences and a mobile phone that was the size of a f**king toilet! The charm of the film is that it shows us a past that we all remember. It shows how rapid times have changed and I think that’s intrinsic in the poetic nostalgia of the film.
Q. Finally Howard, how did you remember everything? If you’re smoking weed it’s supposed to effect your memory over a continuous period of time.
HM: Well I didn’t remember! I had no idea where I was on December 17th 1985…but law enforcement did as they were watching me. So I got all the law enforcement reports through the Freedom of Information Act and therefore was able to build up what actually happened. So they did all the f**king research for me!
Q. Do you still feel watched?
HM: I don’t give a f**k now like! I can’ be bothered to look.
Words : Linda O’Brien MR NICE is at Irish cinemas from Oct 8th