STARRED UP – Behind the scenes with director David Mackenzie

We talk to the director about his gritty prison movie…

The buzz in Ireland for David Mackenzie’s latest film STARRED UP started last month when actor Jack O’Connell picked up the award for best actor at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. On a high from winning we caught up with the film’s director to talk about his new tough gritty prison drama.

STARRED UP is Jonathan Asser’s first screenplay, previously he had been working in a prison, how did you even hear of the script?
David Mackenzie: He was doing a creative writing course and a writer that we know was involved in teaching him, and she said ‘check him out’. It was a strong piece of work, and at least one of the characters is very close to Jonathan – the character played by Rupert Friend – and it was quite interesting for him to have to take on board Jonathan as a person and represent him. Rupert very much made it his own; Oliver is Oliver and Jonathan is Jonathan, but definitely in terms of the type of therapy and some of the ways the character is, is quite close to Jonathan.

Using an actual prison for your location looks incredible on screen…
DM: Because the script had a strong feeling of authenticity at a level that I’ve never explored before as a filmmaker, I became very determined that the film should feel as authentic as possible and if I could find a location that had as little geographical cheating as possible, that was really important for me. It was exactly that type of architecture that Wandsworth is – which is where Jonathan was in the first place – it was how it had been visualised by him anyway, but just being in that place and realising that I could pretty much shoot 360 degrees wherever I wanted to go, and have that reality and have the genuine oppression of steel, stone and concrete that is that place. I just felt it was going to do everything for us. That was about a year before we started shooting and I was just terrified that something was going to come along, or something was going to make that not happen and then we’d have to go and build sets. It would have been a totally different film. It was very cold – by the way. We shot in February and it is very hard to heat. Fortunately, I was able to wear jackets but Jack and the other actors were cold.

I read that you shot the film in order and edited it quite quickly, which is most unusual…
DM: I had two editors and I edited it quite quickly. At the end of each working day I was going to the cutting room and trying to keep the cut as close to the shoot as possible. We showed a cut of the film at the wrap party, and then just spent five or six weeks finessing, but I would have almost been happy just – as an experiment – to cut it off there, but that further five or six weeks was great, but at the same time we were kind of there. It just meant that everyone was all aligned in a way. The cast were going on the journey of the story, the editors were going on the journey of the story, I was going on the journey of the story and therefore we could feel it and be intuitive and that was really great.

Did the way you shot the film allow any room for improvisation?
DM: I think of each scene as a set of ingredients and basically, what happens is we all turn up to the beginning of the scene, a guide to the action of the scene and a guide to the text of the scene. If the reality of turning that into a physical, cinematic thing allows you to go to a different place or change a bit of text or ignore a bit of text, then I think it’s appropriate to explore it. That’s what we did. We were very respectful to the script; Jonathan was on set all the time, so there was room to jump off from the material and expand on it, but it was always coming back to roughly where the source was. We always were asking ourselves ‘Could this happen? Is it plausible?’. Keeping it real in a way that I have never really done before.

Some reviews have picked up on the violence in the film but it never feels gratuitous; it always serves a purpose, how did you go about achieving that?
DM: It was one of my biggest fears. The non-violent scenes were allowed to be as authentic in their performances, the characters were allowed to do what they do. Obviously we were trying to make it look great, but the action should be dictating the camera, rather than the camera dictating the action. There is a very organic, free flowing thing; then you hit the stunts, and that has to be a very different way of doing it, because you’ve got a lot more stop/staring, a lot more control, safety issues and all those kinds of things. I was really worried that those things would look like two different films, or that it wouldn’t connect in some way. We had four weeks to shoot a movie with that many stunts in; it was a real challenge, but the stunt team were great and worked side by side with us. I said I really wanted it to not feel too choreographed, to feel messy and to play in as few cuts as possible, and that’s kind of what we did.

The language of the film – the spoken word of the characters – is really interesting, how did you work with that?
DM: In the very first script that I got from Jonathan, there was quite a lot more of that prison slang in there, and I really loved it, but it was obvious that it was going to be too much in terms of being impenetrable. We compromised a bit by reducing it down but certainly Jonathan and I didn’t want to lose it completely, because it’s part of the soul and part of the authenticity of the thing. I don’t think that it’s necessary to understand every word anyway, and also to go on that journey is part of the alienation of the world that you’re entering. I hope that we got the compromise right; we made a lot of effort to contextualise things.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
DM: I hope that it’s a satisfying cinematic experience, I hope that it develops their pre-conceptions in a way – they are expecting a certain kind of movie, and they get that, but they also get a movie that has emotion and heart and soul and sensitivity and humanity and compassion and all those kinds of things, in a place where they weren’t expecting it. Eric’s still a very troubled man, he’s obviously done a pretty bad crime that we don’t particularly talk about and he’s stopping back into a far from stable, hostile environment. Whatever happens to him next is up for grabs, and Jonathan and I are evolving the idea of maybe trying to do a sequel as a TV series, which can allow him to explore some of the things he knows, but allow us to explore the criminal justice system in wider, concentric circles and shine a light in there. I think that could be really interesting.

Most of your films so far have been quite dark – albeit with comedic elements – do you have any desire to do an out and out comedy?
DM: Yes! I would be very happy to. I made quite a few short films before I made features, and most of them were comedies. I just find myself not doing it. I tell you one thing though; working with Ben Mendelsohn – and Ben always plays heave characters – but he’s so funny. I think Ben Mendelsohn should be doing comedy, and I would love to work with him on a comedy.

Finally, what’s next?
DM: STAIN ON THE SNOW, which is a winter movie, and we didn’t get it together in time to do this winter, so it will be next winter. THE MISSION is still in discussion with Warner Brothers, so we’ll see what happens there, and I have got a couple of other things that are floating around. So there are some options and we’ll see what happens.

STARRED UP is at cinemas from March 21st

Words: Brogen Hayes