The actor-director discuss his latest film NEDS, Scottish language barriers and why he wants his next drama to be in 3D.
Many may know Peter Mullan as ‘that’ guy, the one who was forever serving up dose after dose of scag for Renton in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. Truth be told, since Mullan first appeared in 1990's The Big Man he has flourished as an actor. Many might not realise, however, is that he is also a pretty damn fine director, having burst onto the filmmaking scene with his 1997 debut Orphans and followed up with the fantastic The Magdalene Sisters, for which Mullan picked up the Golden Lion at Venice in 2002. LWLies caught up with Mullan to discuss his latest film, NEDS, Scottish language barriers and why he wants his next drama to be in 3D.
LWLies: It’s been widely documented that you didn’t have the easiest of upbringings. Would it be fair to say then that NEDS is a slightly autobiographical?
Mullan: I wouldn’t say that the film is necessarily an autobiographical story, but it was certainly a deeply personal film for me to make. The thing was when I was first writing the film, there was huge chunks of my early life that I had no recollection of. It’s not like I was drunk or on drugs or anything, I just couldn’t recall it all.
How then did you go about making sure what you made was authentic?
Well I just kind of spoke to people who was my age, like just ordinary people on the street. I’d approach them, and say, 'Look is it just me or is it just my imagination – because I’m a drama queen – or were those really fucking violent times?'
And what was the usual response?
Well everyone kinda had their own personal, hellish tale to tell. When you watch the film, people should realise that it’s not just me being all like, 'Oh yeah, gimme some drama to write about', it’s just how it was in those days. Like it wasn’t uncommon to get beaten up in the house, by the police, a teacher and especially your peers, and you just got on with it.
So is the entire film based on some genuine event?
Pretty much. Even those moments in the film, which were the more extreme forms of violence shall we say, they’re still based on true stories. Like I was told this story about this guy from Greenock, which is in Inverclyde, and this guy had strapped two blades to his hand, so of course writing a drama you’re thinking this is a great image. But it's also very powerful because suddenly you think 'holly christ, these knives are an extension of this guy', so one becomes the other, and when you hear moments like that you just have to include it in some capacity.
I’d also read this story about these two wee lads who battered the shit out of a guy and left him on the floor in a state of semi-consciousness. But they came back an hour later with a concrete slab and dropped it on his head. Now that was about 20 years ago, but you just think why did they go back? They’d proved their point like don’t mess with us or don’t come into this area, but why did they go back and kill this fella? So I really tried to make the film as true to how life was as possible, so in the film there’s a real pervasive feel to the violence, even in the more extreme cases and that’s because it really was everywhere and I think the film illustrates that perfectly.
Did you have any trepidation about showing such horrific and mindless violence? Are you showing this just because it was prevalent everywhere back then, or was there a ulterior motive?
Well the thing was when I was writing this I didn’t want to be all like Mr. Middle Age, like, 'I’ll show you youngsters what it was like back then'. Admittedly there was a part of me that wanted to, but I knew that as soon as I did that, a) I’d be a total hypocrite, and b) It would have defeated the whole purpose of the film, because it was never meant to be a finger wagging exercise. I’m just telling it how many people saw it and how many individuals remember it today.
The film was actually screened in some festivals with subtitles. You must have surely been aware that the language was slightly difficult to follow, so why then did you opt to keep it this way?
Well when we were making the film I was very anxious that I didn’t want to get bogged down in idiotic details, like close-ups of everything just so that guys my age and older can go, ‘Oh, hmmm, yeah, I remember that fucking sweetie bar', or whatever. I didn’t want any of that shit. It would have been unnatural to scatter sweetie bars and the like everywhere and it would have been unnatural if I didn’t use the language that they used in the day.
Was it ever difficult trying to get any of this across to your cast? Did the language barrier swung both ways?
I remember that when we was filming there was this one line we couldn’t get right because they just didn’t understand what was meant in the script. The line was, 'You wanna square go?', and unbeknownst to me youngsters don’t say that much anymore. Basically 'a square go' means a one-on-one fight with no weapons, but they kept saying, 'You wanna square the go?” It's a tiny little slip but it totally changes the entire meaning. So that kinda happened at various stages throughout the film.
With NEDS finished, what else would you like to try your hand at?
Well, I’d love to do a 3D drama, but I’ve just not found the project or even the money for it.
Really? It doesn’t strike us as something you’d be keen on?
Oh no, it brings an amazing depth of field, it would be great to go back to the old days of composition. You know, Hollywood in its heyday, I forget the names they used. But basically everybody was in focus, front, middle and back. The lenses then could do that, but modern lenses can’t get that now, so that’s why in modern cinema we pull focus, which is compositionally shite, because you want to see it all, and 3D offers that opportunity again. But because of the demands of 3D and the expense of it I doubt they would give it to a drama, it'll be all high-tech films.
So it's something you’re looking into at the moment?
I think the potential is there and I’d love to try it, but it would really need to be the right piece if I’m honest. I’m not making a Pixar film that’s for sure.