One of the highlights of the Göteborg International Film Festival, and indeed one of the highlights of our year so far, was catching up with David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up," which, if you missed our review first time out, you can read all about here. The unflinching but brutally human prison drama is based on a script by first-timer Jonathan Asser, a writer and poet by whose experiences inspired the film and the character of Oliver, the posh but dedicated volunteer inmate counselor. Starring breakout Jack O’Connell as the violent young Eric, Ben Mendelsohn as his also-incarcerated father Nev, and Rupert Friend as Oliver, the film is marked by its astonishingly strong performances, but also by the authenticity and hard-edged sensitivity of what is truly career-best work from the director.
Previously best known for Brit indies “Hallam Foe” and “Young Adam,” Mackenzie himself could be said to be one of the film’s many surprises, defying the expectations of his previous work and working in a grittier mode than we’d seen from him to date. When we spoke, we talked a little about that evolution as well as how it may carry over into his upcoming projects. But first we were curious as to how he came upon “Starred Up” at all.
It doesn’t necessarily seem like material someone would have immediately associated you with, so tell me how the script for “Starred Up” came to your attention.
It’s quite straightforward really. A writer friend of ours said “there’s a great script.” So it came to us as a recommendation from a friend basically.
Then we read this piece and it was amazing. It had an amazing sense of authenticity. Like, a lot of the language in the film is a real hit in the face because the very specific context of the prison world is obscure to people. There was lot of power and anger and force in there. It came very well formed as a first draft. So I went and met Jonathan and was really kind of blown away by the disarming honesty that he had about everything, about why he was involved in the prison system. It was essentially because he thought of himself as an institutionalized being. Having been in the world at large he found himself in a prison accidentally, doing some performance poetry, and it immediately came to him that he felt at home for the first time in fifteen years.
So there’s a massive personal journey for him, in terms of his engagement with prisoners and the prison system, and the therapy that he’s developed, which features in the movie. So meeting with Jonathan and hearing all of this, with the material in the background, it was almost impossible not to want to do the film.
Perhaps the poetry background makes sense because the language, the dialogue is in quite an incomprehensible argot at times, but the meaning of the words doesn’t matter as much as the sense that it’s an arcane and authentic language that the characters all share.
Well I think I totally agree with you there and when I introduce the film I often encourage people not to get hung up on every word and not to feel that they’re missing out on something. The reality is there’s a lot of language that we cut from the script, just because it was too much and people were saying it was incomprehensible. But we didn’t want to compromise it to the point where you lose the flavor. A lot of thought went into where we’ve gotten, in terms of language in the film. But there’s nothing you’re really missing if you don’t understand every word.
And what was it in the script that made you sure that you were the one to do it?
This is a different film from others I’ve done, but there are similar things to me. There’s the “angry young man” bit there and there’s a bit of obscure sensuality as well, which are things that I’m interested in. So those are kind of floating around the surface. But actually, somehow or other, finding in the heart of all of this anger and all this upset and all this violence, something human and something that engages emotionally [was the challenge]. Part of that is the very obvious father/son issue which I’m amazed hasn’t happened in a prison narrative before. I mean, it’s obvious that these kinds of things must run in families.
But also, some of the elements of other people reaching out to each other, in the group and outside of the group. You have this backdrop of a hard, hostile environment, and an opportunity to find some humanity within it. It felt like something I could do.
But yes, this is my first ever proper genre movie. Though people are saying it’s not quite a genre movie, it’s got all these other things … but I’m going, "No, it’s a prison movie." There’s no way you can say it any other way.
It’s just a good one.
I hope so! So I felt it was an appropriate time in my life to hit that, and to somehow or another smuggle into that genre things that I’m maybe more interested in.