From bit parts in "Braveheart" and "Shallow Grave" to winning Best Actor at Cannes for Ken Loach's "My Name Is Joe," not to mention working with Steven Spielberg on the upcoming "War Horse" and securing the role of Death Eater Yaxley for the final two "Harry Potter" films, Scottish actor Peter Mullan has come a long way in a short time. Though he's well-known for his work as an actor, he's had a passion for filmmaking ever since he was 19. His first feature, "Orphans," made rounds at the Venice Film Festival and Paris Film Festival, but it was his sophomore project "The Magdalene Sisters" that really made a splash on the circuit, playing at the Toronto International Film Festival and garnering a nomination for a BAFTA Award. The drama, following three women in an asylum, was a large step forward for the filmmaker in terms of directorial style and substance; the festival-goers that caught it were impressed and eagerly awaited his follow-up.
Eight years later, Mullan returns with "NEDS," a personal tale focusing on adolescent street gangs in Scotland. Short for "Non-Educated Delinquents," the film follows book-smart John McGill as he lives in the shadow of his gang-member older brother. Eventually John makes the decision to follow in his footsteps -- hell, if he's constantly going to be judged for his brother's behavior, he might as well partake -- but this road only leads to violence, banishment from his family, and a negative stigma he may never be able to shed. Though Mullan's piece takes place in 1970s Glasgow (and certainly looks like it -- the art design is incredible), many of the issues it deals with are very contemporary and can even be taken as a commentary on modern gang-life. We caught the film at the Tribeca Film Festival and thought it "compellingly illustrated how institutionalized cycles of hatred and violence aren’t alien to everyone," praising it for refusing to go the cliché coming-of-age route.
Mullan was nice enough to chat with The Playlist at length about a myriad of subjects including the autobiographical nature of the film, his inability to determine whether a project will be a success or not, and his flirtations with various high profile flims. We've collected the finest bits from the conversation below.
Society will always distrust an ex-gang member, regardless of any positive transformation.
Following a typical gangster film story-arc, the filmmaker's original intent (the origin of knife-crimes) was deemed too complex to really be the focus of the flick. Instead, Mullan took from his own life-experience and examined a boy presented with two paths, with everyone from his peers to his teachers pushing him along to the darker one. "What happens when you come out on the other side? Society tends to be very unforgiving when you commit yourself to the dark side at a certain age. They’re more forgiving when you’re a little kid, but when you have the physique and voice of a young adult, and you run around with a street gang, they don’t trust you. And it’ll stay with you. And that, for me, became the most interesting part of the film," he said.
One can look at another project Mullan was involved with, "Boy A" -- in which a teen involved in a murder is released from prison to a new identity -- as a companion piece to the director's third feature. As for how he himself fixed the burned bridges and strained relationships, he comments that the hardest part was apologizing to his family. "I thought I could come back to my friends and be like, 'Guys, I know I was an asshole for a year but I'm back now.' And they told me they liked the other kid, not me. I didn't say that I changed. I wasn't old enough to even think of that. My mother had a really tough time, but she was watching half her kids go off the rails, and had a husband who was losing his mind...Still, she loved us nonetheless. My relationship with my family eventually changed, but that took a long time."
40% of the film is taken from Mullan's life.
Considering with the intimate handling of "NEDS," it's no surprise that the some of the film is taken from his life. However, what is particularly note-worthy is the amount that is lifted straight from his past. "It’s 60% fiction, but the big arc – the first third of the film -- is pretty much as I remember it. You can’t claim that it’s autobiographical because I take way too many liberties, too much of it is made up. But there’s elements of it that happened to me."
Nothing is too over-the-top for fiction, because life's events border on insanity.
"Life is much weirder than fiction, nothing’s more absurd. A neighbor saw a man leave a brothel and confronted him about it, and he begged her not to tell his wife because it’d ruin his marriage. She agreed, but said that 'I won’t tell the wife, but you have to start shagging me and give me the money that you’d have given the prostitute.' How fucking bizarre is that? You could put that in a soap opera tomorrow and people would be like, 'Fuck off, what is that?!' That story isn’t credible to some people if told in a certain inflection, but to me, anything’s credible. Even the most outrageous stories normally come from somewhere."
Art-house indie flicks can be just as empty as Hollywood cinema.
While Hollywood blockbusters are routinely criticized for recycling plots, short-handing the story and generally spoon feeding audiences tepid gruel, indie and arthouse cinema is not without its clichés as well, and Peter Mullan isn't having any of it. "There’s a school of writing that turns everything into something specialized and mundane. If it’s profound in that way, then I love it, but if it’s just to show you that that’s the way life is, then it takes us nowhere, not a millimeter forward. All it says is that communication is difficult, it’s like, great job guys. We already know that. In that sense a lot of times I can’t tell the different between the arthouse and commercial cinema."
He explains, "In the art house if somebody gets on a bus, we stay with him while he’s on there. We’ll shoot him looking out, we’ll get off the bus with him, then go to the destination with him. Commercial cinema, he gets on the fucking bus, they cut to his destination. It’s like a cliché in art house cinema, it’s like, he’s on the bus, I get it. What’s he doing? Looking out the window. I get it. He’s contemplating. I get it, I really do get it. I guess I’m part of the art house, but we really have to shake up our ideas, because we’re kind of self-parodying ourselves. We go places commercial cinema doesn’t go, but sometimes it’s to our own detriment."
"The Time Traveler's Wife" was almost a Peter Mullan film...until he botched the pitch meeting.
Remember that 2009 romantic drama starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana? Of course you do, it made $100 million worldwide. Well, before "Red" and "Flightplan" director Robert Schwentke took the reigns, Mullan was close to landing the gig. "I liked the script, the producers wanted me to do it and I spoke with the money people on a conference call and I totally fucked it up there. I knew half-way through that I was dying on my ass, not connecting. They asked for “broad strokes” and I didn’t know what that was, which basically made them say 'This conversation’s over,' really rude like. Fair enough, it’s their money."
Whether the film would've been completely different under his watch remains to be seen, as it's honestly a fairly rote love story no matter how you shake it. Of course, with every missed opportunity there's a lesson and Mullan added the skill of The Pitch to his abilities. "Afterwards the two producers explained that broad strokes were this – who’re you going to cast, how good is it going to be, and how much money do you think it will make. So all you need to say is 'Well, I’ll cast someone really famous, it’ll be really good, and it’ll make a fucking fortune.' Then you get the job – that’s what they wanted me to do, and I genuinely didn’t know that."
Passed on "Billy Elliott," had no idea "Braveheart" would woo the Academy.
The filmmaker also admitted to not being so savvy as an actor, either -- lamenting some declined opportunities. "I got a script called 'The Dancer' and it was the worst script I’d ever read. I told my agent it was insulting and that if it even got made, I’d be astonished. Then the film renamed itself 'Billy Elliott.' Which shows you what I fucking know." Even the quality of the movies he was a part of went over his head. "I was on the set of 'Braveheart' and my mate says to me, 'Do you think this film will be any good?' And I really meant this, too, I told him 'Let me put it this way – It won’t win any awards.' Cut to: five Oscars."