August 10, 2003|An indisputable sign of my provincialism, ten minutes into my conversation with Scottish actor-filmmaker Peter Mullan and I was still thinking to myself how awesome his rolling brogue is--I've never been more tempted to ape Irvine Welsh. But there's more to Mullan than an accent raised on Guinness, cigarettes, haggis, and golf: the man, a former schoolteacher and favourite of director Ken Loach, is an amazingly erudite and charismatic cultural observer, expounding at length about film craft, racism, even poetry. (It's not often one can talk at length about Samuel Coleridge with anyone, and if Mullan's next project is a biopic of the scribe, I'll be the first in line--and wanting an acknowledgment for the casting suggestion of Timothy Spall.) An unlikely lightning rod for one of the most controversial films of the year, Mullan is quick with a smile and an indecipherable regional profanity, spry the morning after an extended Q&A session following a late invitational screening of his The Magdalene Sisters and duly impressed by Denver's exceptional selection of quality microbrews. The man knows his beer, I'll give him that, and while his film isn't without its imperfections, Mullan seems to know his capacity for outrage as well; let's not kid ourselves: that quality of passion in any filmmaker, in any age, is certainly not strained.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I should tell you that at a post-screening discussion I moderated of your film last week, the spokesperson for the local archdiocese appeared and accused us of "wearing white robes" for screening this film.
PETER MULLAN: What did he mean by that, "wearing white robes"?
I pretended to think that he meant the Pope's robes, but I think he meant to imply that we were the Klan for showing the picture.
(hearty laughter) I'm embarrassed for him, that's an unbelievable thing to say.
Tell me about working with Ken Loach and how he might have influenced you as a director--your style isn't actually much like his.
The great thing of being an actor is that you get to see those moments when a director has a really bad day. And what that reminds you of when you come to direct your own, is that it's a nice safety net that you wouldn't have if you didn't know that you weren't the only incompetent prick on earth. The fact that I've seen Danny Boyle crying behind the set, I've seen Ken Loach throwing up, I've seen Michael Winterbottom get frostbite on his ear on the first day of shooting, I've seen Mel Gibson go virtually catatonic--and, you suddenly think, even you guys--you talented guys--there will come a day during the course of a shoot where you haven't a fuckin' scoobie as to what it is you're actually going to do. So when you get your opportunity, when that day comes to you that you direct, it's horrendous--but it's not as bad as it might be because you remember that everybody--and anybody who says it's not happened to him is a liar--that there will always come a day, sometimes two days, sometimes even a week, where you just can't take it no more. Someone will literally say, "So, Peter, did you want spring water in the middle of the set," and you'll nod and check off all that you're thinking of: the light and the camera placement and the movement of the actors and the sound just right and the weather cooperatin'--and the prop person will come back and say, "I'm sorry Peter, did you want Fiji water or some other bleedin' water"--and you just can't always cope with it.
Is there commonality between the guys you've worked with besides that inevitable breaking point?
On a shooting level, the one thing they've all got in common is that they create great atmospheres and I learned a great deal about that. It's the sole duty of the director, I think, to make things feel easy for the actors. To make them, rightly, feel as if the film is about them--not CGI, set design, all that bollocks. It's for them and you want to make it as easy--and I don't mean emotionally easy, but easy in the sense that you keep all the shit away from them that you can and you hope that in turn, the producers keep all the shit away from you. You want to be enjoying it the majority of days so if the actor's enjoyin' it and you turn on the camera for a big angst-scene with an actor and you take him to a dark place and he nails it in take one, right. Then if that fucking thing is in focus, yo! Let's move on--that's a happy actor and one happy director, none of this coverin' it just for the sheer hell of it, yeah? So I learned that from all of those guys--most of all Ken Loach.
He's a genius.
Aye. He's a genius. A hundred years from now, any filmmaker worth his salt, if he's never watched a Ken Loach, he doesn't know film. It's not to say that you must love every Ken Loach film ever made, any more than you must love every Kurosawa or every Buñuel or every Fellini. It's just the fact that if you've never seen any of his films, you're speaking a language without ever looking under the letter "L" if you follow.
He's the definition of "auteur" in that even if a film doesn't ring like another, you can always place it within his body of work.
Totally. And you'll know a Ken Loach within ten minutes of watching it--just a scene, just something about it that makes you go, "I'll bet you that's a Loach." As you say, he's a genuine auteur, and I try to tell as many people as I can about his working methods, and let me tell you that Ken isn't happy about it. But everyone wants to know how he does it, mate, and Ken actually called me up and said, "Peter, you know, this is my living," and he wasn't kidding. And I said to him, "Ken, Ken, even if I tell them what you're doing it'll take them four films to even get to your bootlaces." He's been doin' this for forty-five years now and besides, the thing about Loach is that it's impossible to really tell what the man's doing, yeah? Let me tell you a story about this very accomplished, very well-known AD who's just come off a very big production, y'know, he knows what he's doing and is quite well-respected and he's come to work with Ken Loach, yeah? So there's a big scene and he's anxious to do a good job for Ken so when Ken says "okay, we're set" this AD he pulls out a horn and shouts, "OKAY, QUIET PLEASE"--and Ken stood there and says to him very quietly, "I think what you should do. I think. I think you should go around to everyone and apologize. I think that would be a good first step if you don't mind. Would you go around and tell everybody individually to just relax, and that we're ready to shoot."
An example of him making the set "easy"?
Totally, mate, totally. It's just one of a trillion examples of what he does to control the entire machine and protect his people. The way he does it, really, is so simple--there's this very famous football manager who says that "football is a very simple game complicated by ideas"--and I think the same applies for cinema. You've got guys that say that the only way to do a street scene is to block off a street and repopulate it with extras and actors--and Loach cuts right through it and just shows up, has his actors cross the road, say their lines, and that's that. I've had an AD say to me--on My Name is Joe--"Now, Peter, you can absolutely refuse to do this if you want," and so I'm worried and he says, "Ken wants you to run across the road and then run up to that liquor shop. Now Peter, these are real people and real cars." (laughs) I'm looking at this guy and I'm thinking, look, I think I can cross the fucking road--I'll be careful, I'm a big, broad, ugly man, I can handle it.
Does this cause an adjustment period with new cast and crew?
Aye, oh yeah. People look down on Ken if you can believe it. He's discreet, he doesn't shout, and people watching a film getting made get real disappointed when there isn't someone yelling "aaaand ACTION!" with a clap-board--that's "proper" filmmaking, but Ken doesn't do it. The biggest compliment I can give or get is that the set feels like a first-year student film--that's the atmosphere, and that calculated modesty is the genius to make the film that he wants to make. The only tip he actually gave me was to appear to be the most incompetent person on the set--the least capable. Some actors mistake that for Ken being an idiot, but I've seen the man knock over a coffee cup on purpose to make the actor feel like he's got the upper hand: "What am I nervous about, this guy's an absolute fuckin' prick, what was I getting so riled about?" That's genius.
"We're giving our culture over to the Nazis that produce deadly shit like Bringing Down the House and other such racist nonsense."
I wanted to talk about two things in Magdalene Sisters: the muted dialogue in the opening and closing that I loved, and the reference to The Passion of Joan of Arc that I thought was distracting.
The two are a little related, see,I like shearin' dialogue--I'm a big silent cinema fan. Obviously there are political and literal reasons for the muted dialogue at the beginning of the film--it's from the girls' point of view and they can't hear what's being planned for them and, for me, it was terribly important for me to try to convey that while this is clearly an Irish film, that I felt like it could happen anywhere.
It seems to implicate a societal guilt as well--a tacit feeling of "that which is not spoken."
Exactly right. The actors were incredibly generous: they knew they weren't wired, they knew we didn't have sound on them, and they went through it over and over again and for them to do it knowing that none of it would make it to the final cut, well, that was very generous of them. Also, there's afforded a kind of symmetry to have the closing as muted as the opening to suggest that communal complicity that you speak of--above and beyond the considerations that any kind of dialogue in the beginning and the end would sound like something out of Great Expectations. There are a lot of conventional, classic, western forms of exposition here that could apply, but instead of Dickens, let's go with a little of the paranoia of Kafka--a world where you're condemned with a whisper, a word you never hear and you're in deep shit.
And the eye shot?
That was a rush of blood to the head. For all we've been talking about Loach, you observe correctly that I'm not a social realist. I grew up on too many different films. As far as I'm aware, Ken hasn't seen so much as a Martin Scorsese--he doesn't watch other peoples' films. But I was brought up on cinema, on television, I was just a hundred yards from a single-screen cinema you know. My attitudes are way too esoteric. So as we shot the film in sequence, something I did learn from Ken, when it came to cutting the hair I just couldn't do the social realist shit anymore, I had to do something completely unsubtle and I wanted the nun to go insane on her fuckin' head. So I go to my DP, can I get just an eyeball? And then he says that I can get Geraldine [McEwen] too, and I say, "What's that? How?" and he gets it just right and Geraldine's reflection's in there. Now I'm scared, and my editor's scared and a little pissed off, because I didn't do any coverage--that was the shot, that was the day, and if it didn't work, we didn't have a fallback. So it was a risk, and we knew it was a risk, and it panicked me, but all I knew is that after the eyeball we were movin' on to the humiliation scene and... Mate, I'm always goin' to do it--I'm too restless, and I believe in a bigger palette. I admire the auteur, but I ain't the auteur--I can only be honest to myself and if I think it's right, I'll get a monkey to break into song--but that's immature to say you don't care I know. But I feel like if I can tell the story and make it vibrant and relevant, whatever, that's what I'm into--that's what I adore. I'm not rigid enough to be a true artist, y'know, I'm too mercurial.
The moment is really well done, but it feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.
Aye. My editor made the same complaint--he said that I've got no fallback and it's the only moment in the whole film where you jump into that school of shooting. And I said, "Ah, you're right, you're right. But what the hell, Jesus, you live once, you make a film once." Listen, let me tell you, I was at Cannes with two very famous arthouse directors who shall remain nameless, and I said to them, "Here's a hypothetical situation: I'll give you three million people in an audience with no guarantee they'll like a film--but there's three million people--or I'll give you the Palme d'or, or the Golden Lion, Golden Bear--whatever you fancy most. Choose." And without a second's hesitation, both went for the award. Let's think for a minute, three million people and they balked because there's no guarantee that they'd like the film. Why the fuck would you want the award? And the argument is that these bleeding awards are what goes on the headstones--but I'll be honest, I really wanted to put a live stick of dynamite up their arse.
I've talked a lot about the extent to which the arthouse crowd is almost more difficult to stomach than the mainstream anymore.
That's right, that's right--political correctness will be the death of us. More than that, those of us who fancy ourselves as cineastes it means that we've fuckin' abandoned the vast majority of people, given them right over to the fascists who run the cineplexes. We can't ghettoize ourselves in the arthouse, surround ourselves with this decorative moat and throw stones, when we all know that we'll be in that same multiplex on a Saturday night watching the same Hollywood crap that they've been slagging off the last couple of weeks. We're giving our culture over to the Nazis that produce deadly shit like Bringing Down the House and other such racist nonsense.
That's an appalling film.
Yeah--and I've now seen it twice! My daughter got it when we were stuck in this hotel in Los Angeles and my jaw dropped. Second time I was on an airplane in business class and it came on and I thought to myself, "Yeah, this'll be interesting"--there were three African-American gentlemen, you see, and I knew what was coming so I leaned back to watch them and they fuckin' laughed their little heads off and it was unbelievable.
Yes. The mystery isn't that Steve Martin gets Queen Latifah to wear a housemaid uniform--the mystery is what he's doing with that uniform, in her size, in the first place.
(laughs) Right. What's so reprehensible about it all is that it's not about political correctness when you talk about film like that--I could give a monkey's nut about that shit, no ethnic group is immune from satire. What I can't believe about that film is the caste segregation of that film, that this sort of malarkey would be acceptable to the tune of a hundred million. This horrendous, really sick, juvenile notion of redressing the balance when you wheel in Joan Plowright to sing that stupid fuckin' song--you're supposed to believe she's seventy-years-old and she talks like she's a hundred-and-seventy-years-old, but who gives a shit so long as Queen Latifah is there so we can exonerate ourselves, knowing that the old bird's being a patronizing coot when, no, Latifah's being a patronizing fucking bastard creating a cartoon of the world. An infantile fantasy to the tune of what, one-three-one million? That's the real worrying thing.
It's frustrating for a critic--I mean, what's our role when stuff like this breaks out despite our best attempts?
I bet. I had a great conversation with Atom Egoyan in Toronto, and he was feeling a similar frustration, from a different perspective of course, about the reception to his film Ararat. He was going to watch my picture the next day and we had a really good talk about how the big festivals aren't just about the cinema anymore--they're a part of the machine: the marketing strategy. The arthouse and the mass cinema is being driven now by the same monetary considerations, y'know, and we don't know how to get right to the people anymore--we have to get to good journalists like yourself, and talk about things that matter. The challenge for us is how do we get in there--to get in under the classifications, the clouds of marketing and bullshit, so that people will give the cinema a chance. And give you hope in our art, man, which you need.