Shooting in Sequence, Dramatic De-escalation, and Feline Brutality. Interview with Starred Up director David Mackenzie

Generally when I see a film, and I plan to review it, I take my note pad out and prepare some bullet-point notes to later expand on and form into a review, a short article, and/or interview.  At the close of David Mackenzie’s latest film, Starred Up, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, I found myself frozen stiff (from the film), looking down at a completely blank page of should-have-been notes.  I thought, how am I going to prepare an interview with this man if I have not written anything down about his film?  I’ve learned over the years that great films really stick to me, and that they never go away, tending to reappear sporadically.  So I figured that if Starred Up is truly as great as I think it is, it will come back to me in thought, image, and sound, and help me find my way to some hopefully relevant questions.
British filmmaker David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) has kindly donated to us a virile, gutsy, and balls-to-the-wall prison film with Starred Up.  As he put it himself, it is a family-reunion movie smuggled into a prison-genre film.  Despite my lack of experience with incarceration, I feel comfortable in saying that this film is as authentic as it gets, when it comes to portraying the brutality and quotidian life of inmates. 
The story revolves around teenager Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), who is starred up, or upgraded, to an adult penitentiary, due to his extremely violent and dangerous nature. Love quickly adapts to the hands-on, prison demeanor and finds himself watching his own back, as there are few people, if any, to trust.  Harsh prison ways do not intimidate the young man, but he soon does find someone who can rival his anger and dueling ways, his biological father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn).  Eric finds a sort of “Safe Haven,” a group-therapy session with other inmates (led by former convict Oliver, Rupert Friend), where he can retire and find a welcoming cove he never had outside of prison.  This encounter will prove crucial in Eric’s growth as a man, through one of the most mentally challenging periods of his incarceration. The prison will test Eric, as well as the other inmates’ ability to trust, cope with anger, coexist with other mentally wounded violent men, and possibly confront emotions they have always neglected or brushed aside.  In Eric’s case, the test lies mainly in his relationship with his father, Neville, the only man he seems to fear.  
I do not believe I have ever seen such a violent film with no gratuitous violence.  Mackenzie sets up a world that seems documentary-like, bringing the spectator inside a privy place without manipulating us into it.  The tension and range of emotions I felt while watching this film were off the charts, and I did not need a grandiose soundtrack or score to push me toward those feelings.  The story, direction, and acting were spot-on and coexisted without ever battling each other for space.  It is quite evident that every person working on this film was making the same movie.  Jack O’Connell has proven that he is a force to be reckoned with, and a terrific actor.  David Mackenzie was able to brilliantly guide his army (cast and crew) through unchartered territories and new filmmaking tactics without ever losing a beat.  In due time I believe this film will become a contemporary prison classic.  Of the approximately thirty movies I saw during Tribeca, Starred Up stood out to me as the most honest and best realized motion picture.  Here are my precious fifteen minutes with David Mackenzie, a filmmaker whose future projects I eagerly await to see.
—Marco Agnolucci      

Agnolucci: How did you adapt your shot selection and camera angles to the space you were confined to in the prison?  I know you like to change the filmmaking process to fit the material.  Did you find that the space’s limitations provided you more freedom to find a visual truth within each scene?

Mackenzie:Yes.  First of all, I think that the jail itself was innately quite cinematic.  There are many frames, long corridors, angles looking down, angles looking up—so that lent itself to things.  There were things that the camera naturally wanted to go to, so I never had to force anything.  But I also had a policy for the first time in my career, with my DP Michael, that, where possible, we wouldn’t let the camera dictate the action.  We would let the action dictate the camera—so wherever possible, following what’s going on. 
There was quite a lot of improvisation as well.  Obviously, there were some shots in the film that were a bit more orchestrated than others, and when we had to do some of the stunts, we had to be a bit more careful. But, in general, it was more of letting the actors do what they need to do, and we will follow them.  We will catch up, even if we miss some stuff; it didn’t matter.  That was kind of liberating for us.  In a cell, there are only a few ways you can shoot it.  And we shot on anamorphic lenses, so that made it even tighter.  But somehow with the anamorphic lenses, the shots kind of found themselves. 

Agnolucci: There was very little music in your film, which allowed the spectator to feel almost like another prisoner observing this world, as if they were a part of it.  Almost like watching a detailed documentary within a private space.  Was this a decision you made prior to shooting or later in the editing room?

Mackenzie: We made a decision to have virtually no music in the film quite early on in the process, months before we started shooting.  It felt right.  It felt like this didn’t want to have music pushing you into an emotional place; it wanted the emotions to come out in their own right.  But what I decided to do was to do the music myself, as a non-musician.  I’m always trying to do interesting things with music, and I’ve worked with some great composers; but I thought that rather than asking a musician to be non- musical, and just kind of provide washes or sound, why not ask a non-musician like myself.  So I had a great thumb in postproduction, spending a week in a studio with a friend of mine (but also a very good producer), who then became a co-composer.  It’s not musical, but it’s a little bit more musical than it could have been.  So there are beds of that throughout the film. And towards the end, it kind of picks up into something a bit more.  It was a really interesting experiment; and now we’ve re-mixed some of those sounds, and we are going to release a limited-edition album.  I am really pleased with not leading the emotions with the music very much at all.

Agnolucci: The level of tension in the anger-management group for prisoners was unbearable and palpable.  The strength of those explosive moments rendered the comedy in those scenes, when it came up, even funnier.  How did you approach and work with the actors to reach those intimate moments that had to work?          

Mackenzie: Well, the group scenes were among my favorites in the movie, because we shot the movie in story order, in sequence.  Normally, we would have been in that room, shot out all those scenes, and gone away.  Instead we kept the actors. They stayed around four or five days between scenes, had a chance to evolve their character, and the story in the meantime moved on; so Jack’s character was going to be in a different place.  Because there was quite a lot of text written, my schedule time was usually a little bit longer, and it was a very tight schedule.  I had about an extra hour than normal.  So it was always kind of a relief to go in this room.  We tried to improvise the beginning and the end of the scene, and then hit the actual written scene in the middle.  So the energy was up, and it felt like it was as real as possible.  They were at full speed by the time they hit the middle section.  They evolved lots of the film.  Each time we went into the room, Michael and I, we shot it in a slightly different style.  Each time it had a different energy and it was good fun. 
It was not a pleasant shoot in some ways, because of what it was trying to reflect; but those scenes were always a joy.  And the guys did an amazing job.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a scene where Des (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) and Hassan (Anthony Welsh), after something very mundane, start escalating into a fight that gets really very serious, and then they de-escalate.  And the de-escalation doesn’t deflate in a linear manner, it jumps up and down.  In rehearsals, we did this scene with Jonathan and with two or three extras, where something like that actually happened.  It got hairy, and then it started de-escalating.  And I said to John, we must write a scene like this, because all the drama of escalation we are familiar with, but we’re not familiar with the drama of de-escalation.  It’s almost more dramatic, because you think it’s going to go back up again.  That’s one of the other things in the film about the tension of that.  You have a hostile environment, which is explosive, and so you have that kind of almost Hitchcockian tension-device that runs through. And Jonathan and I worked hard to create lines of tension that would be relentless for ten/fifteen minutes, and then it goes for one scene, and then it comes back with a line of tension.  So it’s quite relentless.        

Agnolucci: Tell us about the lessons you learned while making this film—such as shooting in sequence, filming full-fledged rehearsals, and editing while shooting the film. 

Mackenzie: Very positive. I would love to do it all again.  There’s this old cliché that when you make a film you make three films.  You make the script, you make the shoot, and you make the edit.  They are three different films.  In this case, having the writer on board as well as the editor at the same time compressed those processes, so we’re all making the same film.  Going sequentially also really helped that.  We showed the film at the wrap party, which was amazing to get there.  We were all on the journey together, which was great.  I would like to continue to do that, if we can, because it feels like there’s a much cleaner line between process and result than you normally have. 

Agnolucci: How long did you have the prison space for?

Mackenzie: We shot in the prison for four weeks, with about a month prior in the space preparing. 

Agnolucci: Were you guys all living in that area during that time?

Mackenzie: The actors didn’t have trailers; they had cells.  We gave them a little bed and a little heater.  They didn’t sleep there.  Well, one of the actors did; he’s a method actor, that’s Spencer (Peter Ferdinando).  Even the security guards didn’t want to go there, because they feel like that place is haunted; but Peter said that he slept like a baby.  I always had a respect for method actors who did those kind of things. 

Agnolucci: Did you acquire a better overview of the story while being able to see the footage that was being edited as you went along?  

Mackenzie: For obvious reasons, at the end of each week, we would sit down with the cast who wanted to watch and see the story so far.  We would kind of go, “Oh ok, this is good; this is what I think of all of this,” and we would get a sense of it.  Some things, they evolve as well, like the script which changed a bit towards the end. 

Agnolucci: How did you approach the prison world?  What was the extent of your research?

Mackenzie: Well, Jonathan (Jonathan Asser), the writer, has worked in prisons a lot, so he’s a major resource.  Some of his ex-group guys, who are now out of prison, helped us a lot.  We also had quite a few ex-prison officers who helped us understand the rhythms of that life.  So it was a combination of those, as well as filming in the real existing architecture of a prison, really helped, and was enough for us to get what we needed out of it.

Agnolucci: How did you plan the fight scenes prior to working with stunt men?  Did you storyboard them with a clear idea of the visuals?  

Mackenzie: Not really, no.  The stunt director and I tried to make things feel messy, real, quick, and breathless.  So, they would rehearse with themselves, not the actors.  We would then shoot them, cut them, take a look at the sequences, and we’d debate and refine them.  Then we would bring the actors in, and they would get them to do it.  So it was a rehearsal/pre-visualization kind of thing.  I was scared that—because it was a short shoot to have all these stunts in the film—the stunts would be compromised in some way, or slow us down, or look like they were part of a different movie.  The guys did a really good job, and they integrate pretty well into the rest of the movie; so it feels like it belongs.

Agnolucci: Why did you have to tell THIS story?

Mackenzie: It’s hard to answer that question.  I read a script that appealed to me.  I liked the idea of telling a story written by somebody who had a really strong understanding of the world with some very specific details.  It felt like a different journey than I’d been on before.  I liked the fact that it was a very hard world, that it was a confined world with a limited palette, and that you could push to the very edge of the envelope with that palette.  I liked the idea that within the hardness there is an opportunity to look for some vulnerability, some humanity, and some softness, and that felt like the game of smuggling a family-reunion movie into a prison-genre film.  It felt like an interesting thing to do.

Agnolucci: How much coverage did you shoot?  Any?  Your film was so fluidly edited.  Did you have an idea of the tempos and rhythms you wanted, or did shooting work that out for you? 

Mackenzie: The editing process was so intuitive.  I worked with two editors, one who I’ve worked with a lot before, the other with whom I had never worked with before, and they both had different tastes and different ideas.  It was about aligning both of those things to breed.  And, if necessary, you are putting some guidance in there.  But a lot of it, because I was busy shooting, and they were busy cutting, was down to them.  There are long, Steadycam shots that are designed not to be cut, and we were deliberately not overcutting.  We had two cameras, so there were coverage options even with scenes that were improvised only the same way once.  On a twenty-four-day shoot, with that matched material, I wasn’t covering the ass of it.  We were doing limited coverage when necessary.  Twenty-four days didn’t seem like it was enough time to make the film, but in fact it was.  Actually, I’m glad it was such a tight process, because it energized us in a good way.  It was an advert for low-budget filmmaking in a way.  If we had more luxury, we would have had a different type of atmosphere.

Agnolucci: Do you have a new project ready?  What’s next?

Mackenzie: I’m preparing a pilot for AMC at the moment, which is sci-fi; well, you wouldn’t know it was sci-fi till the end of the episode.  It’s set five hundred years in the future in a survivalist community in the mountains of Utah.  They’ve converted to being hunter/gatherers after a biotech catastrophe.  It’s pretty cool. We’re building a village in the mountains, and I’ve never done TV before, so I’m learning all about that process.  That’s a three month project, and then I’m back, and I’ve got two or three other projects, and I don’t know which one will hit the ground running, but I’d love to do another movie this year.

Agnolucci: Please list, and elaborate on, five films that changed your view on life and altered the way you perceived films to be made.

Mackenzie: When I was eighteen I had a brief stint living in Melbourne, Australia, next to a cinema, and I saw four or five films that made me want to become a filmmaker, so I guess they are kind of important. 
I saw 2001, I saw Koyaanisqatsi.  After Koyaanisqatsi, which I saw under the influence of some marijuana, I exited the cinema, and I saw a guy pick up a cat, by its tail, and whack its head on the pavement.  It was one of the most brutal things I had ever seen in my life.  I had no idea; there was no context at all.  I was just coming out of the cinema after seeing this really trippy movie, still feeling a bit stoned, and I witnessed this horrendous event.  The image was incredible. 
Then Derek Jarman’s film, Caravaggio. 
Jean-Luc Godard’s film,  Alphaville.
And my favorite film of them all is Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, which I saw four times in one week, and it blew my mind.  So those five films all occurred in about a two week period in my life.  I came out of the other side of that wanting to be a filmmaker.  I could give you another list now, but I feel like those five films, spontaneously telling you, are the right ones.  

Agnolucci:  You worked with some fantastic actors that were extremely open and gave you knockout performances.  What did you learn from Jack O’Connell, Rupert Friend, Ben Mendelsohn, and the others?

Mackenzie:  Well, I learned that there is a lot of trust going on in this film.  Rupert said that it was one of the freest sets he’d ever worked on.  I try to be as free as possible with them.  I tried to let them explore their characters and be responsible for their characters, and let them find their way through stuff.  Obviously, all other methods that have been talked about were useful to that.  Learning to trust, and getting trust back, is an amazing part of the process.  Be comfortable with information, be comfortable with just letting it happen, was something I learned in a strong way.  They are all very different actors, and they gave their all.  Nobody was holding anything back. That was because of the material, because of the atmosphere, hopefully some of the direction, and because of their courage. 


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