INTERVIEW: Scotland's Indie Film "Orphan" Peter Mullan
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/2.25.2000) — Working class folks mired in their miserable lives have never been directed with so much dark humor and affection as in Peter Mullan‘s directorial debut “Orphans.” More accessible, fresh, and flat out entertaining than your average UK social realist drama, the Scottish-born Mullan has proved himself just as worthy a director as an actor (he won a prize in Cannes last year for his title role in Ken Loach‘s “My Name Is Joe” followed by a strong performance in Mike Figgis‘ “Miss Julie“).
Winner of 4 awards at the Venice Film Festival, “Orphans” tells the heart-wrenching story of four adult siblings getting over the death of their mother over the course of a single night in Glasgow; there’s the self-righteous Thomas (Gary Lewis), the hot-headed slacker Michael (Douglas Henshall), the sensible sister with cerebral palsy, Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), and the young and confused John (Stephen McCole). What follows is a crazy combination of angst and antics, culminating in a storm that literally blows the roof off of standard reality, turning the film into something much more than a simple look at mourning.
Calling in from the frigid mountains of Kananaskis, Canada where Mullan is shooting Michael Winterbottom‘s latest “Kingdom Come,” the actor-filmmaker spoke in depth about his film and what it took to get made. Particularly astonishing was Mullan’s struggles with Channel Four Films; the company burned all of Mullan’s remaining outtakes three months before the film was released. Mullan’s outrage on the matter (“these fuckin’ Channel Four assholes”), as well as his insight into genre and performance, came forth in a recent discussion with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman.
The film will be released this Friday as part of the Shoting Gallery Film Series.
[And for a deeper look into the set of “Kingdom Come,” the production’s website is not to be missed: www.kingdomcomemovie.com, which includes daily call sheets, daily rushes viewed with QuickTime 4, continuity lists, weather conditions and virtual tours of the set, interviews with the production team, and submitted questions to cast members such as Nastassja Kinski, Sarah Polley, and Wes Bentley. Join the production as they hit week 5.]
indieWIRE: With many of the directors we’ve come to know from the UK, we often expect this very social realist kind of filmmaking (Ken Loach, Mike Leigh), but your film is a strange, wonderful hybrid of genres that I think takes people off guard.
Peter Mullan: I didn’t set out to find a new genre. As best as I could, I wanted to reflect the experience of these characters, i.e. I wanted something personal, I wanted the audience to feel what they felt, which means hopefully they would not know whether they should laugh or cry all the way through the film. Some people enjoy it for that reason, some don’t. But for me, that was the main reason to make it and for making it the way I did. I didn’t want it to be confined to social realism or some hip, trendy type. I just wanted it to be as painfully honest as possible. That was the only sort of reasoning I had behind it.
iW: What I love about the movie is that it is somewhat social realism, but there is really this poetic, metaphoric level.
Mullan: It’s great if people get it on that level. If they don’t get it on that level, then fine, they can hopefully still enjoy this particular journey. I like the idea of a fairly classical structure, but making it as universal as possible. To look at the plight of all of us in terms of accepting the crises in one’s lives and how the hell do we get on with it. The various routes that the characters take were variations on how I felt after my mother died. There are moments where you want to wallow in self-pity, there are moments where you want to scream at the moon, there’s moments that defy rationale, when the world seems to be more insane than you are. I just liked the idea, on a very simple level, over the course of a night, you could take these people on these different journeys.
iW: When you were working on the script, at what point, did you begin thinking, I’m going to take it to that next level – and literally blow the roof off of things?
Mullan: I think when anybody writes, there are days when there’s no other way to describe yourself as just mischievous. And I was feeling particular mischievous when it came to the church business. There’s a wonderful tradition of English social realism, which I really enjoy watching, but I was more mischievous, and I felt the film was starting to maybe trudge along in the same direction. So I felt like literally just tearing the roof off of it. The films that I really enjoy now are films that are made by, for wont of a better word, mavericks. I think there are a lot of films that get made to that very staid formula and that also applies to independent cinema. Independent cinema, as much as commercial cinema, has to be careful that we don’t come up with another set of rules and another set of orthodoxies that you have to follow. Like for instance, excuse me, this is a realist film, you can’t have a guy carry a coffin on his back. You just think, why the hell not? If it works, it works. When I was writing it, I was conscious that I didn’t want to fall into any particular cage.
“I didn’t want it to be confined to social realism or some hip, trendy type. I just wanted it to be as painfully honest as possible.”
iW: Working with a director like Loach, what did you gain from him, as far as understanding the social realist drama?
Mullan: I’ve always been a fan of Ken’s work. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, we’d finished shooting “Orphans” when I did “My Name is Joe.” So we’d literally finished cutting the film on a Friday and I started working on “My Name is Joe” on Monday. And then six weeks later, I started to do post-production on “Orphans.” It was interesting; I think if I had worked on Ken in such depth before shooting “Orphans,” I’m sure it would have been completely different. Because Ken is a master of his craft. In some respect, maybe it was better that it worked out the way it did, because if I had just finished doing something like “Joe,” then I know I would have approached “Orphans” completely differently. I really respect it. But as a filmmaker, just now, I want to do something different and push it in some other directions.
iW: But working so closely with actors would be pretty much the same, no matter what the film, yes?
Mullan: No. It depends on the type of films. Some films, because of the nature of the script, require the actor to work in very short bursts, you know, you sit around all day long and then you take an hour to do a scene. When you work with somebody like Ken or on “Orphans,” which is very heavily character-led, the actors really have to concentrate throughout the course of a day. They rarely get a break, like, ‘this is the scene where you get on the bus.’ If you’re doing large scenes, it does mean more time sitting around. So the process changes.
iW: What about the films you want to make? It occurs to me that your work would always be character-driven?
Mullan: Oh, yeah, definitely. I’m not a huge kind of visual director. For me, it’s all about the acting. There’s no greater buzz than working with actors and seeing what they can do and how much they can improve on what you’d written. That will always be on the top of my list. It’s a real privilege to see it live before anyone else sees it.
iW: Did you ever think of acting in it yourself?
Mullan: I wasn’t allowed. I was told under no circumstances can you be in this film — that’s what they said, these fuckin’ Channel Four assholes. That’s what they said to me from Day One. I had no intention of being in it, but the more they said to me — you’re not to be in this — the more tempted I was to make damn certain that I was going to be in it. And then, you’ll never guess what happened. We go to Cannes, and my performance in “My Name is Joe” gets Best Actor, and as well as deciding not to distribute “Orphans,” then they [Channel Four] said, “But why weren’t you in it? It would have made such a difference to the marketing.” These fuckers told me under no circumstances was I to be in it, so don’t give me this shit. Oh, they drove me insane.
“And the real ‘piece du resistance’ was fuckin’ finding out in December that Channel 4 had burned, physically burned, all my outtakes. . . And I still, can you believe this, have not received any written explanation as to how that happened. Again, it’s the fuckin’ arrogance.”
iW: Why did Channel Four refuse you from acting in the first place? You’d done some big films before; you had a good track record?
Mullan: It was the old regime. Basically, it was a power thing. They wanted to assert themselves, thus the reason they said it, even though I never requested it. The bottom line is, if I wanted to be in it, I would have been in it, and they could have taken their money and shoved it up their asses. They threatened to take us to court over “My Name is Joe,” even though they were part financing the film. They threatened us with legal proceedings if I played the part of Joe. And it was the most bizarre experience. They were on the phone saying, “You are not to do this, we don’t care what Ken is saying.” And I said, “Okay,” because we’d just shot Orphans, “Fine, you’re my boss” – at the moment, you’ll fuckin’ never be again – “but you’re my boss for now.” And than I got a phone call from Ken saying, “Good news, Channel 4 agreed to let you off to do ‘My Name is Joe.'” We’d already received a fax that they were going to take us to court, and he said he’d just talked to David Aukin, who was the head at the time, and he said, “We had a very constructive conversation.” So Ken somehow talked him around 360 fuckin’ degrees and I was stuck in the middle.
And basically from that point on, they made life really difficult for us, as far as “Orphans” as concerned. They always wanted to see various cuts of the film, and it would take days for us to go down to London and then come back to Glasgow. They were never happy with the fact that we cut the film in Glasgow. Film Four, like many of these people, are very London-centric, so quite deliberately, we decided to do the post-production [away from London].
iW: You said “Orphans” was not released by Film Four, yes?
Mullan: They refused. They gave us final cut, watched the film, and phoned us in February 1998 that we hadn’t got into the Berlin Film Festival, and that they weren’t going to distribute. After that, I received no letters, nothing; we were completely abandoned. So when I got to Cannes and “My Name Is Joe” was in Competition, and “Orphans” was in the market, so I was going from one extreme to another, from walking on the red carpet to people walking out of your film. Then we went to Venice that September and picked up four awards and Channel 4 asked for it back. They asked if they could distribute it, please. And I told them, quote, “I’d rather burn in fuckin’ hell.” Again, it was one of those situations where they had no real opinions of their own. So what they did was waited until the audience responded in Venice in the way they did and then it all changed. Without Venice, we would have been sunk. I don’t think we would have got distribution. So in the UK, a distribution company called Downtown distributed in England and Scotland.
It was fear on their parts, and apathy. People in the UK are very defensive about “Orphans”. They know when something is getting a kicking for no reason. And the real ‘piece du resistance’ was fuckin’ finding out in December that Channel 4 had burned, physically burned, all my outtakes. I had 40 minutes of stuff that I cut out of the film. Of that 40 minutes, I swear if someone had said to me, if you don’t put this in the film, we’re going to burn it without your permission, I swear I would have put 20 minutes of it back into the film, because there was some beautiful performances. And I still, can you believe this, have not received any written explanation as to how that happened. Again, it’s the fuckin’ arrogance. They don’t even think that the least they could do is write down and explain.
iW: Were you able to take any legal actions?
Mullan: Apparently, we were on the American copyright thing, where you waive all rights or they won’t give you the money to make the film. If we had worked under European rules, I probably could have sued them for millions.
iW: It’s horrible.
Mullan: Oh, honest to God, it was one of the worst days of my life. I thought there’s no way they can hurt me anymore. They’ve done everything; they tried everything. They can’t hurt me anymore. Then to receive a phone call that these fuckin’ barbarians had burned my film. They burned it three months before we were even released. And [Film Four’s] Paul Webster said on the phone, and he was very apologetic, “I wouldn’t blame you if you took this personally,” [he laughs bitterly], “but it’s nothing personal.” And it’s like, you burned my film, you fuckin’ sons-of-a-bitches. And you don’t even have the wherewithal to actually explain, because they’ll never ever tell me exactly what happened, because it would reveal a level of incompetence at the heart. That’s the worrying thing, because Film Four is at the epicenter of British independent filmmaker and they run around burning film without a second thought.