INTERVIEW: Gangster Flick as Greek Tragedy: Paul McGuigan on "Gangster No. 1"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 06.17.02) — Scottish director Paul McGuigan is late for our interview. “I was kicking the ball about,” he apologizes in his thick accent the night after some heated World Cup games. Like any good U.K. native, McGuigan’s love affair for the sport is deep. In fact, McGuigan’s career kicked off with a celebrated documentary on the subject, “Football, Faith and Flutes,” about religion and soccer in Glasgow. His feature debut “The Acid House,” three stories adapted from Irvine Welsh, also opened with a lively round of diehard soccer playing. But McGuigan’s talents have considerably expanded in recent years and his second film, “Gangster No. 1” (which IFC Films opened in the U.S. last Friday) takes on the gangster genre with refreshing style and pathological intensity.
Starring Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind“) and living legend Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange“) as the unnamed title gangster at different stages in his life, “Gangster No. 1” follows the young upstart’s bloodthirsty rise to power in the swinging ’60s and his eventual fall in the ’90s. Bettany is also putting the finishing touches on his third directorial outing, “The Reckoning,” a 14th-century thriller that stars Bettany as a priest on the run, and he is prepping his first big budget picture, “Wicker Park,” an English-language remake (starring Josh Hartnett) of French suspenser “L’Appartement.”
McGuigan doesn’t seem fazed by his own recent rise to power, though. Confident, but humble, and speaking with a pronounced stutter, the new Scottish talent spoke with indieWIRE about the film’s long delayed U.S. release, letting the actor lead the camera, and getting at the truth.
indieWIRE: Why do you think it took so long to get “Gangster No. 1” released here? I heard that the word “cunt” presented a problem.
Paul McGuigan: If you’re going to sell a film to a world audience, the word “cunt” is a particularly hard one to penetrate. Up here, in Scotland and in England, the word isn’t necessarily a bad word; it could be a good word. You could say, “He seems like a nice cunt.” It can be a term of endearment. We don’t think twice about it. But in America, I think it’s quite a horrible word. But amongst the people I know, it’s not. For me, I love language and it’s why I choose scripts, it’s the language of them, it’s not about whether they’re going to be shot for 10 million or 100 million dollars, it’s the script. And I just loved the language of “Gangster.” For me, it was poetry. I would never have let it out without the language. Maybe if someone said “cunt” in a court of law that would be shocking, but in a home that belongs to a man who kills for a pastime, the word “cunt” is the least thing you should be worrying about.
iW: Since it was made three years ago, is it strange to still be talking about it?
McGuigan: No, not at all. It’s good to talk about it. Once you’ve been away from it for a while, it’s nice to look at it, and go, this is a good movie. Some of it I love and some of it I would love to change, but that’s not the way movies work. It was right for the time I shot it, but now, knowing what I do now, I might have changed a few things. I imagine any filmmaker would feel the same way.
iW: What would you want to change?
McGuigan: The ending. We never really had an ending. When we were shooting the film, I refused to shoot the ending that we had, because I knew it was wrong. We had an ending that had Gangster collapsing in the street. We had another ending that we couldn’t use. It had been written by someone who was on the movie previously, but then walked off, and he had taken the ending with him. So that’s when we came up with the ending on the roof.
iW: The same writers wrote “Sexy Beast,” right?
McGuigan: Yeah, they were the ones who walked off. That was all before I was involved. They had written “Gangster” and the guy who directed “Sexy Beast,” Jonathan Glazer, was supposed to direct “Gangster,” but he left for some reason, and so I was asked to direct it. They had written us a new ending, but they had refused us to use it.
iW: So what was the other ending?
McGuigan: Gangster is waiting for Freddie to get out of jail. Freddie arrives at the house and Gangster invites him in and he’s reconstructed Freddie’s car, his Aston Martin, in the living room, and Gangster goes into the car, and he starts revving the car and the smoke’s going everywhere. Freddie leaves and Gangster gets poisoned by the smoke of the car, and then he drives through the windows and drops off the high rise.
iW: Yeah, that’s good, that’s intense. It really deals with Gangster’s fascination for the car, the objects …
McGuigan: How he loves the car and the cufflinks. All those details and obsessions that make you know this guy’s off his nut. He doesn’t have a life of his own; he’s just taken Freddie’s life upon himself, and he really has nothing. So that scene really says what this man’s life’s about.
iW: Because of this obsession with details, the film really has this very glossy look. That opening scene in the club just pops.
McGuigan: I come from a photography background. I used to take photographs, and therefore, I am obsessed with the way things look.
iW: But you also did these gritty documentaries.
McGuigan: Yes, I am a documentary filmmaker. I just did a new one for the BBC about kids on smack. They didn’t give me a script, I just went out and got a couple of kids who were hooked on the stuff and we made a script about their lives. It’s a very unusual piece. I love doing stuff that’s just me shooting it. It reminds you of why you’re doing this in the first place.
iW: Does the documentary work — this real-life harsh stuff — help you get into the dramatic worlds you create?
McGuigan: The great thing about doing that stuff is you can tell when someone is telling you the truth. And that’s what you’re going after all the time, the realism of it. And when you’re doing something like “Gangster,” and someone isn’t doing something that you believe in, you know straight away, because I’ve done lots of stuff with the people who are really like that. So when someone gives me a performance that I don’t believe, I’ll say I don’t believe that and I know why. In “Gangster,” in the scene where Paul says, “Look into my eyes,” when we were auditioning, everybody shouted that, apart from Paul. And I thought that’s scary. Because they have so much confidence, why should they shout? That’s the kind of thing you can rely on when you’ve been shooting real life drama.
iW: You did some actual shooting yourself on “Gangster No. 1”?
McGuigan: Yeah, I tend to pick up the camera a lot. What I like about it is that I think the camera should not tell the person in front of the camera what to do. The camera shouldn’t move the actor; it’s the actor that should move the camera. For instance, if I was to move left, and I knew you were going to move left, and I knew exactly where you were going to stop, then the camera is one step ahead of everybody, so it doesn’t seem real. There’s no sense of the tension. For “Gangster No. 1,” Paul would always move me. The focus goes soft for a while, and then goes sharp again, and that always gives the sense of something real happening.
Why should you have an actor land on a piece of tape? He’s not a performing dog. Obviously, you can’t have him go into the shadows, but if you and your cameraman can work out roughly where he’s going to go, you can still light it in a beautiful way, and give them that freedom, that sense of who they are, rather than say, “See that big orange mark there, pretend not to look down, but that’s where you’ve got to land.” I don’t want to make films like that. That freaks out some people, because they’re not totally in control. Why do I pick up the camera? Because you never know what the hell is going to happen, because I’m not very good at it. But that’s what makes it good. So it will go soft, it will go out of focus, it won’t be perfectly framed, and I like that.
I storyboard everything, but only for piece of mind. Because if all else fails, you go back to the storyboards. But I recently looked at the “Gangster” storyboards the other day, and it was remarkable how close they are to the film. I thought at the time that I was throwing them out and completely deviating from that, but because storyboards take a long time to do, they’re etched in your head and therefore, you subconsciously keep to them, even though you think you’re being freewheeling.
iW: Do you think you’ll be able to maintain that looser aesthetic on bigger films?
McGuigan: The next one I’m doing is this Josh Hartnett, $25 million movie, but what’s great is that Lakeshore, the company who is making it, told me the reason they’re asking me to do it is because they loved “Gangster.” They loved the style of it. That’s what they’re paying into. They’re saying, “Don’t change that. Don’t allow us to change you into some slick filmmaker, otherwise, we would get somebody who is a slick filmmaker.” Slick in the sense that the camera moves very smoothly in scenes. I tend to use a lot of handheld. Even in the last film I did, which is this medieval film [“The Reckoning“], the first thing I thought about was why in a medieval film does the camera not move; I mean, the camera is not medieval. So we built a medieval town, so I could shoot 360 degrees without having to do CGI.
iW: I feel like there is the ghost of a young Malcolm McDowell, especially from “Clockwork Orange,” haunting much of “Gangster”?
McGuigan: The stuff he did with Lindsay Anderson is really his best work. Okay, “Clockwork Orange” is a great piece of work, but Lindsay Anderson got something amazing out of this man. He’s the one, I thought, if I could get him, that would be it. I had to fly to Los Angeles and go to his house and knock on the door. He had already read the script. I think he liked the fact that we came out there and I said, “Look, we can’t pay you much. But it’s a great part.” And it is a great part, because he has done a lot of crap. And he wouldn’t mind me saying that.
iW: Along with Bettany and McDowell, you also had David Thewlis. This is a really great group of actors.
McGuigan: They are beautiful men outside of the work. There they were, chatting away and I thought, you can’t fail but make something good with those guys. And something strong, and something powerful and something that takes a chance. Because why make a movie of this kind if you’re going to pull a punch? I was like, “Fuck it.” If we’re going to do a gangster movie, we can’t do one of these “Lock, Stock” type movies, because Guy Ritchie is a master of it.
iW: I remember thinking, “No, not another gangster film.” At the time, we were saturated with these British gangster movies.
McGuigan: Just before “Gangster” came out, I was saying that “Gangster” wasn’t a gangster movie; it was a Greek tragedy. It was shame it was called “Gangster No. 1.” There were too many gangster movies being made, because we were all trying to be like you guys, trying to do American stuff like Scorsese. I wanted to make a gangster movie like someone from Japan or Hong Kong might. That’s where a lot of the clothes and style came from.
iW: So you have “Wicker Park”? Do you know what’s next?
McGuigan: Well, that should take me to spring next year. Then there’s talk of me doing a film with Paul [Bettany] about the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones who was killed. It’s the last few weeks of his life, it’s not a bio-pic. That would be great. You have to think that this might not go on for long. I feel pretty confident in what I do, but I’m not confident in how people react to it.