Tough Talk with “Young Adam” Director David Mackenzie
by Liza Bear
Barge life has its own dynamic, its own necessities and its own behavioral code. David Mackenzie‘s new film “Young Adam” (opening today from Sony Pictures Classics) based on Alexander Trocchi‘s 1954 novella, glows with the stellar performances of Ewan McGregor as disgruntled writer Joe, Tilda Swinton as Ella the barge-owner, Peter Mullen as her husband Les, and Emily Mortimer as Joe’s former girlfriend Cathy. On first viewing, style-sumptuous cinematography, lingering detail, a blue grey palette, the languid motion of the barge, a nimble flashback structure — overwhelms content. On second viewing, maybe not as much.
“Young Adam” triangulates in various ways: as two men on a barge working for a woman; one above deck, the other below. Joe, the hired hand, fucks her while Les, who doesn’t, is out drinking. Or steering the barge. Or as one man and two women, one [Cathy] dredged up from the bottom of a canal and the subject of an ongoing investigation, the other [Ella] wordless in Joe’s arms.
The close quarters of barge living fuel passion; slivers of space and time for fucking between shifts ratchet up the suspense. It’s a grimy hardscrabble world in which basic sex relieves the hard chores of daily life. Both the barges plying the canals that link Glasgow to Edinburgh and the coal they hauled belong to another era. Pleasure barges have replaced them. There’s lots of custard but no butter in “Young Adam,” which shares with “Last Tango in Paris” a NC-17 rating; like the blistering and equally ill-fated raw desert trysts of Dumont‘s “Twentynine Palms,” Scottish canal sex tends to frequent but fully clothed, not out of ’50s prudishness but because of the weather.
For nine years David Mackenzie, a Glaswegian originally from Perthshire sought to bring Alexander Trocchi’s 1954 novella, “Young Adam,” to the screen. The handsomely mounted result bears little resemblance to Jean Vigo‘s classic, “L’Atalante,” in story or sensibility, yet it retains that author’s fascination with the melancholy rhythms of barge life. David MacKenzie was in New York during Tartan Week, when he went head-to-head with indieWIRE about some of the themes in his film.
indieWIRE: There seems to be a thriving film scene in Scotland. Danny Boyle, Lynne Ramsay…
David Mackenzie: It’s looking good. But compared to Denmark, Scotland’s got a long way to go. My production company co-produced “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself” (Danish director Lone Scherfig‘s Glasgow-set film)… But I’m happy to work anywhere — not just Glasgow. The last film I made, “Asylum” [from Patrick McGrath‘s novel] was shot in England. We got a fantastic Victorian mental hospital in Leeds that had just closed, with long corridors and mosaic floors. They’d never build one like that nowadays. But the novel was a lot more difficult to adapt than “Young Adam,” which is a novella with 180 pages.
iW: Did you change it a lot during the adaptation?
Mackenzie: No… I added the scene where Joe jumps in the canal to save the boy as a way to externalize things going on inside Joe’s head. And also it was based on a personal experience of mine on a canal barge in France as a kid when I was ducking a bucket and pulled into the water. It was very easy. It took me two months to write the script.
iW: How difficult was it to shoot on a barge?
Mackenzie: The barge was a nightmare. We were working on two different canals that had different gauges. We found a barge that was four inches too wide for the narrowest point of the narrower canal. So we had to build one. There aren’t many barges left because the canals haven’t been functional in Britain or Scotland, apart from pleasure purposes, for 30-40 years. The year before we started shooting they renovated, which was great, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to shoot in the real canals [between Glasgow and Edinburgh] that the novel is set in.
iW: How did you build the barge for shooting?
Mackenzie: We made holes along the side that we could hang rigging from. It was supposed to be this ingenious system that would take five minutes to set up and dismantle. It took more like two hours. Also the newly renovated canal was not dredged very deep, so every time we had to reverse the barge, it churned up all the silt, and the propeller got snagged. Very frustrating. It’s hard to steer a barge.
iW: Was this a project that was brought to you?
Mackenzie: No, it was a passion of mine. I read Alexander Trocchi’s book about nine years ago and it’s taken me that long to get it off the ground.
iW: I suppose you saw Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante” when you were growing up.
Mackenzie: Not only then, but many, many times since.
iW: Was the draw to “Young Adam” primarily because the story was set in Scotland in this very moody landscape?
Mackenzie: Partly. And the idea of this industrial world that has disappeared from Scotland. When I was a kid we had barge holidays because my father was an admiral in the Navy. But I was also drawn to the character of Joe — the novel is written in the first person — and to the idea of a story that’s morally ambiguous, kind of an anti-hero story with film noir inflexions.
iW: Actually I didn’t find Joe’s character morally ambiguous at all. I saw the way he behaves as having sex of opportunity, sex of convenience. He seemed a classic heel. And that at the end he has a little twinge of conscience but doesn’t really push through.
Mackenzie: A Bad Samaritan. Somebody not unlike you or I. Somebody who’s not quite brave enough to do what they might be able to do.
iW: Do you really see yourself like that?
Mackenzie: Do you think we’re all brave? I suspect that most of us will raise our head above the parapet on the odd occasion, but most of us will cower beneath it most of the time. I don’t know. Maybe we’re so used to film characters being heroic that it’s difficult to understand antiheroes.
iW: Well, there are lots of films in which women are trashed by men. At least Ella is the owner of her barge so there’s one woman in charge while the other one’s being abused.
Mackenzie: Who’s being abused?
iW: She wasn’t being abused?
Mackenzie: Um… no, not really.
iW: Oh, well, having custard thrown all over you, then ketchup and then being …
Mackenzie: It seems that your opinion [about this scene] is not an opinion that I would want people to have. I wanted a snapshot of a relationship in action in which people have arguments and rows and can be cruel to each other and able to make up.
iW: I’ve gotten this reaction to that scene from other women who saw the film. It’s complicated though, because your story is set in the ’50s, pre…
Mackenzie: It’s a pre-feminist story, yeah. I see Cathy as being the love of Joe’s life.
iW: But what about from her point of view, not his?
Mackenzie: She throws him out of the flat. She regrets it. Later, when they encounter each other in the street by accident and she tells him she’s pregnant, she’s the one that actively re-seduces him…
iW: Well, she wants a dad for her kid!
Mackenzie: So you’re giving a mitigating circumstance.
iW: A mitigating circumstance! That’s a bit of an understatement.
Mackenzie: Let’s hold off the feminist stuff. It’s nonsense. I was very, very conscious in this story to make the relationships between Joe and all the women as balanced as they possibly could be. None of the women are going into their encounters with Joe with their eyes closed. Both in the novel and in the film Joe says he’s not interested in relationships unless they’re mutual. We’re allowed to be postfeminist, aren’t we?
iW: Oh, you can do whatever you want as a filmmaker.
Mackenzie: Isn’t it more about loneliness and…
iW: I doubt whether your film will be judged entirely or primarily along those lines because the film is beautifully made, shot, and directed by anyone’s standards. But I would expect that you’re going to get some intelligent discussion, which a film wants to provoke.
iW: You could also say that the role of Les, the father, is slighted. Just walking off the boat, leaving your wife and child to the lover, you could say that’s very unconvincing. But I saw the film primarily as being more of a writer’s fantasy. First of all, there’s so much sex, and it comes so easily. When you’re writing fiction, you need that motor, you want to write on the cutting edge of desire. That to me is a way to see the film and sidestep all these plausibility-type issues…
Mackenzie: I’m surprised you find the guy walking off the barge — it being her barge which you liked — as being a problem.
iW: I do like it being her barge and I do think the dad walking off is a problem. But I don’t want to look at the film as naturalism or social realism. This is not Ken Loach.
Mackenzie: It was never intended to be.
iW: We get the idea from the way it’s shot, all the visual cues, and because it’s first person, that it’s a writerly enterprise. You’re not going to have picket lines in front of the theatre, don’t worry. But questions will arise with some viewers. Cathy is definitely being trashed. First of all she’s pushed into the canal. Whether it’s accidental or…
Mackenzie: She’s not pushed. She falls.
iW: He accidentally knocks her into the canal, in the course of an… [argument]
Mackenzie: He doesn’t touch her. She grabs hold of him and he turns round and she slips.
iW: Doesn’t he feel responsible for the accident?
Mackenzie: Without question. From the beginning the whole film is inflected with that. He’s operating in a grief-stricken mode, grief and guilt… In much the same way that Marlon Brando‘s character is in “Last Tango in Paris.” And I think there’s a connection between grief and sexuality… Probably a desire to reproduce. Death and sex. Carine Adler‘s “Under the Skin” was dealing with a similar thing.
iW: But that was about the loss of a mother. So you see excessive sex as a reaction to…
Mackenzie: Are we talking about excessive sex? A period of three months where a guy meets four different women?
iW: There’s a lot of fucking in the film. What’s good is some of it is woman-sensitive sex.
Mackenzie: Even though a female character is being abused.
iW: I said, one of them is.
Mackenzie: Sex is part of the story, no question about that. A lonely grief-stricken guilty character reaching out across the void trying to find some comfort.
iW: Wait — he’s a writer, isn’t he?
Mackenzie: Which means?
iW: Which means that as a fiction writer you generate experiences that will nourish your psyche.
Mackenzie: One of the things that drew me to the novella was the poetic dry sensuality with which he regards the world around him. He was a writer with no inspiration and as soon as he threw the typewriter into the canal the real story started happening… By the end of the film he has a story.