Revitalizing the prison film genre by means of raw authenticity and powerful performances, David Mackenzie‘s ‘”Starred Up”
is a bold exploration into the
violent mind in the absence of freedom. A young inmate, Eric Love,
played stunningly by Jack O’Connell, is adapting to the gritty environment around
him. He knows
that in this microcosm of hatred, ruthlessness, and frustration,
he can only count on himself. However, in the same prison, his father. Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), is
also serving his sentence. What ensues is a striking story of
survival, connections, redemption, and even hope. Directed with
incredible attention to the
emotional journey of its characters, the film is an intense
experience that finds a certain brutal humanity in every scene.
Director David Mackenzie talked to us about the emotionally charged elements
of the film, depicting honest violence, and letting the magic of the
Carlos Aguilar: How did you initially become involved with the project? What drew you to this story?
: It came to me as a spec script from Jonathan Asser who is a talented first-time writer. He’d written it from personal experience. He has been a therapist for the
British prison system. The script felt very strong, detailed, authentic, it had a very interesting kind of language and strong characters. It was not hard
for me to like it. It needed some work to get us into the shape that we got today, but it was a very strong first hit as it was. I think Jonathan is a
talent and it was great to get it.
Aguilar: Given the complexity of the characters portrayed in “Starred Up,” how difficult was it to translate the powerful language on the page and put it into the actors’ hands to shape their performance?
: It’s a hard one to answer because you just do it. They interpret the good things that I hope Jonathan and I brought to the table, that was part of it. The
actors also bring things to the table trying not to fall into too many clichés within the context of a genre film essentially about a prison. There are
also the potential non-complex or clichéd things that you can do with that, but we tried our hardest to avoid them and to make them human. I think Jonathan’s
story is filled with human opportunities. Keeping the humanity and the reality of the situation, and the authenticity of the world as close to it as we
could was helpful for everyone. I think everyone knew that was the approach we were using, and they filled they characters with as much detail as possible.
Aguilar: With such emotionally charged material as this, what’s your approach to realize your vision from page to screen?
: I look at the script as a set of ingredients. It tells you who is in the scene, it tells you roughly what the actions are, then you go into the
environment and you make it come alive. That’s the idea of it. It is really not possible to talk about the specifics of it. You are just in the middle sort
of dancing with the material, as a director that’s what I encourage everyone to do. We were trying to keep it very alive, very real, and very close to the
material. However, we were also improvising and engaging with whatever was going to come out and give life to the material. It’s about letting the material do
one thing, and then letting the magic of the moment do another thing and stirring them together.
Aguilar: What sort of research or preparation did you and your do in order to enhance the realism of the piece?
: There was a lot of background research, plus being there in a real former prison with some former prison officers and former prisoners to advice us. We
needed to be a little bit below the radar in terms of drawing attention to ourselves. We didn’t want to be controversial before the film was made. The real
research was the combination of the actual location that we used, the people that we used to advice us, and, obviously, Jonathan’s knowledge.
Aguilar: The violence in the film has this raw and visceral quality to it, did you have any reservations or concerns in terms of its depiction?
: One of the things that was scariest for me was how to make these set pieces, where the performances were very real, also look realistic. We were trying to make them
feel very energized and the way we were shooting the film was a sort of like doing an aestheticized semi-documentary film. Our DP Michael McDonough and I would never set
up a frame. We always had the frame be dictated by the action, even though we both have very cinematic sensibilities. It was like pushing against that.
Even within that, you obviously have some things that are much less spontaneous because the action sequences need to be choreographed for safety reasons.
The challenge of how to make these non-spontaneous sequences match the others that are much more spontaneous was really hard. We had a great stunt team, they
understood the game. It was very important for us to have violence that wasn’t glamorizing it in any way. It wasn’t “cool.” Violence should feel sort of
painful, but we were doing that within the context of making it feel like it belongs with the rest of the film. It was a real challenge, but I think we
Aguilar: One of the strongest thematic elements in the film is this father and son relationship between Eris and Neville, did you want this to be at the center of the story? How did you go about getting these emotions across?
: For me the heart and soul of the film is the relationship between the son and the father, and the fact that both of them are incredibly emotionally
locked down, in particularly Neville. He solidifies his approach to everything so much that he can’t move. He doesn’t have a clue of how to be a father
and he really doesn’t have an interest in being a father. But somehow rather underneath all of that hardness there is an instinct that he doesn’t
understand. It creeps up on him and he has to deal with it. For Eric it’s different, he’s been longing to find his father who he hasn’t seen for a long time.
He wants to reach out to him, but Neville doesn’t have an interest. My approach was to make sure that each character was doing what they should be doing
even if it’s contradicting the other character and to push that across. I wanted the tension between them to be as tangible as possible. I’m really pleased with
the way it worked out. Our approach was about letting it happen. The fact that we shot the film sequentially also helped a lot.
Aguilar: It seems like the outside world often dehumanizes those who we cannot see – people in prison for example. Was it your intention to try and bring some humanity back into the way we perceive them?
: The first thing I wanted to do when I read the script was to take this hard subject and allow the humanity to come out, while also showing the hope, the
humor, the need to reach out. Jack’s character Eric has no connection with anyone at the beginning of the film. But by the end of the film he’s developed a
connection with his father and other inmates, which is the real source of hope in the film. That’s what I found attractive from the very beginning while
reading the script, the opportunity to take a film that existed in a very hard world, a hostile and dangerous environment where there is a lot of tension,
and find ways to creep in bits of humanity, bits of heart, and soul.
Aguilar: Can you tell me about your experience working with Jack O’Connell? His performance is absolutely riveting.
: Working with him was fantastic. He and I discussed early on that we would try to make sure there was a very brave, totally focused, and not held back
approach. Jack ran with it, and that was very exciting. Occasionally I had to kind of remind him that he was a boy as well as a man. I wanted to make sure that the
softness and the vulnerability of the character was sometimes there because Jack was on fire. I knew from the beginning when I met him that we’d get
something amazing, but I think that, because of the process of going on the journey, it became more amazing as we went further along.
Aguilar: Below the violence and the brutal world depicted, what’s at the core of the film?
: I think the film intends to create a really realistic picture of jail and a kid in this jail. It tries to shine a light on the potential humanity as well as the
potential struggles that are going on there. I feel like we’ve done that, but there are no easy answers and there are no easy solutions to these things.
The people there, no matter what they’ve done, are still human beings. They have their own stories of redemption and hope and everything that all humans
have. I hope it is a humanistic experience.
“Starred Up” opens in NYC today at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It will open in L.A. on September 5th.