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Starred Up: Director David Mackenzie on his Brutal Prison Drama

Starred Up: Director David Mackenzie on his Brutal Prison Drama

Directing

David Mackenzie’s gritty sucker punch of a prison drama, Starred Up, stars Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O’Connell as a battered father-and-son pair who find themselves sharing a prison block after years of estrangement. In the following account of the film’s production, Mackenzie, who directed seven previous features before Starred Up, describes his determination not to let the “system” bully him into compromising his aesthetic integrity—a fitting sentiment for a film whose primary language is machismo-soaked aggression and brutal violence.

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Midway through my directing career, I started to feel depressed about the filmmaking process. I knew enough about how to get through the schedule and get a film made, but I had the nagging sense that the system was making the film as much as I was. Any actual creativity was squeezed in the trap between the weight and inertia that comes from the professional juggernaut of filmmaking. This was the beginning of an itch with filmmaking that I still have.

Absolutely central to my method as a director is the need to remain flexible while shooting—to dodge the curveballs and take advantage of the magic of the moment. There is a phrase, “DFI,” which echoes resentfully around Brit film sets when a director changes his or her mind: it stands for either “Different F**king Idea” or “Director’s F**king Indecision.” Personally, I think it’s entirely a director’s right to try something else when the first thing isn’t working.

Last Great Wilderness, my very first feature film, lost all its locations two days after we started shooting, when the entire UK was shut down with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth cattle disease. But we carried on because we had no choice. As we were about to shoot my second film, Young Adam, our bond company took a look at the logistics (a lot of stuff on boats and water) and said the script wouldn’t fit the schedule.  Of course the desired option would have been to increase the schedule to fit, but the budget wasn’t budging. So, with less than two weeks to go until shooting, with the final stages of prep going on around us, I had to cut the script down from 100 pages to 72. It was a nightmare and a lot of good stuff got thrown out, but it would have been harder to do while in the madness of the shoot.

My fourth feature, Hallam Foe (Mister Foe in the U.S.) managed to get through without curveballs… until we had a call back from the lab after shooting our hardest scenes, involving the hero Hallam’s aborted attempt to drown his evil stepmother in a near-frozen mountain loch in Scotland. The lab said apologetically that there had been a mistake and that all of the previous two days’ work had been destroyed. Of course insurance paid for us to do it again, but having to go back to repeat the stuff we had already done in the mountain loch was horrible, because all the magic had gone, the light was flatter, and generally we had exhausted the alchemy it takes to bring a scene together.

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Jack O’Connell (center), as Eric Love, is led to his cell

When I came to Starred Up, my eighth film, I was determined to use all I knew about how to make the process work for me, not against me. The film didn’t have a big budget, but it did have two things that were very helpful to me. Firstly, it was all set inside a prison, and secondly, the writer had written a very authentic-feeling script. It was obvious we should approach the material with maximum honesty. To get that authenticity, it seemed essential to me to find a location that was as real as possible. I visited the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, which was a recently closed but completely intact former prison of exactly the same architecture of almost all British Victorian prisons (most of which are still in use). I knew immediately that this was exactly what we needed.

Another great thing about finding a single location was that I could shoot the film sequentially in story order. Normally this is a hard sell because actor availability, the expense of going back and forth to different locations, and other logistical issues add a percentage to the budget that few producers consider worthwhile. But with one location that also acted as our base (and in many ways felt like a studio), this was possible, so producer Gillian Berrie gave us the go-ahead.

Shooting sequentially is an amazing experience because the story unfolds as you make it and you don’t have to think about anything but the scene you are in. Everyone goes on the journey together. It is hugely useful for actors and I am sure the incredible intensity of Jack O’Connell’s performance as Eric would have been much harder to achieve without it. For me, it meant we knew where we were all the time and we knew where we had to get to. Given how much we had to do in the 24 days of the shoot, this was beyond helpful. It also meant that we were able to make minor adjustments to the script as we went along, in a position of really knowing the story.

The other thing I wanted to do was edit as immediately as possible. Normally you break off the dailies at the end of the day, process them overnight, and get them to the editor the next day. This usually means that by the time the scene is assembled and cut, the edit is at least two days behind the film. Then you go about the proper edit once the filming has stopped. I have always found this frustrating, but now that we all are mainly shooting digital (my last film shot on film was Spread in 2009) it’s no longer necessary to send stuff away. So I set in motion the idea that the edit would never be more than four hours behind the shoot. I said we would show a complete cut of the film at the wrap party on the day we finished shooting, as a target.

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Ben Mendelsohn (right) plays Neville Love, father to Eric

With this in mind we had two editors, Jake Roberts (with whom I had worked on four films) and Nick Emerson, to work jointly on the edit, and we arranged to break the dailies every two hours during the shoot and get them to the cutting room—which was in the same building in which we were staying. They would take it in turns assembling the scenes and then cutting them.

At the end of each day Michael McDonough (DP) and I would look at proper cut versions of what we had shot that day. This was incredible in terms of giving us confidence that what we were doing was good, and allowed us to continue to evolve the way we were doing it. And sure enough, we had the screening of the complete film at the wrap party, which was great. Four weeks later we finished the entire edit of the film. This is insanely fast—my edits on my two previous films were both over four months long.

This film was also my very first film which had the writer on set the whole time (not including when I was my own writer). It can be hard for writers to experience the compromises inevitable in the process of turning a pure paper narrative into a performed, recorded movie. In this case it was essential to have Jonathan Asser on set because he knew the world of the script so intimately (to the point that the character Oliver Baumer, played by Rupert Friend, was closely based on him). There were so many questions of authenticity and detail that I wouldn’t have been able to answer myself, for which the actors were able to go directly to him. Jonathan was brilliantly able to deal with these things without treading on my toes, and the process of the four week shoot was like a delicate handover from his vision to mine.

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Jack O’Connell and Rupert Friend, who plays prison counselor Oliver Baumer

There were a few other things I did to make the moviemaking process mine and prevent it from bullying me. Believe me, it often does feel like bullying, because in a way the filmmaking process is designed to be director-proof—i.e. a film is still made despite the varying deficiencies of its director. I wanted to have a feeling on set that the camera might always be running, so I abandoned clapperboards. This is something I had previously done on my feature You Instead, because of both the time it wasted and the fact that the clapperboard seemed to attract people (whom we couldn’t control because it was a live environment) to mess around in front of the camera. If you run real-time timecode, theoretically you should be able to sync sound and image without clapperboards with no problem. I think some of the atmosphere of tension in the film came from the fact that for the 10 hours of shooting everyone had a sense they could be on camera—particularly the extras.

I also shot the rehearsals for the last two days in a kind of filmed dress rehearsal so that it wasn’t just the cast rehearsing; it was the entire crew. It is amazing how much difference this makes to the efficiency of the first few days of shooting. Normally everyone is treading on each other’s toes during this time as they get to know each other and the way they work. But this way, everyone got that done in an atmosphere of lower pressure—in the enclosed environment of the prison there was plenty of room for toe-treading! The cast got to know the crew a bit and everyone got to do at least one scene on camera. As we were shooting sequentially, we were up to speed by the time we started shooting. Given that the first five minutes of the film was shot on Day One of the shoot—and it’s among my favorite parts of the film—this must have been a good thing!

I was in control of just about every element of the making of Starred Up, and amazingly we got through it without a single curveball. But the result of being so in control was that all the immensely talented and creative people involved in the film were free to bring their very best to it. I am learning that being a director is often about enveloping the film with protective arms and allowing the people involved to shine. It is a dance of intuition with the material, much more than it is about imposing a fixed vision.

All this makes me feel that I have found my method, and I would love to continue making films this way and in other ways to keep the process fresh and prevent it from dragging me down or getting boring. Making films is always hard—and it certainly doesn’t seem to get any easier—but finding the ways of keep them alive and interesting does seem to be a way to get through it. MM

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Starred Up opens in limited theaters today, August 29, 2014, courtesy of Tribeca Films. It is also currently available on VOD and iTunes.

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