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‘Starred Up’ Director David Mackenzie Talks Prison Preparation, Not Appealing to Everyone, and More

Written by on August 28, 2014 

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Bleak and harrowing, Starred Up is a prison picture that pushes the boundaries. The film opens with the graphic examination of Eric (Jack O’Connell) a teen transferred to an adult prison. Exploring the culture of violence, in particular the legacy of violence, David Mackenzie has crafted a powerful feature film that has resonated with in the year since I reviewed it at Toronto. In the system that reconnects with his long-incarcerated father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) while seeking therapy from Oliver (Rupert Friend), Eric’s story is inspired by the experiences of writer Jonathan Asser.

Ahead of a VOD and theatrical release this week, we sat down with a jetlagged David MacKenzie to discuss Starred Up from spec script to releasing, including the debut of its soundtrack (a non-traditional noise art piece composed by Mackenzie). Check out the complete conversation below.

Can you tell us how the film came about? I know screenwriter Jonathan Asser served as a counselor in the correctional system.

Jonathan pioneered a technique of allowing violent prisoners to deal with and decelerate some of their anger. He developed this system in jail in London and I think he’s the only person to have successfully done it. If you were violent in the jail than you wouldn’t get any access to treatment and it was only when you prove yourself to be non-violent that you get treatment for your violence, which is sort of a paradox.

Jonathan wrote the script, it was a spec script. I read it; I thought it was very powerful and had a great voice to it and it had great characters and a real sense of authenticity. So it was very attractive to me to take a subject that had that much detail. It’s pretty straightforward world, not much flower on it — to take that kind of material which I’ve never really worked in before, it was very exciting. It was immediate. I read it, I liked it, I met Jonathan, we worked on the script for a while, and then we went ahead and made it. It was a very clean, good process.

Was this his first screenplay?

I think so. He’s written another one now. It was very well done. We obviously did stuff together on it but the first spec script was great.

How did you find Jack O’Connell, the star of the film?

It was just a normal casting process. He came to audition and he was great. He just seemed like the kind of guy that would get that character and was bold enough to enter into everything balls out. He threw himself into that character and it was great for me to have someone that was going to be that brave and be in that kind of scenario where we could just trust each other. If you’re a director and you have an actor whom you like what they’re doing, it’s a great ride.

What scared the hell out of me about your film is that opening scene with the graphic examination – a film typically tells you how to watch it in the first few minutes, what the boundaries will be. Was there ever any concern in developing it with regards to the graphic material. It really puts you on the edge of your seat because anything could happen. Was that always part of the plan?

It’s one of the things I’m most happy about the film. Having seen it hundreds of times as the person that directed it, I’m still kind of on the edge of my seat. There is this fundamental tension runs through it because it is this hostile environment. It’s an unpredictable environment and some shit is going to go off at any time. And so you the explosive power of that throughout the narrative, and there’s scenes where that’s escalating and deescalating and all that. But that’s something that drives the narrative through.

In terms of the beginning, because we shot the film in story order, that examination scene was shot on the first day. That process and what goes on there, the way you get processed, was a very interesting part of the thing. We throw a character into a pretty humiliating process and as far as I’m aware the reality is pretty close to that.

I was reading you shot the rehearsals and then shot the film. Can you talk about that process?

Normally you rehearse and then you shoot. In my last two films I’ve brought the crew in on the last two or three days of rehearsal so you’re rehearsing the same day. This was like rehearsing the whole team, and since we shot the opening the first day so we all learned the group dynamic, and actually some things we shot during the two days of rehearsals ended up in the film.

Instead of just the actor, we rehearsed the whole team. Instead of the sound guy treading around the camera guy’s toes, everyone just hit the ground running.

starred_up_3I bet that helped filming in a real prison?

Yes, the big fear with that we were filming in a real prison and the cells are tiny and we’re filming in anamorphic scope so I thought we’d never get a camera to see everything. And those walls are very hard, there’s no give in them so the environment was unforgiving. But at the same time it gave us everything we needed in terms of the authenticity of the environment and architecture. That was pretty much the first decisions I made when I read the script — that was I must find a real location so we don’t have to cheat this as much as possible. As a director avoiding, cheating and faking – this is fiction we are faking – but we wanted to reduce it as much as possible.

Was there anything in terms of pre-production that you stayed away that was maybe too graphic. Was there any issues with raising the money?

The main thing we had to juggle with was the language. When the script first arrived you it had some obscure language. It’s prison slang, it’s the real deal, but even in Britain most people don’t understand those kinds of words because its very particular to the prison world. There was more of that when the script first arrived and we worried it was too obscure, and I hated the idea that we would try to make a film in common English because you lose so much of the flavor even if you don’t understand it, even if Eric doesn’t fully understand it. You accumulate your knowledge of it as you go. That was a big ongoing discussion while making it and it’s obviously a hard story. It’s not for everyone.

What was prep like? Did you and the team visit prisons to observe these things first hand?

We had a series of advisors whom Jonathan worked with within the system, they have small parts in the movie and they advised us. We had people that used to be prison officers in the jail that advised us along with Jonathan. All the way through we were always asking about the reality of the thing. The actors obviously too were learning from them too. We had to stay a little bit below the radar in terms of doing proper research within the jail so we relied on what we had to make it real. It’s fiction but obviously all these events have plausibly happened so everything had to pass through that plausibility test.

So is Oliver (Rupert Friend), Eric’s counselor, a surrogate for Jonathan?

He’s very close; it’s one of Rupert’s hardest things. He had to get to know Jonathan but then say I’m not going to play him, I’m going to be my own character. It’s obvious that Jonathan and Oliver are very close in what they’re doing and that the therapy techniques are very close. There’s a scene where they stand and absorb Eric’s anger and that’s part of a technique that Jonathan developed and its very brave in terms of what he does – and the reality of what Jonathan does is very brave and they capture it well.

Is there anything else you want to tell us about the film?

Whenever everyone asks me that I tell them we are releasing the soundtrack album. I did the soundtrack, I’ve never done a soundtrack before — I’m not even a musician. But I wanted to have a wall of sound underneath it. You don’t even notice it but it’s intense. I worked with a producer to make some interesting sounds, and it turned out that it’s quite interesting and quite dramatic in its own right, so we’re releasing that next month as Starred Up Music Reworked. We messed around with keyboards and live sounds and all kinds of sounds and we had a few musicians to come in.

Great. Well, thank you so much.

Thank you. I’m very pleased you can remember it from last year!

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Starred Up is now on VOD and in limited release.


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