I'm film director David Mackenzie. My latest film "Starred Up" is opening just this week. AMA.
It's my eighth feature film. And I'm very proud of it. Trailer here. Read more on the film here. The script was written by Jonathan Asser, a pioneer of an amazing therapy technique for violent prisoners in a London jail. And a lot of the detail in the film is very authentic, and we tried our hardest to film it as realistically as possible. We filmed it in a real jail, in Belfast, Ireland.
I'm here with Victoria to answer your questions. AMA.
update: Well, I think it's time to wrap it up now. Thank you very much for all your comments and questoins. It's been a very enjoyable experience. I've never done this kind of thing before, and was nervous about it, but it's been relaxing and good fun. And thank you to Victoria for being the fingers to my voice and for making the whole thing really cool. I'd be delighted if anyone wants to see STARRED UP - obviously I'd prefer it if it was through legitimate channels that will actually end up supporting the film. Much appreciated all of the goodwill!
Yep. Jack O'Connell is a big movie star in the making. We were very lucky to have him. He's great. He's in Angelina Jolie's movie Unbroken, American audiences are going to see him a lot, and I guess this is kind of a breakout role for him.
Did you feel like it was always his role, or was it his audition that won you over?
Well, I first saw Jack doing an audition tape - he wasn't even in the room, and I saw him amongst quite a few of the best young actors in Britain. but there was something about what he did in the tape that I really liked, and I wanted to see more. So eventually I met him, and we explored some material, did a mini-workshop together, which was really interesting. It became very obvious that he was the guy, and he would be brave enough to take the character as far as he needed to take it. And that's very much what he does, he really really goes for it, it's brave and explosive and very powerful, and it almost came from that first meeting - it was an agreement at that point, and the rest was just getting on and doing it.
This was great insight. Cheers David, look forward to your next film.
Starred Up was fantastic and it was really well put together so congratulations. I just wanted to ask firstly which recent films you personally have and enjoyed watching and secondly if you knew how one would get into the world of screenwriting or directing - i.e. what are the different kinds of paths one would undertake?
Also just an additional point, a lot of these gritty British films are based around the London and I personally would quite enjoy seeing some based more around the Midlands areas (closer to home for me personally) What are your thoughts around where films are set in the UK and would you consider setting one in an area perhaps lesser known to a foreign audience?
Well, thank you.
When it comes to thinking about recent films I like, my mind always goes blank, so I don't know. Sorry!
In terms of trying to get into the world of screenwriting or directing, I think the answer always is to just get on and do it. Nowadays you have access to decent camera equipment very cheaply, and you just need to gather a story and a group of people and just get it made, you know? So what's stopping you?
Totally get you re: the London centric vibe. In the case of this movie, it was written with very specific London prison slang, so it had to take place there (although ironically our production company is based in Glasgow and we filmed in Belfast). But there's quite a lot of activity in the Midlands, with Shane Meadows, Warp, and Co. - maybe you should approach Warp with some of your ideas?
What film has had the biggest impact on you? and whats your favorite film?
I can't really answer what my favourite film is. Some films that blew my socks off when I was younger that still resonate with me - there were a couple of movies that really scared me, like THE TENANT by Roman Polanski, DON'T LOOK NOW by the great Nic Roeg, one of my favourite directors, the film that made me want to become a filmmaker was Jim Jarmusch's film STRANGER THAN PARADISE. Which I saw 4 times in one week when it first came out, and it totally blew me away.
Congratulations on completing the film "Perfect Sense" with Eva Green. I never would have been able to do it. "Take 4252, Eva gets out of the bathtub. ACTION!"
I just went through your IMDB page and every one of your films is positively reviewed. Have you ever thought of making a film with Rob Schneider to break the trend?
Until this AMA, I wasn't familiar with you but looking through your films, I get the sense that you seek out unusual and interesting stories to tell. Is this true or are you just in it for the sweet sweet indie cred?
Okay, well I don't know how to answer all of these. Certainly question 2 made me laugh.
Yeah, I am always interested in looking for unusual, interesting stories to tell. I don't give a sweet goddamn for indie cred. I promise!
Eva gets out of the bath, quite funny... That was the last scene we shot in the film. And Ewan and Eva were in genuine hysterics and it was an amazing thing to be around, and very infectious.
David, would you be interested in directing a superhero ovie, like The Avengers or X-Men? If yes, what superhero(s) would be your favourites and why? :)
The short answer is I wouldn't really be interested in it. I'm quite down on fantasy at the moment. I sort of feel like there's too much fantasy out there. I'm into reality, or things that are exploring the real. So superheroes, and ghosts and the supernatural, are not really for me. I feel there are enough stories going on in the real world, and I wish people would start to inhabit that more rather than the fancy world, personally. That said, I am very interested in exploring not superheroes but real heroes, and we've got a project that is trying to tell exactly that, about a real historical hero, and exploring what it takes to be a real hero. And I think it's very weird, because movies have worked so hard on creating the kind of fantasy of a hero that it's quite hard to work out what a real hero is.
Thank you. We have plenty of superhero blockbusters. We need more stories about actual heroes because seeing what a normal person can do without magic/powers/wealth is what really inspires people.
That said, how do you draw the line between portraying a realistic story and the necessity of "movie magic"?
Well, there's no reason why you can't have some movie magic within a real story. It doesn't feel like those 2 are sort of incompatible.
A lot of movie magic comes from wonderful performances and from interaction between people, and from exciting editing, and all the joys that come from cinema. You don't need to put them in a fantasy scenario to make them magical. That said, I'm not trying to impose my taste on everyone.
did you do any research on jail when making this movie?
Yes, we did. Because we filmed in a real jail that had recently been closed down, and we worked with prison officers from the jail, as well as some former prisoners. And obviously Jonathan's experience working within the system himself was really important to that too.
It was just a big organic absorption process. Everything we were trying to do was to paint as intense & real a picture of life within a London jail as possible. The hierarchy, the rhythms of life, the way things are, you know? Quite a few of the small parts were played by people who used to be in jail in some way. But it's important to remember that it is a work of fiction, it's trying to be a realistic representation, but it is a work of fiction.
What is the last film you watched that really excited you?
The last film I saw that really excited me was on the plane 2 days ago, Jodorowsky's Dune, about a crazy Mexican film director who tried to make a film version of the film Dune, which was eventually made by David Lynch. It's inspiring to anyone who wants to make films.
David, how did you choose the location for Starred Up, and what are your impressions of Belfast? I've only been there once and had a great time! :)
As soon as I read the script and felt the very strong sense of detail and authenticity in it, it was very important to me to find a real location to shoot this film in - so we didn't have to cheat or built sets, or any of the more artificial things you have to do in filmmaking. So straightaway we were looking for a jail we could have access to, and we found the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast which was empty and available and it was perfect for us. So that's how we chose it.
It was pretty dusty, and obviously empty of everything. But we didn't have to do any set building, just dusting down and painting and fitting it with props. Our impression of Belfast was a very positive one. Great crews, great places to hang out, and good people.
when did you become a filmmaker and why?
I became a filmmaker about 20 years ago, I think. And why? because I started off being a photographer, and felt there were more interesting things to explore with narrative and stories and still keep the visual world. So yea, I've been at it for a long time. And it doesn't get any easier!
I'm visiting Belfast soon for the first time, what was your favorite thing to do there between filming?
We tended to hang out in this great pub called The Spaniard. Which was a cool rock n roll dive bar with a great atmosphere. Very close to where we were staying. Good pub grub, great music, and crazy decor.
Also, did you have a favorite restaurant/dish?
I think we were eating at The Spaniard... The film caterers were where i ate most of my food from, and they were great.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I think I sort of live my life consuming pleasures without very much guilt at all!
Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?
That's a hard question.
Somebody said to me once that making a movie is like being pecked to death by 100 pigeons.
And it feels like that, because there are so many things coming at you from so many directions. So I've gotten used to fighting lots of small things rather than the big monster.
David, I'm very excited for Starred Up, the trailer is great, silly question, are you a ticklish guy? If yes, where? Cheers! ^
The answer is: I don't like people to know that, so they don't take advantage of me.
But yes, I am EXTREMELY ticklish, pretty much everywhere.
I read somewhere quite a while back that you decided to shoot Starred Up in sequence. Is this true?
If so, why did you make this choice, and how did this style of film making differ from your past experiences?
Feel free to elaborate as much as possible, I'm extremely interested!
P.S., I've seen the movie and I think it's fantastic. Congratulations, great job. I will be going to see it again, and I will be taking plenty of friends!
Yes, we shot the film in sequence. This is something that I really wanted to do, because I felt it would help the authenticity of everything. And because we had one location, we were able to do it in a way that's impossible with most movies. It was still a real struggle to get all the logistics to allow it to happen, but it was one of the most thrilling creative choices i made in the whole process. Because it allowed us as a team to go on a journey together, and experience the story unfolding as it was taking place, rather than piecing together a jigsaw puzzle when you shoot a film out of sequence. I know that it really really helped Jack get into character and stick with his character and live within the real time of the moment in everything he did, and he learned not to have to think of any scene apart from the scene he was in, so it allowed us (the cast, crew, myself) to totally focus on what was happening at the time. Another thing that was amazing about it was that we edited the film very very quickly, so we were able to see cut scenes from the day that we shot and literally see the story unfold - and each week we showed the cast & crew a cut of the film so far, and then on the day that we finished the movie, literally the day we finished the movie, just before the wrap party, we had a screening of the finished film.
We only had 4 weeks editing before the film was properly finished. So it all happened very quickly, so the process was very pure and we were very connected to the material all the way through, which is a brilliant process. And thank you for liking the film. Much appreciated.
Wow - thank you for the in-depth reply! It sounds as though the sequential filming really benefited all of you, especially Jack. It shows though, his development throughout the film and his journey are outstanding - I can see why you chose him.
Jack the lad, if you read this - superb job and good luck for the future!
Great, he's a top actor and I'm really happy we worked together and I hope we work together again soon.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
I can't think of any advice offhand, but in terms of being a filmmaker, I think it's very important to understand that it's a long game. And to be patient, to learn from your mistakes, and to keep on going.
How do you feel about the fact that your film was pirated and has been available for download for several weeks now?
It's a hard question to answer, that, because obviously if you make movies they cost money and you have to find a way of paying for them. And the way of sort of paying for them is for people to pay a small amount of money to see them, and if you bypass that process you end up making it impossible for good-quality films to survive.
The people that get hurt by it most I think are independent filmmakers, because the big studios can afford to take the knocks. And my personal opinion on the matter is that however much freedom it may be to download and do what you want with the internet, that there are certain moral obligations not to take stuff that isn't there to be taken. I don't think that this film is offered up as a free download by anyone, so it is effectively taking stuff and the idea that people can use the internet without any moral repercussions doesn't feel comfortable for me. Call me old school.
What's the hardest thing about making a film? And how easy/hard was it for you to get into the film industry?
Also, what do you think are some of the best jobs in the industry that aren't acting/directing/producing?
It's a great privilege to be allowed to make films.
So any comments about it being hard feel almost wrong. But there's a lot of pressure on being a director. You have to fight for all sorts of things. And the struggle to hold onto your perspective, the things that you want in the film, and keep your head when all the chaos is going around, just keep on focusing and making the thing you want to make, there's a struggle there. I would also say that late in the process of the film, long way through the edit, you just get tired, and that can be a struggle. And then you have good days and bad days in the shoot, and for one reason or another, bad days can be hard. But it's a joyous activity as well, so no grumbling.
I went to art school, and I tried to study film there, and then I worked as a runner in the film industry, making coffee and picking up cigarette ended and doing all of those things, being shouted at, and I wasn't very good at that, and then I tried to become an assistant director and I wasn't very good at that because i had no organizational skills, so I realized that wouldn't be my way in, so I made a number of short films, they got better and better, and I moved my way into feature films from there.
David, some funny questions: Boxers or Briefs? Socks or barefoot? Coffee or tea? Beach or mountains? Mani or pedi? Why/why not?
Barefoot when it's not too cold.
Both! But I'm a big tea aficionado.
Both! I'm about to go walking in the Italian Dolemites, but I also love the sea and one of my hobbies is boating.
Neither! Why / why not? I have no idea!
How did you get your early films funded?
When I was doing short films, there were opportunities in the UK to fund (at the fairly low level) short films through a combination of the various arts bodies and sometimes broadcasters like the BBC or Channel 4. Nowadays I think there are fewer short film funding schemes. i think it's harder. And then the first features were sort of a combination of different types of money, what we call "patchwork funding."
What is your favorite dinosaur?
Haha! I like the idea of a pterodactyl, and the almost impossibility that something so big and heavy and unwieldy could fly.
There's a big brontosaurus in the Berlin museum that is pretty impressive.
David, i'm a big fan and have seen all your movie, hard-hitting questions, what's your favorite number, how tall are, what's you're shoe size, and what are your most sensitive spots??
I guess my favourite number would be 7.
I'm six foot. Size 10 shoe.
I'm very sensitive.
Thank you for seeing all of my films!
Salute David! What actors you've never worked with would you like to do a movie with, and why? :)
I'm superstitious about answering these types of questions. There are lots of actors I'd love to work with for their talent and magic.
Hiiii do you have any directorial advice?
It's quite a broad question, that! Try and be sensitive to the scene and to all those people involved in it.
Hi Do you have an screenwriitng advice? thank you
Oh gosh, it's very hard with the broad questions, but my personal revelation in terms of screenwriting was to learn not to self-edit while you're actually writing. And then to go back and edit once you've got the writing out. And that allows you just to go for it, and ride the waves of creativity that come without getting too self-conscious or bogged down in what you're trying to do, and things come out of that in a better or more creative way, and you can go back to them and cut out the good bits and polish.
What was it like directing Ben ben mendelsohn?
Ben's one of the most extraordinary actors I've ever worked with. He has a perfect combination of great stagecraft and complete unpredictability. So everything he does is exciting.
How did you pitch starred up?
"Very violent teenage boy gets sent to adult jail where he meets his father whom he hasn't seen since he was 5 years old."
do you have any pitching advice?
I'm rubbish at pitching. And I get really nervous. And always let myself down.
What was the hardest thing about directing Starred Up and the easiest?
In general, it was a joyous experience despite the hard subject matter and filming in a jail in February in Belfast. My biggest anxiety was how to get the stunts to feel like they belonged to the same film as the free and realistic acting around the stunts. But I had a great stunt team, and we worked really hard to make the violence feel real and un-glamorous and relevant to the story.
Do you have any tips on set control?
Not sure what you mean by that?
What is your writing process like? do you methodically plan every step or do you just jump straight in?
I'm learning as I get older to be more intuitive and to kind of improvise within the moment of everything creatively.
I read some where that Jack O'Connell did not want to read the final pages of the script and let the scenes play out naturally. If that was true what was it like to direct during those times? :~)
I think that Jack definitely didn't want to engage with anything in the future of the story because he wanted to stick within the moment of what he was doing - as we all did. I was encouraging all of the actors to engage with the material with quite a lot of freedom, and so I didn't really feel any particular difference with him whether he knew what was happening or not because we were so engaged with extracting everything we could from the scenes we were actually in at the time.
What is next for you?
Juggling a few things. So I don't know which egg in the basket will hatch first.
Salute David, I love your movie "Asylum", I was wondering how was it working with such great actors like Ian McKellan & Natasha Richardson? Kiss from France!
Well, first of all, thank you! There was a movie that feels like a blast from the past, I think it's about 12 years ago or something like that. It was amazing working with all of those cast members. And sadly Natasha is no longer with us. People like Hugh Bonneville, he's now a big star, from Downton Abbey the UK tv series, and Ian was incredible. Yeah, it was a very interesting experience to do, and the film was filmed in a real institution, in the case of ASYLUM it was in a real former mental hospital in Leeds in England. And both the jail in STARRED UP and the asylum in ASYLUM became characters in the movie, because they had such strong atmospheres in the film. Acoustically, in both, there were echoes and strange sounds, but they added to the vibe of the piece.
Hi David, what makes you laugh and what's your biggest weakness?
Wow. All sorts of silly things make me laugh. And often, I can laugh somewhat hysterically, but I can't think what - just crazy things. At the moment I think my biggest weakness is my temper. I have a bad temper. Sometimes.
As a director, what are you looking for when you are deciding on a new project?
For me, I definitely don't like to make the same film twice. I'm always looking for something that's a bit different. The last film is almost always like a reaction to the previous film I've done, to whatever I've explored, looking at doing something different. I look for something that will challenge me as a director, to find something that feels like a subject that is alive, and obviously a lot of it has to do with things that have come across my way, ideas that have come to me, like STARRED UP - so there's an element of chance and randomness as well. But there's also the possibility of connecting to the material, if it feels new and interesting, and if it has something to say in some way.
Any issues with the real population during filming?
To be clear: the jail was not populated while we were there.
It was a jail that had very recently closed down.
The irony was that it was also beginning (while we were filming) to open up to the public as a museum of its former self. So we often had to stop filming because people - and people who used to be prisoners there - would be coming to visit. But they weren't incarcerated there, they were coming as visitors.
This particular prison was built in the 1850's, classic Victorian prison design, a 5 pointed building, 5 wings going off from a center, and the administration block at the centre, so like a star shape. And this architecture is common throughout the UK and Ireland and other parts where the UK has influence. And even new prisons now take some of this design and use it. But it's a pretty old building, and you could definitely feel the history in it. One of the actors spent a night there. The security guard said it was haunted as hell, but he slept like a baby.
Hey David! I'm a HUGE Rupert Friend fan and can't wait for Starred up! Can you tell me something about Rupert Friend I'd be suprised to hear, and how was working with him? Kudos!
Okay, Rupert very kindly gave me a set of dominos as a gift when we finished filming. And promised that whenever I'd see him, that we would play Dominos. I tried calling him while I was in New York, but he was on holiday, and i forgot to bring the dominos.
And it was fantastic to work with him. And a very interesting challenge, because he was playing a character very close to the writer, he was playing a therapist in the jail, and he was using a lot of the real techniques that Jonathan evolved in his own practice. And it was a real challenge for him to make this as a real as possible. And I think he did an amazing job. The therapy scenes are among my favorite scenes in the film. They have a fantastic dynamic energy to them, you have 7-8 very violent prisoners in the room with a therapist and it feels like they could "kick off" at any time. But actually, apart from one incident towards the end of the film, everything may escalate but it can also de-escalate - and sometimes the drama of the de-escalation is better. And what Rupert's character has to do is incredibly brave, as he stands in the middle of people who are getting angry with each other and absorbs some of that anger.
David, would you ever direct a TV show, something like Doctor Who, or Game of Thrones? Why or why not?
I would certainly consider it. I'd be more interested in directing TV shows that I evolve myself, but I think a TV director has to slot into the system and doesn't get to express themselves in many ways. I like lots of TV shows. I'm a big fan of Deadwood. And the Sopranos, and the Wire, obviously.
What are some of your favorite places in Ireland?
In Ireland? Oooh. I don't know Ireland very well, because I'm not from there, but we really enjoyed Belfast, there was a real spirit there, obviously it has had troubles in its past, but the people are very very friendly and vibrant and there's a fantastic energy. And a lot of us came from Glasgow to Belfast, and it's very close, only 50 miles away, and there's a lot of similarities. We were all struck by the spirit of Belfast, and we all missed it when we left.
David, can you tell us something about you we'd never guess, and something that would make us laugh? ;)
Ooh, I can't do that. I'm a non-musician, but I made the soundtrack for this movie. Because I wanted to have a soundtrack that was very hidden, that you didn't really know was going on, more sound design, and I didn't want it to feel musical, so I thought rather than asking musicians to be non-musical, I would ask a non-musician to do it! SO I asked myself. And you'll hear it at the end of the film, but not at the beginning, it's all buried. I'm very proud that I released the album, should be coming out this week, and there's a remix album with Ewan Bremner, Chris from Belle & Sebastian, and a fantastic saxophonist, Raymond McDonald. But much as I love the idea I can call myself a musician now, I'm really totally un-musical. It's more waves of sound. But it's kind of fun. That wasn't really a laugh.
As for the laugh, I'm not sure. I'll think about it.
Who are your favorite directors, currently and from the past?
Well, I think Alfonso's pretty cool.
I think in Europe, Michael Haneke is pretty cool. I've seen lots of good movies recently, and I like a lot. But I'm also fascinated by films from the 70's and before then, really. I think there was a fantastic period of groovy inventiveness, I keep returning to those types of films. So American filmmakers like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and then also the hardboiled film directors like Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah.
Jack O'Connell. The next Tom Hardy?
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