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Tribeca 2011: Peter Mullan Breaks the Rules With “NEDS”

Tribeca 2011: Peter Mullan Breaks the Rules With “NEDS” (photo)

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Of all the expressions Peter Mullan is capable of, it may be his smile that’s most unsettling. An incredibly warm, gregarious and articulate gentleman in person, he’s still intimidating in nearly every way, whether you’re treated to his ferocious intellect on subjects as diverse as his approach to acting or the collapse of American imperialism or learn that he was part of a street gang in his teens. So when he grins you can’t accept it as simply that, there has to be something more.

That’s why “NEDS,” Mullan’s third film as a writer/director, which is also his first to resemble a comedy – and an alternately hysterical and grim one at that, is a coming-of-age story that refuses to bask in any kind of nostalgia around 1970s Glasgow as it illustrates the plight of John McGill, a young man whose attempt to escape an abusive father and the legacy of his Non-Educated Delinquent brother is thwarted by frustration at home and school that lead him down the same path of the men in his family he’s come to hate. With a touch of Lindsay Anderson’s surreal “If…,” John is told by a hooded stranger abruptly after elementary school graduation his life will be a living hell and once in high school, he’s made to stand on his desk to receive sarcastic applause from his teacher after getting a perfect score on a test, ultimately making a decision to fall in amongst the local NEDS an easy one.

Mullan’s been careful to call the film “personal, but not autobiographical,” yet if there’s an obvious parallel to be drawn to reality it’s that the actor must have felt similarly out of place in his youth as a Jung-reading street tough. A rough-hewn Scot who clearly bears the soul of a poet, Mullan once again brings out the grace that made his last film, “The Magdalene Sisters,” so understatedly powerful while dealing with such tragic subject matter and yet is able to add a wicked wit and a florid color palette to “NEDS” that makes his latest feel buoyant. During the Tribeca Film Festival, whose distribution arm has also made the film currently available around the country on VOD, Mullan talked about the evolution of the film over the past five years, why children should be allowed to curse on film, and how he may tackle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina with his next film.

You actually started in one place with this film, wanting it to deal with the subject of knife violence, and it ended up as a darkly humorous coming-of-age film. What was that evolution like?

I started off wanting to address knife crime and in particular, what I saw as my generation’s unconscious hypocrisy as more and more guys my age – I’m 51 – keep reading newspapers and reading about knife crime and saying things like we never did that in our day. It really started to get on my tits because it’s like yes, we did. And we know we did. So let’s not all pretend that this generation of NEDS have come out of nowhere. This is generational. So that’s what begun the process of looking into NEDS and I quickly realized it’s a hugely complex issue that dates all the way back to the industry revolution. I figured I couldn’t offer any answers, certainly not any simple answers.

Slightly unconsciously, if you can have such a thing, it begun to change into [something] more about adolescence and what happens in that point in your life when you haven’t quite shed all the trappings of childhood and you’re just stepping into those slightly larger shoes that are supposed to fit you for adulthood. How do you get through that particular dark place and come out the other side? Do you come out intact? Or do you turn out irrevocably and irreversibly changed through it? So that was where in the writing of it, it became a little less didactic.

NedsPeterMullan2_04232011.jpgI understand the research involved talking to kids now, which is interesting since you’re portraying a different era. Did what change or not change surprise you?

I didn’t talk to any kids about the script. It was only when we were shooting the film a couple of times, I would ask my youngsters, “does this make sense to you?” And sadly, it all made sense to them because really the only two primary differences, I would say, would be the cell phone and drugs. Apart from that, nothing much has changed. The fashion has changed, but in terms of how they operate, how they function, what their goals are, that’s not really changed that much.

That’s really saddened me, but then again, I did a little bit of research into the history of the gangs and there was very little that’s definitive. Most of the research was site-specific and gang-specific in the sense that a sociologist would cover a gang from 1969 to 1970 and from that would extrapolate various evidence. But I read one story about two kids who witnessed a street fight in Edinborough. It was a street fight between two older lads and these two kids cheered the wrong one, as in the one who got beat, so the one who got beaten on took exception to these two kids supporting his rival and chased them down the street, got ahold of one of them and killed him by beating him to a pulp with a brick — opened his head. This little kid died, nine years old. Now, this story happened in 1892 and that really struck home. It’s like shit, I could’ve used that exactly that same story in 2011 or 1970s and nothing’s changed.

It’s been interesting to see with both “NEDS” and “The Magdalene Sisters” that you’ve told these stories with young and largely unknown casts when so often actors who go into directing use their famous friends. Why are you attracted to that and what do you get from it?

I love the idea that there’s a lot of working class talent out there that never really gets to present itself. Sadly in my country, we don’t have the avenues for youngsters to really show what they can do because if you put them on television, they’re instantly neutered because they can’t swear. And I’m not advocating foul language, but the problem with it – and I remember it when I was teaching in universities and prisons and the like – if you did ever do a class in school, you’re there to get kids to express themselves and the minute you say that you can’t say half the things you would normally say in the way you would normally say it, “now express yourself,” that’s absurd because immediately you’re saying something. The minute you’re saying something, there’s mistrust and there’s frustration because if you’re say to your kid, “I want you to just be yourself, but talk differently,” then that changes the whole process of speech and language.

NedsPeterMullan3_04242011.jpgSo the reason why I cast “NEDS” the way I did is because I wanted kids who would enjoy the freedom of being themselves and we’d record it. Then we’d put it 20-foot by 30-foot [referring to the big screen] because there’s a big buzz to be had about that and it felt easy to them. That’s a technique I learned very much from Ken Loach and the Moscow State Theater when I used to work with them, which was if you can enjoy something, the real wage that you get if you’re doing film is you get to watch it back. Now, the audience sees something different. They see pain, angst, violence, whatever they see. When you were doing it, it was just a game that you were having a lot of fun doing.

A lot of times people will ask you about the darkness of “Magdalene” or “My Name is Joe” and the truth is, I don’t remember the darkness. I just remember it being fun. All my girls in “Magdalene” had a blast. All my lads and girls in “NEDS” had a ball. They’ve all become really close friends. That’s the important thing when you make a film is they don’t have to suffer. They really, really genuinely don’t. And some scenes are tougher than others, but the real payback is you get to present them in a way they’ve actually forgotten or didn’t even realize was being shot and then they sit back and then they take the credit for it. [laughs]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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