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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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…