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.
I 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.
So 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]