Mackenzie's Crooks: David Mackenzie on Starred Up

Director David Mackenzie tells us about working with up-and-coming star Jack O’Connell and the search for authenticity in his powerful prison drama Starred Up

Feature by Tom Seymour | 06 Mar 2014

When Jack O’Connell is a world-conquering star, they will talk of this film. In Glasgow-based David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, the 23-year-old from Derby plays Eric Love, a lethally violent, deeply traumatised aggressor-victim who is starring up – that is, moving from a juvenile facility to a maximum security penitentiary, where society’s most dangerous men live shoulder to shoulder.

In the film’s opening scene, Eric is processed. His belongings are screened, he’s stripped down and searched, and then gruffly shown to a single cell. Once alone, he sets straight to work. In a practiced routine, he places two bottles of baby oil and some knitting needles in easy reach. Then he burns the end of a toothbrush with a cigarette lighter and secures the blade of a disposable razor in the melted plastic. Then he hides his lo-fi weapon in the casing of the strip light.

Each tool, we deduce, has a very specific purpose. When the guards descend on Eric in riot gear, he covers himself with the oil, slips from their grasp as they pin him against the cell wall, and holds the needles against a guard’s neck, threatening to stick him like a pig. Later, when a feared inmate wrongs him, he waits for the man to call home, approaches him from behind and slices his cheek in two. Then he prepares to sever the man’s lower lip while asking him for information. In a cinematic culture that promotes sensationalism, it’s unerringly believable.

Starred Up never leaves the confines of the Belfast prison where the film was shot in sequence. O’Connell’s Eric, Ben Mendelsohn’s Nev, Rupert Friend’s well-spoken therapist Oliver, or indeed any of the prison’s inmates, barely talk of life beyond the prison walls. They communicate plenty, but in the primal, half-decipherable patois that men tend to descend into when shorn of the opposite sex. Yet we’re told, in the most skilfully cinematic way, who these men are, where they’ve come from, how they ended up here, and why they must be so comfortable with violence.

“Big expositional scenes tend to stink of big expositional scenes,” a surprisingly nervous Mackenzie says when we meet in London. “So I don’t like scenes that are purely there to provide back story. I prefer the process of accumulating information. It feels more real – that’s how you get to know people. So it was important for me to try and make something that was authentic, or felt authentic at least.”

Or felt authentic at least – a key phrase there. Starred Up is a prison drama in the socially-minded tradition of British cinema. It was written by Jonathan Asser, a first time screenwriter who used to work as a therapist in Wandsworth prison – “who basically is the Rupert Friend character,” according to Mackenzie. It was filmed in sequence, and is shot with rigorous clarity and purpose – long-held tracking and sequence shots with barely a spare edit. If any film can be called realist, it is Starred Up.

Yet Mackenzie declares himself suspicious of realism: “Because it’s not real. It is as bogus as everything else. This is a fiction.”

Mackenzie, 37, admits to struggling through a day of doing press. He seems a deeply intelligent man driven by a sense of uncertainty. He often takes a few tries at composing an answer, tripping over his words or pausing to stare at the floor before a response comes rushing out. It’s pretty clear he hates being interviewed. Yet, for all the divas in this industry, he’s an honest, open host, insightful in the details he gives.

That attitude, you get the impression, works well on set. While he’s a veteran of nine feature films, he’s hardly a household name. But just look at the Scottish talent he has championed: Young Adam was a breakthrough role for Tilda Swinton; Hallam Foe was the emergence of an adult Jamie Bell. He’s directed Ewan McGregor in two of his most underrated roles – as a malcontent, deviant writer in Young Adam and as the rakish, caring everyman in Perfect Sense, Mackenzie’s sci-fi parable set in present-day Glasgow.

Now he has handed a first leading role to O’Connell, the Skins actor who, later this year, will play the lead in survival story Unbroken, directed by someone called Angelina Jolie. Maybe she got hold of an advance copy.

“Jack auditioned for the part, among with all the bright young things of the British acting scene,” Mackenzie says. “But he was so far and away the strongest; his demeanour, the way he seemed to understand the material. He made it clear to me that he connected with the character, that he seemed to know who Eric Love is. When we first met, he said that if a couple of things had gone differently for him, he could have ended up in not dissimilar circumstances.”

“It was important for me to try and make something that was authentic” – David Mackenzie

The script came to Mackenzie through a fortuitous route – his friend taught Jonathan Asser on a creative writing course. “We had the raw bones of what we ended up with,” he says of reading Asser’s first draft, “but the dialogue was quite a lot more extreme. We had to soften a lot of it to make it half-comprehensible. But there was a lot of anger there, and a lot of honesty.” Irony abounds here, as the American press are calling for Starred Up to be subtitled.

This is a deeply violent, deeply troubling film, but it’s hopeful. It shows Eric learning that trust might be possible, that everyone isn’t out to get you all of the time, that some people are willing to watch out for you without asking for anything in return. The revelation takes root after Eric joins a group-therapy session led by an intense, conflicted outsider (brilliantly played by Friend), in which long-termers are encouraged to talk about how they feel. The story, to all intents and purposes, is taken from Asser’s own experiences.

“Asser was a bit of a pioneer in Wandsworth prison, because the control-problem prisoners weren’t given any sort of treatment for their violence,” Mackenzie says. “You had to prove you weren’t violent to get any sort of therapy. But Asser went in there and sat down with the men considered the most dangerous. He was told there was going to be blood on the walls, but there never was. He was able to do that, essentially, because he identified with these guys in some way.”

When they started rehearsals, Friend was caught up in the United States, so Asser played his part. “And he brought some of the men whom he had treated in prison, and we played those scenes with them in the room. They were taking part – reliving it almost,” Mackenzie says. “A lot of the scenes that ended up in the film were direct copies of how Asser dealt with these therapy sessions when they kicked off. He knows what it is to be angry, and he knows what to do with it.”

Asser should count himself lucky. Jack O’Connell will take the plaudits for this film, as he should; it could truly be the birth of a great screen actor. Yet Asser also found, through his script, a retiring, nervous guy who prefers to stay behind the camera – but is maybe growing into something great himself.

Starred Up is released on 21 Mar