Peter Mullan - NED: Non-establishment director

After an eight year hiatus, <strong>Peter Mullan</strong> makes a welcome return to directing with <em>NEDS</em>, a punchy, personal tale of urban tribalism set in 70s Glasgow

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Jan 2011

Peter Mullan’s films feel big. They’re filled with grand gestures and bold symbolism. Take his 1997 directorial debut, Orphans, easily one of the most underrated films of the 90s, where four adult siblings spend a hellish night on the streets of Glasgow the day before their mother’s funeral. In it, Mullan blends Greek tragedy and moments of pure surrealism with the everyday. There’s a draconian landlord who locks unruly punters in his cellar/dungeon, statues of the Virgin Mary make important plot interjections, and at one point a roof of the church where the mother’s body is lying in wake flies off into the Glasgow sky like Dorothy's digs in The Wizard of Oz.

NEDS, the director’s much anticipated return to filmmaking following 2002’s award-winning The Magdalene Sisters, shares Orphans’ darkly comic but gritty tone, and is saturated with Mullan’s trademark biblical references and visual flights of fancy. Set in 1970s Glasgow, it’s a dark coming-of-age tale about working-class teenager John McGill (newcomer Conor McCarron), whose promise at school and potential for success is jeopardised by the allure of gang culture. Mullan talked bullishly about the film in a recent BAFTA Q&A, which he began by discussing his distinct style and his frustration at some critics’ close-minded reactions to it.

“I think the toughest thing coming from our background is that in the traditions of Scottish cinema emotions are slightly repressed. You’re kind of nailed down as social realism and you’re told, ‘Do not deviate from it!’. But, actually, that’s not really our tradition, it’s England’s. So when you look at Scottish cinema, the work of Peter McDougall and Bill Forsyth, you see we do deviate from realism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of English cinema, but I don't want to be defined by it because then it becomes an oppressive dogma.”

After playing several festivals, including Toronto, London and San Sebastian, where NEDS won the top prize, Mullan has found that this “oppressive dogma” is already being adhered to. “The early English reviews have slapped us on the wrists, which we haven’t had from critics in Spain or America or France. They say things like, ‘I was really liking it until the last half hour but then he went all fucking silly.’ They don’t like it, you’ve broke the rules.”

The “silly” stuff those critics refer to is John’s almost mythical descent into violence, that includes, among other things, a casual stroll through a literal lion’s den and a punch-up with a belligerent Jesus Christ. “They have their genre of social realism and within that they can say, ‘It was very realistic’ or ‘It wasn’t’, end of,” continues Mullan with the same aggressive intelligence as the film’s teenage protagonist. “The idea that something subtextual might be happening is really beyond their ken. They don’t get it. The English look at film differently from any other country.”

One thing critics, both at home and internationally, have been unanimous about is Conor McCarron’s intense, star-making performance. “He’d done a couple of periods of drama at school, and the drama teacher didn’t like him,” says Mullan, dryly, regarding McCarron's acting experience. Chosen from an open audition of over 300 youngsters, he carries, with considerable confidence, the film’s dramatic weight on his broad shoulders and is convincing as both the lumbering school swot at the start of the picture and the baby-faced hardman that he’s shaped into by life in the film’s tinderbox community. “We workshopped with him for about eight weeks because I just couldn’t decide. I couldn’t take the risk of miscasting that role because he’s in every bloody scene.”

With NEDS, Mullan returns to the neighbourhoods where he grew up in the early 70s and the sense of time and place is vividly realised. But does the life of today’s Glaswegian teenagers bear any relation to what’s depicted in the film? “The whole point of doing the film in the first place was that there were a lot of guys my age who were saying things like, ‘[Gang violence] didn’t happen when we were kids’. Bullshit. It did happen when we were kids and it happened when our grandparents were kids.” The period setting also gives the film a Brechtian detachment, as Mullan explained: “By setting it in the relative past you can look at the issues and you’re not caught up with contemporaneous detail. If it was set in the here and now it would get bogged down in, do [the neds] wear hoods? Do they talk through their noses? And all that bollocks that goes on. The only difference between then and now is detail. It’s still territorial. It’s still little fascistic organisations brought together through nothing more than, ‘Do you want to join in and beat someone up?’”

The period setting also allowed Mullan to draw on his own formative experiences as a smart but wayward youth, and some moments are so acutely singular, such as when former star-pupil John masochistically goads the school’s only compassionate educator into handing out some corporal punishment like a “real teacher”, that they can only have come from real life events. Mullan insists, however, that it would be inaccurate to describe the film as autobiographical. “Broadly speaking, the general journey is one I went through, but there’s no adherence to fact. I’d say percentage wise it’s about 40% true, 60% fiction. It’s emotionally what I remember – I’m not a great one for details. It’s where I felt a teenager might go if he went to the dark side.”

NEDS goes on general release 21 Jan

Quotations are taken from a BAFTA Q&A with Peter Mullan held in Glasgow on 1 December 2010