Amber Marks sees her father's life on film in 'Mr Nice'

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The life of Howard Marks, drugs smuggler-turned-raconteur, has been turned into ‘Mr Nice’, a film by Bernard Rose that stars Rhys Ifans. It had its premiere at Texas’s South by Southwest festival last week, but with Marks banned from entering the US, his daughter Amber Marks headed there instead. Here she recalls seeing her dad’s life on film for the first time

The world premiere of ‘Mr Nice’ took place last week in Austin, Texas as part of the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival. My father Howard Marks, the film’s subject and author of the memoir on which the film is based, is not allowed to set foot in the US because of his conviction for cannabis smuggling. In his place, Rhys Ifans and Chloë Sevigny, who play my father and mother, both travel to the festival, along with the film’s director, Bernard Rose, and producer, Luc Roeg. I go along with them for the ride.

It’s hard to believe the film is ready. Ever since the book ‘Mr Nice’ became a bestseller in 1996, someone has been on the verge of  making it. Hundreds of interested parties contacted dad. Scripts were written, sums of money promised and drunken meetings enjoyed. Possible players included directors Oliver Stone, Franc Roddam (‘Quadrophenia’) and Justin Kerrigan (‘Human Traffic’), actors Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis and Woody Harrelson, and even writer Hunter S Thompson.

Nothing came of it. The usual explanation was the reluctance of the BBC to reap or relinquish the TV rights which dad sold to the corporation in 1997. Although he retained the film rights, a legal minefield still stood in the way of any movie. Convinced no film would be made, he handed over his remaining rights to James Perkins, the founder of the Fantazia music label, for a nominal fee of £1. Perkins, with the help of Luc Roeg (the son of ‘Performance’ director Nicholas), eventually succeeded in wrestling the TV rights from the BBC. Bernard Rose (‘Candyman’, ‘Ivans XTC’) wrote the screenplay without any input from Howard, though borrowing heavily from dialogue in his book and jokes from Howard’s stand-up shows. Filming started in February 2009 and wrapped in two months. The heart of Texas was not where dad expected the film to have its first screening.

And SXSW is not how I imagined a film festival: there is no pretension to it whatsoever. Rhys describes the atmosphere as ‘down and dirty and rock ’n’ roll’ and the red carpet as ‘more of a rug, really’. He likes it. It means he can wear his own clothes ‘rather than some Italian designer’. He and I share a cigarette before the screening and he’s as nervous as me. My dad is his hero and he wants the film to go down well. A kid approaches us for a cigarette and we tell her what we’re doing in Austin. She nods and says the city is becoming the next Hollywood: ‘But we’re gonna do it better here,’ she says. ‘Because that place sucks giant donkey cock.’

The theatre is packed out, despite few ever having heard of Howard Marks (his autobiography didn’t have much of a life in the US). The SXSW director introduces the movie as her favourite of the festival and we crack open beers in readiness for the ride. It’s obvious from the film’s opening scene –  a 12-year-old boy played by Ifans getting beaten up on a rugby field – that dad has not been given a Hollywood upgrade. He is a complicated man and no film could capture all of him. Rose has chosen to focus on his most entertaining persona: intelligent, opportunistic Welsh buffoon.

The audience loved it; they laughed loudly at the jokes, adored David Thewlis’s brilliant portrayal of self-proclaimed IRA freedom fighter Jim McCann, wept when the DEA busted our home and groaned as dad’s teeth were pulled out by prison dentists in Terre Haute Penitentiary.

Close readers of the book will notice inaccuracies in the film. For one, the film suggests that dad grassed up McCann to the US authorities, when in fact McCann is a free man today on account of his refusal to do so. But to be fair to Rose, the source book spans several decades; there is too much to include in one film. As a result, the Old Bailey court scene, one of the most dramatic and widely reported in its era, may disappoint some. We miss out on the audacious advocacy of his barrister, Lord Hutchinson (famed for his role in the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ obscenity trial), but at least the defence testimony from an alleged Mexican spy  has the audience in stitches.

Visually, the film is a riot. The use of green-screen allows us to see Ifans mixed with original footage of Karachi street bazaars of the 1980s, Piccadily Circus in 1969 and even footage of Heathrow in the 1970s. The beginning of the film is black and white. Oxford in the 1960s goes widescreen and when dad takes a drag on his first spliff, the film goes into garish colour. The 1970s are shot with a handheld camera (fastened around the director’s waist) and the 1990s invite a more slick style, complete with helicopter shots.

There’s one scene in which McCann receives oral sex while watching a porn film that shows a young woman being sexually assaulted by a pig. Such is Rose’s attention to detail that he made a separate film – a pig porn film – to show within the movie. He shot it on digital video before transferring it to Super 8 for projection in McCann’s cottage on the set. Did Rose, I ask, not want to search through the archive of vintage animal porn instead? No, he explains, he wouldn’t have minded doing so, but he needed to show something that wasn’t offensive. As it is, the scene is grotesque enough to make the audience moan and the producers were probably right to ask Rose to shorten its running time.

The rumour is that the UK premiere will take place at Edinburgh. It will be interesting to see what British audiences make of it. It is impossible for me to judge this film objectively. But to my mind the film does an excellent job of illustrating the history and absurdity of the war on drugs. It’s a lighthearted and entertaining gallop through my dad’s life so far.

Amber Marks is the author of ‘Headspace: Sniffer Dogs, Spy Bees and One Woman’s Adventures in the Surveillance Society’.

‘Mr Nice’ opens later this year.


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