The triumphant return of Peter Mullan

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'Neds' is the long-awaited directorial return of Scottish actor Peter Mullan. Dave Calhoun talks to him from the set of Spielberg's 'War Horse'

The Scottish actor Peter Mullan is on the phone from Devon, where’s he shooting a film of the stage hit ‘War Horse’ with Steven Spielberg, which explains the bushy beard he’s been brandishing in recent photos. But it’s not big-budget, studio filmmaking we’re talking about today. It’s ‘Neds’, 50-year-old Mullan’s third film as a director after ‘Orphans’ and ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, which three days before we speak won the Best Film and Best Actor prizes at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. Was it strange, I ask, coming back to England and a Spielberg set after picking up a prize for a stark, violent and low-budget film about gangs in 1970s Glasgow?

‘Aye, it was a bit bizarre,’ laughs Mullan, who came to prominence as an actor in Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ and Ken Loach’s ‘My Name Is Joe’. ‘More than slightly bizarre! But to give Steven his due, he was jumping up and down, over the moon. And it was genuine. He said I had to pick up the prize when I should have been filming. “We’ll rejig the shots,” he said. I was amazed.’
Surely Spielberg was proud of him? ‘Oh very much so. All these huge-budget Hollywood guys started off making their wee, low-budget films, and Steven himself went to San Sebastian with “Jaws”.’

It’s been eight years since Mullan won the Golden Lion at Venice for ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, his powerful and important 1960s-set drama about the Irish ‘laundries’ for ‘fallen’ women which were punitive workhouses in all but name. ‘Neds’ (which stands for ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’) has a similar, angry tone. Set in early 1970s Glasgow, it tells of John McGill – played by two actors, Gregg Forrest and Conor McCarron (who won the prize at San Sebastian) – a young lad whose promise at school is dashed when he falls in with a gang. He’s failed at every turn: by school, family, society. Mullan agrees that the film has a similar sense of claustrophobia as both ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ and his first film, ‘Orphans’.

‘There are these artificial ceilings put over certain groups of people – in this case young, working-class boys in the ’70s,’ Mullan explains. ‘And the ceiling is pretty low. It’s at waist level. I wanted to look at how you navigate adolescence when the expectations for you doing anything special or different are nonexistent. Sadly, I think that’s true to this day.’

The film is a no-frills, no-sweeteners experience, raw and uncomfortable. We root for John, and when we see his life falling apart, it’s distressing. Mullan mostly chooses realism of the Ken Loach and Alan Clarke sort to tell his story, but he peppers it with moments of black comedy and fantasy. Some of the teachers are straight out of Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If…’. ‘Spot on,’ he says. ‘Would you believe it, there was originally a scene in the film when John talks with a posh friend about private schools and “If…”, but the dialogue didn’t work. In retrospect, maybe it was a little bit smartarse.’

NEDS_01.jpg

Mullan doesn’t make the comparison himself, but it’s interesting to sit ‘Neds’ alongside ‘This Is England’, both of which are period pieces about gangs, identity and belonging; about young boys at a vulnerable age. The difference is that Mullan refuses to indulge the nostalgia and easy pleasures of period design and music. ‘I wanted to avoid all that bollocks about “essential period detail”,’ he argues. ‘The idea that something was “the song of that month”. Who cares? I hate it when something is set in 1967 and every piece of furniture was made in 1967. No! If it’s set in 1967, people have furniture given to them by their grandmother,
which she bought in 1932!’

Mullan will be in London for the Time Out Special Screening of ‘Neds’ at the London Film Festival. But he’s especially curious to see how the film goes down in Scotland. ‘I think a lot of folk will give me stick for it: “Why are you showing this side of Glasgow?” The powers that be see cinema as a branch of the tourist industry.’

He knows it will be a struggle to get people into cinemas to see a tough-talking, knife-wielding British film about poverty and struggle. ‘The big, big issue for all of us in independent cinema is getting people to see our films. We’re giving each other nice reviews and prizes, but you can’t get people to fucking watch them. It kind of defeats the purpose somewhat. Meanwhile, the mob from fucking Hollywood can muscle their way in, show any old toss and people will watch it.’ Talking of Hollywood, has Spielberg seen ‘Neds’ yet? ‘No, I’ll give him a private screening, bro.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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