Director David Mackenzie Talks His Tribeca Film ‘Starred Up’

Starred UpTribeca Film

One of the most interesting films to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2014 is director David Mackenzie’s movie Starred Up, a drama about a young man who is committed to a London prison where he reunites with his convict father for the first time in years. Aside from subverting expectations about the idea of the “prison movie,” Starred Up also treats viewers to a new kind of father/son story, and a far more realistic portrayal of therapy than cinematic audiences are accustomed to. Written by a Jonathan Asser, a therapist who pioneered a form of counseling for violent inmates, the film depicts group sessions that cut to the heart of the emotionality behind the prison experience for those serving time.

Speaking to Mackenzie, we got to discuss how Starred Up offers something new in each of the subjects that it brings to the table.

As someone who is a little bit skeptical about prison movies in general, personally, I was wondering if you approached the film wanting to take on the genre for any specific reasons?

No, I responded to the material. The script seemed to be an interesting opportunity to make a film that was very detailed and had a bit of truth to it, and a vine of authenticity to it about, particularly, London prisons. But it wasn’t my intention to kind of make a kind of critique of the genre. It’s actually the first genre film I’ve ever done. I’ve made many movies, and I’ve always been trying to slip in between these things, but this is actually inescapably just a prison movie. But I hope that we did it in a way that avoids stereotypes, in a way that allows other elements to sort of enter into the genre. And that we made something that stands up in its own right, irrespective of the genre, really. That’s my desire. I thought there was an opportunity to make a film that somehow had smuggled in some emotion and tenderness and sort of things into a genre that you weren’t expecting them to be in. That felt like an interesting challenge.

There are definitely many points in the movie where I expected it to go in one way more traditional of the genre, and I was surprised to see it take another direction.

That was kind of interesting. By taking on something like this, it struck me that my sensibility… I’m not the genre person in general. I’m looking for the truth and the humanity and sometimes the kind of poetic beauty in the subjects that I’m dealing with. And it’s quite nice to have something that’s hard, and that there are expectations with. Just by being a bit more honest with the material, you can end up avoiding [that].

Did you do a lot of research about prisons?

Well, Jonathan [Asser], the writer, was a major resource. We needed to be below the radar, because I didn’t want to be closed down. I couldn’t really get into open prisons, existing prisons, very much. But just a combination of the research with [the fact that] we found a jail that had been closed down for 10 years, but was completely in tact. And prison officers who worked in it when it was there, and they were helpful in terms of the rhythms of what the officers would have to go through. We encouraged them to sort of push the prisoners around a bit, so that they’re less in control of themselves. And we had a few ex-prisoners who were advisors, and one or two actually had small parts in the movie.

Did anything come organically from their experiences?

There’s a lot of improvisation in the movie. You know, respecting the script, coming in and out of the lens of the script, but I tried to encourage a sense of freedom among the actors. Particularly in the group [therapy] scenes, just to feel like it was lively. So there’s stuff that’s allowed to breathe… But always, Jonathon, the writer, was on set the whole time, and so were kind of. The script was like our lens that we passed through all the time.

Since you bring up group, one thing that I’m even more wary about in cinema is movies about therapy. You see a lot of movies that just ham it up. Was there anything specific that you wanted to make sure you avoided, or that you wanted to make sure you got right?

Well we had a great asset, again, with Jonathan, the writer. [He] is a prison therapist who has evolved the system quite weirdly by taking the most violent prisoners, for whom there is no official therapy apart from what he was doing. Because there’s this weird contradiction: you have to prove yourself to be violence-free before you can get official treatment for your violence. It’s bizarre. And part of his method is to take guys who clearly had a problem with anger and encourage them to get angry. And then encourage them to learn how to deal with that and learn how to de-escalate.

One of the scenes we actually shot, which is a scene where it nearly, nearly gets very dangerous, and then it de-escalates, it was actually a late addition to the script, and it came form an experience in the rehearsals that we had with a couple of ex-prisoners and the actors and Jonathan. And things got very heated. And it de-escalated. And just to watch the de-escalation… it’s not like it’s a slow deflation, it’s jagged. It goes up and down and up and down — felt so dramatic to me that I asked him, “Can we write a scene like that?” It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie.

You see escalation all the time, but we hadn’t sort of tuned in to de-escalation. And his therapy is fresh. In the four or five years of doing that, there were no contact violence issues with any of the people he was working with, either in the group or on the wing afterwards. So he pioneered the technique and it was very successful. So you’re just tuning into that, and letting that breathe and letting the actors go with that and also improvise around it. I felt like my cliché alarm wasn’t going off at any point in the therapy scenes. So I felt we avoided that problem.

David MackenzieGetty Images

That is far and away my favorite scene in the movie, too. Was it this approach to the inmates’ emotionality that specifically attracted you to the script?

When I found the script, it was underdeveloped, but there was something that felt like an interesting thing to me. Obviously criminality often runs in families. There must be plenty of people who meet their father in jail, but there doesn’t seem to be a movie specifically about that. Actually, Jonathan has strong feelings about his father and his relationship with his father, so it was probably not that tuned into tenderness, all those sorts of things. But I thought there were opportunities there to have these two sort of awkward characters, both emotionally locked down and very hard on themselves as well as other people around them, try to kind of reach out and connect with each other. And that felt there was something in that that was really, really strong. It was there in its nascent form in the very first draft, and we sort of evolved that together.

One of the things I learned in the process was to try and create lines of tension. If you set up something and you don’t let go of it, it becomes kind of relentless until you’re allowed to breathe… The consequences of one thing keep it going, a chain of consequences, until it’s almost unbearable, and then it’s resolved and then you move on. Actually, the film has not that many of those beats, but they last quite a long time. It’s a really interesting approach because it’s a hostile environment. You know that something’s gonna kick off, there’s a constant tension. For me, when I was editing it — which was very short edit — I knew the material, I’d still find myself tense. Which is great! It enabled the slightly Hitchcockian filmmaking that came from it, which is really interesting for me.

Definitely! There’s not a lot of relief sustained. There’s always that fear.

But there are moments where it’s light. There are moments where it’s funny.

I agree, the actors are very charming, and the material is very charming. On the father and son relationship, so much of this movie is about the idea of masculinity. You have very interesting representations of masculinity. The father is in a homosexual relationship, which is not typically how movies depict masculinity. The intellectual chess player is the prison kingpin. The intimidating inmates in group are really sensitive and thoughtful. So I was wondering what you were hoping to say about masculinity with this film.

Those kinds of questions I find quite hard to answer. It’s a very masculine environment, and it’s the sort of crucible of masculine tension. But what it’s actually saying about it? I don’t really know how to answer it. The whole film is kind of about that, so this specific point is… everything about the film is sort of moving in the direction of trying to answeri that question, and so I can’t really articulate it in a quick way.

That’s fair. But honing in on the father and son relationship, we talked about how the father and son were used to show this prison story, but the prison is also used to tell a father and son story. Do you think there was something unique in the relationship between the two characters here that you haven’t seen in films about fathers and sons?

What was interesting about it, in a normal kind of father and son relationship, they’re usually better equipped and more able to deal with concepts of love. Their characters’ name is Love, and that was very conscious from Jonathan. These are people who know very little about love and their names are ironically that. And so it’s some kind of base instinct there, but they don’t really know how to deal with it. And I don’t think I’ve seen that before. I don’t think I’ve seen two such disconnected characters having to reach out together, in a father and son kind of thing. And I think that’s interesting. With those two actors are both sort of powerhouse actors in their own way, [they’re] very different: Ben [Mendelsohn] is very precise. Jack [O'Connell] is young, he’s go so much energy, and he’s just everywhere. And I mean that in very much the best way. It’s just incredible to see an almost a sort of animalistic thing. There were times when we were almost trying to cut the thing like a nature film, just to go with the gestures, the physicality, which is interesting.

I like that you say “like a nature film.” The way the film is shot feels like that, when you follow the characters going up and down the stairs of the prison, watching these guys interacting. Was that the aesthetic you were trying to evoke?

We shot it beautifully in widescreen and off of lenses and it was nicely lit, and the environment was very cinematic: long corridors, and frames within frames. There’s plenty of opportunities for some quite strong imagery, but I said to Michael [McDonough, cinematographer] I wanted the performance to dictate the camera rather than the camera dictating the performance. The actors didn’t have any marks, they just did what they wanted to do, and we have to follow them. And that was the first time I had ever done that, and I think the combination of the good instincts of Michael, and hopefully of myself, and the environment gave us enough of the visual style. And then just being able to follow in a much more — I had to use the word — much more “documentary” kind of way, just letting it happen and where people move is where you follow the camera to. It helped with A) the performance, and B) with it just being what it was and so there’s not that kind of reserve of a framed and stylized image.

There’s one line that really stuck out to me. In a group scene, the inmates were talking about different prisons in different parts of the world, and they were arguing over which country had the worst prisons. There was a line, “American prisons are the worst prisons” …

That was a riff. There is a sense that you have an awful lot of people in jail in America, a very, very high prison population, and a lot more people in solitary confinement. I read a New York Times article last year or the year before, people likened solitary confinement to a form of torture. And yet, you’re building super mass jails where people are deliberately in solitary confinement. But that’s me applying that. The line is a sort of throwaway line about Morocco, or… I didn’t want it to be, and I don’t think Jonathan wanted it to be either, two developing country prisons. I just felt it was a like banter. Not particularly aimed to criticize the American thing. But it is extraordinary how many people are in jail at the moment.

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Staff editor Michael Arbeiter’s natural state of being can best be described as “mild panic attack.” His earliest memories of growing up in Queens, New York, involve nighttime conversations with a voice from his bedroom wall (the jury’s still out on what that was all about) and a love for classic television that spawned from the very first time he was allowed to watch “The Munsters.” Attending college at SUNY Binghamton, a 20-year-old Michael learned two things: that he could center his future on this love for TV and movies, and that dragons never actually existed — he was kind of late in the game on that one.