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David Mackenzie on Starred Up, prison movies and Dick Gaughan

THERE has been, over the years, no shortage of great movies set in prisons: The Shawshank Redemption, A Prophet, Cell 211, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped. Scum, too, if we widen the definition to borstals.

Now here comes another: the muscular Starred Up, out today, directed by David Mackenzie, produced by Gillian Berrie of Glasgow-based Sigma Films, and featuring great central performances by Jack O'Connell and Ben Mendelsohn.

Rupert Friend, last seen in Homeland, appears in the film as a psychotherapist who runs anger-management classes for some of the inmates.

The film has won consistently good reviews in advance of its release today; Empire magazine, for one, has described it as a "great prison movie" while The Herald's Alison Rowat sees it as the "perfect prison movie."

In the film, which was one of the hits of the 2014 Glasgow Film festival, a tough young inmate, Eric Love (O'Connell) has been transferred from a young offenders' institution that has been unable to control him. He now finds himself in an adult prison, where in another cell on the same wing is his estranged father, Neville (Mendelsohn).

Mackenzie, whose CV includes Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Perfect Sense, You Instead and The Last Great Wilderness, talked to HeraldScotland about the making of the film, which was written by Jonathan Asser, a former prison therapist, and why prison films are popular.

* What was it about the idea for the film that got you interested?

There was a voice there, for a start. I saw in a chance to make a film that was dead straight, both in terms of a realist movie and a movie that was tough, but underneath it all there's a real opportunity to embrace the humanity of it and to find in all of that .... there's a line from a Dick Gaughan song, from a Burns poem, about 'the savage and the tender'. I wanted to find the tenderness in amongst the savagery. That was all there in the script, but there was also the opportunity to take it further as a director. I think that's what we've done. Together, we've achieved a film that is tough but also has a heart.

* Are you happy with the reviews so far?

(Laughs) I'm a bit boring when it comes to reviews. Even in a really good review, if one sentence isn't quite right I tend to remember only the negative part of the review. I actually haven't read any reviews but I have been told they are good. There's an article about me in the current issue of Sight and Sound, which I only got around to reading in the middle of the night because I couldn't sleep. This my eighth film: after the second film [2003's Young Adam], I gave up reading reviews.

* Does making a prison film demand a certain sort of rhythm in terms of telling the story and shooting and editing it?

I think it does. One of the films I watched just before we shot Starred Up was Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), a film I have known for a long time. What you see in that film is an incredibly simple palette - you've got the cell, you've got the window, you've got the door, you've got the corridor, you've got the landing. And that, really, is kind of it. These are its elements.

A prison movie is set entirely in a prison and so it has a limited palette as its world, but within that world - what we were trying to do in Starred Up was to expand it as far as we possibly could. Prisons are innately quite a cinematic place: there are frames within frames. I hope one of the achievements of the film is that, even though you're completely stuck inside - you only get out to the exercise yard two or three times - the limitations do not become boring. I have to pay tribute here to the film's editors, Jake Roberts and Nick Emerson - they did a fantastic job. We edited the film while we were shooting and we had a fine cut just four-and-a-half weeks afterwards.

* You got some fantastic performances from O'Connell and Mendelsohn.

Fantastic, amazing. Both of them very different in terms of what they do to get to where they need to go. They're incredible actors and they really sparked together in a fantastic way. The father-son dynamic in the film exceeded everyone's expectations. It was always going to be an emotional thing, but I'm really thrilled with the way it works with the characters and with the way they do the dance towards each other.

* Where did you shoot the film?

The film was shot almost entirely in the Crumlin Road jail in Belfast, though we went to the Maze for one day. The location was a really powerful element in the making of the film, and I think it helped the characters to come alive by themselves.

* Mendelsohn has reportedly described the shoot as ------- horrible. He said, 'They were trying to shoot a lot in a short time. We were in a prison, it was freezing, I didn't like it. But that doesn't matter.'

(Laughs) I didn't think it was that horrible, myself. For Ben it was hard: it was February, it was a prison in Belfast, it was cold. As Neville, he had to go a lot further away from himself than other people did .I haven't read that interview with Ben, but for us it was what it was. It was very intense and very short, and it was tough in lots of ways but also quite good for bringing everyone together. We shot the film sequentially, so the story is occurring as we are going on the journey. Shooting in that way, I think, helped the actors to assess their own performances as they went along.

I thought it was quite a happy shoot. Normally, on any shoot there are a number of curveballs, but I don't think I've worked on a film where there have been so few curveballs thrown at me. But Ben's experience is Ben's experience.

* What is it about prison films that makes them such a lasting and popular genre?

It's a microcosm, for a start. It's a hostile environment and there is a gladiatorial element in order to survive. It's innately dramatic, and you're dealing with characters who have a different set of moralities to most other people. It's just a great cauldron for drama, I think.

*Do you watch prison movies a lot at home? Are there any you're a particular fan of?

Not really. There are enough films in the world to see and I never see any of them more than a couple of times. But I really loved the Bresson film.

* What about A Prophet [Jacques Audiard's acclaimed French prison drama from 2009]?

I've seen it once and thought it was good. I guess there's a certain similarity between A Prophet and Starred Up, in that they're both about a young guy arriving in prison and having to fend for himself. That's the opening five minutes of both films, but they are kind of different after that.

* Do you have an idea of what your next film might be about?

(Laughs) I'm desperately looking for the next gig but I'm not sure what it is yet. There is a chance I might be doing a TV pilot in the States. We'll see what happens.

* Starred Up is in cinemas from today

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