With Starred Up, David Mackenzie has crafted an instant classic not just of the prison sub-genre, but one of the best dramas of the year so far. As his eight feature, the  movie treads new ground for a talent whose last high-profile movie was the Ewan McGregor-starring Perfect Sense, but showcasing astonishing performances from Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend – and proving he can bring out the beauty in the brutality – it’s also his greatest work so far. HeyUGuys had a chat with him about it.

Were you always interested in making a prison-set film? Or was it Jonathan Asser’s screenplay that drew you in?

It’s a hard one; you choose a project on the basis of a number of reasons. All the things that come across your path are a major reason, you know. I definitely think I was interested in trying to make a movie that was, I guess, straighter and harder and more realistic than some of my other movies have been. And I guess when I read Jonathan’s script in its early draft, I sort of felt there was something there that was an opportunity to go in that direction. A combination of being impressed by the script and having it designed in that direction, but not necessarily in the world of prison; something slightly more hardboiled and straighter that I’ve explored in recent movies.

That’s interesting to note, because your last big film before Starred Up was Perfect Sense, which was essentially a science-fiction-tinged romance – so Starred Up is definitely a completely different direction to that.

Not only was it science-fiction, but it was also quite a poetic thing. It was almost anti-realism, in all sorts of ways. The inertia to go in a different direction came from having exhausted the idea of exploring the kind of things metaphorically. I kind of wanted to be anti-metaphorical in this movie, and just play it straight. Pretty much everything I did in terms of being a director was in that direction; we shot the film sequentially, and it was very immediately part of the… you’re connected to the material. You always sort of make three films; you make the script, you make the film  you’re shooting, and you make the film you edit. And they’re usually three very different movies. By having Jonathan on set the whole time, and keeping that script close, and by editing five hours behind the shoot and showing a cut of the film that didn’t really change much from what we got at the wrap party, I kind of merged all three of those films into one film, and felt very much in control of the process and connected to the process, all the way through, in a way that I’ve never experienced before. And I think that that’s something to do with the good results of the film, I think.

You mention there are three films; the writing one, the shooting film and the editing film. Is there one particular part of that process that you enjoy the most?

(Laughs) Because I joined the three together, that’s an easy one to answer; all of them! But yeah, they all have their different things. The real dance – and I do think it’s like a dance – you have a schedule, you’ve got to get through whatever it is and get through the day, each day, and you’re sort of brought the whole set of ingredients by the script and whatever you get in pre-production. But then the real dance is in the moment when the cameras are running, and that’s kind of, there’s a real thrill to that. I find that exciting.

You shot the film sequentially, like you mentioned before. How was that in terms of freeing you up with the story and the characters?

Well, the main thing about shooting a film sequentially is that you’re allowed to live in the moment of it. You don’t have to kind of keep in your mind ‘what’s the continuity of that scene I was doing before, four or five days ago?’ For an actor, obviously that means that they can embrace the moment very precisely. For a director, I’m not having to think about that, particularly if I’ve edited all the scenes together, so I know what’s happened before – I’ve already seen it, you know? It allows you to be closer to the moment of the scene you’re engaging with at that time, and I think that’s a really, really important thing. I think there are a lot of things in the filmmaking process that disengage you from the reality of the scene you’re trying to describe, and you try to avoid that. It’s useful, and certainly shooting a film sequentially is a very strong process for an actor and it’s a very strong process for a director. But I think also the whole, all of the crew, everyone sort of knows where they are, in a way; it relaxes everything in some kind of way, you just have to deal with what’s happening right there as opposed to being anticipating, changing, and the whole jigsaw puzzle that you have to put together when you shoot the film non-sequentially.

David Mackenzie approvedWhen you were shooting the film, it looks like it would’ve been an especially emotionally gruelling shoot. Was there a particular scene that you still remember as being particularly difficult to shoot or particularly emotional?

Probably the only negative of shooting sequentially is that if you have a film that’s got a thoroughly dramatic finale, you’re stacking up an awful lot of your heavy stuff ’til the end of the process when the team is running fast and good so that’s good, but also you’re exhausting yourself. So the last three or four days were very, very intense (laughs). Just because of all the pressure of getting through the schedule and all the pressure of dealing with the extreme emotions and violence and what was going on in the last part of the movie.

I bet the wrap party was especially amazing though.

Well every day you’re training yourself for the next day, but yeah, I’m not saying it was but it was hard to deal with it.

I saw that you got some of Jonathan’s real-life prisoners in during rehearsals for the film. Could you tell us a bit about that experience?

Well, three of Jonathan’s former inmates who had small parts in the movie but who also helping where beginning to form the dynamics of the group scenes. The group scenes are some of my favourite parts of the movie, because they’re very forthright, they’re very dynamic, there’s lots of tension, escalation, de-escelation, and the interesting thing about what Oliver [the therapist in the movie, played by Rupert Friend] does – and I guess what Jonathan does – in the past, in his reality. If you’re taking some volatile people, and you’re almost asking them to explore their volatility, there’s something immensely dramatic about that. But we had a session involving one or two of the former prisoners of Jonathan’s who were helping us understand how these sessions worked. And some of that session got very intense, and I hadn’t realised until then how incredibly dynamic they are and what’s really exciting is how… in movies, you see things escalate often, but no one’s really explored very often the de-escalation. There’s a scene in the film where things sort of explode in the group, and then they de-escalate; but there’s so much tension in that de-escalation, and there are little parts where it looks like it’s going to escalate again. And that scene was a scene that I asked Jonathan to write, having experienced this cast in the session, because I thought we hadn’t really explored the amazing power of that de-escalation, and it remains one of my favourite scenes of the movie.

During, I think a couple of those scenes, Rupert Friend’s character Oliver, the therapist, he kind of just stands in between two of the prisoners…

… absorbing all that aggression. That sort of technique I think Jonathan encouraged him to do; just standing in between people, of interacting, of putting yourself in the line of fire in a way to absorb whatever is there and try to stop becoming more dangerous. But obviously, the process of doing that is you have to be a very brave person to stand in that way, which is what the character so interesting.

starred upIt’s an incredible thing to watch. And with the characters, a big aspect of Starred Up I found is that it never seems to be driven by plot at any point. It only ever seems to be carried along by the consequences of the characters, not the plot.

Interesting. I mean, there is a plot – in terms of the sort of high concept of the movie, it’s got one of the cleanest, high concepts in the eight films that I’ve done. Meeting his dad pretty much for the first time in jail. But I agree; it’s a character-driven piece, and the plot, while it’s there, it’s not the machinations of another thing that’s coming alive, it’s the characters and the environment and the tensions that are always bubbling very close to the surface. And I hope there’s an experience in the movie that you’re journeying through something that has got very powerful, dramatic tension because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

To put it simply, it feels like you’ve just got a bunch of great, volatile characters, and put them in one place all together, and watch what happens.

That’s what prison is, is it? (Laughs) It’s a hostile environment where there’s a lot of volatility, and I think if we’ve captured successfully in the film, then that was definitely one of our ambitions.

Just veering slightly, and going back a bit, you had your first Hollywood movie Spread a few years ago [2009], and then you returned to the UK for your next few things, including Starred Up. Is there something about British film that keeps you coming back?

The process of making films in Europe allows me, the director, to have – usually – more control. And as a result of that, I’m usually more able to make better movies. The process of making this one [Starred Up], I’ve probably never been more in control of the direction in any of the films I’ve ever done. As a result of that, I’m able to have quite a free atmosphere which is one of the ironies of this incarceration movie, where everyone is locked up, it was quite a liberated set. If I’m allowed to be in control of my destiny, I can pass that control on to those people that I’m working with, and allow them to shine in ways that sometimes, the more systematic way of making movies within the Hollywood machine, makes it harder I think.

The second time I saw this film, I took someone with me who had actually been to prison. Afterward, he said to me, ‘yep, that’s what it’s like. They nailed it’. Have you had similar reactions from other people?

It’s hard to generalise, but I have a feeling that the film is respected by the people who’ve experienced the system. We tried our hardest everywhere along the way to ask the question ‘could this happen?’ We lifted up every stone to make sure it was plausible and held together, and felt authentic. Obviously, it’s a piece of fiction, so it’s never going to escape that, and I tried very hard to be honest to the material and the world we were describing. And I know that Jonathan, in the writing of the script, that was his intention too. It’s always great to hear that people who know of the world respect the depiction of the work.

Starred Up is out now on Digital HD, DVD & Blu-ray from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.