Catching Up With Starred Up Director David Mackenzie

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It’s always a risk to declare someone or something “the next big thing.” Anything can happen—in a career, or in an industry—that can defy such bold declarations. However, the steady, decade-long rise in buzz about David Mackenzie’s work is proof that the director is no overnight sensation. After a series of critically acclaimed films, including Young Adam, Asylum and Hallam Foe, he is stunning audiences with this year’s Starred Up. Perhaps one of the only films to simultaneously take on the prison system and mental health care, Starred Up is unique. We have not seen a story like this, even though stories like this—of men struggling, and losing themselves in prison—are common. Paste caught up with Mackenzie to talk about Starred Up, Ferguson, and the brilliant work of screenwriter Jonathan Asser.

Paste Magazine: It’s so great to speak with you. I first saw the film during Tribeca a few months back, and I was just blown away. It was a true experience.
David Mackenzie: Thank you, very much.

Paste: Some of the more corporeal elements of the film really fascinated me. I love the boxing scene, where we see that the prisoners have to find other things to do with their bodies. Can you talk a little about the physicality of these characters?
Mackenzie: As a director I’m always interested in—as you say—the corporeal. The body is quite important to me. And in this film, everything is all channeled, to some extent, by walls and doors and bars—everything that limits what you’re doing. And what you can do and how you can occupy yourself in a place where, in most cases, you’re in a cell for 23 hours a day. So what you do, and your options doing various exercises and what you’re body becomes, and then when you’re outside of that, what you have to do to interact with men, and the physical intimacy and physical connections feel to me to be totally a part of that world. Because of the limitations in this world, you get a more focused angle than you might in another film. That’s really essential to the vibe of the film.

There are the more obvious scenes, like the boxing scenes, or Neville [Ben Mendelson’s character] and his lover. But there’s also the actual, living, breathing physicality of all of it—the jostling and the scenes in the group where they’re almost touching each other, but they’re not. They’re sort of absorbing each other, and actually connecting.

Paste: Yes, I wanted to talk about the therapy scenes a bit. There’s that moment where Rupert Friend’s character is saying “Stay with it. Sit with it,” in an attempt to create this lesson in anger management. One of the messages of Starred Up seems to be that we don’t know what therapy is.
Mackenzie: (laughs) Yes.

Paste: We really see it when Neville shows up and tells the therapist to just get his son to straighten up!
Mackenzie: Yes. Ben [Mendelson] was always saying the real men are in that room—not the hard men. The men who can’t bring themselves to look at themselves are the ones who are really struggling, and that’s what his character is.

Obviously this film is very particular because Jonathan [Asser], the writer, is a therapist. He pioneered—in an extremely dangerous environment—the therapy techniques that the film is talking about. There was not one, single issue of contact violence with any of the people that he worked with, which is incredible. So he needs to be given maximum credit for that. And it was incredible for me to come across a story that was so interesting and personalized by the writer.

Paste: You’re making a film about a place that thrives on the failure of these men to rehabilitate themselves. Eric gives that speech to the prison administrators and correctional officers early on in the film where he basically says, if this therapy works, there are no more criminals, and you’re all out of a job!
Mackenzie: (laughs) Yes, it’s kind of perverse—the criminal justice system and all of those people who benefit from it. They’re all interdependent and, to some extent, the lawmakers and all of the people working within the system—they need criminality. It’s very much Jonathan’s observation. But I love the idea of Eric’s young and virtually uninformed character being able to cut straight through all that to see the point of it.

Paste: It’s interesting watching the film now, with all that’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Race is an issue in Starred Up, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the black inmates are talking about how they don’t like black people. (laughs)
Mackenzie: (laughs) As a white guy, I’m always slightly embarrassed by that scene because it seems to be very direct, and it’s kind of dangerous. But I think it’s successful, and it moves away from that particular issue into something more harmonious. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. I cringe at that moment, but in the end Eric comes out with Tyrone who is the one guy in the group who wasn’t giving him anything, and then they have some sort of mutual understanding. That relationship has a great arc throughout the film, and that scene is a turning point in that arc.

Paste: Can you talk a little about some of the other projects that you have in the works?
Mackenzie: Stain on the Snow is a book adaptation that we’re trying to get off the ground. The main character is similar to Eric, in that he’s a young guy going on a crime spree, but it’s set in 1940s Belgium, which was occupied at the time. It’s a Crime and Punishment sort of story, but very different from Starred Up.

The Mission is a rescue mission movie. I’d like to apply some of the things that happened in Starred Up in terms of the physicality and the realism to this kind of action movie. I’ve got a couple of other projects. Unfortunately, what you have to do is have a few eggs in your basket and see which one pans out first.

Paste: Sure. Do you see yourself working with any of the Starred Up actors again?
Mackenzie: Oh, absolutely. I’m very keen to work with Jack again, but I’d love to work with them all again—all of those actors did a fantastic job. It was a great sort of ensemble cast, and no one really could have out-shadowed anyone. I’m very proud of the whole team and, for me, it was a very positive filming experience.

Paste: Thank you again. This was truly a powerful film—my favorite of the year—and I’m looking forward to more of your work.
Mackenzie: Oh, I’m incredibly flattered. Thank you so much.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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