David Mackenzie, Jack O’Connell and Rupert Friend talk about “Starred Up”

David Mackenzie’s transfixing new UK prison drama, Starred Up, is now available on demand as well as in theatrical release in New York. The film made its initial NYC  premiere this past spring at the Tribeca Film Festival where I got a chance to speak with Mackenzie as well as the stars Jack O’Connell and Rupert Friend.

O’Connell stars as Eric Love, a 19 year-old inmate who has been deemed too dangerous to serve in a juvenile facility and has been “starred up” to the adult penitentiary. Friend plays a prison counselor who seeks to rehabilitate the inmates through non violent group therapy. The shooting of the film itself took place over four weeks in an actual prison which the filmmakers credited with helping to develop the film:

“You feel it,” said director David Mackenzie, “You feel the strength of those walls and the strength of the metal bars and the doors. It kind of pens you in a bit. It’s perfect for recreating the atmosphere you need for the movie. But you can definitely feel how oppressive that architecture is.”

Consequently, the actor’s substituted trailers for jail cells. “There was nothing else to be in” Rupert Friend described the setting, “and it’s freezing and the walls hadn’t been cleaned or painted since the last occupants so there’s kind of bodily secretions…don’t touch the walls. And the feeling of isolation and frankly, terror, was pretty powerful for everyone. And it does, it plays into the psychology of the thing. It really does.”

Jack O’Connell had a similar feeling “because we spent our downtime in cells too it meant I had the opportunity at any point to just imagine it. So our trailers were effectively cells. So if at any point I wanted to research or just be as Eric for a bit, I was in his setting.” Although he also went on to say the prison itself he didn’t find scary, “not when it’s not functioning. From what I can gather from the graffiti and the history of [the jail] itself, it’s had scarier days. Much scarier days than when we were there.”

The cast also had the fairly unique experience of shooting the film sequentially over the course of four weeks which encouraged an improvisational take on the story. O’Connell described this as “a total luxury. I mean I could turn up on set without knowing my lines and kind of just blag it, you know? Sort of story unfolding as we told it and if I ever get to repeat that same sort luxury I consider myself very privileged and I’m sure David Mackenzie, our director, shares those sentiments.” In fact Mackenzie shared on the red carpet that he hoped to repeat the experience on an AMC pilot he was readying to shoot at the time, “I’m asking them at the moment whether they’re prepared to let me do it in this method…we’ll see what happens. But actually because the pilot is set in a very limited number of locations so you don’t have to kind of do all the moving that would normally make it problematic. So if I’m lucky maybe I’ll get away with it.”

The improvisational atmosphere was most evident in the group therapy sessions overseen by Friend’s character Oliver, whom the writer Jonathan Asser based on his own experience with inmates. If there’s levity to be found in the film, it’s here and unsurprisingly Mackenzie described those shooting days as  “a joy” saying “because we shot the film sequentially–So you know, we’d have like four or five days and then we’d get a group scene and…there’s quite a big page count. So the schedule gave me like three hours rather than two hours, so it was like ‘Wow! A luxury here!’ and the way we shot it with those scenes was we had the text but we improvised at the head of the scene and we improvised at the tail of the scene. And we allowed the guys to kind of play with it. So we really felt like it wasn’t written. It had to feel like it was alive. And it was great what they did was you know a real joy.”

For Friend it got especially real in a fight scene, “We just kind of went for it. You know one of the scenes these guys, you know there’s a lot of fighting and we didn’t choreograph any of that…and I won’t say who it was, but I got punched so hard in the eye I wound up in the eye doctor.” Although for Friend, “the most interesting part” was remaining a nonviolent character amongst all the tension. “How is it that this one mild mannered, middle class guy was able to diffuse that tension and make it constructive? That’s what was fascinating” he said on the red carpet,  “Not just theoretically, but actually in the room when this lot are all going crazy.”

Director Mackenzie reinforced this sentiment on maintaining control in the violent group. “It was fascinating to watch how…you often see the escalation of things but the deescalation of things is never like a straight deflation. It’s like you know it’s jagged, jagged deescalation and that was really interesting. But it’s fun and also he’s building connections with these guys and I think that’s where the socialization I guess of Jack’s character is really at the fore.”

When specifically asked what O’Connell brought to the role of Eric, the director had nothing but praise for the up-and-coming actor. “What he really brought to it was a fearlessness and the kind of cojones to really go as far as he could with that character. Without holding anything back and that was what a director dreams of. And because we shot the film sequentially he only needed to worry about the scene he was in. He didn’t have to worry about where it fits in in the jigsaw puzzle…so he didn’t. He tried to kind of forget about the rest of the film apart from the scene he was in. And it was just about the immersion into that moment. And I think it’s great. I’m very happy with what he did.”

Jack himself credited his background for aiding him in bringing rougher characters like Eric to the screen, “I don’t want to offend people here, but I do find that you know your typical actor doesn’t necessarily have you know that sort of life experience, you know in scrapes and you know, I haven’t been in a drama school for a significant amount of my adult life. I was out and about trying to be an actor and also trying to survive I guess and have fun at the same time. So that kind of gave me a bit of a wealth of life experience and I think directors like David distinguish the difference between someone with experience in that field and an actor who’s trying to pretend. And so it certainly was to my advantage that the majority of actors you know aren’t working class individuals from Darby. I mean that meant approaching a role like this, I kind of know the difference between acting hard and perhaps being hard. You know, being intimidating. It’s a fine line but very decisive one way or the other.”

Despite it’s grim setting, when Mackenzie was asked what message he hoped the film conveyed, he responded “Somebody said something about a film that kind of suggests that everybody has a chance, a shot at redemption and the idea that you know, this character has obviously done very bad things but you know, he’s obviously come from circumstances…I think it’s about shining a little bit of humanity into the situation. There isn’t much.”

Starred Up is available on VOD and in limited NYC release. Jack O’Connell can next be seen starring in Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut “Unbroken”.

Interview with Andy Mackenzie & James Duval

Andy Mackenzie & James Duval are co-starring in the film “Sushi Girl”, playing the roles of Max and Francis (respectively).  These guys were so passionate about this film during our interview and it is rare to see such devotion to a film.  Media Mikes chatted with Andy and James about their roles and what it is like working with such an all-star cast.

Mike Gencarelli: James, tell us about your role of Francis in “Sushi Girl”?
James Duval: Yeah, I play Francis and I am part of the old core group members of this group of professional criminals. I play the shifty one in the group, so to speak [laughs].

MG: Andy, tell us about your role of Max in “Sushi Girl”?
Andy Mackenzie: Max is honestly surrounded by all these badass guys, except Max is probably the most badass. He is the guy that shoots first and doesn’t even have time to ask questions later. He has somewhat of a brain and he actually is somewhat multidimensional with his relationship with Mark Hamill’s character in the film. We push buttons all throughout the film.

MG: What drew you to work on this film?
AM: I read the script the first time and I tried to picture who was going to be the actors playing these characters. First off, I pictured Tony Todd because he is the pimp and it would be perfect. Everyone brought so much to the table in a completely different way than you can ever imagine. It just keep getting better and better every day.
JD: Absolutely it just kept growing. Andy was actually signed on to this film before me, like a year and a half ago. I knew Tony before just from the business and I knew who Andy was but never met him. So I was really excited to sit down and looking forward to the rest of the casting. At that point they hadn’t locked the characters down for Fish (Noah Hathaway) and Crow (Mark Hamill) yet. This was an opportunity to sit down a do a real good character piece with the script that Destin (Pfaff) and Kern (Saxton) has written. It is absolutely dynamic. I learned a lot from working across Tony Todd, who just has this presence. Then when you throw in the color of Mark Hamill and Noah Hathaway, honestly it doesn’t get better than that. When you think of Mark Hamill, you really don’t even know what he looks like anymore besides he does a lot of voice work. All of the sudden he shows up at our last table reading with a character completely out of a comic book [laughing]. It was the funniest, scariest and creepiest thing…all at the same time. It turned everything around that I was doing or thinking. I thought now I have to react to this guy [laughs]. Everyone knows Mark and Noah so well from growing up with them in films, but to see them come and deliver on this film is really what acting and making movies are about. This is a character breaking role for Mark Hamill and you will not look at him the same way again.

MG: You both sound so inspired about working on this film, it is really refreshing.
JD: It is just a dream come true. We are working with really dynamic actors that are really some of the best in the business but we also have a really great dynamic script. It has fleshed out character development and twists and turns. As an actor getting to play that is just a blast, you can not ask for more when you are making a movie.
AM: Exactly what Jimmy said, definitely a dream come true. Imagine growing up, you are watching “The Neverending Story” or “Star Wars” or “Candyman”. All of the sudden you walk into this room and all of these guys are in the same room as you and you have to be a badass [laughs]. That is where the inspiration is but how can you actually be a badass when you are surrounded by all these badasses [laughs].

MG: What would you say was your most challenging aspect working on the film?
JD: Every actor wants to shoot as chronological as possible. This was shot over 18 days and the real challenge was that after 7-8 days, you are left exploring and figuring out who you are. You want to go back in time and known that something prior was going to happen and changed a relationship. We spent a lot of time on set and even off camera talking about who these characters really came from. Once you see the movie we are right there in this middle of this crime. You are left wondering where we all came from. We are constantly exploring and seeing where we could take these characters. The film basically takes place in one night with some flashbacks.
AM: We were trying to do the chronological aspect the best we could but then there was a couple of occasions when we had to jump way forward and catch somethings. That was the big problem during those moments, we really didn’t know who we were at that moment and that is when we needed to go back and try to find out.
JD: Can’t talk about the budget, but we didn’t have a lot of money or time. We had to move fast and in the sense of doing so you are jumping from scene to scene quickly. You have the camera setup jumping from shot to shot without changing, so you have to be really on the ball with what was going on.
AM: What I meant to say with the biggest challenge was sitting around the table right next to a hot naked chick with only sushi covering parts of her body…that was really hard [laughs].
JD: Cortney Palm, great young up-and-coming actress, was really amazing having to sit there 15-18 days in the same position. She is going to blow you guys away. I think there are some parts of this film that we can’t say but it is going to go down in cinematic history. The visual shots and certain scenes are very memorable and it is really exciting to be a part of.

MG: James, What is the deal with “Mondo Holocausto!”?
JD: I know we were planning on doing it a couple of years ago. It is still in pre-production and I just received an email from the director, so it might be moving forward again. It was put on the back burner for a while. It was going to be down in the style and spirit of the 70’s Mondo campy horror films with badly dubbed over purposely. I do not know if it would work but I love the idea and the concept. I saw some test shots with the actors voice dubbed and I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought it was incredible. If we are fortunate enough, I hope he gets the money and we still get to do this film.

MG: Andy, do you still get a chance to work on your music as well as acting?
AM: Yeah, I am still playing drums in a band. Everyone is currently busy with other things so we haven’t been playing live recently. It is such a great outlet for me and I totally need to get back out there.

MG: You both have a few films in the works, so what’s next?
JD: I actually just finished filming my first script that I wrote with a friend of mine. It is a totally different film that “Sushi Girl” and it was great writing it. We really explored the characters in the film. We started editing this week, so we will see how it goes. I am really excited. I also have a film that I produced that premiered at Raindance Film Festival in London, called “The Black Belle”.
AM: I have two films in post right now. One of them is called “Knifepoint” that just premiered at Fantasia in Montreal and next it is moving to Chicago Horror Film Festival. There is another film I did which is also hitting the circuits, called “American Joyride”. I also just did a Civil War TV pilot called “Reconstruction”.


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