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”.