GARY OLDMAN ON ALAN CLARKE

Interview recorded 22nd May 2000

Andy Kimpton-Nye: HOW DID YOU COME TO BE CAST AS BEX IN THE FIRM?

Gary Oldman: I’d heard about it, or maybe… it’s a while ago now, so the memory’s a bit foggy, but I think I got hold of the script and I wanted to be involved. And at first I think he was very shy of meeting me because I had started to, as it were, happen in movies and obviously you bring a baggage to something. You bring history. And I guess Alan thought that that might get in the way, to some extent. But he met me through… my agent bullied him. And we met and I read for him. There’s sometimes, it’s strange, there’s sometimes a sort of reputation that precedes you, where people have a very fixed idea of who you are and what you are like. It’s often very good. I think it’s good to get in the room with a director. Because they do have a preconceived idea of who you are and what you’re like, and most of the jobs that I got have been actually physically getting in the room with a director. But we hit it off. And that’s it, you know, he gave me the part. I went back a couple of times I think. I think he saw me once or twice… more than twice, to make up his mind.

YOU SAY YOUR AGENT BULLIED HIM, THAT SUGGESTS THAT YOU WERE QUITE KEEN TO WORK WITH ALAN CLARKE, WERE YOU? AND IF SO, WHY?

Well, the body of work is just… tremendous. Inspiring. And… you see a movie like ‘Scum’ and I mean I never saw the original. Well, none of us did. But I saw it at the movies the Elephant, Elephant & Castle. And it’s thrilling. It’s just, it’s… this is before I became an actor. You want to work with people like that. I mean it’s always, that’s always the, I mean the prime consideration is the material and the director. So I was very keen to work with Alan. You have a kind of… I think actors have sort of like a short-list of people that they want to work with… Maybe I’m too well known now to work with Ken Loach, or Mike Leigh. They won’t work with me anymore. Maybe they think they can’t afford me

BACK TO ALAN THEN, WHEN YOU MET HIM I GOT THE IMPRESSION FROM RICHARD KELLY’S BIOGRAPHY THAT YOU LIKED HIM STRAIGHT AWAY. WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF ALAN WHEN YOU MET HIM?

He radiated, with energy. The energy coming off him. The enthusiasm. And one got the impression that he liked actors. Actors want to be liked, that’s the game we’re in. We want people to say, ‘yeah you were terrific.’ Or pat us on the back and say, you know, ‘Good work.’ That’s what we live for. So, you instantly felt worthwhile. You felt very confident around Alan. He made you feel confident. That anything was possible and that you could… you could go the whole nine yards with him. You could try anything with Alan. And that’s really what you need, you know - a director… this is why you were saying so many people have been willing to talk about him. A director has to set up a space in which an actor can utilise the talent. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what Alan did.

HOW DID HE DO THAT? WAS THERE A REHEARSAL PERIOD? AND IF SO, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

Yeah, we had rehearsal. Yeah. We mainly concentrated on the fight sequences because they were, believe it or not, they were choreographed. People still got hurt, but you’re going to get that when, you know, you’ve got sort of 16 hooligans all going mad at one another. Well, 16 actors who are just told, you know, ‘Go for it.’ So people are going to get obviously hurt. But there was… there were margins of safety and so we got a guy in and he rehearsed with us. And he was some guy who was like an ex-paratrooper, or something. And you were saying, you know, controversy followed Alan around… and we were shooting at Euston Station and the stunt coordinator got into a fight with a guy in the street. And they had to sort of go home.

It allowed freedom. You might find a rhythm, or an energy and he say’s, ‘You know what, I like what you’re doing now. Come in again. We’ll do that again where you come in.’ And it gave him great freedom. It’s quick, too. And it’s one shot.

AMAZING. I GET THE IMPRESSION THAT HE WAS AN ECONOMICAL DIRECTOR WHICH WAS PROBABLY SOMETHING THAT KEPT HIM WORKING, BECAUSE HE OBVIOUSLY DID COME UP WITH A LOT OF FILMS WHICH WERE ECONOMICAL IN TERMS OF SHOOTING QUICKLY, BUDGETS AND ALL THAT KIND OF THING.

Yeah, he wasn’t too hung up with the aesthetics, really. I mean aren't they beautiful looking movies? No. You know? I mean it’s what kids are doing, it’s what people are doing now with the digital camera and with hi definition and with video. I mean if you look at ‘The Celebration’, you know those Dogma guys? I mean it’s shot on video and then transferred to 35. And some of it is natural lighting, and some of it looks beautiful. But some of it looks like shit. But that’s not what you’re looking at. So that wasn’t what you were looking at with Alan. You weren’t looking at the beautiful light coming through the Venetian blinds. He just put up enough light, I want to see it, is it in focus, and let’s go. You know? And that’s inspired, that’s contagious.

THAT BRINGS US BACK TO HIM BEING SO GOOD WITH ACTORS. I GUESS THAT IS WHAT WAS REALLY IMPORTANT. THE ACTORS PERFORMANCE AND SOME SORT OF HONESTY OR TRUTH - THAT WAS ALMOST THE MAIN THING FOR ALAN, WASN’T IT?

Yeah. Well it gave him (coughs) it gave him time to be with the acting. Alan’s work is about character. And that’s narrative, you know, behaviour is plot. And so by really just getting on with it, using the steadicam, not worrying and taking the time to really… all those aesthetics that go into movie making. It gave him more time actually directing, being with actors, on the floor. It gave him more time shooting. It was more time, you know, with film running through the camera than the… politics and the, you know, all the hardware. It’s a circus, you know, film. You’ve got 10 trucks, you know, he couldn’t be bothered with all of that. Let’s just pick up the camera and go.

SOMETHING THAT JUMPED OUT AT ME: GOING BACK TO ‘THE FIRM’ AGAIN, AS I SAID, THE VIOLENCE IS ALMOST LIKE COMING OUT OF THE SCREEN. AS THE VIEWER IT’S LIKE THESE ARE UGLY CHARACTERS, MONSTERS. YOU CAN ALMOST FEEL THE VIOLENCE AND THEIR BREATHING AND DOING WHAT THEY ARE ACTUALLY DOING. WHAT DID HE DO TO GET YOU TO THAT PITCH?

Well I think he cast well. That’s the secret. Look who he’s cast. Go through the list of the British actors that he’s worked with, or more importantly, discovered. It’s pretty impressive. And there’s intensity, if you want, with each of us. In some shape or form. When you think of Phil Daniels, you’ve got Ray Winston, you’ve got Tim Roth, Phil Davis, there’s an innate energy. An intensity, if you want, with all of us. So I think his casting was, that was obviously very, very important. I didn’t work with him in the early days and, you know, Ray would probably be a better person to say what Alan was like back then, when he used to sort of maybe wind people up. But when I worked with him, I wouldn’t say he’d mellowed. Once in a while you would see it. There’s a scene in the firm where we were in a hotel and we met the other gang, or the gang comes down from up north. And there were some pretty loose canons in that scene. In that room. And maybe, maybe Alan took them to one side and said, you know, ‘Go in there and wind him up, you know, get in his face, get in there.’ And then they leave the hotel, you know, when they punch the ceiling and stuff like that? That was all off the cuff. We had the security come up and Alan and I had to say, you know, ‘go easy because we’ll have the permit taken away.’ But I wasn’t aware of any kind of games, you know, going on to get the sort of requisite level of violence or energy. We understood what we were doing. I guess in a way that was, you now, we all knew the piece we were in and what it required. And you wanted to please him. He was such a nice guy that you, you wanted to do the work for him.

ONCE IT WAS COMPLETED THERE WAS A BIT OF CONTROVERSY AND THAT CAUSED A STIR OBVIOUSLY WITH THE BBC AND THE PRESS. DO YOU KNOW HOW ALAN REACTED TO ALL THAT CONTROVERSY THAT SURROUNDED THE FINISHED FILM?

Well I know it… you know, I know it got into the papers. And they ran with that for a bit trying to make an issue of it. I heard that the BBC wanted to cut it quite heavily. And it was the straw that really broke the camels back for Alan, I think. You know, maybe he was sick, he was obviously sick. Because shortly after that I know that he came here trying to get that movie together and it was here that he felt ill and took the flight home. So there was something going on with his body. Cancer. And I think he just thought… ‘Again? Again? You're going to cut my work again?’ Someone had said that he had said to them “at the BBC, you know, is it a qualification for the job that you’ll have your balls cut off?”

There was a rape scene, with me and Lesley Manville…that hit the cutting room floor, but it’s still pretty powerful stuff. I mean, I don’t know where it stands in the canon, I don’t know if it’s his best work I don’t… it’s not my favourite Alan Clarke film. The one that really blew me away was ‘Elephant.’

WHY?

Because it was such a… such a powerful document on the senseless killing. No words, just, just the killings. And when you see them one after the other like that, I found it very… very moving and…very, very moving that film. A great idea, to, you know…

WHAT JUMPS OFF THE SCREEN AT ME WHEN YOU WATCH THAT IS HOW ON EARTH COULD IT BE MADE. BECAUSE YOU’RE RIGHT, IT’S A BRILLIANT IDEA, BRILLIANTLY EXECUTED, BUT I’M AMAZED THAT THE BBC WERE EVER PARTY TO THE ORIGINAL IDEA AND LET IT BE MADE THE WAY IT WAS MADE. THAT’S NOT A CRITICISM. IT SAYS SOMETHING OF HIS KIND OF PERSEVERANCE TO GET THINGS DONE THE WAY HE WANTED. IT’S AN AMAZING FILM…

Yeah, and I think it’s something to do with the natural sound. He didn’t go in and enhance the gun fire and the, you know, like movies do. They’ll go in and foley stuff because people are talking and they got helicopters…. You know, Alan really wasn’t one for any of that. You know, if something’s making a noise over the dialogue, he was happy with that. He was okay with it.

I THINK DOCUMENTARIES SHOULD BE LIKE THAT. YOU CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING PERFECTLY CLEAN IN THE BACKGROUND, IT DOESN’T SEEM RIGHT…

You know, that was just his…that was his thing. Here it is. No ribbons. No wrapping paper. Just…in your face. Ahead of his time.

WE’VE TALKED A LOT ABOUT THE DIRECTOR. WHAT IN YOUR OPINION WERE THE QUALITIES OF ALAN THE MAN, ALAN AS A PERSON?

Well my… as I say I came to meet Alan quite late in his life. And, I know that there was a reputation of him being a bit of a wild guy and… he, like I said, he made you feel special. And some directors that I’ve worked with, they don’t realise that when they come in and they sort of just pat you on the back and they say, ‘I saw the dailies, really good work. Fantastic.’ You know, that’ll keep you going. That, that keeps you… you come in and it keeps you working and you want to… you want to work for them. And that’s just a natural insecurity that we have and when it doesn’t happen, you know, up here starts taking over and you’re going, ‘Does he like what I’m doing? Do they like what I’m doing? Am I going to get fired? They’ve not said anything…’ You start getting very paranoid. I do. I think a lot of actors do. And Alan, he understood that. So he would come in and say, ‘I saw the dailies last night, watched it. Fucking great man, we’re making… it’s killer! We’re gonna…it’s brilliant. Keep it up.’ Or you would do a scene and he would come in, ‘Let me shake your hand.’ He said, ‘That was just… an honour.’ He said, ‘I was privileged to watch that. Brilliant. Good acting.’ And it goes a long way. It goes a long way.

YOU’VE SUCCESSFULLY TURNED YOUR HAND TO DIRECTING NOW. HOW DID THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING WITH ALAN HELP?

Well… really… I think you can… I don’t know how much of it you can learn by being, by being directed and by just being around and watching. You can pick things up, but I don’t know if you can just sort of do it… by watching. I mean I came to directing having made 20 something movies, so I mean that’s, you know… and working with Coppola, and you know, people like Oliver Stone. I mean that’s a pretty good film school. I think you can, I think you can… what you can learn is how not to do it. So, if someone is rude, let’s say to an actor, you can just index it and think, you know, when I make movie I must remember never to do that. Never to talk to an actor like that. So those… that’s kind of what I picked up from, if anything that I picked up from Alan was love your actors. Encourage them. Whether he influenced me as a sort of film maker, you know, probably, yes. Unconsciously. I am NOT a fan of the steadicam. That’s just a personal preference. And I never used a steadicam. I like hand held, and that’s just a pet peeve with me. But I admire it when it’s in the hands of someone who can really, really use it. And I don’t think there’s anyone better than… it was organic, that’s the thing. The camera and action, it wasn’t just whistles and bells and pyrotechnics for the sake of it. And also the energy, that’s something that I saw and tried to get. There’s an energy. There’s just a sheer… there’s a visceral kind of power in Alan’s films. He would call them… he sometimes referred to them as walking movies, there’s always people walking in Alan’s films. And something also… what’s the film that he made with the drug addicts?

‘CHRISTINE.’

‘Christine’, that’s it. That was a leaf I stole from his book, with showing the repetition. Just the maintenance of drug taking. I was, you know, spurred on to do that, repeat myself. From that film

IF HE WERE ALIVE TODAY, WHAT DO YOU THINK HE’D BE DOING? WHAT SORT OF WORK? WHERE? WOULD HE BE IN AMERICA?

Yeah he may well have… yeah he may have well have come here. I think he probably would have outgrown the Beeb. Still doing the work with, you know, the injustices and sort of going for the…. he loved the underdog, Alan, so he would still be doing the work that was about, you know, social issues. But he may have come here. I would like to think he would have tried his hand here in features.

WOULD HE HAVE SURVIVED THOUGH DO YOU THINK, BECAUSE OF HIS SUBJECTS: ‘SCUM’ AND ‘CHRISTINE’… THEY’D THINK, BLOODY HELL THAT’S NOT GOING TO MAKE MONEY AT THE BOX OFFICE, IS IT? AND AGAIN, THE PERSONALITY, I GET THE IMPRESSION THAT HE WAS UNCOMPROMISING. ALAN GOT WHAT ALAN WANTED. WOULD THAT HAVE WORKED IN AMERICA? HE WOULDN’T HAVE NECESSARILY BEEN MAKING MONEY, HE’D HAVE WANTED TO DO IT HIS WAY.,..

Would it have worked? It would have worked for a time. It would have worked for a while. Today, in the current market place? No. No. I mean things have changed in five years since ‘Nil by Mouth’. I mean… people talk, people do talk about the British film industry and from where I sit there isn’t one. And that’s not the fault of the talent. Audiences want to see American movies. ‘Nil by Mouth’ essentially played to the middle class sort of stroke art house audience. It didn’t play to… it didn’t play to the people it was about and it was made for. They didn’t go and see it. They wanted ‘The Full Monty’ or…’Mission Impossible.’ Don’t you think? There’s not an audience for it.

YEAH, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. I THINK I SAW ‘NIL BY MOUTH’ IN PECKHAM… PECKHAM PREMIER, A MULTIPLEX THERE. AND IT GOT SOME INTERESTING REACTIONS. A BLACK COUPLE WALKED OUT AND THERE WAS, YOU KNOW, I COULD HEAR WOMEN SAYING BASTARD. BUT THAT’S GOOD. THAT’S A TANGIBLE REACTION. AT LEAST IF YOU’RE GETTING PEOPLE SORT OF INTERACTING WITH IT, EVEN IF THEY DISAGREE WITH IT, IT’S A STARTING POINT. BUT I DON’T KNOW OUTSIDE OF THE PECKHAM PREMIER, WHICH IS SORT OF MAINSTREAM CINEMAS… YOU’RE PROBABLY LOOKING AT THE ART HOUSE TYPE CIRCUIT IN LONDON FOR GENERAL RELEASES…PROBABLY THE RENOIR AND NOTTING HILL GATE…

Yeah and then you can comfortably watch it and say, ‘It isn’t about me.’ Or you can use that divide as a sort of cushion and say, ‘Ah yeah but it’s….’ what was interesting about The Firm was that for the first time we saw people who were bright, in good jobs, who had money. And this was at the time when Thatcher wanted to give like sort of special passes. She wanted to get… didn’t they want a ticket every game where you had to have like a season ticket or something? You know, and they were going to out price the so called yob, or the kid who was out of work and on the dole? You know, the 18 year old who was sort of out of work and on the dole and all he would want to do at the weekend is beat people up? Actually, the people that were instigating the violence could afford the tickets. They had gold American Express cards, and they held down very good jobs and they lived in very nice houses and they had wives and kids and they were all terribly respectable until Saturday afternoon. And then they turned into, you know… and you get, you know, whatever gets you, whatever floats your boat. You know? You get drunk, you take drugs, you beat people up. You chase some stimulant that takes you out of yourself.

THE PHRASE FROM THAT MOVIE THAT STICKS IN MY MIND IS ‘IT’S BECAUSE OF THE BUZZ.’ I THINK A COUPLE OF TIMES, MAYBE THREE TIMES, YOU KNOW, THAT DIRECT ISSUE IS ADDRESSED: WHY DO YOU DO THIS? AND IT’S LIKE AS SIMPLE AS “IT’S BECAUSE OF THE BUZZ.” THERE’S NOT A LONG KIND OF LIKE UNIVERSITY THESIS ON WHY THEY DO IT. IT’S BECAUSE OF THE BUZZ. AND IF YOU TIE THAT IN WITH THE THATCHER ERA, IT WAS THE BUZZ OF MAKING MONEY WASN’T IT?

Yeah. Yeah.

AND THESE GUYS ARE DOING IT BECAUSE OF THE BUZZ.

Well the adrenaline rush… I mean I followed football when I was growing up. And at the time I was sort of 14, 15, I discovered girls and I always say that sort of ruined my football career. Because that’s sort of what I wanted to do, and then I didn’t want to train or play football anymore. But I followed football and lived very near Millwall. And I ran with the… the Millwall mob. Not in a violent way, but would go the stand and, you know, it was exciting. You know, all the chanting. And I was never going to be the frontline guy with a Stanley knife or anything like that. But just the excitement that one got from standing in the crowd. I can see its appeal. And you see, Alan could. All his movies, when you… he could, he understood violence and he photographed it… he captured it brilliantly. I remember seeing ‘Scum’ and thinking I’ve never seen a fight like that. I’ve never seen a fight in a movie… You go, ‘God that’s what it’s like on a Saturday night in Bermondsey when the pubs come out.’ You know, you go, ‘Fuck!’ It was so shocking. And he could, he saw it and he understood it. And he even admired it I think, somehow. There was… but he detested it and he didn’t like it and he wasn’t, well the Alan I knew was not a violent man and he would never meet any of the guys, the guys that we were talking to for ‘The Firm.’ He once said to me, ‘No, I don’t want to go and meet them.’ He said, ‘I’m afraid I might like them.’ I mean that is interesting. Ultimately he is saying, ‘This is terrible, look at this.’ And I don’t think he wanted to be in a position where he… he had sympathy for them. I don’t think he wanted to get that involved. You can do that as an actor. You can, you could be playing someone from the IRA and you could meet someone and you could be convinced of their argument. But a director has to make some kind of… he has the over view, the over all view. And Alan was making a statement with that movie and so I don’t think he wanted to get anywhere emotionally involved with the people that he was actually making the film about. But it’s interesting: “No I don’t want to meet them. I think I might like them.”

400Blows Productions, May 2000.


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