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Peter Mullan: NEDS

The Scottish actor/director (The Magdalene Sisters) has both kid actors and substance in his new film, set on the gritty streets of '70s Glasgow. Available on demand now, and in theaters Friday.



NEDS is a gritty period film set on the streets of 1970s Glasgow. Young John McGill is a good student, keeping his head down and trying not to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, a petty street criminal. However, with his home life deteriorating around him, the pull of gang membership and street cred becomes too hard to resist. Over the period of a few years (and with two young actors spanning the role’s adolescence), John becomes one of the title characters: a Non Educated Delinquent.


The realism of the film is impressive, and to learn more about its real-life inspiration, we sat down with actor/director Peter Mullan (actor: My Name is Joe, Trainspotting, Harry Potter, Boy A; director: The Magdalene Sisters, Orphans) during NEDS’ recent run at the Tribeca Film Festival. We also wanted to hear about his transformation into John’s terrifyingly alcoholic father, and talking about the role set the Scottish charmer’s eye a-twinkle. Lucky us!


(We also wanted to thank him for subtitling the film; sadly, our Glaswegian brogue is a bit rusty.)  




Tribeca: Tell us about NEDS, in your own words.


Peter Mullan: NEDS is about the dark journey that you can take when you’re an adolescent, and where it can take you, and what becomes of you at the end of it.


Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story?

Peter Mullan:
I wanted to look at knife crime, and the nature of gang tribalism; that was the original intention. And then it developed more into a study, if you like, or an exploration of adolescence. And that transitional period between innocence—I never believe childhood is innocent, but it can be naïve, and rightly so—and what comes when you go through the dark forest, as it were, towards adulthood, and kind of all the strange and wonderful things that can happen in that time.


Tribeca: Is there any connection to your own childhood? Did you grow up in Glasgow?


Peter Mullan: I did. I’ve always said it’s personal, not autobiographical. [smiles] There’s about 40%, I’d say, that would be factually correct; most of it’s made up.


Tribeca: How do you get your ideas for stories?


Peter Mullan: Usually with me, it’s emotional. Normally, if I think there’s an element of injustice going on, or hypocrisy, I tend to hone in on that; I’m probably a bit self-righteous that way. [smiles] I tend to move towards something that I feel is unfair.


If you’re going to make a film, you’re going to live with it for a long time, so you may as well a) make the film you want to make, and b) hopefully, there’s something more to it than just straight entertainment, some kind of substance. I don’t find unsubstantial pieces entertaining. I think the ultimate in entertainment is something that connects to you on a deeper level than just action sequences.




Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about working with the kids? And how you cast your film? How did you find young John?


Peter Mullan: We put an advert in the newspaper, and we got about 350 young lads who showed up. We had very simple auditions, and then over the coming weeks, we workshopped them, and then we got those kids down to about 30. From that 30, we decided who was going to play John.


Tribeca: The two Johns really looked a lot alike—I looked them up to make sure it was two different actors. Did you cast one of them first, and then look for a lookalike?

Peter Mullan:
Yeah, we got really lucky. We didn’t cast Conor [McCarron], who plays the older John McGill, until pretty late. And because I wanted to make absolutely certain he was right for that part. And once we realized that yeah, he’s going to play our John, we started looking at younger persons, and young Gregg Forrest was the 2nd kid that we saw. I was shocked at how much they looked alike.


And then we set about workshopping with young Gregg. And even in the course of the film, they started to look more and more like each other, and that was quite something because—as you know, kids grow up so fast, in a summer, even! And as we got to the end of the film, he lost some of his [baby face]. And we weren’t shooting chronologically, so we got really lucky with that one.



Tribeca: What’s the craziest thing (or lightning strikes moment) that happened during production? For better or for worse?


Peter Mullan: That scene on the bridge, with the gang fight—that’s kind of when all the fight club work paid off that we did, because it looked authentic and nobody got hurt. I was terrified of anyone getting hurt. I was terrified that the kids, on the day, who had never acted before, once we turned over [rolled camera], they just may get carried away. So we had two divers under the bridge—


Tribeca: Wow!


Peter Mullan: We had to. If a kid had been hurt on my shoot, I’d never have forgiven myself. Because it’s just a game, and I can’t bear anyone getting hurt on a film set—I just can’t bear it—particularly if it’s avoidable. So we had the divers in the water, and we had a huge horn. I said to the kids, “Look. We may not see someone getting trampled.” So whereas usually on film sets, no one’s allowed to say, “Cut!” except the director, I told them, “If you see anyone fall, put your arm up in the air, no matter what’s happening around you, and we will put on the horn, and everyone will have to freeze.” The kids were all different sizes, and my terror was that the fight scene would be looking great, and we wouldn’t realize there was a little one getting trampled under there. The bridge was quite confined, so it was possible [that we wouldn’t know].


So the proudest moment for me was that we shot that over 2 days, and we did everything we could to make sure no one would get hurt, and no one did. So I was over the moon about that.


Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about your role? It must have been kind of tough to get into such a despicable character.


Peter Mullan: No! It was great fun! It was a great release for me, because I hadn’t thought about it at all, and it was literally when they put the camera on, it dawned on me, “Shit, I have not thought about this at all!” Then I thought, “Well, the director’s not going to shout at me [laughs], so let’s turn over and see what happens.” So we turned over, and I got into it really quick. And then I had a ball, because I didn’t have a clue what he [the character] was going to do next.  


Every take was different—we only did two takes for each scene—but suddenly, he started doing all this weird stuff, I mean really weird stuff—




Tribeca: You did? Or he did?


Peter Mullan: Sorry, I call him he… me… IT. [in deep voice:] “The Character.” And that was such good fun! Because, as I said, it’s just a game… Later, I found it quite unpleasant to watch, because he is very reminiscent of my father, so it’s difficult. I learned that I hadn’t realized how mentally ill my father was—I always thought he was just an alcoholic—but then I realized: no way, the drink doesn’t make you do that; there’s something else that makes you do that. The drink liberates you to do that, but… I mean, I’ve been drunk a thousand times, and I’ve never, ever done anything of that ilk; I’ve never abused anyone in my life.


But playing him was just an actor’s dream. Because he was so off his rocker, you’re not tied to the usual chains of naturalism; you’re not pulling at them. Literally, this guy could have broken into song, and it would have been completely consistent. He was that unhinged. When I watched it, I was actually annoyed with myself for not breaking into song! [laughs] I could have gone anywhere.


Tribeca: How do you think American audiences are going to react to NEDS? We’re showing it online, so people can access it all over the country.


Peter Mullan: I don’t know. I think it obviously has a universal theme; it’s been huge in the UK and in Spain. I think it will get its fans over here, because it’s a good film. I think culturally, it will be interesting, because there are certain elements—like the gangs in LA, and some of the gangs in New York—they are more… they use guns. So our story might look a little quaint, and innocent, if you’re living in that environment. But I would imagine they would get something out of it.


Tribeca: What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Peter Mullan: I would suggest you start off with short films—don’t think of it as an album; think of it as a single. It’s better to have a 3-minute short film that really works than a half-hour short film that shows all the sorts of things you can do as a director—action sequences, romance, comedy—and it doesn’t work. Regardless of what the length is, go for something that works, and that may help you get your foot in the door…


Once you’ve made a few of your films with your own money, I hope you can attain greatness through cinema by making pieces you can genuinely live with, and hopefully, get paid for them at the same time.




 NEDS is available on demand now, and premieres in theaters in LA this Friday, May 13. Check your local listings with our Where to Watch ZIP Code finder.


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