Director Bernard Rose has a variety of films on his resume. He's directed everything from Immortal Beloved to Anna Karenina to Candyman to Ivans XTC, taking him from large Hollywood films to his own indie efforts, and Mr. Nice falls somewhere inbetween. It's a film based on the real-world exploits of Howard Marks, a UK folk hero known for importing massive amounts of marijuana into the country.
The film is just as eclectic as its director, who uses several different film stocks, camera, aspect ratios, and a lot of historical stock footage in the movie. We spoke with him at SXSW about the genesis of the film, Rhys Ifans and his portrayal of Marks, and his possible return to horror with his next film. Head on after the break for the full interview.5
Cinematical: When did you start the process for this film? Had you read the book?
Bernard Rose: I was actually brought into the project by the BBC in 2003, so it's been a while. And then I developed for them for a while, and then turned around and got out of there, and then started to produce independently. So, it's been a while. But once you start, it's quite quick, actually, once I finished the script.
When you started the development process, did you work a lot with Howard himself, or was he not involved until later when he was shown the script?
No, he was always involved, but I mean he was never directly involved. He never offered or sought permission for anything. I think he knew that it had to be made kind of objectively.
Given that this comes from his autobiography, were their chunks you had to lose just for the screen time?
Oh, God yeah. I mean there is a tremendous amount of stuff that is in the book that is not even really ... I mean there was a whole Far Eastern section where he goes to the Philippines, and Hong Kong and all that stuff. But it was just a whole other thing. I mean the film was already pretty comprehensive I mean it kind of covers a lot of ground and a lot of countries. The rest just seemed a bit too much.
How did you end up casting Rhys as Howard?
Well, I basically wrote the script for Rhys, actually. Rhys actually knew Howard. They are from a similar background in Wales. They do look alike, especially when Rhys is in the wig. They have a similar kind of vibe. To be honest, I never ever considered anybody else. I really wrote the part for him.
And what about Chloe?
Chloe also looks like Judy Marks.
Yeah, and we were trying to come up with somebody to play the part who would be interesting, and I was a huge admirer of her work, and I basically sent it to her, met with her in a kind of normal way. But she said yes. It is always nice when that happens.
The film is framed with this unique device with Howard speaking in a theater. Was that created for the film or does he actually go on speaking tours?
He does do that. He does it quite a bit, his one man show. I saw his one man show, so I wanted to use it. You know, that is what happened to him. He ended up basically being, to me, a kind of stand-up aritst and telling audiences his story. In his act, he gets up on stage and he lights a joint. I mean I don't make any of that up. He really does that. So I put in the movie.
Some films make being a criminal look sexy. Was that something that you felt like communicating?
Yes, but also, I think he has kind of replaced it with being this folk hero celebrity. That is what he misses the most. I think Howard has enjoyed the limelight as much as he enjoyed the criminal activity. I also think one of the reasons that Howard's book is so good is that he is a highly educated person and it is an extremely well written book. You know, he is an Oxford graduate. He's not just some guy off the street.
You switched styles and formats a lot and used a lot of stock footage that you'd put the actors into. What was the thought behind that.
Well, part of it was that I wanted to delineate the period of the film by the texture of the film. So it starts in black and white and 4:3, goes to 16:9, and then it goes to color, and it is very saturated, and then it goes to '70s color, and then it goes to kind of an '80s more video look, and then it ends up in the '90s and the kind of more '90s look. So I really wanted to kind of subconsciously tell you what period you were in by what the film looked like. And then, of course, to really kind of hammer that home, you kind of have to see some of what that time looked like. Remind people of what a film of that era looked like, because the texture really changed over time. So you had to put it in there. And once I was putting it in there, I did a little research and thought, "Well, wouldn't it be fun to actually put them in it, too, so that it wasn't just stock shots?" And you can actually see them in the stock shots.
And you have a unique scene where the film changes from black and white to color the first time he smokes pot.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, when he smokes his first joint, that was going to be the moment. He has gone to Oz, you know? He has found his bliss.
Was it difficult?
Very. It was extremely complicated. And the thing is, is that some of them, you can't tell.
Do you think? I thought it was fairly easy to tell. it almost became a game to try and find them.
Like when he arrives at JFK and he gets out at the airport. That's all ... you really can't tell. And the thing, also, they are all dead people he is acting with. When he goes to the concord and he checks in, the woman who takes his passport is a real British Airlines employee from the 1970s. And honestly, he couldn't go on the Concord unless we had that footage, because there is no concord around.
Just finding that footage alone must have been an interesting process.
It took a couple of months watching miles and miles of stuff, because I had to have stuff that would fit into the action, that was background to the action, rather than stuff that just looked interesting. And often, it was shot wide angle and it didn't have foregrounds in it. But actually, I found some rear projection plates of the Autobahn in Germany which were actually shot as rear projection plates. In that sequence, you have got different angles, which really helped, you know?
Rhys plays Howard at a very young age and throughout the film. Did you ever think about using a different actor, or did you think, "Well, I think the audience can buy this."
I think it is fine to do things which are sort of, you know, fake and a little bit artificial, especially in a film that is a biography. I mean that film to me, to some degree, is a dramatized documentary. And I think it is okay to do that. And if you didn't bring Rhys on, if you had some other actor, those scenes would be worth just dropping from the film because it is like you are not looking at the main person, you are just looking at some kid. And I hate that when the kid becomes the adult in the film. The one I hated it in the most of all was Cinema Paradiso. Do you remember that film?
The scenes with the kid were just wonderful, and they cut to some adult who is walking down the stairs. Okay, now I am bored, because they just took away the personality.
Right, and with Rhys, you get to see him change.
Yeah, that's right.
We see him as a student who gets beat up a lot as he turns into a drug addict.
Well, I think that is what happens with a lot of addicts. Drugs made him feel like he fit in. And then, of course, he wanted to repeat that endlessly, to the point where it stopped working for him and started to destroy his life.
David Thewlis really chews up the scenery in this. What was it like getting him and then developing that character with him?
Well, you know, they are all real people, and Jim McCann, is very real.
Is he literally that insane?
I've never met him. He is still on the run and he is still out there.
He is still loose? I don't know how flattered he will be by your portrayal. [laughs]
Who knows? But then again who knows if we will hear from him? He has been in close shaves with people trying to arrest him many times and slips away. So, you know, I mean it didn't happen like that, but, you know, he is a fugitive from justice living somewhere. As far as I know he is still alive and free. Which is incredible, isn't it? He was, I mean is, larger than life. And everyone loves a character that you love to hate, kind of, you know? There's nothing really redeemable about him, yet you love every moment he's onscreen. You love him because you kind of wish you could get away with that kind of behavior yourself. Don't you? [Laughs]
What do you think you come away with at the end of that? Is it simply one man's life story, or is there more to it than that?
Well, I think Howard's story touches on a lot of aspects of the history of drug culture and the way society's attitude has changed towards it, and the way it affects people personally. And I think that in the '60s, people started taking all these recreational drugs, and they had no idea what the longer term effects were. They were kind of experimenting on themselves. And it was the cool thing to do. It was the intellectually fashionable thing to do. And people still held that belief right up until the Reagan administration came in, and the so-called "War on Drugs" started up. And I think the film shows the absurdity of that. I wanted to try and show all those things kind of objectively, and how we kind of put ourselves in this weird pickle in relation to drugs, demonizing them or glorifying them-both attitudes completely wrong. And I think his story kind of embodies the wrongheadedness of both sides. And they're part of life. It certainly all...it shouldn't be illegal. It's absurd. It just puts money in the hands of terrorists. You know, if you really want my opinion, marijuana's a dangerous drug.
But so is alcohol.
So is alcohol.
And it's legal.
That's just it. There's the hypocrisy right there. And that's why it should be legal. Everything should be legal, but we need to know how dangerous it is as well.
What was the hardest part of the process for you? Was it the different styles, like you said, changing, and the pure amount of time that this film covers, from him at Oxford to the present day?
It was very challenging to try and balance the film and not have it feel too episodic, and like, busy. You know. It was very hard to kind of get the story to flow. I think that's why I think a key decision was not to put title cards telling you what year you were in and where you were, because it would'veinevitably made it feel choppy instead of just a progression.You get it. And if you don't get it, then you get the next milestone, like when Nancy Reagan shows up, and you become aware that. That's why I use that John Lennon song in there. He's talking about that era being over, because that's it. That was an era that ended. It was the end of something that was the '60s and '70s. And so that was why that song was in there.
What was Howard's reaction? I'm guessing he's seen the film at this point.
Well, Howard .. .yeah, he saw the film and he really liked it. I think. Quietly, he said to me it was like watching his life flash before his eyes and he thought he was dying. [Laughs] It was a Howard thing to say. You know, he really likes the film, which I'm very glad about.
So the film is based on Howard's book, but did you use any other sources?
Judy wrote a book about her experiences, too, which we also purchased the rights to. So basically we obviously had permission from the two protagonists to use their life story in a very direct way. And the film was primarily taken from their own words. So in one sense it's knd of, in the end, in my experience with this, with the film, there are people who obviously, did not grant their permission. We had to be very careful what we said about them and stick to documented, provable facts. The film was combed over by our lawyers very carefully for that reason.
But one of the things I've noticed with this kind of film is the people who were most insulted were the ones who were left out of the movie.The people who were not mentioned, those were the ones who were upset. [Laughter] The people who were mentioned, even if they were annoyed, they're somewhat pleased to be in a movie.
Rhys often plays comic roles. Did you have to push him for this?
No, I mean Rhys is an actor of enormous range. Also, he is a great comedian, too. But I think Rhys could play anything you put on his plate. He is a real actor. He can do things in a scene like put his teeth out...he can go really deep like that. He is not one of those comedians like some people I won't mention who are very funny, but when they try to do dramatic scenes ... you really cringe.
What are you working on next?
Yeah, I am trying to actually film, in the UK and Germany, which is tentatively titled The Blankenship Witches, but I think the title may change. It is about a witch trial in North Binghamton, 1615. I am going to shoot it in 3D. It is a period movie, but it is going to be kind of like a scary movie.
Is it going to be supernatural?
It has been a while since you have done horror.
Yeah. In the film, the witches are real. So it is kind of interesting.
You are jumping on the 3D bandwagon. Are going to shoot 3D or do the whole process that converts it?
No, I am not quite sure what I am going to do.
Well, thank you for your time.
Thank you very much.