For sheer entertainment value, the Big Screen Symposium hit the jackpot this year with Peter Mullan. Popular though previous guests such as Sam Neill and David Wenham have been, no one gave us more laughs per minute than the award-winning Scottish actor, writer and director. But, amusing as he was, with most of the laughs coming from his superb, if sometimes drawn out, renditions of various episodes in his career, there was always a (sometimes subtle) point to be made in each anecdote.
Mullan did two sessions over the weekend: a masterclass and an in conversation.
So-called profane words are usually employed to emphasise passion – but usually with some form of aggressive intent. Mullan’s liberal use of profanity expresses his disdain for affectation or pretension of any kind, but is also often in the service of comedy – witness his delightful story of submitting a script for approval by the BBC.
“What’s the swear count?”
“You’re allowed eight bastards, six fucks, but no cunts.”
“Can we have a wank?”
“You can have as many wanks as you like.”
But equally often, the profanity serves to emphasise the strength of his passions of what one might call a positive kind – passion for his craft, for the purpose of the work – and his inextricably linked passion for social justice, in all its forms. Perhaps realizing that his use of so-called swearwords is perhaps not as relaxed in New Zealand as it is in his home city of Glasgow, Mullan went to some length to explain that the word cunt is as commonly used there as a term of endearment as it is as an insult – depending on the context, of course. Later he asserted his belief in the right of every human being to address another in the most honest way possible.
He was equally blunt in assessing other actors’ contributions to the understanding of the craft of acting. Michael Caine’s advice to “Don’t blink” was described through a number of anecdotes as “this toxic piece of shit”.
But the best definition of acting ever, according to Mullen, came from Robert Mitchum: “There’s on a horse, and there’s off a horse”. This appeared a little abstruse at first, but later it became apparent that this was Mullan’s equivalent of being out of or in the zone – which for him is the difference between being outside oneself, watching oneself act, and being on the inside of oneself, looking out at the world. Being truly in character, perhaps.
Mullan was forthright in referring to the breakdown that he had in his early 20s – and how acting, he discovered, was a safe place in which to come to terms with the experience. And through playing a role in which he was able to draw on that experience, he discovered the nature of acting as ‘representing’, not ‘reliving’. Equally he learned the importance of not necessarily eliciting sympathy for the character – often that would be quite wrong – but rather helping an audience achieve an understanding of the character.
Summing up the craft of acting, Mullan pulled dictums from two experiences, one from a commedia dell’arte production: “Never tell another actor what to do”; and the other from a director on the television show Taggart, who, when Mullan appeared to be overshadowing the lead character, told him “Be less good!”
When it came to discussing his work as a director, Mullan seemed keener on referring to the work of Ken Loach, for whom he played the lead – and award-winning – role of Joe in the film My Name is Joe, to discussing his own work. For Loach, “Direction is benign dictatorship!”
But the quality Mullan admires most in Loach is the way he puts extra worlds into what appear to be already perfect little scenes. The best cinema is when it captures the moments that no one anticipated.
Mullan’s strong preference for openness and directness seemed a little at odds with his admiration for Loach, famous for revealing little to his actors. Mullan recalled their initial discussion about the character of Joe.
Loach: “He’s a recovering alcoholic. Any questions?”
Mullan: “What made him give up alcohol?”
Loach: “Let’s not talk about that.”
He gave us this quote from Loach in both sessions at the Symposium: “I find the word ‘No’ to be very useful.” A situation in which Mullan found this advice handy was when he “had to go to war with the British Film Council” to fight to retain a scene they want to cut from his film The Magdalene Sisters, a film for which, despite its success, it took him 12 years just to get his salary, let alone any profit.
In his masterclass Mullan almost bounced around the floor, like a Scottish version of a leprechaun, almost tripping over a swivel chair half a dozen times, before finally moving it a little. In the In Conversation he was restrained to a chair, but it did nothing to diminish his enthusiasm and passion.
Prompted by interviewer Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Mullan described his early experience of discrimination resulting from his working class background and his dislike of nepotism within the industry. After applying to film school, Mullan found he’d been competing against a rich kid whose application film had employed an Oscar-winning DoP and used John Hurt in the lead role. But for Mullan, it was discovering later that his own video had not even been looked at that was the real killer.
“Film should be a meritocracy – not dependent on how much money you’ve got, or where you come from.”
This is the man that Timeout magazine described as “the most influential cultural figure in Scotland”.
“Aye, that’s spot on,” laughed Mullan. “What the fuck does it even mean?”