IN THE MIDST OF ALL THE BROUHAHA surrounding the innovations made by Mike Figgis in Timecode, another new film by the same director might look like a step back towards traditional cinematic technique. His Miss Julie is an adaptation of August Strindberg’s 19th century drama of class claustrophobia and gender war, but for Peter Mullan, who takes on the role of head footman Jean — a part once ear-marked for Nicolas Cage — the film’s genesis represents a return to his theatrical roots.
'It was brilliant, really brilliant,’ says the 40-year-old Glasgow actor, drawing on the first of several Consulates when I meet him amid the hubbub of the Edinburgh lnternational Film Festival. ’We had a week’s rehearsal, and three weeks to shoot. We had these big cameras rigged so you could get twenty-minute takes. And we were doing twenty-minute takes every single time, we weren’t doing little cut-ins for this moment or that moment, so you got a really good run in. And what is really a supposedly heavy, emotional kind of piece changes when you do it in that kind of concentrated way. It doesn’t feel like work, it’s more like an adventure, and it feels very much like theatre.’
And before his starring role in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe, before his appearances in Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and Braveheart, not to mention his acclaimed full-length directorial debut with Orphans, it was theatre where Mullan got his first break. A decade ago, the Glasgow University graduate who never quite made it to film school was an exciting fixture on the Scottish theatre scene. He starred with Wildcat, Raindog and Glasgow’s Tron Theatre where he gave a memorable performance in Crow by Ted Hughes alongside the yet-to-be-discovered Douglas Henshall. Working with Mike Figgis reminds him of those days.
'We sat around a table for most of the rehearsal,’ says the eminently approachable Mullan, chatting happily to co-star Saffron Burrows while The List’s photographer snaps away. ’We deliberately didn't block it, because Mike knew that the way it was lit
and staged, we could film 360 degrees. We had no marks, so we were free to go anywhere we wanted, and the camera had to follow us. Obviously, we talked it through and ended up with a kind of map, but with nothing completely nailed down. When we came to shoot the sex scene, we still weren't even sure what was going on. Who was seducing who? Is it rape? Is it a sort of a sordid seduction? Is it a Calvinist love scene?
Is this as good as it gets, because they’re so limited in their sexuality? We ended up just going with it to see what happened.’
The down-to-earth Mullan was impressed by the way Figgis had no pretensions to make the definitive Miss Julie. ’He was just recording Peter Mullan, Saffron Burrows and Maria Doyle Kennedy, and a whole host of others, doing Miss Julie,’ he says. ’So the impression you get when you watch the film is that you're seeing a version of the play with that particular cast. The biggest mistake most filmmakers make is they think, because they're making a film of a play, they have to make it definitive. They’ll throw $100 million at it, so that down the line no one else can possibly do it again. It’s like claiming the play for yourself. My background's in theatre, so I know that that simply is not the case. The whole point of theatre is that you can do a completely different play with each cast.’
It’s something of a shock seeing Mullan in a period drama, far from the social realism with which he is associated, but this is tempered by Figgis’ actor-led constrained cinema, and an unadorned, contemporary script from translator Helen Cooper. But the appearance of the famously right-on actor in a famously misogynist work comes as more of a surprise. ’For me, the politics of the film is always more about the politics of the director,’ says Mullan who has never moved from his Pollokshaws flat and continues to support Tommy Sheridan’s Scottish Socialist Party. ’Not in a party-political sense, but in the sense that the director has some sort of
vision and is willing to stand up for it. So many directors talk the talk, and then what you thought was going to be a calm, open, invigorating environment suddenly turns into a case of "Stand there! Say your lines like you’re really menacing!" I seem to gravitate towards directors who just don’t give a fuck.’
He continues: 'The play is misogynist, though. It's seriously misogynist. The way I read it, though, it examines misogyny. There's
'I seem to gravitate towards directors who just don't give a fuck.’
no doubt in my mind that Strindberg sees Jean as his hero. As far as he’s concerned this is a good guy, they don't come much better than him. Here, the way it's shot, the way it's played, it’s become much more interesting to make that aspect more ambiguous. With Miss Julie, the scale of her personal catastrophe is such that it becomes about the capacity of the system to destroy her so completely, and yet she’s totally unaware of it. So the male role in all this is that the good side of mankind is just not allowed to develop. The loving side, if you like, is not allowed to mature outside of the confines of the state, the church, of what society deems acceptable, and that crushes all involved. It's one of very few plays where there’s a parity of gender in terms of the dynamics. You can't say it’s all about her, or it’s all about him. It’s much bigger than that, and therein lies the power.’
And a powerful film it is, thanks in the main to Figgis’ decision to allow himself to be led by his superb cast. But did Mullan find relinquishing control difficult after his own successes as a filmmaker? ’Are you kidding?’ he laughs. ’Sure, I can empathise with a director because I’ve been there. But I get paid more, I get days off, I can go and get pissed after work . . . if you like acting, it's the greatest job on earth.’
Miss Julie is at the GFT, Glasgow from Fri 1 Sep; Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 15 Sep. It is also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Cameo, Sat 26 Aug.
He's known for his roles in gritty, urban
movies about Scottish hardmen, so what's PETER MULLAN doing in a 100-year—old costume drama? Words: Jack Mottram Photograph: Lisa Fleming