Peter Mullan's Neds revisits 1970s Glasgow gang life - interview
The director gives a straight-talking tour of his old city haunts
Director Peter Mullan has based his latest film, Neds, on his experience of gang life growing up in Glasgow. He takes Alistair Harkness on a straight-talking tour of his old city haunts
It’s the first Wednesday of the New Year and I’m driving with Peter Mullan across the Clyde into the Southside of Glasgow. We’re on our way to Cardonald, the predominantly working-class area of Mullan’s home city that serves as the backdrop and inspiration for his new film Neds, a fiercely intelligent, dark-hearted and blackly comic coming-of-age tale set in the early 1970s and loosely based on his own brief absorption into local razor gang, The Young Car-Ds. ‘It’s not autobiographical,’ says Mullan, dispensing with the most frequently asked question as we make our way along Paisley Road West. ‘But as I’ve said a million times before, it is personal.’
This shouldn’t be taken as a waffling disclaimer. To spend any time with Mullan is to realise he’s one of life’s straight shooters: affable, open and free of movie industry baggage. What’s interesting, though, is that it has taken him eight years to follow-up his Venice Film Festival-winning, Catholic Church-excoriating second feature, The Magdalene Sisters. He says acting jobs kept providing him with nice little diversions, buying him more time to spend with his kids, as well as more time to write Neds – the latter taking shape as the story of a bright working-class kid called John McGill whose promising future is quickly derailed by school, gang and family pressures.
As we reach Cardonald – where Mullan grew up as part of a large, extended Catholic family, bullied by an alcoholic father – we take a left down Lourdes Avenue, parking outside the imposing Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church. Lourdes Primary School sits just ahead, visible through cracks in the hedge. As Mullan gets out of the car he points back up the avenue at the massive brick wall that lines the opposite side of the street, effectively cutting us off from 21st century city life. ‘We shot up and down here a lot because it’s one of the few places you can get a good run at stuff and it would pass for period.’
Like all Mullan’s films, Neds has a combative attitude towards the church. Unlike his other films, it dramatises this conflict in a much bolder, more surreal way. How surreal? Try the protagonist getting high on glue and having a square-go with Jesus while The New Seekers’ ‘You Won’t Find Another Fool Like Me’ plays on the soundtrack. ‘Aye, that doesn’t happen often,’ concedes Mullan.
He points to the front of the church. ‘That’s where we built our Jesus. The church wanted to keep it, so we gave them it.’
It’s surprising the church didn’t try to block the shoot, given the furore The Magdalene Sisters caused. As it happens, the nuns of the neighbouring Nazareth House did show up on set – but only to have their picture taken with Mullan. ‘I had to ask them if they knew who I was. But they were like, “Yeah, you directed The Magdalene Sisters.” I was very surprised that I’d been so exonerated.’
Back in the car, we talk about the film’s title. NEDS stands for Non-Educated Delinquents. Mullan first heard the term as a kid. ‘It was a put-down. You’d batter people if they called you a Ned because it had implications that you were thick – and no self-respecting Ned liked people thinking they were thick, even if you were kind of actively lobotomising yourself, because you didn’t ever want to seem clever either.
‘It was like that classic John Lennon line: “They hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool.” So you had to find a middle ground. I was a big reader, but I used to hide that fact from everyone.’
We drive over into Pollok looking for the bridge where Mullan shot some of the running knife battles that feature in the film. The reality of gang territoriality, he explains, is that crews would fight over patches of land that could start and end on a street corner. He needed something a bit more graphic for the film, a visual way to separate the rival schemes.
But we can’t find the bridge.
We end up in a residential area with a playing field on one side, a patch of wooded scrubland on the other and a footbridge connecting them. ‘Is that our bridge?’ Mullan asks. ‘Has it been staring us in the fucking face all along?’
The real story of how Mullan fell in with the Young Car-Ds unfolds pretty much the same way it happens in the film. He was an intelligent 14-year-old, but a friend’s well-to-do mum told him never to come round to their house again. Shocked, he walked home a different route and ended up in nearby housing scheme Moss Heights, where a gang of lads started on him, before realising who his older brother was (Lenny Mullan, now Peter’s casting director, had a serious rep back then). Suddenly scared, they invited Peter to join the crew there and then.
‘And that was me, for a year,’ he says, standing in the middle of the bridge, smoking a cigarette, sleet starting to fall. ‘I dodged school. I hung around in places like this. Moped around all day. And occasionally got into fights.’
‘Of course, I broke my mother’s heart,’ he adds.
Did he feel any remorse? ‘None whatsoever. Because you completely jump into it because it’s so exciting … And I was happy to lose the “good boy” tag because it hadn’t done me any good. I was still in a dysfunctional home life, with an old man from hell.’
The gang eventually told him to ‘fuck off’ because ‘I used too many big words.’ He also freaked them out. ‘At the time I was reading up on revolutionary socialism, and Joseph Connolly, and I was starting to come up with bizarre ideas about taking over police stations.’
In the car, we decide to drive over to Moss Heights. We talk about the character he plays in Neds on the way. As John’s father – ‘a wee pot-bellied patriarch’ – he brings genuine menace. Did he draw on his own father? ‘Obviously he was kind of inspired by him, but it’s not an imitation. My father was a lot worse that him.’ Mullan does admit, however, that playing him rammed home how mentally ill his father must have been. ‘He definitely had a screw loose. I know plenty of drunks and they don’t stand at the bottom of the stairs, and they don’t rape their wives, and they don’t treat their kids that way.’
As we pull up to Moss Heights, Mullan continues to talk with disarming honesty about his father, including, shockingly, about how his father wanted to be killed as he became sicker (he had cancer). ‘He would scratch my door at night and say: “Come and kill the rat.” It was bonkers … What the fuck kind of human being would want his own son to do him in? And then do time for it?’
The irony, he says, is that while all this was going on, they were living in a big, rented house on Mosspark Boulevard and his father was holding down a respectable job as a lab technician in Glasgow University. ‘To all intents and purposes we were respectable. But behind closed doors: mayhem.’
Outside the car, the sleet is getting heavier. Mullan pulls his hood over his head and lights another cigarette. We survey the surrounding high rises, the first to be built in Glasgow. Mullan describes how these flats were once the envy of everybody in Cardonald because they had under-floor heating included in the rent. Below us, he points out the swing park where he was first ‘turned over’ by the Young
He wanted to film here, he says, but the flats were refurbished in the 1980s, and their newer, curved facades made them too anachronistic. ‘I’d have liked to have done it with CGI, but you start doing that, you’re talking about Inception budgets.’ He wishes there was more money floating about the UK for film production. ‘People always go on about us making social realist films,’ he says. ‘But that’s cause we’ve not got the money to do anything else but social realism.’
We walk down to the playground to take some photos. He’d love to have a crack at a big genre picture, but working with Hollywood-sized budgets means having to relinquish too much control. Standing on a swing, he says, ‘I’ll probably never get a US movie now, which doesn’t bother me unduly, but given we’re all working over here for peanuts, it’s going to be a problem as I get older. I’ve got no pension.’
Mullan isn’t looking for sympathy. He’s merely calling it as he sees it. Driving back into the centre of Glasgow, he tells me that his next few acting gigs have had their start dates pushed back, a familiar story that can mean months go by with no earnings coming in. Only the big budget stuff guarantees payment. To this end, he’s just done Steven Spielberg’s World War One drama War Horse (based on Michael Morpurgo’s award-winning National Theatre show) and the final two-part instalment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Listen to him talk about either, though, and it’s not really about the money. With impish charm he calls Spielberg, ‘Stevie Spielbergy’, and marvels at the director’s boyish enthusiasm. ‘And the stories he tells are class. You’re sitting there and he’s talking about Jaws and E.T. and you just get giggly.’ It was the same on Harry Potter. ‘I mean: it’s Harry Fucking Potter. But it was such a good shoot. I love all that shite. It’s better than doing a real job.’
Neds, general release, Fri 21 Jan.