The Hot 100 2011 - No. 1: Peter Mullan
Tyrannosaur, Neds, BAFTAS and the upcoming War Horse - 2011 has been Mullan's year
Writer, director and actor Peter Mullan is the modest screen hero who has proved himself master of both the Brit indie flick and the Hollywood blockbuster. Alistair Harkness speaks to our top man of 2011
‘I’m confused but delighted,’ says Peter Mullan when I inform him he’s number one on The List’s Hot 100 for 2011. Speaking over the phone from Glasgow in the midst of tucking into ‘a roll and sausage’, Mullan lets out a sort of gravelly, staccato-like chuckle as I give him a quick rundown of reasons why he made the top slot. Writing, directing and acting in the award-winning Neds, his compassionate turn as a violent alcoholic in Paddy Considine’s critical darling Tyrannosaur, capping the year off with a high profile role in his pal ‘Stevie’ Spielberg’s Oscar-primed War Horse … when it comes to Scots who’ve made a creative splash over last year, Mullan has made the biggest.
‘Well, basically, that’s lovely then,’ he says, ‘but it’s obviously based on what I did last year – huh-huh-huh-huh [he chuckles] – because this year, between War Horse and the next film, I didnae work for nine months, so, eh, I don’t feel the most creative person in bloody Scotland.’
This is a typically gracious and self-deprecating reaction from Mullan, who for the record, has shot two films this year (Welcome to the Punch and The Man Inside), is filming another this month (The Liability, with Tim Roth), and has spent much of the year trying to complete the script for a feature he wants to make about Hurricane Katrina. He hasn’t exactly been slacking then, and even though he thinks fellow returning filmmaker Lynne Ramsay is ‘Scotland’s best director by a long way’ and credits his Tyrannosaur co-star Olivia Colman with giving the ‘the best single performance I’ve seen for ten years’, his own visible contributions to the cultural landscape of 2011 deserve to be celebrated.
That said, having picked up a couple of Scottish BAFTAs last month for Neds (after the film was criminally ignored by BAFTA UK in February), he knows that awards and accolades are merely nice bits of recognition. The real reward for Mullan – his highlight of the year – was Neds finding an audience. That wasn’t a given. Back in January, when Mullan took The List on an exclusive tour of the locations that inspired his hard-hitting, quasi-autobiographical film about razor gangs in 1970s Glasgow, he already knew the film would likely score with critics thanks to its strong showing on the festival circuit. But as he knew then and knows now, critical acclaim doesn’t guarantee audiences, ‘particularly at the low-budget, art house end of cinema,’ Mullan says. ‘The one thing that constantly eludes us is actually getting people to see our films. Neds got lucky; it ran for a good couple of months.’
Mullan loves the fact that the public embraced Neds so readily. Though potentially damaging newspaper reports of gang fights erupting in Glasgow cinemas proved somewhat apocryphal (‘I think it was lads throwing popcorn at each other,’ sighs Mullan), he got a feel for the public’s true reaction simply from walking around his home city. ‘Because I live here, people come up to you on a daily basis to talk to you about Neds. You don’t always get to engage with people about cinema so that has made me happy.’ It has also made him laugh. One woman, for instance, took him to task in the street because she didn’t understand the film. ‘I’m thinking, “That’s weird. By all means you might not like it, but what’s not to understand?” Then it transpires her brother-in-law had given her a pirate of the film the night before and apparently there was 20 minutes missing. I said to her: “That’s on a par with me stealing your telly and then complaining the remote control is missing.” Huh-huh-huh-huh.’
All of which seems a long way from working with Spielberg on War Horse. The World War I drama – based on Micheal Morpurgo’s book and its subsequent award-winning National Theatre production – sees Mullan play the hero’s shell-shocked, alcoholic father, a role that on paper isn’t a million miles from the hard-hitting characters he played in Tyrannosaur and Neds, but thanks to Spielberg transforming it into an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, Mullan admits to feeling a bit out of his comfort zone both in terms of the required acting style (Spielberg told him to look at Victor McLaglen from The Quiet Man) and the fact that he had to do a Devonshire accent.
‘I’m crap at accents, so that was my biggest worry,’ he says. ‘But as long as I don’t sound like I come from Glasgow I don’t give a monkey’s.’ Did he compare notes on directing with Spielberg? ‘No, but we exchanged a zillion anecdotes. Of course, when Steven talks, he blows any little story you’ve got out of the water because suddenly he goes: “Oh, oh, I remember when we were doing Jaws and this happened …” or “I remember when we were doing E.T.” When someone talks like that, it makes you feel a bit stupid when you’re telling a story about when you did Taggart in 1989.’
If War Horse (which opens in the US on Christmas Day and follows here on 13 January) seems like it should be the perfect end to a banner year, Mullan is dubious about how much of a cumulative impact his achievements in 2011 – to say nothing of his high profile appearance as a Death Eater in last winter’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – will have on his career. So far his plans for 2012 include trying to get his Katrina script finished and financed. The only work he has lined up is a high-end, HBO-style TV drama called Top of the Lake for Jane Campion that he’ll fly back-and-forth from Scotland to New Zealand to shoot. ‘I’m not a career filmmaker,’ surmises Mullan. ‘I just like to do things that I still kind of believe in and because of that you just never know what’s going to happen next. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a good year or a bad year: next year, there’s no telling what it will be like.’