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Mr Nice - Bernard Rose interview

Mr Nice

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED director Bernard Rose talks to us about some of the challenge of bringing Mr Nice, the story of famous hashish dealer Howard Marks, to the big screen and why he made some of the creative decisions behind the look of the film.

He also discusses some of the similarities and differences between Marks and his leading man, Rhys Ifans.

Q. This is such natural material for a film… what was the history of getting this project off the ground and having his story immortalise?
Bernard Rose: Well, as I understand it the chain of events went like this… It was initially optioned by the BBC by a man called Michael Wearing in 1997, which is pretty soon after the book was published. Michael tried to set it up as a four or six part series. I don’t know why it didn’t happen but it didn’t proceed at that point for whatever reason. But he had a script writer at the time, a woman called Liza Marshall, who then got promoted to being a producer.

This is now 2003 and she tried to develop it at BBC Films as a feature film. In both situations, they got as far as writing the screenplay, which nobody was happy with for whatever reason. I think part of that reason was that the scripts were skirting the BBC’s legal problems with the film… you know, in the context of libel. So, the project had ground to a halt by that point.

But in 2003, Liza contacted me to see if I was interested and I read the book and said that I was. So, then I went and met with Howard and saw his show. It was then that I thought: “Well, actually when you see that show, Howard performs a lot of the material from the book in his show…” I could see how funny it was and how laugh out loud funny they were. So, I thought that’s actually how the film could work and how it should work. It’s not a story about drugs… it’s just very f**king funny, and that was the point.

So, then I wrote a treatment for the BBC and they sucked in their breath and hummed and aagghed and nothing happened. But they my friend Luc Roeg called me up and asked what was happening with the Howard Marks thing. I said it was stuck at the BBC and they won’t commission a screenplay because they’re worried about it for this or that reason, and they don’t want to spend any more money on it. So, he came along and said to the BBC that he would pay for the screenplay, provided if when it was delivered the BBC didn’t like it they would turn the rights around to us and we could go ahead and make it, which is basically what happened. And that took… well, from my involvement it took from 2003 to 2010. The truth is it’s been in active development all that time.

Q. But had it not happened, your leading man [Rhys Ifans] might not have been of sufficient stature to warrant casting. It’s interesting that Howard met him years ago and said he had to play him in a film. It all fits…
Bernard Rose: A lot of films have to do with luck and timing and that’s an example of it. Rhys was even less of a star when we first talked about him in 2003. But by 2008 and 2009 people were willing to bankroll Rhys. So, it was great.

Q. Have there been any issues at all with libel or anything?
Bernard Rose: Well, there were tremendous issues in terms of actually getting libel insurance for the film and Howard basically had to go through his trunk of court transcripts and legal documents to actually bag everything up to us in the book, because most of the people are mentioned by their real names and are portrayed committing crimes – and most of them are still alive! But I guess they’re all guilty!

Q. What has the American response been to the film?
Bernard Rose: Well, the only time the film has been screened in America was at the South By Southwest in Texas, Austin, and it played really, really strongly there. Obviously, it’ll open here first but I’m sure it will later in the year.

Q. What was it like watching Rhys and Howard inter-act with each other? Did you see as many differences as similarities?
Bernard Rose: No, I mean there is an obvious kinship. I would say that Rhys is genetically engineered to play Howard. But they’re not the same person at all. I mean, Rhys is not a scientist for a start. Rhys would not have got into Oxford to study physics. But on the other hand, Rhys is very intellectual and very well read and highly intelligent. So, he probably could have got into read English if he’d put his mind to it. So, there are differences in them, but also similarities. Rhys is giving a performance, of course. He’s a brilliant actor and sometimes so brilliant, in fact, that you can’t always see what he’s doing.

Bear in mind that we shot half of the film in Wales and half in Spain, so it was all done out of order, as these things always are, and there was over 230 scenes in the movie, and so many different changes of time and place. But if you look at his performance, the subtle difference between him as a schoolboy, through college to him at the end of his career, it’s all paced and worked out very, very elegantly. Only an actor with enormous skills could do that.

Q. What made you decide to stick with Rhys during those younger scenes, from school age upwards?
Bernard Rose: Well, the film is Howard’s life as he remembers it. It’s not an objective account. It’s clear in the film that he’s telling the story and when you think of yourself as younger, you never really think of your younger self, you think of yourself. And secondly, I hate those films where you have a kid, and then you cast the adult, and they have the same hairdo for some reason. My favourite example being The Silence of The Lambs, where you see Jodie Foster as a child in the flashbacks, with the same page boy haircut that she has in the rest of the movie… I mean, who has the same haircut from when they were a kid. There’s just something very disturbing about that.

So, with that and the way I put them into footage, to me the film is primarily set between the ages of 20 and 40 for Howard. People change during that period but I didn’t want to have the cliché you always get with a little bit of grey coming in, or plastic-looking make-up. They seem such clichés. People don’t think of themselves as changing when they look in the mirror, they think of themselves as one piece. Also, by putting him in as a schoolboy, I thought well then it doesn’t matter how old he looks when at Oxford, because by that point it’s irrelevant. He just is the guy playing the part. That’s why I think mostly in biographical films they very rarely start with the childhood stuff because it means basically they’re having to shoot a child to begin the movie. So, I tried to overcome that in a slightly artificial way but I think I got away with it.

Q. What was it like having the man whose life you’re recreating on-set? Did it bring any problems?
Bernard Rose: Not really, because Howard would come onto the set and I’d ask: “How is it Howard?” And he’d say: “It’s exactly how it was.” And then we’d be on another set and I’d ask again, to which he’d reply: “It’s uncanny! I don’t know how you’ve done it. You must be psychic!” So, by the third time this happened, I just said to him: “You can’t remember anything, can you?” And Howard said: “No.” But I tend to think also that if you look at a photograph of somebody for long enough, you forget what they look like. They look like the photograph. Your memories are very, very fragile… they can be destroyed by almost anything. And most of what we think of as memories are actually repetition of stories we’ve told ourselves.

Q. Did you ever discuss with Howard what to leave out from the book?
Bernard Rose: I don’t think we ever discussed that but it did actually influence me a lot what material he used in his show. I knew he’d done it enough, so that must be the stuff that played. It was interesting that way… one of the things that I always believe when I’m screenwriting is that it’s a mistake a lot of people make to think it’s all about story. Of course, it’s not always about story; it’s about sequences, it’s about the entertainment value of each individual section A lot of films forget that and they become completely plot-driven, which actually makes them oddly boring.

Read our review of Mr Nice