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NPR Arts & Life

'Starred Up' Not Your Typical Father-Son Tale

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. "Starred Up" is a film that may break your heart as it makes your stomach boil. A 19-year-old named Eric is transferred from a young offenders institute in Britain to an adult prison because he's violent. The first thing he does in his new surroundings is assault a group of guards and take one of them hostage by his crotch. Turns out to be the same prison in which his father is serving long, hard time, too. And in the months that follow, the father and a volunteer prison psychotherapist wage what seems to be a tug-of-war for Eric's future. Learning to control his murderous impulses wind up only making Eric weak in a place ruled by blood and brutality.

"Starred Up" is a film directed by David Mackenzie. It stars Jack O'Connell as Eric, Ben Mendelsohn as his father and Rupert Friend as the therapist. The film has won acclaim at the Toronto, Telluride and Tribeca Film Festivals. It was written by Jonathan Asser, a former performance artist who spent 12 years working in a prison for young offenders. David Mackenzie joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MACKENZIE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And Jonathan Asser is in London. Thank you for being with us.

JONATHAN ASSER: Wonderful to be here. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Gentlemen, this is ordinarily the part of the interview when we run a clip from the film, but I don't think we could find a sentence that didn't contain a word that we can't put on the air. Do you consider that a mark of authenticity?

MACKENZIE: In some ways, the language of the film is very much one of the characters of it. And it's been a point of discussion all the way through the process. When I first read the script, there was an awful lot of language that I didn't understand. I read a lot of prison slang that was very, very specific to the world it was describing. And it was very much part of the flavor and power of the script. And so...

SIMON: It's less the prison slang, of course, that we're - that we can probably put on the air.

ASSER: Yeah, a few C-words.

SIMON: OK, yeah. It's - you know...

MACKENZIE: But the language of the film and the way people speak is very much part of the atmosphere of the film and the world we're trying to create. And we discussed how to play that in terms of both understanding and in terms of the intensity of it. And I think what we came up with is, as close we could, to have a reflection of the world it was trying to describe while still being as understandable as it could be.

SIMON: Jonathan Asser, how do you get from the cabaret circuit into prisons and then into films?

ASSER: (Laughter) You get there through having quite serious mental health problems in my case. And so I actually broke down and fell apart as a 22-year-old going through the boarding school system for ten years and then went to a boarding school-type university. And I was unable to survive on the outside and went into therapy. And to be frank, luckily, my parents had the money for the therapy. And my life became a therapeutic, healing journey for me. And that's what the performance art was about, and that was what the therapy was about that I originated in prison. And also that's what writing's about for me. And writing "Starred Up" was very much a therapeutic process for me.

SIMON: There's a line in one of the therapy groups I made a note of. I'm going to take out the F-bomb. I'm a dead person. I don't feel anything. Do you hear that a lot in therapy groups?

ASSER: I'm not so sure that I hear it a lot, but I think that's a fundamental aspect of trauma in that when we experience something - whether it's an isolated incident or a series of incidents - that we're unable to process and cope with, then we switch off and we close down our emotions. And I think a lot of the therapy work that I did was about enabling people to get in touch with feelings. And I think that's the journey that Eric goes on in "Starred Up."

SIMON: I have to share something with you. Having done prison stories, I was a little disappointed that in this film we rarely learn what prisoners did that got them sent to prison. And I can see where the families of people who have been victims of violent offenders might see this film and say, that's not fair. You're making us feel sorry for people who have done some reprehensible things.

MACKENZIE: I'd like to say that the assumption throughout the film that everyone is there for a reason and likely a good reason is a presumption that runs all the way through the film. And I didn't think that it was necessary to judge people specifically for what they had done. As I understand it, within the system it's a sort of taboo to really talk about. To me it felt sort of real that that's not really up for discussion within the world that we're in. But I'd love to know what Jonathan thinks about that.

ASSER: Yeah, I guess for me as the writer, I wasn't interested in the past. I was interested in the present. I was interested, personally, in being with these characters on the journey - the emotional journey that they went through together. And yes, it is a father and son story. Yes, that is the heart of the film and it happens to be in a prison. And the advantages of the prison are that that concentrates and brings together those two main characters and forces them to interact. It's an arena within which that family drama can play out. But personally, as a writer, - and I don't think - I think what David said very much concurs with this - I'm not sure we were trying to explore anything beyond those intimate, personal relationships.

SIMON: Without giving too much of the plot away, the film ends with a revolving door.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Is that a big, fat metaphor (Laughter). May I ask the writer and director?

ASSER: Well, that's David's touch of genius there. So I can't take any claim for that.

MACKENZIE: I have to say that was - that was, I guess, metaphorical opportunism. When we went to one of the prison locations, I was very struck by the revolving doors. They just seemed to offer a kind of visual metaphor but also that sort of the sound of them slowing down as people go through them and the idea of them sort of always being in one direction. It was actually the Maze prison in Belfast, which is a very sort of powerful, emotional place.

SIMON: That's a very famous place, yeah.

MACKENZIE: And it - we didn't really have a sort of strong image for the end of the film. And it just like there was an opportunity to sow that seed and let the film kind of, you know, Eric goes back into a very uncertain future in that world, but we stay outside as it were.

SIMON: Do the two of you want to do, like, a musical next?

(LAUGHTER)

MACKENZIE: Yeah, what do you reckon?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Maybe one of those many Disney Princess films or something like that? David Mackenzie and Jonathan Asser, director and writer of the new film "Starred Up." It's in theaters, available on iTunes and video-on-demand. Thanks so much for being with us.

MACKENZIE: Thank you very much.

ASSER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.