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Although the Sundance Film Festival is packed with journalists clambering over each other to get to this year’s designated It Girl, it’s also chockfull of talented people looking to promote their films, and when the two groups head in opposite directions, well-known figures can end up with sudden holes in their schedule. That’s how The A.V. Club’s interview with Paddy Considine about his directorial debut, Tyrannosaur, turned into a roundtable with the movie’s stars, as first Olivia Colman and then Peter Mullan drifted into the room and grabbed a seat unbidden. Given the intensity of Considine’s performances in Dead Man’s Shoes and Red Riding: In The Year Of Our Lord 1980, it’s no surprise that Tyrannosaur is a harrowing experience, but its unrelieved bleakness still scours the skin. The movie’s first shot is of Mullan’s character kicking his (offscreen) dog to death, which gives a good indication of what’s to follow. Although Tyrannosaur isn’t for the faint of heart, its take on working-class miserablism is extraordinarily precise and well-acted, a bracing draught for those who like their coffee hot and black.
The A.V. Club: Tyrannosaur is a visually striking debut, especially for an actor, but then you started out as a photographer, didn’t you? You’d had several photographs published in The Guardian before Shane Meadows asked you to be in A Room For Romeo Brass.
Paddy Considine: I was wanting to do short films about these ex-boxers I was photographing, and I ended up doing acting. I just knew, I always knew. I worked with some directors, and it was really collaborative, and I was sort of writing with them. I was giving so many pieces of myself to their movies, I thought, “It’s about time I use my own voice for me, and establish my own voice.” So I knew I wanted to make films. Being an actor was, for a period… I was finding it increasingly uncomfortable to do. So I just thought that I’d be better off on the other side. I just had stories I wanted to tell, rather than being in them. It’s such a stressful environment, I find, being an actor, being put in the chair and “Touch this, that, and the other,” it’s too much for me. I find it hard to tolerate that sort of stuff. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it. You’re wasting everyone’s time. In football, you look at the good managers, and they weren’t necessarily the best football players. Freddie Roach never won Best Boxer In The World, but he’s one hell of a trainer. I feel a little bit like that, directing. Better with the mitts on than throwing the punches.
AVC: You’ve worked with a lot of great directors over the years. What about the ones who weren’t so great? Did you learn what not to do from them?
PC: I won’t name names, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make a film. It wasn’t out of a love of cinema, in a way, which sounds really odd. I’m not a cinephile, I’m not particularly—Peter [Mullan]’s amazing, he’ll tell you about every era of cinema. I like the things I like. I do like films, but I’m not cine-literate in that way. It was watching the people working and it was like, “I don’t want to make films the way you make them.” That was the sort of reaction I had. It was what other people didn’t do.
AVC: Olivia, you’re primarily known for comedies like Peep Show and Green Wing. Tyrannosaur is less of a laugh. Did it feel different from other sets you’ve worked on?
Olivia Colman: It wasn’t less of a laugh, actually. But an actor-director was a revelation for me. There could be other actors who direct terribly, but the way things worked with Paddy made it very safe, very easy. I’ve never had a director right there, lying at my feet while I’m doing a scene, going with me every step of the way, holding my hand in a really good way, metaphorically, going, “You can do it.” I found that amazing. I never had that before. Normally, you get someone who’s eating a chocolate bar in the other room with a monitor, saying, “Can we make it a bit more… something?” It felt like a different experience, and I’m better for it.
AVC: It’s a very visually precise film, without feeling studied. Often when actors become directors, the first thing they want to is remove the part of the process where actors spend five hours in their trailers between shots, waiting for the lights to get set up.
PC: No. I don’t want that as an actor, and there’s no way that I want that as a director. So much energy goes out of it all when you’re waiting around for hours. I didn’t want to make a film where I got a camera and started handheld and swinging it around. £750,000 we got—you know, “Let’s make a small film.” I’m like, “No, no. Let’s make a movie. I know what you think you’re going to get from me. I know the type of film you think I’m going to make, and I’m not doing it. I’m not making that film.” And I told everybody from day one, people who got on board and financed everything, “I’m making a movie.” I’m not going to apologize like a lot of filmmakers do like, “This is all we got. Let’s make it.” No. It’s a film. It’s got big themes. Let’s treat these people with respect.
AVC: Is this the first story you wanted to tell, or the first one you got to tell?
PC: Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s the first one I wanted to tell, in truth. It’s a build-up of a lot of things. It just spewed out onto the page and just came together. It was one of those where you think the forces are behind it, willing it to happen. And I think at times they were.
AVC: You’ve said that Peter Mullan’s character was inspired by your father.
PC: A little bit, yeah. But that’s the dangerous territory you go down. You say that once, and all of a sudden you’ve made a film about your dad.
AVC: So your father never kicked a dog to death?
PC: My dad would never kick a dog. If my dad saw a man kick a dog, he probably would have kicked the man’s ribs in. It just would not have happened. But no, it’s not about my dad. It’s just not. All the film was about for me was, I’m a kid growing up from this working-class background, making sense of the terrain, making sense of their relationships. I’m making sense of my own place in this world, and my own relationships with family, with religion—a lot of things just came together for this script. It’s not based on any reality. It’s a work of fiction. But of course you absorb, you’re a conduit for this stuff. You absorb it and interpret. All that Tyrannosaur is is an interpretation of a lot of elements that I’ve taken on board.
AVC: You mentioned earlier taking pictures of boxers. One of the upcoming films you’re thinking about directing is based on a non-fiction book about boxing?
PC: Yeah. This is going around. Diarmid [Scrimshaw], the producer, said, “Have you been talking about this?” I haven’t spoken to anyone about it. But yes, there is a non-fiction boxing book that I want to adapt.
AVC: Peter Mullan’s character in Tyrannosaur is such a violent man, and not only physically. You can see him straining to contain these immense waves of emotion. It seems like there’s a connection there.
PC: Yeah. My capacity to visualize it is quite big. I’m not going to take a machete to everybody, but things do stay with me. Events stay with me. I can internalize a lot of stuff. I don’t go out hurting people—I’ve got a punch-bag for that. I guess a lot of fears that are in Joseph are fears I have about the world. I just want to withdraw and not commit. I think a film that opens with a guy who kicks his dog—
AVC: You’re really challenging the audience.
PC: The challenge is: “Don’t you want to know why he did that?” That’s the only challenge. I’m not saying, “Look at this thing, ain’t it shocking?” I’m going, “All right, do you want to know about it?”
AVC: It’s also a way of saying, “This is the story I’m telling. If you don’t want to watch it, you might as well go.”
PC: Yeah. Go now. Leave.
AVC: That shows a high degree of self-awareness for a first-time filmmaker. There’s also a substantial degree of confidence in casting well-known comedian Olivia Colman in this very dark role. Did working with her on Hot Fuzz have anything to do with it?
PC: Yeah, it had everything to do with it. When I met Olivia the first time, I wanted her for my short film. I mean, the instant I met her. It’s all her, it’s her personality, it’s her qualities—not that they got her this part, but that’s why she’s Hannah, because of these qualities she possesses. There’s no fake in it. I’ll smell it if you got it, and there ain’t no faking. [Laughs.] She’s a happily married woman with children, and that’s a very rare thing [Laughs.], to see someone so secure in love. It’s a rare beast. But it was her qualities that I wanted to bring—so selfless, always looking to see what other people’s needs are. That’s a natural instinct, not an affected instinct that she carries around. When we flew out here on the plane, a baby was crying and the family was struggling, so she was the first one up to say, “Shall I hold one of your babies?” That’s not for the audience of the people in the cabin, you know. You can smell it, man. So that’s why. And then it turns into Tyrannosaur, you’re thinking, “Can she do this? Can she do this?” Because this is a departure. Unless you go into those waters, as an artist, as an actor, how do you know if you don’t go? We go into those waters together. How do we know? You’ve got to step out of your comfort zone sometimes.
AVC: In contrast, Peter Mullan’s role is in the vein of characters he’s played before, although with a higher level of intensity. Is there a danger people might overlook the quality of the performance?
PC: Yeah, I think so.
AVC: How did you come to work together?
PC: Because I’m a huge fan of Peter Mullan. When I saw him in My Name Is Joe, I was blown out of my chair. I thought it was amazing. There’s a film Peter did that I’m a huge fan of, called Session 9. He was amazing in it. When I wrote the script, I thought, “Who can match the physicality? Who can kick his dog to death and then you care about him? You stay for the journey, you care about them. Who can do that?” They’re all natural qualities. People talk about acting and putting on false teeth, and I think people’s qualities come first, and that’s what casting is.
AVC: You also see his own fear of what he’s capable of, and you see him trying to care for the dog, although it dies anyway. There’s a contrast with Olivia Colman’s husband, played by Eddie Marsan, who seems like an upright citizen on the outside, but is extraordinarily cruel, even evil.
PC: The thing I love about these characters is that she can turn around after 80-odd minutes and go [to Mullan’s character], “I feel safe with you.” That’s the achievement of the film.
AVC: And she’s correct.
PC: You know what I mean? This guy displays his aggression publicly; he doesn’t hide it. He’ll knock a shed down in broad daylight with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t matter who’s watching. It will be in a bar, it will be a brick through a window. James is the dangerous kind, the malevolent kind that will do it behind closed doors. “What the fuck are you smiling at, you fucking cow?” You know, in the middle of a dinner party. That’s the fucking dangerous stuff, to me.
AVC: It seems as if this level of brutality might have arisen just lately in their marriage, but we learn it’s been like this for a long time.
OC: They were certainly in love at one point, and it was good. That’s why I think she’s determined to stay and take care of him. She wouldn’t leave lightly. That’s why she’s willing to stick with it, and hope it will change.
Peter Mullan: I always thought that, and correct me if I’m wrong, she might have married a virgin, that he was her first. She was committed.
OC: She was a Christian when she met him.
PM: Maybe I’m wrong, but in my head, that was it, and thus she wouldn’t know the real him.
PC: Yeah, that’s interesting.
PM: I think she married him never having been in love, never made love.
PC: Yeah. I think when we talked about it, we said they may have met in college. And it was great, it was all right.
OC: And from the women I talked to—I’ve talked to some captives of men and domestic violence, and they say that the violent man or the violent partner is so charming, invariably so charming, that it’s always those ones.
AVC: The abusers alternately charm and threaten them. It’s like, “I may beat the shit out of you, but no one else is going to love you.”
OC: And no one will believe it. She says, “No one will believe me.” He’s probably the most exciting person to have at the party, and her family loves him.
PC: It’s about control, and destroying people’s self-esteem. People can very quickly have a very poor self-image. It doesn’t take much. It’s very easy, only a small one—“You’ve put a bit of weight on”—and that’s fucking one degree of giving someone a slight bad image. Take that to the level of someone who’s degrading you to the point of pissing on you. It’s a whole different area. That’s why a lot of people don’t leave, because they have no self-esteem. That’s one of the reasons women don’t leave these relationships, because they truly believe nobody else will fucking love them.