Young David: Spotlight on director David Mackenzie
by Anna Battista
In the anthology The Olympia Reader, maverick publisher Maurice Girodias, editor of the Parisian publishing house Olympia Press, remembers Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi as a man who used to get excited about too many projects at the same time. Unfortunately, Alexander seemed to have too many interests and to be distracted by far too many women to make his projects come true. Perhaps it is for this reason that the novel he had in mind since 1947, Young Adam, had to wait for many years before being written. At the end of the '40s Trocchi jotted down on a notebook some ideas for a story: the main character was a reporter from the Lairs Gazette, Jo Henfield, who had to investigate a murder. From then on, the writing and rewriting of Young Adam continued throughout the years. In the mid-'50s, Maurice Girodias finally accepted to publish the novel, but given the erotic nature of the Olympia Press catalogue, he asked Trocchi to spice up the book with pornographic details. The novel eventually came out under the pseudonym Frances Lengel, but after a while Trocchi decided to leave Paris and go to London where he started writing the screenplay for Young Adam, positive that he would manage to sell the script to an American producer. Proper meetings and agreements with producers and directors followed at the beginning of the '60s and there were even rumours about a TV serialisation of the novel. Then, abruptly, Trocchi's dreams faded away as the producer involved in the Young Adam project, Don Getz, dropped it. Trocchi died in 1984, without being able to see his beloved novel on the big screen.
More than forty years later, Trocchi's dream has finally become true thanks to Scottish director David Mackenzie. "I read Young Adam nine years ago. I wasn't an Alexander Trocchi fan at the time, a friend of mine had simply recommended me the book," David says, recounting how he "met" Alexander Trocchi. "I remember going on a trip along the canal with my girlfriend, it was late autumn, there was no light, it was kind of romantic and I was reading the book. I thought 'God, this would make a fantastic Scottish film.' The book really appealed to my senses, I liked the idea of the main character who was bad but not that bad and the idea of setting the story on the canal. I used to go on holiday on the canal when I was a kid, so I could immediately visualise the story. When I first imagined the film I thought it could entirely take place on the canal, but in fact the film is more focused on the cabin and on the characters. I also initially imagined a lot of flashbacks happening on the canal, but then I changed them and they became more associated with Joe's sexuality. In a way, the movie is a journey into Joe's psyche. The canal goes directly into the soul of this man," David concludes, joining his palms in a hieratical gesture, stretching his arms and indicating with his index fingers a point lost in space right in front of him, eyes focused on that same spot, as if he were really on a barge drifting on a canal and were desperate to reach a final destination.
"By the time I reached the canal everything was silent except for the ambiguous presence of the canal itself. There is a noise that is peculiar to inland water at night, a kind of radiation that is not exactly sound and not exactly smell; it is closer to touch; its being touches one at the pores." -- Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam
Young Adam is not a novel, it is an anti-novel: the main plot deals with the mysterious discovery of the corpse of a young woman found floating in the canal that joins Glasgow to Edinburgh by two men working on a barge, Joe and Leslie. Little by little, as the story develops, the reader discovers the hidden truths that connect Joe to the dead woman. Shot in Scotland on the Forth and Clyde Canal, on the Union Canal, in Linlithgow, Bowling, Glasgow, Paisley and Perth, Mackenzie's Young Adam stars Ewan McGregor as Joe, Peter Mullan as Leslie, Emily Mortimer as Cathie and Tilda Swinton as Ella. Tthe screenplay is penned by Mackenzie. "The main problem of adapting the film for the screen was that in the film you're not able to reproduce Trocchi's writing technique, you cannot have that perpetual 'go back to the beginning' refrain," David admits, shaking his head, the flames of the fireplace of the Glasgow pub in which we're sitting flickering in his eyes. "The novel is also written in the first person and there is something very interesting about a book written in the first person," he says. "The main character's vision of the world is entirely from his perspective and when you turn it into a film, this perspective has got to be objectified into the audience and then all the other characters will become alive in their own way. In my movie I also wanted the audience to realise the connection between Joe and Cathie earlier than you do in the book because I thought some people would feel happy in seeing her getting involved in the story at an earlier stage. The Cathie character in the book is portrayed through selected highlights whereas when Emily Mortimer plays Cathie's role, you can really see the connection between Cathie and Joe, she really becomes alive and this helps the narration of the film. My feeling was that the connection between the two characters declined at the end of the book. In the film there is still a decline, but I think the way their relationship is portrayed helps the audience to understand Joe's long-standing connection with Cathie, which is in the book, but is less stated and clear."
Mackenzie's choice of characters is also a very personal interpretation of Trocchi's characters, he says. "Ella in the novel is described as having a big figure whereas in the film she's quite slim and Ewan McGregor doesn't look exactly like Joe, in the same way as Peter Mullan's physical type is not the same as Leslie," David points out, "but Peter is totally Les when he plays Les, he likes Les and he feels for him. As soon as the novel becomes a film, those actors become Trocchi's characters and the acts they do come to embody the characters. The actions and the characters become in a way inseparable. I think that people tend to associate Ewan McGregor with younger characters, but the audience will see in Young Adam Ewan playing a more mature character which is more interesting. It is a development from his other roles."
Young Adam, which will be out next year, promises to be a very interesting movie not only because McGregor stars in one of his most mature roles, but because it is has already been dubbed "the sexiest film ever made in Scotland". There are two versions of Trocchi's novel, the Olympia Press one and an expurgated version, put together years after by Trocchi and reprinted in Great Britain by John Calder in 1961, so it is easy to wonder if David took any inspiration from the unexpurgated text "I started reading the pornographic version, but I never finished it," David confesses, "actually I decided I didn't want to go on reading it. I got as far as Ella masturbating with a teapot and I thought 'This is not where I want to go'. The centrality of the existentialism in the clean version of the novel, the thing that really drew me to it, is not there. In the pornographic version that centrality is cheapened without any benefit to the story. I think that because there's so much pornography around, the Internet and all that stuff, sex on film is going through a very different phase. Directors are thinking about how to be sexually honest without being pornographic. This is something that is very much on my mind and I hope the sex on the film is honest and human. In the film there is not as much sex as there is in the book, though there is still quite a lot of it, but sex isn't used to move the narrative along. I'd say that, in the end, the film is slightly less sexual and more romantic than the book is."
In the last few years there have been a number of successful films made in Scotland with Scottish actors or by Scottish directors. Film reviewers and film festival panels often talk about a "Renaissance" of Scottish cinema. "I don't know if it's a Renaissance, it's more a 'naissance' I think," David states. "Usually there were two Scottish films every few years or bad Hollywood attempts to remake some Scottish stories. This is probably the best time to be a director in Scotland. It seems that Scottish films are able to make an impact not just in Britain, but on a global scale. Peter Mullan is a great example." In 2002 Scottish director Peter Mullan's latest movie, The Magdalene Sisters, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the Volkswagen Discovery Award at the Toronto Film Festival. "In a way Young Adam is the opposite of The Magdalene Sisters", David claims, explaining, "in Mullan's film you can see the injustice there, but in Young Adam the injustice is in the deep background and you don't even realise it until the film is almost over. Besides, Young Adam is different from The Magdalene Sisters because it tries to be an existential film and to portray the internal voices of the characters."
"I wondered how much of a coincidence it was that I first made love with Ella on the day Cathie's body came floating back to me like a little hunk of synthetic guilt. I wondered how much I was moved by an instinctive need of a woman at the precise moment, on that precise day, because I was suddenly an outlaw beyond any intellectual and voluntary commission, not for now but from now on." -- Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam
David isn't at present interested in making films from other Trocchi books. "Helen & Desire would make a fantastic low budget porno film, but I'm not sure it would be desperately necessary to shoot it," he smiles, "and I think it would be difficult to turn Cain's Book into a movie. It would be too complex and you'd lose the essence of the book." Yet the Young Adam film is not the only connection David has or will ever have with Trocchi: in 1962 Trocchi prepared a new project, which he called Project Sigma, that aimed at uniting intellectuals and artists from all over the world. The basic ideas of Project Sigma were introduced to a wider audience in the essay Invisible Insurrection and put into practice in the Sigma Portfolio, the manifesto of the project that anthologises works by poets such as Michael McClure and Robert Creeley and psychiatrist R.D. Laing. In the following years Trocchi tried to turn the Project Sigma into a limited company, but failed. Now David has a film company, Sigma Films. Named after Trocchi's Project Sigma, the company is based on the same principles that characterised Trocchi's project.
"The producer of Sigma Films, Gillian Berrie, has got a very broad-minded and collective approach to work," he says. "Actually I think there's a sort of collective network in Scottish culture, not as much as in Denmark actually where you have the Dogma collective, and Gillian wants to encourage people to get together as much as possible. We can't say we have a manifesto, but I would love to do something with other film companies from all over the world, but we need time. In the last three years we've been busy with our first feature, I think that in ten years' time we will be able to get together with other companies." David underlined how it takes time to make a project come true, but directors often complain not about the time you need to make a film, but about the lack of funds. "We always had money problems," David reveals, "it is impossible not to. Young Adam was supposed to be out last year, but we had money problems. To be fair in the last ten to five years there has been more money, nowadays they call it 'Soft Money', available for film makers, so it is a lot easier to make a film in Scotland now than it was ten years ago."
David, who's at present in his mid-thirties, started his career shooting short films, such as Somersault (1999). "Throughout the time I was doing shorts I thought their quality was falling down because I wanted to get too much into movies," he recollects, "I think that once I get the idea of making all the films out of my head, then I'd like to go back to shorts, as I still feel I have quite a few ideas for my shorts and I'd like to put them on the screen sometimes." Among David's films, honourable mentions go to Marcie's Dowry (1999) and California Sunshine (1997), but his filmography also includes a recent movie, The Last Great Wilderness (2002), graced by a soundtrack written by the Glaswegian band The Pastels. "I was a Pastels fan and I used to see Stephen at the record shop he worked at in Byres Road in Glasgow," David remembers, "then I met him on a train four years ago and I asked him if he wanted to do the soundtrack for a film. I guess he thought I was some kind of mad person!" David laughs. "He asked me to send him a tape of my stuff and I later realised that in the montage I showed him I had used a Pastels' track. I had sort of illegally used his music for my thing, so I thought 'Oh my God, he's going to hate me!' but then we became very good friends! Their record label Geographic is very exciting. Glasgow's music scene is very healthy and The Pastels have great principles. They are probably going to release an album or an EP with the movie soundtrack."
"The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael's story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world's contempt for the sake of a great passion." --Patrick McGrath, Asylum
David is at present busy with a new project, the screenplay of a new movie, taken from Patrick McGrath's novel Asylum. Another McGrath book, Spider, was recently turned into a movie directed by David Cronenberg. Set in a mental hospital, Asylum recounts the love and passion of Stella Raphael, the wife of the local psychiatrist, for a patient, Edgar Stark. Stella, like a reborn Lady Chatterley lost in the pangs of love and wild sex, a Lady Chatterley gifted with a perverse Medea complex, finds a new freedom in a passionate relationship with Edgar. If the hell of the gothic novels tangibly manifested itself in prisons, castles and deformed monsters, Patrick McGrath's gothic hell moves into his characters' psyches and is represented by the cracks in their minds.
"I'm working on Asylum with playwright Patrick Marber," David announces. "He wrote a draft before I came along, then I started working with him. We seem to get on very well with each other and spent the last three months on the project. We've just finished a new draft which is quite close to the final one. Patrick is a very intelligent man, a very interesting man to work with. Asylum is a very dark novel, it is different from Young Adam: both novels have flashbacks, Asylum even more so than Young Adam. In the first draft there were all these flashbacks incorporated into the story, so the structure was very close to the novel. When I started working with Patrick I encouraged him to lose all that, so right now the story is much more linear. Young Adam and Asylum are both about two people, two central characters who transgress the rules of society and the consequences are both tragic, but the tone and the world of the novels are very different. McGrath read the screenplay and liked it. He lives in New York, but he was over for a week and we had a great time with him. We also went with him to visit a local mental hospital."
Eerie electronic music is playing in the background and for a while it is the only thing that can be heard around us since David goes silent, then resumes talking about Trocchi and Young Adam. "Trocchi was a very fascinating man, he was like Joe, good and bad, generous and horrible. We are all like that to some extent. We are a jumble of contradictions in many ways. I wonder if Trocchi would like the film and I hope people who love Trocchi will like the film. I feel I've been as loyal as possible to the book and to the spirit of the novel and that's the most important thing. I genuinely hope the Young Adam fans will like the film. It is not the same and it won't be the same as the book, but I love the book and I'd recommend it to anyone."
I wonder what he would like people to say about his new film. "I hope people will say about Young Adam," David pauses, building expectation, "'This is a brave piece of interesting adult film making'. And with 'adult' I mean 'grown-up' and not 'pornographic'." Then he smiles, "But ask me what I'd like people to say when the movie is out, let's say in two month's time and we'll see! I think that right now I hope people will see Young Adam as a journey into a character's soul."
"The coup-du-monde must be in the broad sense cultural," Trocchi claimed in his Sigma Manifesto, "The cultural revolt must seize the grids of expression and the powerhouse of the mind," he continued urging artists from all over the world to be alive and use their intelligence to subvert the old order of things. Shooting films is indeed a way to make a cultural revolt, to use "the powerhouse of the mind" and to reach as many people as possible. While saying goodbye to David, I think that if Trocchi were still alive he would be proud of Young Adam. He would be proud of David Mackenzie.