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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Interviews by Rich Pelley

Ray Winstone and Gary Oldman on Nil By Mouth: ‘It’s a tough watch’

‘There’s no stopping Ray’ … Winstone in Nil By Mouth.
‘There’s no stopping Ray’ … Winstone in Nil By Mouth. Photograph: Jack English/Group/Luc Besson/Kobal/Shutterstock

Ray Winstone, plays Ray

I’d briefly met Gary Oldman at film-maker Alan Clarke’s funeral in 1990 and later received a message saying he wanted to see me. We met on the steps of the Royal Court theatre in London, where I was working. With a coffee in hand, he told me all about this incredible piece of work he’d written, and how much he’d like me to do it. What a compliment that was, coming from someone like Gary Oldman.

Nil By Mouth is a harrowing story about a dysfunctional family. I play Ray, the abusive husband of Val, portrayed by Kathy Burke. Charlie Creed-Miles is Val’s brother Billy, a heroin addict who shoots up with his friends and is probably dying. I throw him out. The film shows the brutality of what one human being can do to another: there’s no stopping Ray.

We had plenty of time to rehearse and get a feel for how the dialogue would flow. By the time we came to filming, everyone was on page. We all gelled. There was plenty of swearing, but that was the language of people who don’t know how to express themselves any other way. There’s a million ways to say the word “cunt” too. It can be a term of endearment: “Don’t be a silly cunt.” It’s part of the English language, part of the language of the people Gary had written about.

Gary was probably the best director I’ve ever worked with on that kind of subject. It was tough, but I remember it as a joy. We knew we’d made the film we wanted to make, but that didn’t necessarily mean it would be successful or well liked. But from the opening night, the reception was phenomenal. It went beyond our expectations, with Kathy winning best actress in the Independent film awards, and getting nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The film’s a tough watch, perhaps not one for Saturday night with a pizza, but I think it stands the test of time. And that’s the genius of Gary Oldman.

‘I wasn’t collecting art or driving a Ferrari’ … Oldman during filming.
‘I wasn’t collecting art or driving a Ferrari’ … Oldman during filming. Photograph: Columbia Tristar/Allstar

Gary Oldman, writer, director, producer

I felt the London I’d known growing up had never been represented. Things happened in my family that were shocking, so I felt a nudge to tell my own story. I was in New York. I got out my notebook and started writing. Originally, I thought it would all centre on Billy, but then these other characters came in. I had the urge to get behind the camera and continued writing whenever I could, in the trailer, on the plane. The first draft was completed in three or four weeks.

We couldn’t raise a penny, but then my producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, had lunch with the film-maker Luc Besson, who I’d done Léon with. Without hesitation, Luc said: “Of course I’ll finance Gary’s film.” He raised £1.9m, but the film eventually cost £4m, which I funded myself. I was divorced and not living a particularly extravagant lifestyle, not collecting art or driving a Ferrari, although you might say putting my money into a film was frivolous.

Some ad lib crackers … Kathy Burke and Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth
Some ad lib crackers … Kathy Burke and Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth Photograph: Columbia Tristar/Allstar

I admired Ray, but didn’t know him personally, so we met for lunch at the Royal Court. He was my first choice, so it was wonderful to secure him. Kathy I contacted through her agent. My casting director set up weekly improvisation classes to find the younger kids, which is where we found Charlie Creed-Miles, who had real energy and charisma. We rehearsed and rehearsed. I didn’t want the dialogue to sound your turn, my turn, so I said: “I want you to interrupt each other, talk over each other and ad lib.” There were a few crackers.

I invited Eric Clapton to a screening in California with a temporary score and he turned up with Sheryl Crow. I said: “You wouldn’t do the music, would you?” And he said: “It’s right up my strasse.” And that was it. In the main theme, it’s Sheryl Crow playing the accordion.

I think the film still plays well today. Interestingly, it did really well in Japan, despite it being a very matriarchal society. I’m glad it’s been given another lease of life with the BFI’s remaster and not just languished and gone rotten in a rusty old film can. Why I have not made another movie is a long story. It’s not for want of trying.

• The BFI 25th anniversary 4K remaster of Nil By Mouth is available on Blu-ray and on BFI Player.

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