Interview: Peter Mullen & Olivia Colman on Tyrannosaur

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For people who don’t live in Great Britain, the lifestyle of the working class might be somewhat foreign to them, which may be why Tyrannosaur, the feature film directorial debut by actor Paddy Considine (In America) could very much be an acquired taste to some Americans. Considine expanded on ideas he wrote for a short called “Dog Altogether,” which won multiple awards including a BAFTA Award and the top prize for a short film at the Venice Film Festival.

Both the short and feature star one of Scotland’s finest actors Peter Mullen playing Joseph, an angry alcoholic widower who when we meet him has accidentally killed his beloved pet dog in a drunken rage. This is a man who clearly has problems and he’s not an easy guy to like, but when he meets a kindly Jesus-loving store clerk named Hannah, played by Olivia Colman, he tries to turn over a new leaf as he discovers her own dark secret about having an abusive husband (Eddie Marsan). All three actors give absolutely fantastic performances in the movie that isn’t easy to watch, but tempers the intense drama with its own unique form of dark humor.

It’s a great role for Mullen to really let loose with someone who is all rage and bile but whom also has a heart buried deep beneath, and it features a terrific dramatic performance by Colman, who is best known for her comedy. (Some may remember her as the single “police woman” on the force in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, in which Considine also appeared as a foul-mouthed detective.) Considine’s transition into filmmaker is nothing short of astounding, as he’s created a British drama on par with the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in terms of showing real humans.

Back in January, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Mullen and Colman at a ski resort in Park City when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival–this is just after we had talked with writer/director Paddy Considine, an interview you can read here. Colman offered to make us all tea as we began with the Scottish actor, whose heavy brogue is not always the easiest to understand, but he was surprisingly warm and introspective in opposition to some of the roles he’s played.

ComingSoon.net: I just spoke with Paddy and he mentioned you two did a short film together. What was the draw to do the short film and then to do the feature? Did he tell you a lot about the character before giving you a script?
Peter Mullen:
No, with the short film, we had been to the BAFTAs and Paddy, whom I had never met before, said, “I’d really like to work with you” and the feeling was mutual. And so about a year later, he sent the script to my agent for the short film he was doing for no money. I read the script, loved it, phoned him up and said “Count me in” and that was it. I had never met Olivia before, never worked with Paddy and he came and shot the whole film in Glasgow. Originally, it was set in Sheffield or Leeds, but because it was for no money, he shot in Glasgow and Olivia, she then came to Glasgow to film the short. We did that, and about two years after we did the short, he sent us a script for the feature. The first couple pages I thought, “This is just the short film again.”

CS: So the short film’s just the beginning of the movie basically.
Mullen:
Yes, the short film is the beginning of the film.
Olivia Colman: It’s all exactly the same.
Mullen: There’s about three scenes that are cut from it, something like that, and to my amazement, it had its own… what did F. Scott Fitzgerald say? “A great work of art is like a block of ice on a stove. It will move and undulate to its own temperature.” I probably paraphrased him badly but that’s just what he said. When I read the script, that’s what it felt like, a great block of ice that was going on its own way. it wasn’t just defining itself as a short film, and then it took him another year or something to get the money for it, maybe longer, two years?
Colman: At some point, the money they really needed wasn’t going to happen, so Paddy finally just said, “Let’s get on. With whatever we’ve got, let’s just make it.”
Mullen: Something like that. Yeah.

CS: What about yourself, Olivia? Because you’d worked with him before as an actor, but what did he tell you about Hannah before you did the short?
Colman:
I remember very clear when I met him, because I was a huge fan of Paddy’s and I got over-excited when Paddy walked up the stairs. We were going to have a rehearsal for “Hot Fuzz” and I went “Hi” and sat up and opened the door for himÂ…

CS: He actually told me that you opening the door for him, that’s what made him think of you for the part. You actually got a job by opening the door for someone.
Colman:
I open the doors for everybody all the time.
Mullen: I must remember that, to open the door. That’s brilliant.
Colman: It’s hilarious. He thought–’cause he had the idea for the short–“Oh, maybe she’ll be the one for that” so I’m eternally grateful and pleased I opened the door.

CS: When you have someone who is such a good actor, how do you know that they can pull off what they’ve written as a director?
Mullen:
You don’t. You genuinely don’t. You go in and you touch wood–I’ve been very lucky most of the films I’ve done–you go on instinct with a director and most of them, while they don’t necessarily become commercial success but artistically you’re like,”Yeah, that’s a job well done.” Couple times you thought wrongly and you only find that out when you see the finished product and it’s not about bad acting, it’s bad directing. With Paddy, because we’d done the short, we already knew and had complete confidence in him as, for wont of a better word, the human director. Because you have the technical director, then there’s a human director. From an actor’s point of view…
Colman: You want the human one
Mullen: You want the human one. You don’t give a f*ck about the technical one. Some directors quite rightly want to explain a shot to you. Personally, I don’t give a f*ck. As long as he’s a nice person, isn’t going to shout at me, isn’t going to shout at Olivia, isn’t going to make life hell. For so many actors, that’s the primary fear. These are people with kids and mortgages, they don’t want to be shouted at. It’s bizarre. Because any line of work, you obviously don’t want to be shouted at but for actors, it’s quite crippling and some actors can play on it. They can suss it. It’s like, “If I raise my voice and say you’re sh*t, I can decimate you” and if you met them on the street, you’d be like “What did you just f*cking say?” but the minute you’re on a set, you’re f*cking vulnerable as all hell, so we knew the human Paddy then we saw the technical Paddy which his all together, which was fabulous. So it was dead easy when we were doing “Tyrannosaur” because we knew how he was going to approach it. What we didn’t know was quite how the technical, we didn’t know it was going to be quite as gothic as it was going to look, and it was stunning compositions, really beautiful.

CS: Right, it looks amazing. It looks like a movie that could have cost three or four times as much.
Mullen:
Exactly. We knew Paddy spoke about being desperate to create, as he calls it, “a cinematic experience,” so he was very particular about composition. Paddy was desperate not to have the Dogme swing-camera approach or drama-doc, however you want to describe it. He wanted something to look more like the cinema he grew up with.
Colman: But he’s got that photographic background, doesn’t he?
Mullen: Exactly.
Colman: Photographic degree so visually… and he and Eric, they had a kindred love of beautiful shots.
Mullen: Yes, and what was great was that we never spoke about that, well I didn’t anyway.
Colman: No, I had no idea.
Mullen: Not your business.

CS: You guys did the short and it had a very specific tone but this movie gets into some very dark territory in how it deals with some real serious issues like domestic abuse. Since you were mainly known for comedy, were you nervous about where the movie goes?
Colman:
Well, to begin with, when he said he was going to extend the short, I thought “Cool” but I didn’t think I’d be in it much and I thought it would be Joseph’s story, but he said, “I do want to do both of your stories and find out how you come together.” Then reading it, his wife said, “I’ve seen it and I can’t believe what Paddy’s going to make you do.” Then I read it, and I showed my husband, and my husband said, “You can do that. You’ve just got to go with it. Do it.” Because I was worried I’d make it look hammy or bad. Yes, I started off in comedy but that’s just where I got my work. I’ve always been an actor.

CS: Did you do theater before?
Colman:
Yeah. It just so happens that you do a job and you can do a comic script so other people go “Oh!” It just works like that, you don’t plan it. I can’t turn up and go, “I want a period drama now.” If only that worked.

CS: This movie isn’t a comedy but it has comic elements…
Colman:
Well, every day life does. We just laughed. Everybody laughs all the time and some of the worst things that happen make you laugh ’cause it’s a defense isn’t it, I suppose.

CS: When you see this movie with an audience are you sometimes surprised when they laugh and what they laugh at?
Mullen:
There’s been a few. I love it. Personally, I’m a cheap whore. I’ll take any f*cking laugh that comes, that’s fine by me. Silence in a cinema can be slightly distressing because you don’t know if somebody hates it or loves it. But over the years, it’s been really interesting. There’s been a couple laughs from me, but completely unexpected, and I love that, because I always think if an audience laughs in that fashion, they’re really getting the story. When they don’t laugh or they aren’t sure, obviously–you don’t want them mocking laugh–but when there are those moments, for want of a better word, the democratic “You can laugh if you want, don’t laugh if you don’t.” A big laugh we got the other night was a moment when Olivia tries to put a tie onto Joseph and he goes back because he’s not used to any physical contact, and it got a huge laugh, which I thought was fabulous. Like I said, I’ll take any laughs when they come, but I do think it means a deeper understanding.

CS: I’ll be curious to see how the movie is seen over in England or Scotland, because there’s a lot of things in the movie which are probably very foreign to us which are very common there.
Mullen:
Sure. Not so much that, but I’ll be interested to see audience response internationally, because any film festival is not the real world. We’re all here to see that type of film, that’s why it’s Sundance. Immediately, you can get a leg up. It would be tougher to come to Sundance if we were an out and out goofy musical. It would be tougher, because audiences are here for serious cinema, that’s why we spend out money to come to Sundance to see serious independent cinema. It’ll be interesting to see how it does in the great big real world of multiplexes and the like ’cause personally I think it’s an astonishing film and it should do really well, but depends on how they market it. It comes down to that, like everything, particularly for a film like this, because say hypothetically it wins a couple of big gongs. In the UK, as I’ve discovered in the last five or six years, they will not put them on the poster, it won’t go. You don’t want to put Venice or that it won Cannes. They will not go see it, so for low-budget cinema, you’re constantly spread across the canal, because you’re like, “Yeah, but we’ve won it, that’s good. Doesn’t that tell an audience that this is quality?”
Colman: Is that right?
Mullen: Never put “Cannes” on a poster ever. “My Name is Joe” they were like (does impression of something plummeting like a bomb). Britain was the only country that didn’t put “Golden Lion” right across the top, because nobody will watch it.
Colman: That’s hilarious.

CS: How hard is it to make a character like Joseph? That’s the key of why the film is so great is that as you watch the movie, you think “This guy is really horrid” but it’s really easy to like him after a while, so was that something that was clear from the script how to do that?
Mullen:
Obviously, a lot comes to the script in terms of context. I would never think of making anybody likeable. Ever. I’d only be interested in making them honest and pay tribute to them, no matter who the hell you’re playing, you have to attribute to them, their own humanity however screwed up that may be. I would never expect an audience to like a character. That’s never bothered me, that kind of empathetic notion to me is almost counter-art. You either look at someone as a human being with all the flaws or you really should be watching a television soap opera. If that’s what you want, which is fine. I have nothing against soap operas. If you want black and white, good, bad, those are all avenues, but for a film like this, it goes completely upstream. There is no good, there is no bad.

CS: You have it a little bit easier with Hannah because she’s completely likeable and she’s the sweetest person in the world.
Colman:
They practically both turn on their heads.
Mullen: Hannah commits the worst crime in the whole f*cking film. Much worse.

And really, we can’t say much more about the movie without spoiling anything. Tyrannosaur opens in New York and LA on Friday, November 18.