Film Scouts Interviews

Gary Oldman on "Nil by Mouth"

by Henri Béhar

Buy this video from
CANNES - May 8, 1997

Member of the Jury in 1993, Gary Oldman is back to Cannes both as an actor (Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" opened the Festival) and, for the first time, as a writer-director. His film-making debut, "Nil By Mouth," is shown today in competition. Born in 1959 and raised in the south of London, Gary Oldman had already done theater when he made an explosive film debut as Sid in "Sid and Nancy." The ferocity with which he portrayed the lead singer of the Sex Pistols proved a double edged sword: it took him a long while to discard that image.

As writer Joe Orton in Stephen Frears's "Prick Up Your Ears," shown in competition a few years later, Oldman displayed a lightness of touch and a vocal agility the like of which has yet to be seen and heard this side of Meryl Streep and Tim Roth (Guildenstern to Oldman's Rosencrantz -- unless it's the other way around). From that point on, Oldman would take all sorts of accents: Irish-American in Phil Joanou's "State of Grace," American in "Murder in the First Degree," New Yorker in Julian Schnabel's "Basquiat," Southern US in "The Fifth Element" in which, he readily admits, he modeled his 23rd-century intergalactic tycoon on Ross Perot. One wondered how long it would take for Gary Oldman to use that absolute ear in order to capture a reality he would feel close enough to to render onto the screen. "Nil By Mouth" is that film. To call it a portrait of a dysfunctional family would be the understatement of the century (see reviews).

If the actor proved he could lick a blood-dripping blade like nobody else could (Francis Coppola's "Dracula") and can leave teeth marks on any scenery when required, he does not appear in "Nil By Mouth," yet his presence cannot be missed throughout the film.

FILM SCOUTS: Before "Nil By Mouth" was screened in Cannes, rumor had it that a) it was as close to early Ken Loach as one could imagine or dream of; and b) it would make "Trainspotting" look like "Snow White."

GARY OLDMAN: Where did you hear *that*? (he laughs) I think people lay the foundation for you. I don't know if there could be a "Nil by Mouth" without people like Tony Richardson, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh -- I guess it follows in the tradition of that type of British film. And John Cassavetes. That was something my chief-editor pointed out to me. "And Scorsese," he said.

I readily admit that "Nil By Mouth" is not so much influenced by as it is inspired by Cassavetes. I don't see Scorsese in there anywhere. Yet, when Stephen Frears came up to the editing room and I showed him 20 minutes (we were still editing at the time), even he said, "It's so vivid! It's like Marty." And my friend (director) Peter Medak said it reminded him of Pasolini.

F.S.: Not too shabby!

G.O.: I must say, those are not necessarily bad people to hang on the wall! (He chuckles). I think it's all in there because of what you're surrounded by, what you like and what appeals to you and what moves you when you watch movies... And I guess at the end of the day, it's a Gary Oldman movie. I just went with what I like and trusted my instincts, my tastes, my eye and my idea. It would be a sad day just to watch it and say, "I've achieved everything I've ever wanted to achieve." I don't know if anyone ever does. But if nothing else, it's a very honest film.

F.S.: What does the title means?

G.O.: "Nil by Mouth" is the thing that normally hangs over a bed or is on the chart of a patient in the hospital, to inform the staff and the people not to give him fluids or any foods. An example of that actually comes up in the movie with the character who is talking about his father whom, as a boy, he visited in hospitals. But I also use the title ironically because the film deals with drinking and drugs and people who abuse one another. No communications skills. When they do actually say something, more often than not they hurt one another. The language in the movie is very brutal and is quite profane.

F.S.: How autobiographical is it?

G.O.: Ah... "Gary Oldman's autobiographical film." Anything we do is autobiographical, whether I'm writing and making this film or playing Dracula. You invest the character that you're playing. To make it three-dimensional, you go to areas and places and into the well of your own experiences and history.

So, yes, those are things that happened. I wasn't just a fly on the wall and privy to the conversations, the dialogue that took place. There are events in there that happened, that I lived and witnessed when I was growing up in that neighborhood. A lot of the locations in the movie are actual locations. Even though I wrote this in New York, 5000 miles away, I could place and visualize every location when I was writing it, and then I went back to London, most of the pubs and the bars and the clubs were still there from when I was growing up.

F.S.: What triggered the decision to sit down and write this story?

G.O.: Most of the time, when I watched movies that supposedly were a representation of my class or where I come from, I just wouldn't buy it.

So I had the idea swimming around inside my head. Finally, I decided to take some time off and deal with it. I said to my agent, "I don't care if Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese calls me. I'm not acting this year. I want to sit down and address this thing which has been bubbling around in me. Otherwise, it will just always and continue to be a dream."

F.S.: Being "a fly on the wall" or "privy to certain moments," however harsh, is not nearly enough. There must have come a time when you took it one step beyond and said, "I want to tell it."

G.O.: Yes. The telling of it came out of me getting sober. Going into recovery from alcoholism. Without it, there would be no "Nil by Mouth." The making of the movie, being able to look back at it objectively is a direct result of me putting down a drink. The film deals with co-dependency and how it affects the family, whether it's alcoholism, drug abuse or sexual addiction. "Nil By Mouth"... They should have put that on my glass every time I had a drink.

F.S.: In a way, then, was putting it down on paper perhaps the last step toward your complete rehabilitation?

G.O.: Yes. I would say that. There is an element that is based on a 12-step spiritual program. I jokingly said to a friend of mine, "I think I'm the only alcoholic in history that has a 4th and 5th step in competition in Cannes!" But it was in a sense cathartic. It was a completion of the journey for me in dealing with baggage on which I continue to work on on a daily basis.

F.S.: So there was no burning desire to direct with a capital "D"...

G.O.: I think the two go together. The writing and the visual conception of it. The yearning to do something that was mine. That creatively I could, as it were, own the whole kingdom and, to an extent, dictate and control the creative experience. With acting, it obviously depends on whom you're working with.

F.S.: To a degree, one would assume. For like it or not, and however good the director and/or the editor, in a film your performance is taken away from you.

G.O.: True. It's not as collaborative as people imagine. I like to refer to it as benign dictatorship. I don't mean to sound ungrateful: acting has given me a rich, wonderfully interesting life. But at some point, boredom sets in. I mean, I have been acting nearly 20 years and I feel like I've virtually expressed every emotion there is to play.

I did 8 or 9 years in the theater. There comes a moment in the process where the director has to surrender the play and give it to the actors. When the performance begins, when you are up there, you are, in a sense, your own editor: you can slow it down, you can speed it up.

It's a whole different ballgame when you're acting on a movie set. It's almost like you post your performance. You know what I mean? Once you've posted it, you've sent the letter. That's it! No control.

Now when you direct... I must say it was a wonderful feeling standing in a room with a man walking in with a camera on his shoulder, turning to me and saying, "Okay, Guv'nor. Where do you want it?"

F.S.: There's also that annoying little problem of typecasting. "Need power, need lack of inhibition? Need madness and intensity? Check Gary (Oldman), Chris (Walken), Willem (Dafoe)."

G.O.: Oh, yes. But I would be the first to put my hand up. Over the last couple of years, I have been somewhat typecast. I make decision to do or not to do a movie based on what is going on in my life. I have some real skeletons in the cupboard. Movies that I didn't do that maybe I should have done.

There does come a point in your life when the main preoccupations are, "How long is it going to shoot? And where?" "Oh, that's a good script *and* I would like to 3 months in Australia." Or "I need to spend time with my son this year. I've promised. I do not want to go to Poland for 20 weeks in the winter."

Plus there's a misconception out there, people tend to associate "Gary Oldman" with what he plays. Most people who would know me will tell you I have a good sense of humor and I'm a bit of a joker! A bit of a clown, really. And I would love someone to exploit that side of me and send me a romantic comedy!

F.S.: Have you ever paused to wonder why they gave you those parts as opposed to the others?

G.O.: I think I have the facility to be able to do that and, I guess, do it well. You know, people talk about a "vulnerability mixed with intensity," there are qualities that people recognize and want to buy, if you like.

But then people assume that I'm crazy and start thinking you're "difficult." Which amazes me! I'm always on time. Never late. I know the lines... It's quite a dream working with me, really. I never give you any trouble. I do as I'm told. Director is the boss.

F.S.: Have you ever found a part you were taking on helped you solve a personal problem?

G.O.: You mean psychologically? Working something out? Unfortunately, most of the parts I've played would probably land me in jail! (He laughs) I used to be under the impression that in some kind of wanky bullshit method idea, acting was like therapy: you get in and grapple with and exorcise all those demons inside of you. I don't believe that anymore. It's like a snow shaker. You shake the thing up but it can't escape the glass. It can't get out. And it will settle until the next time when you shake it up.

I don't know if I really can say that I've worked out anything in my life psychologically or emotionally through playing. What you can do is find the similarities with what's going on in your life -- and sometimes playing a role has a strange way of echoing it.

I remember when I first saw "Hannah and Her Sisters," I came out and met a friend of mine for coffee. He said, "What was it like?" I said, "Like an afternoon around my house!"

Back to the 1997 Cannes Film Festival Interviews

Back to the 1997 Toronto Film Festival Interviews

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.