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Ray Winstone and Gary Oldman on Nil By Mouth: “It’s a tough watch” | Movies

Ray Winstone, play Ray

I had briefly met Gary Oldman at filmmaker Alan Clarke’s funeral in 1990 and later received a message that he wanted to see me. We met on the steps of the Royal Court theater in London, where I worked. Coffee in hand, he told me all about this incredible work he had written and how much he would like me to do it. What a compliment that was, coming from someone like Gary Oldman.

Nil By Mouth is a poignant story about a dysfunctional family. I play Ray, Val’s abusive husband, played by Kathy Burke. Charlie Creed-Miles is Val’s brother, Billy, a heroin addict who shoots with his friends and is probably dying. I hunt him. The film shows the brutality of what one human being can do to another: nothing stops Ray.

We had plenty of time to rehearse and get a feel for how the dialogue would play out. By the time we got to the set, everyone was up to date. We all gelled. There was a lot of swearing, but it was the language of people who don’t know how to express themselves otherwise. There are also a million ways to pronounce the word “asshole”. It can be an endearing term: “Don’t be silly.” It’s part of the English language, part of the language of the people Gary wrote about.

Gary was probably the best director I’ve ever worked with on this kind of subject. It was hard, but I remember it as a joy. We knew we made the movie 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 exceeded our expectations, with Kathy winning Best Actress at the Independent Film Awards and being nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The movie is a tough watch, maybe not on a Saturday night with pizza, but I think it stands the test of time. And that’s the genius of Gary Oldman.

“I didn't collect art or drive a Ferrari”… Oldman during filming.
“I didn’t collect art or drive a Ferrari”… Oldman during filming. Photography: Columbia Tristar/Allstar

Gary Oldman, screenwriter, director, producer

I felt like the London I had known growing up had never been represented. Shocking things happened in my family, so I felt the need to tell my own story. I was in New York. I took out my notebook and started to write. Originally I thought it would all be centered around Billy, but then these other characters came along. I wanted to go behind the camera and continue to write 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 production partner, Douglas Urbanski, had lunch with the filmmaker Luc Besson, with whom I had done Léon. Without hesitation, Luc said, “Of course I’ll finance Gary’s film.” It raised £1.9m, but the film ended up costing £4m, which I financed myself. I was divorced and didn’t lead a particularly lavish lifestyle, collect art or drive Ferraris, although you could say putting my money into a movie was frivolous.

Some crackers ad lib … Kathy Burke and Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth
Some crackers ad lib … Kathy Burke and Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth Photography: 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 whom I contacted through her agent. My casting director set up weekly improv classes to find the younger ones, that’s where we found Charlie Creed-Miles, who had real energy and real charisma. We rehearsed and rehearsed. I didn’t want the dialogue to ring your turn, my turn, so I said, “I want you to interrupt, talk between you and ad lib.” There were a few crackers.

I invited Eric Clapton to a screening in California with temporary music and he came with Sheryl Crow. I said, “You wouldn’t do the music, would you?” And he said, “That’s just my street.” And that was it. In the main theme, Sheryl Crow plays the accordion.

I think the movie still plays well today. Interestingly, this worked very well in Japan, despite being a very matriarchal society. I’m glad it got another life with the BFI remaster and not just languishing and rotting in a rusty old movie box. Why I didn’t do another movie is a long story. It’s not for lack of trying.

The BFI 25th Anniversary 4K Remaster of Nil By Mouth is available on Blu-ray and BFI Player.

theguardian Gt

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