The Director's Chair Interviews

Nil by Mouth takes actor turned director Gary Oldman on an unpleasant trip down memory lane
by Stephen Schaefer

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When Gary Oldman decided to bring back the sixties, he wasn't concerned with miniskirts, pop-op art, or swinging London. Instead, with Nil by Mouth, his directing and screenwriting debut, the celebrated thesp recreated a living hell he knew all too well—the downtrodden South London neighborhood where he grew up. Based on a series of the director's childhood memories, the film is the story of a family burdened by addiction, abuse, and poverty.

Oldman's own father was an abusive alcoholic who left his family for another woman when Gary was seven; by the time Oldman reached international acclaim as an actor, he'd developed a serious drinking problem of his own. Nil by Mouth was one of the factors that helped him stay sober after he detoxed in late 1994. "This story was swimming around my head," he recalls. "But I had to get clean to do it. I had to be in the solution, I couldn't be in the problem."

When the movie premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, its unflinching brutality prompted several walkouts, notably during a scene in which the film's drunken father (Ray Winstone) savagely beats his pregnant wife (Kathy Burke). But Nil by Mouth has also drawn its share of praise from viewers who can stomach—and possibly even relate to—the authentic horrors on the screen. Oldman recalls that when Eric Clapton saw the film, the guitar god told him, "It was like you throwing up all over everyone." Impressed, Clapton contributed the picture's original score.

Nil by Mouth underscores Oldman's ability to travel between two worlds: the release of the low-budget film comes between his portrayals of over-the-top villains in the Hollywood spectaculars Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and New Line's campy Lost in Space, due out this spring. He candidly admits that the movies he stars in are not always the ones he'd like to watch. It's clear that Oldman has no similar qualms about watching his directorial debut—he just doesn't want to relive the experiences that inspired it.

You were visibly moved at Cannes last year while discussing this intensely personal story from your own childhood. Has it gotten easier as you've taken this "child" around the world, including the recent Sundance Film Festival?

I don't know. Was I emotional? I read in the newspaper, "Gary Oldman breaks down in tears at press conference." Was I near tears?

You definitely seemed teary.

Now there is a lot of distance there. [The movie is] on its own legs and it's out in the world. But I don't remember being that moved by that, and I was surprised to read that. But you're not alone thinking that.

What does the title Nil by Mouth mean?

It's a hospital term which means "intravenous only." A character in the film describes his father with the phrase. I use it literally and I use it ironically, because these characters have no communication skills. When they do communicate, it's often abusive and verbally very violent. They drink beer and they smoke and everything, so it's everything by the mouth and nothing by the mouth.

Did you consider acting in this film, as well as directing it?

I didn't want to be in the movie. I had a very specific idea of the way I wanted to shoot it and didn't want the hassle of being on both sides. Acting is hard enough, especially after seventeen takes.

Did you find directing difficult?

Anything you do, whether you dance, you act, you write music, anything you do is hard. But it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It becomes like an animal, it starts to become its own thing and each day once you've finished you go to dailies. I wasn't sleeping at night, I was really going into a coma from tiredness. Then at 5:30 the alarm would ring and the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train. The analogy one uses is almost like going into a war zone. Just as you've got one problem in control, you've got another one. It's . . . hard work. [Smiles.] But you're constantly engaged and stimulated, the creative process is constantly engaged the whole time. One of the things I did enjoy was that I could stay in my own clothes. I didn't have to get to the set at six in the morning and be made-up.

Is acting as creatively engaging for you as directing?

No. You get downtimes as an actor, and I'm tired of it. I've been doing it for twenty years. You can get bored; you can get tired. So I found [directing] a very rewarding experience—and you're boss. You get to be dictator.

Nil by Mouth's an intensely personal piece of writing. Do you have plans to write another script?

Yeah. I think there could well be a theme there, of the lonely and the disenfranchised. I'm not sure. I'm not going to adapt Jane Eyre, that's for sure. I've been so busy with the family and with Lost in Space and with the promotion of this film since I was at Cannes, that I've not had much time to write. I'm not good at doing fifty things at once. I have to clear the desk before I can sit down again and start cooking something else up.

This is a grim, harrowing movie made without compromise. It sounds and feels like these scenes are simply happening before the camera. I can't imagine it was easy to get people to say, "Oh yes! Here's some money—go make that movie."

The script was very specific in my head. I saw it and wrote it at the same time. It was a hard sell to the team that would handle sales: As soon as you say you want to shoot it 16 millimeter on the zoom, they go, "LikeHawaii Five-O?" You have a disadvantage [as a first-time director]; you can't say, "Oh, look at my other movie." You're talking always in the abstract.

You've made the term "personal cinema" quite literal.

There is a lot of me in there. I grew up in that neighborhood. All the locations are the actual locations I remember. My mother used to sing in that pub. The bar where you see the father sitting alone—that's where alcoholism puts you. Drinking whiskey chasers at 9:30 in the morning on your own in a pub. It's really attractive, you know? Great life. That pub is the pub my father used to go to, and where he destroyed his liver.

I watched it all going on. A lot of people I knew are still there. And now it's easier to me. When we first had screenings for this movie in Los Angeles, and I watched this huge chunk of my life, I was able to leave the cinema and walk out into the California sunshine. But there's a lot of people who are represented in the movie that don't have that privilege. I think there's a lot of me in all the characters. Some of that's my father. My brother-in-law's in it, my nephew. Some of those events I couldn't put in the movie— because it was so horrendous you'd come out and say, "I couldn't believe it."

Like what?

Where [Kathy Burke] gets beaten. That was taken from a specific incident [involving Oldman's mother]. That happened. He hit her with a steel-toe boot and then tried to drown her.

We know from media coverage of your own problems with alcohol that the film's chronicle of alcoholism and its effect on the family is personally relevant to you.

I'm a public figure, and I do what I do. So I went to treatment for alcoholism. I wasn't allowed to do that anonymously, because it was a good story. I understand, "Gary: rehab." I decided to come clean, excuse the pun, and not go on The Bryant Gumbel Show and say, "Oh yeah, I disappeared for awhile because of nervous exhaustion." In a way I was challenged; I was forced to say, "I have this illness and I suffer from this." I don't know many people who in some ways, their lives aren't affected by "the ism"—by alcohol and drug-taking and all those other things we put under the umbrella.

Hollywood is getting a bad rap now for hiring actors who have serious substance- or alcohol-abuse problems, and go to jail. Do you have any comment?

I don't think about people not working, because people going into recovery and cleaning up is primarily about change. So, people can change. But if someone commits a crime . . . I don't particularly think Christian Slater should be washing cars and making coffee. He should be in a cell without a fax machine, without a phone, and without a TV, just like everyone else.

It's a sad thing. We just had Danny Baldwin run riot in a hotel in New York [allegedly after overdosing on vials of crack cocaine]. It makes me think about some of the issues the movie deals with: You do that and it's not just yourself you're hurting. It's the whole family. Everybody's touched by that and not just Danny. I've met him, and he's a very, very sweet man. I just hope he can work it out.

Did you ever feel you were in danger of spinning out of control? Of not getting hired? Would you call yourself self-destructive?

There was an element of self-destruction. I think that's part of it. When you're out there, kind of bouncing off the walls a bit, you get to the point where actually not feeling good becomes a very familiar feeling. When things are going well, it's something you're not used to. So you try something, you kick up the dust.

Did you feel some kind of a need, then, to make Nil by Mouth your writing and directing debut as opposed to some other story?

Nil by Mouth was inside of me. I've been a native of New York for ten years, so a lot of my experiences have been American, and at first I wrote a couple of things that were based there. But my gut told me that if I was going to come out of the gate as a director, then it should be a very personal story that comes from me. I had to go back to Britain, to London, to where I grew up. I'm not comparing myself at all, but it's no surprise that Scorsese keeps going back to that Italian neighborhood he's closest to.

I finally decided to take the time off and say, "Even if Mr. Scorsese calls, I'm not going to do his movie. I have to have this time for me and write this story." Because I was just too busy and this story was swimming around my head. But I had to get clean to do it. I had to be in the solution; I couldn't be in the problem. I couldn't sit down over a bottle of wine and write this stuff. Most people are a lot sicker than we think they are. It's either drugs or alcoholism. What I've tried to do is break the cycle.

The Clapton score is so perfect. How did his involvement happen?

Eric saw the movie [in L.A.] before I'd even approached him about it and we had a temp track on it which I knew we had to replace. Eric very much connected with the piece on a lot of levels. He said, in his own words, "I'll do the music for you because it's right up my Strater."

Your mother sings "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," from Showboat, at the end of the film. And your older sister, who's never acted before, plays Kathy Burke's mother under the pseudonym Laila Morse. Obviously Nil by Mouth was in some sense a family affair, but have any members of your family expressed discomfort about the subject matter?

What I used, I used with respect and discretion. I disguised it enough, I think. I smoothed the edges. They've seen the film and they're very happy and very moved by its honesty. That's what I set out to do, to make something from my heart. In that way I hope I've not disgraced them but served them with dignity.

You make big Hollywood films like Air Force One and The Fifth Element, and then you make this intensely personal film. Do you see any kind of a pattern in your role choices?

You mean one for them and one for me? That could well be what was making me cry at Cannes: I'd just watched my performance in Fifth Element. Anyone would [cry]. And Air Force One would certainly subsidize one of my own movies. [Smiles.] Actually, I enjoyed working with [AFO director] Wolfgang Petersen, and technically it's very well made, but it's not my cup of tea. I'm not always in the movies I would want to go and see.

What about playing Dr. Zachary Smith, another villain, in Lost in Space?

Well, I've seen a great deal of Lost in Space now. They're still doing a bit of work on it. From what I've seen, it's going to be a crack in the box! And it's nice to be in a movie my kids [two boys, two and nine years old] can see.

You must be enthusiastic—aren't you committed to do another one as well?

I think it's two. But we'll have to see how this one does, if people get out there and buy tickets.

You'll turn forty on March 21. How do you feel about that milestone?

I feel pretty good about it. I wouldn't want to be twenty-one again, that's for sure. I'd rather be thirty than forty, but I'm happy to be forty.

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