Arts: Ruffling feathers

Screen villains don't come much nastier than the men in `Face'. But under Antonia Bird's direction, they're people too. Cole Moreton talked to her
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The Independent Culture
Ray is angry. He might blow Julian's brains out. Julian knows it, and holds his new-born baby close to his chest like a tiny human breastplate as they sit, sweating, face to face in the front room of an East London flat. It's early morning, but a video is playing, loud. "I don't like crime films," says Ray, an armed robber who suspects the psychopath opposite of killing his friends and stealing his loot. "They never show the criminal in a good light."

"Ain't that the truth," laughs Antonia Bird as we sit under the shade of a tree in Hoxton Square discussing that scene from her latest film, Face, a gritty East End gangster movie for the Nineties. Like her last one, Priest, it features Robert Carlyle, the remarkable star of Trainspotting and Hamish Macbeth. Again, the screen is filled with grim council flats and burning cars, but this time the setting is London rather than Liverpool. While Priest was a comparatively gentle exploration of the trials faced by a young Roman Catholic who was also gay, Face is packed with big bangs and shooters.

It's a boy's movie made by a bird - if you'll pardon the pun - which may explain its success: the portrayal of vicious armed robbers as real people - with family troubles, difficult love lives and conflicting principles. These are men whose company you could enjoy in any of the pubs in the East End (Bird's home for 20 years) - ordinary geezers who might be decorators, scaffolders, or murderers. In one scene, Dave - a big, avuncular man with a troublesome teenage daughter - bemoans the younger generation's lack of decency. Everything comes down to money with them, he says, with absolute sincerity, as he assembles a machine gun in preparation for a raid.

"No way do I condone the killing of innocent people, or the use of live ammunition in bank robberies," says Bird. "Who could possibly do that? But at the same time, I'm bored with them being presented as caricatures and monsters. They're human beings, who've got into that position through a series of events, which are predominantly to do with the system we live under, in my opinion."

None of the villains in Face quite holds up their hands and says that it's society wot's to blame, but Carlyle's character - Ray - is a former socialist agitator who suffers flashbacks to police violence at Wapping and the pit-heads a decade previously. He justifies his life of crime as the only way to hit back at an Establishment that cannot be beaten. "We've got to a stage of defeat in this country," says Bird, who uses her whole body to reinforce her words. In her generous, dark-blue shirt, she could have come gasping out of some trendy office like those eating their lunch on the grass around us. A thirtysomething advertising executive, maybe, or the head of a small political charity. "I'm talking about the working classes, and people with left-of-centre politics." That very definitely includes herself, and a number of friends whose life stories, and cynicism, remind her of Ray. Trying hard to offer hope, Bird ends Face on a note of fantasy. as three characters escape the carnage and head north in search of new lives. "In reality you know those three people in that car would be shot to buggery."

There are few women directing films in Britain or America, let alone gangster movies like Face - so would a man have made the film differently? "You can't bunch all men together, or all women, but I'm probably more interested in the whys and wherefores of characters than some male directors are," she says. "It's a film about the guys, but the women are really important: small parts but such strong identities." One of them is Ray's Communist mother, played by Sue Johnston. Her confrontation with Ray, which will resonate with anyone who was involved in the Left during the Thatcher years, was cut from later drafts of the script. Bird, who is now developing a film about the miners' strike, reinstated it.

"Also, there is one crazy, Greek-tragedy scene at the end where the script said Dave's daughter was drugged up and unconscious. I thought it would be much more challenging if you saw that whole situation through her eyes - the pandemonium as her father is killing her boyfriend and then her father is being killed ... this girl's going to go nutty as a result. A man might have had her zonked out on the bed looking gorgeous."

Although she was the only child of an unsuccessful actor, Bird left home at 16 to enter the profession her father had come to hate. She worked as a student assistant stage manager in Coventry, with ambitions to become a director. "I was a pretty teenage girlie, so they thought that was hilarious. That was like a red rag to a bull." Nobody was laughing when Bird became an assistant director at the Royal Court Theatre, working alongside the likes of Edward Bond and Max Stafford-Clark. Nor when Submariners, an anti-nuclear play she directed there, was picked up by the BBC, who let her make it as a Play for Today. "I'd found my medium," she says. "It was like a duck launching off into water for the first time."

Bird worked on the ground-breaking first series of EastEnders and Casualty, and was the only woman ever to direct an episode of Inspector Morse. She won a Bafta for her first BBC film, Safe, and followed it in 1994 with Priest, voted best film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Face was shown this month.

Bird was lured to Hollywood, but Mad Love, a $13m "rather grungy wild look at a first sexual obsession" that she made with Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell, was edited into a "nice clean Disney movie" under pressure from studio executives. They were influenced by the huge campaign waged against Priest by outraged members of the Roman Catholic and other churches in America, who threatened a boycott of Disney. Bird received death threats and hate mail.

Returning home, she was attracted to Face by its script, written by Ronan Bennett, who had spent time on remand in Brixton prison with armed robbers in the late Seventies. She looked for actors who understood the East End, but surprised many people with her choice of Damon Albarn, lead singer of Blur and a native of Leyton-stone, to play Jason, the gang's space- cadet getaway driver. A rock star? Bird laughs. "Damon didn't want to do it unless he was any good, which was a relief. We did a screen test with Ray Winstone, who he drinks with, and found out that he was a natural."

Her obvious affection for the cast reflects her motivation for being a director. "It's about family," she says. "That sounds a bit American doesn't it? I've analysed this a lot, and the only time I'm truly happy is when I'm actually shooting a film. For six to 12 weeks of your life you're intimately, emotion- ally involved with a group of people, spending up to 18 hours a day with them. It's the only time I feel like I belong. I feel completely confident. I was an only child, a very lonely kid. It's like suddenly you've got built-in friends."

! `Face' (18) opens nationwide on 26 Sept.