Cinema: Drunk and wasted in south London

Gary Oldman has gone back to his roots for his directorial debut, and it's a tough tale of drink, drugs and dysfunction. By Simon Tiffin

A recent report on urban renewal described south-east London as a "forgotten town". Developments, such as Millwall Football Club's New Den ground and a massive branch of Sainsbury's, are prestige projects that do little to assuage 25 per cent unemployment in parts of Thamesmead and New Cross. Growing up in this part of London is hard - you can forget the cosy veneer of Albert Square or the happy-go-lucky attitude of Alfie. Domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism are more likely plot lines than allotments or sexual adventure.

Nil by Mouth is Gary Oldman's directorial debut and it is, to all intents and purposes, a dramatised account of his own childhood south of the river. Although the publicity machine is not yet in full swing, Oldman has agreed to meet me on a Sunday afternoon in his small rented flat - he's looking for something bigger - in Kensington. He is obviously excited, eager to talk about the project, and even turns down the volume of the Bible-and-Romans movie he is watching when I arrive.

"I was always aware as a kid that there was more to life than working in a sport shop in Peckham and going to pubs. I was literally pushed into the pub, just to stand at the bar and drink beer. If you wanted peer approval, then that's what you did," Oldman says.

"I wanted to write about something I understood," Oldman says. "I've written a lot of stuff before that hasn't been based in south London because a great part of my life has been in America. But if I had to come out of the gate as a director, this always had to be the one. I probably could have made a film set in New York, and I could have got a few big stars and it would have been a much more easier journey and made a lot more money. But I think south London will always draw me back. This neighbourhood and these people - who, despite the poverty and the 'forgotten' label, have a resilience and humour that keeps them going. I don't think I've ever seen south London portrayed like that on film."

What is portrayed on film is, as Oldman puts it, a "bare-knuckle" account of dysfunction, addiction and alcoholism. Cinema has recently exploited these subjects in films like Leaving Las Vegas and Trainspotting, but Oldman is not overly impressed. Of Nicolas Cage's character in Vegas, he says: "I don't know anyone who drinks that much who is alive and so charming. I mean, in reality you'd be bleeding from the arse. I've got a vested interest in this subject, I've been there. I've watched a lot of people suffer in their lives and die from it. I think we tend to romanticise these things and I wanted to take the gloss off." Nil by Mouth has been described by Eric Clapton (who has written an impressive score for it) as "the perfect depiction of what it's like to be an alcoholic. It is one of the finest films I've ever seen."

Oldman has staked a lot on his first film. He sunk his own money into the project - "I never intended to invest as much of my own money as I'm doing. But I didn't want to have to shoot the whole film in 19 days" - and he returns to a country which has been far from kind to him. The British don't quite know what to make of Oldman and, instead of praising his status as a challenger to the American leading-man hegemony of Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp, they revert to tall-poppy syndrome. "The press in Britain is very hostile towards me," says Oldman. "As Nic Roeg once said: 'They're letting you enjoy a bit of a peak here, dear boy. You wait, give it another six months and they'll want to see what you've got.' And it's true. I was the blue-eyed boy of the theatre, and then I did a few films, and ... "

The film won't be out in this country for some time - it premieres at Cannes next month. But photographs taken on set and around the locations can be seen at the Photographers' Gallery in London. Oldman briefed the photographer, Jack English, not to produce "outside-the-Odeon film stills" but to take risks. "It's a dirty subject, so I wanted the pictures to have a dirty feel to them," says English. " We had a meeting in his office in New Cross and I immediately felt connected to what Gary was trying to do." The two became close friends, and English will be taking the outside-the-Odeon stills when Oldman plays Zachary Smith in the feature- film version of the old television series, Lost in Space.

English was also drawn to the subject-matter: "It's not just about alcoholism and drug addiction. I wanted the photographs to capture the whole nature of dysfunction. How these families always come back together - the battered wives, the neglected kids - so the dysfunctional ways just continue. They are passed on from generation to generation."

This father-to-son legacy is captured particularly well in one photograph. The black-and- white shot was taken in a prefab pub on a council estate. In it, a man is standing at a fruit machine cradling his tiny baby: "It was 5.30 on a Sunday afternoon. There was a karaoke going on and everyone was out of it," says English. "It was horrendous. I found it really sad, hopeless."

English's photographs are intense and tough to look at; he has not attempted to glamorise any aspect of his subject. The junkies look like the living dead, not a collection of fun-loving juveniles; the drinking is solitary and desperate; and the locations are desolate squats. The images are often blurred and the lighting minimal - this is not a subject that responds well to sharp focus or clarity. Like the film, most of which was shot on a zoom, English used a long lens: "This enabled me get the same feel as the movie. I wanted to portray the futility and loss of dignity. Every photograph is like looking inside yourself ... I don't really know, to be honest. I don't want to sound like a fucking artist, I was just doing what felt right."

! 'Nil by Mouth' (no cert) will be released in Britain later in the year. Some of Jack English's photographs are currently at the Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (0171 831 1772), for sale and in limited-edition book form; a larger show is planned to coincide with the film's screening at Cannes in May.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road