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
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The Independent Culture
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.