Rage against the machine

The campaigning Irish journalist at the centre of John Mackenzie's new film may seem worlds away from the gangsters of The Long Good Friday. Not at all, the director tells Geoffrey Macnab. All his films have one thing in common: people who don't take no for an answer
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You can tell that John Mackenzie used to be a teacher. When he talks about the characters from his films, he sounds as if he is summing up their school careers. Harold Shand, the stocky, barrel-chested gangster boss from The Long Good Friday was "a leader, a planner, tremendously ambitious," even if he did hang the occasional rival from a meat hook. Jimmy Boyle, the Glasgow enforcer turned sculptor in A Sense of Freedom, was "a man of tremendous abilities who would have been a captain of industry if he started from the right track."

You can tell that John Mackenzie used to be a teacher. When he talks about the characters from his films, he sounds as if he is summing up their school careers. Harold Shand, the stocky, barrel-chested gangster boss from The Long Good Friday was "a leader, a planner, tremendously ambitious," even if he did hang the occasional rival from a meat hook. Jimmy Boyle, the Glasgow enforcer turned sculptor in A Sense of Freedom, was "a man of tremendous abilities who would have been a captain of industry if he started from the right track."

Veronica Guerin, the journalist whose story he tells in his new feature, When the Sky Falls, "wanted to be a star, but she was socially committed as well." There are key differences between the Guerin character (called Sinead Hamilton in the film) and hard men such as Shand and Boyle. For a start, Guerin is a woman. (That, Mackenzie says, is why he wanted to take on the project.) She's also on the right side of the law. It's her adversaries - the Dublin drugs bosses and terrorists - who remind you of Bob Hoskins strutting his way through the Isle of Dogs.

Still, the director insists, the comparison stands. Just as Boyle fought the prison system to a standstill ("there's no coffin built I can't climb out of"), the defiant and single-minded journalist refuses to be cowed by hitmen, IRA bully boys or bitchy fellow hacks. "This was a fantastically gutsy character," enthuses Mackenzie. "She had spirit and guts, lived dangerously, optimistically... It's sort of like how I function - I like people who just go for it."

Mackenzie, a bearded, genial, sixtysomething lowland Scot, clucks disapprovingly at the suggestion he sometimes risks glamorising thugs. In his films, he insists, characters are always shown "in the round". Nobody is ever simply hero or villain. Thus, in The Long Good Friday, we see Bob Hoskins set about a man with a broken bottle. In A Sense of Freedom, we see Boyle slash someone's face. The new film has its quota of grisly moments too: a drug dealer's hand is mashed to pulp, a delinquent heroin addict is beaten to death, a police officer set alight. Again, Mackenzie refuses simply to condemn the aggressors. "Rather than say these are disgusting people, it important to understand them and see the other side of them. That doesn't mean you applaud the violence. I show it in a way that is quite powerful but shouldn't be titillating. Pain hurts, bullets blow your brains out."

Nor does When the Sky Falls paint a gilded picture of Guerin herself. "There are lots of things wrong with her. I wanted that to be brought out. I wanted to say that, at times, she was intemperate. At times, she went too far. At times, she endangered herself. Maybe she didn't give enough thought to her family or her child. I wanted all the faults there - and all the virtues."

As the final credits begin to roll, a photograph of Guerin - the crime correspondent of the Sunday Independent murdered in June 1996 - appears on screen. She looks uncannily like Joan Allen, the American actress who plays her. That, Mackenzie insists, was sheer coincidence - "an added bonus," as he puts it. He cast Allen because he felt she could capture "the spirit" of the journalist. "And actually, Joan doesn't look that much like her. Veronica Guerin was quite stalwart-looking, she was quite a tough looking lady, attractive but really quite tough, whereas Joan is much more slender and swan-like - in normal circumstances, you wouldn't have said there's a dead ringer."

Mackenzie gets testy when asked why he hired US stars rather than Irish actors for the two main roles. (Patrick Bergin appears alongside Allen as a woebegone Dublin cop reduced to planting evidence.) It was his decision, not front-office pressure. "I cast my own way and if they say you can't do that, then I walk." He had no worries about the actors' abilities to get their Irish accents right. "Anybody can do that. You don't have to be born in the depths of Derry."

When the Sky Falls has had a difficult gestation. Mackenzie wasn't the only one interested in making a film about Guerin: Jerry Bruckheimer and actress Winona Ryder were also circling the project. By the time Mackenzie became involved, there was already a draft screenplay, developed back in 1995 by journalist and theatre director Michael Sheridan, who had worked with Guerin at the Sunday Independent. Mackenzie claims that the original screenplay was "a Z-Cars interpretation" of Guerin's story, "poorly structured and badly written." He adopts an ironical tone of voice: "It was very nice Sheridan knowing Victoria Guerin... not very well, actually."

Mackenzie hired the novelist Colum McCann to rework it. McCann, Mackenzie insists, is the "real" writer of When the Sky Falls, even if his name only appears third on the credits. "That's the vagaries of how unjust a world we live in."

Just as The Long Good Friday portrayed London on the cusp of Thatcherism, When the Sky Falls depicts the underbelly of the new, booming Dublin. It offers an anatomy of the city in the Nineties, with its colourful panoply of characters - drug barons, crooks, club owners, overworked police officers, mercenary newspaper publishers and street kids. Keen to avoid the pitfalls of the conventional, hidebound biopic, Mackenzie kept contact with Guerin's relatives to a minimum. "I never met the husband and I never met any of the family. It's Veronica's story, but it's fictionalised. I don't know what he said to her in the dim regions of their bedroom."

The surprise is how little controversy the film has so far caused. Hugh Linehan of the Irish Times notes that "It's a major film in Ireland in a way it wouldn't be anywhere else, but even here there hasn't been much protest. I did see some half-baked tabloid story on the news-stand about some members of her family (not including her husband) being negative about the film. It was the usual kind of thing - that it was exploitative of her story and that kind of thing. But there has been no response from him (her husband) as far as I know."

Ironically, stirring people up - doing the "wrong" thing - is exactly what Mackenzie enjoys doing. And t'was ever thus. He served his apprenticeship in late-Sixties TV alongside Ken Loach. And though he retains the social commitment that characterised the films they made in those days, he admits he found Loach "a bit pamphleteering... his approach was wonderful to watch and learn from - and then move away from."

He took jobs that Loach would never have touched, directing big-budget thrillers such as The Honorary Consul (with a very young Richard Gere) and The Fourth Protocol. He worked in Hollywood. And no, it wasn't a case of striking some Faustian pact with the studio system. "You get really committed film-makers who'll back you. There was a whole corps of real professionals, not mean-minded like..."

His voice tails off. What was he about to say? The British?

Don't mention Oliver Stone to him, though. When he was making his 1992 film Ruby, he discovered that Stone's "people" (who were shortly to shoot JFK) had tried to cajole, bully and even bribe Dallas authorities, politicians and limousine car hire firms to prevent him from using the locations or services he needed. Ruby was finished long before JFK, but for reasons Mackenzie has yet to fathom, the distributors (PolyGram) refused to release it until after Stone's movie. It wasn't much of a surprise to anyone that it belly-flopped.

Mackenzie's fascination with hard men and what makes them tick doesn't quite extend to 007. He was given the opportunity by Cubby Broccoli to direct one of the Timothy Dalton Bond films, "but I wanted to deal with big issues, social issues - they weren't interested in that. And it would be terribly boring to direct. You'd just sit around waiting for explosions. I haven't got enough time for that."

There promises to be yet more violence in his next mooted project, a film about the aftermath of Culloden, in which Robbie Carlyle is likely to star. "I know we've had Braveheart and Rob Roy," Mackenzie admits, "but there's tremendous interest." He wants to show what Culloden did to the Highlands: "what it did to a race, really. The guts have been knocked out of them... I think Culloden and the Highland Clearances did that."

In the meantime, the director is keen to gauge the response to When the Sky Falls. "We had Special Branch people on the set just in case somebody came to shoot me," he exclaims, clearly delighted that at least some people, somewhere, still think his films have the ability to provoke.

'When the Sky Falls' is released 16 June

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