Chill out... we're only having a laugh

Mary McGuckian tells Genevieve Roberts her film Rag Tale was a 'gentle poke' at tabloids and certainly not intended to raise journalists' hackles
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The Independent Online

When Mary McGuckian created Rag Tale, a black comedy marking the first in an amorality trilogy, she thought she was having a "gentle poke" at the world of tabloid newspapers.

She expected a degree of speculation about the identities of the characters, with critics pointing out - as they have - that the proprietor Richard Mason shares his initials with an omnipresent media mogul, that mocked-up photos precipitating the downfall of an editor is reminiscent of certain events at the Daily Mirror. When the film was screened in Cannes, Piers Morgan was left warding off hundreds of calls for comment.

But McGuckian had not anticipated the hostility it would provoke. She got her first inkling as soon as she gave a private viewing to some journalist and public relations friends.

A close confidante, who works in PR, told her that for the first hour and a half he thought he was watching the best British comedy he had seen in years. But after that, he told her, "I started to feel sick. At one point I thought I was going to vomit. It's not a gentle poke at tabloids, it's a bloody sledgehammer."

"Rather naïvely we thought that the tabloids would get the joke and not take it personally," McGuckian says, her Ulster accent still prevalent despite years spent living in France with her husband, the actor John Lynch.

She was surprised by the suggestion that actors hate journalists because journalists hate actors. "I've heard that," she says. "I do not know that many journalists, but I do know a lot of actors, and it is not my experience. This is a perception that a particular group of journalists seem to have because they have been having a go for so long that they can only assume that actors hate them. We were very careful not to cast actors who may have an axe to grind against the press." The cast, including Rupert Graves as the editor, Jennifer Jason Leigh as his deputy and Lucy Davis as the editor's PA, all collaborated on the film, in which the script is predominantly improvised.

McGuckian also discussed the film with Chris Horrie, author of Stick it Up Your Punter! (the celebrated account of life at Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun) and Carl Bernstein, whose part in the Watergate crisis inspired the book and film All the President's Men. "I wanted to say something about how the press goes for someone in this celebrity culture. Bernstein has a particular issue about the dumbing down of the media. He looked at the overall thesis of the piece."

But unlike All the President's Men, Rag Tale is not intended to be a historical film. Nor is it intended to have the accuracy of a documentary. "You do not get acres of press coverage on doctors saying how unlike reality [the TV programme] ER is," she says. "The public is expected to understand that this is drama and dramatic licence is taken."

But, she says, it is "emotionally and comedically authentic". It sets out to say something about the power of the tabloid press, which has the power to create a prime minister or break a chief executive's career.

The criticism that she is quick to acknowledge is perfectly justified is the camera work, which Jason Solomons in The Observer said "tests the patience" and The People described as similar to "talking to a drunk regional journalist on a deck of a sinking ship in a thunderstorm".

"That's fair enough," McGuckian says. "It is shot in an experimental way, it's a creative criticism." But she thinks that criticising a film for not being authentic is a "cheap shot" when it sets itself farcically from the top, by calling itself The Rag.

The only thing that has upset McGuckian is when the attacks have got too personal. She looks momentarily serious as she says, "There was a review saying there are two things journalists and actors have in common - being dishonest and being drunkards - but one thing we do not have in common, actors are dumb. That's vicious, very personal and over the top. While we may take newspapers seriously, or we may not at times, a film does not ask to be taken seriously. It is essentially just a piece of entertainment."

McGuckian, who directed The Bridge of San Luis Rey, starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, and Best, about George Best and starring her husband, says that if she were to relaunch Rag Tale, she would change the way it was presented to the press when she realised they were not going to see it as "a bit of a laugh. It needed perception management, to tell people that it is a strong film and they may find themselves taking it seriously, but it is not intended to be taken seriously."

It will be interesting to see how she presents the rest of the film trilogy. The second part is called Funny Farm, which is about debunking Anglo-American therapy language and will feature the same cast as Rag Tale. The third will be about the "pecking order of Hollywood egos", producers suing each other over their credits - size and order of credits is such an issue - while their film is not being made." She will no doubt be putting perception management into play so she does not alienate herself from Hollywood.