When I talked to Gary Oldman at last fall's Toronto Film Festival, I praised the dialogue of his directing debut, Nil by Mouth. Maybe I didn't expect someone trained exclusively as an actor to write so eloquently.
Oldman, thoughtful and very personable, disagreed. "It helped to be an actor when writing. If a line didn't sit well in my mouth, I'd reject it.
"I've had to write on some of my past films out of sheer necessity, saving my ass. On The Scarlet Letter, I wrote my own sermon. That was a cumbersome thing to have to do. On Sid and Nancy, we all improvised, wrote, threw dialogue around.
"I don't know if I could write a novel, or even a review. But a lot of intelligent actors are very good at writing dialogue. Martin Amis said, 'Let's face it. Dialogue for most writers is like coasting downhill.' "
What was his motivation for conceiving Nil by Mouth?
"I'd seen films about London of which I said, 'I don't believe a fucking word!' I wanted to make a film about the neighborhood in which I grew up, something honest, believable, and which didn't patronize the people just because they have the wrong wallpaper."
The dialogue of Nil by Mouth is very specific to New Cross, Oldman's working-class birthplace in South London, where he toiled as a sales clerk for a sporting-goods shop when training to become an actor.
"It's cockney!" he explained. "It's so colorful! Criminals invented this cockney slang so they could talk in code and be understood.
"The film is a love letter to my family, my dad. Usually when I'm making a movie, they ask, 'Is Sean Connery in it?' If I do something with Michael Caine, then I've made it. But this time, my family has been overwhelmingly impressed. My mother said of Nil by Mouth, 'It's true to life,' which is the best compliment I could get."
A lot of the talk, I told him, will elude Americans. Was subtitling considered?
"We didn't get subtitles in England for GoodFellas. There'll be no subtitles, I'm afraid. In my arrogance, I have to say, 'Fuck the world!' It's like watching Shakespeare. It all sounds like gobbledygook for the first 10 minutes, you just have to work."
I admitted I didn't even understand the film's title. Another Britishism?
"In a hospital, a patient before surgery isn't supposed to have food or liquid. You'll see a sign in the room: 'Nil by Mouth.' "
Oldman's script originally was called Smoke, a historical nickname, he said, given to London as a 19th-century industrial town. He sat with that title for years, and then Wayne Wang's film opened with the same name. So Oldman changed over to Nil by Mouth, which he felt could be taken ironically, to mean "no communication skills," to suggest something abusive. "It's sort of a second-best title," he conceded.
Had he considered using name actors in his film? Perhaps himself?
"I put a considerable amount of my own money into this film, which I don't recommend. I would have financed it much easier if I were in it. But I'm a bit tired of acting, having done it for 20 years. I didn't want anyone known, even an actor as good as Tim Roth, anyone with a film résumé. The film should be a naked, raw kind of experience. I wanted 'potato people,' including a mix of amateurs. The woman playing Billy's mum had never acted before. The casting was a case where an actor would walk in, read for me, and I'd say, 'You've got the job.' "
But Oldman didn't want it misunderstood that "potato people" implies his cast is unattractive.\ "To me, Kathy Burke, who plays the mother, Valerie, is very beautiful. I must say that I had a bit of a crush on her when making the movie."
I asked Oldman to describe his shoot.
"I set aside three weeks for rehearsals. Those long scenes are like a play. But I wanted things loosely structured, more like jazz. Though there was very little improv on screen, sometimes we'd improvise, rev up, to get the energy before shooting. One rule that I broke was that you need to leave a little air between people's lines, that you can't overlap dialogue because you'll clip words on a cut. But you can overlap dialogue, even though editors don't like it. Otherwise, it's your turn to talk, my turn.
"Another thing: I used only one camera! I'd say to the cameraman, 'I need it from this angle!' From my brief association with Isabella Rossellini, I got a new appreciation of Pasolini, and how he was religious about where the camera should go, whether it was too high, too low. I would ask questions on the set, quietly: 'For this emotion, is the camera angle too wide, is the camera too low?' I wanted night to look like night! I bullied the cameraman a bit until he got into the swing. You could pick up the light meter and say, seeing how little light, 'You've got to be fucking joking!' "
Oldman is happy to list influences. "Early Ken Loach, Rossellini, Cassavetes, they're all swimming around in there. I'm a bit of an old-fashioned boy. I like old-fashioned stuff, and I don't think you could make a film like this without a tradition behind it. But there's also a signature there, my energy in the direction and camera. I guess it's how I see the world!"
(Boston Phoenix, March 9, 1998)