Offender is a contemporary tale of love, crime and retribution set within the confines of a young offenders unit. Having recently begun post-production, we were lucky enough to get a glimpse of some early scenes before sitting down with director Ron Scalpello and writer/producer Paul Van Carter to chat about the origins of the film and the challenges of the shoot.
HeyUGuys: Could you tell us a little about Offender?
Paul: It’s set around Central London during last year’s riots and concerns a hard-working, working class 20-year-old called Tommy. Some criminals he doesn’t know take the opportunity during the riots to carry out a serious robbery where someone ends up getting killed. The gang in question get away with it but their probation office (who is Tommy’s girlfriend) suspects them and they attack her to keep things quiet. She’s pregnant and loses the baby, and through the trauma of it all, she ends up leaving him.
Tommy decides justice hasn’t been served and he goes after the gang. The only way he can get to them (they’ve since been recalled to a young offenders institute) is the get himself incarcerated in prison. He has to essentially break into prison to carry out this mission of revenge. The system ends up breaking him, though.
Ron: When Paul approached me with the project last year it was a revenge drama set in a prison and we talked heavily about the films of Alan Clarke which inspired me as I was growing up. I always through his work was about the underdog who resisted the status quo and hierarchy. I first saw [Clarke’s] Scum around the age of 15, and I’d never seen a film like it before. At that time I was on the edge of gang culture myself and getting into trouble, and it showed me the brutality of life in a borstal under Thatcher and made me very aware of what a horrible and violent system of incarceration there was for young people.
There have been some great British prison dramas in the past, but unfortunately, there hasn’t been a truly memorable one for the last decade or so, and there was a feeling amongst us that there wasn’t a contemporary version of what is happening in that system. It’s an emotional story about a boy who loses everything. I was interested in exploring the revenge theme and people who give up their lives to do it.
Paul: We didn’t just want to make an update of Clarke’s film, we wanted to do something fresh which would engage our audience and those classic storylines of revenge, martyrdom and obsession was a way of entertaining a modern audience whilst tacking those themes.
Ron: The most challenging aspect of that had to do with the schedule. I think most people will be surprised with what we’ve achieved with the resources we had. It was always a question of if you have untrained actors, how quick can they get to a performance on the day with the tight schedule we had, so that was always on my mind. I think with the cast we have, it’s a really interesting ensemble with some of the best young actors around. Our lead Joe Cole, who has been in Skin, was interesting because there’s softness, man/boy nature about him. I didn’t want to go for a brutish figure – I wanted to show someone who had sensitivity and frailty, but also the ability to go into places of rage.
Some of the guys who came in hadn’t gone to drama school and there was an authenticity there and I referenced the likes of [Darren] Aronofsky’s The Wrestler where that was key. Cinema is about faces and a face tells of experiences. It wasn’t stunt casting, but a lot of the actors have come from those worlds.
Paul: We filmed for three weeks in a prison set which was purposely built and Ron wanted to create an atmosphere where they had screws that were intimidating, ensuring the actors were in character all the time. The wings of the prison were a 360-degree environment, so you could swing the camera around or run up stairs and suddenly enter cells. We had real convicts onboard, kids who’d been in Feltham, and they were walking around and reliving that in the freezing cold of February.
Did you write the script before the riots, factored that in at a later date, or did the idea come afterwards?
Paul: I wrote it about 16 months ago and the original idea was to produce an update of Scum. There are a lot of issues which can be explored there. I did a lot of research with a friend of mine who had spent a lot of time in Feltham as a teenager. He’s still only 21 years old but he was a valuable resource in terms of his tales of corruption and what it’s like in that environment – those first moments in prison and even when you’re in the holding cell in the courts.
It wasn’t until the end of last year when we thought about the riots and using them within the script, really on the outside of the story and to kick-start the narrative, and then how that fed through to the later part of the movie in the prison. It wasn’t really for commercial reasons or an exploitative thing to cash in on the riots. It really just made sense since the prison uptake was up 900 per cent in Feltham following the riots.
The riots themselves exist only as a three-minute section in the film, but it is a theme which runs throughout because what’s fascinating, and what I was hearing from my friends in those prisons, was there were kids going in for stealing a pair of trainers and even cans of pop and they were having to join gangs because they were being victimised and bullied. It’s not a cool thing in prison to have rioted and looted. You’ve messed up your fellow inmate’s neighbourhoods.
Paul: I’m really happy with what we’re got so far. We’re hoping to do a world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in mid-September and get it into competition as well.
Ron: When they approached me with the project last year they wanted to up the ante and Paul really let me go for it and that’s fantastic as a director. I think they’re [Revolver] a really dynamic company and making the films they want to make. It’s about bringing in new talent.
Paul: It’s also about not losing sight that the film industry is a business and you have to make it for the investors and yourself, but that also comes twined with creativity and I’m always pushing directors to be bold and ambitious and that’s what has been great with working with Ron.