Nick Love is rubbing his hands with glee as he walks, at pace, past Rotten Tomatoes UK. He’s no desire to have a conversation; he just wants to make one point clear. With an evil grin on his face, he turns to us as he walks… “The guilty will be punished,” he says.
In the beaming heat of a full summer sun Rotten Tomatoes has come to Gloucestershire to visit the set of Love’s latest film, Outlaw, his attempt to vocalise, on screen, the country’s growing sense of malaise about the state of our criminal justice system. The guilty are set free, the innocent punished, and Nick Love is certain he’s not the only man on earth who thinks there are problems with that picture.
Five minutes prior to his conspiratorial aside we watch him instruct Sean Harris to take a pickaxe handle from Rupert Friend’s hand and use it to do a good deal of damage to Jamie MacDermott and Tom White, respectively the film’s first and second assistant directors. Cameras are rolling but given the subjects experiencing the beating we feel compelled to check whether this scene is actually in the film.
Fortunately for them it is, and Harris’ pickaxe handle is made of foam rubber. We get scolded by the props department picking one up to confirm this, but it’s their own fault; even at close range it’s entirely convincing and even though the impact sounds reassure us they’re not solid wood there’s a genuine sense of tension in the air as Harris (nicknamed “Bomber” on set for reasons that are quickly becoming apparent) lets loose on his victims.
Harris and Friend are two members of Love’s Outlaw gang, a group of vigilantes who form when run-ins with criminals make them realise that the police force is not interested in supporting victims of crime. MacDermott and White are taking on the roles of homophobic thugs who beat up Rupert Friend’s character as he leaves a nightclub. This scene is about Friend’s act of revenge, but hesitation forces him to hand the task over to Harris.
In the background, the remainder of the gang; Sean Bean is the soldier, fresh home from a tour of Iraq, who spurs this band into existence, Lennie James is the barrister whose wife has been threatened by the organised criminals he’s attempting to put away, Danny Dyer the affluent husband whose wedding day is disrupted when a gang on thugs chase him. And on the inside, Bob Hoskins is the police officer with nothing to show for years of loyal service who keeps the posse off the radar as much as possible.
“The shoot’s going brilliantly,” says Love when we catch up with him later in the day, “The big stuff, we’ve smashed straight through it. We’ve had a big shoot-out and we’ve done a massive riot scene and it’s all gone brilliantly. Sam, our camera operator, is on another f*cking level; he’s been fantastic.”
When we quiz him about the torture we’ve just witnessed on set he’s scarily blasé as only Nick Love can be. “Just some thugs getting battered,” he says matter-of-factly, “Every day it seems we’ve got a battering on this film. These are the thugs that beat up the public schoolboy, Rupert’s character, and he can’t go through with it because he’s not a violent person.”
A brief detour to January 2006 – six months before we’re brought on set – and RT-UK meets with Love the week his last film, The Business, is released on DVD. Love isn’t concerned about the release – his films always do well on DVD – he’s just desperate to get cracking on Outlaw. “This happened, ultimately, because where I got to was I thought, ‘What am I going to regret if I don’t do?'” he explains. “Even though it’ll be a hard film to make and even thought it’s a big challenge and a big undertaking to make it, I feel I would regret it in five years time if I didn’t do it. Outlaw is about the state of England now.”
Back on the set, and the enthusiasm he had for the project seems only to have been strengthened now his script is going in front of the cameras. “It’s taken on a different level to the script. Not that we’re not doing the script as written but it’s taken on much more gravitas on set. There’s poignancy that hasn’t been in my other work. Charlie Bright is different, but the black comedies of The Business and The Football Factory, they are what they are. This is a serious film and I think when you come to shoot it you realise how serious the subject is.”
This is the first Nick Love set we’ve visited and it’s clear he runs a pretty tight ship, but on one of the hottest days of the summer he’s game to gather his crew together on some tarmac for a bit of a kick-around as soon as he calls lunch. Watching the football, Rupert Friend and girlfriend Keira Knightley – who’s come along in her break from Pirates of the Caribbean to keep him company – are lazing on a wall. And an hour later Love is ready to move right onto the next scene and his crew quickly get straight back to work.
This is a dedicated bunch; some of the finest costumers, camera operators and technicians working in British film mixed with fresh-faced talent both in front and behind the camera, given a chance to experience first-hand the trials and tribulations of life on a film set courtesy of the work ethic at play within Vertigo Films. Established in 2002 straight from the success of his debut feature Goodbye Charlie Bright, Love, with producers James Richardson, Rupert Preston and Allan Niblo, envisioned a full-service independent production and distribution company where he could make the films he wanted to make on his own terms.
The enormous success of Vertigo-produced films The Football Factory, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, The Business and Dirty Sanchez has ensured the company is well equipped to be a serious player, and this year sees the release no fewer than five films under the Vertigo banner and the launch of a revolutionary new filmmaking experiment in association with MySpace in which the public is encouraged to contribute to a feature film at every stage of development.
Of course making films the way he wants to make them mean there’s no studio “safety net” for Love when it comes to the more controversial aspects of his work; The Football Factory courted controversy for its portrayal of hooligans, The Business for its violence and drug use, and even before shooting commenced on Outlaw the film was forbidden for filming at any of Gloucestershire’s churches. But Love takes it in his stride. “It’s bound to court controversy,” he says, “these are topics people are talking about. And the film isn’t shot in a Ken Loach way – it’s high-contrast, darkly lit… I’ve always tried to shoot my films very cinematically and in some ways that seems even more a glorification than if were shot in a handheld, 16 mil gritty way.”
But Love acknowledges that, ultimately, he’s not been the victim of the sort of injustices experienced by his characters. “I live a very charmed life,” he laughs, “I’m a f*cking film director – let’s not put it out of context – and I live on a very quiet estate in the country. There’s politics involved in the film because it’s about the breakdown of society, but it’s much more about individualism. It’s more about these characters that come together.”
By early evening the sun is starting to ebb away, shooting has been completed inside the warehouse set the production has commandeered and we’ve moved outside to throw MacDermott and White out of a van. It’s clearly a bad day to be an assistant director on a Nick Love set.
Not required in the scene, Danny Dyer keeps us company behind the camera and as the van careens past us, tyres screeching, he strikes up a conversation. “I’ve been looking forward to doing this for a while,” he enthuses, “it’s Nick Love, my f*cking partner in crime. There’s no-one quite like us in British filmmaking. And we’ve gone straight in the deep end. It’s a f*cking joy.”
The film may still be in production but we can’t help but joke with Dyer about the potential for another of his and Love’s famous commentary tracks when the DVD arrives – the tracks recorded for The Business and The Football Factory mixed plenty of references to the making of those films with cheeky jokes to one another. “I’d love to get the Beano involved on this one,” smiles Dyer, “have a three-hander, with us giving it to him about his Northern accent and all that. I’d love to see how he handles that!”
But the film is due its time on the big screen before we get to that. Cut to six months later, a few days before Christmas, and RT-UK reunite with Love in a Central London screening room to watch the film for the first time. He introduces a fully-finished but digitally-projected version – he’d have preferred to show it on film – to a group of friends and peers.
And after the film a shell-shocked crowd emerge; this is heavy-going stuff. “It’s pretty relentless and there’s a lot to take in,” Sean Bean tells RT-UK later, having had the same reaction on his first viewing. “There are so many different issues that it deals with and it just sort-of rolls along and smashes you in the face. I really enjoyed it.”
Love is thrilled with how the film turned out and with the reactions he’s getting from people. “I’m really proud of it,” he says, “I think it’s got things to say which I think my other films have lacked in the past. It’s much darker than I originally anticipated it would be but I think the subject matter makes it darker and I think its social relevance has made it darker as well.”
Further to his observation that the film took on more relevance during the shoot, Love claims that a lot of work in the editing room shaped a better film. “I took out a lot of the more lad-ish humour in order to make it more of a dark, murky thriller. But I absolutely feel like everything I did was the right thing.”
Of course, its more controversial aspects are, now that the film is being shown to the media, coming to the fore. “The film’s getting vilified by some of the press at the moment, they think it’s right-wing propaganda or whatever. Ultimately I think the film treads a very fine moral line about whether it’s condemning their actions or condoning them and I think that’s a good thing about the film. It’s not saying one thing or the other and people are responding to that.”
As any filmmaker knows, though, 30 seconds away from a project and you’re as good as unemployed. That thinking ensures Love is already thinking ahead, and this time he’s bringing out the big guns, tackling the big-screen adaptation of classic cop show The Sweeney as part of a joint venture between Vertigo and 20th Century Fox. “It is a studio film, but at the moment they’re just claiming we can get on and do our own thing,” Love explains, clearly excited to get to work reviving such a classic. “and while it’s a big international operation ultimately it’s going to be a British production with a British cast. I’m going to France next week, actually the day Outlaw comes out, to start writing it.”
Outlaw is out in UK cinemas on Friday 9th March.