Entertainment & Arts

Morrissey movie director: 'We don't want to upset him'

The Smiths Image copyright Press Agency/REX/Shutterstock
Image caption The film, England Is Mine, ends when The Smiths were born

As subjects for music biopics go, there can be few trickier than Morrissey, the idolised, enigmatic, prickly former frontman of The Smiths. However, that reputation did not deter an Oscar-nominated film-maker who grew up down the road from the singer.

Morrissey has a funny place in British culture - he's an aloof national treasure whose melodramatic croon and pithy pop poetry are burned into the hearts of millions, yet whose hallowed status has been somewhat eroded in recent years thanks to his outspoken online rants.

Despite all that, there are plenty of people who are wary of an attempt to tell his story in fictionalised form, who are fiercely protective of him and his band, and who see it as sacred ground.

"I just have to ignore them," says Mark Gill, who has directed and co-written England Is Mine, the movie about the singer's pre-fame years.

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Media captionEngland Is Mine: Morrissey's early life explored

Gill grew up less than a mile from Morrissey's house in Stretford, Manchester, and, like countless other 1980s music fans, was "obsessed" with The Smiths. So he was desperate to be the one to tell Morrissey's story.

"I wanted to make this film and I was determined that if anyone was going to cock it up, it would be me."

England Is Mine follows Morrissey from moping mop-topped teenager to bequiffed budding idol. It ends when he meets future bandmate Johnny Marr.

The consensus seems to be that Gill hasn't cocked it up, while the director says he thinks he has created "something really special".

Gill became a fan of The Smiths after being given their first LP at the age of 15. But his dad wouldn't let his teenage son travel into Manchester to see them live before they split up in 1987.

"My dad loathes The Smiths," he says. "He absolutely cannot stand them. He used to come in and say, 'Turn that off.'"

Image copyright Essoldo Pictures
Image caption The film ends when Morrissey (Jack Lowden, left) meets Johnny Marr (Laurie Kynaston)

So what does Mr Gill senior make of the fact his son has directed his debut feature film about them?

"Who knows what he thinks. He probably thinks, when am I going to stop with this band?"

The release of England Is Mine comes three years after Gill and producing partner Baldwin Li were nominated for an Oscar for best live action short.

Gill says he and England Is Mine co-writer William Thacker tried to strip away the persona that Morrissey has created since finding fame.

Image copyright Essoldo Pictures
Image caption Scottish actor Lowden plays the young Steven Patrick Morrissey
Image copyright PA
Image caption It is a remarkable transformation for Lowden, who plays a Spitfire pilot on Dunkirk

"We wanted to make him just a very human character," the director says. "I kept saying we weren't making a film about Morrissey.

"It was about this young kid, and despite the fact he goes on to be somebody of great importance artistically, he did start out as a normal teenage kid going through the same sort of stuff that the rest of us have gone through.

"In a sense it relieved us all of that pressure of making a film about an icon, because we weren't. He goes on to do that. To me, the more interesting thing was the journey towards that.

"I grew up in Stretford in the '80s and it wasn't a ghetto by any stretch of the imagination, but if you were slightly different, the pack closes in on you.

"And Morrissey was very different, 10 years previously. So I often think, how did he survive?"

Image copyright Essoldo Pictures
Image caption Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay plays Morrissey's friend Linder Sterling

Steven Patrick Morrissey is played by Jack Lowden, who can also be seen currently in a very different role - that of a World War II Spitfire pilot in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk.

At 27, Lowden was born three years after The Smiths split up and was not a particular fan before he landed this role.

"Obviously I knew of him and I knew the reputation he had of being quite morose," Lowden says. "And the script was so funny for me that I thought, we have to go for this."

It was "freeing" to think only about those early years and not the singer's later image, the actor says.

"You cannot play a guy in the early part of his life if you're constantly aware of what he went on to become. And I think it did help that I was a Smiths virgin."

Image copyright Orian Williams
Image caption Director Mark Gill: "You don't have to be into The Smiths and Morrissey. But it helps."

Gill says he has not been in touch with the real Morrissey directly, but that the film-makers have "done everything we can to be respectful".

He says: "We don't want to upset him. And you'll see it's not that type of film."

In recent years, Morrissey's most prominent forays into the public eye have been in the form of outspoken interviews and blogs.

As well as his zealous protection of animal rights - his favourite subject - he also raised eyebrows with comments about politics, the royal family, the media and Islam.

To some his candid views are refreshing. Others find him increasingly unsavoury.

Image copyright Essoldo Pictures
Image caption Much of the film was shot on location in Stretford

"You can separate the person from the art I think," Gill says when asked what he thinks of Morrissey now. "He says some things which you just laugh out loud at and there are other things I don't agree with, but that's the same with anybody.

"But one thing I do like about him is that he is one of the only artists who has consistently remained authentic. I don't see any difference between some of the things he says now and some of the things he said in The Smiths.

"His views may have hardened or softened in certain directions, but nowadays it's incredibly rare for somebody like that to speak his mind. Who else does that? Nobody."

So what if Morrissey launches one of his famous tirades against this new film and its makers?

"I'll frame it," Gill replies with a smile. "Nothing's going to change - the film's coming out.

"It would have been nice to have a conversation directly to say, 'This is what I'm doing. Trust me.'"

England Is Mine is out in the UK on 4 August.

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