Interview: Mick Jackson – Denial

He directed “The Bodyguard”, “L.A. Story”, “Volcano”, and was one of the first film directors to embrace prestige TV projects with HBO such as “Temple Grandin”, now Mick Jackson has returned to the big screen to tackle a very relevant social justice theme – the truth. “Denial” is the true story of how an American professor was called on to prove the Holocaust happened in the court of law, or be found libel..

Released in cinemas late last year, it was somewhat overshadowed by another male/female truth/lies contest playing out in real time – the U.S. Presidential election. Ahead of its release to Digital and DVD 26 July, Mandy spoke with Mick about the trend of “alternative facts”, how closely they followed the real story (spoiler – very!), the lessons we can take from the film about how to battle destructive fake news, and going against the grain of traditional courtroom dramas.

I really loved the film, I thought it was so fascinating, You get so used to the structure of these types of movies – the three acts and the build-up and the arc of the main character finding their voice…and this wasn’t like that!

Mick: No! That was one of the attractive things about working on this movie. Like you said there are many films – every Jimmy Stewart film or Henry Fonda film you saw, or “Erin Brockovich” with Julia Roberts – starts out with a timid character who doesn’t have a voice, a nobody, and something happens in their lives, something crucial, some injustice, and through the film as you watch you’re really with the character because they’re getting a voice, and at the end, they stand up and say a brilliant speech and everyone applauds and everyone leaves the movie theatre feeling really great. Well this isn’t that!

In fact it’s the opposite of that. It’s a woman who starts out as that end point in fact. Deborah Lipstadt, who the great Rachel Weisz plays in the movie, starts out as a very very enabled woman. She’s articulate, articulate, well informed, passionate, she speaks and argues very well in public and in private. She’s very media savvy. She eats interviewers for breakfast and knows reporters on a first name basis. She’s extremely lonely but very driven and self-reliant. She’s the kind of person who pushes past you to open the door for herself. Her one passion is for the survivors of the holocaust. She’s Jewish and her gifts, whatever they are, are to tell their story. She’s involved both politically and socially. So she comes with all these gifts – a natural for standing up in court and confronting this man who has sued her for libel – David Irving.

Instead of what she expects to do, which is just that, stand up and say ‘you lied about this and I can prove this’, she is told by her very eminent British legal team ‘look I know you want to do that but you can’t do that because if you do, he’s very clever, and he’ll make the trial about you. And he’s got a dossier about you as long as your arm, and he’ll reduce you to that and make it not about him, but about you.’ And she was like ‘I don’t get to testify at all?’ And they were like ‘no no! And you can’t speak to the press because that will just piss off the judge. He’ll say, naturally ‘oh you refuse to testify in court, then how come you’re talking to the Evening Standard?’. ‘Well,’ she says’, then I can at least bring Survivors in. I am their champion, I can have them speak their story in court’. And again, ‘no. Sorry. If you bring them to court he’ll do what he’s done in trials like this before, he’ll reduce them to tears – they’re old people, they’re on the verge of death, their memory isn’t that good anymore, if he challenges them on a tiny detail and they say ‘oh I don’t remember’ or ‘maybe it was over there’, he’ll say ‘no it was over here, see, you can’t trust a word they say, they’re all liars and cheats.’

So it was very difficult for her. Not only is it difficult to be deprived of all your major weapons, your articulateness, your feistiness. But she was in a very unfamiliar environment. Where you come from you’re a tenured professor, it’s nice and warm and you have a very nice life. Here you’re suddenly on the world stage in an unfamiliar, alien environment almost, where it seems to rain every day, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s foggy, it’s dank, the people are very stuffy, they wear horse hair wigs in court, and their hearts are stones just like the building, you know, ‘why has no one warmed to me?’. So in the middle of this she goes through that. In effect, the title “Denial” has a double meaning because of this. We realised as the film that David Irving, for ideological reasons, denies the truth in order to serve himself. But she has to do the opposite, deny herself the opportunity to stand up in court in order to serve the truth. So there’s a self-denial on her part that gives the film a kind of structure.

Yes that was great. There’s a great line from the lawyer, ‘They’re a strange thing consciences. Trouble it, what feels best isn’t necessarily what works best’.

Mick: It’s interesting, this film, I’ve been working on it for – well I’m not working on it anymore apart from this interview I’m doing with you now [laughs[ – but I worked on it for about five or six years to get it off the ground, and David Hare, the writer, worked on it for about a year longer than that. It was originally about truth and lies and it still is, and it wasn’t really as topical then in 2011. There was a Donald Trump then and he was going on about [Obama’s] birth certificate, but nobody in their wildest dreams thought that he could be the President. The more we pursued this film the more timely it seemed to be getting. We know as we knew then that we were watching lies and blatant lies about climate and immigration and race and photo fraud and fake news of all kinds. Back then it was true, but now it is more so, and the principal antagonist in this story is somene who is described as a liar, a racist, anti-semite, misogynist, hangs out with extreme white workers who distort tracts of history, and a demagogue whipping up crowds of supporters with outrageous statements for political reasons. It couldn’t be better. And a misogynist too, he referred to his assistants as being ‘very nice girls with very nice breasts’. And a bully, there’s a scene where Irving reduces Deborah Lipstadt to silence by invading her lecture and haranguing her. He’s a bully.

So it was inevitable that it would get more and more topical. But nobody knew it would get this topical. Except our distributor I have to say, Bleaker Street, as we approached release date, had this idea, and I thought it sounded like a good idea at the time, why don’t we do our platform release around the Presidential debates – in other words, we open in a few theatres before the first Hillary Clinton / Donald Trump debate, maybe people will see a comparison there. A couple weeks later, another Presidential debate, more theatres…And to some extent that happened but I think people were so tied up in the debate itself that people didn’t see that this was an analogy of it. It is about truth and lies as those debates were. So in that sense I think people relegated it to a Jewish movie. Which it is – it’s about the holocaust, but it’s not just about that. You can the holocaust was just about the Jews but it isn’t, and you can say Hiroshima was just something that happened to the Japanese but it isn’t. These things happen to all of us. We all live in the same world. For whom the bell tolls and all of that.

I think what’s happening now, interestingly, it’s taking on a different form. It’s not a predictor of what would happen if you elect someone like Donald Trump or David Irving to a position of power, so much as a, so this is what we’ve got now. We’ve got free speech and fake news and alternative facts and those terms that get chopped and turned around depending on political gain and obfuscation. What can we learn from this film? One thing we can learn is that a forum for fighting this sort of denialism is in the courts. It seems to be happening in the United States, and in this movie it’s happening, where you can’t get away from the awkward questions by making a snappy one liner that gets the crowd roaring. You actually have to stand there and answer the question, and when someone says ‘well what is your evidence for that?’ you actually have to say it rather than ‘no everyone knows this, everyone knows this’. Well, you tell us why they know it.

I think that is one lesson you can draw from the movie – go to the courts. And that’s one reason why now this particular administration is attacking the upper estates of the constitution, like the press and the courts, because they fear this is going to their undoing. It’s going to be about the truth. So that’s comforting if that’s true.

You mention the traditional formats of this type of film and that it’s uplifting at the end, this film did have that aspect too, it was uplifting, justice prevailed, which was good!

Mick: Yes even without that reverse dynamic, she does fight through, and with Richard Rampton as her champion as it were at the end. The truth is proved.

Which is comforting, we will have to start applying it!

Mick: I must say, it was great for me, and this may not have been a question you were going to ask, it was great to work with such a wonderful cast of English actors. I’ve been in Hollywood now working for 26 or 27 years, and it was great to back to actors of the calibre of Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, really really great, They’re all actors of great passion. Rachel spent a lot of time with the real Deborah Lipstadt before we started shooting and she, the real Deborah, was often on set to be consulted and say ‘yes that is how I felt on that day and you’re getting it right’. Rachel is a great person to work with because she is so like the real Deborah Lipstadt – she’s very feisty, very passionate, smart above all, headstrong, opinionated, spirited, and is insanely talented. Which is great! There are downsides to that because she wants to be in the moment at all times. She’s very intensely in the moment but it’s great, it brings that vulnerability in terms of being in the story without knowing what comes next. You’re just in the moment of that scene. So that’s great.

Tom [Wilkinson] I think brings a different kind of passion to it. I find that in all the things he’s done, as decent as someone like Ed Murrow [gave eyewitness reports of WWII for CBS and helped develop journalism for mass media], or Joseph Welch, the secretary of the army who famously said to John McCarthy, ‘at long last, have you left no sense of decency?’ I can see Tom doing that.

Tim Spall who plays Irving, wonderfully courageous actor. Initially we had a very wide list of people as David Irving – not an easy role to cast – and we sent out the scripts to a lot of agents and a lot of them said ‘what? Are you crazy? I’m not putting this in front of my client! They don’t want to play someone like this!’ A lot of very well-known actors said they’ll die forever if they played this part. All except Tim, and he wasn’t the last choice to play this part, of all the front runners, he was the one who said ‘yeah I’ll do it’. If you look at all the movies he’s done he’s played very conflicted and challenged characters, most recently playing Ian Paisley [in “The Journey”] and JMW Turner [in “Mr Turner”] and he even played the last hang man in England, Albert Pierrepoint [in “Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman”]. So he took this part and ran with it. And I know it cost him a lot playing Iring. There’s one part at the end where Irving is arriving at the court room, and demonstrators outside are throwing eggs at him. And we had to do a lot of takes because the people throwing the eggs didn’t have very good aim.

Surprisingly hard?

Mick: Yes! He got hit with a lot of eggs and it hurt him. It hurt him physically and it hurt him emotionally because if you really immerse yourself in this character – unpleasant as you find the character – you try and be him and people humiliate you by throwing eggs at you. It was fortunately one of the last scenes we shot of the movie as I don’t think he could have taken many more takes of that. But I was surprised how intensely he was in the character that he could have that reaction.

It was a fantastic performance. I know a lot of the real life counterparts were involved in making this film as well as Deborah, I was wondering, did you reach out to David at all during this process?

Mick: No. No we deliberately didn’t do that. The position we decided to take is that we were telling her [Deborah’s] story and we were not going to do one of the things which she objects to when she goes on television, is they interview her then they surprise her by bringing someone else who is a rabid alt-right person and say ‘and now we’d like to hear from the other side of the story’. And she would say, and quite rightly, ‘there isn’t another side of the story. There’s only truth. What’s the other side of truth? Lies.’ She doesn’t like that. So what we did is say, okay, everything that happens in the courtroom is from the transcript of the trial. We may edit it so it doesn’t last 17 days but everything said in court is true. With Irving, we’re not going to consult him and say ‘how did it feel when…’ and all that sort of stuff but we will take every single word he utters in the film from a pamphlet he wrote, a book he wrote, an article, a speech, a lecture, whatever. Everything he says is true in that sense. It says at the top of the film ‘based on a true story’, well both David Hare and I think it should say ‘this IS a true story’. This all happened, not just because of the words, but the actions and the fights and the arguments between her and the lawyers all happened and for those reasons. She did have a row with the real Richard Rampton in Auschwitz because she thought he was being disrespectful and essentially, trying to play Devil’s advocate. And they did reach a reclushmore at the end and he became her champion in court. And it’s nice that there is thing that is the opposite, as you say, of the classic Hollywood movie, this odd couple things that runs through it and they become the best of friends. And he actually wins the case for her and she loves that and they’re best friends still.

Aw that’s lovely. But I imagine David Irving had a few things to say when the film was released?

Mick: Oh he did. He’s not a man to mince his words, and they’re almost always offensive. He is an equal opportunity offender. When he heard that we were making a film and he was in it, he was outraged that we cast a glamorous Hollywood actress as, his words, ‘the Neanderthal Deborah Lipstadt. A better and more appropriate casting would be Ernest Baorgnene but he’s dead.’ Isn’t that awful?

It’s terrible! It’s hard to fathom, although, I’m getting more used to it I think. That’s the sad thing about Trump, I’m getting used to the fact there are people who can make these vile, misogynistic  remarks.

Mick: Don’t get used to it!

I know! We should not normalise this!

Mick: When I did Q&S with the real Deborah Lipstadt when we had screenings of this movie, someone always asks, ‘what is the lesson of this? How can we take your story and draw a moral from it? What can we do?’ And she says, ‘if somebody says something that you think is doubtful or outrageous and you’re wondering if it’s true, go to the source. Not someone saying ‘I heard this is true’ but who told you that or where did you read that? Track them down, track those sources down, you can do that online, that’s one way the internet is good, and find out who said this, why did they say this, what’s their political background, why are they saying this. If it’s not true, where did they get the story from? And if they can’t say where they got the story from and there’s no evidence, then unfortunately it’s true, if your opinion is based on lies, then ipso facto, your opinion is a lie. Don’t, whatever you do, hit re-tweet or re-send. If you can’t prove it, you can’t vouch for it, don’t tell someone else, don’t spread it even further on the web.

Absolutely, and I fell this movie is going to have long legs, it will be relevant for a long time.

Mick: But for the wrong reasons I fear!

You were on to it! It’s great that you were so sadly prescient in bringing this to us now. I’m wondering though, you have an incredibly diverse range of projects, what’s next for you, what are you working on?

Mick: I try to do things that have a social content to them. I’ve done things like nuclear war and child abuse and journalistic ethics, so this fits into that school of movies. I’m interested in the story of Wernher von Braun at the moment, he was a Nazi rocket scientist. He didn’t start as a Nazi, he was a German rocket scientist who was co-opted by the Nazis and made a member of the Nazi party and a member of the SS in order to get the resources he wanted to make the two rockets which fell on London during World War II. The German secret weapon. Actually, the very first guided missile. He did that claiming he had no knowledge, or very little knowledge, of the vast slave labour and underground factories that manufactured them in inhuman conditions on a production line basis. And he defected to the Americas at the end of the war, and because of his knowledge of rocketry he found himself designing the Saturn V rocket that got the Apollo astronauts to the moon. So you have to ask the question – is this is a story about a visionary of space? A national hero? Or is he a war criminal? So that’s kind of an interesting project.

Well you find excellent projects, and thank you for your time, really loved the film.

Mick: Thank you.

“Denial” is released on Digital and DVD 26 July. 

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