“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care what people think,” says Mark Gill over skype from Manchester, about the divisive reaction that his film, England is Mine, has received from critics and Smiths fans.
“I don’t think I’ll make another film like that. But we knew it would happen. There was nothing we could do about it, we just had to ignore it and make the film that we wanted to make.”
Despite accusations around the verity of the story (“they’re probably right,” admits Gill), and the lack of actual Smiths or Morrissey music, Gill says that it wasn’t a matter of access, and that the goal from the beginning was to tell a different kind of story.
“It was never our intention to make it about The Smiths or to use The Smiths music. People just made that assumption, because they can’t think of why you wouldn’t make a film about The Smiths, apart from the practicality of it like getting any sort of permission for the music, and then you also have a million different people’s version of that story.
“To me that wasn’t as interesting as working out who Morrissey was before he was Morrissey. Once we started digging, you realise that he was ordinary just like everybody else. He was going to go on and do extraordinary things, but he didn’t start out as extraordinary. His ambitions weren’t ordinary, like most artists. They feel like they have something to say. But we took ordinariness and celebrated it, and made it incredibly special. That was his genius, the ability to write things about his own life that transcended race, age, gender.
“But it was just a case of piecing together what we knew. We knew there were big moments in the film that we wanted to cover, which were fairly well documented like Johnny [Marr] knocking on his door, going to the Sex Pistols gig, his dad leaving… and then me and William Thacker [co-writer] just deciding how we wanted to weave those stories and beats into our own film. Of course, we got it wrong because we weren’t there. But, you know, Morrissey’s story will be different to his sister’s story, which will be different to Johnny’s story. And I can only do the story that I want to tell.”
Mark Gill grew up in the same street as Morrissey, less than a kilometre away. He discovered The Smiths when he was 15 and the first album he bought was 1984’s compilation record Hatful of Hollow.
“I felt like a bit of an outsider in my teens,” admits Gill. “But I wasn’t shy like Morrissey.”
As depicted in the film, the neighbourhood was working class, with Gill’s father a factory worker and his mum juggling various jobs. “But they had ambitious for me,” he says. “They really pushed me to take this exam and I got to go to a really good school. It was nowhere near where I lived. So, I didn’t see anybody that I went to school with outside school, and the people I grew up with I could no longer communicate with because I was being exposed to a different type of education and everything that comes with it.”
When his 2013 short film The Voorman Problem, starring Martin Freeman, was nominated for a BAFTA and Academy Awards it brought him to the attention of producer Orian Williams (Control), and paved the road for Mark Gill to make his feature film debut, England is Mine.
For a biopic about someone who is still well and truly alive and active, it is surprising how little has been heard from Morrissey about the project. “Whenever we announced anything, we always tried to reach out to him, just to say ‘look, we know that you’re not interested, but we just feel that you should know what we’re doing next.’ It was an open invitation, if he wanted to say something to us then he could. But he chose not to. And I don’t blame him for that because it must be a bizarre thing for someone to make a film about you.
“It’d be so difficult to be objective,” Gill answers when asked whether he thinks that Morrissey may have seen the film by now, and what would he think. “Could he watch it and judge it as a film in its own right, I’m not sure he could. I think that’s where the problem will lie for anybody with a personal connection, because they will not be able to distance themselves from it and look at the film that we tried to make, which transcends the need to be a Morrissey or Smiths fan. You could watch Steven and relate to those struggles and that inertia; that ambition and drive to try to do something with your life, but you don’t fit in and you’re being told that everything that you’re doing is wrong.”
Kind of like Mark Gill himself, who is now hard at work on his next project, an adaptation of James Smythe’s book The Testimony. “It’s very different but very zeitgeisty,” says Gill. “It’s about the whole world which hears a voice saying ‘My Children Do Not Be Afraid’. And then the whole world collapses because of this, and they can’t prove what it is. Most people think that it’s god, but which god, which faith? It’s all told from the point of view of one family in London. It’s about belonging, belief, community and family. And all those things are challenged and tested. It’s high concept but very grounded and rivetted in the every day. It’s the soundtrack to our lives.”