UK director Bernard Rose talks to Screen about the making of his recent Howard Marks biopic Mr Nice, and his latest Tolstoy adaptation.

London-born Bernard Rose made films from an early age. In 1982 he graduated from the NFTS and went on to direct music videos for MTV. In 1988 he got his feature breakthrough with Paperhouse and in 1992 scored a major cult hit with horror Candyman. He has subsequently written and directed Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, Ivans XTC, about the last day in the life of LA agent Ivan Beckman, and an adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, The Kreutzer Sonata. His latest feature, Mr Nice, a biopic of notorious drug smuggler Howard Marks starring Rhys Ifans, world premiered at SXSW in March and is currently on release in the UK via eOne.

How did Mr Nice come together?

I didn’t know anything about Howard before I read his autobiography but thought it was really good material. I developed it initially with Liza Marshall and BBC Films. That was 2003, when I first met Howard. There were all sorts of names being bandied about for the main role, but as far as I was concerned there was only one person to play the part. I called Rhys and he said that he knew Howard. Then Luc Roeg (at Independent) got involved because it stalled at the BBC and they turned it over to us.

The film recently won the Best Cinematography Award in Dinard. What kind of visual palette you were trying to achieve?

I was trying to show the passage of time and place through the photography rather than with title cards, which has become a cliché. It’s a lot more interesting to let people know where they were by what they were looking at. I did a tremendous amount of research into the places at the time. We found rear projection plates from Karachi from the ’70s, researched German motorways, Piccadilly Circus and other places and then greenscreened Rhys in.

The film has an impressive soundtrack. You teamed up with composer Philip Glass for the first time since Candyman. How did that come about and were there difficulties in getting the big tracks?

I hadn’t spoken to Philip since Candyman. His manager called me up and said that Philip was really interested in Mr Nice. I knew that Philip was a man of the ’60s as he was Ravi Shankar’s assistant! We got some really great tracks like Lennon’s God and Pink Floyd songs, but it was very hard to get them. I’d planned the film’s central sequence around the John Lennon track and I’d cut all the archive footage to it before we even shot the greenscreen. It was so intrinsic. It was almost like a voice over about how the ’70s end and the ’80s begin. We expended a lot of effort and a fair bit of money getting that song but we got it.

Rhys’s character, as with protagonists in some of your previous films, seems simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by excess. Is this something that is important to you?

I never thought of it that way but I’m glad you say that, because people are always telling me how diverse and different my films are and to me it always feels like the same movie. I am attracted to characters who are excessive, who push themselves and endanger themselves.

Mr Nice is the third feature you have written, directed, edited and shot. You also compose. Why do you multitask on your films?

As a teenager in the ’70s I did everything because there was no one else around. Everything that you can now do on your Macbook Pro was a real challenge back then. I went to film school in the ’80s and they taught me all about departments, something I had no experience of. My experience was of doing it myself. When someone first explained to me what a professional director did I was like: “You mean they don’t do anything? They don’t shoot the film? Well, what are they doing, just standing around?” I remember being appalled.

I work very short days when I’m shooting. I’m fast, I’m ready. There’s no indecision. The hardest part of the process for me is writing. I’m not a fast writer. The DOP and the editing part of it I’m happy to do.

When I’m on the floor, especially if I’m hand holding, I’m doing a dance with the actors. If you screw up while shooting it makes you more vulnerable and you have a closer relationship with the actors. There’s been a tendency to remove directors to this controlled video village away from the action but I feel it makes you more a part of what’s going on if you are shooting it yourself and that it’s good for the actors, too.

After shooting Ivans XTC in digital I had more confidence. Mr Nice was a much bigger challenge because it had a lot of greenscreen and was shot on 35mm. But I really enjoy getting my hands on the equipment. I recently shot a test in 3D and am really looking forward to that challenge.

What’s coming up?

As soon as it starts snowing in Colorado I’ll be there shooting Boxing Day, an adaptation of the Tolstoy short story Master and Man, starring Danny Huston and Mathew Jacobs, who wrote Paperhouse. It’s about a limo driver and his passenger getting stuck in the mountains. It’s due to start shooting the first week of December. I’m writer, director, DOP and editor. Luc Roeg and Naomi Despres are producing, with finance coming from Independent, UKFC and private equity.

What else are you working on?

I’m also working on an adaptation of a Will Self novel called The Book Of Dave. Half of it is set in the present day, half in the future after London has been drowned by rising sea levels. It’s about a cab driver who writes a book to his estranged son and buries it in his garden. A thousand years later Londoners dig up the book, think it’s the work of God and build a society on its rantings. I want to make it as a big, sci-fi adventure. It’s a really powerful story.

Have you spoken to Will Self about it?

Yes. I’m just trying to find a home for it.