Three months ago, Peter Mullan discovered that FilmFour, the producers of his first feature, Orphans, had destroyed 40 minutes of extra footage that he had planned to include on the DVD release. “It was a bit of a shock, to say the fucking least,” he says, speaking from Calgary, where he’s shooting Michael Winterbottom’s gold-rush movie, Kingdom Come. “They said it was an accident, but we’re talking about film that would have taken four days to physically burn. I don’t think it was malicious, but I do think it was a combination of disrespect for the film and massive incompetence. It was one of the worst fucking days of my life. I genuinely didn’t believe they could hurt me any more.” Mullan is referring to FilmFour’s decision, shortly before Cannes ’98 (where he won a Best Actor prize for his role in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe), not to release the film theatrically in Britain. After it won four prizes in Venice, however, “they wanted it back, whereupon I told them I’d rather burn in hell.” Orphans, which was eventually picked up by a small distributor in the U.K. (it arrives in New York this week as part of the new Shooting Gallery Film Series), has since grossed half a million pounds domestically.
Tender and defiant in equal measure, Orphans follows four Glaswegian siblings as they stumble angrily through separate misadventures the night before their mother’s funeral. An exploration of grief that doesn’t shrink from the messiness and inexplicable enormity of its subject, it’s an unmistakably personal work. Mullan says he wrote the script shortly after losing his own mother: “I remember one night looking at my three-year-old daughter as she was sleeping and suddenly feeling terribly adult—because I was nobody’s son, I was just somebody’s dad. That really hit me. There was a whole range of emotions that I wasn’t prepared for—anger, self-pity. I remember feeling the surreality of it. With the film I wanted to open up these feelings, divide them among four characters and see where it took them.”
While Orphans opens in recognizable British social realist mode, it soon takes unexpected detours, integrating farcical and fantastical elements to alternately riotous and heartbreaking effect. “The idea was to bed the subject in a certain reality that people understood, and then just let it drift,” says Mullan. “The feelings become crazier and the world reflects some of that craziness. Grief movies often depend on the characters being these absolutely spot-on types, but I think that at the deepest moments in your life, you’re not necessarily at your most humane and grand. You can actually look your most stupid and idiotic.”