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Staring down a ratings ruckus

An NC-17 tag can be box office poison, but 'Young Adam's' team didn't so much as blink.

April 20, 2004|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Arriving in theaters on a wave of controversy over its NC-17 rating, "Young Adam" is also notable for bringing the work of Scottish cult writer Alexander Trocchi to the big screen. The second feature from writer and director David Mackenzie, the story follows a troubled young man named Joe (played by Ewan McGregor) who insinuates himself into the lives of Ella and Les (Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan), a couple living and working on a barge along the canals that run between Glasgow and Edinburgh. An affair ensues between Ella and Joe, further complicated by the body Joe and Les find floating in a canal.

Although the movie has multiple sexual encounters with nudity, the rating came down to a scene in which the characters are clothed. Neither Mackenzie nor producer Jeremy Thomas wanted to trim the scene because they felt it would have awkwardly diminished the effect of Trocchi's amorality tale.

Having been sidelined by addiction, Trocchi was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1984. His currency reemerged in the 1990s, as Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner began citing him as an influence. Best known for "Young Adam," first published in 1954, and his junkie memoir "Cain's Book," Trocchi was a lightning rod for the ascendant counterculture, moving among Paris, New York, London and Glasgow. He circulated among such literary figures as Genet, Ionesco, Burroughs and Beckett, and during an infamous appearance at a writers' festival in Edinburgh in 1962, acclaimed poet Hugh MacDiarmid called him "cosmopolitan scum."

For Mackenzie, it was important to separate the man's reputation from his work. "I read the book as a result of hearing about Trocchi," he says, "so I guess I went in through that door. As soon as you read a story like 'Young Adam,' it becomes very easy to imagine an autobiographical element in there. I thought that I didn't want to delve too deeply into his life because I'd like the character of Joe to come to life in his own right as opposed to being in the shadow of Trocchi."

Swinton came to the material in a similar manner. "I wasn't familiar with the novel at all, but I was fairly familiar with Trocchi," who, she says, has "a legendary status of a sort for anybody who's remotely interested in counterculture figures, particularly in Scotland. He's our beat writer. Anybody interested in the Beats and being Scottish is going to come across him."

The novel is written from the first-person perspective of Joe, and it would stand to reason that any movie adaptation would utilize voice-over narration, but Mackenzie realized he simply didn't need it.

"Before I wrote the script," he explains, "I said I do not want to use flashback and I don't want to use voice-over because, although they belong very richly to the noir tradition, I didn't feel it was right for the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I subsequently became a lot more comfortable with the flashback notion and sort of gave myself the condition that, as long as the voice-over wasn't directly telling the story, that it was a counterpoint to the narrative, then I might be allowed to dip my toe into that too.

"The script we ended up shooting was distilled down to about four very small bits of voice-over, one of which is what attracted Tilda to the project in the first place. When we got to the edit, the film was creating quite an evocative atmosphere, and we found that the extra layer killed the tension, and we very rapidly dropped the voice-over."

Asked about that lost piece of narration, Swinton recalls, "It was a direct quote from the Trocchi novel, which was a description in Joe's voice where he said, 'I don't think I've ever seen anything as beautiful as Ella in her abandoned position, like an animal trapped in its lair.' We were going to place that over -- "

"-- the scene that got us the NC-17!" interjects Mackenzie.

Explaining that they are referring to an early tryst between McGregor and herself on a canal bank, Swinton adds, "Obviously, no voice-over was necessary." Mackenzie says, "That's one of the reasons that scene is quite long. I shot it with the voice-over in mind, and we didn't have any coverage to use to shorten it."

As for the effect the rating might have on the film's reception, Mackenzie is optimistic. "I don't mind the idea of making grown-up films, perhaps reclaiming the idea of 'adult' from pornography. I don't mind if people under the age of 18 don't see the film as long as it doesn't become stigmatized because of it."

Although the film is peppered with what can be described only as "sex scenes," they are fraught with a tension and dourness that is anything but sexy. Explains Mackenzie, "I think what we were going for was something human, not sugarcoated, soft-focus screen sex. I'm not saying that's how everyone has sex all the time, but it's often a little bit awkward and a little bit ugly. Not always, but in trying to be an honest reflection of sexuality, that's where I was coming from."

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