Owning Mahowny

People often ask me why I'm drawn to stories about obsessive behaviour. And I'm never sure what to say. Is it because they're freak shows? Absolutely not. Almost the opposite perhaps—they tap into parts of me I don't know too much about. And that's one of the things I love most about cinema—being taken to places I'd never go in real life.

Last year, I read about a paper given in Australia by producer Peter Sainsbury criticizing funding institutions there for backing a narrowing range of films, at the expense of personal projects which try and make audiences think, by working beyond story-telling.

He calls such films 'visionary,' and names Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive as examples. But what really interested me was how he defined these films.

He says they share a crucial assumption—that human existence is uncertain, and fraught with dilemmas and contradictions.

This is of course true, but it is not reflected in most films, which he calls 'pragmatic'—the staple of the mainstream. I'm too embarrassed to tell you his examples, as they are all (a little unfairly) British. Like me.

They assume the opposite—that human nature is basically knowable. So there are obvious choices characters are expected to make.


Choices we recognize as correct. And choices the characters are usually only able to make in the last reel. And guess what? We've got there before them.

It may seem too simple to say there are films that expect us to know exactly how they will end, and others that do the opposite. But this distinction struck a chord with me.

It made me realize that one of the great enveloping pleasures of going to the movies is to have a pretty clear idea about the journey you're going to be taken on (particularly if it's a sequel). But it's this very familiarity that makes the need and desire for films that deliberately take us into uncharted territory more acute.

A bit like veering off a route home that you've taken a thousand times, and ending up somewhere you never knew existed.

I'd like to think the film I made last year, Owning Mahowny, strays a little from the beaten track. By turns tragic and comic, it's a story about the lengths a banker will go to to fuel his addiction to gambling.

Although based in fact, it features extremes of human behaviour which are simply beyond comprehension. But this is perhaps why I was drawn to it. Because I believe cinema really can (and should) go further than just telling us what we already know.

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