Award-WINNING Scottish actor Peter Mullan wasn't much of a swimmer before tackling the role of a middle-age man who decides to take on the English Channel in "On a Clear Day." So the Glasgow-based actor ("My Name Is Joe") spent six months training in a local pool.
But nothing prepared him for actually getting into the frigid waters at Dover and Loch Lomond.
The Channel swimmers that he talked to during research told him that it would be easier to actually swim the body of water rather than repeatedly get in and out during the numerous shoots that the film required. "I said, 'Guys, this is a movie; it doesn't work that way.' "
Instead, Mullan, who is also a director ("The Magdalene Sisters") could only stand the water for a few minutes at a time, and it took even longer for his body to adjust. "For every minute in the water, there is two hours recovery time." In all, shooting the swimming sequences took eight days.
As the days progressed, Mullan's body went into shock. "It got harder and harder to jump into the pool," said the 46-year-old actor. "The water was 11 degrees. My swimming double, Dave [Feakes], who actually swam the Channel, was able to do a lot of the wide shots. He was a wonderful, understated Englishman. I was coming out of the water with expletives beyond expletives, and Dave would come out and say all of this crazy English stuff like, 'It's a bit nippy today, Pete.' "
"On a Clear Day," which opens Friday, finds Mullan's Frank Redmond at the crossroads of his life. The 55-year-old working-class laborer is suddenly unemployed after years of building ships at the Glasgow docks.
His 35-year-old marriage to Joan (Brenda Blethyn) has grown stale, and he barely speaks to his adult son Rob (Jamie Sives). Plus he's still haunted by the drowning death of his other son years before.
Mullan describes "On a Clear Day" as a "Sunday afternoon film. It is light and digestible for the whole family. I always felt at its absolute core was a fairly straightforward kind of story, which is that people are more likely to help one another than they are going to go against one another."
When director Gaby Dellal first heard the description of Alex Rose's script, she wasn't interested. "I have no affinity for a man who swims the Channel," she said. "Then I read it that night and I couldn't put it down. It was a wonderful script and then I embarked with [Rose] on rewriting and working on it for about a year before it went to Peter."
Dellal was intrigued by making a film that explored the relationships between "slightly older people," especially a marriage that had "weathered an enormous storm" and the shame Redmond felt when he wasn't able to save his son.
"And the ensuing lack of relationship with the kid he actually did save. That was a story I really wanted to tell. It was about losing one child literally and one figuratively."
Rose got the idea for the film five years ago when he and his wife dropped their then 4-year-old son off to school for the first time.
"We were in tears," Rose recalled. "I felt sick. Then I was talking to somebody who had teenage kids and they said, 'Wait until he's a teenager and they won't need you.' I remember that in myself and I thought, 'I wonder how will I cope with that when he's 16 or 18 and he doesn't need me any more?' "
"The worst thing for a parent is to lose a child; it was that kind of duality I was thinking about — a guy who has lost a child and a guy who sort of experienced what I had taking a child to school."
The story began to congeal during his frequent trips across the Channel to France on the ferry. "I don't know if you have ever been across," said Rose. "When I looked down [into the water], you have to be bonkers to try and swim this."
Dellal only had Mullan in mind to play Redmond. She wrote him a letter that said, essentially, "If you don't take the role, I'll kill myself." Apparently, it worked. "He was pretty amazing. He really did respond two days later."
Recalled Mullan: "It made me laugh because it was so outrageous."
At first Dellal thought Mullan's phone call was a practical joke because his voice is so raspy because of a 60-cigarette-a-day habit. "I spoke back to him in the same gravelly voice," said Dellal. "Then I realized, 'Blimey, it really is Peter Mullan.' "
Mullan discovered during his research that people who swim the Channel and climb Mt. Everest do it to conquer their demons — just as Redmond does.
"If your demons are pretty large, the task that you give yourself is pretty enormous.... It's an absolute given that you will hallucinate at a certain point," he said.
Mullan's swimming double told the actor he didn't have the temperament to swim the Channel.
"I asked him, 'What is the difference between normal human beings and people who do this kind of thing?' And he said, 'Lack of imagination.' "
Mullan wanted to know if Feakes meant that Channel swimmers are "stupid."
"He said, 'I wouldn't say 'stupid,' Pete, but a man such as yourself I don't think would survive.... If one has an overactive imagination, which most creative types do, you would definitely struggle."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times