Posted July 26, 2020 by Jeff in Flicks

American and British Gangsters Square Off in Noir-ish ‘The Big Ugly’

The Big Ugly
The Big Ugly

A film about the conflict that ensues after a British gangster (Malcom McDowell) strikes a deal with an American oil tycoon (Ron Perlman) to launder some dirty money, The Big Ugly, opens today at more than 70 theaters, mostly drive-ins, throughout the U.S. and the UK.

With a nod to film noir, The Big Ugly features dramatic shoutouts and tense confrontations between British thugs and their American counterparts.

Much of the story centers on the British gangster’s right-hand man, Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), a guy that writer-director Scott Wiper describes as “a lost man in a foreign land searching for an identity.” He comes to a crossroads as he must avenge a wrongful death and confront an enemy with no redeeming qualities.

In this recent email interview, writer-director Scott Wiper talks about his movie.

Talk about what it was like to grow up in Cleveland and how you migrated to Los Angeles.
I grew up in Cleveland until age 10 — that was 1980.  We moved to Upper Arlington for two years.  We then ended up in Granville in 1983.  After making my first feature film on Super 16mm, and blowing it up to 35mm, I wrote two scripts while still in Ohio.  With a finished feature film and two cans of 35mm reels, and two new scripts — I drove out to L.A. at age 25 in 1995.  I rented a theater on Hollywood Boulevard — selling that low budget film, Captain Jack — all shot in Licking County, Ohio and Granville.I loved Granville. I loved the mix of life — agricultural, Denison University, Owens Corning, Dow Chemical. In the 1980s, it was a great mix of many folks, and ideas. It’s a wonderful place. I also spent much time in Columbus and Cleveland. I wrote my first script in Cleveland. I went to live with my older brother while he was in med school at Case Western, and a resident at University Hospital. He was never home — so I took over his place and made it my office. That worked out well until you get the feeling it’s time to go. Finding places to live for free is an essential part of a writer’s young life. My second film, A Better Way To Die, was filmed in Columbus and Licking County.  Columbus was used for downtown Chicago. Raised in Ohio, it’s something that stays with you, wherever you go. Twenty-five years in L.A., I find myself bonding quickly with fellow Ohioians. It’s a bond.  It usually forms, at first, because you recognize a Buckeye fan in a scarlet and grey shirt, Cavs fan or Browns — Ohioans in L.A. often gather at the same sports bars in LA for Ohio teams, so sports may be the opener — but there’s something about Midwest sensibilities that creates a longer lasting bond.  My closest allies in show business are Midwesterners.  

What drew you to the world of acting, writing, producing and editing?
I was drawn to filmmaking as soon as video cameras came out in the mid-1980s.  As soon as I could get my hands on one of those massive “camcorders” and the giant pack that hung over your shoulder and separate camera with the thick cord, I was filming — and editing by borrowing the neighbor’s VCR, connecting it to ours. And with two VCRs, I figured out how to edit.

In your director’s statement about The Big Ugly, you talk about the long journey you took in the making of this movie. When did you first conceive the idea for the film and what inspired the concept?
Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham and I were out on the town while promoting The Condemned.  I was listening to them talk to each other in their “true accents” — without taking any of the edge off for American pals.  One of them said, “You should write a movie for us!  Couple of blokes from the dodgy part of London in America.” I starting thinking about a story then. That was in 2007. It was a “fish out of water” or “clash of cultures” idea.  Like all scripts, or like the 25 I have on my shelf, you keep pulling one off, rewriting, and one pops out at you over the years. The Big Ugly was that one script that I kept working on — something about it haunted me.  Vinnie was a great friend, pushing me to keep working on it.  Due to our friendship, I kept taking it off the shelf, and working on it for over a decade — like most scripts.  As they say, the really hard part writing is rewriting — to keep going even after the original thrill of the first draft is gone until all the characters are flushed out.

So did you write the part of Neelyn with Vinnie Jones in mind?

I like the juxtaposition between Malcolm McDowell’s character and Ron Perlman’s. Both guys both play old-fashioned crime bosses who respect one another but ultimately will face off with each other. What was it like to work with those two heavyweight actors?
It was a great creative experience.  The scene where they sit down at a table with cigars, bourbon and pistols is probably my favorite scene.  I tell all my actors, once they are cast, “You are now the CEO of your character. I’ve spent years balancing 10 or 12 characters in my head. I’m about to go crazy; now, each of you take over your character.  Take liberties.  Own it.  If you stray too far, I’ll direct.”  When real pros take your writing and raise it to the next level, it’s a “real high” for a writer/director.  You can only do so much, then, like a football coach — the game plan is in the hands of the athletes on the field — and you stand back behind the camera and watch them run.  I do most of my directing in the days and weeks before, just telling stories, listening, learning them, answering questions — tweaks in the script as you get to know the actor.  The character becomes a blend of the human in real life, and the human on the page.  When the day of filming comes, it’s basically minimal direction to the actors, like in theater. “Cut it in half” — that was my main direction on this film. I wanted a “noir” minimalist tone.  Less is more.With Ron and Malcolm and Vinnie, the heavy director/actor work was done in the days and weeks before — just talking about the characters, their motivations, their past, their demons.  The great actors take that backstory — that may or may not be in the script, and they flush out a deeper, richer character.

That opening scene involving the Confederate flag is great. Did you have some sense of how timely it would be when you shot it?
No.  I wrote that in the summer of 2017, after seeing some of those flags as I was living in WV motels and eating dinner in bars.  I got into a “chat” with some guys.  I realized I was not going to make my point on a broader level, so I boiled it down to a basic argument that anyone could understand — you lost. When casting scripts, you always need a good hook for a character’s intro.  I wrote that to introduce the bold man of honor — oilman Preston Lawford.  Ron [Perlman] called me after he first read the script, and the first thing he said to me was, “If you wanna fly a flag, motherfucker, go win something.”  We both laughed, and he said, “I want to do this movie. I love this character, but I really want to say THAT line, and do THAT scene.”  So that is how we first met.  I answered the phone, and he said my own line back to me, “If you wanna fly a flag, motherfucker, go win something.”  I don’t think I’d written it with the profanity, but Ron is very skilled at inserting profanity into most any sentence.I had no idea the issue would be so current in the summer of 2020.  Neither did Ron.

One character who has a very small role is Thomas, who’s essentially the town drunk who’s a lot smarter than you think. I love that. Talk about what David Myers Gregory brings to that role.
David is amazing.  A true journeyman actor — and a great guy.  I think his character is what I love most about film and literature.  Finding the humans and the good folks some may brush off as “non-heroes” — and giving them incredibly heroic character arcs.  Mythology.  Transformations.  I guess it’s how I see real life — there are heroes all around us, and if you show a bit decency, kindness and human respect to everyone — you just may be surprised who comes to rescue your ass when you find yourself in a jam. David took a character that was on the page — there wasn’t a lot of page count, or heavy dialogue — and he flushed it out to a full human story with depth, soul and a lot of character work that isn’t spoken, but it’s there visually — that’s the fun of cinema.  David is an amazing actor, and he turned Thomas into a LEAD just by his depth.  The “real Thomas” was another character I met while existing down in West Virginia, on my own. I bought a guy a drink — and he told me everything I ever wanted to know about oil history in Appalachia.  That sweet guy let me take some video of him — I shared it with David, and he ran with it.  Zach Sheets wardrobe on David is a direct homage to what the “real Thomas” was wearing in that video.  

It’s set in West Virginia. Did you film there? 
I spent a lot of time in West Virginia, living, working on the script, scouting — alone.  But we ended up filming in Eastern Kentucky, not far from the West Virginia border.  I love it there.  I love the people of Morehead, Kentucky, and Olive Hill, Kentucky.  As a filmmaker, I really have to come to know a place, love it, respect it.  I wanted the film to capture a love of nature, a love of the Midwest, a love of people showing kindness to each other in a world, that at times, can seem brutal or unforgiving.  Kindness goes a long way in hard times.  I could see myself living down in Morehead; I loved it that much.  I’m still very close to many of the folks down there.  I guess if you put together all the things that “got on my nerves” about L.A. — Ohio and Kentucky is the remedy for that “nerve” condition.  After 25 years in L.A., I’ll take Morehead or Cleveland any day of the week.  It’s in my DNA.  Authenticity is important to me.  That’s a “theme” the crew and I used.  DP Jeremy Osbern and I often used that word to describe the look and feel.  Authentic.  Real.  

I was inspired by many of the films made in the late 60s and up until 1975.  Those films often had a gritty, authentic feel that captured real life.  Be it The French Connection or The Getaway or The Wild Bunch.  Gritty.  Raw.  Real.  But… beautiful.

The cinematography is terrific. What were you going for?
As I said a bit earlier — authenticity, raw, real — but beautiful, in an early 1970s way.  Not having to answer to nervous studio heads, we wanted that 1965 to 1975 look but polished just enough that you know it’s 2020.  Good and evil.  The battle of light and darkness is a theme in the soul of the film.  The moral ambiguity of man.  The themes of light and dark are in the characters, Jeremy took those themes and used his incredible skills to highlight what the story was about.  No fill light.  Harsh shadows.  Interiors are very dark, exteriors are in the unforgiving sun.  Relentless.  I am a student and lover of film noir.  He and I both wanted to not only capture the era of the early ’70s — but also dig into the photographic traditions of film noir from the 1940s. The goal is —> the beautiful harshness of real life.  In my overall filmmaking theme, I wanted to capture a world I often see — yes, it can be a brutal harsh world at times, but if you stop and look closely, there’s beauty and kindness all around.  If we offer it, it comes back. Kind of like Neelyn and Thomas. Neelyn offers some humanity and kindness to a stranger, and it comes back in karmic ways he never expected. That’s life. Yes, times can get hard — fire some kindness out, you’ll be amazed what comes back.

It’s such a dark movie — literally and figuratively — but the end isn’t totally bleak. Without giving anything away, can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish with the ending?
I hit on this question earlier, a bit.  Film noir and westerns were often a battle of light and darkness.  But I tried to dig into my own journey.  Vinnie’s journey.  Real people.  Be it 1940s after WWII, 1970s after Vietnam and other tragedies.  Those eras created a certain cinema of that time.  I feel a darkness in society now, but I am a warrior of hope, I’d like to think.  I see a brutality in society.  I see 18 years of war.  I see it gets harder and harder for the working class to survive.  I see Wall Street greed.  I see the opioid epidemic.  I see unfairness and division.  These things deeply upset me.  Show business is brutal.  However, I am an optimist.  But I don’t want to bullshit if I’m not feeling happy with what I see — I see a tough world, but I also see hope, kindness, joy and good people.  I got some joyful complaints from friends, fans and family over the years that I go a bit dark.  But, another term Vinnie and I used when setting out to make this film was: honest.  A honest story.  So it is dark.  Everyone is not living in a fairy tale right now — that part is honest.  That’s film noir.  That’s what I observe as a writer, be it in screenplays, or in my journal.  But I believe — after every dark night, there’s a bright new day.  If you can fight through the dark night, light will always prevail.  Hope.  Mythology, life and film is often a mix of pathos and joy.  Enlightenment after periods of darkness.  I’ve ended many stories on a dark note, but I really felt that The Big Ugly was about redemption and enlightenment — so the story tries to bring these loners together, through a series of events, and together, with the smallest act of kindness and humanity exchanged, they make it to daybreak, together, when light overcomes darkness.  That’s mythology.  That’s noir.  That’s life. I hope joy is the reward.  My own journey with this film, with Vinnie and Karri, was a search for happiness — making movies in a manner that is consistent with the pursuit of happiness. Trying to make movies, but doing so with friends and good people, and — maybe shaving off some the a%#holes that often come this show business grind.  I think we did that successfully on an administrative level, we worked well together out here in the Midwest with a fantastic group of filmmakers.  


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].