“It’s the Lawrence Of Arabia of stoner movies.”
That’s how movie producer Luc Roeg describes Mr. Nice, the film following drug-smuggling Welsh spy Howard Marks. If that rather unconventional clash of professions sounds like unfeasible reality stretching, you better believe it – Mr. Nice is based on a remarkable true story.
Born in a small Welsh coal-mining village in 1945, Howard Marks studied at Oxford University before becoming a worldwide hashish trader and British Secret Service agent.
At the height of his profession in 1980s, Marks boasted 43 aliases (John McKenna, Anthony Tunnicliffe, Ray Fox and, of course, Mr. Donald Nice), 89 phone lines and 25 companies. Oh, also four kids.
Now, the incredible story of his life thus far is being transported to the big screen with a little help from fellow Welshman and close friend Rhys Ifans.
“It was really strange but rewarding experience playing a friend,” Ifans says of taking on the role. “What I discovered is, for all the vibrato and everything, him being a marijuana pirate, what I discovered is a man who loved his wife and family. That was brutally taken away from him, from archaic American rules…”
Next: Mr. Marks[page-break]
The Daily Mirror once described Howard Marks as “the most sophisticated drugs baron of all time”. But to look at where he comes from, you’d never have guessed it.
Born in Kenfig Hill in 1945, a place situated near Bridgend and known for nothing more than coal-mining and fresh air, Marks was a bright youngster whose intellect was confirmed when he attained a place at Balliol College, Oxford.
There, he studied Natural Science between 1964 and 1967. During his studies, he counted epidemiologist Julian Peto and journalist Lynn Barber (whose own life was made into the movie An Education) as friends.
It wasn’t until his post-graduate course at Oxford that Marks first began to deal in marijuana. Tiring of his studies, he began shipping consignments of the substance into Europe and America.
His mode of transportation? He hid the marijuana inside the equipment of touring bands.
“Occasionally,” Marks tells the BBC, “I would do things where the money made would be zero and I would know that from the beginning. Sometimes I would do it just to get dope into the country.
“There’s a bit of a misguided cause there, a crusading feeling and, of course, a huge irritation with the law. My conscience was a little bit salved by bringing it in even if I didn’t make money.”
By the mid-80s, Marks had established himself as a pivotal worldwide lynchpin in drug smuggling. He’d created numerous aliases, and was using 25 companies to trade across the globe.
During this boom in business, the upstart entrepreneur was smuggling shipments of up to 30 tons from Pakistan and Thailand to America and Canada. At this time, he even had contact with the CIA, MI6 and the IRA.
Of course, that kind of activity tends to attract attention, and in 1988 the American Drug Enforcement Agency finally caught Marks and sentenced him to 25 years in the slammer.
Not only that, but the Welshman was sentenced to stay in Terre Haute, a US Federal Penitentiary deemed to be the country’s toughest jail - and the only one equipped with a Federal Death Row.
“It’s a fairly barbaric environment,” Marks remembers. “I witnessed three or four inmates being killed – one being garrotted by a guitar string and one had his head cut off with a piece of glass.”
Seven year later, Marks emerged from prison on parole. The next year, 1996, he wrote and released his autobiography, named after one of his aliases - Mr. Nice. It went on to become a worldwide bestseller.
Says Marks on his official website: “Through a plethora of media interviews and several public book readings, it became clear that the predominant reason why so many adolescents and university students read and enjoyed Mr. Nice was their frustration with the law prohibiting cannabis consumption and trade.
“Until then, I had no idea of the extraordinary extent of cannabis use by young people today.”
Next: Mr. Ifans[page-break]
“Rhys carries around all these contradictions,” says Roger Michell, the director of Notting Hill and Enduring Love. “He's gawky, yet graceful. He's smelly and Welsh and yet he's handsome and winning.”
A fascinating collection of inconsistencies and paradoxes, Rhys Ifans has become a star despite the humblest of beginnings.
Born in 1967 in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales, it wasn’t until he took up acting that Ifans found what made his lifeblood flow. He started at a young age, attending amateur dramatics classes with his parents when they couldn’t find a babysitter.
Then, aged 11, he got his first lead at the newly opened Theatre Clwyd, playing Rat in Toad Of Toad Hall. It was love at first croak.
“My work is my way of expressing myself without being arrested,” Ifans tells The Telegraph. “I have found an arena where I can be extreme and subversive and poignant and challenging without being called an idiot or a lunatic.”
After training at the Royal Scottish Academy, Ifans presented Welsh kids' programme Sdwnsh (‘Mash’) in 1990, and appeared in a variety of Welsh language TV shows, while also performing at London’s Royal National Theatre.
For a time, he even dabbled in music, fronting the Super Furry Animals before the band came to fame. But it was Ifans’ turn in movie Twin Town (1997), in which he co-starred with his brother, that he finally got noticed.
Next, Notting Hill (1999) sealed the deal. As Ifans disappeared into his character of a grubby, sex-starved Welshman, the world realised this was an actor who needed to be watched.
“Rhys is an actor of enormous range,” says Mr. Nice director Bernard Rose. “Also, he is a great comedian, too. But I think Rhys could play anything you put on his plate. He is a real actor. He can do things in a scene like put his teeth out... he can go really deep like that.”
Ifans is an actor with a restless energy, always searching for the next thing to pump him up. “I am who I am,” the actor told The Telegraph back in 2006, before going on to describe himself as 'lazy', 'chaotic', 'anarchic', 'sentimental', 'shy', 'arrogant' and 'a misfit'.
In other words, the perfect man to play Howard Marks in a movie…
Next: Mr. Rose[page-break]
In 2003, the BBC went to British director Bernard Rose with a proposal. They wanted him to turn Howard Marks’ autobiography into a movie.
Agreeing to adapt the book into a script, Rose “developed for them for a while, and then turned around and got out of there, and then started to produce independently”.
Working on the project alone, the London-born director found an interesting challenge in Mr. Nice, his previous occasions behind the lens having found him shooting full-blooded horror (Candyman), sweeping period (Anna Karenina) and a Tolstoy adap (The Kreutzer Sonata).
For him, Marks’ story hit upon some fascinating and relevant issues about society’s interaction with drugs.
“Howard's story touches on a lot of aspects of the history of drug culture and the way society's attitude has changed towards it,” he says, “and the way it affects people personally.
“In the ‘60s people started taking all these recreational drugs, and they had no idea what the longer term effects were. They were kind of experimenting on themselves.
“[Then] the Reagan administration came in and the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ started up. And I think the film shows the absurdity of that. I wanted to try and show all those things kind of objectively, and how we kind of put ourselves in this weird pickle in relation to drugs.
“It shouldn't be illegal. It just puts money in the hands of terrorists. You know, if you really want my opinion, marijuana's a dangerous drug.”
While writing his script for Mr. Nice, Rose had only one man in mind for the lead role. That man was Rhys Ifans.
“Rhys actually knew Howard,” he says. “They are from a similar background in Wales. They do look alike, especially when Rhys is in the wig. They have a similar kind of vibe. To be honest, I never ever considered anybody else. I really wrote the part for him.”
Happily, Ifans had already made what he calls a “gentleman’s agreement” with Marks himself that, should a film version of the drug smuggler’s life ever be made, Ifans would play him.
“I met Howard when he came out of prison,” Ifans explains. “I never met him before that. We’ve kind of been in touch, he came out prison 13 or 14 years ago. I met Howard before he wrote Mr. Nice, the book, and it was a chance meeting at The Super Furry Animals [gig].
“We met after the gig, and I said to Howard, Look, if you write this book, I want to play you.’ I was this two-bit actor at the time, maybe I am now. But we made the deal, and it’s actually on video!”
Marks couldn’t have asked for anybody more perfect, saying that the fellow Welshman was ideal for the role because of his “enjoyment of caning, his deep sincerity and his wisdom”.
“He's not bad-looking and it was very important I was played by someone younger, better-looking and taller,” Marks adds. “We are close friends and we have a lot in common.”
For Ifans, it came as a pleasant surprise that their gig-side pact actually came to fruition, especially considering the tricky, fickle nature of the film industry.
“It's an honour to step into the shoes, the sandals and many other garments of a great man,” the actor says.
“You'd think it would be a huge responsibility [to play him] but I guess it's a testament to how well we know each other. It was very simple - put a wig on, talk deep and sound like you've had a smoke.”
Next: Mr. Nice[page-break]
“It’s such a fascinating story, it’s a real odyssey,” Ifans told Jonathan Ross in 2009 during a stint on the Fright night chat show. “He’s an extraordinary man.”
Shooting in Wales and Spain, Mr. Nice added stellar support in the form of Chloë Sevigny as Marks’ wife Judy, while veteran actor David Thewlis took on the role of Jim McCann, the IRA man who helped Marks in his smuggling activities.
“It was very improvisational,” Chloë says, “the shooting, and the director is kind of a wild man; he didn't want to rehearse or block any scenes. Sometimes he wouldn't even let us see the room we were going to do the scene in until we walked in to shoot.
“It was very challenging, because I was also doing a British accent. I rehearsed on my own over and over again, but then Rhys of course improvised and I would have to try and respond in a British accent, with improvisation! But I really love Bernard, I think he's a great filmmaker and it was really fun to shoot that way.”
Rose returns the compliment, saying: “I was a huge admirer of her work, and I basically sent it to her, met with her in a kind of normal way. But she said yes. It is always nice when that happens.”
Ifans, meanwhile, remembers a particularly comical moment during shooting in Spain, when Marks caught the actor behind measured for his wizard outfit in preparation for his appearance in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.
“I’m in this room in the sleeves, the big pointy hat, and Howard wanders past the room with a little ‘fella’ on the go, and he says, ‘I never used to wear stuff like that!’” laughs Ifans. The actor also had to content with some rather colourful ‘60s garb for Mr. Nice.
“Yeah, I just would look in the mirror and think, ‘I look like my Dad,’” the actor says. “How did they cope with those colours? Initially it’s a difficult thing to embrace, but a third of the way into the film [you get used to it].
“It’s such a testament to Bernard’s skill as a director, the scene with the Concorde and the real Studio 54. Of course, it’s a filmic device, but if you embrace it and suspend your disbelief as you do in a film it works. And instead of spending fucking millions on dressing people up and it never works. It always looks too clean. I think that’s Bernard’s genius.”
Asked if he had given Ifans much help for the role, Marks says: “I didn't need to tell him anything. He knew it all. I was available. Occasionally he'd call me and ask me a few things.”
Next: Mr. Nice Guy[page-break]
Mr. Nice Guy
“We’re a nation of pirates,” Rhys Ifans says. “We’ve held onto our language – we’re a poetic people. Howard was the embodiment of that. His incarceration was by proxy a political - Howard went to Guantanamo Bay before Guantanamo Bay existed.”
Clearly, playing Howard Marks on the big screen was a big deal for Ifans, who refers to the process as “my rite of passage as an actor”. What's most interesting is the similarities between the two men - and the differences. Ifans found a way of directing his nervous energy through acting. Marks did the same with drug smuggling.
Mr. Nice had its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June 2010, where Ifans and Marks watched the film together for the very first time.
Marks called being on a red carpet the “most surreal experience” he had had. As for the film? “I think it's very, very good; the man's brilliant.”
Marks was also happy that the film as captured the essence of his book. “I suppose if you analysed all scenes there are differences from reality but, you know, [it’s] totally faithful in terms of getting the emotions across.”
“We held hands very nervously,” says Ifans of the premiere, “it’s so strange watching me play him while holding his hands. He’s just over the moon with it. I played my best friend, and he was really, really happy with it. So I don’t give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks about it. If Howard’s happy, I’m happy.” Ahhh, what a nice guy.
Mr. Nice opens in cinemas on 8 October, 2010.
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