'I wanted to be sure Morrissey got his wish to go down in celluloid history'
As his biopic of the formative years of the Smiths frontman hits cinemas today, first-time director Mark Gill tells Francesca Gosling about his lifelong passion for the singer and why he wasn't put off from making the movie despite the enigmatic star's apparent refusal to take part.
If you're seeking glowing praise for an artistic endeavour, Morrissey is unlikely to be in your top 10 list of cheerleaders. But that did not stop ambitious filmmaker Mark Gill from centring his first ever feature-length movie on the Smiths frontman's early life.
In fact, he dares hope that the Mancunian music legend might even enjoy the biopic.
Morrissey certainly will not be able to criticise a lack of dedication, after the musician and lifelong fan sold all his guitars to pay his way through film school, just to make it.
Now, after two years, a few million dollars, some dreadful auditions (finally won by War & Peace star Jack Lowden), hours of legal discussion and painstaking research, Gill's England Is Mine will be shared with the nation.
Named after the Smiths' Still Ill lyric "England is mine and it owes me a living", Gill delves into the elusive singer's younger years as the awkward and misunderstood Steven Patrick Morrissey, battling to make his mark against the workaday world of Seventies Stretford.
"I was interested in who wrote those first albums and realised it was Steven," says Gill.
"Once I started looking into him, I thought, 'That's a story I can tell'.
"I knew I could do a young man struggling to find his way in the world, because I've been there.
"It's that artistic struggle to do something with your life and how it's always a fight to do anything you think is worthwhile.
"Sometimes you are born into a world you don't feel you belong in and you feel like you are drowning.
"As with any drowning person, you tend to grab hold of things - for Steven it was books, music and the strong women in his life."
Raised half a mile away from where Steven, now 58, lived with his Irish family, Gill (46) was sent by his own parents to a posh grammar school.
He explains: "Immediately I was exposed to new things and new ways of thinking, which ostracised me from the young lads I was growing up with, and I couldn't see my classmates outside of school," says Gill. "Then The Smiths arrived when I was 15-16 and I finally thought, 'I've got someone'."
But what will that special someone think of his on-screen portrayal? Morrissey did not reply to Gill's many messages - with either criticism or approval.
"We've heard snippets of comments and we've been really respectful, making approaches before we started," Gill says.
"He is surrounded by people so I don't know if my letters got through, but I know they were sent and they were heartfelt.
"I imagine he is morbidly fascinated by the idea. It must be very strange having somebody make a film about your life, but this is also the guy who wrote the lyric: 'I want to go down in celluloid history', so we are giving him his wish.
"I don't want him to hate it, but I am taking his silence as a shrewd move.
"If the film is a disaster, he can say, 'Of course it was, because I wasn't involved', and if it's well-received, he can say, 'Of course it's good, because it's about me'."
We meet the teenage Steven as he begins to discover his talent for music and his passion for the written word and follow him through family domestics and his grudging stints working for the Inland Revenue and in a hospital.
We feel his pain and disappointment when his first band with Billy Duffy (now The Cult guitarist) crumbles and his inspirational, intelligent "will they, won't they" friend Linder Sterling abandons him for an art opportunity in London.
And we leave him just as he finds a kindred spirit in Johnny Marr, kicking off the relationship that would create the definitive indie band of the Eighties.
It is not always an easy watch and neither Gill, nor Lowden - who replaces his natural Scottish twang with a Mancunian accent, waste time making the audience feel at ease with the prickly protagonist.
"You have to be honest and we all have characteristics that are not likeable," admits Gill.
"I wanted him to be a human being and that includes being arrogant, sometimes spiky with people, but also insecure, shy and vulnerable. You look at him and see a real person."
But Lowden (27) finds his temporary alter-ego much more charming.
Following a part in Chris Nolan's blockbuster Dunkirk and with no previous Morrissey interest, he says: "I find people who are struggling with the idea of themselves to be very honest people and very endearing.
"I find him funny and I enjoyed playing with his physicality.
"I have since become a massive Smiths fan. My favourite song is Panic - it's impressive that he gets both Dundee and Carlisle in."
The opposite goes for Gill, whose 10-year passion project has now left him unable to listen to the hits of his teenhood any more.
"It's still too raw and I get quite emotional listening to it," he says. But he still jokes that he cannot wait for a drunken night in going back over the best audition bloopers. Before falling in "love at first sight" with Lowden, who he describes as the best young actor around, he adds: "We saw a lot of people doing horrific Morrissey impressions. I've still got the tapes."
For Gill, the same is true in the wider world and he hopes that fans and first-timers alike will be affected by the one-of-a-kind character.
While giving nods to the influence of Oasis and Radiohead into the Nineties and beyond, in his words: "I can't think of anyone else who has created that sort of cult around them like Morrissey has.
"People have tried but it has been embarrassing. He is a one-off and we'll miss him when he's gone."
- England Is Mine is in cinemas now