Get Duked! is a dark comedy set in the Highland that’s part Lord of the Flies, part Restless Natives. Connor Beaton explores why it might be the film we really need at this time.
I never completed the silver Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in my teenage years for roughly the same reason as Scottish filmmaker Ninian Doff: I loved hill-walking with my friends, but couldn’t motivate myself to complete the rest of it. “I got tripped up on all the other hours you have to do,” Doff told me in a video call a couple of weeks before the recent release of his first feature film, Get Duked. “You have to do 100 hours’ community service, 100 hours’ sport – sport tripped me up. The only sport I ever cared about was skateboarding, and the Duke of Edinburgh doesn’t accept that! That’s what ended up making me crash and burn.”
Get Duked – which was known as Boyz in the Wood when I saw it open Edinburgh’s film festival last summer – follows four teenage boys on the DofE programme who set off into the Highlands to find themselves hunted for sport by posh, rifle-wielding aristocrats. It’s eclectic, hilarious, far smarter than it ought to be, and resonates so strongly with what it’s like to grow up in modern Scotland that it’s hard to believe it won’t garner a huge fan following among young Scots. In one of its finest scenes, the boys’ ostensible leader, Dean (Rian Gordon), delivers a passionate and increasingly bizarre monologue which expresses, in under a minute, the raw anger of a generation facing the dire prospect of adulthood under economic stagnation and ecological disaster. It also captures perfectly the tension and overlap between the politics of class and of generation, an increasing preoccupation for the left; after the 2017 and 2019 general elections, many pundits quickly declared that age had usurped class as the starkest and most reliable dividing line in contemporary British politics.
This wasn’t exactly what Doff set out to do; he said the film is about “the establishment versus whoever the hell you are”, and adds that he had been sympathetic to the idea that traditional class had “dissipated” in Britain until the exam results fiasco had brought literal class inequality into sharper focus. It was a happy coincidence that I spoke with Doff the same week that the UK government announced its U-turn on adjusting grades according to a widely-criticised algorithm, just days after the Scottish government folded on the same issue. “‘Fuck the algorithm’ was the most amazing chant I saw,” Doff said, with a mix of pride in the protesting schoolkids and apoplectic rage at the government. “And they changed it! The government backed down, did the 180, literally because of young people screaming ‘no fucking way, this has gone too far’.” The idea that the same young people might watch Get Duked and relate to it is “truly the ultimate reward, the biggest prize,” he told me.
And although the film is inescapably “politically-charged”, the political themes aren’t overbearing. Doff said he was trying to channel Monty Python, though the balancing act between its political themes and the absurdity of its premise really brings to mind some brilliant black comedies from recent years, namely Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. “I always hated this distinction between making a very serious political film or making a dumb, silly gross-out movie, and the idea that these two things are not mutual,” Doff said. “I love worthy filmmakers, but I don’t always want to sit down with my mates and watch a really gritty, depressing movie. I wanted to make a politically-charged film, that hopefully even inspires you, that’s as quotable and ridiculous and silly as any of your favourite comedies … you put it on on a Friday night with your mates and enjoy it, but on Saturday morning, maybe you head off and start to change the world.”
The film was “written in the wake of Trump, written in the wake of Brexit, and just feeling so heartbroken for the really unsubtle, really horrendous, deliberate disregard for the next generation,” Doff said. “It just seems like there’s so many people who have made it – they’ve got the lovely big houses, they’re of a certain age, they’ve gone through life – and they just really could not give a shit about what the world looks like in 30 years.” Dean’s dramatic speech is at “the heart of that” theme, Doff agreed, and it was written and rewritten until it captured teenage anger in teenage language, even being torn up and restarted the day before it was shot. “It was really hard to write, because you don’t want to suddenly tip into a teenager speaking in adult words”, he explained.
Dean is “someone who is so entrenched in the presumption of the status quo – whatever they decide for you is what you do”. The difficulty for Doff was in “finding the voice of the very first sparks of an awakening and an anger, so I almost had to keep un-writing it, and making it more rambly and more passionate”, he said. “It’s sort of insane what he’s shouting. He’s angry because he reckons posh rich people are going to go off to Mars and live in gold-plated oxygen tanks while down on Earth, everyone’s become mutants and has freaky three-eyed children, and that’s so fucking unjust – and that’s obviously not the issue facing the kids now.” He digressed briefly – “it’s kind of the extension of where we’re going to go; let’s be honest, Elon Musk is going to Mars while we’re all mutants down on Earth” – but reaffirmed his aim to “evoke genuine teenage anger, rather than well-thought out facts, and [Rian Gordon] did so amazingly”. He was full of praise for all four of the young actors (Gordon as well as Viraj Juneja, Lewis Gribben and Samuel Bottomley), who were chosen after a huge casting process across the UK and Ireland and are inarguably outstanding throughout the film.
Before starting on Get Duked, Doff’s work was mostly made up of music videos, including for his favourite band, Run the Jewels, the hip-hop supergroup made up of Killer Mike – a personal friend of US socialist figurehead Bernie Sanders – and El-P. “The only thing that close quicker than our caskets be the factories,” they rap in a collaboration with Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, which suitably finds its way into the film soundtrack. “I actually tried to get [Killer Mike and El-P] into the film, but it didn’t quite work. I wanted them to cameo as some farmers,” Doff deadpanned. Fortunately, he was later able to pull together a Run the Jewels/Get Duked cross-over music video. The video, now out but still a work-in-progress when we spoke, was “the most amazing icing on the cake of this whole journey”, he said. Not only does the video bring together the two major threads of Doff’s professional life, it also reflects his own love of American hip-hop while growing up in Edinburgh. “Listening to East Coast rap from the ‘90s while walking through medieval streets – as I grew up, I always thought that was an insane combination, but it totally worked.” This ties in with his desire to capture an authentic Scottish voice, neither “very gritty or very tourist board-y”, which dominates the entire film. Doff identified “voice and language” as the key features of authentically Scottish cinema, and said he was “euphoric” when Trainspotting came out in his early teens and managed to capture those elements.
I was sorry to end my short conversation with Doff, having wanted for over a year since falling in love with Get Duked at Edinburgh’s film festival to discuss the film with him directly. As the studio rep reminded me that I was approaching the time limit, I asked Doff if he ever worried that the real Duke of Edinburgh – who he was at pains to stress bears no resemblance to the film’s lead villain, played by Eddie Izzard – would die before the release of his film, wrecking the whole thing. Between bouts of belly laughter, he reminded me that he still had a week to go. Almost praying to Prince Philip, he added: “Stay strong and keep taking those vitamin pills!”