Director Richard Jobson and actor Dougray Scott have returned to their homeland to make a dark thriller about two very different sides of Edinburgh society. And it's very much a tale for our times
NOT for nothing is Edinburgh the city that gave birth to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: it has always been a place riddled with contradictions. It is the locus of so many apparently incompatible aspects: Trainspotting and the New Town, Rebus and the Royal Mile, Burke and Hare and the International Festival.
That same sense of duality lies at the heart of New Town Killers, a striking new film about the rich and poor who live cheek by jowl in Edinburgh. Written and directed by Richard Jobson, the film focuses on Alistair Raskalnikov – did you spot the reference to Crime And Punishment there? Alistair, played with smouldering intensity by Dougray Scott (who starred last year in an American TV version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), is an amoral, "master of the universe" hedge-fund manager, who works for the ironically named Ethical Finances company.
He gets his kicks by luring desperately impoverished lads into an extreme game of hide and seek. Alistair ropes in an almost equally sadistic cohort, Jamie (Alastair Mackenzie), and then pays a hard-up teenager, Sean (James Anthony Pearson), to evade capture for one long night on the streets of Edinburgh. But the game soon turns deadly serious…
A Celtic film-noir cousin of American Psycho, the movie is a modern-day reworking of the David and Goliath story. Full of moody shots of stygian corners of the city, which exude an ominous Third Man quality, New Town Killers is also a dark and disturbing love letter to Edinburgh.
Jobson and Scott are sitting side by side in the sort of upscale central London hotel Alistair would frequent. They make for a charismatic double act. For a start, they are an undeniably handsome pair. Scott, 43, possesses the impossibly chiselled good looks of a current movie star – it is no surprise to learn he was nominated as GQ's "Most Alluring Man" of 2001. His allure has only been enhanced by his recent role as Desperate Housewives' friendly neighbourhood hunk. Jobson, meanwhile, possesses the impossibly chiselled good looks of a one-time pop star – readers of a certain vintage will fondly recall him drop-kicking his way through the Skids' Into the Valley on Top of the Pops in 1979. He has also done his fair share of modelling.
Both native Fifers, Jobson, 48, and Scott clearly enjoy a strong rapport – they finish each other's sentences and top each other's punchlines. They are already planning their next collaboration, a film adaptation of Macbeth using green screen and CGI "in the style of Sin City". The director, also responsible for 16 Years of Alcohol, the semi-autobiographical movie about a battle with the bottle, which picked up two gongs at the 2003 British Independent Film Awards, begins by explaining that New Town Killers taps into Edinburgh's long history of dualism.
"I wanted to play on the Gothic tradition of the contradictory city of Jekyll and Hyde," says Jobson. "I was working with an Edinburgh charity called Circle, which helps the children of alcoholics and heroin addicts in the outlying estates of the city. I found that, like everyone, they have their own dreams and ambitions. But the rest of society treats them as invisible – and that angered me greatly.
"I then started to become aware of another, very different form of invisibility, right in the middle of the New Town. Living in these beautiful, six-storey townhouses were these hedge-fund managers. They didn't court publicity – they lived in a bubble that the world never noticed – but they controlled everything. These two types were living side by side. I thought that was a strange paradox which might create a fascinating film."
Edinburgh is the ideal setting for this clash of two worlds, he says. "You can time-travel so easily – in a moment, you can move from the antiquated, genteel home of the Enlightenment, a place rich in culture, to this dark, unsettling, subterranean world."
Jobson penned the role of Alistair specifically for Scott – which may be construed as a double-edged compliment. "I get that brooding quality from Dougray," the director says, flashing a winning smile at his leading actor. "I like the fact that he doesn't overplay it – he just lets the camera do the work. So when we first met, I was shocked to discover how gentle and un-psychopathic Dougray is! But as soon as he read in rehearsals, he nailed the character. We were all chilled. He instantly captured Alistair's ambivalent nature, that compelling mixture of malevolence and charm."
"Am I flattered that he wrote it for me?" the actor asks with a knowing laugh. "Of course! I loved the script. I immediately understood what it was. It's a cracking thriller, but it also contains a very important examination of a substantial underclass which is too often ignored." He adds that his shared background with Jobson gave them an instant shorthand. "Richard and I are both Fifers and we have a lot of common references. We share a very particular vernacular."
The director chimes in: "Dougray and I didn't have to dig very deep to understand who Sean was. We're from villages six miles apart. We come from the same rural mining belt of central Fife that was destroyed by Thatcherism. So many people there are now forced to live on the margins of society."
Jobson wrote the script for New Town Killers two years ago, before last autumn's global financial meltdown. However, Alistair's job as a ruthless hedge-fund manager now seems absolutely appropriate. You won't find many people these days who disagree with the idea of a vicious financier as the thorough-going villain of the piece. "Obviously, the financial crisis has had a terrible impact on many people," acknowledges Scott, who is married to the actress Claire Forlani. "But for our film, it's an incredibly fortuitous coincidence that the markets have collapsed. It couldn't be more apt when the central character is a venal hedge-fund manager who revels in his success and is incredibly dismissive of those he views as beneath him. He has this tremendous sense of entitlement about his life. The way Alistair treats Sean is a great metaphor for the way many hedge-fund managers have recently treated the rest of society. Some of them seem to have no sense of responsibility."
Jobson, who in 2005 made A Woman in Winter, starring yet another son of the East Coast, the Dundonian Brian Cox, takes up the theme: "There is an innate arrogance about some hedge-fund managers. Maybe I'm jealous, but I find something abhorrent about them. I thought they'd be a good target in New Town Killers.
"As they drive about the city in their Maseratis and their Ferraris, they have this sheen of power. The film is to do with the self-obsession of the powerful. You give people power and they will behave like the Medicis, simply doing as they please. As Alistair rids society of what he regards as undesirables, he says, 'Who cares about these people? We're doing society a favour here'. He is totally amoral – he believes there is no cause and effect. But I am a moralist, and I believe there is cause and effect." Scott, a diehard Hibs fan who will soon be starring opposite Cox in BBC1's new adaptation of the classic John Wyndham sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids, closes by waxing lyrical about his native land. "It was great to be working in Scotland again," beams the actor.
"I feel very calm and can breathe very easily there. And Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the world. After all, my football team are there! The city's air, atmosphere, rhythm and heartbeat all make me feel good. Every day on New Town Killers I was rubbing my hands with delight about working in Edinburgh.
"It was minus six degrees when we were shooting," he actor adds with a wry smile, "so I was also rubbing my hands just to keep warm!"
• New Town Killers is released next Friday.