Putting Edinburgh on the big screen

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THE year was 1995, and a bit of film history was about to be made. Two rather skinny young acting unknowns were preparing to race along Princes Street, whizzing past shoppers and scattering their characters' ill-gotten gains.

But – unseen by cinema audiences – in front of them was a quad bike, with camera attached and numerous police officers busy marshalling shoppers out of the way, block by block, as the film-makers shot the actors' flight in two-minute segments.

Filming the now incredibly famous Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner running from the former John Menzies (now a Next store) to Leith Street and Calton Road took the entire day – yet the scene's appearance at the beginning of Trainspotting takes up just 31 seconds of film time.

Although, most surprising perhaps is the fact that not a single shop had to close during filming.

But then making sure that film directors get the shots they need, while residents are not inconvenienced and that the city is shown in all its glory – be it on the small or big screen – is the mission of Edinburgh Film Focus, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

As Ros Davis, film commissioner of EFF says, those 31 seconds have "gone on to become one of the most iconic opening sequences in film".

EFF – then known as the Edinburgh and Lothian Screen Industries Office – was the first of its kind in Scotland and only the second such body in the UK, cottoning on to what the Americans had recognised for a long time: that actively attracting and assisting filmmakers to an area could bring untold economic and marketing benefits for a city.

Ros explains: "When Edinburgh Film Focus was first set up by George Carlaw (the first film commissioner] in 1990, the office dealt with, at most, 70 inquiries a year and we got excited if we got one big production every couple of years. Inward investment value was around 400,000. Now we think we are doing badly if we don't get at least four big productions a year and a minimum 2 million spend."

The marketing benefits are clear. VisitBritain reports that films depicting the UK are responsible for attracting ten per cent of overseas tourists, while VisitScotland believes the filming of The Da Vinci Code here in 2005 – which saw stars including Tom Hanks working at Rosslyin Chapel – brought in 6m to Scotland.

"A major selling point for Edinburgh is its World Heritage Site status. The juxtaposition of Old Town and New Town streets, coupled with the mansion houses, castles, coastline and industrial areas that the Lothians and Borders bring to the table, give us a wonderful package to market," says Ros.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the location that tops the EFF most popular list over the years is the Royal Mile and the closes off it, particularly Bakehouse Close and Merchant Street, where this year's Burke and Hare movie, 2002's Daniel Deronda film, starring Hugh Dancy, and adverts for Next have been shot.

Another movie which used the Royal Mile was 1996's Jude, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, directed by Michael Winterbottom and produced by Andrew Eaton.

Andrew says: "Michael and I have very fond memories of working in Edinburgh. We were able to shoot in some incredible locations, including closing down part of the Royal Mile.

"We had one day with five hundred extras, cattle, horses, pigs and chickens, as well as a huge student parade all in a late 19th-century setting.

"The whole experience was a dream, from stunning buildings and locations to luxury hotels and the opportunity to walk to work most days.

"I wish all film experiences could be like that."

In its 20-year history, EFF, which is funded by the councils of Edinburgh, East and West Lothian and the Scottish Borders, has dealt with 5,300 inquiries, attracted and helped 3,160 productions which have spent an estimated 40m – and showcased the city to the world.

This year, audiences are due to see the city and the Lothians in Crying with Laughter, released this week, about a cocaine-snorting stand-up comedian on the verge of his first big break. Directed by Justin Molotnikov it was shot in Edinburgh, East Lothian and the Borders.

Then there's Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, while John Landis' Burke and Hare is due out this autumn. Supernatural thriller Outcast, starring James Nesbitt, which was shot in Sighthill as well as the Royal Mile and the Grassmarket, will also be released later this year.

As for the future, Ros, who has been with the EFF since 1994, is realistic as well as optimistic. "The international competition to win productions is fierce," she says.

"Some countries, regions and cities now offer incentives to attract filming.

"Film and TV productions are risk-averse and will base location choices on the film-friendly reputation of an area, its cost, the availability of crew and facilities and its transport links.

"So we continue to look at ways of shouting louder about how amazing this city and the region around it are for filming in."