Interview: David Mackenzie on the joys of guerilla film making at T in the Park
AS FEATS of filmmaking go, David Mackenzie's plan was close to impossible. The Scottish director of Hallam Foe and Young Adam wanted to shoot a movie, a full-length drama feature, in four days.
• Director David Mackenzie
And not just any four days: the film would be made entirely at last year's T in the Park festival.
A visiting filmmaker took one look at his shooting schedule and laughed out loud.
"Insane" is Mackenzie's word for it. Sitting in the offices of his production company Sigma, in Glasgow's Film City (Govan Town Hall, reinvented as movie-making Mecca), he allows himself to smile because he did it. The film, You Instead, gets its world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival this month.
"It's now quite a polished movie," he says, sounding mildly surprised.
"I think people will be amazed when they see it that we shot that in four days because there's so much good cinema in it, so much good acting. Now that it's been shaped and we're working on the sound, it's going to be a big movie. It's pretty nice to be able to spend some time polishing it up."
You Instead will be his second world premiere in a month. Perfect Sense, a romance-thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.
The film, shot in Glasgow but set in an apocalyptic world where people gradually lose their senses, "seemed to do the trick" with the Sundance audience. He expects it will get a general cinema release later this year. All in all, 2011 could be a good year.
The two films, he says, are like yin and yang. Where Perfect Sense is dark, You Instead is a rock'n'roll rom-com, the story of two feuding rock stars who are handcuffed together at a rock festival and, despite themselves, begin to fall in love.
It has a dynamic young British cast headed by Luke Treadaway and Natalia Tena (Tonks from the Harry Potter movies), and could be Mackenzie's happiest film to date.
It is certainly his fastest. Sigma producer Gillian Berrie pulled out all the stops to get clearance to film at T in the Park for the crowd scenes.
Then Mackenzie decided that "wasn't challenging enough" and suggested they try to shoot the whole movie there.
The film team based themselves in a compound between the Main Stage and the NME Stage, contending with the ever-present throb of bass and the armies of wellies marching from one stage to another. It was exhausting but exhilarating. Mackenzie's voice fills with excitement when he talks about it.
"It's a great method. There's something about throwing everyone into that environment that unifies everyone. Somehow forcing oneself into a live environment and shooting very quickly is a liberation.
You don't have control of the environment but as long as you're able to think on your feet and everyone is cool and able to roll with the punches, you can get incredible stuff."
The poetic cinematography of Mackenzie's earlier films hasn't disappeared in the frenzy: he describes a shot filmed at dawn where hundreds of seagulls swirl in the sky.
"It was really visually poetic and magical. To begin with, I think we all thought the whole thing was going to be impossible, but it got better and better. The opportunities just kept on opening up, and we were more fighting fit to take advantage of them."
However, there were also moments when it rained, or when the entire film crew got boxed in by the arrival of Jay-Z's entourage, or the 1,500-strong crowd they had arranged as extras headed off en masse to catch a burlesque show.
"You've got nearly 100,000 people out having a good time, not interested in having us getting in their way. That was kind of interesting."
The trade-off was that they were able to capture the atmosphere, energy and spontaneity of a live music festival.
"What's nice is the lightness of the material mixing with the grittiness of the way we shot it. It is able to avoid being too fluffy, which makes me a lot more comfortable about it. What I hope you get from the movie is the sense that you're there. Watching it is making me want to go and hang out at music festivals. I hope we get free tickets next year. We might get to see some bands!"
• Luke Treadaway (Adam) and Natalia Tena (Morello) in You Instead
The film will be released independently in Scotland in May in time for this year's T in the Park.
Viewers might spot some famous acts: the Proclaimers, the Prodigy, Biffy Clyro, and there is an improvised scene between singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner and Still Game's Gavin Mitchell, who plays "a mad American band manager", which Mackenzie says is one of the funniest in the movie.
"He (Faulkner] had just finished doing his gig. We asked him if he'd do it, and he was up for it – he was quite a good actor, actually."
He talks about the unconventional shoot in terms of the freedom to be creative.
"Somehow the process of making movies conventionally can dampen creativity because you've got to wait in line to do everything the way it's supposed to be, particularly with actors who are just hanging out waiting for the call.
"In this case, even the actors who weren't in every scene were off with the second unit doing other stuff. Everyone was constantly occupied. That keeps the creativity flowing."
Mackenzie, 44, is known as one of Britain's most creative directors. If his work has a signature, it is the telling of dark stories with a sense of lightness and humanity. Though his work has been widely acclaimed, he is yet to have a mainstream box office hit.
Some hoped this might change with his last film, Spread, made in LA and starring Ashton Kutcher as a Beverly Hills gigolo. After being briefly touted as his Hollywood debut, it got only a very limited cinema release in the UK.
Mackenzie missed its premiere at Sundance and rarely talks about it in interviews, prompting rumours of another fine British director getting his fingers burned in Hollywood and retreating to make low-budget British movies back home.
But Mackenzie shakes his head and says this wasn't his experience. "I think it's a good movie, and I think it will withstand the test of time reasonably well.
That whole idea of Hollywood wannabes and not all of them making it, there's something that lives on and on with that one."
He says he is currently considering various projects in Norway, Sicily, Boston and London, including a sci-fi adaptation of Toby Litt's novel Journey Into Space, but he will happily do another Hollywood project.
"If an opportunity came up to do one of our films there, or the opportunity to do something over there that felt like the right fit, then sure.
"A larger-scale, bigger-budget movie with a bigger train set to play with is always going to appeal to a director, but there are all sorts of compromises and extra things you have to deal with that may or may not be pleasant.
"It's about increasing the range of your experience."
What he really seeks is the space to be original, to find new ways of telling film's archetypal stories. So Hallam Foe is an offbeat coming-of-age story, Perfect Sense is a dark love story, You Instead a rom-com with added rock'n'roll, Spread is not so much a conventional Hollywood tale as a dissection of the Hollywood dream.
"That's the aspiration: to have some kind of conventional basis for whatever and do a very original take on it. I'm rather anti the whole genre thing, the fanboy stuff which seems to be what most modern filmmakers are into.
"I think it's probably harder to market films that are trying to be original. But I guess what we're trying to do is be different from convention in some way – and long may we continue to do that."
The world premiere of You Instead is at Cineworld, Renfrew Street, Glasgow, on 25 February as part of the Glasgow Film Festival www.glasgowfilm.org/festival
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 06 February, 2011
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