Interview: James Mullighan, Edinburgh Film Festival chief
The new head of Edinburgh Film Festival is going back to the drawing board with innovative plans for the June jamboree
• James Mullighan wants the Edinburgh Film Festival to give people, especially young people, the chance to participate and feel invited and involved
CAVES, kirks, schools, assembly halls – even cricket pitches. Those are some of the possible venues the Edinburgh International Film Festival's new director, James Mullighan, is hoping to find for the 2011 festival.
In what is billed as a radical shake-up, red carpets, awards and five-star hotels for visiting VIPs are out. Free-ranging ideas drawn from guest curators are in, along with what he calls "a bit more denim". In the closing days of 2010, the festival, after an abortive hunt for a new artistic director, named instead a new "producer," Mullighan. His hastily drafted job description was to oversee an artistic vision delivered by others, including former artistic director Mark Cousins, and his frequent collaborator, the actress Tilda Swinton.
Mullighan told The Scotsman this week, however, that his title is now "director" – which he quickly followed up with a statement posted on the festival's website. The switch may seem confusing, and underlines the impression that the festival is in a difficult state of flux, but Mullighan insisted: "I'm just going to be the guy working 10-12 hours a day trying to get lots of exciting things happening without breaking the bank and putting on a really exciting show." The June festival will not announce any details of its line-up until late spring. But in a wide-ranging interview, Mullighan says he hopes to increase its ticket sales by 10 per cent, partly by using the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for screenings half a dozen times, alongside off-beat, Fringe-style venues across the city.
Just how he will achieve that remains to be seen. The festival's budget is significantly lower than last year's, after a three-year funding package from the UK Film Council ran out. Neither Mullighan nor Gavin Miller, overseeing the festival at the Centre for the Moving Image, will say what it is.
Mullighan says one area for savings will be the event's hospitality budget, as the festival cuts back on first-class tickets and five-star hotels. The VIPs he wants to attract, he says, should be prepared to mingle with the audience in the Filmhouse bar, rather than glide around in chauffeured cars. The festival's contract with Rogers & Cowan, the worldwide entertainment publicity giant with major clients from London to Hollywood, ended on 31 December. The budget for extra temporary staff at festival time will be the same, he says.
Mullighan is 43 and originally from Australia, and his career has ranged from arts journalism – including as a Fringe reviewer for The Scotsman – and work in the music industry to most recently running Shooting People, a company acting as a networking forum for independent film-makers that claims 38,000 paying members. "We were a social network ten years before Facebook," he said, in what is clearly a favoured mantra.
One of his initiatives at Shooting People was to write to Nasa, suggesting that they broaden the diversity of films and TV shows available for astronauts at the International Space Station. Films in its library like Caddyshack, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Beverley Hills Cop "might weaken the critical faculties of those on board", he wrote, suggesting instead films like the Ice Storm, Freaks, Man on Wire, Swingers, The Third Man, or The Man who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie.
The list gives an idea of his taste in films. He is a big fan of Nicolas Roeg – who made the surreal Bowie film about an extraterrestrial who lands on Earth seeking a way to ship water to his drought-stricken planet – as well as directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. His favourite film at last year's EIFF, he says, was Antichrist, by Lars von Trier, "by a mile". Its sexual gore stirred up controversy at Cannes, and was described by reviewers as "shockingly provocative and gruellingly violent."
"I enjoy something lyrical and elegant as well, but I quite like cinema that bumps me around," he says. Leigh's film Another Year is the best film he has seen this year. One festival he really enjoys is the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, for its "denim feel and intellectual rigour". He will go the Berlin Film Festival this year in his new role, but is also looking forward to the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in the US, a festival that mixes film, technology, and music.
Mullighan stresses he is not in charge of watching every film that's in the running for the festival, and is not a "cinephile": "I have never had a job like that, I don't watch 500 to 800 films a year like artistic directors of yore.
"My real speciality at Shooting People has been connecting my film-maker members with public bodies and private brands and releasing opportunities for them to grow and make networks through strategic partnerships."
His job is to "realise or produce" the creative vision drawn up by Cousins, Swinton, and another former artistic director, Lynda Miles. Cousins and Swinton, in particular, have produced a string of hip, off-beat cinema events, like their Ballerina Ballroom Cinema Of Dreams, a quirky film festival in Nairn where audiences sat on beanbags and ate homemade sandwiches. They are also aiming to draw up their own list of high-profile guest curators, asking them: "What are your best and boldest and craziest ideas if you had EIFF to play with?"
The CMI's Gavin Miller, who contacted Mullighan in December about the festival job and hired him in just two weeks, says: "He is a director with a small d, with the task of production and running the festival."
The shift in title adds to the clear impression that the festival is being remade from the ground up and has yet to set its path.
Asked if the name-change would confuse people, Mullighan says: "It probably will a bit because the word producer went out, and I don't mind spending time talking to people who are confused by it. I'm not so vain to think the story here is Mullighan. The film festival is the star, not me. It isn't a role which is easy to summarise with a job title, especially with me coming in late and needing to get it up fast, it will be a bit of everything."
The festival sold about 44,000 tickets last year, and the goal is to increase that figure by 10 per cent. A key will be filling the Edinburgh Festival theatre, with 1,800 seats, several times. It was pioneered last year for the opening gala, staging the premiere of The Illusionist.
"Several times 1,800 seats is a lot to sell. It's not hard to do that at the opening-night extravaganza, but that's a challenge I am setting myself, and the programming team."
Most other venues are still up for discussion, he said, including Cineworld. But with some of the money from the hospitality budget set aside for "programme realisation," the festival will finally take full advantage of its recent move from August to June, and take over some of the interesting venues that are used by the Fringe.
"I worked on Fringe reviews. I'm pretty familiar with kirks and caves and schools and assembly halls. I'm going to start using those in the festival," he says. With the festival running over the summer solstice, he wants to project films in unusual outside spaces; one member of staff has even suggested the idea of using Inverleith Cricket Ground.
Independent film-makers don't necessarily need high-fidelity projection in cinemas, he says. "Where they do we will respect that and give it to them. Where we are able to do a bit more denim, be a bit more free and play with the city itself, then we will do that. We want to burst out of venues and take over the city, especially short film programming. We will find films – new, old, archive, whatever – and give them to bands and musicians to play with as well, and create some unique one-off audiovisual experiences."
There are some contradictions that stand out in the festival's new approach. If it is aiming to fill the Festival Theatre several times, and keep the festival's international profile, high-profile premieres, red carpet or not, must be one way to do it. There will still be a role for screenings with "handsome actors dressed elegantly", he said, but not the "us-and-them" remove.
What Edinburgh provides, he says, is "an unmissable experience for industry, a sense of knowledge and learning".
"I imagine that we will have cars to drive people around who are our guests. We don't expect them to be catching buses all over Edinburgh, but that five-star VIP hospitality style of things is off the table," before adding there might be exceptions for a "major luminary".
Mullighan says he told the festival interview panel that: "I wanted to modernise. I wanted to work with people to provide a context for the exhibition of premiere films which are to my mind more relevant to how the film industry is going.
"I wanted to give the opportunity for people, especially young people, young passionate film lovers who live in Edinburgh, to participate and feel invited and involved."
Edinburgh's "role and ultimate ambition will always be to walk proudly on the international stage", he says, including attracting big names, but the goal is to "go back to the drawing board and rebuild".
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 15 C
Wind Speed: 22 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North