Director tells how busload of pensioners delayed city's latest appearance on film

WHAT film director Justin Molotnikov was looking for from the comedy club scenes he was shooting was the impression of a young, hip, happening place, scenes that would cement Edinburgh as the world's premier place for edgy, dark stand-up.

He had the venue – Cowgate's Caves, which would be turned into the fictional Bullpit comedy club. He had the comedian – his lead actor Stephen McCole, who was taking his part as the foul-mouthed, cocaine-addicted stand-up Joey so seriously, he'd finish a day's filming, then head off to a comedy club for a real-life gig.

All he needed was the audience.

"Just as we were preparing the scenes, a busload of people turned up. I thought they were just a pensioners' tour bus. But actually they were my extras.

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"I'm not ageist but it's all about the context. I had to politely put my foot down."

The busload of pensioners dismissed, there was still the small matter of an audience to find – so the crew were dispatched out on the street and to the university to round up some willing participants. "And this time we got a good range of ages," says the Loanhead-based director.

That was back in the winter of 2008. In the slow-moving world of cinema, though, it's only this week that the movie, Crying With Laughter, the dark story of a troubled stand-up and the sinister childhood pal who re-enters his life, is hitting screens across Britain. It's not its first public showing – last year it was on the film festival circuit, debuting at Edinburgh, winning rave reviews at South by Southwest in the United States and picking up a Scottish Bafta.

But many an indie movie makes it to the festivals, impresses the critics, then disappears from sight without anyone outside the film buff world having seen it.

"We had no distributor then, we were just another low-budget film that had managed to get into a festival," says Justin. "It's a tough climate. We never expected, we just hoped it would get picked up."

Now the film is screening (or is about to) in 23 cinemas across the UK, including three in Edinburgh, plus in another nine in special one-off showings.

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All the more impressive considering, as Justin admits, the film's makers had taken a somewhat unconventional approach.

For a start, there was no script until four weeks before filming started so Justin's business partner, Claire Mundell, was doing the cap-in-hand bit around potential funders with very little to show them.

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The script developed through improvisation workshops with the stars, a Mike Leigh/Robert Altman-style of working that Justin insists can be more efficient as the actors already have a strong feel for their characters by the time filming begins. But he does admit it created a "challenge" for Claire. "But I think people were buying into the talent rather than the idea. And I'm not without experience."

In fact, the father of three has an impressive CV, including directing 26 episodes of the Edinburgh-set BBC children's TV show Shoebox Zoo and a feature-length episode of Taggart under his belt.

But Crying With Laughter is his debut as a film director, an ambition he'd wanted to achieve before the age of 40 and which he managed by a matter of weeks (he's now 41).

Just to complete the impressive array of statistics, the final budget for the film was a mere 480,000 – less than some Hollywood blockbusters spend on make-up – and was shot in 18 days, with all the comedy club scenes being jammed into just one day's filming.

Along with the Caves, the locations include places off the chocolate-box Lothian beaten track, such as a miners welfare building in Gullane and Portobello beach.

"I shot all the picture-postcard Edinburgh for Shoebox Zoo. In this I wanted to explore the underbelly of Edinburgh that I knew myself was there."

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More than 20 years of living in the Capital has given Justin plenty of time to discover the city's lesser-known charms, but he actually grew up in Galashiels, moving to Kelso at 14 and only to Edinburgh at 17.

He was brought up by his mum, Marion, from whom he inherits his less than Scottish sounding surname. His great-grandfather was a tailor in the Russian army and his great-grandparents left St Petersburg for Britain just before the Revolution.

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"There was a fashion for changing your name to really tough-sounding names – Stalin means man of steel and Molotnikov means hammer-maker, but I guess that just translates as Smith," he says.

His first career was as a chef, after developing an interest in cooking as a youngster. "My mum worked till six so if I wanted to go out and play with my friends who'd had their tea at five, I had to cook it myself. And it meant I could give myself a bigger portion than my brother," he says, laughing.

What started as a method of getting out to play street footy quicker developed into a passion and he began as a "hot plate boy" in a Kelso restaurant as a 14-year-old. He worked at Howie's and The Shore in Edinburgh.

He picked up a video camera "to see if I could tell stories" and never looked back, although there were hiccups along the way. "I did a writing course but I was terrible. I didn't touch writing again for a long time."

In the early 1990s, he got a place on the now defunct Edinburgh Video Training Course, then went on to the Northern Media School in Yorkshire to study film and "came out a director".

Improvisation workshops on his next project, a tale of disconnected families and identity, begin in the next six weeks, with Stephen McCole again as the star. "We really hope to be filming at the back end of this year. I would like to explore Midlothian a bit more but Edinburgh will certainly be in there."

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Edinburgh is where his heart is, not least because his family – he has three children aged between eight and four with his partner, psychiatric nurse Claire Allan – are here and London holds little appeal.

He's off out to Orange County for a film festival shortly and admits the US is more tempting. "America does offer up a more level playing field than London seems to. So yes, I am certainly going to explore work there.

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"Edinburgh is where I'm settled, where my family are but you don't have to be based in one place."

Crying with Laughter is currently on at the Cameo Edinburgh and Cineworld and will be shown at the Filmhouse from 3-6 May. For more info, visit


THE plot of Crying With Laughter revolves around a stand-up comic, Joey Frisk (Stephen McCole), who is struggling with an addiction to cocaine, problems with his ex-wife and young daughter, and has his landlord breathing down his neck over unpaid rent.

Then a friend from 25 years back walks back into his life. Frank Archer (Malcolm Shields) seems keen to help his old mate – but is he all he first appears?

The film received favourable reviews from the national critics over the weekend. The Guardian called it: "a very strong debut from Molotnikov", while London magazine Time Out said: "an impressive low budget debut" and Variety said: "an unusually strong script for an improv-based indie".