Edinburgh Film Festival preview: Director Matt Palmer on his Highlands-set thriller Calibre, starring Jack Lowden

Jack Lowden as Vaughn in Calibre PIC: Calibre Films Ltd
Jack Lowden as Vaughn in Calibre PIC: Calibre Films Ltd
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Inspired by films like Deliverance, Calibre was nine years in the making. Writer-director Matt Palmer talks to Alistair Harkness about the project, and persuading rising star Jack Lowden to play the ‘Everyman’ role

Be careful not to tell him it’s the ‘everyman role’: he’s a movie star not an everyman.”

Sitting in the basement bar of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh-based filmmaker Matt Palmer is recalling his producer’s advice about pitching his debut feature, Calibre, to up-and-coming Scottish actor Jack Lowden. Though Lowden had not yet been cast in Dunkirk or the forthcoming Mary Queen of Scots at this point, he was clearly on his way to bigger things. Hence the note of caution.

“And then I met with Jack and the first thing he said was: ‘So this is the everyman character,’” continues Palmer with a laugh. “He just got it from the start.”

A taut, Highland-set thriller that doffs its deerstalker to wilderness wig-outs like Deliverance and Wake in Fright, Calibre may cast Lowden in the everyman role of an expectant father whose life takes a nightmarish turn following a tragic accident on a weekend hunting trip. But as his character, Vaughn, lets his best friend Marcus (Martin McCann) make a series of bad-to-catastrophic decisions that put them on a collision course with the close-knit locals, he soon becomes the most morally complex character in the film. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is why Palmer needed an actor of Lowden’s calibre.

“Though it’s a genre movie, it goes to some very dark places, so you need people who are psychologically believable in every moment. His was the first name our casting director mentioned and we were just very lucky on the timing. He got cast in Dunkirk and we were all like, ‘OK, that’s a Christopher Nolan movie; this probably isn’t going to happen’. Had we maybe been three-to-six months later we couldn’t have got near him.”

With production commencing towards the end of 2016 (it was mostly shot within an hour’s drive of Edinburgh), the film’s fortuitous timing was actually the beginning of the end of what has been a fairly epic journey to bring Calibre to the big screen. When it receives its world premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, it’ll have been nine years since Palmer first sat down to write the script. Why so long?

“I’m not a very prolific writer,” he says, simply. “I’d quite happily direct someone else’s script but that’s not really an option before you’ve made your first feature.”

Still, he knew he was onto something when the idea continued to excite him. Though Palmer has been honing his filmmaking skills with various horror-themed shorts over the last decade or so, writing multiple drafts of a feature script tuned him into the value of piecing things together bit by bit until he got it right – which was important since the whole film evolved from a single image that came to him out of the blue while sitting on his sofa at one o’clock in the morning. Though it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal exactly what this image was, it forms the most shocking moment in the film and he found it so potent he almost didn’t want to touch it. “I’d spent ages sitting around trying to come up with ideas, and nothing was coming, and then this hit me like a thunderbolt. I was like, ‘What is this? Where did it come from?’”

Palmer traces his own love of film back to a horror-movie-obsessed school friend and a book called The Deep Red Horror Handbook. “It listed all these crazy-sounding films and that was me: I was off and running.”

He relocated to Scotland (he’s originally from Kidderminster) to study film at the University of Glasgow, spending much of his time as a student staying up all night watching movies. He also become a connoisseur of cult cinema, well-known to fellow aficionados around Edinburgh and Glasgow thanks to the many late-night screenings of gonzo genre films he used to put on as part of his “Psychotronic Cinema” seasons and “All Night Horror Madness” events.

Making his own cult-influenced thriller has therefore been a bit surreal. And intense. “It’s like some ludicrous TV survival challenge. It took me three weeks after we finished to be able to sleep. I was just spent.” He quips that he only started feeling like a director “about a week ago”, but emails later to clarify that the last six months have been like a dream. There have been meetings with high profile producers in the US and the UK and the industry response to the film has been strong.

But with its first public screenings imminent, how does he feel about showing it for a home crowd?

“You know what? Because of the number of people who came on board – and the amount they’ve brought to the project to elevate it –my primary emotion is just relief that I haven’t messed it up.”

Calibre is at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22, 23 and 30 June, www.edfilmfest.org.uk