Highland misadventure: Ninian Doff on his Edinburgh Film Fest opener Boyz in the Wood

Ninian Doff, director of coming-of-age drama Boyz in the Wood, talks to Alistair Harkness about returning home to open the Edinburgh International Film Festival, how Tobey Maguire financed his ‘weird little Scottish film’ and the festival figures who inspired him

A scene from Boyz in the Wood
A scene from Boyz in the Wood

When raucous Scottish teen movie Boyz in the Wood opens this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival on 19 June, it’ll be a homecoming in more ways than one for its writer/director Ninian Doff. Not only was the 37-year-old music video maverick born and bred in Edinburgh, he also got his filmmaking start at the festival as a teenager, thanks to a nascent youth film scheme called Scottish Kids Are Making Movies (SKAMM).

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it totally changed the course of my life,” laughs Doff about the initiative, which was set up in the 1990s by Mark Cousins, the festival’s artistic director at the time, and the late Shiona Wood, the Filmhouse’s tireless education officer. “It wan’t called SKAMM yet. There was a flyer in the Filmhouse about a filmmaking group for young people and it was literally the first meeting. I went with my mum because I was 12 or something.”

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He remembers Wood in particular and has dedicated the film to her because of her “mad belief in teenagers.”

A scene from Boyz in the Wood

“She just loved their voice and their brains,” he says. “She gave us cameras, gave us press passes to the festival, let us see any film we wanted and let us make video diaries. That completely blew my mind wide open. That encouragement began my love for cinema.”

Doff dug out some old VHS copies of those video diaries recently. What kind of stuff was he shooting?

“We’d go off and harass everyone in our little high-pitched voices,” he says. “You’ve got a kind of superpower at that age because no one wants to turn down a kid with a VHS camera and we were too young and naive to realise that maybe there are people you approach more casually. We’d storm up to everyone. I remember Alan Rickman did a half-hour interview with us and Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine gave the funniest interview ever. And because it was a film festival, there would be these arthouse giants wandering around. I remember being introduced to people like Bernardo Bertolucci and going...” – he adopts a squeaky voice – “‘Hi Bernardo…’”

Celebrating the potential of teenagers connects well with the theme of Boyz in the Wood. Set in the Highlands, the film puts a comic, distinctly Scottish and distinctively surreal spin on the coming-of-age movie by focusing on four marginalised teens (Samuel Bottomly, Viraj Juneja, Rian Gordon, Lewis Gribben) who are forced to fight for their lives when a tweed-wearing aristocrat (Eddie Izzard) starts hunting them for sport in the midst of their (largely reluctant) attempt to complete the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.

Director Ninian Doff

“I was a teenager when the first Trainspotting came out and it was like the greatest thing on Earth,” says Doff, picking up the story of why he wanted to return to Scotland to make a teen movie in the great outdoors. “I really wanted to make a film that had that energy, that charging pace, that rhythm. I’m sure I’ve probably missed some films along the way, but I hadn’t seen that done before in Scotland.”

Rather than serving up a whimsical celebration of the Scottish landscape, then, the film veers confidently from gross-out humour to outré social horror via a plot that includes bad hip-hop, hallucinogenic rabbit poo and a pair of action-starved cops played by the hilariously deadpan Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie. Dickie, normally cast in more harrowing and dramatic roles, was actually the first of the adult cast to sign on and Doff – who relished the chance to cast her against type – credits the Game of Thrones star with adding legitimacy to the project. “Her comic timing and deadpan ability is brilliant and she helped bring in a lot of the other cast because it was then clear that we weren’t doing this as a kind of sketch show.”

Indeed, the film’s wild style shares some cinematic DNA with the likes of Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilder People, Superbad and the collective output of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Doff attributes his own genre-mashing approach to his music video background, which he’s always viewed as a way for him to make short films, just with great music. Over the years he’s made promos for The Chemical Brothers, Run the Jewels and Swedish pop band Miike Snow and it was actually his Goldfinger-riffing video for Miike Snow’s 2016 track Genghis Khan that helped get Boyz in the Wood made – attracting as it did the attention of American agents, and winning him a fan, a producer and a backer in the form of Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire.

“They call it their ‘weird little Scottish film,’” says Doff, referring to Maguire and his producing partner Matt Plouffe, who financed the film through their company, Material Pictures. “Part of me is still pinching myself. Tobey came out to a very rainy carpark in Glasgow for one day of the shoot. It was the worst weather we had for the entire production. I think at that point he maybe was wondering what he’d done, but everyone’s happy now.”

That’s unsurprising. The film went down a storm at the recent SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where it won the audience award, despite the cultural specificity of a plot built around Duke of Edinburgh Awards. Did US audiences realise it was a real thing? “A few of the US reviews were like, ‘Oh, this isn’t made up?’” laughs Doff, who got his Bronze when he was a kid. “But they got it. They were like, ‘OK, it’s kind of like the Scouts.’”

Next stop is Edinburgh and it’s hard to imagine the reception won’t be similarly rapturous. “It’s just mind-blowing to be in the festival,” he surmises. “To come back with the opener... because of Shiona – that was her festival – and because of SKAMM… And for Edinburgh itself,” he adds. “People I went to school with... everyone’s been out buying tickets. It’s going to be really special.”

The Edinburgh International Film Festival runs from 19-30 June, see www.edfilmfest.org.uk