A FRESHWATER pearl mussel, cooried down in the fine gravel of one of Scotland’s fast-flowing rivers, could be there for up to 130 years. It could grow as large as your hand, happily drawing in and filtering the water, sending out millions of larvae in the hope one or two might latch on the gills or fins of young salmon or trout where they will stay for a week or months, before dropping off into the sediment further upstream, ensuring the whole cycle continues. Occasionally, but only very occasionally, it might produce a pearl.
So prized were these pearls, and so abundant in Britain at one time, that they caused Julius Caesar’s first invasion in 55BC, according to his biographer Suetonius. By the 12th century the Scottish king Alexander I had the best pearl collection of any man alive, but by the 18th century overfishing had started the species’ decline. In 1998, in danger of extinction, it became illegal to disturb, injure, take or kill a freshwater pearl mussel, but there are still those who persist in a bid to make a killing from the black market trade in the pearls. Today there are thought to be only 150 rivers worldwide containing breeding populations of freshwater pearl mussels, and half of those rivers are in Scotland.
That’s the science bit. Now for the romance. You’ve got the mussels, now for the muscles.
A girl, a passionate English conservationist determined to save the mussels from the criminal gangs of pearl thieves operating in the Scottish Highlands, who also happens to look drop-dead gorgeous in a bikini, and a boy, a lad from Govan keen to make some cash poaching the endangered shellfish in a bid to find the pearls. They’re from different worlds, but those worlds collide and they fall in love. Throw in a square-jawed American Highland ranger who is also keen on the pretty conservationist, violent heavies, some stunning Scottish scenery, comedy from the Govan boy’s daft pals, a cute otter with big brown eyes and you have Talulah Riley’s directorial debut, Scottish Mussel. Premiering at Edinburgh Film Festival on Friday, the film stars Riley, opposite Martin Compston (Sweet Sixteen, Line Of Duty) and his sidekicks Paul Brannigan (The Angel’s Share, Sunshine On Leith) and The Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas. Watch out for Harry Enfield’s turn as a quirky fast food van owner too.
“Mussels are endangered due to overfishing and pollution,” says Riley. “It’s a real issue and people need to know about it. They’re not cuddly but they’re the foundation of the ecosystem. Everything depends on everything else. It’s like the bees, everything is connected and dependent.
“I have always been interested in green issues,” says the 29-year-old, speaking down the phone from her home in Los Angeles as she prepares to head to Scotland for the premiere. “It’s something I’m really passionate about in general. But I’m also inspired by people like Jeff Skoll of Participant Media who doesn’t just make money but thinks about the social message of the films he makes and pushes films with sophisticated subject matter.” Skoll’s media company funds feature films and documentaries that promote social values while still being commercially viable.
“I wanted to do something gentle and floaty that re-framed green issues in a different way so that it still counts, and to get the emotional issue in too.
“The idea of the freshwater pearl mussels came from my dad who had read about it in the paper,” she says.
Riley’s dad, Doug Milburn, is a former head of the National Crime Squad turned screenwriter, who has written episodes of Silent Witness, Prime Suspect and The Bill.
“He’d thought about writing about a Glasgow criminal who becomes a pearl fisher, but it wasn’t working so I asked him if I could do it. I was living in LA and homesick and for the year I was writing it, it was like being at home,” she says.
“I added the love story, because I love romcoms and thought it would work well. I focused it on the conservation angle, but I also like fluffy, romantic things. I like comedy in general and lighthearted romps.
“Dad saw it this morning, along with my mother and they both liked it. Well, they said they did.”
So they should, as they were extras in a ceilidh scene, along with many of Riley’s friends and family.
Riley claims to miss the Scottish weather when she’s in LA, where she lives with billionaire PayPal founder husband Elon Musk. The couple married at Dornoch Cathedral in 2010, they divorced in 2012 then married again a year later. Riley spent most of last year in Scotland making Scottish Mussel and there was talk of a split again earlier this year, but the pair were out and about looking happy together at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
“I would like to think my life is romantic,” is all she will say on the subject before her PR tells me to stick to questions about the film.
OK, romcoms. Who is Riley’s inspiration in the romcom department?
“Nora Ephron has always been my idol – my favourite film is Sleepless In Seattle – and Nancy Meyers [The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give and The Parent Trap] and Richard Curtis [Four Weddings And A Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Love Actually].
“And I grew up watching Fred Astaire films with my mum. I don’t like horror. I don’t want to be miserable. I want to be happy and have a bit of fantasy. There’s room for that in life too,” she says.
It was Riley’s mother who gave her daughter her film-star name after the legendary Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead, famous for her party lifestyle and string of lovers.
“Yes, but she spelled it with one less ‘l’ so I wouldn’t be so wild,” she says, laughing. Less of a lush, or libertine? “Yes. Tallulah Bankhead was extremely decadent. She once said, ‘My father warned me about men and alcohol. But never about women and cocaine’. But I’m quite prim and staid really.”
Despite living an LA lifestyle, Riley felt quite at home living in Scotland while she made the film.
“I do miss the rain when I’m in LA, and it is culturally very different too,” she says. “I’ve always loved Scotland and my dad is from Moffat, so we used to visit all the time when I was little. In my memory it’s the most beautiful place in the world.”
Memory is one thing, and writing about plunging into fast-flowing rivers while you’re basking in the heat of LA is all very well, but filming in Scotland in winter is quite another scene entirely.
“It was freezing and so cold jumping in the rivers. Every one of them was freezing. The first time I got in I felt my body shutting down but the boys had done it so I had to too. I couldn’t complain because I’d written it. It was OK in my head, but when we actually had to do it, that was a different story,” she says. Riley couldn’t blame the director, because she was the director, but when she sat down to write the story three years ago, that was never her intention.
“I didn’t plan to direct it but it’s so hard to get a film made it seemed the only way to get it done was to champion it myself as my own project. It took six months to a year to write it and three years to get it made. It was an arduous process. I made several attempts to get someone else to do it but in the end had to do it myself.
“I love writing, that’s my favourite thing. I always wanted to be a writer and I wrote a novel when I was a teenager. Then the acting happened and I loved it. It started as a hobby and then escalated.”
Born in 1985 in Hertfordshire, Riley took weekend drama classes at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and while still at Haberdashers’ Aske’s – a private day school in Hertfordshire – went to an open audition for an extra part in Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
“They thought I looked like a younger version of Sophie Winkleman who was one of the stars, so I got a bigger part. Then I got a part in Pride & Prejudice.”
Riley played Mary Bennet to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth in Jo Wright’s 2005 film of Austen’s Regency romance.
“Pride & Prejudice started the day after I left school so I went straight on to a film set and never looked back. My friends went to university, but I was earning money, so I thought it was OK. I had always loved the BBC version of Pride And Prejudice with Colin Firth, and watch it twice a year. I ended up being in all these literary adaptations of things I love, so it was like a continuation of my education,” she says.
After Pride & Prejudice, Riley went on to land parts in St Trinian’s, The Boat That Rocked, Thor: The Dark World and Inception, and also played the lead in the romantic short film, The Summer House, opposite Twilight heart-throb Robert Pattinson. All the while she continued to write, penning a novel while still a teenager before moving on to screenplays.
“The first script I wrote was a sex thriller, but I found myself not wanting to put that message out in the world as my first thing. I was in a dark mood and that’s not me, so I did this instead.
“Scottish Mussel was a ridiculous film to make for a first time film: low budget, with a short time scale, but had multiple locations, children and animals. The weather played its part too with gale force winds when we had 15 guys stood on metal lighting stands,” she says.
The animals in question are “Otto” the otter, played in fact by a pair of tame otters, Belinda and Rudi.
“There’s only so far you can train an otter,” says Riley. “Belinda is older and more staid, but Rudi’s a young boy otter and tried to escape. He managed it once and we had the whole crew chasing him down the hill to catch him. I wanted to play the Benny Hill music in the background.
“So you worry every day that the whole film is going to be derailed. But I loved it. I tend to be fairly calm in life in general. I don’t escalate quickly into panic but there was low-level stress all the time, and a limited number of days to shoot. I felt like I had a big Countdown clock behind me.”
Having been on a lot of film sets with her father and in her own acting roles came in handy for Riley because it was an environment with which she was familiar.
“Film sets can be quite alien, but I was quite used to them,” she says. “If you get out of film school and you’ve never directed anything or been on a film set that could be scary. But I had become comfortable in that environment working with brilliant directors like Richard Curtis and Christopher Nolan.”
With the world premiere of the film in Edinburgh this week, Riley’s nerves are palpable as she waits for her co-stars’ and the public’s reaction, and to find out whether her film will go on general release.
“It was such a high calibre of cast and they were so kind. I’m terrified about them all seeing it. It’s a huge weight of responsibility. I loved being on the set and the team were so great I’m just so grateful. Ollie Downey, the deputy producer, held my hand throughout the whole process and he is so competent. Then after the shoot it was me and an editor locked in a room and again he led me through it. It was a baptism of fire and that’s when I regretted my lack of experience. I loved all the crew and cast and that helped when things went wrong. It was a magical time. The Film Festival will be our first party since we made the film.
“Also I’m scared for people in general to see the film because I have absolutely no idea whether I have made something they will like or be interested in, or whether they will think it’s twee or stupid. People judge you as an actress or for other aspects of your life, but when you have written something the judgment matters more. It’s more real.”
Just as it seems the nerves are going to swallow Riley up, she sighs and takes a more phlegmatic view of what she has achieved. “You end up telling yourself, ‘I’m glad that this exists. I’m really proud’. It starts off as something in your imagination then you translate it onto the page and turn that into reality and you’re trying to match that to the reality in your head. Although you can’t get close.
“My aim for the film is that people like it and will let me make another one. It’s a case of wait and see what happens. I’m working on a novel at the moment. It’s chick lit, a beach read. My ideal would be to publish a roaring success of a novel, then turn it into another film. It’s different writing, to performing, and I don’t know if I can do either, but I’m cracking on and trying anyway. ”
• Scottish Mussel is premiering at Edinburgh Film Festival on Friday, at Cineworld, and also showing on Saturday, Cineworld, £10. www.edfilmfest.org.uk/films/2015/scottish-mussel