Brian Ferguson: Scotland set for a cinematic boom

Writer Irvine Welsh, left, and actor James McAvoy on the set of Filth in Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Writer Irvine Welsh, left, and actor James McAvoy on the set of Filth in Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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As five movies set in Scotland hit the silver screen over the next year, it seems we’re enjoying a golden period not seen since the mid-1990s, writes Brian Ferguson

It is a surreal feeling being accompanied on to a film set on a road you walk up virtually every day just a couple of minutes from your front door.

It was almost business as usual on Leith’s Constitution Street on a Thursday morning in November, with cafes bustling and buses rumbling past.

But for several hours it was also transformed as one of the key sequences in “Proclaimers musical” Sunshine on Leith unfolded.

With the film’s title, it was perhaps tempting fate to attempt exterior filming around the capital at a time when wind and driving rain are more the norm – but there was hardly a cloud in the sky.

And after the film-makers enjoyed similar conditions at locations such as Calton Hill, the Grassmarket and the Shore, cinema audiences around the world are now set to see a sunlit capital like it has never been shown before.

It is little wonder tourism officials at bodies such as VisitScotland and Marketing Edinburgh cannot believe their luck with the arrival of the film, which had its European premiere in Edinburgh last night.

They may not be quite so enthusiastic about next week’s premiere of Filth, the long-awaited adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about a corrupt Edinburgh detective, or the prospect of Scarlett Johansson’s alien preying on men around the Highlands in Under The Skin, which has just been unveiled at Toronto and Venice’s film festivals.

But there appears little doubt that Scotland is enjoying the kind of cinematic boom not seen since the golden era of the mid-1990s, when Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Rob Roy and Braveheart were all released within the space of 24 months.

Another crowd-pleaser from Toronto, The Railway Man, the story of the Edinburgh-born prisoner of war Eric Lomax, which brought Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman to a string of locations around the Lothians, is due to be released next year, along with Starred Up, a new prison drama by David Mackenzie, the Scottish director behind Young Adam.

The latest batch of big-screen movies builds on the momentum of recent years, with hits like Brave, Disney’s animated fantasy, which was set in the Scottish Highlands, Ken Loach’s whisky caper The Angels’ Share and zombie thriller World War Z, which famously brought Brad Pitt to film in Glasgow’s George Square.

Rosie Ellison, film manager at Marketing Edinburgh, who visited the Constitution Street set, says: “If you look at Sunshine on Leith’s shoot, the original plan was to only film in Edinburgh for one week out of the six that were planned, but the weather was absolutely perfect, more locations were used and they were in the city for around three weeks, then came back this summer to film a new ending on the Mound.

“The city plays an integral part in the story, which perfectly captures Edinburgh’s personality and vibrancy.

“There’s no doubt a film with the kind of profile Sunshine on Leith has can have a huge impact, not just in terms of attracting people to the city, but also in generating interest from other film-makers.”

Film critic Richard Mowe said: “There may be an element of coincidence that a lot of films shot over the last couple of years are coming out, but I can’t remember a time like this since the mid-1990s.”

With Filth, Sunshine on Leith, Starred Up and Under the Skin all being partly made at the Film City Glasgow complex, there are hopes the current boom will lead to the long-awaited creation of a major film studio, which has been backed in principle by the Scottish Government.

Iain Smith, chair of the British Film Commission, says: “I think there’s a new dawn in Scotland.

“It is partly to do with the political landscape, that the nation is beginning to think about how it is within itself, how it functions and what it can achieve.”

Back on Sunshine on Leith’s set, producer Andrew Macdonald cannot resist a smile as he reveals that filming has been halted temporarily to allow the sun to move past a couple of buildings and flood the street. He had promised his director of photography that it was a good idea to film outside in Edinburgh in November.

Despite the relatively early hour, lead actors Kevin Guthrie and George Mackay gave a fair impression of having consumed a few pints in the Port o’ Leith, as they sway down the street – and almost run into the Proclaimers themselves, who have agreed to make a surprise cameo appearance.

The song they are singing – “I’m On My Way” – is one of 13 from the band’s 30-year back catalogue that appear in a film already being dubbed “Scotland’s McMamma Mia.”

Early reviews have been positive, with the Hollywood Reporter saying the film “could double as a Scottish tourist board commercial.”

Macdonald said: “I’ve always wanted to do a musical. I think they’re fantastic and we don’t actually have enough of them being made for the cinema. To make one about Edinburgh and Leith is all the better.”

He got involved after inquiring about the rights to the stage musical, which had last toured in 2010, after a friend urged him to think about a film version. When he discovered that a Glasgow production company, Black Camel, had signed a deal with writer Stephen Greenhorn, they agreed to join forces with Macdonald’s firm DNA.

Greenhorn’s involvement with the production stretches back eight years when he was working with Dundee Rep theatre on an idea for a musical, but struggling for inspiration – until one fateful night when he was drinking a bottle of whisky and listening to the first Proclaimers album This Is The Story, from 1987.

Also visiting the set, the River City creator, said: “I hadn’t realised until that night how much their songs sound like they are from a musical. They had a lot of other albums out by then. I wrote “Proclaimers Musical” down on an envelope and had actually forgotten the idea when I found the envelope the next morning.

“There were three tours of the show from 2007-2010 and I thought that was the end of it when I got an approach about a film script. I’d already gone through a couple of drafts when Andrew came on board, as it was quite a leap from a stage musical into a big film production.”

After several takes of I’m On My Way, director Dexter Fletcher, who has been buzzing around the set, suddenly appears for a chat and is soon joking that he came on board with the filming after having a dream in which the Proclaimers personally asked him to get involved.

Although eyebrows were raised at the involvement of an untried English director at the helm of what Greenhorn has described as his “love letter to Leith and Edinburgh,” it is often forgotten that Fletcher’s big-screen career began playing in Alan Parker’s musical Bugsy Malone.

The star of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had only previously directed one film, Wild Bill, about an ex-convict’s attempt to connect with his two sons after coming out of prison.

Fletcher said: “Sunshine on Leith just sounded so far removed from the kind of films I’ve been working on. It sounded very different, really interesting and a big challenge for myself.

“Musicals were actually my first great love as a kid. The first film I remember sitting down and watching was Singing in the Rain.”