Interview: John Maclean, musician

John Maclean, second from right, at the Baftas. Picture: Getty
John Maclean, second from right, at the Baftas. Picture: Getty
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HE played with the influential Scots group The Beta Band for almost a decade. Now he’s directing films and winning at the Baftas. David Pollock talks to the multitalented John Maclean

Those who were paying attention to Sunday night’s Bafta awards might have noticed a familiar face picking up the Short Film award, and being heartily applauded onto the stage by one of the defining movie stars of this year, Michael Fassbender.

Out of context you might not have twigged that John Maclean – the man in the slightly ill-fitting tuxedo and the thick glasses who directed the winning film Pitch Black Heist, starring Fassbender – was the same John Maclean who played with Scots group The Beta Band for almost a decade.

“I made videos for The Beta Band right from the very beginning, so it’s not like it’s a massive career change,” says Maclean on the phone from his home in London two days later, in the middle of chopping onions for a victory dinner with some friends. “I was always as interested in making the videos as I was the music. I worked in the Cameo cinema (in Edinburgh) and the Gate in London, I would watch as many films as I could, I started writing bits and bobs of scripts years ago, before the band split up. So it was a slow transition, a slow build.”

Maclean might now be thought of as a film-maker who used to be in a band rather than a musician who makes videos, and it was 2009’s short film Man On a Motorcycle which set him on his way. While it was all but unheralded at the time, it did represent the start of his productive director-actor relationship with Fassbender, who was even then emerging as one of the most talented and magnetic leading men of his generation.

“Michael’s agent is a friend of mine,” says Maclean, “which is how he saw the Beta Band DVD and the videos I made for The Aliens [Maclean’s other band, that includes fellow former Beta Banders Robin Jones and Gordon Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon]. When I was introduced to him, he said he really liked them and did I fancy doing something? He was shooting with Tarantino at the time [for Inglourious Basterds]. I said OK.”

Recognising the opportunity of a lifetime, Maclean went away and quickly wrote Man On a Motorcycle, which he says was based around Fassbender’s availability and “what he would probably find fun to do”. So low-budget that it was filmed on a cameraphone, it involved a week of shooting Robin Jones – a sometime motorcycle courier – driving around London, and then a day with Fassbender.

“When the helmet came off, it was Michael,” says Maclean. “I thought he’d like that – no waiting around, no extra crew, just go to the location and film.”

The reception was decidedly equivocal, says Maclean, with festival after festival turning it down until the London Film Festival said yes. A private screening for Film4 then saw them agree to produce Pitch Black Heist, a high-concept piece about two crooks (Fassbender and Liam Cunningham) staging a robbery in complete darkness. Despite the bigger budget afforded this time, shooting elements of the film with a blacked-out screen was also a canny cost-saving decision.

“We just went round to someone’s flat to record the dialogue,” says Maclean, “it was cheaper and a bit more comfortable.” Although he doesn’t really want to go into specifics in case he jinxes the project, he confirms what Fassbender revealed on the Bafta red carpet, that he’s currently writing a feature film and that the actor is attached to that too. Why does Maclean think the pair have developed an enduring working relationship?

“I think he probably likes the creative energy,” he says. “When we’re on set he likes the speed of it. I don’t fanny around, I just get what I need and move on. But I’m not sure… I just know that when you have a rapport with someone, it’s good to continue that. He’s great to work with, open and experienced and professional, and a good laugh too.”

Does he get the sense that there’s an element of patronage to Fassbender working with him, that he’s spotted Maclean’s talent and wants to use his presence to introduce it to the world?

“I presume so,” he says, “but he likes working with collaborators. Trust in a director is very important for an actor, and when you find it, it’s worth holding on to. Plus he’s so talented he can work like this on many different levels,” he laughs. “Tarantino at the top, Steve McQueen [on Hunger and the Bafta-nominated Shame] one level down, and me right at the very bottom.”

Although it must be the very last thing on his mind at the moment, Maclean doesn’t seem offended by the obligatory question about a Beta Band reformation. “It wasn’t an acrimonious split. We just finished. So if we were all in the right place at the right time and we fancied doing it for nostalgic reasons somewhere down the line, why not?”

That said, Maclean, who is a painting graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, was never the musical one in the family anyway. He was always more interested in the visual side of culture, while his brother Dave – drummer and driving force in the fast-rising indie band Django Django – preferred the sonic, and the pair were raised in Tayport around the studios of their parents, the visual artists Will Maclean and Marian Leven.

Being creative doesn’t come naturally, though, and he says he has to work hard at it. When dinner is out of the way, he’ll allow himself to be consumed once more by that script, just the latest enviable “day job” of many.