Scott Graham talks the bleak intensity of Iona

Closing Night Gala film: Iona is director Scott Graham's follow up to award wiinning debut feature Shell.
Closing Night Gala film: Iona is director Scott Graham's follow up to award wiinning debut feature Shell.
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The closing film of the Edinburgh Film Festival, Iona is an intense family drama. Alistair Harkness talks to its director, Scott Graham

Like that film, Iona is another drama about troubled familial relationships, set against a landscape that can be as unforgiving as it is beautiful. But where Shell was ostensibly about its titular protagonist being stuck in a terrible domestic situation, Iona revolves around its eponymous heroine who, after being forced to flee a violent crime scene with her teenage son, opts to return to the Scottish island that provided her with her childhood home as well as her name.

At the end of the day that’s what filmmakers are looking for: to sort of find a home for your film because you work so hard on it.”

Scott Graham

“It has the sort of set up a thriller might have, but it’s not really a thriller,” says Graham, who remembers holidaying in Iona as a kid with his mum and his sister, but hadn’t actually been back until he went there to shoot the film. “I was interested in the idea of a homecoming not being a positive thing, but throwing up a lot of conflicts for this character.”

Chief among these conflicts are Iona’s complicated relationship with an older man (played by Douglas Henshall) and her vexed feelings about growing up on an island famed for its commitment to faith. “When I was there on holiday I think I had I asked why people came here and was told that a lot of people come to feel close to God,” says Graham. “But I was more interested the idea of a faith being like a relationship – and that relationship ending.”

For the lead, Graham lucked-out in casting rising British actress Ruth Negga, who’s acquiring quite the fanboy following thanks to her recurring role in Marvel’s Agents of Shield and her a forthcoming show based on DC’s Preacher comics. “I grew up reading a lot of comics,” admits Graham, “and I know she’s enjoying that stuff, but I knew Ruth more as a theatre actress when I first met her for the role. When she came in she had a lot of the same qualities that I imagined when I was writing the character: a sort of toughness, but at the same time it was quite easy to imagine Ruth as a young girl, a child almost. And I was really into this idea of a young mother who in some ways is still a girl herself, but has a teenage son.”

Like Shell before it, Iona is bleak as all hell; its commitment to the way secrets and never-expressed emotions burden the characters never wavers for a second. “These are people who aren’t talking about what went on and in a way they need to,” says Graham. “I think I just seem to be interested in characters who don’t know how to express themselves.”

That kind of internalised intensity was certainly one of the things that distinguished Shell. As it happens, that film should also have had its world premiere at the EIFF, but 
after it became apparent that the festival – under previous artistic director Chris Fujiwara – might not be fully behind the film, Graham and his producers made the difficult decision to withdraw it from the programme at the last moment.

“There was a sense that it might not be best home for the film,” says Graham, diplomatically. “Not everyone did like it, but when you work so hard on something for so long, you want to give it the best possible start in life and in the end we went to San Sebastian and then had our UK premiere at London and both festivals were really behind the film. It was the right decision. But it was difficult for me because I’m a Scottish filmmaker and as someone who loves the Edinburgh Film Festival it was tricky. But it’s so in the past,” he says now. Indeed, he’s just pleased new artistic director Mark Adams seems to love Iona. “At the end of the day that’s what filmmakers are looking for: to sort of find a home for your film because you work so hard on it.”

Still, it’s hard to argue with Graham’s decision to pull Shell given it subsequently went on to garner several awards and nominations on the festival circuit, eventually earning Graham a BAFTA nod and star Chloe Pirrie a British Independent Film Award. Did the acclaim make it easier to get Iona off the ground?

“It was really down to the support of the BFI,” says Graham. “I mean, when I began writing Iona I didn’t know what the reaction to Shell was going to be. And there’s already a lot of pressure on first time filmmakers. There was a statistic recently that said about 80 percent of people 
who make a first feature don’t go on to make a second, so I think there was definitely a point where I thought I may not make another one.”

Having grown up in Aberdeen and nearby Fraserburgh, Graham’s journey to this point has been defiantly independent. He didn’t go to film school, moving instead to Edinburgh, where he started out writing short stories in his spare time, transitioning to scripts and short films, and continuing to plug away at it when he moved to his current Glasgow base in his 30s. He credits BBC2’s much lamented cult film show Moviedrome with broadening his cinematic horizons – and newly published screenplays by indie auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino, Hal Hartley and the Coen brothers with teaching him that movies always begin with words on a page.

Feelings of legitimacy, he says, came when his 2010 short film Native Son played at Cannes. “I had a similar feeling after Shell, but it was much more frightening because I had this thought that I am a filmmaker, but also that there’s nothing else I can do. You know, if I don’t find some success, what am I going to do?”

Next up he’s hoping to do a film in Fraserburgh based on a Bruce Springsteen song. “He’s really popular up there because he’s sings about growing up in small towns and not wanting to end up like your parents, but making the same choices as your parents anyway. He also sings about racing cars, which is really big up there. It’s kind of a departure for me because it’s about a father who’s got kind of a strange relationship with his son, who’s a boy racer and living the life that his father did when he was young.”

He thinks it’s probably going to be called Born to Run. Is that that Springsteen song he’s basing it on? “Yeah, it’s that song, and My Home Town; there’s a few,” he says.

He’ll need a hefty budget if he wants to clear Springsteen’s music for the film. “Yeah, at the moment I’m not relying on any songs, but it is going to be a bit more action-packed. I probably shouldn’t promise this,” he says, faintly embarrassed, “but there’s going to be a few car chases.”

Iona closes the Edinburgh International Film Festival tomorrow night. For tickets,