Why isn’t Scotland making more popular films?

Peter Mullan in Sunshine on Leith
Peter Mullan in Sunshine on Leith
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The Proclaimers movie and Irvine Welsh’s Filth look set for good box office, but why isn’t Scotland making more films people actually want to see, asks Pete Martin

HUGH MacLeod is a Scots-born cartoonist and former adman. He became famous for drawing sarcastic pictures on the backs of business cards during boring meetings on Madison Avenue. One of his drawings shows two students bickering.

Filth. Picture: submitted

Filth. Picture: submitted

“No, I’m more annoying,” says the art student.

“No, I’m more annoying,” says the film student.

To students of film in Scotland, the current debate over the state of Scottish cinema – its infrequent flowering, its failures, its future or lack thereof – will have a similar, equally wearing circularity.

To the casual observer, it might seem we have stumbled upon something of a new dawn of made-in-Scotland movies. We’ve seen World War Z shot in Glasgow, even if none of us queued to see it in the cinema. The Railway Man with Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth on board puffs into view in January. The story is based on the experiences of ex-Scottish solider Eric Lomax who suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the Second World War. Scottish director Kevin Macdonald has a new movie out this week, the dark romance How I live Now. Like Macdonald’s best-known film, The Last King of Scotland, about Ugandan crackpot dictator Idi Amin, his new movie is neither made in Scotland nor about Scotland.

More significantly perhaps, Stephen Greenhorn’s Sunshine on Leith has twirled off the stage and onto the big screen. The feelgood movie is based on Greenhorn’s successful musical from the songs of Craig and Charlie Reid, The Proclaimers. With a strong pedigree in popular dramas such as ITV mini-series Marchlands, BBC’s stellar Doctor Who – and as the originator of River City – Greenhorn can “walk with kings and not lose the common touch”. So it’s no surprise that “Proclaimers: The Movie” has the right blend of tender moments and broad comedy to gain wide appeal.

At the opposite end of the scale and far harder to take, you’ll find the film of Irvine Welsh’s aptly named Filth. It’s the best screen adaptation of Welsh’s work since the seismic Trainspotting by Danny Boyle. In Filth, Scots star James McAvoy delivers a powerhouse performance as a twisted Edinburgh detective, worming his way into the rotten underbelly of Scotland’s capital via the darker labyrinths of Welsh’s surreal imagination.

Unusually for “Scottish” films, both Sunshine on Leith and Filth are likely to do good box office, here and abroad. They have ambition, production values and, most critically, budgets.

When I lived in New York, it was quite easy to see Scottish films. However, on home turf it’s often been hard to see movies made in Scotland. Even in our arthouse cinemas, you’d usually have more chance of catching an obscure Iranian cartoon – and often have more fun – than watching a freshly minted Scottish indy flick.

One issue is that there just aren’t that many Scottish films made. More pertinently perhaps, those which have been made in the recent past, usually with public subsidy, tended to be low budget and miserablist. The well-regarded, if predictably depressing, debut feature by Paul Wright, For Those In Peril, would be more typical of the Scottish oeuvre than Sunshine on Leith. It’s about a Scottish fishing village awash with grief.

Sometimes too, Scottish movies aren’t exactly “Scottish”. And I don’t mean the Hollywood hokum of Brigadoon, shot on a soundstage in Los Angeles. Or even the historical and geographical liberties of Braveheart, filmed partly on location in Ireland.

Ken Loach is a great filmmaker. As in Sweet Sixteen which launched Martin Compston’s career, he’s keenly interested in Scotland’s underclass. But he isn’t Scottish. Danny Boyle built his early career on two Scottish movies – Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – but he isn’t Scottish either. Peter Mullan’s Magdalen Sisters is a fine film and made with some Scottish public money. But it’s not about Scotland, it’s about Ireland. More peculiarly, in Late Night Shopping, first-time director Saul Metzstein worked hard to hide the fact that the film was set in Scotland, and none of the lead actors were Scottish. In Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar, the oddball Scottish shop girl comes from, yes, a fairly miserable, small Scottish seaside town. But she is played by Samantha Morton with an accent that originates in Nottingham, I believe.

I’d guess that, with the exception of Trainspotting, such films from the previous renaissance in Scottish filmmaking passed most Scots by. To the best of my knowledge, they weren’t widely released in Scottish cinemas. I’ll bet a pint of custard that you didn’t see Young Adam either, in which Ewan McGregor plays the anti-hero of Alexander Trocchi’s empty-hearted novel. Even if you did, the inadvertently comedic sex scene – featuring dollops of everyone’s favourite dairy-based-pudding – would have left a yellow-ish stain on your psyche, and you won’t feel able to collect your winnings.

Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of arthouse cinema is the exoticness of small lives and everyday settings – or, as Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols’ fame snarled in Holidays in the Sun, “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”. That’s why middle class New Yorkers might find tales of urban deprivation in Scotland fascinating and moving, while the residents of Castlemilk feel social realism is a little too close to home to be interesting.

Cinema grosses suggest there’s not much local appetite for low-budget films with an arguably bourgeois, perhaps even annoyingly, cinéaste, view of Scotland. Comedy and action pull in the biggest box office, but remain the most difficult and expensive cinematic effects to pull off. So, for the typical Scottish film, achieving broad appeal with low/no budgets and moody meditations is going to be doubly difficult.

As in so many areas of Scottish culture, the underlying challenge to Scottish filmmakers remains growing a Scottish audience for Scottish themes. Or at least ideas which resonate with the Scottish cinema-going public.

That’s not to say there aren’t systemic problems in Scotland’s film industry. Sadly, the answer is unlikely to be extra funding for small-time filmmakers. It’s more fundamental than that, plus there’s no point in producing films for which there is no audience.

The ready comparison is Ireland, where the film industry is more robust than Scotland’s. According to film critic Brian Pendreigh, Mel Gibson said that the real reason he shot Braveheart in Ireland wasn’t the tax breaks: it was that it had more horses than Scotland.

More obviously perhaps, Ireland simply has more work for film crews. Recently, I was looking to hire a Dublin-based cinematographer for a commercial I was shooting in Ireland. My two top picks were unavailable. One was working on Game of Thrones, which is shot in Northern Ireland; the other was shooting a movie in LA. They were both members of the Irish Society of Cinematographers. You won’t be surprised to learn there isn’t a Scottish Society of Cinematographers.

The real difference is that Ireland has an integrated screen industry based on national commitment. It’s a virtuous circle which creates both critical mass, experienced personnel and strong output. Yes, there are tax breaks, and support for filmmakers. But, more importantly, Ireland also has its own national broadcasters who invest in home grown talent. There’s a healthy advertising scene, too, where Irish clients are committed to Irish creative agencies who, in turn, are committed to Irish commercial production companies. So, there’s a bedrock of work in which film folk can earn a crust and learn their craft. And then they make films which appeal to Irish people.

So, here’s hoping the new slew of Scottish films will perform well financially (because, with just £3 million in public support, Scottish film needs to attract investors). But money in itself won’t create lasting success. To create an integrated national industry, only one thing will work. And that’s “Action!”