Alastair Mackenzie talks Perfect Sense

When Kim Aakeson’s loosely translated screenplay arrived at Sigma’s offices in Glasgow, David Mackenzie asked for a second opinion…

Q. It’s refreshing that Perfect Sense, rightly, depicts Glasgow as a cosmopolitan city. Are you pleased to be involved in a film that sidesteps received notions about Glasgow (and Scotland) that are often perpetuated in film and TV?

A. I’m pleased to be involved in this film because it’s a brilliant film. That goes without saying. But it presents Glasgow as a global player. The very fact that this story happens in Glasgow is indicative of the fact that Glasgow is a happening place. When the script first came in it was quite it was quite non-specific and we made the decision to set it in Glasgow because we wanted it to be a contained story. Albeit, one against a backdrop of an enormous pandemic that wipes humanity senseless. We wanted to keep it in a situation that was contained and relatively small so Glasgow seemed like the perfect place. So contextually it works really well and I love Glasgow. I used to live there, my brother lives there. It’s as good a place as any.

Did it feel like you were at home during filming?

Yes. I live in London but I’m from up here. I’ve never actually lived in Edinburgh but I spend a lot of time here. My mum and dad live up near Perth – so any excuse to get up here, I’ll take it really. It’s always like a homecoming.

Did you have much involvement with the development of the script?

‘I didn’t have much influence. It was my brother. When I first came into the offices at Sigma and I read it, I agreed instantly. It’s a Danish script translated into English and the first version that I read was quite sparse but that was actually its virtue because all the key elements of the film were in that original script. It’s been embellished a little bit, there’s more coverage of the global nature of the pandemic with the footage from around the world. But the actual script when we first read it was so powerful and so affecting, when they asked my opinion, I said ‘you should definitely make this film.’ My input was ‘yes, let’s do it.’

In Perfect Sense you play a scientist. You often play professional characters, do these roles ever make you think about what career you would have chosen if you weren’t an actor?

The older I get the harder it is to continue lead an unstructured, chaotic life and therefore when I play characters, be it scientists or lawyers or doctors, I often envy their clarity. But I envy it as a kind of fantasy. If I was leading those lives – well, the fact is I’m not leading those lives – so I don’t know what it would be like. But I would benefit from a bit more structure. I get a wee taste of it and then I go back to chaos again.

With You Instead premiering at the Glasgow Film Festival and Perfect Sense at EIFF, attention seems to be divided fairly between the two cities. What contrasts would you say they offer?

I don’t know if I can define a contrast. For me, I lived in Glasgow and I come here [Edinburgh] a lot for festivals. I’ve worked here quite a lot and shot a couple of movies, done a couple of plays. I associate Edinburgh much more with work. Glasgow seems to be a little bit looser than Edinburgh. That’s where our offices are, that’s where we do most of our riffing. We come to Edinburgh to present it. Edinburgh is, maybe it’s just my projection of the city, it always seem more formal to me; I put on a suit when I come to Edinburgh, in Glasgow I wear an anorak.

Did the sci-fi element of Perfect Sense appeal to you?

I like the idea of …when one thinks about science fiction, one normally thinks about these big budget, effects driven, studio movies and this a genre-bending take on sci-fi. So you’re dealing with fiction, you’re dealing with science, just to really tire out the metaphor. But it’s in a very contained, small, human, engaging way. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of this epidemic. A studio probably would have done it in the opposite way. It would have been the story of an epidemic in which there was a love story. We’ve gone the other way. The love story is the more important thing so you engage a lot more with the emotions. It’s a very emotional film, a very affecting film. You’re heavily invested and engaged with the characters, and the backdrop is very relevant but it’s not all the story.

How would you compare making Perfect Sense with You Instead? Did you enjoy T in the Park?

There’s an extraordinary contrast. Perfect Sense was a relatively high-budgeted film, very structured, and it was very well organised. You Instead was also very well organised but we shot it in four days at T in the Park. It was site specific so we had to finish it there and then. If we couldn’t get a shot, we couldn’t have that shot because we couldn’t have 90,000 people stay for an extra day.  So it was a lot more free-form. It was very invigorating and energising having to make this film against all the odds. We inadvertently had 90,000 extras. We had four seasons in a day, or four seasons in four days, which is great for the movie: it rained, so it gave us a lot of mud which looks great; it was sunny which also looks great.

I enjoyed making both of them enormously. You Instead was slightly more memorable because we were all forced to camp for four days. In one way we were engaging in the festival, which was the movie, so we could hear Jay-Z in the background but we couldn’t actually see him, which was tantalising. But we had a job to do and amazingly enough we did it. However, as my brother said, it may only have been 4/5 days of shooting but it took six months to edit.

Have the approaches to these two very different films prompted any ideas about future projects and the filmmaking process?

Our pipeline, shall we say, is full of ideas that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t done You Instead because it was an experiment and as an experiment it’s worked. We had about three weeks, the script came in, and we were going to shoot it the following year, this year. And we thought, ‘you know what? Let’s just do it now.’ So we had three weeks of pre-production and Gillian Berrie, our producer, who is just an extraordinary force, she pulled this whole thing together, along with all the people in the office. And so the infrastructure was in place which enabled us to use those three weeks effectively.

What it means now, what we realised is, that we can shift the business model a little bit of how to make films, for us anyway. I think for David in particular, the way he has to direct, he was very enlivened by the process. I was also very enlivened because a lot of the time, filmmaking for an actor can, if you’re not careful – there is a danger that it can be stultifying because you’re waiting around, you’ve got to stay on your toes against all the odds really, waiting for the light etc. But in this case it didn’t matter where the light was, we had to just do it. It was liberating and in terms of the type of films we can make, it makes you realise that you can do anything really. The skill comes in the post-production, the six months in the edit, and the choices that the director has to make are hugely important. It’s a huge amount of work. So it’s naïve to think you can just go away and shoot a movie in four days and get a great movie. You need all the rest of these bits  in place. But it’s made us realise – there’s a changing economic environment, filmmaking is getting increasingly difficult in terms of finance but we’ve realised we can do interesting things for less money.

It seems David and yourself are not afraid to try new approaches to filmmaking, to keep learning and adapting to avoid becoming formulaic…

It’s all a work in progress. I was watching a movie on the train up. A great movie, but it’s thirty years old. Just in that space of time the way stories are told is so different. You can go a lot quicker, there’s much more cuts in a film. I mean, I’ve got kids and they can’t watch old films and they think an old film is ten years old. The way the film is actually edited is slightly less naturalistic, though at the time they thought it was utterly naturalistic.

With You Instead, for example – and some of this applies to Perfect Sense as well – because it was improvised, because it was site-specific, it’s rough around the edges and a bit crazy. It’s not formulaic and it’s not conventional in terms of storylines; there are some storylines that peter out, some that continue, there are weird asides. It’s unconventional. You need your audience to be on the ride with you. They have to be prepared to suspend their disbelief enough to see past those rough edges. And I think people are now, we’re in the “YouTube Age.” So people are used to, are getting more and more inured to, and more exposed to these types of films which are more improvisational and rougher. So that opens things up, you can start experimenting more. But the most important thing is that it’s got to be a good story and think there is with You Instead and Perfect Sense. They are love stories, what’s more universal than that?

Shorter version at http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/news/2011/06/alastair-mackenzie-talks-perfect-sense

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