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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


Film/Drinking Game: The Hangover II

There are plenty of conventional reviews from real critics justifiably slamming Todd Phillips’s sequel for going to ever greater to lengths to gross out viewers in an attempt to differ from its predecessor while keeping on the formulaic path it set out. Perhaps predictably, and having little else to add, this review will come in the form of an ironic drinking game. Ironic in the sense that I absolutely do not endorse playing this game as measures are intended for comic effect not consumption. There. Not that I think people who read my blog might be stupid/suicidal yet whimsical.

If you prefer drinking games to reviews see also:

Hangovers II & III

Doug looks and behaves like Paul Rudd in romantic comedy mode – keep sipping on Chardonnay through a straw from the bottle

Phil’s shirt is open to detract from the tedium of the overacting, groaning and hysteria in the initial “disorientation” scene – gin and slimline tonic and as many crunches as you can manage before you realise exercise is boring

The joke about Stu claiming to be a doctor when he is in fact a dentist is laboured – gargle a capful of Listerine

Phil has a stab at playing a responsible adult – that is, shouting instructions, phoning a woman, lying to Alan, cradling a child/small primate – before switching back into a feckless poser – drink your preferred brand of extortionate imported bottled beer

Mr Chow makes a reference to his balls – a shot of Knobb Creek

You see a monkey wearing a denim jacket and smoking – give the absinthe a miss

Female partner of one the men gives glassy-eyed forgiving look – shot of vodka

Gratuitous full frontal nudity  (A ladyboy? Unexpected!) – shot of tequila

Visual gag centring on Alan’s lardy backside/paunch – glass of Bailey’s

Pop music and slow motion lazily used to promote false sense of excitement/grandeur = pass out

Film review: The Town

Ben Affleck’s second stint in the director’s chair is another crime novel adaptation set in his home turf of Boston. Charlestown provides the required setting for a classic ‘going straight’ narrative where generations of Irish-American hard men naturally fall into a life of crime (or become cops). Doug MacRay, a reformed alcoholic, almost pro-hockey player and all-round sensitive bank robber becomes romantically involved with former hostage and bank manager Claire Keesey. When he is repeatedly draw into ‘just one more’ job, MacRay is caught between remaining a free man and pursuing a fraught relationship with Keesey who is in reticent collaboration with the FBI.

Following the favourable reception of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has the confidence to take on the tricky dual responsibility of director and lead actor. It’s a flattering role from the outset: armed and wearing a Halloween mask, MacRay soothes a quaking Claire into opening the safe, makes sure she remains unharmed before stalking her (unmasked, obviously) and comforts her when she breaks down in a laundrette following the ordeal.

There is potential for an original perspective on MacRay’s criminal activities from the perspective of one of his victims but the film avoids such depth and settles for a more straightforward romance. Instead we are treated to strong emphasis on MacRay’s overpowering sense of devotion – he miraculously tracks down and attacks someone who threw a bottle at his one true love – and an only slightly gratuitous flash of Affleck’s torso mid-‘workout montage’. However, if anything this only proves Affleck has a functioning sense of his own marketability.

The same goes for Jon Hamm’s casting as FBI agent, Adam Fawley. The characterisation does little to challenge the stereotype and it is Hamm’s now familiar combination of poise and charm (and current popularity) that skims over the predictabilities of the script and lends credibility. Rebecca Hall’s performance is rather more two-dimensional however, as the idealised female lead in a film about a man who wants to be good through the ‘love of a good woman’. MacRay’s former lover Krista is similarly sketchy, a drug mule and incompetent mother whose reliance upon her sexuality leaves her easily manipulated and seemingly void of interiority.

However, what the film lacks in character development is somewhat compensated by an adept control of tension, especially the action scenes which are sufficiently complex and compact enough not to be monotonous in the way only gratuitous carnage can be. It’s not devoid of humour or irony either. For example, Pete Poselthwaite’s suitably gnarled countenance appears as ‘The Florist’, the green fingered warlord of Beantown or a solitary police officer’s deference when faced with four heavily armed nuns. For all the schmaltz, it’s a passable or at least engaging and highly commercial sophomore effort.

DVD Release: Patrik, 1.5

Release date: 23rd August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 103 mins
Director: Ella Lemhagen
Country: Sweden

A country notable for its tolerance of homosexuality, gay adoption has been legal in Sweden since 2002. Compared to the UK, where same-sex adoption was legalised in 2005, and Scotland, where the bill only passed in 2009, a film that explores the issue from a more established perspective deserves attention. Originally a play by Michael Druker, the film received a warm reception at LA’s Outfest in 2009. Following the media interest and Channel 4’s recent documentary about gay millionaires Barrie and Tony Drewitt-Barlow, who have three children through IVF and surrogacy, this is a timely release.

Göran and Sven Skoogh are a loving couple who have just moved into a neighbourhood so perfect it could have been designed by Ikea. Unfortunately, some of the residents also have readymade attitudes towards homosexuality. The couple do not allow this to faze them – they want a child to cement their relationship, and so the arduous process of adoption begins.

Göran is a GP and the soft-featured, nurturing type who makes the local housewives lament his sexual orientation. Meanwhile, Sven is a hard-headed, hard-drinking businessman with a Dolly Parton poster and a daughter from a previous marriage. When there is a clerical error and the couple are given responsibility for 15-year-old Patrik, a homophobic delinquent, their opposite approaches to people and parenting have mixed results from disastrous to heart-warming…

Patrick, Age 1.5 is as much a critique of attitudes towards same-sex adoption as it is of bureaucracy in Sweden – in fact, the latter is what provides some of the strongest punch lines of the film. Sven’s fury at the error of Social Services is compounded by a parking ticket; he reaches boiling point when the priggish police receptionist seems more interested in reminding him to stay outside the carefully measured perimeter around his bulletproof glass.

The same can be said for the head social worker when Göran decides he does want to adopt Patrik and not hold out for a baby. He replies, “You think we’re just giving out children?” when, due to their own incompetence and limited opening hours, the couple have been looking after Patrik for the best part of a week. Despite the liberal subject material, however, there is still room for a little good old-fashioned xenophobia – if they cannot have a Swedish child, they would happily adopt from any country, although “not from Denmark,” remarks Sven.

Badly behaved and misunderstood, Patrik may look typically Swedish with his Nordic looks, but his attitude is far from tolerant. He is quick to point out, with much bravado, that he once attacked a homosexual, and that he thinks Sven and Göran are paedophiles. Göran, someone apt to make the best of things, teaches Patrik how to say paedophile properly and discovers his unlikely talent for gardening. A mutual respect quickly grows between the two, threatening his relationship with Sven, who continues to behave with a fear of the unknown verging on the Neanderthal.

Ljungman commendably plays the part of an abrasive and overlooked teenager, a role that is by no means easy and often performed very poorly, but it is Gustaf Skarsgård as the winning Göran who carries the film. Many of the most poignant scenes that deal with attitudes towards homosexuality are tackled by him. For instance, his honest conversation with an inquisitive boy he is meant to be immunising is spoilt when the boy’s father stampedes in, furious that his son is being treated by a gay doctor. Or when one of his neighbours, who is openly cheating on his wife with a younger woman, remarks on how convenient it would be for Göran to have someone like Patrik around.

Patrik, Age 1.5 ably confronts the controversial subject of same-sex adoption. The film does not shy away from some of the more unpleasant assumptions held against the gay community, undermines preconceptions and underlines some of society’s double standards. This may be a tall order, but Patrik, Age 1.5 succeeds and yet remains a gentle, thoughtful and, at times, provocative comedy. What better way to celebrate the legalisation of same-sex adoption in Argentina?

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Review: My Father Pablo Escobar

Running time: 90 mins
Director: Nicolas Entel
Genre: Documentary
Country: Argentina/Colombia

Nicolas Entel, more used to corporate productions and music videos for the likes of Wyclef Jean and KT Tunstall, as well as his first feature length documentary about a globe-trotting tango orchestra from Buenos Aires (Orquesta Tipica), had his work cut out for to his latest offering, My Father Pablo Escobar. Also known as Sins Of My Father, the young director documents the difficult journey of Sebastian Marroquin who seeks atonement for his father who was at one time the world’s Most Wanted man.

The film covers a three year period, starting in 2007, when Sebastian, having settled in Buenos Aires, is to afraid to return to his homeland, and will go no further than the Colombia/Ecuador border. By 2009, Sebastian returns to Bogota to meet and seek forgiveness from the sons of the politicians Escobar had assassinated in his lust for power.

Most of the documentary is comprised of footage from national news archives, as well as videos from the Escobar family’s private collection, recorded telephone calls and radio broadcasts. The film does not shy away from showing the atrocities for which Escobar is responsible, but Marroquin is also eager to portray his father as a family man and patriot. Regardless of Escobar’s attributes and deficiencies, it is an incredible account…

The grim opening footage where Escobar’s coffin is repeatedly opened and closed, to reveal his motionless, bloated face indicates the scepticism of a crowd who cannot believe he is dead. It is, after all, the corpse of a man who was once in control of 80% of the world’s cocaine, stupendously rich, and able to amend Colombia’s constitution at will. This is contrasted with a man who loved nothing more than to spoil his children, who would use a nature encyclopaedia as a catalogue to create his own zoo of exotic animals. The family’s home videos are truly something to behold; animals, airplanes, jet skis – every extravagance imaginable. However, Sebastian remembers his father had such a strong competitive streak that he would cheat his children at Monopoly.

Ruling the underworld was not enough for Escobar, and when he began buying his way into politics, the problems started and then ended in civil war. Escobar was charitable; he built homes for 5000 people living in the municipal dump. He then used his popularity to garner support for Rogerigo Lara Bonilla and Luis Carlos Galan, founders of the New Liberal Party. Bonilla and Galan were displeased to be linked with a drug baron, regardless of his ‘Robin Hood’ reputation, and expelled him from the party. This rejection made the men targets for a wrathful Escobar, who instead bought his way into congress. As soon as Bonilla was made Minister of Justice, he ordered a raid of one of Escobar’s processing plants, recovering 13 tons of cocaine with a street value of $1.2 billion. In 1984, Escobar had Bonilla assassinated and escaped to Panama. What follows is the story of a father and son on the run, one from his deeds, the other from the future that was written for him.

One of the strengths of Entel’s film is that he records showing archive material to the sons of Bonilla and Galan, twenty years later the pain and disbelief is still pasted across their faces. The audacity and monomania of Escobar is apparent from the contradictory and manipulative speech he made when he turned himself in to the authorities on his own terms. The same goes for Sebastian’s initial email in February 2008, we see five suited and obviously powerful men around a laptop looking lost, but also moved at his words of peace and reconciliation.

Sebastian himself cuts a desperate figure; he has succeeded in forging a more moral path than his father, and is very different from the distraught teenager who declared revenge on his father’s murderer. He realises, “I’ve lost the right to get angry,” and admits “I cannot understand my own father’s character.”

It is a documentary about men, fathers and sons, and to some extent, machismo. Sebastian is paying for his father’s foolhardy behaviour, and there are very few women present in this documentary, apart from his mother. She seems a rather powerless figure, authority passes from father to son, and it was due to Sebastian’s quick thinking that the family escaped Colombia after his father broke out of prison. One is reminded of the arrogance of Mesrine, Richet’s film cleverly portrays its protagonist as someone who claims to be a political idealist, but is more interested in unfettered access to the finer things in life. Arguably this is the case with Escobar, but Entel does not go so far as to join the dots – he is, after all, dealing with a very loyal subject in Sebastian.

The film does end on a moral note, when Sebastian eventually returned to Colombia he discovered “everyone wants to be Pablo Escobar” – a glamorous lifestyle funded by cocaine is something he seeks to discourage by showing the human price.

The blood and body count of My Father Pablo Escobar sends out a powerful message: it shows the extent of terrorism in a developing country, where drugs dictate the political agenda and appear to the public as the only source of prosperity. This potentially explosive subject material is crafted into a cry for reconciliation and hope by a promising young documentary-maker.

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Interview: Storytelling in purgatory with Wayne Thallon and Andrew Hawley

Trailblazing director of A Spanking in Paradise, Wayne Thallon, and lead actor Andrew Hawley talk about filming in Edinburgh, brothels and the art of telling tales.

Centred around an Edinburgh sauna, A Spanking in Paradise is a local affair and Thallon is exuberant about the city: “You can turn up and film anything which is worth its weight in gold to low budget productions. It’s manageable and quite beautiful. It’s got your chocolate box, your rough-and-ready underbelly and I’m from Edinburgh.”

Hawley, who plays wide-eyed Justin, visiting his uncle and moonlighting in his brothel, is similarly enthused, ‘I didn’t know Edinburgh well because I studied in Glasgow but it’s got a good atmosphere. I came up here, got me hair cut, Wayne stuck me in a house and we just got our heads down.”

Casting the ideal lead was difficult but, “as soon as I saw young Andrew here, it was love at first sight,” recalls Thallon. The conversation takes a more facetious turn, how did Hawley prepare to be Justin, the innocent bystander? “I had to pretend I was virtuous and I wanted to keep myself clean. I made sure that I kept out of brothels so that by the time I was here I was suitably horrified by what I saw. That’s real horror that you see.”

Writing the script was easy for Thallon given the comic potential of the subject matter, “a lot of people don’t realise these saunas are legit Edinburgh institutions that have been there forty, fifty years so it’s a scene that begs exploring. You’ve got a small space, and for whatever reason, there are women in there who are competing so they hate each other. Then men come in from all walks of life and it’s a storm in a teacup. The humour is constant.”

The laughs are largely down to canny characterisation and Thallon’s gift for story-telling. Mention of Justin’s line, ‘this is purgatory rather than paradise’ inspires an amusing detour: “That’s for the religious fanatics. I like to throw in something serious. It reminds me of back in the 90s before internet porn.”

“You had to buy magazines like Razzle and Escort and you’d be flicking through, not me personally, and come across a Polaroid of a naked dude who was called Barry from Dagenham or Des from Southend and it was called ‘One for the Ladies’. That’s my one for the ladies moment.”

Rab (Simon Weir) is the owner of Birds of Paradise and a master storyteller. Hawley explains, “Rab is involved in a lot of crime and he’s terrifying at times but he can be engaging and warm and that’s the complexity about him.”

It’s something Thallon is clearly passionate about, “If someone can drag you in with these monologues, someone who changes voices, intonation, mannerisms; then that is good old-fashioned storytelling. Where is the Scottish Lost in Translation or American Beauty? What we do is formidable storytelling and we should play to our strengths.”

The film is not about sleaze, it’s a story about family that encompasses prostitution, Hawley points out Justin is there to learn about his father and according to Thallon the brothel,  “is not a sexual environment. If you don’t want to be turned on by prostitutes, work a day in one. What an industry professional goes through on any given day is not appealing.”

What gives A Spanking in Paradise the edge is character and local colour, Hawley quips, “You couldn’t do the same thing in a brothel in Leeds.”

Interview: Fighting crime with Miles Watts

Miles Watts explains how York inspired his black and white comic book caper, Crimefighters.

“I was cycling along to Danny Elfman’s Batman soundtrack, and combined with York’s gothic architecture, I thought it would be the perfect setting for a really British low-budget Batman spoof.” Watts wrote the script in five months in collaboration with a friend and then shot the film on a miniscule budget of £7000 in three weeks.

Watts admits the final week was the hardest of his life but the social nature of his filmmaking ensured it wasn’t just a job, “I really love working with female/male crew, I would hate working with just men. I want to spend more time on the set when there are girls, it’s more fun, or maybe I just like showing off. When you get girls on the set everyone behaves differently and you gain from it.”

This attitude may explain the dominant female characters present in Crimefighters. “I have a lot of female friends who have been influential in my life. When I first started writing scripts the male characters were too much like me so I decided to write from a girl’s perspective. I’ve borrowed lots of snippets of genius from girl friends and I’m also a big Buffy fan. It’s Joss Whedon syndrome, he’s been accused of not being able to create anything without a strong female character and I think that’s my problem.”

Crimefighters explores social issues such as binge drinking, “In a lot of towns there’s a drinking culture that tends to be to the detriment of artistic endeavours. There’s so much talent in York; musicians, filmmakers, artists but the pubs are a distraction. I have been in boring retail jobs where the social life is great, you go straight out to pubs after work with your mates and get really drunk. I don’t know who couldn’t relate to that.”

Watts is keen to point out it’s not just young people: “youths are scapegoated, newspapers have a tendency to point at the hoodies but I’ve seen many instances of men and women in their thirties, drunken stag and hen nights who cause more trouble. There’s a bit in the film where thugs are threatening a homeless guy and I saw that outside the cinema I was working at. I wanted to make that distinction.”

Watts indicates Crimefighters is just the beginning, “In the next year a lot of things are happening. I’m setting up a production company at York Uni, there’s a new film and media centre opening and there are a lot of enthused people who are interested in each other’s work. When Crimefighters was selected for EIFF a lot of people realised that it was possible.”