Tag Archives: Edinburgh International Film Festival

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


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.”

Director interview: Paul Andrew Williams

Paul Andrew Williams, the director of London to Brighton (EIFF 2006), talks about making the gritty realistic thriller Cherry Tree Lane, which received a World Premiere at this year’s Fest

Heroes are extraordinary so as far as Williams is concerned, they have no place in an authentic thriller. The same goes for redemption, ‘in real time scenario there’s no character arc, there’s not the nice family that we care about; they’re just normal people.’

The same attitude is extended to the gang members who invade the home of Mike and Christine after their son Sebastian becomes involved in drugs, ‘they are bad kids but they’re not big monsters walking through the door which I think is what a lot of people assume.’

The behaviour of Rian and Asad – which veers between violence to reproving comments towards their affluent victims depending on who is present – is perceptive, showing them not just as thugs but as easily influenced teenagers, ‘even though these guys are doing these horrible things, I think that’s exactly what they’d do, they’d adapt to the scenario. Trying to be friendly, not getting the fact that what they are doing is so horrible and wrong.’

In keeping with the realism of the film, he developed backstories with the actors and made sure the cast socialised together. Aside from being one of his favourite parts of the process, this bonding pays dividends when it comes to dynamics: ‘Relationships are weird. A lot of times in movies they are shown in very black and white ways. Family relationships are different just because you can get away with a lot more in terms of what gets talked about.’

Much of the on- and off-screen violence comes from complex emotional ties, but where is the line between grit and sensationalism? ‘We’re all in the privileged position of not being in that situation. We can make assumptions about what we might do without going through trauma. I don’t like seeing violence. However, it depends on the point you’re trying to get across. If you’re trying to make a point about violence then it’s important what you do with it.’

Cherry Tree Lane has already had an impact, nominated for the Michael Powell Award, how does Williams feel about being considered ‘best of British’? ‘It’s nice to be considered. If you don’t win it doesn’t make you the worst, if you do win it doesn’t make you the best.’

Williams is equally measured when considering future projects, he has two films in mind, one a ‘nice story about old people’ and the other ‘has a bit of killing in it’. The bottom line: ‘it’s about what you can get finance for. Do I want to make another tense, stuck-in, scary movie? Ideally I wouldn’t want to rightaway unless they go, ‘we’re going to pay your mortgage for you.”

Director interview: Iyari Wertta

Iyari Wertta’s stylish noir, The Black Panther, combines detective fiction, sci-fi and surrealism to create something completely new but where on earth did it come from?

‘I wanted to make something very different from other Mexican films. Mexico is a big country with lots social problems whereas my film is about imagination and beautiful and crazy things.’ Wertta chose to shoot in black and white not just in homage to fifties noir but also because of the light and shadows that characterise German expressionism.

The protagonist, alcoholic and detective Nico Beamonte hallucinates about Mexican icon Pedro Infante: ‘Every country has someone who represents the nation ideal. We have Pedro Infante; he is brave, drunk, likes women, partying and music and he is a great lover. That’s the Mexican image of a great man. I grew up watching his films and my mother and grandmother still shout when he comes on the TV. When he died it was a national tragedy and there is a conspiracy that he is not dead, like Elvis.’

In the film, Infante, who has been cryogenically frozen is brought back to life by an enigmatic woman and resumes his machismo while Nico struggles with his demons, ‘Pedro Infante is a great man and Nico is a loser. He lives in the past and has nothing in the present. Nico has to think of Pedro Infante to be strong. He is drunk all day, he never eats and he has no motivation. He stays in bed until a man calls him.’

This man tells Nico he must find the Black Panther – but what is this in a film of cats, big, small and stuffed? ‘For me the black panther is a black cat. When I was writing the film my cat died and I was very upset. She was the most important thing to me at that time because I didn’t have a girlfriend, I just had my cat.’ Animals are symbolic to Wertta and provide a counterpoint to Nico’s desolation, ‘When I was a boy I would go to my grandmother’s house and see horses running free but in Mexico City you only see them at the racing. The scene where you see the horse dead is a very powerful image to me.’

The most important scene in the film takes place in a church where an old man tells Nico he has fallen from god’s grace. Wertta joins the dots, ‘in some ways I am Nico and the existential questions Death asks him are questions I ask myself. I don’t know if god exists, I don’t know the meaning of life and I don’t know where I am going. My parents tell me this is because I don’t have sons. They say, ‘I was like you but when you were born, I understood everything.’ It isn’t like that for me, I don’t know if I want to have sons. I’m comfortable with cats.’

The film is dream-like with childhood flashbacks and plays with ideas about the psyche, Wertta explains, ‘Nico confuses reality with dreams. He has no hope and is almost dead because he doesn’t have love or faith, just alcohol.’ At this point Wertta furtively hides his bottle of beer, surely, this isn’t how he feels? ‘No, that was just how I felt at the time.’ Fortunately, this is far behind Wertta, due to the complexity of the special effects The Black Panther was two years in post-production and Wertta also wrote the music. Difficult as it was for Wertta to capture his imagination on celluloid, you’ll discover it was certainly a worthwhile struggle.