Imagination immersed in a good film is, for me, the greatest relaxation, better than a walk in a beautiful garden, greater than a fine wine or whisky, beating sex hands down, or up.
Before trading a lacklustre television job for the vast uncertainties of a vocation in film, my first and enduring love, I studied Scottish cinema. The biggest question begging an answer was, can anybody survive and thrive making fictional filmed drama in Scotland? The answer was there for all to see, a resounding ‘no’.
What film industry?
We have no ‘industry’ to talk of, barely a cottage industry. Nor are there any funds or investment to boast about. They are in London. We have no means of distribution. Those outlets are also in London. Then there are the midges, a killer to location work in the Highlands in summer. For all those reasons, and the promotion of English culture over Scottish, the British film industry is in reality the English film industry, though it too has had its faltering moments and bankruptcies.
The French invented the craft, but must look at the USA with envy that turned it into a global business. Sharing the English language, England developed its film industry swiftly, Australia almost overnight by means of generous tax incentives. Norway, a country the SNP are apt to measure themselves against, produces an average of a dozen films a year, profit returning to the producer to invest in the next project and keep story-telling alive and job security certain, and that’s with a home-built audience, not an international one.
Scotland is nowhere in the annals of national filmmaking, unless you count the many talented writers, actors, directors and technicians that immigrated to find work and develop their skills, a list that is considerable.
All that aside, the most pertinent question to debate is, what kind of films should we be making in Scotland, keeping in mind the paucity of funds and facilities?
Skyefall not bloody Skyfall
Studying the short history of filmmaking in Scotland unearths many a delight and many a coincidence, but there is one constant. We give main roles to American actors. But then, so does the English film industry. Why? Well, for purely commercial reasons. We rely on US distribution. A yank is a dollar in the bank.
I began a study into Scottish literature and history for film material about the same time as Bill Forsyth was at his height. His UK success created a lot of interest and excitement. A natural miniaturist, his gems, ‘That Sinking Feeling,’ and ‘Gregory’s Girl’ showed what can be done on a zero budget and lots of energy and talent. Then came ‘Local Hero.‘
His early work was rooted in realistic scenarios. Characters were played by amateur actors, (I return to this theme later) the celebrity cameo appearances real celebrities. A natural ambition took him away from his source material and his homeland. When he returned for ‘Gregory’s Two Girls’, (1999) the result was disappointing. Reviews were almost all dire.
His main success, ‘Local Hero’, (1983) was a repeat of an earlier Ealing comedy plot about a wealthy American’s plans to own a piece of Scotland thwarted by some wily Scottish Highlanders. Forsyth denied he had seen ‘The Maggie’ (1954) though he was a disciple of, and knew its director, Alexander Mackendrick. Most likely, ‘Hero’s’ producer David Puttnam had a harmful influence, shifting the storyline until it was no longer original.
‘Local Hero’ did poorly at the box office in North American territories, as did the much vaunted ‘Trainspotting‘ (1996) with no American lead, but the latter, aimed at youth, took off in word-of-mouth Blockbuster rentals to the tune of over $70 million USD, launching the careers of almost all associated with it. ‘Trains‘ and ‘Hero’ are poles apart in subject matter and attitude to its characters, but each employs comedy to make its points.
Forsyth, or more accurately David Puttnam, a man who talked cultural heritage and then demanded an American character in every plot in every film he made, followed the commercial dictum exercised since the Fifties: for your film to make money there must be an American as a central character.
Scottish movies with American actors
‘The Day of the Triffids,’, (1962) ‘The War of the Worlds’, (1953), and the Third Man’, (1949) probably the best British film noir ever made, exploiting exterior locations in bomb ridden Vienna, each with US actors in lead roles, are three examples that demonstrate American colonisation. However, ‘The Third Man’ benefits from the dominating presence of, but barely seen, Orson Welles, and his long-time collaborator, Joseph Cotton.
Even master filmmaker David Lean was not immune to commercial pressures: an American journalist follows Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert, and in ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai‘ (1957) Lean has a sub-plot of an American saboteur that begins away from the main action, the role played by William Holden, with further demotion of the English storyline in the movie’s poster advertising Holden and not Sir Alec Guinness as the film’s star. There are many more examples. If you finance comes from the USA, or if you want a USA distribution deal, you alter a Cockney or a Scot to an American. It becomes a film about a Yank in King Arthur’s court.
The same situation exists moving to more recent times; the film industry is occupied territory. The one predictable element in a Scottish or English US-funded film is that the future of the Anglo-American alliance is represented by a transatlantic romance, for example, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill’ (1999).
The logic of bowing to US constraints leads to the extreme, everybody but the love interest is American: John Schlesinger’s Yanks, (1979) with Richard Gere and William Devane, a film that casts a warm glow of nostalgia over its portrait of American troops stationed near a small Lancashire town. And Puttnam’s, ‘Memphis Belle’, (1990) a story of an American bomber crew stationed in England, a subject Puttnam derived wholly from a documentary made by the US director, William Wyler.
Scotland’s output has notable exceptions. The affection for Queen Victoria by her loyal ghillie John Brown in ‘Mrs Brown’, (1997) is one example that travelled well, or the political thriller ‘Brond‘ set in Glasgow, a home-grown drama funded by Film Four, but split into three television parts. It draws attention to political interference via Special Branch in Scotland’s ambitions, yet has no American characters. Distributed in the USA, it won Best Screenplay from the American Society of Movie Critics.
Do we need Americans in Scottish stories? The answer is, it all depends on the storyline. I must confess, I did succumb to the dollar in a screenplay about an American scientist and the Loch Ness Monster, its facsimile later made with ‘Cheers‘ star, Ted Danson, ‘Loch Ness’ (1996).
Should we write film scripts about Americans in Scotland?
Do Norwegians, Australians, Italians and French say, we cannot shoot this screenplay, there is no American in it? There are Scots films, albeit modest enterprises, that needed none and used none, that held tight to their cultural roots. The forgotten ‘Conquest’, (1989) a story of disenfranchised and unemployed nefarious youth set in Edinburgh’s Leith Docks, pipping ‘Trainspotting‘ (1996) to the post, and Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’, (1999) are examples that bring me to the point of the thesis.
We are best when representing our own social problems, adult concerns, and political issues. Produced correctly, with honesty and truth, and a dash of humour, neo-realist stories can be universal in meaning. ‘Gregory’s Girl’ had that quality.
If there are two films outside ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, (1962) that set my heart beating faster about filmmaking, they are Bill Douglas’s tapestry of cruel poverty in Edinburgh’s coal mining district, ‘My Ain Folk’, (1977) a black and white trilogy, and the great Italian writer-director Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), the epitome of neo-realism.
Cinema Neo-Realism or Neo-Miserabilis
Sadly, Douglas never achieved the same stature of work or output as De Sica being too much the fierce perfectionist. He spent most of his days a lecturer in the National Film School (NFS) in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. De Sica went on to achieve more fine work, and international celebrity. There is a lesson there.
(The NFS now the NFTS includes courses in television. The founder, Colin Young, a Scot, first tried to establish it in Scotland but got no interest in his idea. There’s a lessen there!)
Both films have young boys from the streets as the main character, and both eschew professional actors, though Douglas uses two from the repertory of Scottish theatre to depict adult roles. (It is debatable either professional achieved a greater role anywhere.) De Sica uses an all amateur cast, and sets it in the Rome of post-war Italy.
Born out of a shoe-string budget, but following his intuition, De Sica denies movie-star glamour and casts according to his preference, for the authenticity of a face. Lamberto Maggiorani, the film’s gaunt, unemployed leading man, was a real factory worker; the boy playing his son, Bruno Ricci, literary chosen from the back streets of Rome. The result is a simple story of poverty and survival given Shakespearian power. It has never been bettered. The last image, a close up of the son slipping his hand into that of his despairing, humiliated father, is an image of profound hope and unconditional love.
If I have a criticism of Douglas’s master work, it is its unrelenting bleakness. The three films watched in order are hard to take, though the films seduce with their extraordinary photographic compositions. He was writing about a time before he made his films, but decades later I recognised my own childhood that took place in the same locality, the same experiences of hunger, of adult idiosyncrasy, of irrational rage, and casual cruelty. Douglas shares honours with De Sica for creating an almost wordless work.
Those are the sort of films we are good at making so long as we don’t get morbid. That is the subject matter that endures, that has relevance down the ages.
A commercial bent
We can do light and profound too. Let us not forget, there are no Americans in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.‘ If Scotland wants a film industry it has to be different from all others, and the only way to achieve that is to speak with an ingenious cultural voice. Our films travel best when we junk artifice, fashion, and Hollywood convention. Recognised the world over, our writers and our painters show us the way.
Yes, we need a studio, probably a ‘dry wall’ studio, able to be rented by local companies and visiting productions, sited away from traffic and aircraft noise, near woods and hills that can be used as backdrop. We certainly require our television broadcasters to promote film, as Channel Four did in its early days to great creative and financial profit.
But above all, we need confidence in our self as a nation and the stories we wish to express in film. And that can only come when we are no longer patronised and colonised.