A Yank in the Bank



Let the magic begin!

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.'Bridge Over the River Kwai' Guinness is the lead character but Holden sells the film

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.

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10 Responses to A Yank in the Bank

  1. Phil says:

    You need to make a ‘Still Game’ film…or ‘Chewing The Fat’….I’m not choosy.
    Great post.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    🙂 Welcome.

  3. chazzy says:

    This is a very odd stream of consciousness post, full of inaccuracies and unfair assertions. Your examples stop around 1999, ignoring much of the modern indigenous scottish film. Where are For Those in Peril, Filth, Sunshine on Leith and so forth – made without US stars. War of the Worlds is based on an HG Wells story but it’s an american movie (Paramount).

    I must have missed the american lead in David Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire, War of the Buttons, Defence of the Ream,My Life So Far… Brond was Channel 4 show,not a film.

    And there’s no clear argument to the remarks re Local Hero: Bill Forsyth wrote the film with Burt Lancaster in mind. It won a number of awards in America. It grossed it’s costs back in the US alone.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    I’m not sure who you are arguing for, the Brit film industry or the Scottish. “Stream of consciousness’ is a catch-all, hackneyed riposte.

    I can’t cover all Scottish films, although I made special mention of ‘Slow West’ in a recent essay, a film you omit, released this year. But only a small part of it was shot in Scotland because it was a story set in the USA about Scots emigrants. I have nothing to criticise there. I praise the writer-director for getting on with actually making his film, a very good film, and not lamenting the state of the British industry.

    Brond is there because it remains the most mature filmed drama in subject matter made by Scots in Scotland from a Scots source, a highly praised novel, cost £3 million back in the day, and was entirely successful stateside without its Glaswegian accents dubbed! It was first discussed as a film, and then split into three parts. It utilised all-film crew resident at the time, financed by Film Four.

    Put simply: If the script, acting, and direction are good, a film will travel no matter if its subject relates to a specific geo-political region. It’ll travel, of course, so long as it has a distribution agreement in place first.

    I concentrate on films made in Scotland and try to show how they fare against their English equivalent. ‘Sunshine on Leith’ does not an industry make, hence my point. (I enjoyed the film. Pity locations in Glasgow served as Edinburgh.)

    But to take just one of your examples, ‘Chariots of Fire’; emphasis was placed on the American runner though in reality he had little to do with the motivation of the real characters. ‘War of the Worlds’ is a British novel by H. G. Wells set in England, as is ‘The Day of the Triffids’ by John Wyndham. On ‘Hero’ – if Lancaster was Forsyth’s first choice it doesn’t negate the observation the film has remarkable similarities to ‘The Maggie’, nor does that detract from the statement that our films can be successful without the obligatory American element, as were Forsyth’s before ‘Hero’.

  5. donald says:

    I enjoyed this essay GB as always . Its always fascinating to get anyone’s perspective on a subject.
    Dad took me to films sets every now and then and a few premiere’s / press previews of new films .
    I suppose while I was not disinterested at all I did not get starry eyed or wowed by any of it . The technical stuff interested me more.
    Good art it seem to me is always subversive but to get air time/funding it has to pander to vested interests and work on many levels. There is so much sub text to film production . I have never liked the British Pandering to US Ego (four weddings etc) but as always the subversion is to subtle for the average American to pick up on so it does not matter to much. There are none so blind as those driven by greed and Ego and the clever artist has to play to and work around that .
    Experience too determines a persons appreciation and insight to a Film. For many , Bond films are Pure ‘wank’ as my wife calls it and she is right , at a certain level it is . To me the subtext is more important than the Plot and the pandering . To me the use of the title Skyfall has a very particular reference nothing to do with location . To anyone with experience in the intel/military community the film will be perceived very differently to the average civvy. There are many subtle nods that the average movie stiff just will not pick up on. Its a shame but I don’t waste time trying to explain to people who choose to be pig ignorant armchair/popcorn experts on stuff they have no real experience of.

    For me Film is not escape or fantasy fulfillment . To me its the Mirror of our times .The good bad and ugly . I tend to watch film objectively and ask myself what the many drivers behind it are . How is it propagandized ,what is the subliminal content .Does it educate or manipulate . Does it reinforce stereo types and finesse the weak minded in to acceptance or does it say “wake Up for chrissakes !” .

    Ridley Scott is the supreme pragmatist it seems to me . I watch his films and enjoy them for the most part even when they are sending mixed messages on different levels to appease the moguls attract investors and give good box office . Most people go to movies to escape reality GB , not to face it . Reality Sucks and lets be Honest , the British Isles are a bleak landscape of urban decay , misery and mind numbing sameness.
    So the clever film makers try to marry the message and fantasy in a bankable package. Take the average punter ‘away from all this’. Make me a hero/princess by proxy /association.

    Ostensibly ,Shakespeare was a propagandist for QE1 , but the subtext is far different to the plot.
    All great writers encipher to authenticate their Brand . Printing word offers so many avenues to do so . That’s why competence at Cross word puzzles is so admired within informed circles .
    Same with film . A Picture paints a thousand words and the subconscious mind can process huge amounts of material that the conscious mind misses out on most of the time . Its the secret to Hypnosis . Every great film maker Knows this and uses it . Frame rate alone has a hypnotizing effect ,there is no escaping it . Or like my dad said. ‘I don’t watch the Film, I watch the audience.’

    Films are made for many different reasons . They can inspire ,they can enslave , they can start wars . To many people use them as a crutch and excuse . My opinion . If you want an authentic exciting life , get on and live it . Don’t settle for flick shtick, lotto tickets and Election promises .
    I challenge the system on a daily basis , make the bastards work a bit harder . The system will never change until you walk away from its rules and make your own. Most film reinforces and maintains conformity . Just like the BB bloody C. Until you wake up. Then you see the same film on a completely different level , hack the jack and push back. The hunter becomes the Hunted.

    The good script writers want that , they pray for it . But you can only lead the Horse to water , you cant make it think.

  6. donald says:

    My life so far was certainly a very interesting film , but it did cater to a very narrow audience . It was very much an homage to the Anonymous movers and shakers in the Arts . Not many people would pick the subtext . Never watched any of the other films you mention though . To many Scottish based films shoot themselves in the foot by reinforcing the Bleakness and futility instead of confronting and doing something about it.
    Brit films do the same . Don’t look for a smile on the misery mile . Unless its a feel good chick flick with a transatlantic love match . (finger down throat job)
    Trainspotting .How to sex up drug dependance and resignation. Crap film ,crap script , crap message, crap ending .Which is fine if you like being crapped on but if that film does not at least piss you off you did not get your moneys worth.
    Its like that crap central nihilistic Quadrophenia . Terrible waste of a perfectly sound Vespa. Rinse and repeat with punk rock shock cock reaction schlock . End result is the same . Another fucked up generation left at the station.
    We do the aiming so you dont have to worry about pissing in the right direction.

    The kids are alright . NOT.

    ‘Fucking film industry mate ! Bunch of tossers trying to tell us how to live .’

    my mate Harry after a few pints at the Kings Head . He does have a point.

  7. davy1600 says:

    Your article has a bittie of the unionist referendum campaign about it, with the “no yeh canna di that” aspect. And perhaps the film industry in Scotland does reflect our countrys ambitions as directed to us by Westminster goverments in the past. (just a little bit of encourgement and no more).

    But surely the time for that is past, perhaps with a pro Scotland goverment in Holyrood their is a good chance the scottish film industry can make its case for true finance and support. Aim high and settle for just that, you know the industry and the people within it, make the case and show what other countries are doing.

    If they can do it, so should Scotland.

    My favorite film in the past couple of years (The Angels Share), I nearly pished myself laughing, what an original story.

  8. Grouse Beater says:

    “no yeh canna di that” aspect.

    There’s nothing proscriptive about my attitude.

    I try to liberate, to dump slavish adherence to whatever English distributors think fits their latest sales template, they in turn enthralled to Hollywood commercialism. I have first-hand experience of being told by a top UK producer, “Who the hell wants to see a [expletive deleted] Scottish historical costume epic?” two years before “Braveheart.”

    Smart art London connoisseurs can tell artists trained in a Scottish art school, and they identify them with respect and admiration. Our novelists can write a story set in any Scottish city or rural area, and it will travel. We know an Australian film from an Italian film, and so on, and so forth, because they have the courage of their culture.

    I enjoyed ‘Angel’s Share’ too. But I’d like to see us make more of adult issue films, and not keep repeating youth subject matter. There’s a place for them, but not to the exclusion of all else. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments.

  9. davy1600 says:

    Sorry my “no yeh canna di that” was aimed at the industry in general and the people who finance it, nae yersel personaly, I should have made that clear.

    I agree we have the artists, writers and designers within Scotland to rival any in the world, we design computer games equal if not better than anybody else, and we have the culture of possibily the oldest nation in its current form in europe.

    Yet we still sitting on the bottom step of the film industry, waiting for someone else’s permission to climb up. Do we get someone else to boot our earse up or do we do it ourselfs ???

  10. donald says:

    In the right hands Film is a powerful tool for positive change .In the wrong hands its a weapon of mass distraction. Ever thought about doing a doco on Findhorn GB ? Okay , I know some will see those guys as a bunch of incense burning fluffy new ager’s but imagine what could happen if that formula was adopted on abandoned crofts all over the country ? Compulsory purchase of stolen land to be made available to the Scots so they have a home base to create again. People are desperate for change GB but we need to give them ideas ,workable ideas . Its already happening . Communities are realizing in these hard times that to survive they have to pull together . Share resources and talents for the common good . Personally I think that actionable inspiring real stories are needed more than escapist fantasy flicks right now. People can cope with reality if they have something worth working towards . It takes a healthy diversity and equitable community for the arts to flourish . Then we would not need to go cap in hand to the distributors with our arse bent over the casting couch begging for more .
    Crowd funding , self publishing , indie distribution. Its nothing new . Great art is rebellion not submission. Nobody does rebellion better than the Scots. The spirit is there , it just needs kindling with actionable plans.

    I am sick of seeing Hollywood steal the spirit and soul of the young with drugs, violence and bullshit promises . Its not cool to self destruct . Its not clever to inflate your ego and mimic Tom Cruise. What a tool that guy is .
    No more resignation to fate. Time to take back control of our destiny .

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