What? No drama?
An alert reader noticed a comment from (I think) a BBC spokesperson apologising for the absence of any drama about, produced, and made in, Scotland since 2014.
Actually, it’s earlier than that. It takes over two years from green lighting a project to the finished article, longer if waiting for transmission, or cinema release. This is why we are startled to see our favourite actor grey haired at interview. He made the drama years back. (Maybe he was grey then but dyed it for the role.)
One reason for the situation is ventured by a BBC executive, “There isn’t the talent in Scotland.” If I identify him it will only cause him acute embarrassment, but he deserves to be named and shamed. Then again, all he’s doing is signify we are a colonised country.
He is not the messiah
The story of Scotland’s cinematic output is one of still birth, followed by a new messiah who is lured to London, and then to Hollywood, get’s praised by Scotland’s media, and then gets fired from a big budget film. Scotland leaches talent to another’s culture.
Though master filmmakers encounter Hollywood at some time in their career only to get ripped off, they tend to remain with their homeland because that’s where inspiration springs eternal: Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Kurosawa in Japan, Sergei Eisenstein in Soviet Russia, Truffaut in France, Bergman in Sweden, Pedro Almodóvar in Spain, too many to list in Latin America. Scotland’s directors go abroad, and usually stay there.
Television pays upfront, movies rely on box office
If you decide to stay in Scotland and want to be a filmmaker you compromise – television drama, documentaries, and commercials – if you can get them. Mostly, you can’t. Scotland’s oft cited industry is really a smattering of projects for film and television. There isn’t the quantity of commissions for a filmmaker to specialise.
A justified reaction to the article’s title, therefore, might be, what film industry?
A cottage industry
We have a cottage industry of sorts, the equivalent of one-and-a-half resident film crew, very few producers, and even fewer directors. For the most part Scotland is a backdrop to a foreign filmmaker’s project.
We are a service industry. We locate for other people’s films. We supply the catering. What self-generated productions exist, exist against the odds.
Resident practitioners appear and disappear each decade as people move to London, or just give up on the profession. If you want to make film the money is in London. The power is in London. Distribution is in London.
Last in is a sissy
The discrepancy is partly the fault of Scotland’s broadcasting companies, their misguided commissioning procedure. For example, an English-based producer can pitch a project to BBC Scotland, and conversely, a Scottish-based producer can pitch to BBC London. Scottish producers not part of the fashionable metropolis have little chance of winning what is an elimination contest. It doesn’t help, of course, that BBC Scotland reduced the post of head of drama to commissioning editor, under the direction of BBC London .
Channel Four, once the saviour of the English film industry with a solid policy to encourage new filmmakers, (I was one) hardly participates in Scottish drama. STV made endless series of Taggart, eventually in modern dress. It did that because the ITV network guaranteed to buy them and transmit them. STV tried making movies on the C4 model. It employed one of David Puttnam’s best production disciples to generate films. His first project was not only English made in England, but a gigantic turkey. He lost his job – production staff are not the most erudite in spotting a fine screenplay – and Scotland lost a decent chance at a continuous line of productions.
Try being a Scottish-based producer, one able to bear the costly expense of London travel and meetings, but up against a hoard of experienced London-based companies well networked, and see how far you get with your Celtic subject matter. There’s the barrier to surmount of English disinterest in anything of a Scottish character.
Conversely, English producers have little competition in Scotland. BBC’s cliché of a ‘level playing field’ is hogwash.
Build it and they will come
Resident companies in Scotland make the same claim on public finance as they did when I decided to close down in Edinburgh and set up shop in Los Angeles: we need a film studio.
It’s a recurring plea. Every few years somebody announces an intention to build one. Even Sean Connery tried his hand with Sony, but that too evaporated in a stream of conjecture, and criticism over grabbing green belt for its location. (The Royal Bank of Scotland somehow got the land!) Studios have catches attached, like the extra land needed for a hotel, and houses. Creative Scotland is, as they say, actively looking into the matter.
In the age of storytelling expressed through the moving image all nation states need film and a film studio. Ireland has its Ardmore studios, England has Pinewood, Norway has three studios.
What kind of film studio?
A film studio can be a simple ‘dry wall’ building of large proportions, and soundproofed; four walls with a lighting gantry and some state of the art computers for graphics enhancement. It should be kept apart from aircraft and road noise, but close to motorway access, and near woods and a hill for cheap outdoor scenes.
Next comes the question, who pays for skeleton staff to run it, and rent it to indigenous and visiting production companies? Lastly, just as important, what tax advantages are available to encourage productions to shoot in Scotland?
When planning a film shot in Australia, (about an errant Scottish pioneer) the state film fund offered me up to three quarters of the budget, so long as two thirds of the film was shot in Australia, with a proportion of crew and actors Aussies. You are also expected to use as many local facilities as possible. However, editing can be in another country, the country where the project originated, in my case, Scotland.
The lack of bureaucracy is impressive. “You’re shocked, mate! We offered money before you made your pitch, right? We make films here, we don’t talk about the bloody things.”
There is a similar situation existing in New Mexico, USA, which attracts a lot of Californian productions, the recent excellent Hell and High Water (2015) shot there by director, David MacKenzie. We could offer the same here, only if tax dividends go hand-in-hand.
Setting up a studio is a comparatively easy task, one that asks only for the political will and enough finance. The hardest part of sustaining a film industry, even a small one, is who sells Scottish films when edited?
Distribute the film but keep the talent
Having no distributer leaves a small nation producing expensive home movies. To some degree the Norwegian model overcomes that problem. Laudably, it subsidises all its films, as many as a dozen a year, ensuring the producer gets the most from box office so he or she can invest in another film together with government grant aid. The films get distributed in Scandinavian countries. A few make it to Europe.
But generally Norwegian films don’t travel very far. Does that matter? It does, if Scotland wants to speak to other nations, not just to its self. We like to think we speak a kind of intelligible English that doesn’t require our dramas subtitled or dubbed.
Having our own distribution arm for film and television production supposes there is enough activity to justify its existence. That means subsidising production to stimulate product. Here lies temptation on capitalist lines.
Government investment has a tendency to lead to hard-nosed commercial subject matter. If not a government grant the film has to make a profit, unless, that is, the state decrees a healthy level of ‘art house’ subject matter alongside populist material, the kind concerned with mature adult issues, and not super heroes running down corridors chased by fireballs. But the state should not choose scripts. It should discipline involvement to solely backing its indigenous filmmakers.
Broadcasters to the rescue
To make all that work we need one terrestrial broadcaster mandated to invest in and transmit indigenous film, once cinemas show it. Any profits can be used to sustain the distributor, with a good portion reinvested in Scottish-made movies.
If a state run distribution entity doesn’t exist we have come no further than the days when STV rewarded master documentary maker, John Grierson, with a television series to show documentaries, but never once invested in his work. He ended his career early, talking about filmmakers, not making documentaries himself. That’s the Scotland I know – ever keen to praise international names, but cringes when it comes to elevating our own.
In time, if all those things come to pass, we will benefit from establishing an ‘Academy of the Moving Image’, run by and for its filmmaker ‘academicians’, existing to nurture interest in film, and honour our practitioners.
Adult content only
As a side issue, but one that arises from the loss of talent: we cannot keep making mostly ‘yoof’ films, one every two years, and not much else. The list is almost endless, and I contributed to it. There are so many: Bill Douglas’ trilogy My Ain Folk; Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl; Rat Catcher, Small Faces, Restless Natives; Conquest of the South Pole, like Trainspotting set in Edinburgh’s port of Leith, Sunshine on Leith, and so on, and so forth. Even the much praised television political thriller shot in Glasgow, Brond, my own production, contained a student as its central character.
Youth obsession arrives with monotonous regularity because it embodies happenings and adventures immediately close to the rookie filmmaker’s life experience, the graduate from film school. And they are the cheapest to fund. Young actors don’t cost as much as star actors. My own cinematic film was a little under half-a-million pounds. (The television drama was £2,2 million.) Youth orientated stories ought to be a strand of our output, not the be and end all, child-centred material too.
A child among adults
Child-centred films are something else. There is a distinction between that genre and youth films. They’re invariably concerned with adult issues, the behaviour of adults as perceived by the child, and as they mould the child.
Fine examples are Brian Forbes’ Whistle Down the Wind, (1961) the Spanish Victor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive, (1973) and a wonderful masterwork from American actor and newcomer to direction Brady Corbet, Childhood of a Leader, (2015) about the making of a fascist.
What’s the point?
To be a mature, enlightened, liberal nation is to be free to choose your own artistic standards and subject matter, not have them imposed from outside. If all we do is copy what ‘they’re’ doing, or want they want, we restrict creativity, and block originality.
Scottish drama ought to be, and is, as universal as any other.
Scots don’t make movies. We go to see them.
And yet we have writers and novelists of the highest ability able to create the stories of our time, and stories filled with symbolism of our past.
Ready to collaborate are our painters, graphic artists, cartoonists, and camera crew, composers, and a legion of superb actors. No wonder their contemporaries elsewhere are lauded and venerated. They have the opportunity to develop and grab it with enthusiasm.
For my part, I accept reluctantly that many of my best Scottish projects won’t be realised. At the very least that’s a lost opportunity for the employment of talented contemporaries. In fact, it’s a bloody disgrace.
(An abridged version of this essay appeared in the June 2016 edition of iScot magazine. Don’t forget to take out a subscription!)