Last summer, Scotland got its own Disney heroine in the form of Brave‘s Merida. This summer, Scotland is hot again, and it’s not just a late-breaking heatwave that has the mercury rising. Every August, the capital city of Edinburgh becomes a hub of festival activity from the Edinburgh International Festival to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Television Festival, but this year there’s more reason to consider England’s neighbor to the north (especially as it readies a 2014 referendum on independence from the UK). Attention turned to Edinburgh last week as Kevin Spacey spoke at the TV fest to deliver a timely take on issues facing the business. Meanwhile, four movies partly funded by Scotland are on their way to Toronto, and next month sees the Starz series Outlander settle in for 38 weeks of shooting from a base near Glasgow.
Back in the late 90s when Trainspotting and Braveheart “made Scotland hip” there was “an opportunity to capitalize and lure people” to the territory, Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald tells me. But now might really “be the moment,” he says. Macdonald produced Sunshine On Leith, the Toronto-bound Dexter Fletcher-directed movie based on the stage musical that was inspired by the music of cult Scottish pop-folk band The Proclaimers. (Their 1988 song ‘I’m On My Way’ was featured on the soundtrack of DreamWorks’ Shrek.) The film follows the stories of Davy and Ally after their return home from serving in Afghanistan. Peter Mullan and Jane Horrocks star in the DNA Films production. Shooting took place in Edinburgh and the movie received £300,000 in funding from Scotland’s arts body Creative Scotland. Just this month, Focus Features International boarded for worldwide sales. Macdonald is a Scotsman (he’s also the brother of helmer Kevin Macdonald), but director Fletcher is English. This didn’t stop Creative Scotland, which is coming off of a bumpy 2012 that saw a management shake-up, from investing. The org’s Caroline Parkinson, head of creative development, tells me that there is a cultural test to access the £4M pot from which the outfit draws, but the idea is to be “flexible” and not rule out what can be “fantastic films for Scotland.”
That also goes for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, another Toronto pick. Creative Scotland gave that film its top allowance of £300,000. It’s produced by a mix of Film4, FilmNation, Nick Wechsler Productions and the UK Film Council. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form on a journey through the Highlands. “We want to allow freedom of expression. Yes, we celebrate Scottish films and culture, but what about the aspirations of producers who want to make films that are not necessarily Scottish, but in which Scotland will be on screen?” opines Parkinson. Johansson was “running around in a white van for weeks” during the shoot and “people were loving it. It’s an alien film but Scotland is going to star in the film… how brilliant!”
Also on deck for Toronto is Jonathan Teplizky’s The Railway Man with Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine and Stellan Skarsgard. The film hails from Archer Street Productions, Latitude Media, Lionsgate, Pictures in Paradise, Silver Reel and Thai Occidental Productions and also received the whole hog of £300,000 in soft money. And, there’s David Mackenzie’s prison-cum-family drama Starred Up produced by Film4, Sigma Films, Lipsync Productions, Quickfire Films and Northern Ireland Screen. That one also nabbed £300,000 from Creative Scotland, although it was shot in Belfast.
These films with their mixed nationalities bring up a particular conundrum when considering ‘Scottish cinema.’ Many people, for example, equate English director Danny Boyle with Scottish film, thanks in large part to movies like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Macdonald, who produced both, tells me that Boyle has become “an honorary Scot” and jokes that he might have received funds to make Shallow Grave in 1994 because the lenders “thought he was Danny Boyle the [TV] writer from Glasgow.” Still, while it’s undeniable that there’s a so-called Scottish identity – Scots themselves will tell you it’s kilts and whiskey and dourness among other things – Parkinson says, “What does Scottish cinema feel like? I don’t know. Is it films about Scotland as an aggregate or is it films made by Scots?” This channels in well to the current political landscape which has Scotland prepping a referendum in September 2014 on whether or not it should become a separate country that’s no longer part of the United Kingdom.
The most recent official polls – and most folks I’ve spoken with – don’t think the referendum will pass, but it is expected to gain a lot of support. Were it to pass, the country’s film and TV business could suffer from difficulties accessing subsidies run out of London for the whole of Britain. However, I understand the Scottish government is already bracing for a change. It’s “looking towards how independence could be a possibility,” I’m told by an industry insider. “They’re positive about continuing tax breaks and furthering the TV and film industry, if independence does happen.” In the past months, and even at the Edinburgh TV Festival on Friday, there have been mutterings that Scotland should have its own tax incentives, rather than rely on the centralized UK breaks.
There is also a push to build a studio facility in Scotland. With the new UK tax incentive on animation and high-end television, England’s studios are having to juggle more productions than ever. Foreign (read: Hollywood) films often shoot some scenes in Scotland – recent titles include The Dark Knight Rises, World War Z, 47 Ronin and Fast & Furious 6 – but they are generally doing exteriors or use what Creative Scotland calls “pop-up studios” built in warehouses and the like. Jon S. Baird, director of the adaptation of Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s Filth starring James McAvoy and due for release in October, recently told BBC Scotland, “The thing that Scotland has got is the talent, whether it is behind or in front of the camera, and what we probably could be doing with is a studio somewhere. That would be fantastic because we’ve got the people, we’ve got the talent, we just need the facilities.”
Creative Scotland and Scottish Enterprise have each invested £75,000 to develop a feasibility study on building a production facilities village and studio sound stages. A related group that includes government representatives has been set up to pursue proposals. Results are due by January. Further, Creative Scotland has ring-fenced £1M towards the cost of a studio, should a project prove viable.
For Macdonald, Scotland is one of the only places in the UK outside of London where you can get “proper film crews.” He contends also that the country, whose population is about 5 million, is “built for size” which helps foster strong filmmakers. The drama schools are not elitist and the country ends up producing an “endless amount of (talented) people for a small country.” Macdonald lives in London but says when he comes across Scottish people there who are just starting out, he tells them, “Go back to Scotland, there are more opportunities.” He believes, however, that sustaining a film studio in Scotland would require “one of these (new) films to be a hit. It will reflect strongly.”
But it could also end up being a TV show that plants an unwavering Scottish flag on the map in the future. Outlander, the hugely anticipated Starz drama series from Battlestar Galactica alum Ron Moore and Sony Pictures Television, is an adaptation of the books by Diana Gabaldon. From September 10, it’s shooting 16 episodes over 38 weeks on location and in a converted warehouse near Glasgow. It’s expected the production will commission a crew of about 200 and cast more than 2,000 supporting roles. Outlander’s arrival represents the biggest single inward investment ever in Scotland at £20M for the year.
Even though a lot of people I’ve spoken to in the past couple of weeks have to go back to 1996’s Trainspotting to find an iconic Scottish film, folks are bullish on the future. Parkinson says, “You’re seeing a new layer of producers who see themselves on a global stage and want to make a range of films that will travel. They love making Scottish stories in Scotland… and can carry the torch of Scotland. But the new blood coming through needs a launch pad so they don’t just do one film then you don’t see them for a while. There needs to be a pick-up of their talent in the UK or in Hollywood.” Among the producers to keep an eye on are Gillian Berrie of Glasgow-based Sigma Film. She’s been around for a while but recently co-produced Denmark’s 2012 Oscar entry A Royal Affair and is a co-producer on Under The Skin and a producer on Starred Up, two of the Toronto-bound pics. I also hear Claire Mundell and Synchronicity Films mentioned quite often. She produced upcoming comedy Not Another Happy Ending starring up-and-comer – and former Doctor Who companion – Karen Gillan.
Finally, Kevin Spacey in Edinburgh this week spoke of the need to seek out talent wherever it may be – in a pub, in someone’s basement, etc. His comments may have been influenced by the ongoing Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s a proving ground for new talent and the place where such folks as Steve Coogan have been discovered. Spacey’s lament was aimed at “people in the talent business” who are “too lazy” to go searching in unconventional places. The UK TV networks roundly send scouts to check out the Fringe. Referred to by some as the “Cannes of Edinburgh,” this year’s festival saw more than 45,000 live performances in nearly 2,900 shows across the city. It closes tomorrow.