The Low Road

The Low Road ---

It’s been almost a year since I embarked on this project, though in film terms a year is relatively short, certainly shorter than for most conventional feature-length productions. Right now however it feels like an eternity as I work through a 1096-page reference manual for DaVinci Resolve to finally grasp the art of colour grading in anticipation of the long months of editing ahead.

To say this film could never happen without the tools is an understatement. Fifteen years ago I made a film, ‘One Life Stand’ which as debuts go wasn’t an ideal way of breaking into dramatic narrative features but I made and took my chance with a (now) primitive 3-chip camcorder and an early prosumer NLE system. That my micro-budget film won numerous awards, great reviews and multiple festival selections was a plus but nothing as compared to the gratification of having owned the process.

In an oversubscribed market, anyone who really wants to make films as opposed to talking about making films, to achieve a useful level of technical savvy is not only a necessary strategy but a prerequisite. With rare exceptions, most people I’ve met over the years who’ve shared my ambition have given up because the things that make life worthwhile are incompatible with filmmaking: friends, partners, children, the need to earn a living, indeed, to have a life. Plainly something has to give and for most it’s the dream of making films. Or at least the kind that afford a wage sufficient to maintain a life.

Of course, people can and do collaborate, often for a long time with no reward other than a common goal. But the idea of a career in film seems as remote as ever, in spite of the growing number of initiatives and enablers, a state of affairs only reinforced when I attended a talk at the Southside Film Festival titled ‘Scotland on Screen.’ It’s not often the subject, of how our national identity is portrayed on screen gets aired but as with so many talks about Scottish film there’s little cause for optimism. The consensus view – that as filmmakers we’re a nation of hobbyists – is depressingly accurate. But when was it ever different?

The talk opened with the famous ‘colonized by wankers’ scene from ‘Trainspotting’ (1996) a film produced by Channel 4 Television and two London-based production companies. As a novel it is undeniably Scottish, but as a film it is a product of the UK Film and TV Establishment, so to describe it as an exemplar of a Scottish filmmaking is bogus; in filmmaking terms it has no Scottish DNA; in plot terms it could easily have been made in Manchester. In his screen persona, Ewan McGregor’s rant rings hollow – you can almost hear the script pages turning. Never has a low-rent junkie sounded quite so eloquent – after all, it aimed for gritty unrealism – yet the film was redubbed for overseas territories due to its (perceived) thick Scottish accents.

The conclusion? There is none. Had ‘Trainspotting’ flopped no one would regard it as a model worth emulating. But it didn’t. Made on a budget of £3.5m and heavily marketed, ‘Trainspotting’ is said to have made over $72m. Twenty years later no other ‘Scottish’ film has come close to grossing that amount – that is, with the exception of ‘The Inbetweeners’ (2011) which grossed over $88m and was produced by Scottish-based Chris Young, although most would struggle to describe it as Scottish.

Sitting in the Glad Cafe with my fellow filmmakers, it was agreed that the prospects for Scottish film are, as ever, perennially bleak. As a nation colonized by wankers, we suffer a lack of confidence in screenwriting, producing and directing and – crucially – in marketing our movies. Certainly Scotland has talented people involved in the technical and craft areas of production, many of whom quit the country to secure regular employment when most would prefer to work close to home. Within government and the public bodies, however, the current strategy is to attract productions to Scotland rather than analyse, prioritise and support a plural, national cinema – cold comfort to those of us who make films here. Or rather, those who don’t.

One thing agreed on was that the level of indigenous production can’t get much lower. But the how-to question of increasing the numbers remains unanswered. Some years ago I – and several others – made attempts to address it but were unheeded. Without a radical intervention, however, I predict that homegrown Scottish film will become, if not extinct, an even more rarefied activity for the few and that the country will revert to what it’s always been – a attractive backdrop for others to exploit, offering tax breaks, cheap labour and, in time, a studio built only to service incoming productions, the films and TV dramas that continue a long tradition of serving up palatable visions of Scottishness from ‘Brigadoon’ to ‘Braveheart’.

In making ‘Voyageuse’ I’m unconcerned about questions of national identity. Though the film is largely set in Edinburgh, the protagonist is to all intents English so no redubbing is required. Nor do I face the prospect of making (or losing) money since there’s no profit motive involved, only the desire to tell a story that otherwise would go untold. The if/when question of how it will be shown is another matter and a subject for a future post. Apart from purchasing some necessary kit, the cost of production so far is so low as to be risible, lower than the contribution required by public funders in order to access support. Where my own investment lies is in time and effort, much of it by learning new techniques, daunting as it is, but far cheaper than hiring a post-production facility house and as an exercise in self-improvement infinitely more satisfying.

The above image is of Erica’s mother, Vera, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1959.