It's heartening to see a slight revival in Scottish film activity, with Creative Scotland introducing a training week much like that which the Scottish Film Production Fund created in the 80s and 90s with Movie Makars – with seminars held in Inverness for young talent. A local councillor and co-sponsor confided in me that in this corner of the land there was a European subsidy available for a haircut. Of the many films which I have written or produced, only two were wholly made in Scotland. That's two more than Steven Spielberg and several less than Bill Forsyth. Neither of mine was able to access any EU money.
The first was a film called 'Regeneration'. Based on the prize-winning Pat Barker novel, it starred Jonathan Pryce and Jonny Lee Miller, and was immaculately directed by Gillies MacKinnon. I am proud of it and thought it a powerful depiction of a moment in history which will soon be forgotten and ought to be memorialised. Like most independent films in the UK, it was a monstrous struggle to make. When completed, the US distributors ordered it to be shortened and issued it under another title altogether. Its singular identity was compromised as lost and the title changed, making it hard to track down today.
Our 'studio' was an abandoned bus station. We hired personnel who, with rare exceptions, were Scottish. The film was funded independently by the BBC (in London) and a Canadian distributor, together with contributions from the Scottish Production Fund and the Glasgow Film Fund.
I had written the screenplay on spec some two years earlier, after acquiring an option from the author. The late Mark Shivas got the BBC interested and the first thing they did was ask to re-negotiate my option. They were experienced in these matters, they said, and would be able to secure rights for a better price. But only, as I later discovered, by confining their purchase to television rights. So when MGM announced in Variety that they had acquired feature film rights and assigned a producer to their 'Regeneration', it came as a shocking surprise. By saving money, they had lost us everything that mattered.
The producer assigned was Jay Presson Allen, known for a string of distinguished movies from 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,' to 'Cabaret' and 'Deathtrap'. She was also known for 'her wicked wit' but turned out to be charming and a little baffled. Two years later, MGM abandoned the project and the rights reverted.
So this time around, I took to the BBC the very project they had once owned. Gillies and I worked on the script for some weeks. Many directors work on script with the writer as an easy way to become familiar with the project. But Gillies was thorough, and through his interrogation of every moment in the script, the whole project was enhanced.
Casting was easy once we had landed Jonathan Pryce to play the pivotal role of Dr William Rivers, more or less the first psychiatrist to recognise what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. We ran into some difficulty with casting the role of Siegfried Sassoon, finding that a young upper-class Brit actor wasn't so easy to find. Everyone eligible could play the toff but few could inhabit the role. The assumptions of rank in the English upper classes of 1916 are oddly hard to impersonate. Luckily, we found James Wilby, who was excellent. The casting of the great English actor, John Neville, was the final note to a painless procedure of adding to a cast which included several well-kent leading men – Jonny Lee Miller, Dougray Scott, Kevin McKidd, David Hayman and James McAvoy – among others.
The real Craiglockhart in which much of the story took place is now occupied by Edinburgh Napier University in the heart of Edinburgh. So our principal location became a chilly semi-derelict building on a bank of the Clyde, standing in for Craiglockhart Hospital, where the doomed youth were treated for 'war neurosis' and then returned to the trenches.
One of our earliest scenes was Sassoon's declaration against the continuation of the war. Sassoon chucks away the medal he has won for bravery and pursues his opposition to the war in the House of Commons and every newspaper. These were scenes which the film's lawyer pointed out were illegal without the estate of the late Siegfried Sassoon consenting to sell us copyright. As he had lived into the 1960s, Sassoon's copyright was enforcible. The agent declined our offer to sell rights. What on earth to do? Shooting had begun and this crucial scene was barely a week away.
Our Highland lawyer came to the rescue. He had discovered that 20 years after death, while copyright is still valid, the estate of the deceased cannot raise an action over false attribution. I wrote a less eloquent declaration against the war and hired an Oxford don to write 'Sassoon's poetry.' I told the agent that we would be using these falsified elements in the film. Or, if they were willing to accept our initial offer, we would use the real thing. We soon made the deal and the real thing is in the film. I am the only person who thought that 'my' declaration was better than Sassoon's. But I managed to overrule myself.
One of the central scenes in the film is when Dr Rivers is taken to another hospital where men suffering from 'neurosis' are treated and returned to action. He witnesses John Neville literally torturing Kevin McKidd until he is 'cured'. The Canadian insurers told us a week prior to shooting that they were unable to insure Neville. He would be entirely at our risk.
I closed my eyes and gambled on the incompetence of insurance doctors. The chance of Neville falling over was small. But the cost of re-shooting the scene, would be catastrophic to our budget. Fortunately John Neville survived to give a wonderful, menacing performance, the equal of anything he did as Baron Munchausen. He went on to perform in some 20 projects after he left us and lived for a further 14 years.
We shot the trench and warfare scenes in what looked scarily like the real thing, in the muddied fields of Airdrie. The location created by our art department was shockingly powerful. It so happened that we shot on this site on 11 November, Remembrance Day. I had issued an instruction to cast and crew that on that day at 11am the unit would stop and hold a two minute silence. It was a powerful moment. All the iconography of the first world war – the trenches, the mud and blood, the dead bodies, and the sad geography of trench warfare – were present on the battlefield which we had replicated. The silence was kept perfectly and more than a few were tugged by tears. Amidst the whirlwind of a film set, it was impossible not to be moved.
'Regeneration' received terrific reviews and was nominated for a Best British Film award in the UK, besides almost every award available in Canada.
The second film I produced in Scotland was 'The Match.' Glaswegian Mick Davis, a writer/director of immense energy, had managed to convince Polygram to let him make a small Scottish comedy about a contest between two pubs and their football teams. This time around I was a hired hand, acting on behalf of owners in Hollywood. Our headquarters were mostly in locations in Ayrshire. The tiny village of Straiton didn't know what had hit it.
Our director of photography, Witold Stok, came with his own small crew and were the principal non-Scottish elements. The cast were Scots except for our leading man, Max Beesley, who had the accent as perfectly as anyone I know. About three weeks before shooting began, I received a call from the Hollywood moguls which directed me to cast 'three above-the-title star names' in whatever roles I could persuade them to play. This wasn't a light request. The movie was conditional upon some heftier names than the lesser known cast of Laura Fraser, James Cosmo, David Hayman, Isla Blair, Gary Lewis, Bill Paterson, and others of great skill who weren't enough.
I was set to work. How much additional money was to be given to cast these posh names? Answer: zero. It had to be done out of the existing budget. Impossible, we all said, and then proceeded to find ways to trim our total budget here, there, and everywhere else. Loch Ness became Loch Lomond. A field in France became a field in Airdrie. Five-star hotels were replaced with three star hotels. And so it went on.
By the end of the process, we had landed Richard E Grant, Neil Morrissey, Ian Holm and the recently retired Bond, Pierce Brosnan, in a tiny role. To these we added Tom Sizemore – a great American actor. The schedule was re-arranged to accommodate Brosnan. I don't know how much his presence helped distribution, but it got us taken seriously in Hollywood. He got slightly less attention than our other cameo player, Samantha Fox. The adorable Ms Fox attracted crowds of onlookers who came all the way to Ayrshire to admire her talents. Our director's attentiveness doubtless improved her performance and we were all shocked when, a few weeks later, she came out.
Beware Richard E Grant, I was advised. Why? Because he keeps a diary, I was told. And then he publishes it. Duly warned, I was polite and uncommunicative with Richard. Ian Holm gave us the best drunk scene I have ever witnessed. Like all great actors he understood that the key to a drunk scene is that the character should try to conceal his drunkenness rather than to flaunt it. The diarist, Richard E Grant, turned out to be good fun and made a plausible English villain.
Neil Morrissey was a charming co-hero and to support him, we even managed to arrange an appearance by England’s greatest goal scorer, Alan Shearer, in a not wholly vital scene with Bill Paterson. Shearer was the ideal professional; he flew in for the day, dressed as requested, spoke the lines he had memorised, smiled at all and sundry, and was back on his private plane before sunset. Test audiences laughed. The word 'charming' was used worryingly often, and the film, when eventually released, was liked but not widely seen.
I worked for a few weeks on another project where Scotland was to stand in for Wales – a dramatic biography of Dylan Thomas. I rejoiced that Kevin McKidd was cast as Dylan since he is the only other Elgin loon I ever met in the entertainment industry. The financier of Dylan insisted, during the pre-production period, on bringing money for the film in bags and bundles. Enough to keep us going for a few weeks, but a dismal omen for the future, and sure enough the project collapsed before we got to make it.
I mention this to underline the difficulty of making independent films, not merely for those in Scotland. The metropolitan bias is considerable. Only the bravest or the most obtuse Scottish producers can function without constant access to the south.
Personally, I do not support the occasional initiatives to build a film studio in Scotland, believing that improvisation can achieve much without the vast overheads of a studio. What we need are more David Heymans. He is the young producer of the Harry Potter franchise and now has his own studio. One or two Sandy Mackendricks would be welcome, too. Or John Griersons. Indeed, the single fact is that talent, and more talent, are likely the most vital drivers of a Scottish film industry. And that talent needs to be supported in a hundred ways besides the benevolent and minimal paternalism of Creative Scotland.