Director: Douglas Mackinnon
I was lucky enough to get to chat with Douglas Mackinnon, the Director of The Flying Scotsman (Filmstalker review) starring Johnny Lee Miller, Billy Boyd, Brian Cox, Laura Fraser and Steven Berkoff, as well as numerous television shows, most recently co-directing the excellent BBC series Jekyll starring Jimmy Nesbitt and Michelle Ryan.
We talked about Jekyll, as it had just started at the time and I was totally hooked by it, and The Flying Scotsman, a film I fell in love with at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. A film I wasn't even going to see originally.
During the conversation we talk about a huge amount, this isn't a short interview. I have to say a huge thanks to Douglas for giving me his time, especially just as the film was opening. I also feel I have to apologise for letting my own life delay this interview from being written up for so long. However it is finally here, and it's well worth reading.
Douglas talks about many topics from mental illness, sharing the filming of a series between two Directors, the complexities of creating and developing Jekyll, Michelle Ryan and James Nesbitt, British television, Scottish cinema, the Scottish media, the problems and highlights of bringing The Flying Scotsman to the big screen, the film's opening and its reception, Hollywood, and of course, Graeme Obree himself.
It's actually only the second interview I've done (the other site admins are probably laughing at my questions right now!), and Douglas made it an easy task. He's a really easy going and approachable bloke. Certainly by the end I was starting to feel like we could just sit and talk about films for ages.
Anyway, here's the interivew in, almost, its entirety. Enjoy, I know I did.
Filmstalker: We were just discussing the posters I had brought along for signing and Douglas mentioned the adverts in the Scottish press this weekend
What I wanted for the Scottish press posters was to have quite a large range of quotes, even although we’ve only got three we’ve still got the Washington Post, Glamour Magazine and we’ve got you and that really covers a lot of bases. I really hate that people think that Flying Scotsman is just a sports film, I didn’t make it as a sports film, I made it as a film that’s about sports and that’s what Graeme’s story is I think and it’s what when people get the film, It think that’s they get out of it and that’s what’s exciting, when you see people having come through the emotional wringer with the film and they’ve been crying and it’s…
…Women particularly get very affected by it. I think Scottish women suddenly see a Scottish man being human and it’s quite a surprise, maybe they’re crying out of shock.
A psychiatrist friend, literally someone who I know through my kids school gates, he gave me an amazing statistic there’s only one country in Europe that has got a lower - [interrupted by the Star Wars ring tone of Graeme’s phone] that’s my little boy, it’s not my little boy phoning, he's a fan of Star Wars – there’s only one country outside the UK that has a lower ratio of psychiatrists per head of population and that’s Albania, in the whole of Europe.
Which kind of is a statement of where we are in terms of helping people with mental illness. Maybe the film will do something about bringing that to the fore a little bit about that problem, and making people realise that it’s not a crime to be ill it’s that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.
Filmstalker: I think that’s why it caught me so much because I’ve been off work with stress for a few months at a time before. It wasn’t bad, but it made me realise that it’s not a stigma, it’s not this huge thing…
No, not at all.
Filmstalker: …and I think it’s one reason, because it’s so light as well, [unintelligible] it wasn’t going really deep into his depression that it was so accessible to me, and that my little level of stress…
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely what I was trying to get at. I mean we could have been much more heavy handed with the way we dealt with it, and indeed we shot stuff that we didn’t use, that actually talked about the illness directly and everything else but I just kinda think film isn’t sort of medium, it’s not a documentary, it’s fiction, it’s film. Film is wonderful and it’s letting people impose their own lives and their own values onto a fictional story, because that’s what fiction is, and I don’t know what fiction is if it’s not that.
Fiction should open up you, not just tell you everything, and for better or worse that’s what I aim for and what’s very strange is for some people that works really, really well…
…one of the things that’s really struck me, this being my first time through in this whole game, is the extremes of opinion that people have over film. In television, I’ve done around fifty hours of television drama now, television drama comes and goes and of course websites never really get passionate about it, but with a film it’s like people own it, you know they watch it and they own it, and it’s really special to them and they hate it, they love it whatever, but they really feel passionate about it, and it’s really been energising to get that thing back.
I mean Jekyll is now X million viewers watching it, a lot more than will ever watch The Flying Scotsman in the UK, and yet I’m lucky if my Mum phones me afterwards. Whereas if you show Flying Scotsman in the cinema and people come out of the woodwork and will be emailing and phoning you, it’s an amazing thing cinema.
Filmstalker: It’s funny with Jekyll, because it is very cinematic.
Filmstalker: I watched it to start with, the first episode, I really wasn’t very sure because it goes from one extreme to another, and it’s sometimes from pantomime, very joking, and the next shot it’s very, very serious and hugely cinematic. I just remember this shot of Jekyll standing with Hyde’s two kids – I’ve got that the wrong way round –
Jackman’s two kids.
Filmstalker: - and you’ve got a low shot of him looking out the door…
With the rain
Filmstalker: …did that just come from a jokey scene?
Well no, what it comes from it goes from Hyde arrives outside the house, the two kids run out to the car, stop and stare at him, and it cuts to that shot with the rain coming down and everything else. Actually the rain was completely…that was real, it just happened to be there at that moment.
Filmstalker: That was a good moment.
Yeah, and it just worked. I think the thing with Jekyll what we tried to do, and it’s for others to say if we achieved or not and time will tell, we wanted to start in a place that was really quite accessible for the audience because if we started where the series ends up then it would have been an absolute genre audience and nobody else would watch it. I’m really proud, I think it was the Radio Times last week called it the maddest show ever to kid on it was a mainstream show, some quote like that, you’d have to check that out.
Filmstalker: [I did have a look but I couldn’t find it online…]
I was really pleased with that, because we wanted to take the audience on a journey from kind of the mainstream into something very [difficult to hear, sounds like “instream”] and by the end of episode six it’s crazy.
Filmstalker: You did the first three
I did the first three and the other Director did the second three.
Filmstalker: Are you friends with him, did you know him well?
No I didn’t know him before, but I’ve started off series before and I’ve been second Director as well so I sort of know the ground.
Filmstalker: I was going to ask how it was handing over that project, but I guess you’ve done that so many times on TV…
I have to say it was very difficult to hand it over. Matt Lipsey’s a really great Director and I’m sure it would have been great but I had felt like I had taken it on and it was very difficult, but it’s also impossible for a Director to do six episodes of something now because it’s financially impractical. Timescales of telly are so compressed that I had to do the post production on my episodes while Matt was shooting.
As a first Director you get all sorts of treats like setting up…for instance Jimmy’s transformations and everything else.
The transformation was a big bone of contention, as you can imagine, about how far we would go with it and everything else. The thing that Steven Moffat and I felt very strongly about was that in the modern day you couldn’t really have a guy fall behind the sofa and turn up as the wolfman in a drama like this.
Apart from anything else in the many versions of Jekyll and Hyde there always seems to be this moment where Mr Hyde as wolfman goes into a pub and orders a drink and no one really notices. Like there’s a wolfman just walked into the pub, comes in like Quasimodo, growling, and lo and behold the most beautiful woman in the place comes up and sits beside him and gives him a glass of champagne and sits on his knee.
I just think, hang on a second…
Filmstalker: If only real life was like that…
Yeah! If only real life was like, exactly, exactly. Then we’d…I’d be fine! So what we wanted to do was have a Mr Hyde that when he walks into a pub you certainly would notice him but you’d actually want his company. You’d be drawn to him and he’d be charming and everything else.
We also wanted to make a character that was very adaptable. That’s not set with his superpowers, that his superpowers evolve in the moment. So that when he kills a lion he gets that strength, but when he’s chatting up a girl in a bar he’s the softest and gentlest character in the world.
He gets his fangs out when he needs to, and he gets his climbing skills when he needs to. He actually doesn’t know what he’s got, it’s an evolving thing. As the series progresses you’ll see him evolving as well.
The whole idea, the whole concept of Jekyll I found fascinating from the word go. The idea of doing what Steven calls a sequel, but I regard it more like a continuation, which kind of means the same thing but I like continuation because it suggests there’s not been a gap.
What Steve has done is obviously manipulate the original story into something that extraordinarily contemporary. We also very much wanted to make it something that would appeal to an audience that would appeal to an audience that is used to the heroes of the world, of all the American shows, of the 24’s, of everything else.
I think we’ve done it, we’ve got that look. Part of the secret of that to me is in terms of not only the confidence of writing and directing, but also of the confidence of the actors not to bring an irony anywhere.
I showed all the actors Heist, the David Mamet film, with Gene Hackman in rehearsals. The reason for that was I wanted to give them this feeling of…you know the way Gene Hackman does David Mamet, he does it with such gusto and this absolute, straight down the line belief that he is a jewel thief and that’s who he is. Whereas in the UK we’ve got the diamond geezer sort of mentality, where it’s “yeah, yeah I know I’m not really a diamond thief but it’s all kind of pantomime” where as I want that drive towards belief.
I figured that the only way that Jekyll was going to be there…because I knew what Jimmy would do, I mean I love what Jimmy Nesbitt does anyway, but I love what he does for us. He would bring a comedy sparkle as well as the depth he’s got in Bloody Sunday it’s just the whole part.
You always realise you’re on sure ground when you start realising that no one else could do it, and I can’t think of anybody else who could do that part, that has the range that Jimmy has. I know some people don’t like him, but that’s their problem. I just think he’s fantastic in this.
The transformations, what was interesting, particularly interesting for Filmstalker readers knowing the range of stuff you deal with, is that I sort of drew up a menu of potential changes that we could have to change from Jackman to Hyde.
First of all we decided that Jackman should have hair I mean Jackman’s got a wig as well so that’s not Jimmy’s hair, but mostly everything else is Jimmy. Jimmy brought in the menu of stuff he physically makes Jackman smaller. He just crouches a little down and I shot him a little bit above the eyeline all the time, and for Hyde we would go up just a little bit and make him a little bit bigger.
So we ended up with the eyes, we’ve got the nose, we’ve got the chin, we’ve got the ears. The guy who did our make-up and prosthetics is the same guy who did Doctor Who and he did Bodies, Neill Gorton [Children of Men and loads more] who’s just fantastic on it. I’ve worked with Neill before on Bodies and we just talked it through about how far to go and again what we didn’t want to do was to have the audience going nuts knowing Jimmy Nesbitt, we didn’t want a French and Saunders type transformation.
Basically we introduced the concept of evil twin rather than…so what we’ve got is the hair is different, Jimmy’s ears are slightly larger and more protruding than Hyde’s, he’s got a tiny little bridge on the nose, and he’s got dimple in his chin, [unintelligible over the banging coffee machine – but it’s something about a different jawline], and of course we did the eyes. He’s actually got different sizes of contact lenses as well. Some have bigger bits of black than others, which is another thing that varies, and he’s got teeth as well which we bring in on occasion as well. We’ve also got degrees of teeth. So in any given moment we can go all the way or not all the way.
What I’m pleased about, so far anyway, there’s only been praise for the transformations and actually most people haven’t talked about it.
In the end out budget, although it was healthy for television, it’s not like Silver Surfer, we’re not in X-Men territory at all. We had to deal with a twelve day schedule to shoot an hour of telly, compared to what they have.
It’s really practical when it comes down to it. It took an hour for Jimmy to change from one way or the other. Given that he really is in every scene in the whole shoot, that means in the shooting day it’s really tough because you have to position that out somewhere in the day.
So it often meant what we’d have to do is rehearse a long scene, like the alleyway scene one day and shoot half of it as Doctor Jackman and then next morning
Better talk about The Flying Scotsman
Filmstalker: No, that’s cool. Okay we’re about films, but I think that’s very cinematical. I make a differentiation. There’s TV and then there’s mini-series, and some mini-series are TV anyway, but you watch Jekyll and you do feel like you’re watching something like 24 or CSI.
Well it’s a journey. I mean that’s another thing that appealed to me about journey series like the Fugitive and the Prisoner and so on, kind of easy comparisons, but I think there is a fair comparison there. You’re travelling with this guy through his life in this extraordinary time that he’s having, you don’t know who’s going to win and he’s fighting himself, and it’s all those layers that Robert Louise Stevenson laid out so brilliantly and Steven exploited.
Your readers will know Steven’s work from Doctor Who, from the Blink episode and from so on, and it’s like this magic stuff that he’s got that he knows just how to twist the plot into convolutions that are just not predictable.
I think in episode one people got confused because there were so many questions about it and I think part of the reason for that is that people aren’t used to television that leaves you questions that don’t have answers. It’s quite a tough call and I think it’s very brave of the BBC to show it on Saturday night at nine o’clock and just go for it. It would have been so easy to put it on BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC Two and kind of shove it out there but they put it in the mainstream and that’s really great.
Series like Doctor Who and Life on Mars have obviously led the way, that sort of playing with the world, so it’s just fantastic that BBC One are doing it.
Filmstalker: Well I just think it’s fab. I love the way it’s subtle. Especially in the first episode the way he’s using the technology, and they way they are kind of living together, it’s just really…
We wanted to make it, and this relates back to The Flying Scotsman, that I really like things that have texture to it, that look a bit hand made, that looks a bit like it’s been shoved together but actually hasn’t been. I wanted that gloss on Jekyll, and I think The Flying Scotsman has as well, that it’s pretty cinematic and yet it feels like simple storytelling.
It’s actually harder to do than it looks to do simple storytelling because the elements you playing with in anything that you’re making are so vast and [difficult to hear] to make it look like it’s just a story going from A to B to C to D…I find it difficult anyway.
Filmstalker: I’m sure many people do. Right, The Flying Scotsman. I don’t know the story but there was a problem with the production initially wasn’t there?
There was, yeah, yeah.
Filmstalker: I don’t know if you want to talk about it or not.
I don’t mind at all. There were problems throughout production. When I came onboard the project in 2001 it had started in 1994, Simon Rose was the original writer and he was the guy who spotted that there might be a cinema film in Graeme’s life story. Basically we move forward to when I came on board and just about every other director in the world had been in touch for a while here and there, names you would know but I can’t say who they were, but I came on board.
Then the production came within ten days of shooting in 2002 I think it was, and one of the seven financiers in the American company dies and they couldn’t hold the finance together and the film fell apart. Johnny was going to be the lead there and the rest of the cast was completely different.
So two years later the film gets off the ground again and is the way of these things, a stand alone company was formed to make the film, the finance never completely came together throughout production, and eventually the stand alone company went into administration and then liquidation during the editing process.
The film was rescued by one of the financiers, Sarah Giles who is credited as one of the Producers now, quite rightly, and then MGM came in as the final cavalry for the film, but there’s still a string of debts that are out there for Scottish crew and me and Graeme Obree, and many others, which makes the launch of the film, particularly in the UK, bittersweet. I do have a feeling of…and bittersweet is the right word, it’s kind of elation and yet annoyance and sadness that the people…but at the same time there isn’t another plan. There’s not like little bag of money that we can get out of a wall and say here it is.
What MGM have come in and done is basically say we love this film, we’re going to promote it worldwide, and we’re doing it not as a favour to a troubled production we’re doing it because we think it can make money…
Filmstalker: It’s a business.
It’s a business deal, and it’s a Hollywood major so when the lion roars at the beginning of the film that’s what it’s doing, it’s saying we’re putting our weight of this cultural – what’s the right word, I was going to say monster, but that’s not the right word for MGM – this cultural giant is going behind this little Scottish film and saying let’s try and make money out of this, and time will tell if it makes money enough to pay folk back, I really hope so.
Filmstalker: That was going to be my next question, if it makes money back are they going to be…
…If it makes enough money, and it needs to make a lot of money in the world, and it might be over a year or two, and it might be down to DVD sales and so on. When MGM sell it to…after the theatrical releases all over the world, to the TV audience, little sports movies seem to do really well. The film didn’t do great in the States in terms of box office, but MGM have told me it did exactly what they expected, not what they had hoped, but what they had expected, and they always make their money out of pay per view and DVD on sports films. It’s just the way they do it.
Whereas New Zealand, which is the only other country that has had a anywhere decent release, now it’s in its eighth week in their top twenty, that’s second to Spider-Man, you can’t really do better than that can you?
Filmstalker: No, I don’t think you could be expected to beat Spider-Man.
We were second to Spider-Man on thirty one screens in New Zealand and Spider-Man had a couple of hundred.
Filmstalker: I noticed that, the screen differences were amazing.
Well that’s another battle, and in the UK it’s a battle that’s hard to win as well. We get in the top twenty in the UK and it will be remarkable [unintelligible as the coffee machines go again] hurrah we’re on eighty screens but actually eighty against the four or five hundred that Shrek three will be on is kind of hard to compete against.
The thing that really pleases me though is that we’re in the multiplexes, that’s where we are. That’s where I want the film to be in the first place.
Filmstalker: That’s quite a surprise to me because I thought you would be places like the Filmhouse and the Cameo and there you are down in Ocean Vue.
Not just Ocean Vue, it’s in the Odeon’s all over the country and the Vue’s.
Filmstalker: It’s getting a family audience.
It’s getting a family audience. Slightly disappointed it’s getting a fifteen certificate which I don’t really understand in the UK, but maybe the Shrek crowd will go along and dump their kids in Shrek and walk along and see The Flying Scotsman. Maybe it’ll work this time that theory.
Filmstalker: It’s maybe that one opening scene that gives it the fifteen.
It’s possible. It’s possible. There’s some f’ing and blinding from Johnny in that scene with the bullies, but I don’t know, it seems strange to me that the UK gives it that and America gives it thirteen. Seems to be the other way round, but there you go.
Having said all that it’s very exciting to have it opening at all, and there’s plenty of British films that don’t get distribution at all as you well know, and to get distribution in the States at all is amazing. To get MGM involved…
If it wasn’t for the financing problems it would be just a complete celebration, but the thing that I’m sure of is this, my cast and crew, and mostly a Scottish cast and crew, did work that is standing on the worlds stage right now and without any apologies whatsoever and I think the creative side of the film has worked and it’s patently obviously working. Not everyone’s going to like it, but there’s enough people out there who do like it.
Filmstalker: It’s like you said earlier it’s an extreme as well, people who are liking it have a huge passion for it.
Absolutely. I can argue a lot about how maybe some people are hiding from it or not, but that’s kind of up to them. They’re hiding from the film’s message which, I think, is kind of complex and difficult to take if you’re not open to it. It’s difficult to take that none of us can survive without the people around you, and it’s difficult to take the idea that a sporting hero like Graeme that the story goes on the following morning and the minutes after, and that you can’t buy contentment just by winning the world record. Which in these days of reality television, where people think you can buy contentment without doing anything produced at all, I think is interesting.
I just think it’s a complex message. I mean I hope it gets out there, but it’s not meant to be a message film, it should be a film where the message comes in the background and again that’s maybe why some people are having difficulty with it. I don’t think it’s a difficult film do you think it’s difficult?
Filmstalker: I saw the opening scene is, to start with you’re like oh my god, is this going to be tough, and then it builds up to be an entertaining film...
Well I wanted it to be…I believe in starting a story in a – surprise, surprise – a dramatic way, and an unexpected way, and I think it should engage you and you should be surprised. That’s what Jekyll does as well.
In the guide book to start a television series, and I’ve talked to Steve Moffat a lot about this, the bit where you say you’re going to have a six, seven minute scene with two people in a room talking, it doesn’t say…you know, you’re not supposed to do that, and yet Steven’s story telling is so great that, of course the restraining chair helps…
Filmstalker: Well I was going to say Nesbitt helps actually.
Nesbitt helps, yeah.
Filmstalker: Hugely engaging.
And Michelle, who’s fantastic.
Filmstalker: Had she been signed up for Bionic Woman then?
No, she hadn’t. She…
Filmstalker: I don’t think it’s doing hugely well, I don’t think it’s…
Well it’s got commissioned. It hasn’t started shooting yet.
Filmstalker: Well the trailer’s haven’t been getting great comments.
Oh I see, right. I saw the extended trailer and thought it looked terrific.
Filmstalker: I think it looks quite cool, and it’s got Sackhoff from Battlestar Galatica in it.
Filmstalker: I think it’s going to be good fun.
I hope, and Michelle certainly says this, that working on Jekyll gave her the confidence to get out there and show herself. She was hugely popular in Eastenders as a character, but Jekyll, again she would say, was one of her favourite jobs after…but she just went out there and stood in the queues for auditions and look what’s turned up.
Filmstalker: To be honest I don’t think I could’ve seen her do anything after Eastenders, as most Eastenders people do, I didn’t think anything…
…well I’ll tell you, she was…
Filmstalker: …she was a surprise in Jekyll.
…she came into the casting and she just took it over. She’s a very clever young woman. You know she was in quite difficult company in terms of the cast. I mean they’re a pretty experienced bunch.
Filmstalker: I can imagine standing next to James Nesbitt would be quite daunting.
It is. I mean he’s very friendly and a very amiable sort of character. Yes, I think it was daunting, but she just took it over. Denis Lawson as well of course was all around.
Filmstalker: We kind of talked about the response after the Film Festival was quite poor…[unintelligible]…and it did pick up. How did you feel about that at the time? Obviously you put your heart into the film, it’s not just a job, but how did that affect you? Did it feel like your career was being judged on one film?
Not in the slightest, no. For better or worse it doesn’t affect me like that. I’ve spent my whole adult life in media, I started as a press photographer in Inverness and worked my way through and I’ve seen all sides of the thing, and I’ve worked in arts programmes, and I’ve produced Edinburgh Nights, and things too, so I know how the machine works.
What happens is that the machine turns around, and if you put something of value out in the world generally speaking it will sort itself out.
What I’ve found fascinating rather than disturbing is that I can show you a set of quotes from reviews from Edinburgh that could make the film look like its Citizen Kane and I could show you another set of quotes that make it looks like it’s the potato head thing. I can put in both cases that it’s a great film or a disaster.
It’s never going to be Citizen Kane and it’s never going to be a disaster. I think the thing that I’m aware of in Scotland, more particularly than ever before, is what I call the Private Frasier syndrome. You know the “we’re all doomed” syndrome. It’s so prevalent in Scotland with any cultural endeavour, it’s built in that…
I was in Cannes for the first time this year and I met up with Gillian Berrie and Dave Mackenzie and had a meal with them and the thing that they’ve got is really amazing, is that they’ve had a run of relatively small budget films that have been successful enough to keep going and that’s the model that I’d love to pursue.
You couldn’t say – I mean hope Hallam Foe is a fantastic success for David, I haven’t seen it yet so I don’t know, but Red Road that Gillian produced…what a lovely hit for her, and it’s great that she’s one of the most talented producers in the UK if not the world and is bringing out these great films, and just does it in such a straightforward way, in her terms because it’s what she does, and it’s lovely to see that.
If I’ve got an admission it’s to emulate that sort of progress. Make another small film, and make another small film,…
Filmstalker: Are you not scared of that big success though, that maybe you start getting pulled into that [I think I was talking about Hollywood blockbusters, but the chatter behind me drowned it out]…
If that is the area that comes my way then I’ll embrace it very much so, but I think I’ll always want to make small films and make small telly. If it happens that Harry Potter VII comes my way then I’ll do it.
Filmstalker: Do you want me to get that quote just in case?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. I think it’s sort of strange. It’s a bit like announcing that you want to fly planes and then not wanting to go to Heathrow. The idea of wanting to make films and then not wanting to go to Hollywood is strange to me. It isn’t necessarily going to come my way but I’m very intrigued by that world.
Filmstalker: Well I think there’s different degrees of Hollywood isn’t there?
Of course there is.
Filmstalker: So there’s the Hollywood that will let you be creative, and there’s the Hollywood that’ll just say “here you go, do it shot by shot”
Yeah, yeah, absolutely…but even the shot by shot stuff, I’ve spoken to friends who have made some huge Hollywood films, and you know in the end when you’re standing there with your actor it’s only you and the actor, there’s no studio executive in the world that can do what you guys do.
The conversations that you have with the actor take…Johnny does his thing, and you do your thing, and then you work it through. That relationship is not something that can be interrupted.
If you want a successful film…The annoying truth for Hollywood is that if there had been an easier way to make films that doesn’t involve the talent they’d have found it by now.
Sorry buy James Cameron has to stand there with Leonardo DiCaprio and they have to work out how to get it working. They turn up in the morning and they’ve got a hard day ahead and they’ve got to do that scene. It’s the same thing as somebody doing an episode of The Bill, they’ve got to make it work. Arguably, they’ve got a far easier life because they’ve got the time and money to do it.
I think the process thing remains kind of ours when you get there on the set with the actors, I can’t see that changing.
Filmstalker: I’m not quite sure how to ask this, but they always say there are three stages to making a movie. There’s the writing, the directing and the editing, and although the director is in control of the editing for the most part, how do you feel as the Director? Do you feel that your film has been taken out of your hands sometimes?
I’m a great believer in multiple ownership of projects. I think it’s possible…no, an absolute necessity for the writer to constantly feel that he or she owns the film, and they should or else there’s something wrong. It’s possible for the leading actor to own…I speak to actors who are coming in to do a line and I tell them “you own this scene, this is yours” I’m here to harvest you, I’m here to take what you give me.
So I think of course there are moments where you think that the film might be taken away from you and with The Flying Scotsman there were many times when I felt like it was being dragged away from me kicking and screaming, but in the end the film that is going to be in the cinema screens this week, the ownership is mine, I directed it. Nobody else has got their name on it as Director, there's eleven Producers but only one Director.
I think it's the Producers who have the most trouble with that ownership thing. They often feel that if they're not someone like Gillian Berrie, if they're not comfortable with themselves, they'll feel that the ownership has been wrestled away from them.
Actually though I think that's part of the process that the Director feels possession and wants it to be theirs.
There's two things during the whole, sort of nightmare of Flying Scotsman on the production side, there's two things that kept on being said to me by a different people at all sorts of levels, and both of them are things I hope to never hear again but suspect I will.
One was, “don't take it personally”, and the other one was “somebody has got to be the grown up”.
I don't think it's the Director's job to be the grown up, you should be the kid in the cinema, that's who you're trying to entertain, and taking it personally? As for taking it personally, if I'm not taking it personally then I don't know who you can ask to take it personally. I don't think you can ask the audience to take it personally if the filmmaker isn't taking it personally.
Those two phrases have just stuck with me, they're like a barnacle on my head, two barnacles just sitting there.
Filmstalker: Are you going to have a sign now on every production saying you're not allowed to say these two things?
Yeah, exactly. Well on The Flying Scotsman I created an eleventh commandment for myself actually, and that was “thou shalt not slo-mo”, because even as we were making it people were talking about it being like Chariots of Fire which I think the only connection is that it's a sports film.
Chariots of Fire, I'm not sure it's stood the test of time, but it's a great film.
Curiously enough when I first read the script for The Flying Scotsman, because I've got kids, I went off somewhere to read it quietly and I took my car down to the beach at St. Andrews which is where they shot the beach scenes for Chariots of Fire.
I didn't really know what the script was about when I first started reading it, and I suddenly started looking up and going [coffee machine drowns us out]
Filmstalker: Vision in your head of cycling slowly across the...
Yeah, yeah, and I thought at that moment in time, right if I do this film I'm not going to use any slo-mo, there is no slo-mo in it which I'm quite proud of.
Filmstalker: The whole use of the camera, the point of view, the shots of him cycling, that was really good the way the tunnel vision comes in
Yeah, yeah. I'm glad you like that because it was quite hard to achieve. On our budget it was very hard to get in amongst the cycling at all because we only had x number of days to shoot it and everybody was scared about breaking Johnny early on in the velodrome shoots, including Johnny, including me of course.
So it meant we were very restricted because we couldn't get a vehicle onto the track with Johnny and certainly not in front of him. We sort of had to pull every trick we could find out of the bag.
The tilt and shift lenses that we used I think they're very effective but also at one point we did have what we called the bike cam, or the Obree cam, and this was a camera strapped to the front of a bikes handlebars that Graeme Obree actually operated himself following Johnny Lee Miller on the track. The opening sequence of the film that's what you see, you see Johnny being followed.
The entire crew were hanging around the middle of the velodrome because there was nothing to do apart from watch them go round and round until the film ran out.
When they finished and came off the bikes Johnny was exhilarated because he said I've just spent ten minutes beating Graeme Obree around the track, and Graeme Obree was absolutely frustrated as anything because he'd spent ten minutes not being able to pass Johnny Lee Miller.
How peculiar is that, filming yourself, filming your fictional self in a fictional moment. That's weird. It's been an amazing journey for Graeme.
Filmstalker: How did you feel about that actually, because obviously you're filming a story about someone who's...
Filmstalker: ...and also in the back of your mind is the fact that he's going through depression, and he's been very heavily affected by it. So are you not thinking that if I do this badly, if I make the wrong move or if I make this scene and he's here [Lost the sound to the coffee machine again] do you think about that a lot?
I thought about that a lot and the only [direction?] that I could take that was credible for me was to be, as much as I could be, 100% honest with Graeme about my intentions on the film, and with Anne as well who is a very important factor on the whole thing.
So the biggest thing I did was very straightforward, and I would do it again in a second, was I gave them final cut of the film.
[I must have shown surprise here]
Yeah! I basically said to them when we're talking about the more difficult scenes to do with depression, particularly the sequence involving hanging, I said if you see at the cut of this film that you want these scenes out or changed or anything else, you'll have to let me argue about them, but in the end if you want them out, we'll take them out.
As a filmmaker there's not other thing you can do that's bigger than that. Having said that, would I have got it past the financiers at that moment? I don't know, but I certainly gave my personal assurance of that, and in the end when they saw the film, they loved it, and everything they've said to me about it is that they think it's been properly handled and they feel it's been properly done.
The darker film that perhaps another Director could have made, I wanted to be able to walk down the red carpet at the Edinburgh Film Festival with Graeme by my side and also know, I mean I'm not his Doctor, but I'm his friend now and that's what I'm proud of and I want to stay his friend, and you don't do over friends.
Another Director might have taken a more cynical view, and that's for them to do, but I want to be in this place and I'm very content with it. My argument to Anne and Graeme is that I think it would misrepresent his life not to touch on that part of his life.
I think the tricky thing for Graeme just now is that the film represents a time twelve, thirteen years ago in his life and not now. He's on his journey and he's very together and settled now and he knows exactly where he is and what he's doing. That makes me very happy you know?
Filmstalker: I was going to ask how he feels of the reviews if they're really critical, is he just not taking any notice?
Remember he's been World Champion so he's seen all the stories about him, he's seen the worst, he's seen much worse. So I think he takes a very [COFFEE MACHINE!! Sounds like sandwich or sand wedge!] view of it, like I do. If the Daily Express wants to slag off the film then is it going to change my life?
Filmstalker: It's the Daily Express...
It's the Daily Express. Good luck to it.
Filmstalker: Something just popped into my head about a moment in the film where the Scottish aspect really comes into play. It's the one line, the Scottish/English thing...
Yeah, yeah, if you want to see me angry call me English again. One of the things that the press talked about, particularly the Scottish press, talked about post Edinburgh, was that it was kind of parochial film with parochial jokes.
I sat in an audience in Germany at the German première a couple of weeks ago, and the laughter at those moments is just universal. I don't think it's a parochial film at all.
Like I say it's the doomsayers in the Scottish press that have got to look at their own lives. I've seen it with other Scottish films as well where they tend to load everything onto a film, it's almost like you have to apologise for all Scottish filmmaking back to John Grierson.
Whereas what you're trying to do is to make a piece of entertainment. Fair enough if you don't get it, that's one thing, but Red Road doesn't have to be everything, Hallam Foe doesn't have to be everything, Peter Mullan doesn't have to be everything, they can just be their thing and just tell their story to their audience.
Filmstalker: Do you think the Scottish media want all Scottish films to be either dark, kilted or drugs?
Well it's dark, kilted and it used to be Bill Forsyth, and I wish Bill Forsyth would make more films, but – [Seeing the time] I have to go, but, The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw did a slagging of the film, and in his piece he said, it's almost as if Bill “Gregory's Girl” Forsyth had made Chariots of Fire. He said it as a slagging, and I took it as a compliment. [Laughs]
For the life of me I can't see what the problem there is. To be compared to Bill Forsyth is a humbling [Damned coffee machine!], and to be compared to one of the most successful British films of all time, commercially, it's kind of strange to use those criteria to slag you off.
[Tape stops. From here I'm on a digital recorder that wasn't coping too well, so apologies, the odd word may be slightly wrong.]
Filmstalker: What was the best moment of watching the film?
Oh, the best moment of watching the film was in a private screening with Graeme and Anne Obree and my wife, which was a private screening just before Edinburgh, and the four of us sat and watched the film. They'd seen a cut of it but not the finished thing, and by mistake the projectionist had mixed up the reels in the wrong order, so reel four came first, then reel three.
The thing that delighted me was the realisation that it actually didn't matter for this particular audience because they knew the story, and we all just started laughing. That's where the real Obree-esque nature of life came out.
Another quick story that the Filmstalker site might be interested in and I better go [he was being interviewed by the BBC and I held him up...my apologies Douglas, I hope you made it there on time!]
The final slate of shooting, we used an American system of slating the scenes, the final slate was scene one hundred and forty-seven take two, the number of takes it took over the whole of the shooting process in Germany, and I've got the slate to prove this, the original chassis number for the Flying Scotsman was 1472.
I find that quite funky.
Filmstalker: That is really cool.