Scotland: the new Hollywood?

Illustration Credit: Tamsin Scott

Scotland has always had a minimal role in the film world. Ever remembered for BraveheartTrainspotting and Sean Connery’s sexy accent, it seems incredibly far removed from the showbiz of Hollywood. Yet it appeared that one of the recurring themes at this year’s BAFTA Scotland Awards was the question of the country’s new-found importance in the film industry. Finally, it seems to be getting the due recognition it deserves, with an increased interest in both its locations and actors being apparent.

First to grace Scottish soil was Brad Pitt, whose upcoming post-apocalyptic zombie horror, World War Z used Glasgow’s George Square because of its similarities with the streets of Philadelphia. This in turn led to a sudden flurry of interest, as Scotland became a legitimate location for filmmaking. Subsequently, it has seen a transformation into the streets of San Francisco for the film version of the book Cloud Atlas, starring Halle Berry;  the setting for a body-harvesting alien who abducts hitchhikers, in Scarlett Johansson’s forthcoming, Under the Skin; and  for elements of the final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

This newfound attraction seems to have received a warm welcome from members of the Scottish entertainment industry, as James Cosmo – winner of the Best Actor in Film Award at this year’s Scottish Bafta’s for his film Donkeys – commented, “It’s great to see films shot in Scotland and we wish there would be more shot.” Similarly Peter Capaldi, who was nominated for Best Actor in Television for his role in Field of Blood stated, “Scotland always punches above its weight in terms of filmmaking and television.”Hollywood regular Robbie Coltrane, who won an accolade for Outstanding Contribution to Film at the awards said, “It’s a wonderful thing, and why not? It’s a great location and the problem has always been Scotland’s weather, but now we have HD cameras that can film in candle light. You don’t need California sunshine to make films any more. I think it’s going to open up Britain and Scotland in particular.”

In an industry that now turns over £1.2 billion in profit, it is clear that the Hollywood invasion is potentially worth millions for small companies. Evidently an incentive is needed to encourage production companies to come to Scotland, thus removing the competition from neighbouring countries. Proposals of fiscal incentives such as a five percent return on the money spent in the UK, will help provide the necessary allure for big name American production companies to consider Scotland a viable option. Somewhat depressingly, it was predominately due to cash incentives that quintessentially Scottish film Braveheartwas actually filmed in Ireland.

According to Belle Doyle, locations manager for Creative Scotland, the recent insurgence of Hollywood films that have come to Scotland was never properly planned. “It was luck. It was down to people getting the money on time, the weakness of the UK pound, the producers getting the money and all the films arriving at once. The fact that Glasgow is a gridded city helps a lot. We are competing with the rest of the world, so we are always having to think about what we can sell and how we can bring something in and make it look as good as they could get in the States and everywhere else.” As she rightly points out, when put alongside the production companies of Hollywood, they don’t stand a chance. “We look like we are amateurs. What I can offer are world class crews, fantastic locations and people that are really keen. There are definitely talented people here but we are a kind of cottage industry at the moment.”

Unfortunately, in a lot of cases production companies are unwilling to fund film projects. Film producers inevitably go wherever the money is, and when it comes to financing a film, you have to look at where the best place to reduce costs is. Offers of tax breaks in certain countries play a huge factor in a producer’s decision to use a certain location.

For Scottish films themselves, there seems to be a definite perception that they tend to all be grim and depressing. As Scottish screenwriter Sergio Casci points out, “what we expect from Scottish films is either shooting up or shooting grouse.” Whilst this is true to a certain extent, there are countless examples of top quality comedies, horrors and sci-fi films that have simply slipped under the radar.Film is an industry that is governed by Hollywood. Whilst other countries work hard to achieve the same level of viewers, budget restraints inevitably result in considerably less profit being achieved at the box office. As award winning British indie director Ken Loach comments,“We need to reclaim our cinemas because at the moment they show almost exclusively films from another culture. American films are fine but they shouldn’t dominate to the extent they do”.This is a fundamental sentiment that needs to be addressed. However, given the recent success of Scottish actors – with Robbie Coltrane and Billy Connolly featuring in the upcoming Disney Pixar feature Brave, and Peter Mullan playing Albert Narracott’s father in Spielberg’s adaptation of Warhorse – perhaps a focus should be maintained on the collaboration of Hollywood and Scotland, rather than their mutual exclusivity.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Nov 29th 2011.

BAFTA Scotland Awards Great Success

Robbie Coltrane, Peter Capaldi and Richard Wilson at BAFTA Scotland Awards. Photo Credit: Matt Dale

THE BRITISH Academy of Film and Television Arts Scotland Awards have come to a close for another year, with Robbie Coltrane picking up an accolade for Outstanding Contribution to Film and Donkeys and Neds both receiving two awards apiece.

Comedian Kevin Bridges presented the festivities which took place at the Radisson Blu in Glasgow, as guests enjoyed an evening celebrating the best of Scottish entertainment. Peter Mullan, who led the field with awards for Best Director and Best Writer for his gritty teenage drama Neds, seemed apprehensive as he arrived off the red carpet, telling The Student, “I’m a bit jaded, in the sense that I’ve been to too many (awards) and so don’t think you appreciate it as much.” However, he later retracted this statement following his win, where he emphasised his genuine surprise.

Upcoming Scottish actress Jayd Johnson impressed everyone as she came up to accept the award for Best Actor/Actress in Television, completely at a loss for words. As she told The Student afterwards, “I can’t believe I’ve just made a speech, I’ve no idea what I said but I’m really proud and honoured.”

With her co-actors Ford Kiernan and Peter Capaldi also being up for the award, she had nothing but praise for the other two, “Ford and Peter were so complimentary about me and I would have been nothing without them. I wouldn’t have won this if it wasn’t for them.”

James Cosmo was visibly moved at winning the award for Best Actor/Actress in Film, an honour that clearly meant a great deal to him. “I’m really, really chuffed; it’s a wonderful feeling. Making that movie (Donkeys) was a labour of love for everyone and I’m really privileged to be a part of it.”

Following a year’s absense of the event, Jude MacLaverty, Director of BAFTA Scotland said, “We’re thrilled to see the British Academy Scotland Awards return for such a fantastic night.” The evening was seen as a huge success, its revision from the Awards review evidently doing it justice. It also emphasised the importance for members of the Scottish creative industry to have their own national awards, as Robbie Coltrane told The Student, “I think that we acknowledge the talent we have here. There’s only 4 million of us, there’es three times that amount living in Manchester. Without sounding too smug, I think we do quite well.”

Taken from The Student, published Tue Nov 15th 2011.

Pottering through the ages

For our generation, The Boy Who Lived will be just as ingrained into our memories when we’re older as much as learning to drive, our first date and discovering Facebook. Fresher’s Week not so much. What is it that is so special about ‘ole ‘arry? That sense of wonder and excitement, escapist fantasy and the style of writing from Rowling, so convincing and easy to imagine that it makes some people feel like they actually would be amazing at Quidditch.

But how does the book translate to film? Some people love it, some people hate it, and with the first instalment of a two part production of the final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 hitting cinemas on November 19th, The Student looks back at one of the world’s biggest film franchises.

Rowling insisted on an all-British cast so as to keep with the cultural integrity of the book and many notable personalities signed on to the project including Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman. In fact, almost every major British actor has made an appearance in this franchise, so much so that it’s become a bit of an elite club. While many American actors initially grumbled about the situation, it gave the British film industry something to be proud of.

Oddly, it wasn’t till the fourth film, The Goblet of Fire, that a British director (Mike Newell) was hired. Previous directors include Alfonso Curon and American director Chris Columbus who made a big point of making the first two films faithful to the plot. Seeking Rowling’s advice at every turn turned out to be a double-edged sword.

Stylistically, Columbus managed to capture the essence of the magical world that Rowling created, but as a film it wasn’t particularly engaging, especially on the part of Daniel Radcliffe. Since then, there seems to have been a definite improvement in quality – though perhaps this is due to the maturing of the lead roles, who were of a very young age when filming began, rather than the choice of director.

The supporting cast tends to provide most of the quality acting (Rupert Grint being a particular favourite of fans across the globe). This might not come as a surprise, given the huge amount of pressure that Radcliffe has had to deal with and the sort of direction he has been given, but there really is no excuse for Emma Watson’s over-animated eyebrows and tendency to sound like she’s constantly on the brink of tears.

The more experienced cast members, Maggie Smith in particular, should be commended for allowing the younger actors to do their thing when they could easily steal the show. Although, it has to be said, Alan Rickman manages without even trying.

Some fans of the film have taken issue with the producer’s decisions to make the film more contemporary and relavant to mass audiences. They seem to forget, for instance, that the series was set in the 90s (where are the tie-dye t-shirts?) and the whole attempt to “sex up” the series is so uncomfortably cringeworthy that they may have succeeded in turning fans away.

Furthermore, a great deal of detail is sacrificed for plot. Whilst the films are already long enough without adding anything extra, it was the little details that drew millions to the books. A world that is so immersive and well visualised in print falls short in on-screen generalisation.

One thing some people might be surprised about is the failure of the films to gain nominations for cinematography, music, and costumes (although, we have to admit, the werewolf was awful). John Williams’s haunting score is still recognisable, ten years after the first notes echoed across cinemas all over the world.

The films themselves have definitely taken on an increasingly darker nature with the actors never failing to mention in interviews that “this one is even darker” or “more epic than the last”. Several online film critics pointed out that by the final instalment, viewers would basically be left with a just a black screen and shit loads of brass.

Perhaps it is as a result of the increasing adult readership that both the books and films took on a more mature feel. With the release of the ‘adult edition’ of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2004 it was clear that Harry was no longer reserved for the reading of children but had become popular amongst parents as well. It definitely seems that Rowling reflects this in the maturity of the later books. It is also arguable that those who read Harry Potter when it first came out have aged with him and so it is only necessary that the books develop as Harry does. Reflecting the transition Harry makes from boy to man, the choices he has to make and his ability to act on those choices appear increasingly substantial.

One major debate that has cropped up time and again is whether the films are appropriate for children. The last film, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, was so dark that even adults were jumping out of their seats. For a very young child it would not be surprising if it was conducive to nightmares.

No matter how the films have turned out in the past or what the critics have said, we can’t help getting excited every time a new one comes out. You can feel the excitement in the air as millions of Potter fans take over the internet forums and happily sleep on the streets dressed as Bathilda Bagshot or the Bloody Baron with as little dignity as possible just for the love.

Perhaps it’s because we’re reluctant to let go of that part of our childhood. Perhaps the temptation to suspended belief and dive into a world we’ve come to know so well. Maybe we just want to know what the hell butterbeer tastes like. Either way, we’ll be standing in line on Friday ready to leave the muggle world behind.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Nov 16th 2010.