Thanks to Kevin Burke from Eight Day Magazine for this interview. You can purchase a copy of any of their issues here. It’s a great magazine – https://www.eighthdaycommunications.co.uk
Growing up, were you one of those kids who listened to music all day and got lost in films at night?
I got into music relatively late – maybe 15/16 but quickly devoured it. My dad was a big film fan – not a fan of particularly good films – but we did watch a lot of films at home. Despite not having much money growing up my dad bought a video player in the very early 80s so we watched a lot of videos. Unfortunately it was a V2000 player, an obscure European version of the Betamax that he thought was better somehow. Regardless, due to its obscurity it didn’t have a great choice of films available for it so I ended up watching an un-curated mixture of an obscure 1960s dubbed Czech children’s films one night to be followed by things like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain the next. Sometimes there would be something interesting that later sunk into my sub-consciousness but I could never join in on the school chats about having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark on VHS. When I was a little older – I was around 6 when I watched these – and started developing my own taste he did have the cheek to ask why I watched such strange films.
When I moved from home my film knowledge did start to develop. I stayed next to a great video shop so my flatmate and I would rent up to 7 films day. The video shop was organised into categories like ‘important directors’ and actors from the history of world cinema so I got a pretty good film education quickly.
As I said, I didn’t get into music until a little after my friends. I grew up near Dundee which had (and still has) the greatest record shop in the UK – Grouchos. I managed to get a pretty decent music education from them, one which went a little further than my then current ‘indie’ record collection of stuff like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Carter USM. I became obsessed with the 1960s – I’d obviously heard some 60s pop hits on the radio but could not believe there was an entire era of really great music to be discovered. I quickly got through The Beatles and Stones (still my favourites) and into Syd Barrett, Scott Walker and all these obscure psychedelic albums that seemed to find their way to Dundee.My friends were not really into this so I felt like I’d discovered some sort of secret. It wasn’t so easy to hunt down albums or discover new music then so would just go through old music encyclopaedias and look for interesting things and hope that hey could be ordered. Obviously this wasn’t some big secret and I later learned that all the modern indie bands of the day had been inspired by this same music years before I’d found it. It was great as you’d start picking out names of inspirations from interviews which you had not really noticed before and it give me a light bulb moment of being able to see how the dots joined. It was probably clear to everyone else but that realisation probably had a profound effect on me in terms of understanding how scenes and movements work which led to the later music documentaries. It just made you want to find out more.
Your musical tastes and influences seem rooted in your surroundings of Scotland, but who would you say has the most impact on you as a director?
I listen to a lot of Scottish music primarily because of my involvement with the films and I like to know what everyone is up to and to hear new local music. I think is important for anyone to listen to their own local music scene. Really though, I just tend to listen to something because it’s interesting or good regardless of where the musicians are from. Sometimes its nice to know a band is far away. I love the idea of punk, DIY and breaking down the barriers but I still love the magic you get from bands and music seeming otherworldly and mysterious. A lot has to be said for rock stardom still. I don’t mean selling lots of records but being a star.
My thoughts on film stardom are the exact opposite and that’s probably from having direct experience with the whims of seeing how stars behave. Film is more inaccessible to those from low income or working class backgrounds due to the higher costs involved and as a result there are whole parts of society not being properly represented. I’m very much in favour of having less barriers, taking away the magic and opening up the process of filmmaking to more people. There’s unfortunately a lot of folk who benefit from inaccessibility and maintaining a status quo. Probably the people who’ve had most impact on me as a director are people like Ken Loach for his socialist outlook on filmmaking and others like Christopher Doyle who work in slightly more unconventional ways that often circumnavigate conventional rules but still create fantastic product. Music probably has more impact on my views of producing a film – Spiral Scratch, Factory, Creation. Doing things for yourself, being self sufficient or working with like minded individuals who can create something good and successful but independently. I also started out working for a community video company in a very deprived area of Edinburgh where you would deal with direct social issues. They would pretty much just give you a camera and make you go out and film something that would have a direct impact on someone’s life. Being given that responsibility was very important to my confidence and ability to think quickly. I think it’s important to sometimes just jump in at the deep end.
You have no formal training as such, and worked your way up, learning from experience and how others do it. Did that make it more difficult in the early days to get a project off the ground?
The Film Industry, in the UK anyway is almost 100% vocational. Unless you go to the NFTS, and with no disrespect to the other fine teaching institutions, a film qualification is virtually worthless to getting you a job in the Film Industry. Large film sets have their own unique language, systems and protocols which are generally not taught at film schools. The technical aspects are very simple and quick to pick up but it really is based on experience and slowly moving up a department ladder. Except for directors.
Ironically, the least experienced person on a film set (unless you are working on one of the new high end tv series or it is someone like Scorsese) is the director. A crew member can go from job to job and work on 4 or 5 features per year whereas a director may only work on one feature every five years.
The industry is pretty regimented and in many ways very conservative for a so called creative industry. Really, most of the difficulties I’ve had are with people believing directors have to be auteurs suffering for their art and can’t have a technical background. There’s a view in the film industry that you shouldn’t get above your station, ha. Unless you ignore this and just go out and do your project then it can be a tough barrier. Ion the plus side, there are many great folk who can help you. I know I would not have been able to have made anything without the help, support and advice from many great people I’ve met on the way. A lot of film people are very, very generous with their time and knowledge and its something I always try and remember.
The DIY mind-set is pretty much essential to me. All the projects I’ve made have started out from just deciding to go and make a film myself or with friends. Usually I have to take the initiative and take a finished film to a distributer, broadcaster or financier and hope they can do something with it. If not you just have to think of ways of releasing yourself. I suppose the difficulty with this approach is really fighting morale.
Is a difficult industry to succeed in, as much as the music industry is?
I suppose it comes down to what you’d define success as. If it’s a steady income then that can be something almost anyone can be successful with – it just takes a bit of a reality check and a lot of tenacity and hard work. You can have a very good career working as a film technician providing you understand it wont happen overnight and will require dealing with A LOT of knock backs, disappointments and very long hours. It really comes down to not giving up. It might not be what most peoples fantasy world idea of what success is like but there’s good solid work available in a very competitive market if you’re willing to put the dedication into it.
On the other hand, if people have expectations of being an A list Hollywood director or having a top 10 album, that’s a level of success only open to the very few and requires –extreme luck, knowing the right people, playing the game, being able to talk the talk and having a large amount of talent. It’s something I know I’ll never achieve but I’m happy doing what I do.
I define success as being happy doing what you do, which I very much am. I have to work like everyone else and I might not like my job everyday. It might not be someone else’s idea of a success but I think anyone who lasts a few years in the film industry is successfull I know my limitations and I’m comfortable with that.
When you begin a project are you within a creative bubble for the length of the production, and it becomes hard to switch off?
No, the exact opposite. For practical reasons I need to support what I do by working on other peoples films. I’m quite lucky as I have quite a long background in cinematography and being a camera technician which allows me to work on some very good projects.
To keep my own films going I generally have to work 80 hours a week on these other projects, which doesn’t allow me too much time for my own. I take what I can get. I took 2 weeks during a break to make Far From the Apple Tree. Teenage Superstars was being cut at the same time so I had to review cuts and make notes in the very late evenings, Big Gold Dream was being released at the same time so I had to work on the press for it during what breaks I could manage
It was a pretty intense period without enough time to rest afterwards as I had to go back to the brutal hours of my camera work. I’m a very clean living person and at some points on FFTAT I started to develop these crazy nosebleeds whenever I bent down. I think it was the stress but I’m sure I looked like I was an extra in Scarface. I don’t think you even get a chance to switch off during the intense filming period. Everything is just grabbed moments here and there. But I suppose it does become hard to switch off when you finish. I do a lot of exercise and try and spend quality time with my family. Holidays are important as you can overwork yourself without realising it when caught in that bubble. I remember at the end of one film my internal dialogue seemed to switch itself off for a few hours. It was pretty nice actually but knew it probably meant it was time to stop. You do have to really look after yourself – physical and mental health so I always make sure that I have a good holiday with my family and try and eat well.
Your debut feature is the noir-horror style Sarah’s Room. Is it true you managed to make this 85 minute film that won awards (Fife Film Expo, Bootleg Film Festival New York), for only four thousand pounds?
It was really an experiment. About ¾ of that budget went towards crew fees so it was probably closer to £1000 to make the film. We worked out what was needed to pay crew and then what we could do with the rest . I try to stay away from revealing budgets and time-frames as usually it is seen as an excuse. The only reason we mentioned it for Sarah’s Room was the hope that it might inspire others to try something similar – and hopefully something better. We did it in 5 days after constructing a tight schedule.
It probably wasn’t the wisest choice for a first mission statement to be fair. It just frustrated people as it was incredibly ambiguous and more damning, didn’t fit into a set genre. People who expected a horror got bored and annoyed, and people who expected an arthouse drama got bored and annoyed as it had too many genre elements to it.
I just don’t see the point of making something that has been done before. I’d rather fail terribly. We could have made some sort of tightly scripted horror but it would just be like all those other micro budget indie films. I’d rather use the budget limitations to do something you’re not allowed to with funding rather than try and make something that’s an attempt to appeal to funders. It might not be good but it’s different. t’s almost it’s own genre – though admittedly one that wont catch on.
It got some OK reviews among the general un-interest– someone said it was the sort of film that you can take magic mushrooms too and it will reveal the mysterious of the universe. Someone else said it was ‘just a boring man with a beard who just walks around all day.’
The camera and lighting style worked really well and a lot of indie films made in Edinburgh after looked very similar to it for a little while after. Nobody employed me as a director after it but I did get a lot of calls to work as a cinematographer They just asked me to make their film look like mine and I didn’t really see the point in that.
Overall it was a film that gained very little interest and I can see why.
I probably should have learned from this but made another film shortly after that went a little more extreme in annoying an audience. It got some pretty extreme reviews. Someone said that even though it was only January they knew they’d seen the worst film of the year. But it did get some really good reviews. Annoyingly some of the best I’ve had as I think it’s my worst film.
It’s going to be included in the Far From the Apple Tree BluRay.
Teenage Superstars is both a passionate and enlightening work, did you feel that it was a story that needed to be told, as the impact of Scottish music on the global scene is often forgotten?
Thank you. I’m very passionate that these stories had to be told. Obviously parts of it have already been written about and over the years and there have been various documentaries but I don’t think it had been told in this way before and I don’t think anyone had gone into the same depth.
Zoe Howe had written the fantastic Barbed Wire Kisses and Allan Campbell had made the Bellshill Beat program around 25 years earlier but I don’t believe there was a chronological account that joined all the dots or focussed so heavily on the friendships which are so important to the scene.
Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars were both intended as feature films despite the ‘talking heads’ approach and we wanted each to have their own different approach to telling a story about music that is not just about music. They’re not musical encyclopaedias, they are stories with characters who have their own stories. There’s still a lot to be told and I hope someone else does it.
Every city or area should have their own stories told. It’s important to a culture and it’s important for new generations to be inspired by the previous one, and importantly to add something to that.
Did Teenage Superstars start out as smaller projects looking at a small section of the overall picture and it simply grew in enormity?
It always grows. And grows and grows. Teenage Superstars and Big Gold Dream were two films called The Sound of Young Scotland. Initially it was one film – about Postcard Records which then became about Postcard and Fast which then started to include the Glasgow bands from the 80s and 90s. The characters and stories were so good that we decided it should be two films.
Unlike the drama features I do these films are unfortunately very expensive to make with very little chance of recovering the budget so it does have to be a passion project. There’s just so many stories from such a small part of the world that I hope someone mines all the great ones not yet told.
How did Kim Deal become involved in the project?
Much like everything else to do with the films we just asked her! ‘hey pal, do you want to be in our fillum?” Our Executive Producer, Mark let us do whatever we wanted – which was fantastic – but he did ask ‘do you think you could squeeze the Pixies in somehow?’.
Like Robert Forster narrating Big Gold Dream we wanted somebody who had a connection with our story as well as being part of another story.
There’s a strong connection as The Pixies covered Head On by Jesus and Mary Chain and The Breeders supported Nirvana with Teenage Fanclub.. One of The Breeders albums was recorded in Edinburgh so she really knew the culture, the story, the people and was the perfect choice. It was also great to have a female voice. Many things happened like this during the production, a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion from someone often led to ‘actually, that’s a really great idea’. She was brilliant and incredibly kind to us.
Far From The Apple Tree is a modern, horror masterpiece. Was it the darkness and possibilities that attracted you to the screenplay by Ben Soper?
Haha it’s a little far of that. I asked Ben if he could write a script for it. Ben is a great writer, something I struggle with. Me, being a writer not me struggling with Ben being a great writer. I needed a script and Ben and I have a shared love of similar films so I knew he’d be great. It was written very quickly and went into production very quickly afterwards. Just a few weeks.
I like to have something solid as a guide and always allow some shooting time to improvise as I think that’s where the magic really happens. You might loose something in the structure but you gain something that you’d never get if it was pre-planned.
It should have been released and in shops by now but HMV going bust pushed it back and obviously now, with Covid it has been pushed back further.
We purposely only had a small preview release and it’s had a mixed reception. I can understand why some people find it frustrating and jarring but it’s what I wanted. We did have some great reviews with some amazing (and surprising) plaudits. Its fantastic when people really get what we wanted to do and feels very rewarding… but I know it will annoy some people.
A lot of my inspirations are 60s and 70s European horror films, those pop psyche films where there are arty elements to it but a lot of exploitation elements too and that whole period of British folk/occult/rural weirdness. If you’re going into it expecting a deep character exploration that’s just not going to happen. It’s lots of ideas and questions thrown in and you chose what you want to make from it. I call it a Pop-Art Fairy-tale as that’s what I think it is.
While it feels like there’s a lot of darkness there it’s actually quite a gentle film that’s quite melancholy. There’s not even that much horror to be honest either. Two elements that a distributor hates but we’ve got a couple of really good ones who get it and are very much behind it.
Do you feel the whole horror genre has shifted from gore-based outings into the psychological, with the rise of Ari Aster and Jordan Peele, as horror now has to be intelligent and authentic?
I reckon a lot has to do with age and background. Probably less obvious from those two examples as they are American but definitely the current popularity of things like Hauntology, Folk-Horror and Wyrdness I think is to do with growing up at a certain time in Britain. Scarfolk really struck a chord with people due to its humour. 70s/early 80s Britain was full of fallout from the 1960s underground culture that seeped into everyday modern day life – creepy and inappropriate kids TV shows, dark public information films, adverts, occult themed paperbacks etc People who are of an age who grew up with that are now making music, films and writing books so it’s not surprising that they seem to be popular now. I genuinely thought I was working in a vacuum so it’s really interesting to hear about all this other business going on.
Definitely Ari Aster’s work falls into this. It would be interesting to know what his inspirations are as he’s younger and from a different country.
There’s a really great music scene which ties in with a lot of this too. Ghost Box being a good example.
How long in terms of time does it take to plan out a film such as Far From The Apple Tree with regard to shooting and ideas to execute a vision?
Normally it takes along time but we just worked very quickly due to other commitments. I was very lucky to have two great producers to help me – Olivia and Steven who are able to work quickly.
I’m a firm believer in Tony Wilson’s interpretation of Praxis, that you do something to only later work out why you did it.
We had an extremely tight and complicated schedule but it did have opportunities to improvise. I think it’s so important to have these. You might loose out on structure or clever plot twists but you always get fantastic moments that you’d never get if they were scripted. The magic moments.
Again, like with the other dramas I didn’t want to just do the easy option of having a tightly scripted 3-hander as it would be like everything else. We shot on film and had lots of moments where the characters are watching recordings of themselves within the film. This obviously caused some logistical nightmares due to out incredibly short turnaround times but I think it all helped in creating the correct atmosphere. I think every film should be treated as an art project within itself – the actual filming – and out of that comes the film. Getting the right people on board is essential as you have to rely on other peoples experience so much. Due to our limited resources we can’t work like a normal shoot which is something some people find difficult to adjust to. Having all these elements together and a vision is as important as having a great script I think.
The soundtrack is an incredible piece of work by Shawn Pinchbeck and Rose McDowall. Did you have an idea of what you wanted sound wise before you started filming?
I did and this was it. I knew Rose from interviewing her and we got on really well and met up a lot after to chat. She’s such a talented artist and incredibly generous. I was telling her about the project and she said she’d love to collaborate on a soundtrack for it. She’d worked on an album with Shawn and suggested I use the tracks they had for cutting to. It complemented the film so well that Shawn mastered these, which became the soundtrack.
How did Shawn and Rose happen to come together to create the music?
That’s a good question. I think Shawn was involved with Sorrow, Rose’s prevous band.
As a view of other directors’ work-What did you think of Robert Eggers The Lighthouse in terms of filmmaking?
I still haven’t seen it but I very much want to. I read a lot about it when it was first announced, especially the cinematography techniques. You’re always told that story is the most important aspect of a film and it doesn’t matter what you shoot it on. I just don’t buy that. Yeh, Pet Sounds songs can all be played beautifully on an acoustic guitar but Pet Sounds is Pet Sounds because of the songs and the precisely chosen instruments, arrangements and recording techniques.
A film is the same to me. Lenses, lighting, camera choice are all essential to creating a mood and the correct texture to frame your story. Don’t believe anyone when they tell you it’s script, script, script.
It’s all about choosing the correct paintbrush for the job and it all complements the script.
From only seeing the trailer it certainly feels that the has a great understanding of aesthetics and feel.
In this obscure world of isolation has it given you time to come up with ideas that make you eager to get back to work?
I’d taken 3 months off work in January to bring up my daughter. I had a years worth of work on other people projects lined up after this and had decided to attempt to finish off some overdue projects just before.
I’ve got a theory about folk music being more important to ‘indie’ music than Rock and Roll, which will now have to be written rather than filmed.
I’ve got another feature I filmed and I’m now editing. It won’t be a popular one!
Finally, what are you listening to these days?
I started listening to albums I owned but had never listed to , or have not listened to properly.
It’s really nice actually. Other than this I’ve just been listening to minimalist American classical music. It’s one of my favourite things. That and Jazz/Blues. I see a lot of the structures in this music that can be adapted to filmmaking. Editing is the greatest tool a filmmaker has. It just feels like notes and rhythm to me.