Donkey Work

It’s frustrating that I’m good friends with several of the personalities behind DONKEYS, particularly writer Colin McLaren and director Morag McKinnon, both of whom I’ve worked with in various capacities, because I’d like to tell you how marvelous DONKEYS is but you’re duty-bound to not believe me. I declare my prejudice in favour of the movie to be near-total, but promise to confine myself to the facts.

Recap: I’ve spoken about this before here, but this movie has an unusual origin it’s worth knowing.

DONKEYS, originally called ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, is a sequel of sorts to RED ROAD, a Scottish arthouse hit based on a scheme devised by Lars Von Trier and Lone Scherfig: three writer-directors were given a group of characters and told to make three movies using them. Morag asked LVT what she should do if she couldn’t find ways to use all the characters from RED ROAD. “Oh, just use the ones you want and have the rest go by in a bus.”

She then set about cheating even more. First she brought in Colin to help with the script. He’s the genius who scripted her BAFTA-winning short HOME, and co-wrote my own hit CRY FOR BOBO. Then she told her employers he was helping. Then she told them he was collaborating. Then she told them he was writing it.

Meanwhile, Colin elevated a bit-player from the RED ROAD cast list to leading man status. This eventually led to the part going to the great James Cosmo (Ewen MacGregor’s dad in TRAINSPOTTING), and Brian Pettifer, a familiar face from Lindsay Anderson’s work, was brought in as his hapless friend. One of the RED ROAD actors threatened to sue. Then he dropped dead. Problem solved.

Colin tinkered. Kate Dickie’s Jackie no longer works in front of a thousand monitors, surveilling Glasgow by CCTV. She now works in a supermarket. She suddenly has a daughter. Natalie Press, a teenage runaway in RED ROAD, is a doctor in this one. This is the alternate universe sequel to RED ROAD. Also, it’s a comedy.

Due to the kind of machinations and screw-ups actuated whenever a film is made, especially with multiple producers, various gags did hit the cutting room floor during the journey to the screen. This resulted in an odd, but ultimately pleasing phenomenon. DONKEYS is a very black comedy, so by not announcing the tone up front, it spectacularly wrongfooted the critics and filmmakers at the industry screening. The audience, expecting a grim slice-of-life in the Loach vein, following on from Andrea Arnold’s rather glum debut, slowly began to suspect that something was up. Titters were heard. “Ah, it’s the comedy of the everyday,” they thought. “A bit of naturalistic comedy in the Mike Leigh tradition.” (I was there, I heard them thinking this. I’m still just reporting the facts here.)

When Cosmo, who may be terminally ill, tries to win back his estranged daughter by extemporizing a dreadful song at her late husband’s grave, you could practically see the suspicion shading into certainty that this was an actual funny film. The song is very poor. It continues for a long time. The laughter built. And then the film was home free.

Cosmo, a rugged, ragged man mountain with a face apparently hewn from granite, then dropped from a great height, contrasts physically with the small, smooth and round Pettifer, creating a sort of Laurel and Hardy effect. And I did actually think of the immortal L&H when I read the script. Even though this happens in a world closer to documentary reality, where the kind of flaws shown by slapstick clowns have altogether more tragic consequences. Morag’s gift for getting great performances and navigating the tonal switchbacks of Colin’s writing is much in evidence. There were tears and laughter and tears of laughter.

Here’s a clip from Morag and Colin’s previous triumph, HOME:

11 Responses to “Donkey Work”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by K Knight, Matthew Lloyd. Matthew Lloyd said: Donkey Work « shadowplay […]

  2. At first glance I thought it might be the great Brian Cox there with his arms folded. I wouldn’t mind seeing this, from what you’ve summarized here it sounds like something that would appeal to me. How I’d see it I don’t know, guess I’ll have to let time decide. As for “I was there, I heard them thinking this”, your telepathic powers are impressive, well-honed no doubt from years of practice.

  3. It IS amazing how one can read an audience, and get a sense of how they’re taking a film. Just got back from the party after the first public show, and it seems to have gone down equally well there. Admittedly, I’m now both prejudiced and drunk, but it seems like a winner to me.

  4. Martin Mull was Tuesday Weld’s boyfriend for a number of years. They met during the shooting of The Serial.

    (With me it always comes down to Tuesday Weld.)

  5. I find Mull’s mustache hard to handle in Serial. I don’t dislike ALL mustaches. Just that one, on that face.

  6. yay ! I’m seeing Donkey’s at the Thursday public screening and am now really looking forward to it. I LOVE ‘Home’ too.

  7. Had great time at the party after screening. Lots of friends I hadn’t seen for ages.

  8. You have written some things that are incorrect about the Advance Party Process.
    Donkeys was developed at the same time as Red Road and McKinnon was involved in all the casting. Each of the the directors was given free rein to cast the lead in their film. Mckinnon’s lead was Alfred and she cast Andy Armour before Red Road was made.
    Mckinnon then changed her mind over the casting and later cast James Cosmo. That is why Andy Armour tried to sue because he was initially told he would be in all three films. Your tone is beyond flippant to suggest the problem was solved by his death!

  9. That was pretty callous, I suppose. What struck me as blackly comic was the whole situation. I never heard before of an actor suing for not being cast — the unique circumstances of this movie’s making contributed to the process obviously winding up a very disappointing and confusing one for him. There’s nothing funny about his death in itself, and I shouldn’t have suggested there was.

    I must say I find it odd that the film’s producers exert this amount of effort policing the internet coverage of the film instead of spending their energies promoting the excellent movie they produced. And I can’t believe it’s common for a producer to write an angry response to a good review.

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