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Posted in FILM, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2014 by dcairns

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Spent the week shuttling between teaching and editing, and also managed to see a movie-themed musical (of which more later) and visited the Bill Forsyth Archive, in the keeping of Edinburgh University Library. I wasn’t able to leaf through the treasures therein at this stage, but I chatted with the librarian and  a vague plan of action was devised.

If I can come up with a project which justifies searching the archive — and this meets with Mr. F.’s approval — I could then get some funding from the university or maybe elsewhere, which could partly go towards paying to have the archive properly catalogued and stored. It’s all in banana boxes right now, and there are delicate items such as, for instance, all the continuity Polaroids from LOCAL HERO, which are chemically fragile and could do with being more carefully preserved.

I was very interested in the correspondence, including perhaps the notorious but little-seen “Dear Bill” letters, which practically toppled the Scottish Film Production Fund. It’s a tale of long-ago and the principles involved may not want to see it hashed out again, but if the true hiftory of Scottish cinema ever comes to be written it would make a juicy chapter.

Basically, Bill was invited to sit on the board of said august organisation, a prestigious but under-funded body (in those pre-National Lottery days) dispensing small amounts of development and production money to Scottish films. Disturbed by what he saw, Bill began a correspondence with Eddie Dick, the board’s chairman and “gatekeeper,” the one who decided, as I recall, whether projects should even be considered by the board. After a while, Bill felt he wasn’t getting anywhere and went public, releasing the “Dear Bill” letters to the press. I never saw any extracts, only the summaries provided in The Scotsman and elsewhere, but they appear to have been Hot Stuff. The key phrases, as interpreted by the newsprint hacks, were “cronyism” and “a lack of transparency.”

This was greeted with a certain amount of glee by those of us who had not been allowed to feed at the trough. It was I, it can now be revealed, who had first dubbed the origanisation “The Scottish Film Prevention Fund,” which caught on fairly fast and may have eventually led to them changing their name to Scottish Screen. The initials made that one too easy. It’s now part of something called Creative Scotland, and nobody has bothered to spoof that name, they just say it in a depressed, vaguely sarcastic way.

Now, a lack of transparency does not mean anything fishy is going on, it just means that from the outside, nobody can tell. I would have to say that this charge was completely justified. It’s difficult for a funding organisation to be fully transparent — nobody will ever know why Ken Russell and Spike Milligan never got BBC commissions in their later years, even if rejection letters were written giving reasons. But Scottish filmmakers were deeply suspicious of the SFPF. Nobody except Bill Forsyth was going public about it, because everybody else hoped they might one day be given funding, and didn’t want “to bite the hand that might one day feed them,” as I recall The Scotsman putting it.

“Cronyism” is a more concrete charge. The problem was that it was considered perfectly OK for a senior Scottish film bod to sit upon the board, making funding decisions, while also applying to that board for money. If you did this and your project came up for discussion, you simply stepped out of the room while the rest of the board weighed the projects’ merits, then you came back in and were greeted by smiling faces. Nothing untoward about that, surely?

The reason this had happened was that the Scottish film industry was and still is very small, so it would be impossible to find qualified people to consider applications if being on the board prevented you from applying for funds for your own project. My producer at the time, Nigel Harper, suggested a very simple solution to this would be to have a one-year moratorium, if moratorium is the word I want, and a rapidly-changing board so that people could keep their projects active AND be on the board but not at the same time. This would also mean that if your worst enemy was on the board, nixing all your movie epics, you could console yourself that they wouldn’t always be there.

I think the problem is now solved by having the decisions made mainly by full-time bureaucrats…

Curiously enough, Eddie Dick, the victim of the Forsythian ire, is now a film producer, and responsible for the Scottish side of LET US PREY, the horror film Fiona and I co-wrote. I did ask him about the “Dear Bill” Affair once, but he just muttered something about Bill being “not like his films.”

I just did an interview with Mr. Forsyth and found him exactly like his films — gentle, funny, wry, intelligent, a touch melancholic, thoughtful and generous. Still, I suppose nobody can be like that ALL the time.

I hope somebody gets into the Forsyth Archive and gets it all catalogued and produces a really good project. This blog post might prevent it from being me, I don’t know.

I wasn’t able to take any pictures of the banana boxes, but I did snap Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Josephine Baker. (Paolozzi was an Edinburgh-born sculptor who also starred in the early Free Cinema short, TOGETHER.)

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Trouble Speaking

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2008 by dcairns

Eddie Dick is an Edinburgh-based film producer and former head of Scottish Screen, the organisation for the promotion of film in Scotland. Fiona and I have known him for a few years, but only just this last week actually started sort-of working with him, with a horror screenplay called CELL 6.

Eddie’s most recent film, TROUBLE SLEEPING, directed by Robert Rae and made in association with Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop, has its TV premier on BBC2 Scotland tonight at 10pm. I emailed him some questions about himself and his movie, and received the following fantastically frank answers:

Edinburgh!

Q: Who are you and where did you come from?

A: I TAKE IT THAT THIS IS NOT A CABBAGE-PATCH QUESTION.  EDDIE DICK, FROM A VARIED EDUCATIONAL/CULTURAL/FILM INDUSTRY BACKGROUND.
 
Q: How did you come to be a film producer?

A: A COLLISION OF ACCIDENT,OPPORTUNITY AND INTENTION.   I CAME AT IT FROM A EDUCATIONAL AND THEN CULTURAL ROUTE WHICH LEAD ME GRADUALLY TO THE FILM INDUSTRY ITSELF.   
 
You’ve rubbed up against both the sacred Bills, Douglas and Forsyth, via your book about BD’s COMRADES (which is easier to get hold of than the film itself) and a much-publicised-locally “row” with Forsyth during your time at Scottish Screen.

(Forsyth, having briefly served on the Scottish Screen committee, accused the organisation of “cronyism” and a “lack of transparency”, words which the media, particularly The Scotsman newspaper, soon had attached to Scottish Screen the way the word “bogus” is always attached to the words “asylum seekers”. The “Dear Bill” correspondence quickly became notorious, although I’m disappointed to see it doesn’t appear to be on the Internet.)

Q: Any anecdotes, or anything you learned from those experiences? It must be pleasing to you to see the Bill Douglas Trilogy out on DVD at last. 

A: RE BILL FORSYTH, THE MAIN THING I LEARNED WAS TO TRY TO AVOID GOING INTO FIGHTS WITH ONE HAND TIED BEHIND YOUR BACK; FAMOUS FILMMAKER VERSUS LOCAL BUREAUCRAT – THERE’S ONLY GOING TO BE ONE “WINNER”.   WITH THE OTHER BILL, THE MAIN THING IS THAT TALENT (ESPECIALLY THAT WHICH IS TROUBLED) DOESN’T PROTECT YOU AGAINST DEFEAT AND ANGUISH.

Shooting TROUBLE SLEEPING.
 
Q: How did you come to be involved with TROUBLE SLEEPING?

A: I WAS ASKED TO GET INVOLVED IN ITS DEVELOPMENT BY ROBERT RAE.   MY FILM’S BLIND FLIGHT AND TRUE NORTH MADE ME THE OBVIOUS, ALTHOUGH NOT THE ONLY, CHOICE.
 
Q: How was the finance raised?

A: PARTLY THROUGH TW’S SOCIAL/DRAMA CONTACTS AND PARTLY VIA MINE (SCOTTISH SCREEN AND BBC).
 
Q: What were the greatest difficulties in making the film?

A: FINANCE AND CONSTANT FIGHTS BETWEEN ME AND THE DIRECTOR.

Wow.
 
I’m very glad that a film has tackled this subject — asylum seekers — from a humanitarian standpoint. Modern Britain often feels to me much like the dystopias of V FOR VENDETTA and CHILDREN OF MEN (which features TROUBLE SLEEPING’S disabled actor Nabil Shaban in not so much a walk-on as a carry-through performance), and it was good to see that tackled in a less fantastical, more down-to-earth way.


 Gary “GANGS OF NEW YORK” Lewis appears in TROUBLE SLEEPING.

Q: The film mixes experienced professional actors with lots of screen experience in short cameo roles, with lots of newcomers in the major roles. (In this way it somewhat resembles Douglas’s COMRADES.) What was casting like, and was their any difficulty unifying the acting styles.

A: THE FILM WAS CAST FROM THE WORKSHOP’S COMMUNITYAND OPPORTUNISTIC WALKBYS( FOUAD, THE WAITER-CUM-SHOPWORKER SAW A NOTICE IN TW’S WINDOW, FOR EXAMPLE).  ROBERT RAE WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN THE CASTING; I ASKED GARY LEWIS AND ALISON PEEBLES, TO DO US A FAVOUR.

I THINK THAT THERE WAS DIFFICULTY IN UNIFYING STYLES.  THERE REMAINS AN UNEVENNESS IN PERFORMANCE, WITH SOME CLEAR WEAKNESSES.
 
I liked Nabil Shaban in the film. From what Eddie told me, I could see that they’d “hired a volcano then told it not to explode,” as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins complained to Jim Jarmusch re his role in MYSTERY TRAIN. But I like the sense of barely controlled ham, and he DOES keep it in check.
 
Q: What next? From out conversations, it seems like you’re moving towards more genre-based filmmaking? Is this a deliberate policy, or just the result of the projects you’ve found recently?
A: IT IS A DELIBERATE POLICY, BUT NOT AN EXCLUSIVE ONE.   I WANT TO MAKE A BROADER RANGE OF FILMS (HAVING MADE 3 SOCIO-POLITICAL ONES).  I’VE BEEN SEEKING GENRE MATERIAL SUCH AS CELL 6.
Many thanks to Eddie for helping out here.

Television Festival and Nail Bar

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2008 by dcairns

The Conference Centre in Edinburgh, a sort of METROPOLIS building only a bit smaller, pays host to the TV Festival every year. Unlike the Film Festival, it’s not a public event so I can’t go, but this year I got a day pass through the auspices, if auspices is the word I want, of T.V. sitcom messiah Graham Linehan(Father Ted, The I.T. Crowd), so was not only able to hear Graham dispensing invaluable wisdom on the craft of situation comedy, but I then took in a masterclass/chat with Stephen Moffat, incoming script editor of Dr. Who.

Apparently Whovians were clamouring to gain access to this event, but as they’re not big media people with production companies, they couldn’t, so there were empty seats instead. The people who COULD have attended were presumably off hearing some exec talking about the Future of Television in an Interactive Age or some bollocks. You know you’ve inadvertently crashed a seriously elitist event when you’re in a partially vacant auditorium listening to a fascinating and hugely successful writer with an incredibly important job who could probably sell out the Albert Hall. I felt vaguely indecent being there, although in fact I’m a longterm Whovian myself, so in a way I was striking a mute, useless and limp-knuckled blow for fandom.

Further evidence that I was in a part of Soho that had drifted off and landed in Scotland came when I crossed the road to get a sandwich, and was asked if I wanted a receipt. I should stress: this has never happened to me before in my life. You don’t get OFFERED a receipt with your sandwich. So obviously the poor deli had been serving people all weekend who were on expense accounts.

In the conference centre I felt like the only Scot in the world, but that wasn’t strictly true because Stephen Moffat is a Scot, and I saw Robin McPherson from Screen Academy Scotland and Carole Sheridan from Scottish Screen. I also saw a nail bar in there, which was fascinating and kind of surreal. “We’re hosting television execs — what do they want? Coffee, fruit, little sandwich things, and somewhere to do their nails. Right.”

If this sounds alienating and fish-out-of-watery, it was a bit, but everybody was actually pefectly nice so I resolved to dismiss my prejudice and just enjoy myself. Graham being such a fun person to talk to helped that enormously — there’s nothing elitist about most of the people actually doing T.V. What with Graham being a stranger more or less to Edinburgh, I could show him a very long and actually incorrect way to get to Starbucks after his talk.

His lecture is going online so I don’t want to write down my garbled memories of it here, but a few spectacularly useful tips for writers emerged which I could, perhaps, summarise and elaborate on:

Censorship is Good: working within parameters, including the kind laid down by TV censors, is actually great discipline and can make things better. When I (me, not Graham) wrote for kids’ TV I likened it to juggling in a straitjacket. There were so many things you couldn’t do, and sometimes you felt people were saying “No” just out of fear, rather than out of any genuine risk of upsetting anyone, but very often the funniest stuff came out of being unable to do things the most direct and obvious way. Looking at classic Hollywood comedies kind of confirms this. MY GOD the tight strictures they worked under, and MY GOD the quality of the end product!

Taboo Subjects Are Good, But: you have to find the right way to do it. The examples Graham gave, from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, Seinfeld, and Malcolm in the Middle, beautifully illustrated how dark and sensitive material can be presented in a way that, as he puts it, “doesn’t force Dad to leave the room to make a cup of tea.” Abusing the disabled, child abduction, and sexual violence were all suggested by the scenes cited, but in such a way that it was safe to laugh. You get the slightly forbidden quality of laughing when you shouldn’t — remember how that felt at school? — but you don’t feel horrible afterwards because there’s a contradictory innocence to the presentation in all three cases. You’re actually NOT laughing at the horror, you’re laughing at something relatively O.K. that bizarrely RELATES to the horror.

It’s kind of dark, but not actually.

(I think a lot of writers and directors like the IDEA of pushing the audience into uncomfortable places and making them feel bad, or awkward, or whatever. But why? As Maurice Chevalier says in LE SILENCE EST D’OR, “Some people think the artist’s job is to give the audience a hard time.” That’s fine, IF THERE’S A REASON. But maybe some of us just like the idea of doing “dark” as a status thing? I think there should always be a little malaise with the pleasure, as a kind of seasoning, but some modern T.V. is JUST UNPLEASANT.)

Traps are Useful: sitcoms depend on traps, both physical and emotional, so that characters are forced to clash together consistently throughout the series. Farce depends on trapping characters in awkward situations. When it doesn’t work is when the audience can see a way out. (Personal taste means some people have problems with this where others don’t: my friend Simon would get frustrated by Laurel & Hardy because it’s so obvious what they’re doing wrong.)

There was more, much more, and in fact when I overheard Linehan and Moffat chatting together between shows, the insights were flying so thick and fast I wished I could decelerate time so I could jot down all the great stuff being flung out.

The Count.

In the evening Fiona and I swung by Count Arthur Strong’s show at the Assembly Rooms. Count Arthur is a comedy act based on the concept of a raddled old music hall comedian in the final stages of senility, still carrying on his hopeless career and remembering glory days that never were. There have been a few comics patterned on the old-style music hall comedian, from Tommy Cockles to Arthur Atkinson of T.V.’s The Fast Show, but Count Arthur takes things to a new level of grotesquerie, with his hunched back, flushed face and irascible disorientation (wandering aimlessly around the stage, he spots his own image: “Oh, so that’s who that is,” he remarks, senselessly). A favourite moment among many: Arthur strains furiously to recall the name of Cliff Richard’s most famous film, then finally yells in triumph, “SUMMER HOLOCAUST! That’s it!”

A good example, I think, of taboo material done in an acceptable way.

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