Sundance in Scotland?

By Jonathan Murray

Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Rob Roy
and Small Faces made “Scottishness” seem a fashionable and lucrative brand name...

June 2001’s domestic cinema release of Late Night Shopping (Saul Metzstein, 2001) raises numerous questions about Scottish film. Since it was a lusty infant in the mid-1990s, critical, institutional, and commercial growing pains have ushered in a more troubled adolescence. Late Night Shopping’s creators – like many of their contemporaries – seem eager to disavow altogether notions of national parentage. This would have been unimaginable in 1995/6. Then, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Rob Roy and Small Faces made “Scottishness” into a fashionable and lucrative brand name in British and international markets. Shallow Grave’s opening narration informed audiences that Edinburgh “could be any city: they’re all the same", but did so in ironic counterpoint to the adrenalin-filled images of its unique New Town architecture. This July, roughcuts, a Scottish industry newsletter, proclaimed that Late Night Shopping was “bound to travel and do well” in international markets because “only residents of Glasgow and Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast” would recognise its location. Earlier commercially and critically enterprising approaches to national branding are giving way to a less nuanced, market-orientated approach which advocates its complete erasure.

Contrasting production spend with box office take, Trainspotting provided London-based FilmFour with the world’s most profitable investment of 1996. But unprecedented success often proves unrepeatable, and so it has been in the Scottish case. It’s not, however, for want of trying. Most notoriously, The Life of Stuff (Simon Donald, 1997) garnered a £1 million Lottery award in order to replicate elements of Trainspotting’s drug-centred narrative and its director of photography Brian Tufano’s hallucinogenic aesthetic signature. This worked out as a subsidy of over £3000 for each of the few hundred tickets sold at the domestic box office. Yet Late Night Shopping’s stylistic influences and its prominent backing by Scottish Screen indicate that the creative template put in place by Shallow Grave’s creators remains the preferred working model for many of the country’s creative and institutional personnel.

The recipe is roughly as follows. Key directors and films from the American independent cinema are heavily and unapologetically plundered. Where Danny Boyle and Andrew MacDonald proselytised on behalf of the Coen brothers and Steven Soderburgh, Late Night Shopping’s director Saul Metzstein and writer Jack Lothian draw inspiration from the Slacker sub-genre pioneered by Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater. Late Night Shopping’s narrative consequently centres on a handful of talkative twentysomethings who mostly congregate in a single location, in this case an implausibly stylish after-hours coffee bar. In the more straightforwardly commercial model now dominant in the Scottish industry, previous narrative and stylistic models are replicated, but also domesticated, in the pursuit of elusive mainstream success. Caffeine replaces heroin as the subcultural drug of choice, consumed in the bland surroundings of urban bohème rather than the unsettling ones of suburban housing schemes.

Dialogue and script structure calibrated to the assumed demands of the international box office are also at a premium. In the characteristically low-budget range still constraining most Scottish filmmakers, talk is both cheap and (hopefully) lucrative. Not simply the general principle, but also the specific means of achieving this aim have been imported wholesale from the American independent model. Shallow Grave was but the most prominent offshoot of the Movie Makers screenwriting scheme, an annual event set up in 1992 by the then-Scottish Film Production Fund in imitation of a Canadian prototype overseen by director Norman Jewison. Similarly, John McGrath’s more recent Moonstone International screenwriting workshops were set up in conjunction with, and following the example of, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. Such initiatives, and the unprecedented commercial success associated with much of their initial product, are what motivate continued Scottish ambitions on an international scale. Symptomatically, McGrath argues for “an international dimension to filmmaking that can be studied. This process has worked in the US with Sundance…a way to make independent cinema commercial [and] human-sized movies for an international audience."

Increasing disquiet about such priorities has crystallised on two fronts in recent years. Some question the ethical niceties of using large amounts public money to foster the private entrepreneurialism of Scotland’s new generation of independent producers and production houses, including Angus Lamont and Ideal World, the producers of Late Night Shopping. Scottish Stand, a filmmakers’ pressure group set up in 1997 by Bill Forsyth amongst others, initially concentrated on the transparency of the process by which substantial Lottery production grants were made in Scotland. Its concerns soon widened, however, into a more general critique of a perceived institutional bias towards establishing Scotland as an attractive service sector for international (usually Hollywood) productions, instead of fostering an economically viable and culturally distinctive indigenous cinema. In addition, others point out that an industry that lives by the market might die by it too. The box office performance of most Scottish films since 1996 has been disappointing, the marked critical successes of Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999) and Orphans (Peter Mullan, 1999) excepted. Ken Loach’s two Scottish collaborations with writer Paul LavertyCarla’s Song (1997) and My Name is Joe (1998) - have also proved successful in domestic and European markets. Ironically, Loach has become synonymous with a social-realist aesthetic and leftist political model rejected by most post-Trainspotting Scottish filmmakers as commercially unviable and/or artistically clichéd. Sweet Sixteen, his third Glasgow film with Laverty, is currently shooting in the city.

Scottish Screen’s quango status is currently under review by the Scottish Executive. Its Chief Executive, John Archer, resigned in July after continuing controversy around funding awards that were perceived as nepotist, and concerns over the strategic direction of the industry’s development. Paradoxically, his successor, Steve McIntyre, had already warned of the dangers of commercial monomania in a small country as far back as 1993 after heading a consultative exercise on the Scottish sector’s future: “Production, any production has become the guiding principle of policy. Without a cultural programme, precious arts funding could end up doing little more than propping up (inadequately) commercial filmmaking.” Whether he still believes this analysis holds good, and whether the body he heads will be in a position to implement it, will only become apparent in the uncertain months and years to come.

Jonathan Murray teaches Scottish Studies at Glasgow University. He is currently completing a PhD on Scottish cinema of the 1980s and 1990s.