The waves lap against the harbour wall as a light drizzle wets the head of Paul Wright. This Scottish film-maker is standing on the dockside in the coastal fishing village of Gourdon, a close-knit community half way between Montrose and Stonehaven, and the location of his BAFTA-award winning feature film. On this blustery October Saturday afternoon, with a flotilla of small pleasure boats and day-fishing vessels safely tied up and secured for the weekend, there is real buzz in this sleepy Aberdeenshire backwater, famed for its fish and chip shop.
Paul Wright and his team have brought their film premiere of For Those In Peril to the unlikely setting of the Gourdon Mission Hall, where an enthusiastic group of locals, many who appeared a extras, have just watched his debut future film. Already it is critically acclaimed and has garnered two Scottish BAFTAs: one for Wright’s writing and another for the film.
The making of this film is a microcosm of the Scotland’s film-making and a case study of a creative Scots trying to make a major breakthrough. While big budget blockbusters dominate the multiplex cine houses across the UK, it is refreshing to see that high quality story-telling like this can still be made on a shoestring. Scotland’s industry is enjoying a period of success with the sunny musical Sunshine on Leith, with the Proclaimers music, and Filth, a dark adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, doing decent business at the box office. Paul Wright is under no illusion and appreciates he is on the bottom rungs of this precarious career ladder.
“It’s great to be back in Gourdon a year after making the film and seeing so many familiar faces. I’m more nervous than I was in Cannes Film Festival! This coastline is a part of the Scotland I didn’t know and it just so beautiful. For me, as a Scot, it was essential to shoot my first feature on location in Scotland,” he says.
Wright felt it was an deft touch to bring the premiere back to the village after the local community was so warm and supportive. “Everyone was so welcoming and even the local knowledge helped out with the crew. There are real locals in the film. It’s authentic, which was important for me. I hope it has a positive thing for the community.”
He drew upon his own upbringing as his inspiration.
“I was brought up in the East Neuk of Fife with its fishing villages. Up here, there is a similar feel but it has a rather unspoilt nature, whereas the East Neuk has many more tourists and day-trippers. That’s nice in one way but not ideal for the film because we wanted a more working village harbour.”
For Wright, Gourdon was an ideal location because everything was close together for the crew, filming over 250 scenes in a tight period. This was simply because they did not have the budget to spend on multiple locations.
“The financiers had seen my short films and they liked my short films. It was actually Warp, the production company, who liked my work. It was a lot easier than many feature films getting the finance together because Warp had a scheme called Warp X, which has stopped now. But it had a certain amount of money for one more project, and it clicked together at the right time with Creative Scotland, Film4, Screen Yorkshire. I think I've had it a lot easier than the norm,” he admits.
Creative Scotland, with a budget of £97.4 million to cover all of the art forms in Scotland, became involved when Wright contacted them to explain the Aberdeenshire content. “They were one of the people we knew it would be good idea to go to. They were aware of me as a film-maker – and they have been very supportive,” he says.
For Those In Peril, the story of a young man who is the sole survivor of a fishing accident in which five others lose their lives, depicts the despair and gloom that is often the reality in today’s Scotland. “For this character, who goes on a strange journey, the sea was a metaphor for mystery and we don’t know everything yet,” he says.
While Paul Wright’s budget is small, his ambition, like many others in Scotland, is big. He says in many cases Scotland is punching above its weight when it comes to the film industry. While the absence in Scotland of a full-scale sound stage and associated facilities, such as Pinewood at Shepperton, might limit the ambition and creative possibilities of what Scottish-based filmmakers can achieve, there is now a thriving hub for film and television in Glasgow, clustered around the BBC Scotland and Scottish Television head offices, and spreading into places such FilmCity Glasgow, the former Govan Town Hall, where at least 16 BAFTA Scotland nomination. Over 50% of the total, are based. More than 80 production companies and 300 facilities companies are based in Scotland and over the last decade an average of 22 feature films have been shot in whole or in part per year in Scotland The filming of the Bond blockbuster Skyfall in the North of Scotland and Harry Potter proves that there is the scenery and the talent to make the biggest films a success. Scotland attracts £25 million of location spend each year from production companies shooting on location all over the country.
Although many successful UK film franchises, including Harry Potter, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, have been filmed in the UK or feature British actors, the most successful UK produced film remains Slum Dog Millionaire, directed by film-maker Danny Boyle, which grossed over £100m in the United States, and £234 million worldwide, putting it into the top 150 of most successful films of all time. Of course, Boyle cut his teeth on the Scottish film noir Shallow Grave, in 1994, which featured a young Ewan McGregor, and then Trainspotting. By comparison, Oscar-winning Braveheart, with Mel Gibson, released in 1995, grossed around £150 million at the box office.
For emerging film-makers, the landscape is hard. The glossy marketing millions are another world away. Public funding, including money from the National Lottery, has eased the situation but film agencies are blighted by an inability to get national cinema distribution. In the UK, more than 50% of feature films get little or no theatre distribution. Funding for films in Scotland tends to come from organisations such as Creative Scotland, which offers Scottish-based talent whether involved in film or TV, finance for the development and production of a project. For the year 2013/2014, the television and film funding programme has been allocated £4m, a very small sum which means only a handful of projects can get off the ground. However, Creative Scotland is able to assist productions with location scouting, and working closely with local authorities and government to oil the wheels and help ensure a trouble-free shooting.
Paul Wright took advantage of Creative Scotland’s resources in when filming For Those in Peril’. Warp Films, an independent UK film production company, is most famous for Shane Meadows’ film This Is England. Warp X, set up in 2005 by Mark Herbert and Robin Gutch, was running its low-budget film initiative supported by the UK Film Council and Film4, and For Those in Peril was its tenth and final production. The purpose was to help young directors, such as Wright, step up to make their first feature.
“I was quite fortunate in that the financiers had seen my short films and liked them” says Paul, referring to his past successes in short film-making.
When choosing Gourdon in Aberdeenshire as the location for the film, Wright was supported by the local council, who were keen to help.
For distribution and marketing, Soda Pictures took the film from the festival circuit, where it was shown at Cannes, into the UK’s independent cinemas through promotion in the New British Cinema Quarterly which is affiliated to them.
“The independent cinemas are scattered around Britain so NBCQ helps get the film out. We’re doing a bit of touring with the film and meeting some of the audiences. Because we don’t have the budget for much marketing, it is a real grassroots thing and we are relying on word of mouth. We don’t have the money to having it on billboards. The critical response has been a big help to this film.”
For Wright, going to Cannes certainly raised the profile, but winning the Scottish BAFTAs in November will certainly give this new Scottish film an audience way beyond the shore of Aberdeenshire.“It’s an interesting time for Scotland as a film-making country. It’s about keeping a momentum and creating an industry that is sustainable. Scotland’s always been known for having some of the best crews in the world – and the most talented film-makers and punching above their weight.”