SHOOTING PEOPLE: Interview with Simon Miller
'If you do your job well as a filmmaker, people should be able to experience a story, even without subtitles. Thereâs a whole history of silent cinema where nobody spoke anything. I think film is one kind of way of getting to an international audience a Gaelic storytelling tradition which is absolutely the lynch pin of Gaelic culture.'
Director, Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle
After dropping out of film school, Shooter Simon Miller made his first film two years ago, a short that was screened at Edinburgh, in Gaelic; Scotlandâs minority language. For his second film, he thought he would make a feature for the cinema. He made it in Gaelic and guess what? It is accepted in competition for the Michael Powell Award, at Edinburgh. This is a fine feature, the first feature for cinema in Gaelic and a feature that draws heavily on Gaeldomâs rich culture of stories and music, as well as language, to enrich the narrative. For good measure he throws in some of the most attractive scenery to be found in the West of Scotland, in the island of Skye. Miller wants to expose the riches of Gaelic culture to a wider world through cinema, with subtitles for those who donât speak or understand the language. Heâs a man on a mission. He is succeeding. His is an extraordinary achievement.
How did you actually get started in filmmaking?
I came to filmmaking rather late in my life, although I guess I am still young for a first time director. I grew up in Scotland, in Aberdeen and I went on to university at the London School of Economics, got dragged into merchant banking of all things and worked on Wall Street. I had been in a band at school and just got fed up with simply earning money for a living and wanted to do something really interesting, so I fought my way into the music industry â an unusual move for a desperate banker! [laughs] â but I was following my heart. The reality is, all I wanted to do all the way through, is to be a film director. I just realised that by hook or by crook I had to work out a way of becoming a filmmaker. At that stage of your life, I think the best way to achieve that is to go to film school. So four years ago, I had saved up money, went to the London Film School â I only lasted a year out of the two years â I didnât think they were teaching me fast enough, I was so eager to get on. I persuaded a cinematographer from the school to leave with me and we spent our second year making a short film based loosely around my life as an English-accented kid growing up around what was then a fairly tough part of Livingston. We had one goal, which was to get that film into the Edinburgh Film Festival. No films from London Film school had done that in recent years and it would justify our decision to leave. Luckily, we did that! That was just over two years ago now. That was my first proper film and that out me on the road to getting a relationship with Chris Young, who is the producer of my first Gaelic short film Foighidinn . Thatâs the Gaelic term for patience, which is the crucial story that the grandfather tells, the complete starting point really for the feature film.
What is the Inaccessible Pinnacle, where is it found?
It is a difficult climb on the top of one of the Cuillins and it is the only Munro* that Munro himself never climbed. It has quite a lot of superstition associated with it because of that. There are reasons behind the name which we can look into, but we wanted an English language name as well as a Gaelic name because that would make the film accessible to many more people.
*A Munro is a mountain that is over 3,000 feet high
What is the Gaelic language, its roots and its homeland?
Scottish Gaelic is pronounced âgallickâ rather than âgale-ick and it is completely linked to Irish Gaelic, from where it came. It must have been in St Columbaâs time when there was quite a migration of people that were called Scots, from Ireland into the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This was in about 500 AD. There was a shared kingdom initially called Dariada and they shared the same language. Over the centuries that kingdom was split between Scotland and Ireland and that is when those languages began to split. Irish Gaels should be able to speak to Scottish Gaels, there is that much similarity between the languages. Certainly thereâs a movement at the Gaelic College in Skye to try to build those bridges, because thereâs quite a significant number of Irish people that can talk Gaelic and only a minority of Scottish people, who live in the Highlands and Islands.
So will Irish Gaels be able to understand the Scottish Gaelic in Seachd?
They should be able to, they need to try harder! [chuckles] Itâs a good question because in reality, but they should be able to because it is that strongly linked.
And what about non-Gaelic speakers â will they have sub-titles to help them follow the story?
Yes they will; the sub-titles are in English although there will be a print that has no subtitles because there are 60,000 people that speak Gaelic in Scotland and maybe half of those people speak it all day long, the majority of whom actually live in the Isle of Lewis. In the town of Stornoway in Lewis, I think the figure is 40-50% of people actually do speak Gaelic and on Scottish Television on a Thursday night on BBC 2 there are Gaelic programmes and there is imminently the launch of a Gaelic digital television channel.
And is there not also a Gaelic Media Service?
The Gaelic Media Service has been around for a while in various guises. It is funded by the Scottish Executive to help develop Gaelic media programming, on the internet I think, as well as television and they were a significant investor in our film, to make our film happen, through BBC Alba. Thatâs a division of BBC Scotland that helps develop Gaelic radio and television programmes.
So with all this going on, how fragile is the Gaelic language and culture? Is it robust, is it struggling, or is it threatened; what is the state of health?
It is probably more buoyant now than it has been within very recent times; say the last couple of years. Gaelic has been given an official status by the Scottish Executive. With the flourishing of Scottish independent pride and sentiment, I think thereâs been a lot more interest in helping the Gaelic language survive. It has been declining and my understanding is that at about 60,000 speakers the decline has been halted, it is now stable and hopefully, growing. If you look at the Gaelic College, it has been expanding with more buildings year on year. Itâs the university, if you want to go to university to study Gaelic, or if you want to go to university just speaking Gaelic. One of the most popular courses there is the Media Studies course. Getting more Gaelic programming available to more young Gaels is totally essential to maintain the language, because if you lose Gaelic people to watching French programming because there is no Gaelic version of French to watch, their language could die because it is going to be useless to them. A lot of the media initiatives are essential to the continuance of the language, but I donât think it will die out now. It is not like Cornish or Manx. Thereâs enough money, thereâs enough interest for it to have been saved. I think it literally has been saved.
So it was good news that you came with a feature film?
It is great news in fact that we came along with a script, at a time when with all that interest, people were saying âWell there should be a feature film in Gaelicâ¦â
Have there never been feature films set within Gaeldom?
My understanding is there has been one feature film made in Gaelic before in the 1980âs but I have never seen it. Some say it was not very good for a whole different variety of reasons. It was probably underfunded,but I think it was one of thiose films where there was a lot of non-Gaelic involvement in it, so that meant it wasnât a true reflection of Gaelic culture and a number of the actors were not Gaelic speakers. They were speaking Gaelic phonetically. The distinguishing feature about our film is that number one, it is a film made in collaboration with an inordinate quantity of Gaelic speakers from across the arts disciplines from writers to actors and musicians. But also, it is a film designed for the cinema. This is the first Scottish Gaelic film made to get into cinemas and it will be released nationwide in the autumn of this year.
And for the feature you worked with a number of Gaelic writers did you not?
Yes, on the writing and the translation and the collaboration side for the story of the feature film, we involved a number of Gaelic writers. In fact on set â Iâm not a native Gaelic speaker â for me it was essential that we had real Gaels as lines were being delivered and as rehearsal was happening. So we felt it was essential to have a number of co-directors who were all real Gaels, who were working up the ranks within BBC Alba. We had them working with us in the feature film as well to enable them to go on and propose scripts of their own. There wasnât really a Gaelic film industry before we started making these films, but we are really hoping that it is just a stepping stone for there to be one in the future.
So what actually is the story that is told in Seacht â how will it unfold on screen?
Itâs the story of a young boy and his brother and sister who are orphaned when their parents die in a climbing accident on The Inaccessible Pinnicle. They go to live with their grandfather and grandmother. The nine-year old, Angus, is really hit by th death of his parents, much more deeply than the other two. The only real way the grandfather has of communicating with him, possibly due to his own inadequacies, is to tell Angus stories. He tells him stories from the whole swathe of Gaelic history from the 12th Century to the 16th Century, to the Highland Clearances, the1920âs, all told at different times Angusâ recovery, in order to try and help him get over this enormous burden that he carries. So it is really a story thatâs about the power of story telling and about the aural story-telling tradition, not just as a way of entertaining people, but as a way of educating them and showing the roots that they have in their own culture and delivering the history of their own culture.
Is story telling a particularly important part of Gaelic culture then?
I think it is. In fact, the world over, storytelling is extremely important to a lot of indigenous people.
Thereâs a fantastic film out at the moment which is called Ten Canoes, based on an original Aboriginal story. A few years back â and it was one of the models for us â was a film called The Fast Runner, which was film in Inuit, the language of the Eskimos. All of these films are based on storytelling. Gaelic storytelling is something that is particularly culturally relevant because historically the storytellers â the bards â thousands of years ago, were one of the lynch pins of society, they were senior members of society, not just story tellers. That legacy still exists today. The issue with Scottish Gaelic of course is that the rest of the world is having a hard time taking part in that tradition because so few people speak Scottish Gaelic. There are two ways in which that has changed recently. One is that once type of storytelling is through music and an awful lot of Gaelic music is stories that are sung and with appearances of Scottish Gaelic singers on music programmes like that of Jules Holland, Scottish Gaelic is actually making it. The second way is probably through film because if you do your job well as a filmmaker, people should be able to experience a story, even without subtitles. Thereâs a whole history of silent cinema where nobody spoke anything. I think film is one kind of way of getting to an international audience a Gaelic storytelling tradition which is absolutely the lynch pin of Gaelic culture.
And among the stories you are telling in the film you have shape-shifting water horses, poisoned lovers, bloody revenge stories, but what possible significance can Spanish gold have in Gaelic culture?
[Laughs] I had worked very hard on these stories to make them part of the Gaelic story telling tradition. They are historically accurate and that they are the kind of structure that the Gaelic stories were told by. I really didnât want to come in and steal existing stories and just re-tell them for the screen. I felt that was the wrong thing to do. We wanted to make a new film in Gaelic featuring people that do live in the Isle of Skye today and recognising that the roots of a Gaelic person are that much more on the surface than the roots of a person living elsewhere in the UK might be.
You had a number of writers involved in developing the filmâ what were the mechanics of that?
My wife and I developed the story for the entire film and of course there was no way were going to be able to develop a Gaelic script. We would of course involve Aonghas MacNeacall because we had worked so well with him in developing the short film and the BBC helped us find a few other Gaelic writers that would help us creatively and in the sense of translation, to turn it into a proper Gaelic script. One was Iseabail T NicDhomhnail who, for the BBC, has done an inordinate quantity of translation and creative work and a younger writer Ian Finlay McLeoid who is writer in residence at the Gaelic College in Skye and quite a prolific writer in Gaelic theatre.
Sounds like a very thorough and very painstaking process of development.
I donât think you could do it any other way because I wanted to make a film that was real, that was honestly Gaelic, that had heart and integrity and was not a film made by someone coming in to borrow the culture. It was a film that was meant to be a film for Gaels as much as I could make it, given the fact that unfortunately, Iâm not a fluent Gaelic speaker myself.
But with all those advisers helping you, it would surely have that important sense of authenticity though?
In the end it was an amazing opportunity for me. This was my first feature film and I had so many people to collaborate with, always someone to turn to on every aspect of the film and ask âAm I doing that right? Could it be done better? What do you think of this?â â and always having someone to work with and sound off and offer their own ideas, as long as you are willing to accept that someone may have a better idea than you; which I guess is quite an unusual thing for a director [laughs]. I havenât developed the ego or the arrogance to dismiss any great idea that comes my way. I felt as long as I had that attitude, this was going to be a better film than I could have made myself. It was totally essential really, not just in delivering good Gaelic, but in delivering a great film. Everyone respected everyone elsesâs input. While the final decision was mine, it was a very open process of getting to where a final decision ought to be.
Most of your cast come from the isles of Uist in the Outer Hebrides and you filmed in Skye, in the Inner Hebrides. Can you explain the whys an wherefores of that for us?
The truth of that is most of the key cast came from Uist. Most of the cast, if you count everyone in the film including the extras, come from Skye, because that is where we filmed it and that is where the majority of people we could afford to include in the film would have to come from. The two key roles of the film would be played by a nine-year old boy from somewhere and a grandfather from somewhere. We had made a short film before this and footage fom that short film is cut into the feature film and the storytel ling grandfather was cast very locally to our production base at the Gaelic College; a man called Angus Peter Campbell. He is the pre-eminent Gaelic author and also a journalist. He had never acted before, but he was a fantastic story teller and did such a good job in the short film that we simply could not think of any other person to cast. He lives in Skye, but he is from Uist. In terms of the nine year-old boy, we just went to every possible school in the Highlands and the Isles to find the best young boy actor we could find. That took us all over the place, but we found this amazing boy. Patrick Morrison, in Uist. The distinguishing feature about him over all the other boys is that he was nine, but his father was a man of eighty-two. His father had never left the island of Uist and neither had his father before him. This nine-year old boy had a form of Gaelic he had learned from his eighty-two year old father that was somehow rooted in a much deeper part of Gaeldom as compared with a lot of modern kids. They had learned their Gaelic, on the whole, through Gaelic medium in schools rather than necessarily at home. Apart from all that, he was just such a robust kid! The first time we met him, I interviewed him for the role while he was climbing a tree in the back of his garden! It was just obvious that from the moment we met him, he was the kid for us and whether he came from Uist, or not, made no difference.
You felt you had struck gold then?
We had. It has only really dawned on us recently how important that roleâ¦ I mean itâs obvious in the sense that is one of the lead roles in the film â¦ but we had always said that with a fair wind we would find a great Gaelic kid and the script will do the work. The reality has been that this film is so special because Patrick Morrison is so good. He out-acts everyone else in the film including the few professional Gaelic actors that we have in the film. He is just so natural; heâs a kid you cannot faze â and he learns his lines in five seconds flat! [smiles]
How did your collaboration with producer Chris Young come about?
The short film was quite an interesting story in that I had just finished filming my first short film in Livingston, when it occurred to me that a story that was originally told by a grandfather or an old man in a completely different script that I had started, would make a great short film. And this is the story of The Crimson Snowdrop. It was as story very close to my wifeâs and my own heart â we work together on the stories for all the things I have written, all the films I have made. It was very well researched, based on research I had learned about the founding of Livingston as a place when I was living there. Everything in it was as real as we could make it. The history was real, the places were real, thereâs a bit of medicine in there and we tried to show that was real. Since it was set in the 12th Century it had to be also in Gaelic because in the 12th Century everyone spoke Gaelic and we wanted everything about the film to be as authentic as it could possibly be. On the wrap party of my first film, I met the husband of one of the lead actresses Girda Stevenson - heâs called Angus McNicol and in Gaelic âAngus Blackâ with his huge white beard â and he is a well known Gaelic poet. I was extremely nervous about meeting him because my plan was to say to him when we met that I have written this story and would you help me turn it into a Gaelic script. He liked the story and over the next couple of months we worked it into a real Gaelic folklore tale, which attracted the attention of quite a number of film production companies at the time. But really there was no-one else to go with but Chris Young because he lived on Skye. He is a film producer of note, who actually speaks Gaelic and so do his kids and he had already walked up to the base of the Inaccessible Pinnacle just two or three weeks before he had received my script.
It sounds as if thereâs a sort of secret enclave of filmmakers in Skye â is that right?
It sounds like that, but of course itâs not true. It was just luck. Chris Young, film producer, happens to live in Skye. His first film, called Venus Peter was made after that experience. Heâs a Scot, but he decided to move his family to the Isle of Skye, fifteen years ago or so. It was complete luck. Iâm not aware of any other filmmakers who live on Skye. There are fantastic photographers and Iâm sure there are film crew that live on Skye, but part of our hope is that with this film is that there will be some form of Scottish Gaelic film industry. We have involved in the production and on the crew side as many people as we possibly could from the Gaelic College and from local areas. I know from the short film that a number of people are actually in the film industry now and we gave them their start.
Your original plan I gather, was for a series of complementary short stories that could run together. How and why did that change to a full feature story?
The short film was called Foighidinn, Gaelic for âpatienceâ and it was about these children who could not wait for their Christmas presents and try and steal them from under the nose of their grandfather. He catches them and tells them a story about patience, which is in fact the story of the Crimson Snowdrop. There was a bit of a hiatus while we showed the film at film festivals, particularly the BBC, were interested in this character, this grandfather who told these amazing stories. I think it was my mother who said âWell, you have made one Virtue, why donât you go and make the other six?â
Patience is a Virtue, what are the other six?
Well, in actual fact, when you go and look up the Virtues, which are the opposite of the Seven Deadly Sins, patience in fact is not one of themâ¦ Anyway, I proposed the idea to the BBC with Chris and they were immediately interested. That this grandfather would tell not only the story that had already been made, but six more. That was the kernel of the idea and it is the reason of course, why the film is called Seachd â âsevenâ â because there would be seven stories. Over time what happened wasâ¦ Chris and I had always wanted those seven stories to be cut together to form a feature-length project and we wanted it always to be a feature film, but as we developed it we realised that what really needed to happen was that the lives of grandfather and the children to whom he was telling these stories, needed to be at least as important, if not more important, than the stories that were being told. It became clear for example, when I proposed the seventh story I said âWell, I donât really want grandfather to tell a story at all here. I would like it to be, literally, grandfatherâs story and the final episode will be all about grandfather and his grandchildren.â As soon as we had written that, it was obvious that what we had to do was to focus on primarily, not the story grandfather was going to tell but the lives of grandfather and the grandchildren as the backbone of the feature film, the backbone of the project and that the stories would fit within that journey. So it became increasingly difficult to imagine this story being told in seven parts. It could not actually be seven short films because it was so knitted together and each component was so necessary for the next. The idea of it being seven different chunks, after a couple of months, evaporated. We knew we were making just one thing, which was feature film.
You involved Scottish Screen, BBC Alba, the new Gaelic Media Service; what were their roles in the production and how and where did they get involved?
All of those people were involved in the short film too, so they stayed with us as we developed the feature project. BBC Alba was instrumental in gaining support from the others; bringing in the Gaelic Media Service and Scottish Screen. Having the name of the BBC associated with your project is always helpful. To some extent BBC Alba acts as a gatekeeper for the Gaelic Media Service, so they almost come together in one package. Scottish Screen is a natural partner for us because they are the national organisation responsible for the development of Scottish film. It was always crucial to us that this was a film that would go in Cinemas, it was not a film with a destination of a DVD or just a piece of television drama. It was intended to be a proper feature film.
You had a Â£650,000 budget. Was it easy to raise that level of funding to make the film?
[Sighs] No. It is actually a small budget for a feature film. I was reading some article recently about David Mackenzie, the director of Hallam Foe saying how difficult it was delivering his film on a budget of three and half millionâ¦
[Smiles] Heâs made films for a lot less than that before of course...
Yes, very difficult, but try a feature on Â£650,000! Really it was low budget. But who is going to fund a Scottish Gaelic film? Who is going to put there money on the line?
I believe a Scottish Gaelic film has potential beyond Gaeldomâ¦.
So who did fund it?
The same players; BBC, Gaelic Media Service and Scottish Screen, after the success of the short film. I think we were very fortuitous. There were a lot of little things that helped them decide; that this was the right time to make a Gaelic feature film and that they ought to be involved â not least because we had just made a short film that had done very well. Iâm eternally grateful to them for taking the risk because I guess turning to the Scottish funders, given that we had been turned down for funding by the big film companies, who else is going to take an interest but those people with a real interest in Scottish film and Scottish Gaelic. I thank my lucky stars that this was the script that they thought was the one that they could invest into to make the first Scottish Gaelic film for the cinema.
All the factors came together at once...
It was very fortuitous. It is not clear to me that there is this enormous fund waiting for the next four or five Scottish Gaelic films, but it certainly true that they have made the biggest step to imagining that they ought to set aside money for Scottish Gaelic films.
There are other Gaelic films in my back pocket that I would love to go out there and make, but realistically, it all depends on the critical success of the first one that is already getting out there.
What were your budget priorities for spending that money? What did it all go on?
There was nothing normal about the way this money was spent. All the rules had to be thrown out. No-one was going to get paid for working on the film, actors or crew. That was set down at the beginning â otherwise we would never have been able to make it. We wanted to film it on the isle of Skye and that meant that quite a lot money had to be spent on accommodation on the Isle of Skye to make sure that our production could happen there. It is not cheap to do that, especially during the season when we filmed in May and June, which is holiday season in the Isle of Skye so accommodation just is not cheap. What the first priority had to be was getting all the cast and crew people there. If we could find people that were great film crew and actors, but primarily they really wanted to go to Skye [smiles]; then we would have a very happy set of people to make a film with. They would be prepared to go the extra mile during five days out of seven, but everyone had their weekends to spend on Skye during the shoot. It was only a five week shoot, but what a fantastic opportunity when you are filmmaker or member of a film crew, not to have to go to some dreary studio in a back street in Glasgow but to actually sunbathe in the Isle of Skye or swim in the sea.
A working holiday then?
But it was essential that we did that, because we simply couldnât pay people enough for it to be an ordinary working experience. In fact we were totally shocked when we did the cast and crew screening of the fully edited film. We did it on Skye and an enormous quantity of the crew came back! You know, all that way to the Isle of Skye just to see the film. Who knows if it really was to see the film? I suspect it was just an excuse to come back to the Isle of Skye, which they lovedâ¦ So, getting back to the budget; it was totally essential that money was spent on that. Of course that also meant there was not an awful lot left to spend on the screen. Every departmentâs budget was tiny; Design, Costume, Hair and Makeup. But what we did was to make absolute best of the Isle of Skyeâs scenery. At weekends, the cameraman and director of photography, Ian Dodds and I, were given the HD camera and we could go off and film whatever we liked. When we saw that there was a good sunset over the Cuillin at midnight, we raced around there in our car and shot it. Using HD was crucial to this film. The process of lighting is not shorter; it doesnât actually help your day any more, but what it does mean is that there are no stock problems. You can just shoot. You can go again, take after take, after take, very quickly in order to get something you want before you move on. We had two crunches really when we were filming, not least because it should have been an eight week shoot. We had a number of child actors and that meant you could only shoot for a portion of the normal film day; there were restrictions on their hours. That meant we had to work doubly fast to get all the scenes involving the children in within those hours. Has the film suffered because we made it so fast? â Well of course it has. Where you might want to cover a scene from ten different angles you could only shoot three angles. When you want those extra closeups to help tell the story, those closeups were never shot. When you want ten takes to make sure you have the absolute best on a crucial aspect of the film, you may only have got two takes and one of them might be unuseable because of a technical problem, but I donât think unless we made the film by the seat of our pants like that, that the film could have been made.
But it was an ambitious project anyway in terms of demands on filmmaking skills, was it not, even in historical time periods?
Yes. You know we go into the stories that the grandfather tells; those stories are set in the 12th Century and the 16th Century and in the Highland Clearances of the 19th Century and in the 1920âs. If you include the two other periods which are the modern periods, then we were making a film with six historical periods. We had, I think, 30 named roles, with filming on water, climbing the mountain â the mountain in the script four times; and that mountain is a Monroe [smiles]! It took a team of eight people to carry the camera equipment up there, three hours up, three hours down. We did that four times! Then there was filming with horses, filming with large quantity of children; all the things you are not meant to do on a debut feature. I think Chris Young, the producer and I had looked at ourselves at one point and said you know it is either going to be glorious or it is going to fall apart. Luckily it was feature film that was good enough to be picked up by a decent distributor and it is going to be in cinemas.
Of course a filmmaking army marches on its stomach, so how did you actually manage to feed the cast and crew in these remote locations?
We did a great deal with Argyle Catering, who are well known for working with feature films in Scotland, but they did the deal because they loved Skye! We actually ate fantastically well. It is probably the best food I have ever had on a film shoot. I loved the food. On the short films we had even less money and so we did a deal with the local Gaelic College so we could eat with the students. But yes, it is crucial that the food is good on film shoots.
Skye is a very beautiful place, but weather doesnât always follow suit with the scenery â how did you fare weather-wise?
Fantastic really. We chose the months of May and June because they are the best months. I mean Chris knew. He lives there. So we had only two days where filming stopped because of weather, after 25 days. We had two days to film a horse race and in fact we only had one in the end because the first day was rained out and any footage we got could not be matched with the second day, which turned out brilliant of course! Another day, we were on an old fishing boat, which we had taken out to a loch at the bottom of the Cuillin for some of the last shots of the film and a storm came in and we had to leave early. Apart from that the weather was fantastic. Of course thereâs a bit of waiting around until the weather changes to something completely different [laughs] which is what Skye is known for... but with a bit of clever camerawork and some patience it was fine actually.
And the bloodthirsty Highland midge? [smiles]
Ah, yes the midges! A number of the film crew I suppose might remember them very well, but we all received from our production manager a Skye survival kit when we got there, which is Avonâs Skin So Soft moisturiser which is actually known for repelling midges and one of those nets which you stick over your head if you work in one of those horrifically heavily midgiefied forest environments. We used them quite often. As a director you hardly notice these things because you are always on the go on the set, but I suspect for some of the people hanging around behind you it must have been pretty revolting with midges in and out of their mouths.
And what about interior locations?
Did you have to crowd lots and lots of people and kit into tiny croft houses?
How did that all work?
An awful lot of the locations were designed to be outside because we were trying to use the best of Skye, but in fact it is about a family that lives in a house and there were a number of scenes that were set in one big house. In fact it was not one big house. We could not find a house with every room that we needed so we ended up with three or four different houses. They are not film sets. You canât move the wall and get a long way back with your camera. We were using very small rooms a lot of the time. It just a question of being patient and saying excuse me when you wanted to get past someone! It was an awful lot of people for a first feature film. We had chosen people who were desperate to make their first feature film for a number of the crucial roles in the film. We did reconstruct a crofthouse; a black house. John the Thatcher, who had thatched all the roofs in Braveheart, who happened to live on the Isle of Skye, came to help us to re-thatch. It was actually quite spacious inside, so that was not a problem. Then, subsequently, after he had thatched it, the next day we burned it down...
[chuckles] How careless!
[smiles] ...which of course involved the local fire brigade, which was one of our most memorable days.
There must have been intense curiosity created by the filming among the locals and the visitors to Skye â any problems with unexpected visitors turning up?
Well, apart for the midges! No, I donât think so. There was an amusing time when the press started to say âFeature Film Filming on Skyeâ and we thought, well, thatâs us, but it wasnât. It was Starburst, which was a multimillion dollar Hollywood film where they had decided just to arrive with their convoys of trucks and honey-wagons and their shipped-in horses from the best horse-breeders across Europe â and Michelle Feiffer and Robert Deniro.
All on single track roads...
[Laughs] Yes! Well of course they were nowhere as near as adventurous as us. I guess they were the most unexpected visitors.
Of course you were filming with horses yourself werenât you?
Well, yes. I guess the most difficult thing we had to film was the horses. We were very lucky to find a girl from eastern Germany who had come up to Skye to raise Highland ponies. She supplied us with a horse called Hamish who was absolutely fantastic, almost like a stunt horse like they would have had on Starburst, but he was just a local horse. And on the horserace we had just local riders on local horses and we had no money to practice, so it was case of getting a horse race going and seeing what we could film. The horses did anything that they wanted to do and it was the windiest day and we put flagpoles up, little knowing that waving flags are the worst possible thing for horses, so we had an awful lot of problems with our horse race, but you know thatâs the fun of doing things by the seat of your pants I suppose and I suspect we had much more fun than the guys on Starburst had.
Not too many facilities houses on Skye I suppose, so how did you manage the edit?
The most important thing about the edit â and we had learned this on the short film â was that we wanted a Gaelic-speaking editor. The question is, how many Gaelic-speaking editors are there? I think there are two. The person that we chose was fantastic â the hardest-worked Gael in showbusiness â Angus MacKay, who lives in Stornoway and works at Studio Alba there.
So off you went to the Outer Hebrides...
Right. Chris and I looked at each other, wondered about the costs of flights to Stornoway because it is not cheap and decided that is what we were going to do. So we edited the film in Stornoway with Aonghas MacAoidh. It was his first feature film and he did a stunning job. It was absolutely the right decision to go with a Gaelic-speaking editor because with the nuances of the language and expression, it is so important to get that right and Aonghas was able to ensure we delivered that.
How long was the post-production period?
We edited over about three months â thatâs the picture edit â but then we went into a long creative post production to deliver the best film we could. Having shot in HD there is an awful lot that you can do to manipulate images and make them as interesting as you can. We worked with a company called Dragon DI in Bridge End, near Cardiff.
Music is such an important part of the Gaelic tradition â I see you turned once again to Jim Sutherland â what were you after from him this time?
Jim is the most incredible composer and he did such a stunning job on the short film. There was no other person on earth that I would want â didnât even think about it. In fact he was probably the first person I cast in any role for the feature film. On the short film I had been very careful to research my instruments, in the same way that I had researched my stories. Because that film was set in the 12th Century I really wanted to include Gaelic instruments played then. I went to Dr John Purser who is a specialist Scottish musicologist and he helped me to find the instruments. They are unbelievably-sounding instruments. Thereâs a thing called a carnyx which is a Celtic battle-horn with an enormous trumpet that goes high up in the air with a dogâs head on it. Then thereâs the wire-strung clarsach which is a Gaelic harp and the triple pipes which are a predecessor of the Bagpipes which have three chanters and no bag, so you have to play with circular breathing, you have to recycle your breath which makes you feel totally sick as you play them. Being a musician he got straight in there and we overlaid three lots of triple pipes and billions of carnyxes. He just understood really well and has such great Celtic connections and with the traditional Gaelic music world. He has an amazing lightness of touch as well as the ability to create an enormous sound-base that would be able to go with all these different stories across this wide time period in order to create a score that k nitted together and could be as outrageous as the stories were. If you watch a Hitchcock film the music is at least half the experience. If you played some of the scenes from Psycho with some very optimistic and friendly music, they would not be half as scary. Bernard Hermanâs music really does a great job for him and I believe that is true, with Jimâs music, of this film too. Jim is great at capturing the mood of a scene in the music and all of the music that he features is played by the top Gaelic musicians on a whole variety of different Gaelic instruments and, the top Gaelic singers. It was important to me that just as we had developed the stories in collaboration with the writers, actors and co-directors, that we should develop with musicians in the same way, so it would be a truly original, but rooted Gaelic sound track.
Three or four years ago you wanted to direct your first feature but you had one or two things to accomplish first, now you have just finished directing your first feature. What advice would you give to a would-be feature director now who is still at the starting blocks?
I think there are two things I would say. It is fundamental to getting to your first feature film that you have a plan. I met quite a few students when I was at film school who were not taking the idea that filmmaking was a career seriously enough. For me it was essential to find ways of making money out of the industry, just to keep my family. This was something I always wanted to do and I would find a way of it feeding us. I sat down and I wrote a plan and I actually put a date by which my first feature film would be made and how I would achieve it. I said I would make two short films and both of those films would from excerpts, or they could be tasters for a feature film project and that one or other of those short films would be turned into a feature film. I missed the date I set by one year. I should have been releasing this film last year.
That would have been quick!
It was stupid of me in one sense, but unless you have that goal you are not going to work flat out until midnight for ten days getting that script to the best possible state it can be in. You are not going to research how exactly you write a script and how you bind a script, or spens two weeks building a database of every person working in the British film industry and update that list every week. You are not going to write to every single film agent in the UK every six months updating them with your soon-to-be realised film career. All of these things you have to do, because of course, if you are fantastically talented and lazily talented, there is an opportunity should luck shine on you, to get you first feature film, but realistically, you need to make your own luck. You have to have a plan and you have to set a deadline. By hook or by crook you have to meet that deadline.
It certainly sounds as if your own plan turned out to be a winner even if it was a year late...
Letâs see what the critics say! I havenât made many films, Two shorts and a feature film and that is quite quick. Iâm a little bit older; I started a bit older so I suppose I had that going for me as well, but I donât know if I have made my feature film too early, but what I do know is that I know so much more than I did. The truth is, the only way to become a good film director is to make films, with the cheapest camcorder if you have to, calling up the nearest acting college for cast, getting your sister in; you can make yourself a film very cheaply and very easily. You can make ten films in ten months if you wanted to. It doesnât matter what they say, because each successive one will be better.
The filmâs website is very impressive, in Gaelic and in English â how long have you been developing it?
I have literally developed all of that myself â we donât have any money left in the production because we spent every penny that we possibly could on making the best film we could. Part of my background is in the dot.com industry and I know how to code a website, so I have been developing all of that myself. Of course I had help in developing it in dual language, but I tried to develop the most extensive experience that I could involving the research and history around the film, developing interactive components for children to get involved with the film and really trying to get our community message onto MySpace and other social networks like Facebook because it is such a strong community film. It seemed obvious to me that a community could be developed around the film; and the interest in Scottish Gaelic on-line is immense. It is a major opportunity for Gaeldom I think, that the internet has developed. I am trying very hard to make this film as much of a beacon as I can to get people involved in Gaelic culture. Thereâs an inordinate quantity of links into every part of Gaeldom that I can find on-line.
The Gaels are going to be among the strongest critics of your film, arenât they?
What sort of feedback have you had from them so far?
It is extremely worrying for me when we started showing the film. I mean it worrying for any director because you get so close to a film that you donât know how it might be received. Not being a Gael myself, it was doubly nerve-wracking when we showed the film at a private screening at the Celtic Media Festival. It is mainly films that get shown there, but there are Celtic media executives from Wales from Ireland and Celtic speaking countries. The festival this year was held in Skye, so we took the chance to hold a private screening which was the very first after our cast and crew screening. I was more nervous at that screening than I have been at any other. It was extremely well received. I almost couldnât believe it. There was a real sense that the film would have legs in an international arena, because it is a very interesting, never-been-seen-before take on Gaelic culture, but I was worrying about was whether in fact I had done Gaelic culture justice, that it felt like it was a real Gaelic film. That of course was my goal, but who knows whether I had achieved it? I think we have. We have been very well supported by the few members of the Scottish press that have seen it and in particular, the Gaelic press have been as effusive as I could ever imagine. Iâm really very grateful for that because we really could have fallen flat on our face in Gaeldom yet still done really well elsewhere, but of course the key thing for me was not to fall flat on my face in Gaeldom!
When will the film begin to be seen by the public and by the film critics?
The film premieres at Edinburgh International Film Festival on the 16th of August and is screened in competition at Edinburgh on the 19th of August at the Cameo. It is just about to go out to the critics, so thatâs yet another nail-biting process.
You took the film to Cannes â was this selection or market?
We were too late to enter the film festival itself, but we took it to the market. Like any independently made film, the process after you have made your film is not an easy one. You have to hawk it around to distributors and sales agents in order to get it sold into various territories and Cannes Film Festival has the biggest market in the world for doing that. Subsequently, things have moved extremely well for us in terms of getting deals in other countries. We met a lot of sales agents and we have been invited to screen in some of the worldâs biggest international film festivals. So, Cannes was a fantastic experience for the film in one sense, but it was not a red carpet experience for us. Hopefully we have our red carpet experience yet to come.
You have teamed up with Soda for UK distribution, what attracted you to them?
We always wanted to make this film with people who really understood this film, who could see that we were doing something that was original in one sense â that it was the first Scottish Gaelic feature film â but not original in the other sense; that we were making a film about storytelling for an international audience. It really should not matter what language the film is in. All that should matter is that the film is good. We found in Ed, the founder of Soda, a man that just loved the film. The fact that it was in Scottish Gaelic was by the by. Heâs a guy that distributes foreign language films from any country in the world and heâs done extremely well taking those films to the Oscars and helping them to major prizes and seeing them distributed widely in the UK.
What about Irish distribution, because thereâs a large Irish Gaelic-speaking community?
Soda have UK and Ireland distribution deal. Itâs essential if you are going for international distribution to first get in place your local distribution and we achieved that at Cannes. On the back of film festival screenings that are coming up in September and October, we will hopefully sign deals in other territories. We find on My Space, where the film has now developed a friend base of 8,000 people, that a significant proportion of those people are in Canada and America, so we have high hopes of the film getting distribution there which again would be a major achievement, not just for a Scottish Gaelic film, but for a British film. Feature films made in Britain quite often never get theatrical distribution, they end up on DVD and on television and never make it into theatres, so we have our fingers crossed for it.
What about your next production then, will it be in English or in Gaelic?
The film I want to make next is a film I wrote to be in Gaelic. The issue with the film - as my ideas get more outlandish â is that the cost of the film starts to grow. The challenge for us now is to convince people beyond the Scottish players who funded our first feature, that there is a place for a decently budgeted Scottish Gaelic film. Itâs a film that its not essential that it is in Scottish Gaelic, it was just designed to be. It is set in 9th Century Scotland.
Would it be set in Skye?
It is actually set on the isle of Coll, but because I know Skye so well, I should imagine that of we shoot it next year as planned, Skye would be our primary destination, because we know how to do it there now. But I have another Gaelic film in my head, which is a Gaelic Shakespeare. Iâm not going to say what it is, but if you wanted to have a Gaelic Shakespeare, itâs the obvious one to do in Gaelic, except that this one is set in the future; itâs sci-fi. So yes, I have other Gaelic stories in mind, but not solely. I tend to write stories as they occur to me if they are good. Where they are set is where the film ought to be.
Is it just using the language that leads to that insider feel in making Gaelic drama, or is it having an insider crew and cast that helps the process?
I wondered to myself during the making of this film if the use of Scottish Gaelic was essential in telling this particular story, the story of a grandfather that helped his grandson get over the death of his parents. When you think about it, I could imagine that story being told in Japan, or in Africa, or being told by a native American in a film. The basis of the film doesnât depend at all on it being in Scottish Gaelic. Having said that, the actual stories being told and the way they are told and the culture and the tradition that is being shown within the film, through the life of the characters are actually Gaelic. This particular film and these particular stories donât have to be in Scottish Gaelic, but they are that much more effective in Gaelic, because the language is a very lyrical language, very musical and when you hear Angus Peter start to tell these tales, it doesnât matter if you canât understand him. You emotionally understand him â and he draws you in because he is such a fantastic storyteller. It is true to say that Scottish Gaelic lends itself to storytelling. I am sure other languages do, but in this particular film it works so well because of the connection with the landscape.
The crucial part of the realistic performances of the actors was that number one, they had never acted before, so they hadnât picked up any of the bad habits that some actors pick up, like being self-conscious. Secondly, we had deliberately found people that were very un-selfconscious. Thirdly, we would involve those actors as much as possible in the development of the dialogue that they would say. Finally, given our constraints of budget and time, that we rehearsed as much as possible before shooting. I think it is true to say that if we hadnât done that, if we had cast professional actors in all the roles, the magic of the film would have been completely lost. There is something very real about the film just because people are saying the lines they would say in the way that they would say them. In particular the credit goes to Angus Peter Campbell and Patrick Morrison for that because if it wasnât for their off-screen and on-screen relationship being so strong, this film would not be the film that it is.
Interview by James Macgregor