The Planets Align

It’s now become increasingly clear that spring, summer and beyond are cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For students of disaster capitalism one thing’s certain: the poor and vulnerable will suffer most, for as Warren Buffett reminds us, “it’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” In this case, as the situation worsens, it’s our politicians who will be called to account. And yet, I fear, nothing will change.

If I thought Brexit, austerity and climate catastrophe made the business of film seem trivial it’s perhaps contradictory to suggest film is more necessary than ever but having glimpsed a world devoid of culture – with venues closed, shows cancelled and film and TV production postponed or ceased – it’s not a prospect to relish.

The good news: I’ve resumed work on Tilo IRL (Tilo In Real Life). Not that I ever stop. Ideas arrive unbidden just as images and sounds present themselves at odd hours and places. In a rare instant of optimism recently I posted on Twitter – ‘Coming eventually’ – with a frame grab of a derelict billboard I shot last summer, looking like an abandoned drive-in movie theatre albeit with two shopping trolleys replacing the cars.

The bad news: seven months after my accident the drugs still cloud my thinking. Walking is hard. On a rare sunny afternoon at a busy thoroughfare I paused and wept with pain, no longer caring about the social niceties or my unseemly behaviour. Recently I saw my surgeon, Mr. Rooney to seek assurance that my leg was properly reassembled.

To my surprise an X-Ray revealed my knee joint is held together by eight screws, a miracle of modern surgery but as worryingly fallible as an IKEA cabinet hinge. Time, he reiterated, will heal. That, and building up my quads. He suggested that I replace my pain meds with Ibuprofen, which I now understand is verboten in the light of Covid-19 due to the drug’s anti-inflammatory properties.

The question is, can I make a film in this state? Can anyone? Opportunities come and go. A phone call from Patrick Doyle, the esteemed film composer whose request to make a film about his family’s reel-to-reel recordings is appealing but requires the kind of long-term commitment I cannot give. That said, I’m gratified Patrick thinks so highly of my work. I’ve since put him in touch with a reputable producer I hope can take on the project in the future.

Meanwhile the Glasgow Film Festival has come and gone, having only just averted disaster. Oddly I was mentioned twice in this year’s programme, first for my participation in a panel discussion hosted by Jamie Dunn of The Skinny about how we watch films in the age of streaming. Second, I was namechecked in relation to Mark Cousins’ epic series, Women Make Film, a 14-hour miscellany tracing the careers of female filmmakers but not, it must be said, my own. Clearly it’s a considerable achievement and a passionate endeavour but I’m perplexed because despite its raison d’être, the series only serves to highlight how women in film don’t breathe the same air as their male counterparts.

I could quote statistics about gender imbalance but in the end it’s moot. Truth is, the situation for female filmmakers is dire but no one cares. Why should they? Yet it’s hard to believe the first feature film made by a woman in my native Scotland didn’t occur until almost a century after the invention of cinema: Margaret Tait’s Blue Black Permanent, (1991) a sad indictment on my nation’s attitude both to film and women’s place in it.

Not wishing to seem obtuse but if I were to pitch a series called Men Make Film would it get commissioned, I wonder? This is not to criticise Mark’s long cherished project. Indeed, we go back to last century when we worked at BBC Scotland Music and Arts and have kept in sporadic contact ever since. I’m grateful to him too for alerting me to my omission on the BFI Filmography which subsequently I pursued and won.

Notably 2020 marks the anniversary of my first feature, One Life Stand (2000) arguably the best-reviewed UK film of that year and also the first end-to-end digital feature made long before Hot Chip nicked the title. Famously it beat Pixar’s Toy Story as the first digitally-exhibited film in the UK, earning me an interview on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World and an invite to screen at the IFFR (Rotterdam) that year.

While me and my husband, Owen don’t argue about much, One Life Stand is a touchy subject in our house. While he believes it (and my other films) should be available because each was well-received at the time of completion, I argue that if my work was THAT good, someone, somewhere would have picked it up.

Recently Owen – who recorded sound for OLS because no amount of money could entice a qualified sound recordist to work at the noisiest locations Glasgow had to offer – has spent months cleaning up the soundtrack. While he assures me the film stands up twenty years on, I’m still in two minds.

Why? Perhaps because as a self-funded film it wasn’t quite legitimate? And, by extension, I’m not a legitimate filmmaker? I shouldn’t care too much but I do. This speaks to decades of being told that as a working-class woman I had no chance in the industry – too often by middle class women. Twenty years ago I used to walk past a corner shop in Garnethill called the Glasgow Women’s Library. I even went in once or twice. Yet to this day I’ve never been invited by them to screen my work.

What I DO know is we pulled off an almost impossible feat – and with the right script, actors, director, producer, crew – the planets aligned. OLS was an attempt by any means necessary to produce a film in a third-world filmmaking nation: Scotland. And if anyone thinks I’m exaggerating consider this; while Nigeria makes over 3000 homegrown films a year, Scotland makes virtually none at all – three or four at best. But I digress. OLS was acquired, edited and exhibited entirely within the digital domain. It was also dirt cheap because it was self-funded and it gave actors and crew a paid gig they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Primarily though, for me it was a calling card, never intended for any kind of theatrical release.

When OLS made its UK premiere at the EIFF in 2000, such was the reaction that I felt I had arrived in a dream. The film tied with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (2000) for the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature but for political reasons the casting vote by the jury chairman went to Pawel’s film; I was the first person to congratulate him.

That year, OLS triumphed in its own way, garnering insanely positive reviews from Variety, Screen International, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Time Out and Film Comment among others. It also won a bunch of awards, including my first BIFA, though I couldn’t attend the ceremony in London because while the gongs were dished out I sat at my mother’s bedside in the ICU of the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow listening to my racist father complain about the consultant’s heavily-accented English; I could have killed him.

I’ve often been asked what became of the film and why it never had a ‘proper’ release. It’s almost embarrassing to admit but I never pursued a sale because for the reasons stated above. It’s telling too that the only offer came from Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films in the US who that same year picked up Christopher Nolan’s debut, Following (2000) which also screened at the EIFF that year.

Still, 20 years is a milestone so lately I’ve wondered if I should mark the film’s anniversary. Recently I had an invite to screen the film in Edinburgh but given yesterday’s news that this year’s EIFF has been cancelled and with every screen in the UK closed for business it seems unlikely that my film will get a theatrical outing any time soon.

The above image is of me on location with a Ritz cracker glued to my nose with cream cheese. This was prove to John Kielty, the actor playing John Paul Clarke, that it wasn’t such a gross humiliation in the scene he was about to appear in. Taken by Alan Wylie, the photo is deeply unflattering but at that point I was 20 days into a 24 day shoot so no wonder I look wrecked.

PS: Today I learned that the cinema willing to screen the film laid off its paid staff due to COVID-19 rather than retain them. Not a great decision but one I’m sure will be replicated throughout the country in the coming days and weeks. Stay safe, people.