Having arrived from Glasgow the night before, and fresh from an early morning cast and crew screening of his latest movie, John McKay was set for a day of interviews when we met him in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket.
The film in question, Not Another Happy Ending, was due to close the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival the following night with a star-studded closing gala at the city’s Festival Theatre.
Shot primarily in Glasgow, McKay’s film tells the story of a writer struggling to complete her second novel. Literally haunted by her impatient heroine, Jane Lockhart (Karen Gillan) is desperate to escape the two-book contract with her publisher, as she is still smarting from his decision to change the title of her debut behind her back.
Conceived almost five years ago by David Solomons, the original script was passed on to John McKay by the agent they shared. Alongside producers Claire Mundell and Wendy Griffin, McKay was immediately attracted to the project.
The thing I responded to right away was I thought it was very charming. I saw an opportunity to do something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, which was to make an indie movie in Scotland. It’s a broad genre, but I think we recognise them when we see them: which is to show young, I guess you would call them middle-class people having complications in love and life in an urban environment. So Woody Allen would have made Annie Hall and Zach Braff would have made Garden State. But you recognise the genre.
After paring down and streamlining Solomons original screenplay, improving the film’s pace and attempting to reduce its budgetary demands, McKay began the long and difficult task of attempting to raise the necessary funds.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to raise any, but raising money is always difficult. Sometimes I would get into conversations with the people who have the power to give you real money and I would have to ask them to say it twice, because I didn’t believe them. But in the real world raising money is always difficult.
Ultimately, the filmmakers found the funds that they needed. He admits that Creative Scotland were always very interested and supportive, as long as they showed themselves to be very business-like. BBC Scotland also contributed, along with executive producer Steve Milne through the British Film Company. You would imagine that having such a strong cast would have helped.
Yes, you would think. But you’ve got to remember that movie financing, particularly movie distribution is very risk-averse. These are people who lose money hand over fist and really want to be sure that they can make it back when they put your movie out.
We knew we had a feisty, sparky, funny, possibly flame-haired Scottish heroine, but the problem with attaching Karen [Gillan] was that she was still very much wrapped up in Doctor Who. I sort of sabotaged and made our chances at the same time because I caught her on the break after her first or second season with [past collaboration] We’ll Take Manhattan.
It was only something like a three week shoot and so it was easy to fit in. We got on great and I knew immediately that she would be great in Not Another Happy Ending. She was kind enough to read the script and we got her just off the back of her final episode. There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Karen’s a star — and we’re just the very first fanfare of that.
He also points out that, ultimately — “unless you’re Tom Cruise” — nobody’s a star, at least in terms of financing. There’s no denying, however, that the film is full of up-and-comers — not all of them British. Indeed, the film’s male lead is played by Frenchman Stanley Weber. His presence in the film is explained, but how exactly did he end up on set?
Well, just as we closed [the deal] Emun Elliott — a great Scottish actor, who is again going to be a star — realised that he had another job which was going to clash. So we were maybe a month or two from making the movie and we didn’t have a leading man. In a funny way Stanley came up quite early, because he’s going places.
He’s really good and incredibly handsome, but we were like: ‘we can’t have him, he’s French. That’s ridiculous’. But the more we looked at everyone else — there’s a very short list of Scottish leading men — I realised how there was so much I wanted to do that was sort of French. In a way [Not Another Happy Ending] is a post-Nouvelle Vague film, in a very lightweight way.
The presence of Stanley immediately made it not quite another little Scottish film.
Of the film’s cast it is perhaps Iain De Caestecker’s star which is currently shining the brightest. Having appeared earlier this year in Shell, a film which screened at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, the actor is now set to appear in Joss Whedon’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Ryan Gosling’s How To Catch A Monster.
Iain’s great, isn’t he? Iain’s like our Scottish secret weapon. He has this terrific straight acting ability, but he also has terrific comic timing too. He went straight off the back of this into Joss Whedon’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I can see why.
I was talking to him about that and I said: ‘So you’ll be the big muscly one carrying the ray gun?’ And he said: ‘No, I’m the geeky one, and they’ve even made me do it in the Roddy [his character from Not Another Happy Ending] accent.
As for the announcement that the film was not only to feature during the 2013 Edinburgh International Film Festival, but close it too, McKay seems nothing but grateful.
It’s really important for us. We came from nothing and this is a film which exists because we believed we could make it. Every step of the way we’ve had to fight the good fight, and so for Chris Fujiwara and the EIFF to think that we’re not only worth showing but worth closing with is wonderful, and gives us a real shop window to sell the film into UK and world distribution. I’m from Edinburgh, so it’s always great to come back.
With any luck, McKay is hoping to take the film to more film festivals in the Autumn, with Stanley’s involvement and impending fame perhaps giving them something of an advantage in France. As for what’s next for the director himself, it seems that there are a number of projects in the pipeline.
I’ve got a couple of projects in development. I want to make a horror movie set in Scotland, essentially like a Sam Raimi film, and I’ve got a musical in mind too. I’d like to make a really local movie. In a sense Not Another Happy Ending is a movie that could be understood anywhere, but I’d sort of like to make a Scottish movie as though it were a foreign language film.
Should new festival dates or a full theatrical release be announced, we’ll be sure to let you know.