Interview: Hannah McGill on EIFF 2010
With the 64th Edinburgh International Film Festival launching in just a few days time, ReelScotland met up with Artistic Director Hannah McGill to browse the brochure and discuss some of the highlights film fans have to look forward to between 16 - 27 June.
Fresh from announcing 2010's Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) programme to the world's press, it's a tired, yet clearly enthusiastic, Hannah McGill who sits down to talk to me in the busy Filmhouse cafÃ©.
People think the launch is just the start of the Festival, but to us it's the end of a year's work, notes McGill, reaching for a much needed coffee. Luckily people seem to like what they've seen, with ticket sales up 40% compared to last year. We've spent less on marketing than in 2009 but the marketing team have used what they have very well. Social networking has also been fantastic for us, people tweeting in the queue outside the Filmhouse is great fun to see.
Leafing through the brochure, it's a noticeably leaner, less flashy festival we see before us, the focus more on new films than celebrity guests. Was this a conscious decision?
We rebranded to focus on discovery and my commitment is to finding new talent and filmmakers and big names is not where our commitment should lie.
"Around 80% of the films will have talent with them, but you're right in that we are focussing less on A-list people from LA because it costs so much and I'd rather be spending money on the filmmakers. It's always a prioritisation thing, and obviously a few famous faces in town is great, but we're not a festival geared towards starlets on red carpets. You can only spend money once and if I spend it on a big star then I can't fly in a new director from the Philippines.
"I think that's what the audience like, but it doesn't mean we don't want famous faces, we absolutely do. Sean Connery will be here, as will Patrick Stewart, Rhys Ifans and Ugly Betty herself, America Ferrera."
What does McGill think is the best way to navigate through the programme? There are two quite distinct approaches to choosing films at the EIFF. Some of the audience want to get a jump on their friends and see big films before they come out, like Toy Story 3, World's Greatest Dad, Mr Nice and The Runaways. There are also those people who's specific interest is in things they might not get a chance to see and who are happy to trawl for the strange little films such as Jackboots on Whitehall, which is a stunner.
We've also got ways through the programme which suggests other films, and we have so many trailers on the website now, people can watch them for lots of films. Whether they've got distributors or not, filmmakers are cutting their own trailers and the majority are online. Once the catalogue is out you can buy that and it has much more detail on all the films.
"It used to be, before the Internet, you'd have to just trust us, but now there are so many ways to find out about our films. You might scan for people whose names you know, such as Adrian Brody or Noel Clarke, or you look for comparisons or critics we reference. We try to give really clear information about what's showing and we use cast lists and comparisons to other films. My instinct would always be to take a punt and look for the unfamiliar. We have 22 World Premieres and you can hit on something that's going to go on to bigger things. Jackboots doesn't have a distributor yet."
Locals keen to see Edinburgh on the big screen are spoilt for choice, with four films set and made in the city, including opening night animated film, 1950s-set The Illusionist.
Watching The Illusionist for the first time made me happy, beams McGill. I saw it in Berlin and I was there with my colleagues from the EIFF, and at certain points we were the only people laughing because there so many little references that only we got. It makes you feel warm towards your fellow humans and certainly towards Scotland. I had a real patriotic Scottish buzz, wanting to go up to people and say ˜it really does look like that, he wasn't making it up'.
"The film wouldn't have been set in Scotland had Sylvain Chomet not come to the EIFF with Belleville Rendezvous, fallen in love with the country and moved up here. So many people worked on it in Edinburgh over the years.
"I've been aware of Outcast for a long time. British monster movies can go either way and are really hard to pull off, but it's extraordinary. It's really good at the social realism side of things, the people feel real, the voices feel real, but the supernatural side is done with verve and it's properly scary. It's not ironic, doesn't take the mickey out of itself and is done with verve: it's a straightforward, old-school British horror movie, really moving in the way that An American Werewolf in London has that sad, emotional dimension, and any film which reminds me of that is worth seeing.
Outcast also stars Edinburgh actress Hanna Stanbridge. When I told the publicists I wanted her to be at the premiere they told me she lives on Morrison Street, so I think we might be in with a chance there.
According to McGill, the intriguingly titled A Spanking in Paradise, set in the capital's underworld, is Very edgy and really honest about a side of Edinburgh you don't see or hear much about. More and more I love the spirit and energy you get from truly independent films, when you can tell there's not been a funder sitting on their shoulder going 'you can't do that,' or 'you need a star in that role,' They made it for buttons, most of them didn't get paid, but because of that it's got the freedom to be what it is.
Lost gem, 1977's EIFF-set Long Shot, has been exhumed from the vaults and could have been the opening night film, had she had her way.
"When we were putting together the Retrospective we found we were looking at films that were either too well known or just not up to scratch, it was an endless process. Then we found Long Shot, which none of us were aware of. We looked back through old EIFF programmes and talked to Linda Miles, the ex-Festival director who's in it. Director Stephen Frears and Traverse Theatre founder Jim Haynes are also in it.
"We were fantasising about making a new one this year, but the resources aren't there for that. It's just so fantastic that it exists and there will be people watching it who don't know they're in it! It's all filmed around Edinburgh and there's lots of dashing about and Linda and Stephen will be around. Director Charlie Gormley was in it and his kids, who were only young at the time, will come along to the screening."
Away from the feature films, The Edge of Dreaming is a new documentary premiering at the EIFF.
"It's a Scottish production and the editor, one of our Trailblazers, studied at Edinburgh College of Art, and was funded by Scottish Screen," notes McGill. "Amy Hardie has been keeping records of her family and filming them over a number of years and it's really personal. It goes into the theory and science of dreams and how they work, but it's also a really personal portrait of her and her family, and the editing is one of the things that impressed me because when you've a lot of footage filmed over many years, the skill is making it into a coherent whole, which they've succeeded in doing."
I ask if there is a requirement for a quota on the amount of Scottish films which need to be screened at the EIFF. "It's so difficult to know what's coming out in any given year that I wouldn't be able to do that even if I wanted to. We would always have Scottish shorts and because the Scottish Documentary Institute are so great we can usually rely on them for good films. Animation always does well.
"Some of the Scottish shorts are interesting, such as the film on Bobby Kennedy's funeral parade in the Scottish Short Documentary Award Screening. It's 40 minutes long and could almost stand alone as a feature."
What does she think of the idea of a Scottish Film Festival?
"We've been asked many times over the years if there should be a strand dedicated to Scotland, and we've always resisted it because it looks too much like ghettoisation. With no disrespect to Scotland, I'd be worried that international delegates and press would think it was just a local product that we had to show and thereby miss some really great stuff.
"Some festivals do that, such as San Sebastian who have a strand which is just anything which has been shot in their region that year, and there might well be an argument for someone pulling the Scottish stuff out of our programme and showing it as a showcase after our dates, that might be an interesting thing to try, especially in a really strong year like this one. There's always interest and if you could get a bit of buzz going, then maybe after our dates you could do something here, or even outside of Scotland.
"Everything we do with the Scottish Screen Archive does really well, people love those films, even though a lot of it is online: people still like seeing it in the cinema. It's also worth mentioning our celebration of the Edinburgh Film Guild as they're basically our mummy and daddy “ if it wasn't for them we simply wouldn't exist."
So what else should people be searching out this year? "Monsters for certain. Gareth, the director, is some kind of weird genius: he wrote it, directed it, shot it and did the visual effects, all for a budget of about 75 pence and I don't know how one person did all of that.
"It was produced by Vertigo and we knew Scoot McNairy from In Search of a Midnight Kiss. We went to see it in London the day Gareth finished his cut, and when we met him afterwards and asked if he was happy he told us he hadn't even seen it yet! It's basically a two hander between Scoot and Whitney Able - they're getting married just before the festival, so their Honeymoon will be here.
"Third Star, our closing night film, is also amazing, alongside Kawasaki's Rose which is fantastic in terms of big, meaty and intelligent European films, kind of Live of Others-y but from the Czech Republic and it's about the legacy of Checkoslovakia under Communism. It's from the same director as Beauty and Trouble, which was here in my first year, and the director has made about nine or 10 films though he's really underrated but really fantastic. HIGH School has some buzz around it, which genuinely made me laugh, very John Hughes-esque."
I mention the strange anomaly of their being two similar-titled films, Soul Boy and SoulBoy. "Well the first one to come in was the little Nigerian one and I was googling it when I noticed the second one, which used to be called Souled Out. We then we realised we had two.
"There's a funny story involving Edinburgh with Girl with Black Balloons. It's a portrait of this extraordinary woman who somehow never got her art out to the wider world and lives with it all in The Chelsea Hotel in New York City. She and the filmmaker, Corinne van der Borch, worked really well together: at one point she gets quite ill and goes into hospital and implicitly she's a bit afraid she's not going to make it. So she's talking to the filmmaker about what should happen to the film when she's finished it, and you see her making notes on a napkin and she writes down Edinburgh and Venice and you wonder how this little American lady knew about us!"
Something missing from this year's programme is the much-loved Surprise Movie: where has it gone? "It hasn't gone away forever. We always slot it, but it has to be the right kind of film, something with a lot of anticipation and one which a distributor is willing to work with us on. I don't want to do it with something that's not up to scratch.
"It's harder and harder to get studios to expose their films before their premieres and it's to do with their shifts in business because they're afraid of piracy. It's hard to get the jump on those films."
Perhaps the oddest film of the Festival is The Dunwich Horror, an audio-only, Scottish-made, movie for which the audience sits in a darkened cinema while monsters, crashes and bangs are heard around them: forget 3D, this is 0D.
But, I ask, isn't it just a radio play? Laughing, McGill shakes her head: No, because it's in surround sound! Innes Smith is a brilliant stand-up comedian who got in touch and said we've made this film that's experimenting with how much you can do with sound in a cinema space.
Yes, it's not that different from a radio play, but because it's full of monsters and noises and crashes and bangs and because you're in a space where it echoes around you, I think it's going to be an interesting experience with the audience in a totally black room with everything in darkness.
Thanks to Hannah McGill.
Read ReelScotland's picks of the EIFF