Interview: Morag McKinnon on Donkeys

The follow-up to Andrea Arnold's 2006 film Red Road, tragi-comic Donkeys is the second part of the Advance Party trilogy, a trio of films made by first-time directors and producers.

In-line with the trilogy's rules, Donkeys revisits characters from Red Road but gives them different back stories and relationships, this time following pensioner Alfred (James Cosmo) as he attempts to reunite with estranged daughter, Jackie (Kate Dickie).

Jonathan Melville and Ross Maclean caught up with director Morag McKinnon after the film's premiere at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss the film's long gestation period and the future of the Advance Party project.

ReelScotland: How did you come to be involved in the Advance Party project? The scripts were completed in tandem, so how did you decide to use the various characters?

Morag McKinnon: I rolled up to Sigma Films [the film's producers] and said 'I've got this script, do you fancy making it?' and they said that they liked the script but that they had a scheme called Advance Party and did I want to be part of it?

I said alright, not knowing really what it was because you say yes to opportunities when you can, especially if they're making feature films because that's really rare. I knew they wanted an English one [Red Road], a Scottish one and a Danish one, so I did the Scottish one and then [Advance Party creators] Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen basically constructed these characters and gave them to us and said if we wanted to add extra characters that was fine.

The interesting thing is that you have stories inside you and gravitate towards the characters you want to work with. With Andrea, she knew she wanted to work with Jackie, and stories emerge from that very naturally. I went straight to Alfred because he's a liar, he's fallible, he's 64 and I wanted to do something with someone coming to the end of their life, having a health scare and really having to confront what their life was all about.

I think that as you enter your 30s you start to really think about mortality, at how to prioritise your life, and that's what I was going through at the time. I wanted to do something tragi-comic because I'd just finished working on a prison series which was very gritty and hard and I really needed some laughs.

You react to what you're experiencing and it was a very natural gravitation towards Alfred and I knew what story I wanted to tell. You have this palette of characters and you very naturally know what you want to do and tell.

Were you given guidance about how characters could be used? Is it true you were told that some of them could just be seen going past on a bus?

Lars von Trier did say that, I think there were 8 or 10 characters and we had to chop some out.

We spoke to Paul Higgins who said he'd been cut from a scene, while Tony Curran, so prominent in Red Road, is seen simply dropping a character off and then leaving.

At the end of the day the big lesson was that you have to serve the story you're telling and if that means excising characters and scenes then you have to do it. You can't just have it there because of a bunch of rules. It's a testing of the boundaries of these rules. What I took from it is that the story is the rule and you must ultimately serve the story and the rules are the way to get there but also test the boundaries of what the film is and how you make it. Boundaries make you know things, I think.

You deviated from the universe of Red Road, with characters back stories changed, was that allowed in the rules?

We were allowed to do that, which is so interesting because you start thinking about characters and the definition of what characters are. If you change their universe you effectively change a character. If you look at Alfred, played by a different actor in Red Road, he was the father of Jackie's dead husband, and in Donkeys he's Jackie's father, so you're entirely reshaping a character and their universe and questioning what character is.

The original description of Jackie was big busty brunette" and Andrea had to cast who she thought was right, with Kate being absolutely perfect . The rules can only function up to a point but they help you define what you're going to do in a sense.

In relation to Red Road and the shift in tone, was it a deliberate part of what you saw as your take on characters to make a completely different film which stands alone?

This question comes up a lot, and people are wondering because the films have come along at different times, but I always knew I wanted to make a tragi-comedy. Likewise, Andrea knew she wanted to make a thriller and it wasn't that I wanted to make it a tragi-comedy to be different to hers, it's more that from the beginning those were two very different things and in a way, in hindsight, it's fortuitous that this is so different because if they were similar then there would be more natural comparisons.

I think it shows that you start off at one point but because of the people involved you end up at a very different place and that's what defines us as filmmakers, that we have different takes on things, different stories to tell and different perspectives and that's the beauty of it.

It sounds as if you weren't too constrained by the rules.

Me and the writer, Colin McLaren, have developed 10 feature films together so it took us 10 shots to get one made. You have to be dedicated or insane, or both, to keep at it for that long. It's a hard industry and it's really difficult to get a film made, there's a lot of competition, a lot of people out there vying for very small pots of money, so it's difficult.

Even though you think there are constraints here but this is still a possible avenue to get a film made and if you are a filmmaker you just want to make films so you'll do anything to get something made.

How did you come to work with Colin on Donkeys?

I've actually known him since high school, and most of my work to date has been written by him. We've been a creative partnership since art college. He wasn't the first writer because I think the company wanted me to work with someone else but that didn't quite work so I got Colin on board because I thought it would work

Was that before or during Red Road?

It was concurrent and I think the gestation for the script was made longer because I did try to work with someone else and we had to start all over again which is why we were kind of delayed coming after Red Road because our script took longer to develop.

Do you both sit down and discuss plotlines? How long did it take to write the script?

I can't remember but I knew I wanted to go with Alfred and that I wanted it to be a story about someone coming together with his estranged daughter, so I started writing the treatment, then the other writer came in but that didn't work out and so I gave that to Colin and he embellished it into a script.

Sigma wanted me to write it but Colin came in and did what he does so well, which is to impart witty dialogue and nice plot twists and he can do what I can't do, so there's a nice collaboration there. Also, I knew the tone he'd bring to it because we've done tragi-comic things in the past and I really like that so for me he was a very natural partner. It's a lovely, lovely script.

The majority of Scottish comedy is West Coast/Glasgow based,with the same faces popping up time after time. Although Donkeys is set in the West, the humour has a different feel to it: was this a conscious decision?

The writer and myself are both from the East Coast and there is a slight difference in humour. It's not a sitcom because it's narrative, it's drama, and it has its own encapsulated story. In a sense there this requirement that characters be totally three dimensional, or as much as they can be, so I wasn't playing it overtly and on the nose because I think that makes the characters two dimensional and I wanted to play it as naturalistically as possible, so that's part of it.

I think it's also intrinsic to the narrative and the script, which is basically that within narrative the characters do have to have three dimensional qualities, and there has to be text and there has to be subtext. If you look at sitcom, there's sometimes just a single layer but in drama there has to be more than one.

So, even though Alfred is a character who lies to his best friend in order to get out of this situation, there's also this layer of cowardice within him. He's a coward who doesn't want to confront thing so that's always going on in his character and he comes up against obstacles. It's the comedy of recognition that Ricky Gervais talks about and that's very naturalistically played.

I think when we identify with people as human beings it gives it that depth and we recognise our own human frailties and feelings and those of other people - that might not give you the big belly laugh, but it has the deeper impact overall.

This is the contentious thing, that my costume designer said 'it's quite East Coast this humour, isn't it?' So because it's narrative as opposed to sitcom, you have to have that depth of character, you have to text and subtext, these emotional drives and you have to be able to impart the emotion as authentically as you can or it doesn't have the resonance the story should have.

We're dealing with death, something you don't think about it, you don't talk about it on a day-to-day basis about it, so humour is a way into a really hard subject matter, and that's why it had to be dealt with like that.

It was the funniest euthanasia scene I've ever seen, fighting back tears of laughter and pain.

I think that's what's so beautiful, when you get that combination, the words 'comic euthanasia scene', I love the challenge of that I just think that barmy. When you put things together that don't usually go together, that's gold. It's a weird alchemy sort of thing and I love the difficulty of it.

I can't remember the stand-up comedian who said he loved the reaction when people laugh then say that they shouldn't have laughed at that and it's such a wonderful human thing and I'm really interested in that. I love the films of Todd Solondz because he just goes so far beyond what most people would normally do, he's so brave. Not that we went half as far as he has done, but I love that edge and hopefully we've explored it a little bit.

Donkeys cast at the EIFF

Red Road was such a big success that you'd expect any sequel to have guaranteed press and publicity around it, but there's not been been a buzz around Donkeys. Why has it taken so long for the film to receive its premiere?

It treads a fine line tonally and there were two rungs of editing. There was a long edit and we thought it was nearly there but not quite, so it was a case of sitting on it for a little while. Then there was an edit revision and then a process of revising the edit. That was essential because it was too long and it needed to be tight and show its full potential.

Sometimes you can get too close and it was a protracted edit because it wasn't quite there. It can be healthy to go away and come back again with fresh eyes. I think it benefited it in the end. It was sent out to a few festivals and there was this sense it wasn't quite ready yet and we needed to get the tone right.

Was the change in title, from Rounding up Donkeys to just Donkeys, part of needing to make it tighter?

I suppose so, yes, that's fair to say, but after yesterday's screening I'm surprised anyone knows why it's called that at all because the audience laughed over the line 'rounding up donkeys'! They didn't hear it and they'll be going out wondering why it's called that!

That was the first public screening. Laurel and Hardy would have screenings where they worked out how long people would laugh for, which is why there are scenes with a space to laugh, and I think we should have had a public screening before this so we knew that there's this key line in the film and you can't hear it.

Will we see another cut of it?

I'm sure there'll be some cut scenes on the DVD, and there were some dialogue heavy scenes that were nice in themselves but which didn't help the narrative flow. There are some lovely little scenes that it was painful to say goodbye to but which we had to cut.

Is there a full release planned?

I believe that the wheels are in motion. The shooting of it was a long time ago but I was surprised by the public screening with people laughing at things I didn't think people would laugh at. I think it's because we haven't had a public screening and there's a difference between sitting in an edit room and then the atmosphere and vibe of a public screening which was lovely, so it was untested and you don't know how much people are going to get.

I was delighted at the reaction, it is my sense of humour of course, but you don't know how that might translate. Maybe not enough people will respond that it makes any impact at all, but Withnail & I wasn't very popular to begin with. There have been a few reviews where it hasn't done anything for them while some people love it, but that's the high subjectivity of film, and if it touches some people then you can't say fairer than that.

Do you know the state of the third film?

I can't tell you anything about it apart from the fact that the director, Mikkel [Nørgaard], got himself involved in the Danish equivalent of Friends and he might not be free for a while yet. That's been very successful and he also has family commitments. They did develop a script a while back which seemed really nice. There's a new Advance Party project where they have eight scripts that they're developing. Perhaps the way the series was developed could have been looked at as, in a sense, there are intrinsic problems when different scripts take different lengths of time to develop.

Is it difficult to work with teams in another country? Did you deal much with the Danes?

We didn't have much interaction with the Danes, but we did make a trip and met Lars von Trier briefly, and he gave us some schnapps. It's nice to meet a legend. I remember seeing his first film, Europa I think it was, and everything was so different after that. For me he's a legendary character, and he's bonkers [laughs], but he's a really interesting character and his fixation with rules comes from a really personal place. Didn't he have a very free and expansive childhood? I think rules, for him, give form and structure and, to a certain degree, a kind of security. I didn't have that kind of childhood and for me freedom is slightly more attractive. But it's interesting to issue challenges like that, it creates dialogue which is a good thing.

Thanks for Morag McKinnon for her time. Read our reviews of Donkeys and subscribe to the ReelScotland newsletter for the latest updates on the release of Donkeys.