The prolific Scottish director talks about the challenges of a quick shoot for You Instead (which has its US premiere at SXSW on Saturday) as well as his new plans for a sci-fi adaptation and a film set on the world’s most remote inhabited island.
Scottish director David Mackenzie has had a busy run lately, with the Sundance world premiere of Perfect Sense (starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green) and the Glasgow premiere of You Instead. Now, You Instead has its US premiere at SXSW on Saturday.
The two projects are very different – Perfect Sense (picked up for North America by IFC during Sundance) is a drama about the human race grappling with a global pandemic; while You Instead is a romantic comedy shot during four days of Scottish music festival T In The Park. Both were produced by Sigma Films, the Scottish production company he founded 15 years ago with producer Gillian Berrie.
Mackenzie, whose past credits include Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Ashton Kutcher-starring Spread, has two other projects in the works, an adaptation of sci-fi novel Journey Into Space, and a feature he’s developing set on the remote island of Tristan da Cunha.
How did it come to happen that you have two films world premiering in back-to-back months?
With Perfect Sense, I was finishing that while I was starting this movie. And this movie has come out quite quickly. I was away for a while [he was in Tristan da Cunha for three-plus months] so Sundance was the first time I could be there to premiere the movie, and it worked out all at the same time.
Because of the fact that we were trying to get You Instead out in time for this year’s festival season, we’ve kind of hurried to make that happen, and were more leisurely with Perfect Sense, so the two have collided. Although they were made nine months apart.
So, with Perfect Sense, what drew you to that story?
Its an incrementally moving journey into the heart of what it’s like to be alive. I thought, ‘that’s an interesting subject.’
It seems like You Instead is almost guerrilla-style filmmaking.
When you think about making a film about a music festival, you have to make a choice about how you’re going to get that world. That world exists for four days, so it became clear to us that unless we wanted to spend a lot of money and a lot of time recreating things, that the best thing for us to do was find a way to do it on time and on schedule. I did think we’d get as much as we could then we’d have to do a lot of pickups, but it went so well so we didn’t really need that. It has the integrity of being shot when it was.
That must have been an incredible experience.
The thing about the normal filmmaking process is that there are certain professional systems in place, which are there for viable reasons, but there is an innate inertia in making movies. By definition we had to shrug off a lot of that. And we had replace that with a sense of what we got was what we got, we don’t get a second chance, we have to be very responsive to the possibilities that a live environment gives us.
I found that incredibly invigorating. As long as you’re not caught up in your own pre-visualisations you can let the live environment almost become a character in the film. It feels very much like modern filmmaking, we’re shrugging off some of the things that are professional, and embracing the amateur. But because of the depth and the mayhem and magic of the festival, we get some quite big production values. In a way it was the best of both worlds.
Can you take some things you learned forward into other projects?
I’d very much like to borrow some of the methods and the ways of doing things from this film and apply it to more conventional filmmaking in certain areas. Of course in some areas you do need more control…maybe you can mix and match the freewheeling element.
How much did the script evolve while shooting?
The script was the script and the film was the film, they definitely represent each other but they are different. We took the script and ran with it, there’s quite a lot of dialogue in the script and I’m not a director who likes a lot of dialogue. Some of the characters weren’t the same on the page as they were in reality. The script is a great starting point but we definitely ran from there.
How did you prepare the cast for such an intense few days?
The whole project was only about four weeks of prep anyway. With the cast, I tried to make sure that they were responsible for the arc of their own characters, they weren’t likely to get a great deal of motivation and direction [during the four-day shoot]… so once they created that, they could go off with it.
How did you cast your two leads, Luke Treadaway and Natalia Tena?
I hadn’t worked with either one of them. I had seen Luke in Brothers Of The Head. And as soon as Nat came onto our radar, because of her own band [Molotov Jukebox], everything about her screamed this character.
The idea started that we could get musicians and get them to act, but we wanted to find actors who were also musicians. They both shaped [musical] material in the film.
What are you doing next?
I’ve got a sci-fi novel that I’ve got an option for and I’m very keen to write the script for that. It’s called Journey Into Space by Toby Litt. And it’s a very intersesting generational sci-fi story. It’s quite original, about space travellers.
And you will return to Tristan da Cunha to do a film?
What I did last year was a research trip, my plan is to go back again a second time to actually write the script in collaboration with the locals, to try to get the dialogue nailed, and then go back a third time with a small crew and find the cast and live there for four months making this movie with local people both behind of and in front of the camera, almost like an old fashioned workshop movie. [Mackenzie will be showing some of his Tristan da Cunha research footage during a performance by Shearwater at SXSW.]
Would you consider more US films after Spread?
Of course. After I got to SXSW I’ll be going to LA to make the rounds. I really enjoyed doing Spread. As someone who hadn’t spent a lot of time in America, to be making a film about Hollywood in Hollywood, and something that had a slight satirical edge to it, it was a good experience.