Interview: ‘Not Another Happy Ending’ director John McKay


John McKay

Released this Friday, Not Another Happy Ending is a Scottish romantic comedy starring Karen Gillan as a novelist suffering from writer’s block because she can’t admit she’s in love with her publisher played by Stanley Weber. The Spoilist was lucky enough to catch up with director John McKay when his film premièred at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk about his latest work and the state of the Scottish film industry.

If anyone hasn’t heard of this film, how would you entice them in to watch it?      

It’s a film set in Glasgow with a Scottish accent that has a universal quality about it. A big part of our intention was to make a light, funny movie with an accent on romance. It’s got a pair of very attractive performances from Karen Gillan and Stanley Weber at the heart of it and a daffy plot about a writer who can’t write because she’s probably still too in love with her publisher.

How you first come to be involved with the film?

I was sent the script and just was charmed right away. David [Solomon] had just captured something about the city but in his own kind of loopy, daffy, charming way. It wasn’t like hard genre; it wasn’t a big blockbusting script but it had real charm about it and that’s very rare. You can’t bottle that.

Is there something unique about the casting process for a romantic comedy with chemistry being so important? Or do you just rely on actors being able to do their job?

You always rely on the actors being able to do their job, there’s not much you can do about it. The delicious part of casting for me is making intuitive bets about people. You can watch somebody’s performances in other stuff, with luck you’ll get to meet them or even work with them.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Karen Gillan on We’ll Take Manhattan beforehand. Although I’d cast her very happily as Jean Shrimpton, the thing is that Jean Shrimpton is or was really quite an introverted person. She was very thoughtful but kind of passive. What I learned about Karen is that she’s not at all like that;  she’s a very front foot person. She’s a very jolly, bouncy, coltish, never say die, let’s do it right now, woohoo kind of person. That really was going to work for Jane in Not Another Happy Ending because Jane needs to be so feisty. Plus I noticed Karen knocking things over and kind of falling over furniture and that had to add to it. What does she say on her own Twitter? She says she’s a “ginger flailing enthusiast.” The funny thing is that the number of objects that go over is quite small but you always think something is going to go over.

Glasgow is often portrayed as quite grim but it’s a very different look at the city here.

I’m a kind of early and late Glaswegian. Half my family come from Paisley and Glasgow so I had early exposure to the city as a visitor and I recently came back to live after 20 years in London. I think that the wonderful thing about Glasgow is that it’s one of those amazing 18th and 19th Century powerhouse cities that had a very hard paper round in the 20th Century. So it’s full of texture and ancient crumbling interest. It was once the second city of Empire so it was bigger than New York and built by the same people. That’s incredible to capture on camera.

Also, there’s a laid back secret charm about Glasgow. You have to know it to have a good time and if you do know it, then you know the wonderful little places that are in it. It’s got a secret culture; it’s got a fan club about it whereas if you come to Edinburgh, which I love too, the chocolate box is right there in the window. You turn anywhere in Edinburgh and you’re looking at a classic historical view. Whereas in Glasgow, there’s this amazing noodle bar which is just under the rusty industrial bridge which is next to the Cathedral which is round by the underpass which always reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. It’s got a kind of mixed up quality Glasgow and it’s a connoisseurs’ city I think.

In terms of location, you might say this film does for Glasgow, what Annie Hall does for New York.

What’s not to like about Annie Hall? I can’t even get close to touch the hem of Woody Allen’s garments but among the inspirations for making a young people falling in and out of love in a neurotic way movie, Annie Hall’s got to be so up there.  What was astonishing about these Woody Allen films was the way that he took romantic comedy, screwball he probably would have thought, and he put it in real settings. So in Annie Hall, they walk along the real shore front; they play tennis at a real tennis club; they appear to be shooting in real apartments; they appear to be lining up outside real theatres. Somehow when you sink into the real-location texture of a place, it gains an added pleasure. I think one of the big pleasures of the indie movie, as opposed to the studio rom com, is you kind of want to go there and hang out. You feel like you are getting a bit of the place. How much did you want to go and hang out with Ethan and Julie when you’d watched Before Sunrise? You just wanted to be in that place.

There are now an increasing number of films being shot in Glasgow. Is it easy to get locations in Glasgow? Is it easy to make films there?

Yes, I think that it’s too secret how film friendly Glasgow is. I say this as someone who’s shot in almost all the major cities in the UK, especially London and and I’ve also shot in New York, Paris, and Johannesburg – I’ve been around. London is almost impossible to shoot in, in practical terms. There’s plenty of interest but you can’t park your truck. You literally can’t move in London. If you want to move during a day from one flat here, to another flat just 100 yards up the street, you lose two hours just trying to a rearrange yourself. By comparison, Glasgow has this beautiful kind of empty ease about it. You can get around really easily and it’s got loads of fantastic city detail that you can shoot against. The council are very film friendly; buy one license and you can shoot on the street forever.

If you have an idea while you’re out on the street or making a particular location and you go wouldn’t it be great if they came in and out of that sweetie shop? 99 times out of 100 the little lady in the sweetie shop will say “oh yeah go on yourself’” and doesn’t think movie, that’ll be a million quid. The ease of making films in a free way is really strong in Glasgow. I always recommend it to people who say “why would you want to make anything there?”

Some have said the lack of studio facilities damages Scotland’s ability to have a robust film industry. Do you think there’s more that could be done to encourage filmmaking in Scotland?

Absolutely, we need a studio. On a simple basis, if anyone wants to make money like opening a tap right now, they would simply soundproof six large sheds somewhere in the central belt of Scotland. There’s an over-demand for studio space in Europe out of America and world TV and an under-supply of studio space. You could rent your garage right now. What would be the advantage for Scotland in that? Well, there’s a simple advantage in terms of lots of work, in the same way that there’s lots of work in Belfast for everyone who works on Game of Thrones.  They very quickly soaked up everyone in the Northern Irish film scene and then moved to the Southern Irish film scene and then moved to the Scottish film scene. Essentially, a big production like Game of Thrones employs and then runs out of people and therefore trains hundreds of high level technicians and workers of all grades in the film and TV making business. The thing is, because these productions are effectively the big movies of the TV world, they build infrastructure. They take big sheds and they turn them into film studios so that in the month or two a year when they’re not working, we get in and we make our movie there with the newly skilled technicians who are now living just down the road. More is more essentially. It’s really simple, there’s no debate about it. We should stop prevaricating.

Getting back to the film, rom coms are often somewhat formulaic but this one includes a more troubled father/daughter relationship. Do you think that extra emotional truth helps with audience to invest more in the characters?

I don’t think you think about it cynically like that. Probably what you say is true but on the inside what you tend to think is, what is there here I care about. You hope to find something to care about in all your plots in a film. I know that David was interested in playing the levels on sadness versus happiness and on a national level as well about Scots. We have a tendency to be miserable and to write and watch miserable stuff and he wanted to take the piss out of that. Jane has had a kind of Kate Dickie in Red Road type childhood and then wrote about it and people liked that but she herself wants a happier ending than that.

Romantic comedies tend to have happy endings woven into their formula. Was there ever a temptation to smash all of the conventions?

I’m the sort of person who can’t see a rule without wanting to break it. I’m just contrary and I have to remind myself to do what it says on the tin sometimes. I made another movie, generally classed as a rom com about 10 years ago called Crush. I actually wrote that one as well. Originally I didn’t think I was writing a rom com, I thought I was writing a British Kieslowski movie. So it was about growing into early middle age among some women, one of them had an affair with a younger guy. There were some comic elements to it but it would end tragically and the young guy would die. Film4, the financial studio who I was with at the time had a change of regime and they chopped off the project. Then they called me in for a meeting one morning and said, “good news we want to keep your project and we think it’s a terrific romantic comedy.” So it became thought of as a romantic comedy because it was about women and love but the guy died and guys don’t die in romantic comedies by and large. The weird thing about that film is at the time I think that really divided people. There were some people who were annoyed, even angry that the guy died because they thought, come on I’m halfway through my pink fizz and box of chocolates here and the guy’s dying? There are other people who go, do you know what I liked about it; I liked the fact that the guy died. Probably the thing that remains interesting about the film, if anything does, is the fact they guy dies.

It seems like a Richard Curtis convention to cast American to appeal to an international audience. Was there any temptation to do that here?

What you have to understand is that there was nothing here. Outside of the studios, who don’t live on our planet, you never have to make a movie. There is no necessity to ever make a movie at all. It’s based on pure willpower. So anything that you can do to make your movie even more viable, you consider. So of course we considered these things: let’s have an American character; let’s cast an American person. You go through those stages but the weird thing is that our principles kind of held out. I don’t know why. It’s not because we were such strong minded people. Somehow in the end we ended up, with one notable exception, with an all Scottish cast and an all Scottish crew and an all Scottish festival to show it off at. Who knew that we’d be so consistent?

The film was the Gala Night Screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Is that gratifying for you?

It’s a big thrill. I’m from Edinburgh so I always love coming here. I am very grateful to Chris Fujiwara and the Edinburgh Film Festival for believing in us. We fight for everything that we get on this movie. Every nod from somebody who should know is a big pleasure.

Reactions are now coming out from critics. Is that something you care about or do you just make films for their own sake?

Definitely I make films for my own sake. I would do it even if they didn’t pay me and very often in low budget independent film you’ll find that’s the case. In terms of critical reaction I think you can’t live or die by that stuff. People are going to think whatever they think. And usually what they think is exactly what they thunk even before they saw the movie so I can’t second guess that stuff. Some people are going to love it and get it and I think that’s brilliant: come join the gang. Some people are not going to love it but go well – happy life to you.

Obviously there will be plenty of promotional work to do for this film but what have you got lined up next?

I want to make another movie in Scotland so I’ve got a couple of things in development. I also work a lot in TV. TV is very exciting right now and often an easier place to get interesting material away. So I have a project about the NME in 1975 and the Julie Burchill generation of punk journalists. I have more in the pipeline about the David Bailey generation of photographers in the ‘60s. I have a big science project too.

Thank you very much to John McKay for talking to us

Not Another Happy Ending goes on general release on 11 October 2013 throughout the UK

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