Interview: David Mackenzie on Perfect Sense and You Instead
Director returns from Hollywood to Glasgow to make two films back-to-back
Director David Mackenzie has returned to his hometown of Glasgow with two new films that look positively sentimental, writes Miles Fielder
Having made his Hollywood debut with his last film, Spread, a gorgeously sun-drenched but beguilingly bleak sex romp-cum-romance starring Ashton Kutcher that comes across like a modern-day American Gigolo, Scottish filmmaker David Mackenzie was set to settle in Los Angeles and make more movies financed by the dollar. With his wife and kids already living in LA, Mackenzie, who had six years earlier established himself as a dark new talent with his grimy, sexually explicit adaptation of cult beat writer Alexander Trocchi’s novel Young Adam, made what he thought would be a brief trip back to his hometown Glasgow, to sort out his flat and get it on the rental market, before rejoining his family in the sun and getting stuck into making his next film. Only things didn’t work out the way Mackenzie had imagined.
‘I made this film about Hollywood while living in Hollywood,’ Mackenzie says from behind a small desk in the modestly proportioned office of his business partner, producer Gillian Berrie, with whom he founded the Glasgow-based production company Sigma Films. ‘It was a complete emersion experience for nine months. I thought staying was a no-brainer: my family are out there, they make films out there, I now have friends out there, the weather’s good. Came back to Glasgow at the beginning of October 2009 and there was coal and wood smoke in the air, and a nip, which you don’t ever get in LA, and the will to leave Glasgow instantaneously evaporated. The big bubble of the illusion of Hollywood just popped.’
Within a week or two of being back in Scotland, the script for Perfect Sense, one of two new Glasgow-set films Mackenzie has directed back-to-back (the other is You Instead), arrived on his desk and immediately seized the filmmaker’s attention. ‘So now,’ Mackenzie says, ‘it was: I’m back and something’s really excited me. It’s not like I’m never going to go back to Hollywood, and I have already, to talk to people about American movies, but it was really good to be back.’
Perfect Sense is a science fiction romance, although Mackenzie avoids both genre trappings and schmaltz, something that will come as no surprise to those familiar with his other films. The sci-fi element is a global plague that is robbing humankind of its five senses one-by-one. The romance is between Ewan McGregor’s restaurant chef and Eva Green’s scientist, both of which lost souls shag around, but shun emotional intimacy … until they meet one another just as the world appears to be ending. As conceived by Danish screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and executed by Mackenzie (the film is a co-production between Sigma and Lars von Trier’s Copenhagen-headquartered Zentropa), Perfect Sense is, on the surface, chillingly bleak. Look beyond the apocalyptic carnage, however, and there’s a rather upbeat message along the lines of: make hay while the sun shines. And if you choose to read the film as a metaphor for falling in love, then Perfect Sense starts to look positively sentimental.
What’s happened to Mackenzie, the man who has in the past referred to his films as ‘anti-romances’? If Perfect Sense reveals itself as anything but an anti-romance then wait until you get a load of You Instead, which is a full-blown romantic comedy, albeit a very offbeat one. In it, Luke Treadaway’s strutting indie-pop star finds himself accidentally handcuffed to Natalia Tena’s feisty lead singer of an all-girl punk band at a music festival. Set during and shot at last year’s T in the Park, You Instead is a rocking mix of lust, mud, filthy language and loud music with an entirely appropriate freewheeling spirit that is, in fact, down to Mackenzie and his cast and crew adopting the kind of guerrilla filmmaking approach necessary to shoot amidst the chaos of a music festival.
‘All my films are, in some way, romances,’ Mackenzie says. ‘But I’ve always felt that the best romances are somehow doomed. Think of Casablanca. It’s been a recent realisation that love is good, after all. I’m a family man now. I’m a father now. I suppose it must have affected my outlook. You Instead is essentially a one-night-stand film, so it’s allowed to be romantic in those terms. The potential cheese of that is tempered by the mud and the mayhem of the festival, just as the potential cheese in Perfect Sense is tempered by the seismic events that the romance is set against. So it’s not like full-cheese love, but moving in that direction perhaps. There’s me thinking I’ve been an anti-romantic,’ Mackenzie says with a laugh, ‘and I haven’t ever been.’
Perhaps Mackenzie’s flirtation with cheese love also has something to do with him, please forgive the pun, maturing as a man and a filmmaker. He turned 45 this summer and for the last seven of those years he’s been a dad. He now has seven features under his belt as well as a handful of shorts and, in Sigma Films, co-partnership in a successful production company that has made, apart from his own films, Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding, Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy, von Trier’s Dogville and Lone Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. And 14 years on since Sigma produced its first film, Mackenzie’s presciently titled short California Sunshine, the company has been instrumental in setting up Filmcity Glasgow, a production and post-production facility housed in the old Goven town hall that’s well on its way to becoming Scotland’s first fully functional film studio.
Being back in Glasgow and working at Filmcity certainly seems to have galvanised Mackenzie. ‘I was doing the sound mix for Perfect Sense along the corridor here,’ he says, ‘and then going down to the ballroom to rehearse You Instead. It’s great to be able to do all that at Filmcity – which, I should say, Gillian is largely responsible for creating – and its great to have that here in Glasgow.’ Mackenzie and Berrie are currently developing a handful of projects at Sigma’s Filmcity HQ, at least one of which Mackenzie will direct. One of them is another science fiction film, Journey into Space, about the microcosm of a spaceship over a long period of time and how its society evolves into a dystopia. There’s also a prison drama about a father and son who meet each other for the first time inside (‘there’s no romance in that’, Mackenzie notes) and there’s The Zanzibar Chest, which is based on war journalist Aiden Hartley’s epic book about 20th century Africa, and there’s an adaptation of Belgian crime writer George Simenon’s Second World War noir The Stain on the Snow, which Mackenzie scripted and sounds like he’s the most keen to direct. ‘It’s about a bunch of 17-year-olds in an occupied country,’ he says. ‘It’s all set in winter and its very sexy. There’s something very dark about it.’
Back to the dark side, then, after his brief sojourn to the light side? ‘Ah, yes,’ Mackenzie snorts. ‘Possibly.’ Whichever way he goes, he aims to keep himself busy. ‘Every time you finish a film you’re essentially unemployed. So you need to keep moving. But I’m not sure how sustainable it is to be making movies as rapidly as I have in the last two or three years. Particularly,’ Mackenzie adds, ‘if you want to spend time with your family.’