Interview: Bill Forsyth, director of Gregory's Girl, Local Hero and That Sinking Feeling
The acclaimed Scottish director discusses the guerrilla tactics that formed his career
‘Youth required for film production company,’ was the advert which would shape the course of the young Bill Forsyth’s life. In his final year of school and feeling decidedly unmotivated about the world of work awaiting him in post-war Glasgow, the Evening Citizen notice caught his attention. Starting out working as a ‘humpher’ for that one-man business in Maryhill and moving on to his own co-run production company in the 1970s, he would joke with his friends that one day Hollywood would snap them up on the basis of a short film about fishing boats.
By the end of the 1980s, of course, Forsyth was in Hollywood making quirky domestic drama Housekeeping (1987) for Columbia Pictures, and the later flawed but unique Robin Williams epic Being Human (1994). The pre-US period was arguably the most fruitful of his career, in which a run of Scottish classics built a national sense of filmmaking identity: the low-budget That Sinking Feeling (1980), in which a bunch of unemployed teenagers set out to steal a bunch of sinks; seminal tribute to teenage desire, youthful awkwardness and football Gregory’s Girl (1981); the anti-globalisation Local Hero (1983); and cosy Glasgow gangland comedy, Comfort and Joy (1984).
This month sees the first two being reissued. ‘I realised you had to do it in Scotland if you were going to do it at all,’ says the now semi-retired Forsyth of his feature film ambitions, with That Sinking Feeling eventually made on a shoestring budget with members of Glasgow Youth Theatre. In truth, Gregory’s Girl had been the first project he wanted to film. ‘But this was the late 70s,’ he recalls. ‘There was huge unemployment in Glasgow, heavy industries closing and strikes. The city wasn’t looking or feeling its best, and the youth theatre was in Bridgeton, which was in bad shape; it didn’t feel right to ask these kids to make a fluffy fantasy in Cumbernauld. I thought, let’s make something a bit more real and we’ll show the world that. It was a big success in Scotland, but I still felt like a desperado.’
Gregory’s Girl was a much easier sell, although the guerrilla methods of That Sinking Feeling would give way to the more rigorous schedules which come with bigger budgets. ‘It was the first time I’d been on the tramlines of making a serious film,’ he jokes now, ‘although I think everyone else seemed to enjoy it. We were living the dream, but we weren’t overawed by it because we’d waited so long and had it written in our heads. I think it worked because it didn’t patronise anyone; there was a level of honesty that you don’t normally get in teen films. It was hangdog, but very friendly.’
Both films are essential, not just for their place in Scottish film history, but for Forsyth’s perfectly-drawn characters and firm grasp of the country’s character at the time, a bittersweet blend of the romantic and the downtrodden, the humorous and the self-deprecating. Yet to call them Scottish films, he says, is to misunderstand. ‘The one thing I would say about Scotland is that it’s just like anywhere else in the developed world, I’m not interested in looking for differences, I’m much more interested in dealing with how we’re all the same.’
That Sinking Feeling is re-released on BluRay and DVD on Mon 21 Apr by the BFI. A restored version of Gregory’s Girl is out on Mon 5 May by Second Sight.