Interview: Gillies Mackinnon – 'The original is a beloved text that’s been passed from generation to generation with real affection.'
Whisky Galore director discusses its long path to the big screen
Like the creation of Scotland’s favourite alcoholic drink, film production can require a lot of patience. The closing film of the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival is a re-imagining of the classic Ealing comedy film Whisky Galore! Based on the book by Compton Mackenzie, the 1949 Alexander Mackendrick film is one of Scotland’s seminal texts: its famous clash between wily Scottish villagers and arch English officials has been scripted by Peter McDougall and directed by Gillies MacKinnon (Small Faces, Hideous Kinky). It’s been over a decade in the works, but the filmmaker feels the wait has been well worth it.
‘I honestly can’t remember when I first started on this project, it was one of those things that was always on the brink of happening,’ says MacKinnon. ‘I started out doing some storyboards maybe eight years ago; I used to be a cartoonist so doing that was my first involvement. [Producer] Iain Maclean worked so hard on this for so long: he just wouldn’t give up. To make something like this happen, you have to get up every morning for year after year, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “this is going to happen”. And it paid off, eventually.’
Based on the sinking of the SS Politician during World War Two, the film shows how villagers defied authorities to capture and enjoy the whisky which was being carried by the ship during a time of strict rationing. Gregor Fisher plays opposite Eddie Izzard in the 2016 version.
‘I’d always wanted to work with Gregor, he’s a very interesting man,’ notes MacKinnon. ‘People know him for Rab C Nesbitt, but I knew that he was also a very sensitive actor. And Eddie was someone I’d worked with a few years ago; going back to the original Mackendrick film, Captain Waggett is not a despicable character and it was important that we didn’t just make him an English caricature. And then we had great Scottish talent like James Cosmo to play the villagers themselves.’
Taking on a well-loved comedy classic is a tough assignment, particularly when Whisky Galore! is so deeply ingrained in the Scottish national consciousness. ‘The original is a film that a lot of people told me they’d watched with their grandparents, it’s a beloved text that’s been passed from generation to generation with real affection. Peter’s script really fleshed out the relationships of the villagers, exploring the idea of a father losing his daughters and that helped us to get the theme of the film. We worked very hard in the cutting room to get the right comedy tone. I remember Gregor asking whether he could drop the last line of a scene because he didn’t want the whole scene to be about the gag. Whisky Galore! is not something broad like the Dad’s Army reboot seemed to be; it’s got a more subtle rhythm.’
After taking such a long time to mature, the Whisky Galore! shoot proved to be smoother than a single malt; even the weather stayed unnaturally fair. ‘The truth is, it probably only rained for two hours during the whole shoot. We looked at the Outer Hebrides and Barra as possible locations, wonderful places to film but with complicated logistics, but when we went on a recce to Portsoy, I knew it would be perfect. You had the pub, the post office and the school, all together in one place and all overlooking the harbour, almost like a set specially built for us.’
Making Whisky Galore! the closing film of the 2016 EIFF marks a happy return for MacKinnon, who premiered his Steve Martin film A Simple Twist of Fate there back in 1994. Those who attended that night were surprised when Martin himself came out to enjoy some Vegas-style repartee with the audience. ‘I remember I’d phoned up Steve and asked him about it. He was driving and the last thing I heard was, “I’m just going into a tunnel … ’ So I was a surprised as anyone when he turned up. And to this day, people still ask me how I brought Steve Martin to Edinburgh. I wish I knew!’
Whisky Galore! closes Edinburgh International Film Festival Sun 26 Jun at 5:15pm. General release tbc.