The last time I spoke to John McKay, cast rehearsals were just beginning for Not Another Happy Ending, as a crowdfunding campaign early in the challenge of financing the film came to an end. McKay enthused at the time about the hot French actor – Stanley Weber – that he’d picked up to play the male lead, and about co-star Karen Gillan’s bubbly personality. There was some expectation in my mind that the film would show up at the following year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.
It certainly did; it’s nothing other than this year’s closing film, earning it a fancy world première at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, with the red carpet rolled out for its stars. “I’m pretty happy with the film,” says McKay, but it’s hard to believe that’s not an understatement. I asked him if it came out how he expected. “Nothing ever turns out how you imagine it’s going to turn out.”
The film follows Jane Lockhart (Karen Gillan), a novelist whose relationship with her editor and publisher, Tom (Stanley Weber), is shaky at best. They are both eager for their contract to come to an end, but Jane is unable to finish her new novel; she can only write when she is unhappy. Tom immediately deploys his latent talents as an angry Frenchman to get her into a less cheerful frame of mind.
It’s hard to imagine, having now seen the film, that Tom was once set to be played by a Scottish actor rather than a French one. “For a long time, we had Emun Elliott attached,” explains McKay. “The trouble with being a little, low-budget movie is that you can have people who really want to be in it, and they get sixteen offers at once just when you’re kicking off, and then terrible choices have to be made.”
“I feel very lucky that we got Stanley, because I think he injects a whole different flavour into the movie. For one thing, it stopped it seeming like a conventional little Scottish movie. It instantly got a bit of continental flavour going on.”
Writing the character’s French background into the script induced a little behind-the-scenes panic. “We worried about this for a long time,” McKay tells me. “We wrote, in fact, a lot of explanation about how this French guy could end up in Glasgow and be a publisher. When we were testing the movie, in the end-stages of production, we asked people if they were bothered about the fact that he was French, whether they were confused or upset, and everyone said: ‘no, it was no problem at all’. In actual fact, they could have used a bit less information about it!”
He laughs. “So, we needn’t have worried quite so much. People are more accepting or used to the idea of people coming from all over than we expected.”
He highlights something interesting, though, bringing me back to a conversation I had a few moments after coming out of Not Another Happy Ending’s press screening: what is a “Scottish movie”? Even institutions like Creative Scotland seem unclear as to what defines a film as Scottish, and especially what distinguishes a Scottish film from a British film. I wondered if John McKay could share some insight.
He instantly reels off a list of film titles – Local Hero, Braveheart – and says: “All of these lay some claim to being really Scottish films.”
“I think that to pursue that too deeply, as, sometimes, critics and funding organisations find themselves doing, is to miss the point. A film is Scottish if, by and large, it believes itself to be, and other people agree. I have no interest in floating the definition of what makes a film Scottish.”
The question triggers something else in him, though. He begins to talk about Scotland’s film output and expanding the meaning of the Scottish movie. He says: “My ambition for us as a filmmaking nation, or a filmmaking culture, is that we make as many different films in as many different styles, voices, and colours as we possibly can, because in filmmaking: more is more.”
“We had a thing going on with Not Another Happy Ending in that we were trying to elude the two eminent styles of Scottish filmmaking: the gritty, crime-and-drugs movie, and the vain Nessie and Greyfriar’s Bobby movie. There are great examples of both of those movies, it’s just that it’s boring when there’s only two sorts you can make. If I had an ambition for us, it would be: a thousand flowers bloom. I think we should be making all sorts of stories in all sorts of styles.”
McKay is the latest in a long line of filmmakers who agrees that Scotland needs its own film studio. “There’s just no question about it; at the moment, if you have a studio, people will come and make stuff in your studio. There’s an under-capacity in studios in Europe, and we could be exploiting that – simple exploitation.”
He also echoes an increasingly common belief that next year’s independence referendum could transform culture in Scotland. “I’d say that the same conditions that affect the referendum affect cultural confidence as a whole,” he affirms. “When the Russians had the Russian Revolution, for five to ten years, there was kind of a flowering in modern art across all forms in Russia.”
“And then they started to shoot people.” He laughs.
“The thing about new eras is that they tend to excite people. I think that one of the less worrying effects of a Scotland that’s confident enough to [vote Yes] is that we’re probably confident enough to make great art.”
“It’s not often that you can say that the Scots hold the future of the UK in our hands,” he muses – but he doesn’t appear to have made a final decision on the referendum yet himself. “My head says ‘hmm’, and my heart says ‘go, go, go’.”
One of the more curious aspects of Not Another Happy Ending is the journey it made from script to screen, one which McKay credits to its “very clever producer”, Claire Mundell, who “made it happen by patch-working a bunch of different sources of funding together, none of whom interfered in any kind of way with the way the film turned out”.
Crowdfunding part of the film through Indiegogo is certainly an option that would not have existed even five years ago. McKay says it’s “definitely” something he would do again. “For tiny films that are being willed into being, one of the best first things [filmmakers] can do is reach out to a potential audience and say: ‘who’s interested in this?’.”
It also brings in “crucial” feedback, he says, something especially valuable “for small independents who need to convince film funders […] who are quite risk-averse, and only jump on buses that are really already moving”.
One last thing, I ask: “What single piece of advice would you give to a budding filmmaker?”
“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Not Another Happy Ending will première at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Sunday, 30 June.
You can read our review of the film here.