As a British film producer, Andrew MacDonald is a leading light in a beleaguered industry. He is best known for his award winning collaborations with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter, John Hodge, such as Trainspotting, The Beach and Shallow Grave. He is currently working on a sequel to the iconic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s smacked-up 1993 novel — but despite all my best efforts, Andrew maintained that he is sworn to secrecy on the details of the much-anticipated film.
I meet Andrew in the front room of Charlotte Street Partners HQ. There’s something of the fisherman about him. He wears a chunky cable knit and a pair of baggy cords. He looks tired and unshaven but it’s hard to believe he’s almost 50.
I begin by asking him about the role of the producer. So in terms of Trainspotting, Boyle was the director, Hodge wrote the screenplay, what is it that you actually did?
Well on a very basic level, for every film made you create a company, and I am the guy who runs the company. The company raises the finance and then returns a profit when the film is finally made.
But, of course, in order to be good at that, you have to understand filmmaking and screenplays, and you have to understand what the public actually want to see. You might also get involved with editing scripts and directing as well.
Do you find it varies from film to film what you get involved in and what you leave to other people?
It’s totally different on every film but the key to any kind of success I’ve had is a continuation of relationships. Fundamentally, this is with the director and the writer but often also with the actors too — and even right down to people like the film’s accountant. Ultimately, I’ve always found that good relationships make good movies.
Your company DNA is a massive success story in terms of the UK film industry but it’s a very tough industry to be in. Do you feel that Hollywood has a detrimental affect on UK film? Do you think that people like Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh had a more established place in the public’s consciousness than someone like Paddy Considine does now because the British are so fixated on what’s coming out of America?
I think that the distribution of films is changing so much because of new technology, that it’s very different for everybody now. It’s certainly the case that Hollywood is making bigger and bigger films for the worldwide box office but there’s still a huge number of films made and there are still a huge number of British films made. The trouble is how they find their voice. I think if you said to people today what are the last two or three British films you saw, it would take them a while to think back over a number of years before they could come up with what they are.
But if you can find one you really like, it often punches above its weight. And actually, I don’t think that’s ever been any different. I mean, twenty years ago in Edinburgh when I made my first film, Shallow Grave, there were only about twenty or thirty British films made, partly because everything had to be made on film and it was all so unionised.
Now there are hundreds of British films made, but I don’t think we have any more greats than we did in Ken Loach’s era, Lindsay Anderson’s or Alan Parker’s. I think it’s pretty much the same now and I hate to say that because it’s so depressing. I think of a British success as anything that grosses more than £5 million at the box office — that £5 million has been the same number I’ve always thought of for twenty years and you know, there’s probably only been half a dozen of those recently.
Andrew mentions Paddington but can’t think of any others. I mention Tyrannosaur and Andrew shoots back, ‘creatively successful but not commercially successful’.
Do you think Scottish artists are often guilty of portraying the country with a sort of kitsch essentialism? Either in a hyper-romantic way or as aesthetic poverty porn. Do you think the latter criticism could be levelled at Irvine Welsh?
I don’t know enough to comment on Scottish writing in general but I don’t think it’s fair of Irvine Welsh’s work. Trainspotting was an amazing piece of writing.
So he’s not capitalising on a slightly contrived, hard drinking, heroin injecting caricature?
No, I think people recognise a lot of truth in Irvine’s writing. I think with art and storytelling, you either believe it or you don’t. To me, it’s a realistic portrayal of the country.
It’s probably fair to say that ‘Yes’ (in the context of Scottish independence) is the choice of most artists working north of the border. Why do you think that is? And which camp were you in?
I’m not entirely sure except that I guess it feels positive. I think that’s what it is. And personally, I find it really hard to make any public proclamation as a supposed Scot living in Islington. I think it would be very different if I lived here.
Do you feel a patriotic duty to make films in Scotland and contribute to the Scottish cultural landscape?
I don’t know whether it’s a patriotic duty, but I like making films in Scotland because I understand Scotland. I was born here and spent all of my formative years here. I find working here highly satisfying.
One thing people overlook about making films is that if you know everything about where you are, it makes it so much easier. There has never really been much of an industry at all in this country. I would like to see more Scottish stories that have a chance of communicating with the rest of the world. And I think with the political situation, it’s a shame that there’s not a film which can present Scotland in a cultural light which people might not expect. Particularly in the rest of the UK and obviously the rest of the world.
But doesn’t that relate back to what I was saying about essentialism and there being a predictability in artistic portrayals of Scottish culture?’
Yes, I know. There is. I suppose that’s a mistake.
I often think what a difficult job it would be being the culture secretary. I love literature and film but I think it’s difficult to argue that arts funding is vital when funding for healthcare, disability benefits and primary education are very much under threat. How would you make the case for more arts funding?
I think the simple thing to me is that the arts are inspiring. Everyone needs to be inspired in tough times. If you look at Glasgow in the nineties, for example, the city was really reinvigorated, really ‘reinspired’ by arts funding. A bit like Edinburgh and the Festival.
You don’t think the Festival’s just become a sort of Mecca for the world’s middle classes and any sucked-up subsidies could be spent on other things?
They could be. They could always be — every bit of money ever made could be spent on the NHS. But I just think that inspiring people is important — obviously there should be limits but I’m not the culture secretary and I’m not running the government so I just don’t really know.
Would you say that Scotland punches above its weight culturally or do you think it could do more, and if so, how could its potential be realised?
That’s a huge question. But on the screen, both in terms of film and TV, I think it’s punching below its weight. If you look at some of the other small countries — Denmark or even Northern Ireland for example — I think they’re doing a lot better.
How do you think that could be improved?
I think it probably has to start at the top in some ways with some very big cultural things like the Film Festival for example; that was once very important in Edinburgh. At one point there was even a separate Scottish screen agency. I don’t know whether it really is those things. It’s just that I remember a time when making something that was Scottish gave it an incredible identity around the world and that’s very important. Having any artistic identity is very important. And actually, despite the rise of nationalism in this country, I think that has been lost.
So there’s almost an inverse relationship? As nationalism has grown in Scotland the country has lost its cultural clout?
Yes. I think that’s right.
I have a theory — it’s sort of based on my dad; I would describe him as an everyday aesthete. He’ll flick through the Spectator’s culture section and wander around the V&A all day but then he comes back in the evening and laughs his way through Pitch Perfect II. I sort of feel that he’s typical of Brits. We don’t really ‘do’ film in the way that we engage with other creative mediums. Do you agree with that?
I agree with that 100% and I think it’s our biggest problem in terms of film. If you look at our national canon and compare it certainly to America but more tellingly to Sweden or even to Denmark, France, Germany or Spain. It becomes very obvious that we’re not even in the premier league. I think that has been because traditionally literature and theatre has overshadowed it.
So you think that really it’s our strength in literature and on the stage which limits our success on the screen?
I think so. Another very telling thing is that in France you always have politician’s turning up at premiers. American politicians too, from Bush to Obama, to JFK, they’ve all done that. Meanwhile, I’ve never had a politician, left, right, centre, whatever, turn up at anything. They have no interest. Absolutely no interest because it’s not culturally significant.
We all know they’d do it if they thought it was of any important to the electorate though. Actually, I tell a lie, Virginia… Virginia whatever her name is, I think it’s Bottomley. She turned up to the Trainspotting premier at Cannes. I only noticed because she was so late but apart from that, nothing. I remember I made a film not long ago. Sunshine on Leith, trying to get the Scottish Government to come to that was impossible. It’s just something we don’t have.
Film really runs in your family. Your younger brother is the Oscar winning director Kevin MacDonald and you’re the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, best known for award winning collaborations with Michael Powell like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, do you feel he has had a big influence on you in some ways?
It’s interesting. We grew up on the west coast of Scotland. Our family business was a sheepskin tannery but yes, our maternal grandfather was a very famous Hungarian writer, producer and director in the 30s and 40s . He came to Britain in ‘33, taking up with a small community of Hungarian filmmakers who had fled the Nazis.
So there’s a big difference between those two worlds obviously, but the fact that he was part of our heritage gave me and my brother the confidence to think that careers in film might be possible. And now, all these years on, Kevin and I have done some great stuff together — like The Last King of Scotland for example. My kids always like to tease me that I don’t have an Oscar and he does.
I suppose that sort of relates to privilege in the arts in some ways. You are saying really that your confidence to go into film was reliant upon your creative heritage and having exposure that very few people are lucky enough to have. Do you think that the arts has a real problem with privilege? Is the Redmayne, Blunt, Cumberbatch factor as pervasive as many suggest?
Oh yeah. Absolutely — and that to me is the beauty of someone like Welsh.
I think the criticism of the arts, that it’s a small group of people speaking to another small group of people, is quite true. I mean, getting a piece in the Guardian is exciting but you’re getting exposure to a bunch of people who you’re already in touch with. And that relates back to your earlier questions. Funding helps to bring the arts to a wider demographic.
Scotland traditionally and still today has a lot more performing and writing talent that comes from a less privileged background because the access was there. And that’s something we have to try and protect and bring through because those people tend to have different voices, and that makes it interesting. It’s those guys who become great artists.
I finish the interview looking towards the future by asking Andrew whether he finds the prospect of making sequels daunting because there’s always that expectation that they can never be as good as the first film?
I think sequels can often be like that, but on the other hand, if you’re going to do well in a business sense, it’s all about sequels.
So we’re talking about money really?
Yes, you can’t launch a new product all the time. You know, you’ve got Coca Cola, you’ve got Persil, you can improve them but it would be mind bogglingly difficult to always make them new. When I first started it was easier, there were just three channels on TV. It was pre-internet. I mean, people really wanted to know what was about to hit the cinemas. Particularly at Christmas time. Now nobody cares, so you’ve got to grab onto anything that gives you a chance.
So people aren’t totally wrong when they suggest that sequels are purely money-spinners?
Well I’m saying that’s a part of it. You’d be crazy as part of your business not to try and do that.
Our conversation comes to an end and Andrew walks off down the road to get a tram to the airport and start his journey back to Islington.
After he leaves I reflect on the conversation and realise that people like him are vital for keeping Britain’s creative heart pumping, people who are really dedicated to the creative process but are equally dedicated to commercial success.