Interview: Niall McCann Director of Lost in France

Niall McCann, centre, Lost in France (pic: Paul Walsh)
Niall McCann, centre, Lost in France (pic: Paul Walsh)

“In 1997 a group of young musicians and their fans travelled from Glasgow, Scotland, to Mauron, France. 18 years later they went back. Definitely older. Possibly wiser.” The opening card of Irish director Niall McCann’s new film sets the scene for a documentary that gently explores the rise of Glasgow’s independent music scene in the 1990s, led by local record label Chemikal Underground.

What were you doing in 1997? A collection of Glasgow bands were busy infiltrating mainstream music. Bis were appearing on Top of the Pops, Mogwai were big in Japan while The Delgados and Arab Strap were being showered in critical acclaim. The bands remained rooted in Glasgow, plugged into a music scene that revolved around a handful of venues, including the 13th Note where a young Alex Kapranos, later of Franz Ferdinand, was a promoter.

A Frenchman decided he wanted Glasgow bands for a festival and extended an invitation. By festival, we mean a stage in the local hall. A bus was acquired, a ragtag bunch of musicians were loaded on-board, together with pals and supporters, and off they went to charm and entertain a small town.

It’s not a trip we are particularly aware of, it’s not one of the musical milestones we’ve heard mentioned in the chronicles of the Glasgow music scene. It clearly meant a lot to the people who were there. It becomes the focus for a journey back to a particular moment in their lives.

Lost in France strides through nostalgia without wallowing in it. It provides a delicate examination of its subjects, allowing them the space to shape the narrative with their own thoughts and recollections. The mix of interactions and anecdotes are set against the backdrop of live music footage, both new and archive, that makes you want to join a band immediately.

The group of old friends it features are an inter-connected fulcrum of talent that have had a lasting effect on Glasgow music. The film draws out their stories by taking them on a bus journey back to Brittany, re-staging a concert from their shared past. Putting them back in that place allows the group to reflect on their music and memories. It’s an entertaining journey.

Early in the movie, the group of musicians – Stuart Braithwaite, Stewart Henderson, Alex Kapranos, Emma Pollock, and Paul Savage – are posing up in Brittany for a shot, laughing and joking. Someone asks “are we peering at the past or staring at the future?” Lost in France does a bit of both, while finding time to say some things about the music industry and about Glasgow itself. There’s a depth, warmth, laughter and joyousness to the tale.

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The film has a loose structure that gives the dialogue room to breathe while keeping the pace moving along. Any overarching message is left to the audience to project onto the film, there’s no heavy-handed attempts to ascribe a wider significance onto the experiences described. On it’s most basic level, this is a fun, smart road movie with a belter of a soundtrack.

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Glasgow has always been a great collection of people and places. Within the contrasting music, accents, background and outlook of the people that Niall McCann talks to in Lost in France is a portrait of many aspects of our city.

Watching Lost in France will make you want to get a pint with old pals, somewhere with a decent record collection.

The reason we are telling you all this is that there will be a screening of the film on 21st February and followed by a special live music performance to be simulcast across the UK, with Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai), RM Hubbert, Emma Pollock and Paul Savage (The Delgados) re-uniting on-stage for one night only. The night will be one of the highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

To find out more, Glasgowist called director Niall McCann.

Can you tell us what the plans are for the screening event on Tuesday?

There’s going to be a screening of the film, with all the musicians from it in attendance. Afterwards they are going to recreate the supergroup that appeared at the end of the film and play a 25 minute concert. There will be Alex [Kapranos], Paul Savage on drums – who hasn’t played drums since The Delgados really – RM Hubbert, Stuart Braithwaite and Emma Pollock from The Delgados who is a solo artist as well.

Was it important to build a relationship with the bands and then bring them into the film?

I wouldn’t have made it otherwise. I don’t think there is any point in making something with subjects who have no interest in making it. With documentaries you need subjects who are invested in some way. It was a story they wanted to tell. Especially given what’s happened to the music industry recently.

How did that conversation start?

I went to Glasgow near the end of 2012. I had met Aidan Moffat [from Arab Strap] at a gig he played at The Grand Social. I was just coming off the back of [my documentary] Art Will Save The World about Luke Haines. There were a lot of issues with that, copyright and stuff, I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to bother making any more films.

I went up and had a chat. We stayed in touch and talked about working together. He’s a bit like me, I don’t like to rush into things, I like to take my time. After a few months of discussing ideas, I went over to see him in Glasgow and we sat in the pub and had a few pints. I asked him if there was any defining moment in the music scene in Glasgow that he was involved in that he thought, looking back, was the most important.

I like to find a particular moment as you often find that when you examine that, it tells you a lot about the bigger story.

Was it always going to be about this trip they all made to France? Did that moment immediately stand out?

The minute Aidan told me about this gig they did, that was it for me. It was perfect because it brought them back to the beginning, when they were young and they were naive and they didn’t really know what they were doing. They didn’t know if what they were doing was something that they could continue doing.

What attracted me to this subject was it was a bit out of the ordinary, a bit different. You could make a talking heads or archive documentary on Glasgow and its relationship with music, but I wanted something that had a bit of a different narrative arc.

I suppose, I wanted something a bit more cinematic. When I met the people from the bands, they are very self-deprecating people. It occurred to me that I might have to take them out of Glasgow to actually give them a chance to reassess and evaluate what they have achieved.

What did it take to get the musicians to agree to revisit their youth?

The key is that you need people to trust you. The only way you can really get people to trust you is by not leaving them alone. Visiting a lot, getting to know the city and creating a relationship with them. When I met Paul Savage, he seemed to get the idea immediately.

He was a great guy for convincing the other people that this was something worth doing. Record labels like Chemikal Underground have been under a lot of stress recently. There’s a lot of worries about the future and what’s going to happen.

When I approached them initially, the last thing they wanted to consider was a film that celebrated what they had done. Through spending time with them, I think they realised I was a fan but also a film-maker they could trust to make the right film.

The Karelia, featuring a young Alex Kapranos Pic Stephanie Gibson

The Karelia, featuring a young Alex Kapranos
Pic Stephanie Gibson

In terms of the content of a film, is it a case of sitting down and doing the interviews and seeing where that leads you or is there an element of planning out where you want the stories to take you?

I generally don’t wait until interviews to find out something that’s important to the story. I do a lot of research but I also want to leave it open to spontaneity in the interview. I like to be sure that if I set things in motion and put these guys in certain situations that I would get the reaction I’m looking for.

When it became clear that Aidan Moffat couldn’t be in the film because he has his own film coming out, I had to refocus and I realised that Stuart Henderson was the main person in the story. He had been running Chemikal Underground for the last while.

The whole film, we were banking on the idea that if we took them to France, if we asked them to reflect on their lives and where they were when they started, that it would give Stuart a new angle on the label’s achievements.

It’s like remembering a scene in a movie, that you’re in, but you are seeing it from another angle.

The story is rooted in friendships and personal stories but also it’s a story about a particular time in Glasgow. What’s your relationship with Glasgow like now, what did you learn about the city through making the film?

I have a lot of friends there now from making the film. Glasgow feels to me a lot more like home now than a lot of places, even Dublin – I live here but I’m not from here so I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in a way.

Musically, the place is remarkable. You walk into a bar and you are served by someone that was in a band that you saw play a gig a couple of nights before. You see guitars being carried around everywhere. The people are wonderful, people say the Irish are friendly but Glasgow is something else.

There’s not been many opportunities in recent years to tell Glasgow stories on film, why do you think that is?

That’s a good point actually. Well, I think people here in Ireland talk about the lack of opportunities for female directors, and rightly so. The ratio here and abroad is not very progressive. Personally, I think class is a bigger issue. Poorer people should be getting their stories heard. The hardest thing for a film, especially initially is making a living, if you can’t do that then you can’t keep going. In Germany there’s an artist grant, the equivalent of the dole. There’s a real issue about how we can create a way for people who don’t come from money, to be able to create films, or music.

There’s not enough working class or lower middle class voices making films in my opinion. The richer you are the more removed you are from reality, that’s why I think there’s not these stories coming out, Glasgow is a very working class place.

I’m not saying that’s the whole story, but it’s part of it.

So, now you have got to know Glasgow, what’s your favourite parts of the city?

I spent a lot of time in Nice ‘N’ Sleazy. I love the West End. I think the Barrowland Ballroom is one of the most special places I’ve ever been to. Actually, the ABC where the event is going to be held is an amazing place. To be honest, I don’t know how I’m going to talk to that amount of people. Everyone has been telling me about that big disco ball that they have. Biggest in Europe or something I hear.

Glasgow was this mythological place for me when I was growing up. This magic place where all these amazing bands lived. It’s hard to even grasp the amount of great records that have come out of Glasgow. It’s incredible.

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