Interview: Allan Hunter from Glasgow Film Festival

John Butler's Handsome Devil opens the GFF

The 13th annual Glasgow Film Festival opens tomorrow with a special screening of John Butler’s Irish coming-of-age tale Handsome Devil. The full line-up includes UK premieres for titles such as Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey, Cate Shortland’s Berlin Syndrome and Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope.

The 12-day event will feature nine world and international premieres, 65 UK premieres and 67 Scottish premieres.

Benny, the story of Scottish boxer Benny Lynch, will also have its world premiere, while the festival will close with the world premiere of Mad To Be Normal, starring David Tennant, about the infamous Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing.

On the eve of the opening night, Glasgowist spoke to GFF co-director Allan Hunter about what we can expect from this year’s programme.

What’s the start of the process of assembling each year, how does a blank piece of paper become a multi-faceted programme of screenings?

It starts pretty early. Even though we’ve got the 2017 festival about to start on Wednesday, there are ideas jotted down for 2018. Possible themes or anniversaries or films, stuff like that. There’s always little things that bubble below the surface.

Then, once one festival is out the way, everyone takes a bit of a break and then we really begin to start thinking about the programme for the next year. By the beginning of March we start looking ahead to films that are in production of that we know will be finished and ready to screen. We start going to festivals like Cannes, seeing what may be available. Then you start getting submissions, films that go through a certain process to see if there are things we want to show.

Is part of it, then, being in the right place at the right time. You could be introduced to someone at another festival and you tap them up to come to Glasgow?

Yes, sometimes that does happen. Or sometimes you see a film and you think it is amazing and you start actively pursuing that one. Finding out their distribution deal and what their plans are for the UK.

For instance, the opening film this year is Handsome Devil. I saw that at the Toronto Film Festival in September with an audience and thought it was joyous, funny, uplifting – just the kind of thing that would really set the tone for the opening night and get things off to a good start. We had to then find out their plans up to February and whether we could be part of that. Eventually, they liked the idea of Glasgow and it all worked out.

How does Glasgow fit into the wider world of film festivals and how do you strike the balance between local and international strands in the programme?

We want to be a showcase for local film makers whose work is acceptable and we should be doing everything we can to support them. We are a Glasgow festival, we are a Scottish festival. This year, there are things like the new documentary on Benny Lynch, and the new David Graham Scott documentary End of the Game. There’s the film version of AL Kennedy’s Original Bliss. Hope Dickson Leach’s debut feature The Levelling.

Equally, we’re here to bring as wide and diverse range of global films to Glasgow, many of them for their UK premiere. Often it’s down to timing. It might be films that are not out till April, or even June. Often distributors like to see how it plays to Glasgow audiences because you get a strong reaction here. For some films we are bringing in, it may be its only chance to be in a cinema. There’s so many films and so few chances at distribution these days.

The Levelling

The Levelling

I get the impression, particularly in the last couple of years, that you also want to include the notion that cinema can be a lot of fun. I like the fact you can have screenings of films that examine the great issues of the day and the human condition, but you can also screen Predator and The Lost Boys.

I think that’s a good thing about the festival. There’s no distinction made, we never think a movie is too populist to show at a film festival or it taints the cool of this great artistic endeavour. Some people love Predator, some people love this new Romanian film that’s two hours long. There should be space for everybody.

I like when the audience just takes chances on things. I remember there were two guys that came to the box office and we were chatting to them. They were saying they were off to see a five and a half hour film from a Filipino director because they had never seen a five and a half hour film before. Things like that are great. I would hope that audience feel that everything on the programme has worth.

What about the scale of the festival, are you where you want to be in terms of venues and number of films you are showing?

Every year there has been an increase in audience numbers. We know that people have really taken it to their hearts – some people take three days off work to come and see movies! I think as long as it still feels personal and friendly and accessible, that’s fine. I don’t know how sensible it would be to get much bigger.

Toronto Film Festival is just this mega-festival that screens hundreds of films and it can be a bit overwhelming. Smaller films can get sidelined. I think you need to be careful about getting bigger for the sake of getting bigger.

I think one of the great things about the GFF is that it does have focus and it has themes and that helps guide people towards films they might not otherwise see.

Well, there’s things like the audience award, there iss ten films and they are all first and second features, some are documentaries, others Indian films or UK films. We think that by banding them together competing for the only prize that the festival has that we are saying there is something a bit special about these ones. Hopefully that will encourage people to take a chance on new film-makers.

You’ve got a lot of guests coming to screenings at the festival. I thought it was great that you have actors like Jack Reynor and David Tennant attending events. It’s great for the profile of the festival but it’s also great to see actors who have been involved in major projects in the states – billion dollar franchise movies in Reynor’s case – but they are still actively involved in independent cinema.

Absolutely, Jack Reynor quite significantly because obviously he is in Free Fire, the Ben Wheatley film, but he is also in The Secret Scripture, the film version of the Sebastian Barry book that we’re also showing.

You think if people are willing to make the journey to Glasgow in February then they are pretty committed to their own film, to what the festival is about and to cinema itself. If people have pretensions about themselves then they are probably not coming our way in the first place, and we’re probably quite glad that they’re not [laughs].

Jack Reynor in The Secret Scripture

Jack Reynor in The Secret Scripture

I’m thinking about the fact that actors can go off to Hollywood and make their blockbusters but they can also come back and commit to movies where they want to tell these stories.

Yes, if you look back a couple of years to when Jack O’Connell was with us for Starred Up, the David Mackenzie film. At that stage, it wasn’t out yet, but he’d already filmed his big, Angelina Jolie movie Unbroken, he then went on to do a Jodie Foster film with George Clooney. But now he is back in the UK and doing the Alexander McQueen biopic. Maybe it’s a lot easier these days for people to make those kinds of choices and not just say “right, I’m off to do Spider-Man or Transformers and that’s where my career lies. That fame can help get smaller projects off the ground.

So, are there any particular screenings that you’ve circled in your own diary? Or have you seen all of the films, how does that work?

I’ve seen most of the stuff, I’ve certainly seen the films that I’ve chosen. Sometimes, I really want to see a particular guest if they are doing an interview or giving a talk. Sometimes I want to introduce films myself.

We’re doing a screening of Bill Forsyth Housekeeping. It’s celebrating its 30th anniversary. It’s been really difficult to get a physical copy of the film. It’s been two or three years finding a print that was of sufficient quality that we could actually show the film. I probably haven’t seen that since it came out and it is on a Sunday afternoon so I would happily take my seat for that. Sometimes it is just a case of sitting in for half an hour of a film before I have to go off and do something else.

There’s been a number of big productions coming here to film and the more that happens, the better. As you mention Bill Forsyth there, where are we at the moment in terms of being able to tell Glasgow of Scottish stories on film?

There are some really talented film directors who have made some really great Glasgow films. I think of Peter Mullan or Lynne Ramsay, people like that. I guess it has been a while since Peter directed a film because he has been so busy acting.

Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is an American film with Joaquin Phoenix due out this year. I suppose it becomes hard to keep someone here if they are talented film-makers. Again, I think of David Mackenzie who directed a number of films in Scotland, like Young Adam. The greatest acclaim he has had has come for To Hell and High Water, which is up for an Oscar this month. That’s him going to America and doing an American story.

I’m not sure what we need to do to keep our film-makers at least open to the possibility of making Scottish films. I don’t know if it comes down to money or if it’s easier to get a project off the ground if there’s an American setting.

There are people around. Hope Dickson Leach who has got The Levelling – it’s not set in Scotland but she’s a great film-maker here. There are some fantastic documentary film-makers. Where your next Bill Forsyth comes from, I just don’t know.

But if one of The Avengers movies shoots in Glasgow or Brad Pitt comes to town for a shoot, people get experience. It would be nice to have a big production here because it was a Glasgow story and a Scottish film.

The Glasgow Film Festival 2017 takes place from 15 – 26 February.