The Wild(erness) Boys


Neil Young interviews the Mackenzie brothers from The Last Great Wilderness

ALASTAIR MACKENZIE (star, co-scriptwriter)

So far you’re best known for your TV work in the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen, and now you’re starring in first feature film, which you’ve also co-written – how does it feel?

It’s pretty nerve-wracking, I’ve got to say. people can say pretty nasty things if they want to. We’re all on tenterhooks – we do all this press, but nobody knows what people think about the film. We do all these months of publicity, but the actual reviews aren’t out until the very last moment.

The early reviews have mentioned quite a few other movies.

They were all in our head. Deliverance was a film we watched a lot. Straw Dogs, The Wicker Man. Withnail and I – that dark-comic-buddy-movie thing going on as well. We started off with a sort of Withnail meets Deliverance kind of idea, and that kind of evolved as our taste in film evolved as well. It’s gratfiying when people pick that up – we seem to have got across what we tried to get across, so that kind of worked. Generally for us that’s the golden age of cinema, the seventies, people were allowed to make films that were not obsessed with resolution, were not obsessed with defining chars as good or bad, they could afford to be ambivalent, which is what we wanted to be with this. And having a low budget allowed us to be more ambivalent. When you have more money you have to think of appealing to more people, we were allowed to get away with things a bit more.

The filming process involved shooting lots of footage with digital-video cameras – what does that give you as an actor?

Tremendous liberty, tremendous freedom because you are worrying less about doing it again – you can afford to without worrying about the film stock. You worry less about being constricted by your “marks” which you can be when they’re filming with big cameras. You’re that much freer if you don’t have to worry about standing on specific marks. You worry less on the technical side of acting, and concentrate more on the truth of the performance – so that’s an incredible liberty: an organic creative process that I learned a lot from and I don’t want to work any other way ever again!

Presumably Monarch of the Glen is the diametric opposite.

Yes, it’s television, and we shoot an episode in two weeks. It takes two weeks to make an hour of television, which is. not very long! So there’s no time for improvisation, or discussions about the script – the actual film set is not a very creative environment because television at that kind of level doesn’t give enough time for that, it all has to be done beforehand.

The sheer amount of footage shot means that the film essentially took shape in the editing process – were you surprised by the finished product?

No – it was a long editing process, but we know what we were doing beforehand. There was room for manoeuvring around the script – we were allowed to sometimes let the script go and play around, but we always had the structure there. We always knew how it was going to end up. There were only a couple of minor surprises.

But there are plenty of surprises for the audience.

Absolutely, that was the idea, to subvert expectations at every turn. What tends to happen, as an audience member, once you think you can define a film – as soon as you can sit and say ‘This is a road movie’ or ‘This is a romantic comedy’ or whatever, then you kind of switch off and you let it wash over you. And what we wanted to do was, whenever you got comfortable, everytime you thought you could define it, we tweaked it somehow, we sent it off on another tangent – so that you have to keep awake and thinking about it. And I think that worked very effectively – it’s a rollercoaster ride. It’s kind of eccentric and insane a lot of the time, but you do want to watch this: you never say to yourself, I can’t bear this any longer, it’s boring – it’s never boring. And that’s a good thing, nowadays people are getting more and more inured to cinema, because they see so much of it. So I think surprise is a very healthy thing for the state of cinema as a whole.

Speaking of the state of cinema, Wilderness is competing against X-Men 2 and Matrix Reloaded – what’s your realistic commercial prognosis for what is a relatively ‘small’ movie?

Well realistically, it doesn’t look good because all these big pictures are out now. We were going to release the film in December, when the only other films out were Bond, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. So you think ‘What is the point? You cannot compete with those films.’ The two Rings movies have taken over a billion dollars or something – just ridiculous amounts of money, you can’t get anywhere near it. We just hope there are people out there who want to see different films, and this is a film for everyone – it’s not in any way a ‘cult movie’ or elitist, or anything like that. This is a film that contains humanity and universal themes, that would appeal to anyone. I guarantee it!

You’ll give them their money back if they’re not satisfied?

I will provide it! (laughs)

The early publicity seems to be emphasising the horror angle – how would you describe it to people who just knew the title and the fact that you’re in it?

Well, if I was a marketing man. I would describe it as a horror film. That’s a marketing thing – they’re trying to get bums on seats, but I think that’s a mistake – because it’s not a horror film, by any means. It’s a very intelligent film – not that horror films aren’t intelligent, but it’s much more of a cerebral film than one would think a horror film would be. How would I describe it? Gosh. in marketing terms, as ‘a road movie where they run out of petrol.’ (laughs)

In my review I used the word ‘gas’ instead of petrol, I must be turning American or something.

You’ve been watching The Matrix and things like that. We’ve got to reclaim this territory for the British film – we knew we wanted to make a road movie, and we knew in Britain we’re going to run out of road, so we thought we’d combine these elements and take it to Scotland, and that means the wilderness, that’s where it all began. We love American films, we love to watch these movies set in a generic ‘midwest’ where we don’t have any true perception about that sort of place, so we allow anything to happen there, because we don’t really understand it. It’s generic, it’s huge, it goes on forever and ever. We wanted to use a similar geographic environment – but the problem in this country is you very quickly get bogged down into ‘the parochial’ – people bring their baggage to any location in which a film is set. If a film is set in Manchester then the audience think they know what that means – what we wanted to do was take it somewhere else. I don’t see this film that’s specifically Scottish, it just so happens that the wildest place we could find is in Scotland. It’s geographically Scottish, but it’s not specifically Scotland.

My Little Eye was a British movie that was filmed and set in north America for similar reasons – so it’s perhaps a perennial problem for UK film-makers?

I think it is – it’s very hard to find subject matter that’s going to appeal to people beyond that specific area where it takes place. As audience members we like to see films set in this fantasy netherworld of America – we don’t know what it’s really like, so Americana is something that appeals to all of us, because it represents a combination of the unknown and the fantastic.

So what was it like being directed by your brother – any fraternal fireworks?

We were concerned about it beforehand – we’re very close, Dave and I, but the dynamic is very much of the older brother – younger brother, in this case I was his younger brother who was quite famous from the telly and had written a screenplay, so he had to allow me to be ‘the actor’ and I had to allow him to be ‘the director’. We talked about it a lot beforehand, cause we didn’t want it to strain our relationship – it ended up being a very professional scenario, it worked very well. And my respect for him increased a hundred-fold – he was fucking amazing on set.

Are you still talking?

Yes, very much so – still talking and hugging.

Do you plan to work again?

We have our own production company in Glasgow [Sigma] and we have a few things in development, so we are planning to work together again, yes.

Sigma is making films in collaboration with Zentropa now, like Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – is this a realisation that Europeans must work together if they’re to keep making relatively low-budget films?

That’s the intention. We have a co-production arrangement with Zentropa Films, who make a lot of the Danish films, including all Lars Von Trier’s and Thomas Vinterberg’s films. And we realised we share a sensibility and we realise that we could pool our resources, so therefore that’s what we’ve done and we’ve now worked together on films.

I used the word ‘McDogme’ in a review – did that word make you want to throw up, or are you happy with the description?

Doesn’t make me want to vomit, but it doesn’t make me feel that comfortable. I love Dogme, the Dogme films when they were relevant – but I think that Dogme has had its day, and the whole idea of Dogmatic as film-makers was a very interesting, almost Situationist idea, but it’s nothing something that we were playing with at all, we simply had a low budget and we had to make our story work. We weren’t operating within the criteria of Dogme in any way, but having said that, the Dogme vibe, which encourages realness and also ambiguity and interesting film stories is something that appeals to us, so. yes.

The story has some elements of all four of the first Dogme films – Festen, The Idiots, Mifune and The King is Alive.

That is interesting, but of course the script was written before any of those films emerged. But the spirit is there, kind of like a zeitgeist thing. The basic conception of the script started six years ago, but scriptwriting process is always going to be a long one. Six years ago me and Michael Tait set out on the writing of the film, then we put it to bed, I started doing Monarch, and I started making a name for myself, and Dave started making a name for himself making shorts, and Gillian Berrie our producer, she started making shorts as well and a name for herself, and suddenly the time was right to bring our feature off the back-burner. We got the money to make it, so we said thank-you, and started straight away.

So was the success of Monarch and your higher profile crucial in getting the film made?

Monarch certainly helped – bankability is important. It’s a very low budget, but you still need to feel like your risk is less – as small a risk as possible, so that must have helped.

Are you filming another series of Monarch now?

I’m being written out of Monarch, yes, so I’m filming my last series.

Is that a scoop?

It probably is a scoop, you’re right. I don’t know when I’m allowed to announce that. Well, nobody’s told me so I don’t care who knows it. Yes, I’m filming my last series.

Do you have any other projects lined up?

Nothing coming out at the moment. I was over in America in the winter, so there are a few things maybe in the pipeline, so ‘watch this space’.It’s been shown in festivals to pretty great acclaim, I must say, which is why I was invited out there. We didn’t think it would be Americans’ cup of tea, but it’s done very well at the festivals and we’re talking with American distributors. So I was flown out to Los Angeles and I’m signed up with a representative out there, so I’ll see if we can crack that market maybe!

Are the meetings as nightmarish as they’re made out?

Yes, everyone tells you you’re the Best Thing in the World, and you’re very happy to hear that, and then you realise that they say that to everyone – a lot of bullshitting goes on, but you develop a bullshit filtering system.

We’ll say that also.

DAVID MACKENZIE (director, co-scriptwriter)

I’ve just spoken to Alastair and asked what it was like being directed by a brother – what’s it like directing a brother?

I’ve done it quite a lot. I think the first film I ever made when I was 14 or so, I was directing him – he’d have been eleven. I made a couple of shorts with him, and also he he’s been kicking around with this project for a long time, so it wasn’t difficult at all. He didn’t need any special treatment.

So the relationship was professional rather than fraternal?

A bit of fraternal crept in at whatever point it was necessary. It’s obviously easier working with my brother than with people that I don’t know quite as well as him, so that all helps as well.

And if somebody knew only the title and the fact that the film starred Alastair, what would you tell them to expect?

Well, they should get a ride. The film takes characters to new places, and hopefully the audience’ll laugh and they’ll wince as they get taken along as well.

Do you see it as a horror film?

It has elements of horror, but it certainly isn’t a full-on, full-out horror film. The idea of is that you expect something nasty to happen all the way through, but the plot keeps on turning around so you’re never quite sure what it is.

There seem to be hints of lots of other films – specifically British comedy-horror of the early sixties.

There are lots of films like that in my mind, I’m a big fan of British films from that period, but I wasn’t consciously trying to emulate that in particular.

And of course The Wicker Man is one that’s being mentioned a lot as a reference point.

Everyone’s really picked up on that, and I wonder why! The sort of paranoid atmosphere, people dancing, the highland landscape, that’s where it comes from, I guess. A remote situation where people have worked out their own culture – audiences ask where are we going to go with this, and they think, Oh God – Wicker Man country! I’m a fan of The Wicker Man, and I’ve worked with Edward Woodward on a short film, but I wasn’t deliberately trying to do a Wicker Man movie.

The film’s director Robin Hardy is currently making a sequel – might you have been interested in handling it?

Almost certainly yes, but I think Robin Hardy deserves the first crack at that one!

Apparently you shot a lot of footage – what was the ratio?

Quite high – a lot of it was useless, but around 100 hours was shot. I had an enormous input in the editing process – the editor and I have worked very closely for a very long time. There’s a lot of fantastic footage, it might make a nice DVD, but it was never all going to make it into a film that runs at 92 minutes!

So were you wary of trying to do too much with your first film?

I wasn’t especially trying to impress – if I was going to criticise myself, I’d say perhaps there are too many ideas in there to handle, but what the hell, it’s worth having a stab at it. I don’t know whether that’s a ‘first film problem’ of not, but this film for me – it wasn’t a very big budget – so it was the chance to play around, and be a little bit anarchic with what was going on.

And of course the advent of foot&mouth disease caused problems during the shoot – to what extent did you try to use this to your advantage as a restriction to work against?

Part of the process with making film is that you roll with the material and roll with what’s going on. I think there’s a certain flavour of the film that wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been faced with these environmental factors.

And the script is semi-improvised – to what extent is this a Mike Leigh type project?

Far less than Mike Leigh but a little bit more than nothing. We worked with a script, but when some things came along we took advantage of it, which is how the characters emerged. In the past I’ve done short films, and many of the best lines have come from the cast on the day – and they never get a credit for it, so I thought I’d do that here.

How did Jarvis Cocker get involved on the soundtrack?

The Pastels are mates with Jarvis, and we were looking for somebody to do this particular song who had a very distinctive voice, and The Pastels had the great idea to approach Jarvis. I was well up for it, and thankfully so he was he.

Jarvis doesn’t actually appear on screen, but we see the Pastels – in drag!

I needed some villagers for that party scene, and I quite like the idea of reprising their songs at the end in that context – they looked like they’d fit in to some kind of weird, anarchic community.

You now have two films in the can, are you ready to bask in the limelight?

I’m rather nervous, and I’ve got to get cracking on my next project, so it’s all kicking off at the same time – the old ‘buses’ thing. I should be grateful for being able to make two films which don’t have the world’s happiest endings – I don’t feel as though they’ve been compromised by the brutal process of making the movies.

Many people struggle to make one film, you have two at once – what’s the secret?

I’ve been banging away at it a long time, and it just so happens that the two projects are coming together at the same time.

And what’s next?

It’s a film called Asylum.

A remake of the 1972 horror film?

No, the novel by Patrick MacGrath. I’m not sure about that title now, given the political connotations at the moment. we might have to come up with something slightly different.

You’ve also been working with Zentropa Films of Denmark.

The Danes have got a healthy film culture, and arguably one of the best Scottish films ever made – Breaking the Waves – was made by Lars Von Trier anyway. But there are only 5 million people in Denmark, and they’re moving more into English-language films, which a lot of European countries are having to do – Scotland and Denmark are roughly similar populations and latitudes. There are obviously a lot of cultural differences, but there are enough cultural similarities that the Danes can express their voice through Scotland, in a way.

6th May 2003

by Neil Young