If Glasgow is a filmset, why don’t we tell our own stories?

The problem is not filmmakers’ motivations but the commercial priorities of the industry and the scarcity of funding to tell Scottish stories, finds Rory MacNeish.

The Necropolis featured in The Batman as a double for Gotham City

The relocation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things from Glasgow to London in Yorgos Lanthimos’s screen adaptation prompted much griping. “For many, it will be like watching The Lord of the Rings without Middle Earth or Titanic without the iceberg”, opined an Observer columnist. Glasgow Redditors were less measured. Discussing the director’s justification for the change of setting, one said: “It’s clear he’s talking pish.” Another suggested Gray should have sold the novel’s rights “to a Scottish filmmaker in the first fucking place.”

Gray’s biographer, Rodge Glass, was more relaxed, and expressed his hopes that the film will lead to greater interest in Gray and, by extension, Glasgow. However, he added: “Maybe we should be reflecting on why Poor Things wasn’t made up here in the first place.” David Archibald, Professor of Political Cinemas at the University of Glasgow, has some thoughts on this. “I don’t think it’s in any way to do with a shortage of capacity in terms of brains, talent and willingness,” he said. “There’s lots of young people making shorts. Glasgow’s underground and grassroots culture in every department is super, super vibrant.”

One such young filmmaker, Fin Bain, spoke to me about the impact of Glasgow-set films in the past. He underlines the influence of director Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 drama Ratcatcher in particular: “The visual language of Ratcatcher has affected huge Hollywood directors, like Barry Jenkins.” Archibald agrees, describing it as a “beautiful, beautiful film.” They both point out that Glasgow has also benefited from the light, imaginative touch of Bill Forsyth in the surreal Comfort and Joy released in 1984 and his 1979 debut feature That Sinking Feeling (although in classic Forsyth drollery, the opening intertitle of the latter has the disclaimer: “The action of this film takes place in a fictitious town called GLASGOW. Any resemblance to a real town called GLASGOW is purely coincidental”).

Common to all these films was their low budgets, like other Glasgow-set productions by acclaimed filmmakers such as Peter Mullan and Andrea Arnold. When That Sinking Feeling was rejected for funding by the British Film Institute Forsyth began a quixotic fundraising drive. He was, Archibald points out, “the first person who lived here and managed to scrape together some coppers, £5,000 or so, to make early Scottish films.” Lack of funding is a perennial issue faced by Scottish filmmakers. Bain offers a recent example which recalls the determination of the young Forsyth. The Hamilton-born film director Paul Morris self-funded a budget of almost £5,000 for his 2022 feature Angry Young Men, a film he created whilst working full time for the NHS.

‘Why wasn’t Poor Things made up here in the first place?’ asks Rodge Glass

New developments such as the Sean Connery Talent Lab  are encouraging but, as Archibald points out, “No one is giving filmmakers between five and ten million pounds to make features.” This explains why Glasgow has a thriving short film culture, but struggles to have homegrown stories reach theatrical release. A £6.6m budget cut was recently imposed on the arts body Creative Scotland by the Scottish Government, despite the First Minister’s assurances that arts spending would “more than double” by 2028. This constrains its filmmaking offshoot Screen Scotland’s ability to provide material assistance for largescale projects.

Instead, international blockbusters like The Batman or Indian Jones utilise Glasgow’s gridded street patterns as an affordable double for American cities. This allows politicians to claim a successful film strategy, but it does not necessarily help local projects. It is not difficult to appreciate why this might rankle Glaswegian or Scottish filmmakers. “Big companies come here and they get subsidised”, Archibald explains. “For every big feature that comes here, why don’t you say: ‘We’re going to fund one from here’? Not to be parochial, but people that live here need opportunities to make films about what it’s like to live here.”

But the nature of the global film industry means that major film studios in the English-speaking market cater primarily for American audiences. British films, particularly those specific to ‘regional’ cities, are therefore risky commercial propositions. “Films are expensive to make. If you don’t get a return at the box office, which is dominated by American blockbusters, then you can see why they don’t turn up regularly,” says Prof Archibald. “Go along to Cineworld and count the number of films that are about British life. It’s certainly a capitalist industry par excellence.”

Related to this is the challenge of exhibition: “Screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre for two weeks isn’t going to get your money back”. Glasgow based features which achieve success, such as Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share, are rare exceptions. “The Angel’s Share played in Cineworld for week upon week. Loach succeeds perhaps because he’s already got in place strategies for releasing his films.” For those without Loach’s stature, a patchwork of independent production companies are now making greater efforts to find ‘regional talent’ and Bain points out that the Glasgow Film Festival offers a platform for local filmmakers. However, he adds: “The idea of making money from films is just such a crazy concept. You’ve got to do it yourself a bit independently. Hopefully there’s enough infrastructure to notice what you’re doing and then give you your shot.”

Perhaps the Poor Things outcry could provide the jolt decision makers require to prioritise homemade ventures which reflect local cultures. Alasdair Gray’s fertile imagination bequeathed several other playful and original novels to the city. We can hope a brainy, talented and ambitious filmmaker is provided the resources to adapt one of these and do for Glasgow what Trainspotting did for Edinburgh. But until then, some advice from Bill Forsyth to young filmmakers seems pertinent. Discussing the scramble to make That Sinking Feeling he said: “Stay hungry, be hungry. Because hunger is a great asset – it keeps you sharp and it keeps you creative and don’t ever lose it.”

Filmmaker Fin Bain (left) on set making Floored