Dexter Fletcher discusses stepping out of his comfort zone
Following on Wild Bill, Dexter Fletcher returns to the director’s chair with his latest picture Sunshine on Leith – a Scottish musical based on the music of The Proclaimers, which hits our cinemas on October 4th.
Starring the likes of George Mackay, Kevin Guthrie and Pete Mullan – the film portrays the story of two young men returning home from serving if Afghanistan, back to Edinburgh to fall back into society, where love is in the air. Fletcher discusses his decision to make a musical, the alternative, somewhat more optimistic portrayal of Scotland on show, and he tells us of his own career – and whether he can see himself doing more acting in the near future.
How did you come to be involved in Sunshine on Leith?
DNA approached in March last year and of course that was very exciting, DNA have made some great films in the past. Anyway they said, look we’ve got this musical with the music of The Proclaimers and it’s been a hit show and we want to make a film of it – here’s the script, have a read and tell us what you think. First of all I read the reviews of the show and figured out quite quickly that it was obviously a big success, so I read the script and I didn’t know the songs but read the lyrics before hearing the songs as it were. Then I got more and more interested from there, and though it was very different from Wild Bill which is a good thing for me to think about doing. That’s the story of how it came to be. It’s not much of a story, but a story nevertheless.
Are you a big fan of musicals then, and if so, were there any particular ones that influenced you?
I don’t know about influenced me, but growing up as a kid, Singin’ in the Rain I loved, well, anything with Gene Kelly in it basically, I loved. I remember seeing a film called That’s Entertainment with my mum and dad which was all the best moments of all the great MGM musicals in one big film, they spliced them all together and Gene Kelly introduced each dance number. So I did like musicals, there is something about the fun in them. I mean, Singin’ in the Rain is the best musical, it’s full of life and love and it’s funny and so if there’s any touches of that in the film then I’d be really pleased. Aside from the fact I was in Bugsy Malone, I think it’s a beautifully constructed musical because songs kind of happen and it still feels like a film. Hopefully there is a comparison with Sunshine, they aren’t all just big numbers every time, they can be more intimate moments that are about what’s going on in the characters, until we get to the end where all bets are off and everyone is involved.
How was it for as a director to direct a musical? It must have been so different for you, considering you have to shoot all of these huge set-pieces and the choreography… Did you enjoy being outside of your comfort zone?
I did, though being outside of your comfort zone is a double edged sword, it’s that fear the night before then getting into it the next day and finding a way into it, and it becomes exciting and engaging and I set myself this challenge, but that’s another reason why I did it. On paper it didn’t seem to work, but I thought, that can’t be true, there must be a way of making this work. Also a set piece is a set piece, whether it be a musical number or fight or car chase, it’s something that is part of film vernacular, so I knew that if I could learn set pieces with this, in the future it would put me in good stead if I want to do a car chase or something along those lines, I’ll be more equipped to do that.
The film deals with many severe themes and yet there’s a heartwarming, jovial tone that exists the entire way through – was that difficult to maintain?
Yeah, but fortunately humour is a coping mechanism and they have to cope with some stuff these characters. Also, they put those things aside and move on with their lives and just carry that with them, but I think that’s what made this interesting, it’s not just about the boy meets girl, fall in love, will they won’t they… There is an element of that of course, but there are other stories going on as well, that The Proclaimers music warrants and can support. Their songs are not just pop ditties, they’re serious songs, sometimes protest songs, or good, hard folk songs, and those things are more durable for me. When you’ve got people like Peter Mullan or Jane Horrocks who can bring the acting to those roles and those stories, then it’s going to hopefully not get too heavy, yet still have some fun in it.
Scotland has a certain image in cinema, and it’s one that is quite bleak, violent… Was it refreshing to offer the public a different side to Scotland? A more optimistic side.
Yeah, I think it’s just the side that I saw, the side I was engaged with. I’ve been to Edinburgh before for the Millennium and it was a great place to be, and the festival is a great place to be. That was the side of Edinburgh we were looking at. The thing about Edinburgh for us, is that it’s the place these guys come home to – and home for them at this particular stage in their life is a really good place to be, it’s where they want to be, where they need to be, so they’re really happy to be there, and the film should reflect that. So that’s the Edinburgh I’m looking at. Also, every time we shot an exterior, the sun decided to shine, it was just one of those weird flukes of nature and weather that you can’t predict, but that’s what happened. The film looks great in the cinema.
Wild Bill is of course a gangster flick in the East End of London, and this is a Scottish musical – was it always your intention to move between genres and try new things?
Not exactly, but when this came to me I knew it was a good opportunity to mix and test myself and change genres. Now people are talking about me making films as a director and that’s an exciting new chapter in my career and that’s great, but what can I really make of that? What’s interesting? And it was the best script I was talked to about. I really plumped for what was the biggest challenge for me, but also the best material because it all starts with the script. That was the one that stood out, so I thought, I’m going to do this because I think it will work really well and will challenge.
Both films you’ve directed now play with audiences perceptions somewhat, because on the surface they’re both very different to what they’re actually like – Wild Bill was easy to look upon as a British gangster flick, yet it’s a real heartfelt family drama. Is this a deliberate move on your part?
I dunno maybe that’s just my sensibilities. I just make the films I’d like to see, and I think audiences are smart and they get stuff. If you can keep catching people by surprise, that’s good isn’t it? It keeps people engaged – they don’t know where it’s going, but they like where it’s gone. That’s always good and great films do that. Punch Drunk Love does that for me – one of those films you can’t quite get a handle on what’s quite going on, and I really like that.
You’re still acting too, can you see one path taking precedence eventually?
It’s hard to balance the two, because directing is very all-encompassing, there is a lot that goes into that. I don’t know the answer, if the right person comes and asks me to do something, like Matt Vaughn, then of course I’d go to work for Matt Vaughn any time. Now would be the perfect time for someone to offer me an acting job because I haven’t decided what I’m going to do for my next film, so that would be good, but that remains to be seen.
Do you approach acting roles differently now you’ve been a director?
Maybe. I think so. I don’t worry about it quite as much, the thing about acting is that it’s hard not to think every moment is going to be used, you do a lot of stuff and so little is used when you get to the edit room, and also the director and editor are always choosing what’s best and strongest. The first thing is in editing is that you need a good performance. If you have a lamp stamp in the background or some other technical issue, you can live with it, because ultimately it’s about the performance. So that’s reassuring as an actor, because at least you know they’re going to go with the strongest performance.
Finally, we covered Wild Bill at the premiere last year and there was this spirit and community feel more-so than many productions over the past couple of years. Is that something that was similar on Sunshine, or is that a real first-feature dynamic?
I’ve got to say, the young guys on Sunshine on Leith are really good friends now, they hang out and Kevin and George are talking about getting a flat together, you know. I know they all spend time together and hang out and that is fairly unusual, because films come and go and you get new jobs and move on – but they’re a really tight little unit. I’m all for that, actors are great and they’re great company and I think it’s important to get that and make it real. Hopefully that is something that stays true of my work – I love everyone on my set, I genuinely do – I’m just so happy to be there. My take on making films is that no-one is there because it’s just a job. People get into the film industry because it’s really hard work but they love film and that is something on set – whether it be a bloke holding a boom, or the runner waiting to work his way up the ladder – everyone has worked to get where they are, no-one has just come out of uni and went straight into being a cameraman, you’ve got to work your way up, and that’s what the unifying and exciting element of being on a film set is. Everybody is there because they wants to be, not because they have to be. There’s a strength in that that’s exciting.
SUNSHINE ON LEITH IS OUT ON FRIDAY OCTOBER 4