Hollywood on the Clyde: Why filmmakers love Glasgow

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The Independent Culture

Brad Pitt in August, Halle Berry this month and Scarlett Johansson later in the autumn… Glasgow is gorging itself on movie stars.

Johansson is expected in town in October for the filming of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, adapted from the Michel Faber novel. She plays a sexy extra-terrestrial, sent to earth to pick up and seduce hitchhikers, who are then processed as gourmet food for her fellow aliens to eat back on their home planet.

Former Bond star and Oscar winner Berry has already been hard at work in Glasgow on Cloud Atlas, the huge budget ($100 million plus) adaptation of the David Mitchell novel from Matrix directors the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer.

To the excitement and sometimes consternation of the locals (who didn’t all relish roads being closed for 17 days), Brad Pitt came to Glasgow last month to shoot part of Marc Foster’s £80 million World War Z.

Pitt stars as a doughty United Nations employee who travels the globe trying to stop a zombie pandemic that is threatening the world with apocalypse.

What is luring these international stars in such numbers to a city where the weather is erratic at best and where there isn’t anything like a Pinewood or Shepperton-style film studio with proper sound stages?

“Locations mainly…and because of the low pound, we are cheaper than the US,“ suggests Creative Scotland’s Locations Department Manager Belle Doyle.

Glasgow’s lay-out is close to that of American cities. That’s why Cloud Atlas has been able to recreate 1970s-era San Francisco on the banks of the Clyde and why World War Z sees Glasgow doubling for Philadelphia.

“What Glasgow has specifically is that it’s a gridded city and a lot of the architecture is the same as New York,” Doyle explains. “Americans can come and feel quite at home.”

The buildings in Glasgow aren’t quite as high as the skyscrapers in big American cities. However, in the era of CGI, that’s not a problem. A little computer prestidigitation in the post-production process is all that is needed to make the buildings sprout to the requisite size. Glasgow is often also said to have the ambience of an American city: a grittiness, humour and brashness that US visitors can immediately identify.

Veteran Scottish producer Iain Smith (whose recent credits include Children Of Men, Wanted and The A-Team) tells a revealing story about Death Watch (1980), a film he made in Glasgow with the French director Bertrand Tavernier and a cast led by Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel. Before shooting began, Tavernier met the city dignitaries. He was asked why he had chosen Glasgow rather than Edinburgh as a location. “Edinburgh is beautiful…” he suggested to the initial dismay of his listeners but then added: “Glasgow is dramatic!”

Smith cites the hospitality and enthusiasm of Glaswegians themselves as a major factor in attracting filmmakers. This is a city that has always loved the movies. It’s no accident that, in the now demolished Green’s Playhouse, it had one of the biggest picture palaces in Europe, seating well over 4000 people. The frenzied public and media reaction to the arrival of Cloud Atlas and World War Z attests to the fascination cinema still holds for the city. Organisations like The Glasgow Film Office (which has 300 star Gerard Butler as its “ambassador”) and Creative Scotland have successfully courted the international film community.

At the same time as huge budget Hollywood projects have come to town, local filmmakers have remained busy. Leading Scottish production outfit Sigma Films, based at “Film City” (a refurbished facility on the site of the old Govan Town Hall) recently made sci-fi film A Perfect Sense in Glasgow. Starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, this portrays Glaswegians trying to cope as a mysterious epidemic hits the world, depriving people of their senses one by one.

The current mini-boom rekindles memories of an equally robust period in the mid 1990s, when movies like Rob Roy, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (partially shot in Ireland) and Working Title’s Loch Ness, all foregrounding Highland scenery, gave tourism to Scotland a huge fillip. “You’ve seen the big film. Now come and see the wee country,” ran the slogan that the Scottish Tourist Board came up with to woo potential American visitors.

It’s doubtful that a Brad Pitt zombie movie or an existential epic like Cloud Atlas will have quite the same effect on visitors as Liam Neeson in Rob Roy dancing through the heather. When these movies are released, some audiences won’t even realize the Glasgow connection. Hollywood studio bosses are notoriously unsentimental about where they shoot their films. The bottom line is generally what matters the most. The city's popularity may soon fade if other cheaper sites become available.

Nonetheless, Smith is urging Glasgow to capitalize on its new-found prominence as a movie location. Films coming to the city are already estimated to bring up to £15 million a year in inward investment. The producers of World War Z are said to have been delighted with their experiences. The challenge now is to lure further films on a similar scale.

One obvious way to do this is to offer financial incentives. Some insiders argue that if the Scottish Government receives enhanced tax raising powers, it should forthwith set up its a fiscal incentive for film. As matters stand, international producers on films like Cloud Atlas and World War Z can use the UK film tax credit. This allows them to claim a cash rebate of up to 20% of their British qualifying “spend,” attractive in itself but not a patch on what they might get elsewhere. There are also increasing calls for the creation of a state-of-the-art film studio in Glasgow.

What's clear is that filmmakers, local and international, like Glasgow. As for the weather, that’s something that no-one can guarantee. As Belle Doyle ruefully reflects, World War Z “had to stop on several days…because it was sunny!”