He turned down Marlon Brando. He said OK to Steve Martin (on certain conditions). Not bad for a Glaswegian with only a couple of features under his belt.

Edinburgh Festival: Peter Guttridge talks to Gillies MacKinnon
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Glaswegian Gillies MacKinnon said no to Marlon Brando and turned his back on big budget Hollywood to make Small Faces, a pounds 1.2m film about three brothers growing up in Glasgowwhich receives its premiere at this year's Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival.

"Brando wanted me to direct him in Divine Rapture. I used this to get the green light from BBC Films who funded Small Faces. I phoned and said unless you give me the go-ahead in the next 24 hours I'm going to make a film with Brando. They said yes."

Brando was one of many film people beating a path to MacKinnon's door on the strength of The Playboys, his 1992 Hollywood debut starring Albert Finney. MacKinnon turned them all down except for Steve Martin, with whom he made A Simple Twist of Fate, based on George Eliot's Silas Marner, which also premieres at the Festival.

"You'd be surprised at the films I haveturned down in the past couple of years," he says. "Films that became big hits. It sticks in your throat until you remember you didn't like the script so probably couldn't have made it a hit."

He spent eight months away from his wife and two children filming Twist of Fate. He got more offers on the strength of that. "I was offered things in Hollywood that in other circumstances I would have taken seriously. But I had to say, sorry, I'm homesick. I want to go home to my family and make Small Faces."

A relaxed, friendly man, MacKinnon is in London putting the finishing touches to the film before the Edinburgh festival. Funded by BBC Films, BBC Scotland and the Glasgow Film Fund, Small Faces has been made on a tight schedule - shot in 30 days, edited in six weeks, sound mixed in five days.

"Everything was less than I've become accustomed to. The 30-day shoot was to the bone but the energy was there and everyone went out to achieve this."

Although not directly autobiographical, the film has many redolences for MacKinnon, 47, and his brother, Billy, 42, who co-scripted it. They started the film four years ago when Gillies was in London and Billy in Sydney, where he co-produced Jane Campion's Sweetie and script-edited The Piano. The brothers worked on the script by fax until Billy went to his house in Italy to finish it off.

"Although there's a five-year gap, basically we remember the same things and a lot of those are in the film," Gillies says. "The youngest brother buys a stolen skeleton as a present for his middle brother who is going to art school. He runs around town with the skeleton on his back. Billy was found by the police doing something similar. And the party scene is so much like the parties mum and dad had, I feel moved when I see it."

In 1968 the MacKinnon's were living in Govanhill, which, according to Billy, was "gang infested". Gillies says: "You'd go into the city on a Friday night and it was happening all around you. I was in gangs when I was little, but when it got to weapons all I wanted was to go to art school. I wasn't going to run around with a bayonet down my trousers."

Gillies didn't start making films until he was 34 when he went to the National Film School. With a family to support, he pushed hard to make features after graduation but had only done two BBC and one Channel 4 films when The Samuel Goldwyn company hired him for The Playboys. "They didn't want me. But the scriptwriters Kerry Crabbe and Shane Connaughton, my tutors at film school, insisted."

When the film was a success offersstarted coming in. While turning some down, he was bogged down in deals for others that never happened. "I spent two years trying to get deals together. They showed me what can go wrong when you try to star-cast a film. Once you start talking about getting Geena Davis it becomes complicated because she is being offered everything under the sun."

He was intrigued when Steve Martin invited him to direct a film Martin had written. "It was a personal film on a low budget. We'd discussed what the basic principles were on the phone then he sort of handed it over to me in terms of direction. Of course he had things to say when we got to the cutting-room, but he had some very good ideas."

MacKinnon's next project takes him back to Ireland, for a film called Trojan Eddy scripted by Billy Roche. "It's got a pounds 2.4m budget and there's no star requirement. In Hollywood I'd get some nice films but what's the cost? A year in exile. But if Gene Hackman phoned tomorrow I might change my mind."