How we met: Gilles MacKinnon and Liz Lochhead

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The Independent Culture
Gillies MacKinnon, 51, film director, trained as a painter at Glasgow School of Art. After working as a teacher and cartoonist he enrolled at the National Film and Television School. His films include Small Faces (which won an award at the Edinburgh Film Festival), Regeneration and the forthcoming Hideous Kinky, starring Kate Winslet. He lives in London with his wife, Francesca Wolf, and their two daughters. Liz Lochhead, 51, poet and playwright, also trained at Glasgow School of Art, and taught art for seven years before becoming a full-time writer. She is in the process of adapting her play Perfect Days for Channel Four Films. She lives in Glasgow with her husband, Tom Logan, an architect

GILLIES MACKINNON: In the pottery class on what was pretty much my first day at art school, in 1966, we were divided into twos and had to copy a plaster ear in clay. I was working beside a guy called Gerry McGowan, who became a very good friend of Liz's and mine.

Gerry would periodically stop working to circle the room and talk to people. He kept stopping by Liz and chatting her up. She stood out immediately. She emanated a strength of character and was also very beautiful, with great bone structure and dramatic nostrils.

We all used to go to the State Bar, the students' local. That's where Liz, Gerry and I formed a group, along with four or five others. At that time, if you were Protestant, like Liz and I, the school system meant that you didn't really know any Catholics, but our group was completely mixed. That was very powerful. I grew up in Glasgow, but Liz was from Motherwell and she had that feeling of being a lowland Scot, and was a different influence on us.

I remember meeting Liz in a corridor in the first year and her seeming slightly troubled. She said, "I'm beginning to feel that words are what I want to be involved with." I just couldn't grasp that, because Liz was a really good painter and because the only thing that existed in my life was painting. She began by illustrating individual poems, and later had a little book of poems published, with a hippy-looking picture of her on the cover. Her book seemed to me an amazing achievement.

We worked incredibly hard through the course and were always broke, but always managed to have a lot of fun. The most notorious incident was Liz's friend Maggie's 21st birthday party at their flat. Me, Gerry and another guy were doing Elvis Presley impersonations and the noise brought the police in. There must have been about 20 of them, with dogs. We objected to their presence so they stuck us in jail. We all got charged with "shouting, bawling and stamping our feet" - except for Liz, who was charged with keeping a disorderly house. We conducted our own defence, were found guilty and fined pounds 2 each.

My passion for film dates back to the art school film society. Liz and I would watch wonderful films by directors like Bergman, Visconti, Pasolini or Kurosawa. At that stage, though, I just wanted to paint.

I was shocked when the course ended. Liz and I both ended up teaching art, but she didn't share my impulse to leave Glasgow. It was really strange going back there in 1994 to shoot Small Faces in the art school. We had extras in the studio we worked in, wearing the kind of clothes we used to wear. One tutor was played by Liz's husband, and Liz spoke a line as a lecturer. I can't explain how weird it was - recreating our past like that.

During the Seventies, Liz would visit if she was down in London, and I'd see her in Glasgow. For some time she was living with my cousin, Kenneth, but by the time I got married they'd broken up. Throughout my wedding reception they sat together in the hall of my house, weeping.

I bumped into Liz in Edinburgh in 1986. It was the day of the first preview of her play Dracula when I was casting for my graduation film. There was supposed to be a very dramatic snowstorm, but the paper shredder didn't work and there were A4 sheets landing on the actors. I couldn't stop laughing, and felt very cruel. But Liz just said: "We'll get it right tomorrow." I realised then how different what she does in theatre is to what I do. You don't get "tomorrow night" in film. You get one chance, maybe with a few takes, and if you don't get it right, the result will be there for the film's entire life.

I see Liz's love of words - Scots words in particular - coming through in her plays. They also have something of her humanistic morality and her boldness. She's always been larger than life. She didn't become a successful writer overnight; she served her time, as did I. We have different sensibilities, but we're both pretty hard-headed and strong-willed.

I may only see her a couple of times a year, but there are reminders: she has a drawings of mine in her house, and my daughter has a painting by Liz in her room. It's a nude, in yellow with some reds. The lines are sharp and the colours are bright, quite striking - a bit like Liz.

LIZ LOCHHEAD: I was in the pottery class on my first day at Glasgow School of Art, listening to a little curly-haired guy telling this elephant joke to a tall, fair, good-looking guy: "What's grey and sings jazz in the jungle? Elephants Gerald." The shorter one was Gerry McGowan, the tall one was Gillies, and we have all been the best of friends ever since. The three of us would go drinking and stay up all night telling each other ghost stories. I'd gone to a co-educational school where you didn't really talk to the guys in your class. I was 18 and art school was the first time I'd had blokes as friends. I loved it.

Aside from our mutual interest in art, we found it really easy to get to know one another because we were from the same backgrounds: lower middle- class Scottish, Protestant, hard-working, aspiring families. Gillies' dad was a policeman and mine was a local government administrator. Whenever I was at his family's house I felt completely at home.

In another way, it's funny that we get on so well, because we've got very different senses of humour. We communicate by incomprehension. I'll say something in all seriousness and Gillies will crack up.

With most people that you are friends with from a certain time, all you've got is the past. But Gillies and I don't run out of things to say after we've had a laugh about how he turned up dressed as a Viking at the art school Gangster Night.

I never felt he was unfulfilled before he became a director. He's a positive person and always made the most of his teaching or social work. But when I saw Passing Glory, his graduation film, I thought that's really who this person is and this is what he does: he makes films. I'd like to think he felt the same about me when he saw Dracula. All the films he makes are very personal to him. What motivates him is each piece of work, rather than going all out to have a successful career.

It's great that his films are so well- received. I've felt really proud of Gillies when I've seen him introduce his films. He talks to the audience with this amazing grace, like they're just a single person whom he already knows really well.

Gillies is quite Scottish in character, but I think he has developed a romanticised view of Glasgow. He proved that during the filming of Small Faces: my husband and I went to a pub with Gillies, his daughter and the cameraman. As we walked back to our house, we saw this guy rolling around in the gutter, naked and groaning. Gillies started laughing like mad, saying, "Only in Glasgow!" I replied, "I've lived in this neighbourhood for 15 years and I've never seen anything like this!"

Gillies would never have fitted into Glasgow's macho, heavy-drinking set. I think that's why I liked him so much from the start. He's a very good person, a very caring husband, father and son. I think of him as a touchstone for what life is all about. I'd be very worried if I did something he didn't approve of morally - like writing a script solely to make money. He always gives valuable advice when he reads my work - not structural analysis, but emotional points which might seem eccentric at first, but are really perceptive.

Years ago, we worked on a project together but it never came off because I messed up the screenplay. I'm now better at writing for film and it would be great to work with him in the future. I expect we'd drive each other nuts and fall out - but it would be interesting to find out.

! 'Hideous Kinky' is released on 5 Feb. `Perfect Days' is at the Hampstead Theatre, NW3 (0171 722 9301), until 30 Jan; then tours in Scotland between 16 Feb and 27 Mar

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