'Sloppy dog kiss of a film'
Best known for his work as an actor in the likes of Layer Cake, Hotel Babylon and Band of Brothers, Londoner Dexter Fletcher has stepped behind the camera and headed north of the border to make a Scottish musical.
He talks to James Croot about Sunshine on Leith.
As Dexter Fletcher makes his bow as a director in New Zealand cinemas, memories come flooding back about the last time he visited a movie house here.
Holed up in Auckland for a month just over 30 years ago while filming The Bounty in Gisborne and Whangarei, the then 17-year-old actor distinctly remembers how he and a "whole bunch" of his co-stars ventured from the Orange Grove Motel to visit a "big old picture palace on the main boulevard".
"There was Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson and others. We loved it, but we all got into trouble with the usher. 'Get your feet off the chairs', they yelled. I guess we were all being a bit rowdy and boisterous."
The film was Scottish coming-of-age drama Gregory's Girl, apposite because his new film (actually his second as director, 2011's Wild Bill went straight to DVD in Godzone) is also a north-of-the-border love story with football undertones, although this one comes with dialogue from the songbook of those Hibernian FC-lovingspeccy siblings The Proclaimers (known to their Mum as Charlie and Craig Reid).
Like the polarising Mamma Mia, it's a movie musical based on a successful (2007) stage show with the songs this time helping to form the story of two soldiers struggling to adjust to life back in Edinburgh.
Speaking on the phone from the UK recently, Fletcher says he came to the project quite late.
"I agreed to do it on the proviso that everyone understood that it was now a film and all that lovely material that works really well on stage isn't relevant."
Working closely with the show's creator, Stephen Greenhorn, he spent the next seven to eight months streamlining the script and making it more cinematic.
"I think it was a huge benefit that I hadn't seen it as a theatre piece so I wasn't reverential about it. I was like 'this is the material, how do we make it work?"'
Although described by Time Out UK as "a wet, sloppy dog kiss of a film", Fletcher is proud of how he has managed to bring deep emotions to what is traditionally a lighter genre.
"I wanted the drama to be important and to always stay focused on the human relationships going on.
"When it came to the songs (13 Proclaimers' tunes are used in all, from the anthemic I'm Gonna Be to the balladic title track) I kept them quite short, giving the audience just enough to convey where the characters are emotionally and then move on, not make them laborious."
He also drew inspiration from the Gene Kelly musicals he loved as a child (Singin' in the Rain was a particular favourite) and the movie musical he began his screen career with - 1976's Bugsy Malone (he played Baby Face at the tender age of 9).
"I think there are lots of similarities to Bugsy. The story operates perfectly well without the songs. Plus, I also give a little nod to it with the ending where suddenly the camera is present and everybody looks at it and is aware of it.
"We also looked at films like Slumdog Millionaire and (500) Days of Summer to create that perfect feel-good ending - like a curtain call on the stage."
Fletcher says he enjoyed shooting in Scotland, even if, due to financial incentives the majority was filmed in Glasgow rather than Edinburgh.
"There seem to be a lot of big movies being made in Scotland now - World War Z, Under the Skin. To me it's about finding the beautiful corners, which are plentiful. And yeah, shooting in Glasgow but setting it in Edinburgh did present problems.
"There's a moment where a couple are walking down a street, hop in a taxi and ask for a street in Edinburgh. It must be one of the longest and most expensive taxi rides ever. I think the Scots kind of laugh at that and we get away with it in the rest of the world."
"Now, making London into Edinburgh - that would have been tricky.
"I had a brilliant experience there though, with an all-Scottish crew and a predominantely Scottish cast. We are doing something that is proudly Scottish but I didn't want to ram tartan, shortbread, kilts and haggis down everyone's throats. I think people have appreciated that we tried to present contemporary modern Scotland - not some little outpost of Europe where everyone is walking around with a bagpipe under their arm."
As for working with The Proclaimers themselves, Fletcher says the Reids couldn't have been easier to deal with.
"They gave me an incredible amount of freedom, even if we wanted to change a lyric."
Look closely during the film and you'll even spot the pair on one of Edinburgh's high streets.
"The cameo was really just a fortuitous moment, more luck than judgment. We wanted a counterbalance to the intense, claustrophobic tank-set opening and so we had the two soldiers marching down the street singing I'm On My Way as their return to their home town.
"It was in the script, then cut, then put back in at the last minute. We need people around them wondering 'what are these two doing?'
"Charlie and Craig were on set that day and I thought it would be great in-joke if they came out of the pub and looked at them like they were a bit weird because they were singing one of their songs. They did brilliantly because they didn't overreact."
So having conquered a Scottish jukebox musical, what's up next for the former Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' star?
"I love a western. There's something about the frontier nature - one person against the land, trying to tame the elements. But they are particularly hard to do. I'm on the lookout and reading various things, but there's nothing I've solidly hung my hat on. I just respond to material and see if I can tell a story within it. As long as it's got a human heart in it, as it were, and an ability for people to see something of their own lives and relationships in there then I'm up for trying anything."
Sunshine on Leith (PG) is now screening.
- Straight Furrow
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