Iain MacLeod Interview

Iain MacLeod is a Halifax-based screenwriter and filmmaker and graduate of the Canadian Film Centre. He got his start making short films before spending many years writing Canadian TV, first on the sketch show Street Cents and later on Trailer Park Boys.

He also co-wrote the feature films BEAT DOWN and RELATIVE HAPPINESS. Most recently he wrote and directed the micro-budget feature film YOUR MONEY OR YOUR WIFE, which has won several film festival awards and was nominated for a Canadian Comedy Award for best film, and did a stint writing on the sketch show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Iain spoke to me about his recent feature, his upcoming short and his experiences with film making and Gaidhlig.

Ruth: Can you start off by talking about how you got started in filmmaking, your recent feature and the Scottish Gaidhlig short that you’re going to be shooting in April?

Iain: Sure. So I grew up in rural Nova Scotia and watched a lot of TV as a kid. Even on a school day I would watch several hours of TV and I watched all kinds of different things. I probably watched too much actually. It probably stunted my development in some way. Like seven, eight, nine hours a day. I wasn’t always that discerning either. I kind of watched anything and in rural Canada at the time, we basically had two television stations. One of them, the state network CBC, played a lot of both Canadian and British stuff. So I grew up watching a lot of shows that were of that ilk.

Then, when I was at the end of grade twelve, so you know the last year of high school, when I was seventeen, I had a sociology class and as part of that class we were broken into groups to do a project and there was a presentation component. This would have been the spring of 1990, some friends and I decided to do a video as part of that project and so we actually rented a camcorder – which was something you could do at the time – at a stereo shop, which is a thing that doesn’t even exist anymore and we went out and we – you had to do it on a social topic – so we picked immigration. I interviewed a friend of mine who was an immigrant and we went to the local immigration office and talked to somebody there and anyway we edited it all together with two VCRs and it probably wasn’t very good but we really liked it and had a lot of fun doing it and it was kind of the most fun I had ever had in my life until that point and I just thought – this is amazing. Obviously I knew the movies and TV I watched were made by somebody but it never really occurred to me that that was something you could do. Particularly growing up in a rural, very working class place, that just seemed so disconnected from my life. But that’s really where that idea was born.

“I knew the movies and TV I watched were made by somebody but it never really occurred to me that that was something you could do. Particularly growing up in a rural, very working class place, that just seemed so disconnected from my life. But that’s really where that idea was born.”

Ruth: And that realisation stayed with you after high school?

Iain: Yeah, I went about my life and I went to university and had a few jobs and did this and did that but you know I just kept thinking about movies. So I actually saved up and bought a camcorder at one point and my friends and I would make terrible videos. Then when I finished university – I took a couple of film classes in university, I didn’t go to film school – when I finished university, I managed to convince my mother to loan me a lot of money to make a period piece, a drama set in my hometown. There was this very famous incident in the forties which was like Canada’s version of Rosa Parks where an African Nova Scotian woman was arrested for sitting in the white section of a cinema in my hometown. So I kinda made a movie, not so much about her, but the night of her arrest and I didn’t really know what I was doing, so the budget spiralled out of control and you know, I was in way over my head. But for some reason, my mother believed in me and kept it going and finished the film. It was only at that point she told my dad how much she had loaned me and anyway, he eventually recovered. So I made this film and again, not a great film but I finished it and I was very proud of it and it played in the film festival in Halifax and by that point I was hooked.

Ruth: So that lead to you building a rhythm of writing and making films?

Iain: I just started making movies on my own and putting them in Canadian film festivals and then I started writing TV. I wrote on a youth sketch comedy show in Canada called Street Cents and then after that I went to the Canadian Film Centre which is like a film finishing school. It was started by Norman Jewison and it was based on the American Film institute. It’s in Toronto. I did a screenwriting programme there and then I got a job after that on a Canadian TV show called TRAILER PARK BOYS and I did that for like, six years. I continued to write my own stuff but I didn’t really make movies for a long time. The Canadian Film Centre kind of told me I was more of a writer than a director and I believed them. So probably for about ten years I didn’t really direct anything. I wrote lots of stuff and I wrote other people’s TV.

Then one day I just thought, you know I kind of miss doing this thing that I loved so much. So in 2013 I started making shorts again. I had co-written a couple of feature films but in 2015 I made a film called YOUR MONEY OR YOUR WIFE, which is a feature and that was the first feature I had done. I thought that would change my life and everything would be wonderful and I would finally be successful and everyone would recognise my genius. Didn’t quite work out that way but I have a film I’m proud of and I think because I had made that film and it was kind of a micro budget, so it cost just under $200,000 – because I had made that film I had this confidence, this desire to make another feature film as soon as possible. It’s kind of a – not a barrier – but it is a big deal when you finally make your first feature and so I had already done that and so I thought well of course I can make another one.

I had written a script which originally was actually meant to be a British TV show and I pitched it to a couple of people. It was set in Scotland originally. It kind of never went anywhere and so I decided, you know what, I’m going to make this into a movie and that was YOU RUINED OUR LIFE. That was shot in the summer of 2016 and we made it really quickly, we didn’t have a lot of money. We basically did the shoot for about CA$800 and shot in – it was seven days, but two of those days were really short – so it was basically the equivalent of five and a half days. We just went really, really fast. Maybe too fast. On two of the days of the shoot we filmed 17 pages. It was a lot of friends, professional actors, professional crew, but friends that came together. We did it really fast and it is a little scrappy because of that but I’m very proud of it and then we did a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and we raised about CA$5,000 for post-production. So we finished it and I was the one who edited it as well. It debuted in the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax in 2017, so that’s the latest film I’ve done.

The other thing is, it’s really interesting you know, I’ve been around long enough that I remember the world before digital, when everything cost way more. Now it’s so much more accessible. I have a better camera on my phone than the camera we would spend hundreds of dollars a weekend to rent in the nineties. I think it’s a very exciting time. It’s tough of course because that means there are a lot more features being made so it’s hard to stand out and it’s hard to get discovered and seen, but it’s a lot easier to make a movie than it once was. You still need a great script and actors and so on, but in terms of the technological side of things, it’s a lot more accessible, which is good. Hopefully it leads to the democratisation of film.

“…it’s a lot easier to make a movie than it once was. You still need a great script and actors and so on, but in terms of the technological side of things, it’s a lot more accessible, which is good. Hopefully it leads to the democratisation of film.”

Ruth: You were working with the Languages of Nova Scotia programme, was it out of your experience working with that programme that you felt like – “let’s make a Scottish Gaidhlig film”?

Iain: My father’s grandparents were all first language Gaidhlig speakers. By the time he was growing up, the language in his community was in decline, although there were still church services in Gaidhlig and his grandparents spoke it a lot, but he didn’t. He knew what his name was and he knew how to swear and I’ve never really been able to figure that out because his family were all Calvinists so I don’t know where he would have heard those words, but anyway.

So I have a Gaidhlig name, a Gaidhlig spelling of my name and ever since I was a little kid I have had to spell it and explain it. Something that is core to my identity is my name, it is part of this other thing, this earlier tradition in my family. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in.

“I have a Gaidhlig name, a Gaidhlig spelling of my name and ever since I was a little kid I have had to spell it and explain it. Something that is core to my identity is my name, it is part of this other thing, this earlier tradition in my family. So it’s something I’ve always been interested in.”

Starting in the nineties, I would take lessons and it never really took and I wasn’t that serious about it. But then when we did the Languages of Nova Scotia programme and that weekend in particular that you were at, at the Gaidhlig college – I actually found it extremely emotional to be there.

I had already started another class in anticipation of doing that programme and I decided to get very serious about it and I’ve been in – I’m in three different classes right now. I’m still terrible at it, I mean my Gaidhlig is awful but I’m plugging away. So fairly early on, it seemed like a pretty natural fit. I thought as far back as the nineties about doing a film in Gaidhlig and now I’m going to make one in April and I feel pretty confident that it won’t be the last. I also just got a grant from the province of Nova Scotia to adapt – I’m kind of nervous to tell you, you might be upset but – to adapt the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Ruth: An Táin?

Iain: I’ll write it initially in English and then it will be translated – this is the part that will upset you – into Scottish Gaidhlig. There’s several steps to go but the first one has happened. That will be set in – not the pre-Christian Ireland of Cuchulainn and so on but – although that will be a character in the movie obviously, but – it will be set in Sydney/Glace Bay/New Waterford today. So instead of being queens and kings, it will be low level gangsters and stuff so. It will either really work or it will just ruin everything.

Ruth: So it’s a modern take on it.

Iain: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Ruth: Why the Cattle Raid of Cooley out of all the Celtic myths?

Iain: Yeah, a lot of it comes from Ireland. Those stories – up until a couple of generations ago in Cape Breton – those would have been part of the folk repertoire. Those would have been stories that would have been told and the language and all of those stories at the time that they were originally being told, would have gone to Scotland and continued.

I think sometimes people forget that it wasn’t originally written or told in Irish, it was written down first and told in old Irish, right? So that’s what I will say in my defense. Whether people will buy it, I don’t know.

I also can’t imagine that those stories being told for centuries on end weren’t shaped by the storytellers many many times and re-imagined and retold and interpreted in different ways. I think one of the things too – maybe not so much that story because it’s part of the mythology but you know I think a lot of the time, the messaging in Gaidhlig or Irish language films is very much to do with the past and I think that gives this message that this is something that belongs to the past and I think that’s a very dangerous thing because it just reinforces this narrative of “it’s over” and it’s not over and it doesn’t have to be. I think it’s good to set things contemporarily and I think you know in English, you can make a movie of a Jane Austen novel and because there are so many other things in English, it doesn’t send that same message. But because there are so few films that are made in Gaidhlig, that can get to be a problem with the messaging.

Ruth: Are you going to look at Kinsella’s version of An Táin?

Iain: I’m reading Kieran Carson’s, that’s the main one and I’m starting to get the scholarship around it too but I find Carson’s is really good and he says he is building on Kinsella’s. I think Kinsella’s is obviously the classic, the go-to now.

Ruth: It’s tricky though because there are so many narratives going on at the one time.

Iain:
Yeah, there’s a lot of lists of people who have just been killed and so some of the challenge is to figure out what the three act structure is with that.

Ruth: And the short for April?

Iain: That’s going to be a comedy about a woman who loans her high end espresso machine to a friend’s girlfriend and they break up and she has to get it back. It’s a small three-hander and we’re going to shoot it over a couple of days in April.

Ruth: So with the Gaidhlig screenwriting, did you express the story outline in a different media like sketching or painting first before you put words to it?

Iain: No, I usually write a lot of notes before I start writing a screenplay and then when I’ve figure things out (at least figure them out as much as I do) I start writing. And because I have a background in writing television, which is usually written very quickly, I can write fast. So when I do know where it’s going I tend to get there fast. I’m not saying that’s always good but that’s what happens.

Ruth: Did you notice much difference in your creative process when you were building the story and its characters for the Gaidhlig screenplay?

Iain: For the script that we’ll be filming this April (An Inneal-Espresso) I actually wrote it in English and intended to shoot it in English when I did. It was only when I decided to make a film in Gaidhlig and I started thinking what that story might be, that it crossed my mind to make the, formerly titled The Espresso Machine, in Gaidhlig. I wanted to make my first Gaidhlig film something manageable and given the scale of the English script it felt like the best bet. So I did a bit of a butcher job on a translation (I’d like to think of myself as a low intermediate but I’m probably still an advanced beginner as a learner) and I’m now having it looked at by someone who knows what they’re doing.

“We need to keep making movies and they need to be good and they need to make a 14 year-old who is being teased or pressured by forces seen and unseen to not use their language to say “no, fuck that, this is my language and I’m using it”.”

I actually kind of like the fact this project wasn’t intended to be made in Gaidhlig initially. I was telling someone my plans the other day and they said, “that doesn’t sound Gaidhlig” but what does that even mean? I’m not knocking what anyone else has done, especially as I’m a learner, but the messaging that Gaidhlig can only be, and I’m talking in a Nova Scotian context now, linked to fiddle music and people looking dour and lamenting Culloden? Yeah, not interested. That’s so limiting and insulting. You can only be that thing and if you aren’t it you’re not Gaidhlig? Uh…what?? I actually don’t like milling frolics. There I said it. By all means have them but our language should not exist in a museum. That way lies death. There are any number of ways to be Gaidhlig. I realise it isn’t fair to compare the situation to English but no one would ever think “oh you’re making an ‘English-language’ movie — well it better be this certain way or else”. Jane Austen and Jimothy Lacoste are equally English. Well one is dead…but you know what I mean.

I feel some kind of rough fluency will probably happen in the next couple years but I don’t imagine I will ever write in Gaidhlig first (though I’m open to it). English is just so much faster for me and it always will be. You can’t translate word for word, idea for idea, but I’d rather a film in Gaidhlig written originally in English than no film in Gaidhlig. The important thing is to make more movies, to normalise the language both for people inside and outside the community.

“…the messaging that Gaidhlig can only be, and I’m talking in a Nova Scotian context now, linked to fiddle music and people looking dour and lamenting Culloden? Yeah, not interested. That’s so limiting and insulting. By all means have them but our language should not exist in a museum. That way lies death.”

Ruth: Can you talk a bit about your plans for a music score and what influence the language might have on it or whether it is the story that will colour the choice of music?

Iain: Music is so important but working in the world I often have (shoestring) it’s, well it’s not an afterthought, but it’s just difficult to either get rights or pay for score. I’ve had score done different times and I’ve always been happy with the results but when you have very little money you’re not having the number of conversations with composers or re-dos you’d obviously get with a proper budget. I’ve actually thought about learning piano so I could do it myself but that doesn’t seem like a practical fix. Along the lines of what I said about Gaidhlig not existing in a cultural ghetto I can’t see the score being fiddle music.

Ruth: Where would you like to see Gaidhlig film making develop in the future?

Iain: In general I just want there to be many, many more films. And all kinds of films. Musicals, comedies, neo-noirs, you name it. We need to keep making movies and they need to be good and they need to make a 14 year-old who is being teased or pressured by forces seen and unseen to not use their language to say “no, fuck that, this is my language and I’m using it”. Standing on the other side of language loss I can tell you, it isn’t pretty. When you’re two generations removed, your sense of loss is, if not more, certainly different. Anything that can halt that is good.

For myself I want to make as many films in Gaidhlig as I can and help other people do the same.

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