Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno are a pair of dark thrillers filmed and set in Iceland, but co-produced with Scotland-based Makar Productions and supported by Creative Scotland. Given how Maley has divided his working life between Scotland and Iceland over the last few years, such a collaboration between the two countries seems appropriate.
As a theatre director, Maley has presented Scots plays in Iceland, including the Icelandic premiere of David Harrower's play, Blackbird. Maley has also fostered a two-way traffic by bringing translations of Icelandic plays to Scotland. Djupid (The Deep), by Icelandic writing star, Jon Atli Jonasson, was first seen at Oran Mor in Glasgow before touring the Highlands, while Salka Gudmundsodottir's play, Breaker, opened at the the Edinburgh Festival Fringe after scooping the best theatre award in Adelaide .
Like those plays, both Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno are dark affairs that focus on characters on the edge. Pale Star is a noirish thriller in which a tourist couple go on the run from each other, only to fall in with a local couple in a way that exposes everybody's lives. A Reykjavik Porno is an equally twisted look at society's dark hinterland, in which a man becomes obsessed with a teenager who uploads webcam footage of his mother having sex.
“Both films are about outsiders,” Maley says in the afternoon gloom of a Broughton Street boozer. “They've basically fallen through the cracks of society. The characters in Pale Star are much more unaware of that, and are kind of deluding themselves about where they are in their lives, and, through the lies they're telling themselves, they make mistakes in their own personal journeys that prove catastrophic for them.
“In Porno, the characters are outsiders, but they're desperate to belong. They're really hungry to belong. They're in Reykjavik, but they can't quite get a foothold on anything. And for me, Porno especially was about the Icelandic collapse, and how all of a sudden people's lives disintegrated, and how some people haven't quite managed to rebuild themselves. It's a bit of an angry wee film.”
If the films sound like flipsides of the same coin, the different landscape of each heightens that effect even more.
“The first time I came to Iceland, there was something about the landscape there that completely blew my mind,” Maley says. “Pale Star has a volcanic ruralness that's very remote, is stunningly beautiful, but also quite claustrophobic. Porno is city centre Reykjavik, middle of winter, pitch darkness. It was shot over a month but is set over three days in perpetual darkness, so I've tried to make the landscape part of the texture of both films.”
Maley's connection with Iceland came about while developing Abi Morgan's play, Great Moments of Discovery, with international student groups at the Arts Educational school in London as part of a project initiated by Paines Plough theatre company. Through an Icelandic group taking part, Maley was invited to Iceland to devise a new show that led to an ongoing working relationship.
“Through translating Icelandic plays into Scots, I was enjoying fiddling with the writing as well as the directing, and because I was starting to write, it was a natural thing to start thinking about my own stories, and my own experiences of being in Iceland, and what stories I could explore and tell.
“While I was working in theatre I was writing all this stuff, then in 2011 or 2012, I decided to let somebody see it, and I was put in touch with Eddie Dick and Makar Productions, and we started working together on it. It didn't feel like a jump in any way. It just felt like a natural progression.”
Raised in Ayr, Maley studied drama at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh before becoming an assistant director at the city's Traverse Theatre. As a freelance, he worked at Dundee Rep and directed the late Susannah York in Picasso's Women on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He then moved to Liverpool to run new writing company, LLT, which evolved into the New Works company under his tenure .
Maley continued to work with Scots writers such as Ronan O'Donnell on his plays, Brazil and Angels, and both Iain Robertson and Isabelle Joss, who appeared onstage in Breaker, are in Pale Star. Frequent musical collaborator Brian Docherty, who has released electronic-based albums under the name Scientific Support Department, provides the score for A Reykjavik Porno.
Maley's trajectory has been less straightforward than his peers, and, like his characters in Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno he has retained his own outsider status.
“I've always loved music, movies and the arts,” he says, “but it's a very strange thing to get into. A lot of people study in the arts and end up not doing an arts job, and a lot of people who don't study the arts do end up getting arts jobs. But I think you've got to piss about a bit and try things and see what you enjoy doing.
“It's a tough life, especially outside the institutions, and on the fringes, but it's a great place to be if you can sustain it. It means you've a lot more choices, and you can work with who you want to. I think it's about being where you're happiest. It's where you find your comfort zone. The flipside is, I don't know if these films have got an audience yet, whereas if you're in an institution you've got an audience.”
Audiences are important to Maley.
“I haven't seen either of these films with an audience yet,” he says, “whereas in the theatre it's much more immediate. You develop, you rehearse and then the audience is there, and the audience is a part of it. You preview, and you change things. Making a film you don't have that at all, so that is going to be quite something to see the films with an audience, and see if they engage with the stories, because that's the thing that we honestly don't know. The only people who've seen it so far are the post-production guys and the editors. I've not seen them since last October.”
Beyond Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno, Maley is in the early stages of adapting John Buchan's posthumously published final novel, the Canadian-set Sick Heart River - “a kind of troubled Western” - for the screen. He is also working on Some Time Did Me Seek, “an Edinburgh-based supernatural cop story” co-scripted with crime writer Lin Anderson,
Given what appears to be non-stop film activity, is that Maley done with theatre, then?
“Is it hell,” he snaps. “No way. I'm desperate to get some immediacy in the rehearsal room.”
Maley is full of praise for David Greig's appointment as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It is Greig's attitude as much as the programme itself that appeals.
“He seems to be saying, okay, we've got less money, so let's do more work. I love that. But theatre's not lost to me. It's all part of the same thing.”
Pale Star screens at Cineworld, Edinburgh, June 22-23; A Reykjavik Porno screens at Cineworld, Edinburgh, June 23, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, June 24. Both films are screened as part of the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival.www.edfilmfest.org.uk
The Herald, June 21st 2016