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Talking Film with Graeme Maley

Graeme Maley's two feature films, Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno, were premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2016. Both were filmed and produced in Iceland, where Maley also directs for theatre, dividing his time directing Scottish plays in Iceland and Icelandic plays in Scotland. Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno were Icelandic/Scots co-productions.
Born in Ayr, Maley trained as a theatre director in Edinburgh, where he became assistant director at the city''s Traverse Theatre. Maley also worked at Dundee Rep and Oran Mor in Glasgow, and directed Susannah York in Picasso's Women on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Maley went on to run new writing based theatre company The New Works in Liverpool before decamping to Iceland. Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno are Maley's first two feature films.

First of all, could you just give a quick outline to your two films, Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno, and what your thinking was behind them?
Pale Star is a love story between a mother and her daughter. It's an investigation into how far this particular woman will go in protecting her child even if her actions turn out to be detrimental to her daughter.
A Reykjavik Porno explores the concept of the outsider through the character of a young unemployed student. Specifically it asks the question of where do you go if you don't fit into a society's particular mores.
These were the starting points in a narrative/thematic sense for both the pictures.

I've now seen the films at festivals in front of audiences as far and wide as the USA and India, and what strikes me from a position of hindsight, is how much both films are about outsiders living in their own cultures, and the fact that in both films, the characters are all pushed to breaking point. For me, again in this position of hindsight, these characters represent the distress and anxiety I witnessed in the people of Iceland straight after the financial crash of 2008, when overnight, the whole population became fearful outsiders in their own land.

In Scotland you're known best as a theatre director. How did you end up directing not one, but two feature films in the space of a year in Iceland?
Creative Scotland had committed to funding Pale Star, but there was a shortfall on the overall budget, and we got into a waiting game with the Icelandic Film Fund, when they didn't ever say no to giving us money (but that didn't mean yes either as it turned out). In the year of waiting I wrote A Reykjavik Porno, which was then picked up in Iceland. As we were about to start shooting Porno, Creative Scotland and the Pale Star producers agreed that we would just go ahead and make Pale Star without further investment. So between January and the end of March I shot two feature films back to back.

Given the delay, how easy – or not – was it for a first time feature film director to get the films made in terms of convincing producers to let you do it?
I'm extremely appreciative that Creative Scotland decided to back me in making the films. They not only financed Pale Star, but they also helped complete Porno in terms of post production finance. I think having the theatre background, where Creative Scotland had also supported me, proved at the very least that I complete projects on budget and to a decent artistic standard. This must have helped in them deciding to back me in creating films.

But before you get to this stage of financing a film, there is the development stage with a producer. With Pale Star I had worked with several producers who disappeared after getting bored with me and the project. I was lucky then to meet producer Eddie Dick through a mutual pal, and he decided to work with me on Pale Star. Throughout the script's development, Eddie had a lot of input in the screenplay, both as a sounding board and for raw ideas. Porno was the absolute opposite, as I didn't work with anyone on that screenplay. I just wrote it, and what was written is what was picked up, shot and more or less edited. Both projects were extreme experiences of two very different ways of making a film. 

You wrote and directed both films. What was that like in terms of working with Icelandic actors in their language, which I presume you don't speak?
I wrote the scripts in English, and had all the dialogue translated.
I also rehearsed with the actors a lot on the dialogue scenes, to a point where I knew the scenes and most of the language in the scenes backwards and sideways. When it came to shooting the dialogue scenes this meant I could could shoot what we rehearsed, and as we had these foundations, I could cut the actors loose and improvise around the dialogue scenes a little. What you see in the edit is a mixture of the improvisations and rehearsals.

I don't speak Icelandic, but I have directed in Icelandic for the stage, so I do understand a small amount. With this and the fact that my cast and crews all spoke good English meant that communication in the basic sense was straightforward.

What was interesting was listening to actors speaking in their Icelandic tongue, and then trusting what felt right to my ears in terms of the pacing and tempo of scenes, and directing those scenes based simply on what felt truthful to me when they spoke. 

Both films were screened at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival. What was that experience like, effectively bringing your work home like some kind of prodigal son?
To be honest I didn't want the films to premier together. I know I mentioned that in hindsight both films are a kind of reaction to what I experienced in Iceland after the crash, but to me anyway, both films are very different in tone, look and story. I was fearful of them being seen as a kind of double bill. I suppose I just wanted them to be seen and judged on their own merits as individual pieces of work. 
Having said that, it was a honour that EIFF wanted to take not just one but both of the films, and I was desperate to see the films with an audience, any audience, to get a sense of what we had made.

As I've travelled with the films and watched the screenings with different audiences, I now have a better sense of where the films land with people. In Edinburgh, having my debut films on together and seeing them with an audience for first time was too much of a kick in the head to get any immediate sense of what I'd just been involved with.

What's been the reaction to the films, in Iceland, in Scotland or anywhere else the films have been shown?
I still don't know what the reaction was in Edinburgh to the screenings as it was all a little mental. The reviews for Pale Star in Scotland were good, and in Belgium and in New York, where Porno picked up a best actor and best cinematography award at the Nordic International Film Festival; Porno has been really well received.
However, what I have found in general is that the films are very divisive. Some people really like the films, some people hate them. And a few, you can see thinking 'what the fuck have I just watched?'. Some people think Pale Star is too slow, but this is the speed of life in South Iceland, and I wanted to mimic that in the tempo of the film. Some people think Porno is a confusing mess due to the unusual structure, but again this was a deliberate choice I made, and I am fine that for some, these choices and others are not for them. The films have been divisive, but alongside the dislike, there has been equality in liking them. 

What are the differences in terms of film production between Iceland and Scotland, and what could each learn from the other?
I haven't yet shot in Scotland, only used post production facilities, which I have to say were excellent.

In terms of crew skills, Icelandic crews are very fit in the sense that they work a lot as Iceland is used as a film location on an extremely regular basis. The crews in Iceland are constantly working on big budget Hollywood films as well as locally produced films, and at certain times crews have to be brought in from Europe to meet the demand, so the Icelandic crews are fast and skilled.

Iceland even as a small nation of 300,000 souls or so, seems to make a lot of Icelandic home grown funded films, which is obviously healthy for the film industry and the economy as a whole in Iceland.

What are you working on just now?
I am working with producer Eddie Dick on an Edinburgh set thriller, Sometime Did Me Seek, which is co-written with the Scottish Crime novelist Lin Anderson. This project has been granted Creative Scotland production finance, and hopefully this project will be shooting in the first half of 2017  Again with Eddie Dick I am also in development writing a screenplay based on the John Buchan novel, Sick Heart River, and I am working with producer Barbara Mckissack writing an as yet untitled Australian set, Scots connected thriller/drama.

And when can we look forward to Pale Star and A Reykjavik Porno getting a wider release?
Both films have been out playing the festivals since Edinburgh in June this year so if there is any wider potential for them, I imagine that will happen later in 2017.


Year Zero Film-making, 2017

ends

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