sat 13/08/2022

10 Questions for Filmmaker Bill Forsyth | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Filmmaker Bill Forsyth

10 Questions for Filmmaker Bill Forsyth

The writer-director recalls the making of his much-loved teen comedy romance Gregory's Girl

Bella bella: John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn in Bill Forsyth's 'Gregory's Girl'

You'll recall the scene where the title comes true in Gregory’s Girl. Gregory, a gawky, puzzled teenager played by John Gordon Sinclair, has finally hooked up with a girl. They spend a long evening dreamily kissing and listing their favourite numbers. “A million and nine," suggests Susan, played by Clare Grogan, after a long last smooch on his doorstep.

"How come you know all the good numbers?" says Gregory, and you can hear the witty and the quizzical mingling in his voice, as inextricable as jam stirred into rice pudding.

The exchange captures all the sweetness and mystery of teenage enchantment, but from an angle all its own. Only Bill Forsyth, a writer who hears the syncopations of chat both accurately and somehow differently, could have written it.

Gregory’s Girl (1980) is out on a new DVD and Blu-ray with bonus features including a commentary by Forsyth with Mark Kermode. In its own eccentric way, it occupies an iconic space in British cinema. A portrait of awkward teenage romantic anxiety, it is set in and around a secondary school where Gregory Underwood’s world is upturned when a beautiful girl (played by Dee Hepburn) joins the football team. But in what passes for the script’s one and only plot twist, it turns out she’s not the girl of the title.

The film was shot in Cumbernauld, a new town between Glasgow and Edinburgh which at the time was only 10 years old. It was one of those experiments in civic planning in which modern white blocks squat on the islands between a delta of dual carriageways, crisscrossed by thin pedestrian bridges. When it was built, a Scottish television advertisement encouraged people to decamp there: "What's it called? Cumbernauld." Gregory's Girl was like a feature-length version of that ad, where the girls are (nearly) all beautiful, the sun reliably shines and "there's definitely something in the air". Even the roadsigns seem to have been composed by a Forsythian wit. There's a signpost in Cumbernauld that reads, "Carlisle: 95 3/4." Another of the good numbers.

Alongside this month’s release of That Sinking Feeling, which he made with the same set of young actors from the Glasgow youth theatre, the new releases come as a timely reminder of Forsyth’s wonderful talents as a filmmaker. He would go on to make his masterpiece, Local Hero, before Hollywood beckoned. There he wrote and directed three films in decreasing order of commercial impact; Being Human lost more than $25 million. Forsyth’s unique voice has been missing from cinema since he made the sort-of sequel Gregory’s Two Girls in 1999 but, as he tells theartsdesk, he is hatching a plan for a comeback.

JASPER REES: Why did you choose to make the film with almost no professional actors?

BILL FORSYTH: It was more an expedient thing. I was over 30 years old, I had been in the film business for 12 or 14 years but I hadn’t ever worked with actors beyond directing people to read commentaries so I really felt a lack of that. So it was really just a cheap and cheerful way of beginning to learn how to approach actors. And it worked really successfully. I remember at the youth theatre I used to turn up there every week and just hang out there. The fella that ran it, I told him I was a filmmaker that wanted to get to approach actors. I just sat up at the back and watched and after about three or four weeks he said, “You know, the kids are starting to wonder who you are. Who is this weirdo that doesn’t say anything? You have to talk to them." And that was my big breakthrough. The next Friday when I actually talked to the kids when I told them what I was doing and what I wanted to do. So it was a learning process – how to communicate with actors.

Most of the speaking parts were people from the Glasgow Youth Theatre, which is a very ad hoc thing - there was no formal training involved. There was a thing called the Scottish Youth Theatre which was funded and formal and all that and you had to audition for it, but the Glasgow Youth Theatre was just a local version of it that was run from one particular community centre. Being an outsider was part of its identity and part of its charm. Any young person could just walk in any Friday night and find themselves playing a tree or something in improvisation five minutes later.

Why did only one of the cast go on to make a career of it? What was it about John Gordon Sinclair that stood out as an actor?

I suppose it was the fact that he was the key character. I’m not saying that it wasn’t because he was very talented. But it was the very fact that I cast him as Gregory was because he stood out as a very natural performer. Physically he was right and he had the sensibility of a comedian. There were so many strong things that he was bringing to it. But I suppose it was partially that, that the exposure of being the lead in Gregory’s Girl that put the thought in his head that he could make a go of it. And also I think when the film came out lots of agents got in touch with him and said, “Are you going to keep up with this?” So he was firmly directed by just the amount of attention he got. And I know he thought very carefully about it. He didn’t jump into it. He was still working as an electrician at that point. Years later after we’d worked together in other things there was a school in Glasgow that we used to pass and he always pointed to the school bell in the playground and would say, "That is my last professional installation before I plucked up the courage to stop being an electrician and be an actor.”

Why Cumbernauld?

I suppose a number of reasons. In one sense it was a reaction against That Sinking Feeling which was the film that we made in the gritty, dirty end of Glasgow with unemployment in the late Seventies. That was a more typical film in the way that Glasgow is or was portrayed in endless social documentaries and TV plays. So it was a deliberate attempt to show a different face to Scotland or Glasgow, and Cumbernauld is a satellite of Glasgow. Another reason was because the film was about adolescence and about being young and the pains of growing. I thought to myself, why don’t we set the film in an adolescent town? I remember saying to someone, "Even the trees in Cumbernauld are teenagers so everything fits."

Is that why right at the start of the film when Gregory leaves his house for the first time you see an outdoor crèche with babies and toddlers sitting around like shrubs?

That’s exactly it. I had that idea that everything was young outside but I thought, that’s in my head - I‘ve got to find a way of putting that across.

And yet the younger children seem to be the wiser ones. You establish that at the very start when several teenagers are in the bushes watching a nurse undress through a window. And then two younger boys come along and are nonchalantly unimpressed: "A lot of fuss about a bit of tit." And Gregory's little sister is his wise mentor.

That was another little formula that I had in my head, that the younger you were the more together you were. Even with the teachers in the staff room – they’re more like giggling kids than the kids are. And of course the headmaster is the weirdest of all. I just wanted to reverse the whole formula.

Are you able to put your finger on what Forsythian humour is? It’s more than just Scottish humour. There’s something very particular about such incidental pleasures as the kid in the penguin suit, the hopeless high jumper, the obsession with cooking.

I know it when I try and think it up. If I talk about what my ambitions were for it back then, it was something that was slightly magic but isn’t corny magic, it was just human magic. It could be something like this sudden midsummer’s atmosphere that overtakes people and even the two boys that are wandering around catch it. They say, "There’s something in the atmosphere." That’s almost a kind of solidifying of the idea. That’s part of it and it’s a kind of a human thing. It was just allowing every individual their eccentricity without taking it to a point where it’s just pure comedy. It’s trying to capture that little bit of eccentricity that’s in everyone without overplaying it. A lot of it was scripted rather than having these things crop up. There was more fun in writing them and playing them rather than trying to hatch them on the wing while we were filming.

The signpost in Cumbernauld which says 95 3/4 miles to Carlisle - is that a Forsythian joke?

I can't tell you what that is. It’s not one of my jokes. That’s not part of the set. Maybe a little bit of the eccentricity hung around Cumbernauld and somebody picked it up. I don’t know. A town planner or something.

A million and nine is one of the good numbers. How did you come up with it?

A million is always associated with love. "I love you a million million times." Maybe that’s where it came from. The whole idea was really just a lazy way of getting that scene done. I think I was too old then to remember what that dialogue was between two awkward people who are trying to connect. I thought, what the hell would they be saying to each other? I just thought up that as a gag.

Why has this film had such an enchanted afterlife?

I honestly can’t say. I’ve encountered young people of about 12 or 14 and it seems to be that parents have saved it up and shown it to kids when they reach that age. I remember when I stayed in Glasgow, ringing the doorbell one time and it was the little boy from next door and he was 12 at the time but I had known him since he was about five or six and I had just been the old man that lived round the back. He was very polite and well brought up and he came round and said, “Bill, I just want to say that I’ve known you for quite some time but I didn't know that you made films and my mum and dad showed me Gregory’s Girl last night and I just wanted to come and say it’s the best film that I’ve ever seen.”

He sounds like the polite prepubescent boy in the film coming round to date Gregory’s’ sister.

Then it would start among another generation. That’s the only way I can explain it. Also I’m not all that aware of it. I keep my distance from most things. I don’t chase the film around and see what it’s doing so it’s only on these occasions that I catch up with these things.

What are your feelings now about Gregory’s Two Girls?

I haven’t revisited it since we made it. I can’t say that I would be able to say anything about it as a film. I really don’t go back to work very often but it was something I was very engaged with at the time. I distanced myself from the idea it was a sequel as much as I could but then I stupidly called it Gregory’s Two Girls. I was trying to get a blend of comedy and seriousness and people seemed to have problems with that. Maybe when they see Gordon Sinclair in a school they’re not ready to take anything seriously. But it was enjoyable to write and very difficult to make. Actually for a similar reason to Gregory’s Girl: we had a bloody horrible summer. It just rained and rained and rained every single day.

But Cumbernauld looks idyllic in Gregory’s Girl.

It was totally awful. When I was trying to find something to give the cast as a souvenir I bought a couple of dozen of the silver referee’s whistles and had them engraved. On the side it said "the worst summer since 1907" because that’s what it officially was. The worst thing was the glaze of the football pitch – it changed colour in the rain. It would rain for two hours and then the sun would come out and it would dry up and go from deep orange to pink in about half an hour. The cameraman was going crazy.

Gregory's Two Girls was the last film you made. Is there going to be another?

I would hope so. I’ve got a fairly serious proposition, a script that I’ve been working on for quite a long while. It started a long long while ago when my children were young, maybe 10, 11. I was in a situation where I had a job that my children didn’t know what I did. If I was working I was away somewhere and if I was at home to all intents and purposes I was just sitting around the place not doing anything. I thought this might have a bad effect on them so I better get some work in. So over one summer I suggested that we work on a film script together. So we cooked up this film. As it turned out they went away on holiday and came back and I had a draft of about 85 pages and I gave it to each of them and I don’t think they’ve read it to this day. That must have been ‘97, ‘98, roughly. That was the instigation of it. At that point it was a film that I was going to make for children with children but over the course of thinking about it, when I look back at what it was then it wasn’t awfully much but I’ve developed it quite a lot. For me it’s unusual. It’s not a genre piece but it has elements of genre, a supernatural thing, and there are things that I haven’t really explored before. It’s set in Scotland. I can maybe sneak you a title. When it was first born back then it was called Exile. I retitled it The New Boy and at the moment it’s now called A New Boy.

Do those titles suggest that it draws on your experience of being an exiled new boy in Hollywood?

People ask me, "When did you come back?" The thing was I didn’t ever go and live there. I went over just for periods of weeks or months to make films. I didn’t ever pack up and sell up and emigrate. It was never in my mind to want to do. I would try and defuse that idea of a Hollywood sojourn. I’m just a one-man business. Most of the time I don’t even feel connected with the film business. I don’t live to make films, I have to say.

If you were asked to name a favourite out of Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, which would it be?

They’re so different, they really are. And they were equally arduous to make. I really couldn’t say. It would be like going public on your favourite kid.

  • Gregory's Girl on DVD and Blu-ray is released on 5 May

Overleaf: watch a cast reunion interview at Glasgow Film Festival

I thought to myself, why don’t we set the film in an adolescent town? Even the trees in Cumbernauld are teenagers

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