Director John McKay on Not Another Happy Ending and indie filmmaking

The director of Life On Mars episodes and now the film Not Another Happy Ending, John McKay talks about getting films made in the UK...

Ostensibly the geek bait in Not Another Happy Ending (you can read our review here) comes from its cast, which features actors from Doctor Who, Lost, The Fades, Torchwood, and Game Of Thrones. However, a key piece in any Six Stages of Separation game you might play after viewing is director John McKay. His directing credits include Life On Mars, Robin Hood, Lip Service, and the episode of reinterpreted Canterbury Tales that began Billie Piper’s transition from singer to actress in the public’s eyes.

Red Dwarf fans may recognise him as the author of the ‘lost episode’ Identity Within, narrated with storyboards on the Series VII boxset. Geek credentials established, a brief discussion about genres ensues (“I don’t like a certain type of movie, I just like good movies.”), followed by two of three major tangents (the first being about how cool Pacific Rim looks, the second being about avoiding preconceptions about Glasgow, why ‘Cambuslang’ is a funny word, and how plausible it was that Karen Gillan could run from there to the East End – apparently that woman can leg it).

Aware that romance and comedy are both sick and wrong, we decided to circumnavigate Not Another Happy Ending and stick to questions about John’s career, and the process of getting a low budget film made in Britain.

Wikipedia says you were a playwright initially, but the citation link is dead. How did your career begin?

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I started in comedy, here [Edinburgh], with a small bunch of guys initially. We’d all joined the university company at a place called Bedlam Theatre and spent our first year being bossed around by English people; so we put on a comedy [The Merry Mac Fun Show] all about being Scottish and the clichés of being Scottish, and being part of a subject culture.

And it was really successful, it became an act. We were sort of agit-prop punk comedians. And we went on Wogan. We went on Wogan for God’s sake! We were finalists in the Perrier Award, it became a theatre company, and I became a writer for theatre.

At one point I wrote a play called Crush for a producer/director of regional theatre in Chester who was quite bravely producing new work in his main house, and at the same time I was going through film school. I had decided I would no longer just be a writer, I’d be in charge as well. Film 4 got interested in my stuff because I’d made a short movie called Wet And Dry about a mummy who was drying out [it’s on YouTube, introduced by a relatively hairy Mark Lawson], and they wanted a movie out of me, and Crush was an easy sell because it was very castable. It had three big female roles and a young guy in it. [Crush was released in 2001, and starred Andie McDowell, Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor.] 

From the point of view of people who are starting off, what are the things you need to make a film?

The most practical thing I ever heard about making a film was in a radio interview with Robert Rodriguez. He said “I wanted to make a film, but I had no money. Then I had an idea: my neighbour has a car, my friend has a dog, I’ve got a kitchen table. I’m going to write something that involves those, I’m going to write something involving everything that I have.”

And that’s how I started making films: the liberating idea that you don’t write a starship until you’ve got one. Instead write a carpet, write a wall, do something you can see here and you’ll be filmmaking before you know it because you’ve got everything you need. And of course you learn how to beg favours. Your friend with a camera wants to become a cameraman, he’s on; your friend with the big ideas wants to be a producer, she’s on… recruit your team based on their wants and what they can bring and then create the project that suits all that. Then you have a movie before you know it, and that’s what got me into film school. At that point to apply to the National Film School you needed to have made a film, so I went down the car and the crockery route and made a little film about a set of Devil-worshippers.

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Not Another Happy Ending is an example of the same thing, 20 twenty years on. Lo and behold. Still doing the same trick.

Once you’ve made a film, based on what you have, how do you get people to see it?

You’ve got to ask the question, we’ve had video tape recorders at home for…30 years, maybe 40? Why haven’t there been a thousand more movies every year?  The big blockage we had before was that a movie camera was the size of a mini, y’know? It required a hundred guys with enormous lights just to see something. So before there was an industrial block, but since then everyone ought to have made a movie, right? And increasingly… I guess you find out two things. One is that it’s quite hard. You have to be quite dedicated. Persistent. The other thing is distribution, and distribution is, I think, the logjam that we’re currently negotiating in the sort of civil war between movies and TV.

Although the studios are in theory spending more and more money on bigger and bigger movies there’s a sense that distribution is going to go kaput because we can all watch filmed material directly. You can narrowcast it. You can pirate it really easily, and we’re all going to watch it on those.

Of course, in wartime there’s opportunity. The things that interest me… of course I’m interested in theatrical distribution, mainly because it creates a kind of showcase for the far more interesting forms of distribution – Video on Demand, audience demand screenings… that’s where cinema’s really at. Everyone will go and see The Avengers because they’re being force fed it like a suffragette, but people will seek out almost any niche movie, it will find an audience through Distrify and other forms of selective distribution. The question of how you make money out of that is still open.

It relates to your other question, about how to make a movie when you’re starting out. It’s the same attitude, the Robert Rodriguez attitude that provides the answer. For instance, independent movies are only there because someone wanted them to happen. There’s been some interest in the fact we used Indiegogo as part of the financing structure… although that’s only a small part of the budget it was really useful, because we had to present and sell the idea to ourselves and others. It proved to us and financiers that there will be an audience. Use any means you can to prove you have an audience.

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There was no practical sense until the last five years in which you could reach out to your audience in advance of making the film. Movie-making has always been a kind of piracy in the sense of “We’ve got a ship, let’s go get another ship”. It’ll happen if you’re gallivanting enough. 

Gallivanting is a good word.

[We then talked a lot about the slightly fantastical microcosm conveyed in Not Another Happy Ending of 20-something life in the Central Belt of Scotland for a few minutes, and then segued into talking about Zack Snyder for about ten minutes after the word ‘metropolis’ was used. This is because I’m easily distracted, and also because I saw Man Of Steel the night before the interview, so really I can’t see how it isn’t entirely Christopher Nolan’s fault that this happened.]

You’ve partly answered this already, but what are the most important things regarding financing your film?

The script is the basic building block of movie-making. With a script you can attract an actor, with an actor you can attract another actor, with two great actors you can begin to attract a financier because they start to see the whole thing building… for an endeavour that is essentially buccaneering, some of the buccaneers are surprisingly risk averse. They don’t want to lose the money they’ve got, so the more you can present yourself as being a bus that’s already leaving… you force them into a situation where they’re anxious about not boarding that bus.

Always be leaving the party because you have somewhere better to go. That’s the atmosphere you want to approach potential backers with. It’s nice to meet them, but there are others waiting down the road with a cheque book… put them on the back foot.

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John McKay, thank you very much.

Running out of time due to our discussion of 300 and Watchmen, Den Of Geek also asked John about his future plans. These include an adaptation of Pastworld – a Young Adult novel about a Victorian London theme park in present day – and historical mini-series The Bruce.

Most intriguing is a possible adaptation involving the work of comic book artist and writer Bryan Talbot. I don’t know about you, but that  prospect makes us pretty damn excited.

We can also reveal that John McKay’s favourite Jason Statham film is The Transporter.

For more information on Not Another Happy Ending, please visit the film’s website. It’s in cinemas now.

Please, if you can, buy our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.

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