Robert Rodriguez made his first movie, El Mariachi, for $4000, some of which he raised by letting drug companies use him as a guinea pig. Now, he’s a superstar director, responsible for the likes of Spy Kids, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Planet Terror. Edward Burns (She’s the One, The Brothers McMullen) last year shot his digital film Nice Guys for £16,000. Shane Meadows made Somers Town for £500,000 but knocked out Le Donk and Scor-Zay-See with his friend Paddy Considine for £48,000. In five days.
None of these people received twenty grand from Shetland Islands Council for ‘script development’ – a phenomenon which seems, in this economic climate, and to most professional filmmakers, an unimaginable luxury. Some of these films didn’t even have scripts. But they all got made. And they all made money.
Sometimes lots and lots of money. But they were not produced for that reason. They were made by people who were passionate about movies, who understood that micro- and low-budget film making was not just relevant to the times we live in, but, given high-definition digital video technology, was possible. Even preferable.
Put in this context, the idea that the thoroughly affable Jim Brown, whose background is not in low-budget guerilla film making but the vintage days of long-lunch TV, should come to Shetland seeking cash for a £3-million-to-£6 million-budget movie seems rather, well, quaint. Those days are over. We’re living in times when feature films are shot on five grand digital SLRs you can buy from eBay. Scriptwriters are writing on-spec and clamouring for nothing more than a piece of whatever back-end action is going. Jim, on behalf of Between Weathers – and this has been going on for more than two years, remember, continues to promise acting parts to enthusiastic local folk, drum up publicity by using Shetland as his ‘brand’ (just like Caroline Whitfield did with whisky and gin) hold local auditions for musicians and make effusive promises to the young folk who attended and performed. It has made a lot people very uneasy.
In this month’s magazine Neil Riddell of The Shetland Times traces the way the Between Weathers saga has developed. It is a very interesting read, but I take comfort from it, because what comes over is that Shetland Islands Council and Shetland Arts seem to have acted prudently and with caution. It emerges in Neil’s piece that Shetland Arts have no hard cash in the movie at all. The Council has gone as far as it’s going to with that scripting money and a few air and ferry fares. Basically, Jim’s on his own.
And if it works, well, fine. Even if it’s a load of ham-fisted rubbish. Marsali Taylor’s detailed trawl through Shetland’s movie-making past sheds a lot of light on the business of Devil’s Gate, which has just been released on DVD and is a shockingly, sometimes hilariously bad movie. It doesn’t really mattter. It inspired several people to get involved in the visual media. Marsali reveals that it gave many folk on the West Side not just a summer they would never forget, but endless parties and a hefty injection of cash.
So come on Jim, get a move on. Get a movie on! Hey, it’s not that hard. If you need a film crew, the Big Bannock folk are armed to the teeth with state of the art Instamatics, and I know a man with a projector, an editing block and a few old razor blades. I’ve got his agent’s number right here. Jim, you’re welcome in the isles. We like you. We want you to make your movie.
Just remember: the drinks are on you.
*** *** ***
There are two sad notes to regular columns in this month’s Shetland Life: Ann Prior’s mother Mary died just before Christmas. She was both an academic of international repute and, in her latter years, a much-loved local figure. Ann’s tribute to her centres on Mary’s wonderful book Rhubarbaria, which I own and cherish. You should try the lamb with rhubarb.
Mary Blance writes movingly too about the late Elma Johnson, whose funeral eulogy summed her up: there truly was no-one else like her. I recorded a radio programme with her last year, and this curiously, was the first and last time I met her. She, of course, was the star of the last feature film to be shot in Shetland, the brilliant It’s Nice Up North, filmed by Martin Parr with the amazing Graham Fellows, aka John Shuttleworth. Its budget was, well. Small.