Regular followers of this blog will know that Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream, the highly acclaimed documentary on Scotland’s post-punk scene, was one of my favourite films of 2015.
Directed by Grant McPhee and featuring a host of Scottish indie stalwarts, Big Gold Dream premiered last summer at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it picked up the Audience Award, ahead of twelve other nominees including Asif Kapadia’s Amy and Bill Pohlad’s underrated Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy.
Combining generous helpings of carefully chosen archival material with articulate talking heads such as Bob Last, Douglas McIntyre and Davy Henderson, Big Gold Dream also reflected the fact that being in a post-punk act in the late 1970s and early ’80s in Scotland didn’t automatically mean you had to be a moody young man walking around dreich Glasgow or Edinburgh streets with a well thumbed Dostoyevsky paperback tucked away in your raincoat pocket. No, the documentary had a number of very funny moments – Ian Stoddart, Hilary Morrison and Alan Rankine made me laugh more than many Hollywood comedies have managed in recent years.
Sequels don’t have a great track record in cinema but now, hot on the heels of Big Gold Dream, a follow-up Teenage Superstars is nearing completion and if the finished documentary is as well crafted, thought provoking and amusing as its predecessor, then fans of independent music are in for a treat.
The fact that Grant McPhee has spent around ten years completing both films might give you the impression that he must be something of a slacker or, alternatively, a complete perfectionist – but bear in mind, in addition to making them, he’s also worked as digital imaging technician on films such as Under the Skin and the international hit TV series Game of Thrones as well as directing his own independent drama films.
I spoke to Grant last week to find out more and I’ve accompanied the interview with some videos of tracks he chose that he feels represent the new film – unfortunately, due to a lack of space, I’ve had to leave out a number of his other suggestions such as The Shop Assistants, The Vaselines, BMX Bandits and Primal Scream.
What can we look forward to in Teenage Superstars?
Like Big Gold Dream there will be a lot of joining up of the dots. Most of the bands covered are better known to a wider audience but how interconnected they are is probably less well known, and probably very surprising; especially the Bellshill bands who are a very large focus of the film. There was a point where BMX Bandits, Soup Dragons and a pre-Teenage Fanclub Boy Hairdressers shared most of their line-ups simultaneously. This is really the story of those bands and the wider Glasgow scene which followed pretty much straight on from where Big Gold Dream ends. It starts with The Pastels and the vacuum in the Glasgow music scene left by Postcard imploding.
Did you always plan to make two films?
No, it was originally to be one film called The Sound of Young Scotland which was to be about Postcard and Fire Engines only. It actually does exist – to an extent in a 2010 film, but it doesn’t really make sense for it ever to be released now.
Why the decision to double up?
Two reasons. The main one being that a fuller story was beginning to emerge that went far beyond our initial Postcard only story. It became apparent that when we were speaking to some of the stars of the first film there was a direct continuation to a bigger story which warranted a film in itself. For BGD, when speaking to people such as Eugene (Kelly) and Norman (Blake) we realised it made sense to speak to them about both films at the same time rather than coming back at a later date.
Oh right, so to an extent both films were really shot at the same time?
Well, when the idea for TS came along and the scope became wider, rather than risk BGD being eaten up by itself again we just made the decision to make two films. Saying that, BGD was a two hour film that at a very, very late stage had 30 minutes taken out. Those 30 minutes now form a good part of TS. Like I said, it’s complicated haha. But we now start off with The Bluebells, Pastels and Strawberry Switchblade. It’s not fair to say it’s the Glasgow story but some parts of BGD are re-told from a West Coast perspective.
What stage are you at with Teenage Superstars and when would you envisage it first being premiered?
Teenage Superstars is very nearly complete. Things may change but we have some really exciting offers for premieres. At the moment we can’t say too much but we will be able to make some announcements towards the end of the year. The film is almost there but what takes up so much of our time is dealing with archive clearances – music and video and we need to finalise them first. We decided very early on that if we were to do the films properly we needed to use the best music and archive available – it just would not work any other way. I can’t imagine anything worse than using a series of ‘soundalikes’ or those cheap Beatles films without actual Beatles music.
That kinda thing really should be banned!
We also purposely decided to not allow the film-making to take precedence. Both films are very simple in terms of how they are made and told so we felt it would only take away from the story to try anything complicated. And to not have proper archive would just take away from the excitement. So collecting our archive is a long and expensive process which is going to take up a large part of the next few months. But we do have some exciting and unique footage found in people’s lofts and basements.
How would you pitch the film to a distributor or sales agent?
We’re in a lucky position where both films are at such a late stage where they are beyond a proof-of-concept so we don’t have to explain to anyone too much what it would be like, we can just show them the finished film. BGD did better than we ever could have imagined and with that as a track record it makes TS much easier to pitch. The downside is that because of a lack of initial track record they had to be made on our own which was very tricky. At a basic level it’s just a story about great music, regardless of where it came from or when. So really the pitch is if you love this music you will love the films.
Any theories on why Scotland has managed to consistently produce so many talented independent bands over the years?
I think there are a combination of reasons. One is Fast having a strong and driven personality who happened to be around at the right time to nurture some very talented people. Those people having an element of success inspired others to believe they could do something similar. And generations of others have been inspired to either try the exact opposite or something similar to those who came before.
Where do you end Teenage Superstars and – if it takes in the 1990s – do you include the reactivated Postcard?
TS really ends at the beginning of a new era and the end of the film is the end of Postcard 2 and the emergence of Britpop. But like BGD it ends on a positive note, or more positive than that sounds.
And will there be a third film bringing the story up to date?
There is a skeleton for a third film. The honest answer is that both current films have been so all consuming and personally incredibly expensive that a third film would really have to be commissioned by somebody for it to get beyond where it currently is, so it’s likely to remain unfinished. It covers or would have covered Belle and Sebastian, V-Twin, 1990s, Franz Ferdinand etc. There’s so much left to do it likely won’t be released.
What was your technique when shooting the documentaries, carefully plan everything or go with the flow?
Pretty much go with the flow. There was little opportunity for technique due to time. The main objective at the start was making contact with everyone involved and forming relationships and essentially getting voices down onto tape, to document in the purest sense. Obviously the early years were asking questions to extract just information, then as a story emerged – and more contacts were made there would be a refinement of the questions. A big part of the entire process was building up trust with the cast. It’s a lot to ask someone who doesn’t know you to tell you their story and allow you to tell that story to someone else in your own way. Overall we didn’t have any ulterior motives other than attempting to make a great film, and without any previous experience it was difficult to convince everyone of that.
Well, judging by the interviewees, you didn’t do a bad job on that score.
After BGD was released it became a lot easier, mainly that we could show that the first film had serious prospects so this next one could be similar. We were very careful with how we handled the material and various personalities which we took great lengths to achieve and hopefully that would show. But absolutely over and above everything we had an amazing community built around the film. So many people were so open to helping us create the story and we’ve managed to get contacts, information, photos, posters and advice to get the films where they are. That’s really what a lot of time was spent on. Mike O’Connor in particular seems to have an amazing online community of Scottish Indie music by running FB pages for most of the bands involved and his help has been a fantastic resource.
Having that support must have given you some extra motivation to keep at it during the inevitable times when the going got tough?
Actually, it’s by no means an exaggeration to say that without all the music fans support, the films would never have been completed. Of course that also helped the film as expectations started to mount and we had to produce something that could live up to it.
You’ve been filming for a long time now, I would guess that process has speeded up as you’ve gone along?
In the early days things moved very slowly, equipment and time were expensive so we had to save up for a while to do each interview – and that was frustrating. Even a dozen interviews could take a couple of years. Towards the end we managed to cram many interviews into a single day to keep costs down, it wasn’t ideal but it was the only way we could finish the film. Erik (Sandberg) and Innes (Reekie) coming on board was essential with their knowledge and enthusiasm and again the films would not have been made without them. Angela Slaven, our editor was the backbone to the film. We just handed her the material and she managed to make it into a film. Without her it would be very different. Wendy Griffin, the producer elevated the film to places and contacts we just could not achieve on our own, and in terms of finding a place for TS, winning the EIFF audience award has been a significant help. So for the film, a major part was finding the correct behind-the-scenes people for the film and waiting until they were available as their contributions would make or break it. And we had a great team.
Since you’re obviously such a massive fan of the music you cover, it must have been enjoyable talking to your subjects.
That was pretty easy as I was genuinely enthusiastic about finding out about them. My day job is as a technician on larger, mostly American movies so I’m pretty comfortable being around famous actors so I was never starstruck; though to me someone like Norman Blake is a far bigger star than Brad Pitt – and far more interesting.
Angela just cut around my mumbling and tangential questioning and we just had fun speaking to people about records. Other than having to be your own producer and arrange the interviews it was by far the most enjoyable part, along with the editing. Everything after was something close to nightmarish and involved little sleep for two years, haha. But really any process was born out of a massive enthusiasm in the subjects so in that respect this was the simplest part. I just told our subjects that we wanted to make a good film and explained that I didn’t really know what I was doing so asking for their help to achieve this seemed like a good move.
Any plans for a Big Gold Dream TV screening yet or news of a DVD release or VOD?
Yes and yes and more. There is a network TV screening later in the year, and we will have a DVD, streaming and other things available. Our B-Side, The Glasgow School is one extra but we also have 70 odd hours of interviews that have not been seen.
How do you think current Scottish independent music stands up against the Sound of Young Scotland era acts?
It may seem contentious but I think Postcard was the best and worst thing that has happened to Scottish music. Because Postcard had more of a focus on Scottish based bands, unlike FAST it quickly became regarded as a Scottish label whereas Fast were a record label based in Scotland. This, combined with the great music associated with Postcard quickly set Glasgow as a focus for music and aspiring local musicians. The legacy that’s built around Postcard has been so great that it’s very difficult to escape it’s shadow, and the irony is that’s what Postcard was all about. But there are great acts around and some very talented people.
You also direct your own drama films, how is that going at the moment?
Very different to the documentaries. The documentaries are fairly conventional so the dramas allow me to be a little more experimental. There’s one coming out later in the year called Night Kaleidoscope, which has had some good previews and I’m hoping to do another one early next year. I’ve been working with Dave Balfe, who used to run Zoo Records, who’s now a fantastic screenwriter. We’re working on a couple of drama scripts at the moment, one a horror and one a little closer to Zoo history (but purely drama).
And finally, what’s your own favourite music documentary?
I think All You Need is Love is fantastic, some amazing ’70s performances by folk like Jerry Lee Lewis.
Thanks for taking the time to talk and good luck with the film!
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