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Sunshine on Leith - Dexter Fletcher interview (exclusive)

Sunshine on Leith

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DEXTER Fletcher talks about stepping up to a musical, Sunshine on Leith, for his directorial follow-up to Wild Bill and how he went about getting The Proclaimers to cameo.

He also reflects on some of his own favourite musicals, how he drew upon them for inspiration, which filmmakers have taught him the most and why being a filmmaker could now prevent him from acting as much.

Q. Sunshine on Leith is a great pick-me-up film…
Dexter Fletcher: Thank you. That’s what it’s meant to do. It’s quite unabashed in its ambition. It’s not an easy thing to achieve, a feel-good film, but I think that ending definitely works for it. 500 Miles is a great song and 500 extras dancing about like that… The great thing about it is that it had a really good energy and people really enjoyed themselves. So, the trick was capturing that. And they’re all Scottish as well… all those dancers and all those extras in the middle of Edinburgh. People were looking out of their windows and looking through bus windows, watching it go on, and then local people were joining in and tourists were watching like some spectacle. So, it there was a good atmosphere generally.

Q. How ambitious an undertaking was it for you to follow Wild Bill with a musical like this?
Dexter Fletcher: Yeah, very ambitious really. That was sort of the point. Obviously, I hoped when they were saying about doing another film that I’d have a bit of a bigger budget. But I had to film 12 or 13 songs in six weeks, so that’s two songs a week. And each song is a big set piece in its own right and that alone, logistically, was a challenge. But also having the material right, so we could get that done and lock it down and have it covered and happily move onto the next song, as well as filming all the drama, comedy and the other stuff that went on in between that. So, yeah, it was a big challenge but that was part of the thrill – the late nights and early mornings and the discussions with various departments about keeping going.

Q. Where did you draw from? Was it your background in theatre or did you look at other musicals as well?
Dexter Fletcher: I think so, yeah. I have done musicals in theatre a long time ago and I was famously in Bugsy Malone, I suppose. But that was 40 years ago. I’ve said before, Singin’ In The Rain is one of my favourite films and any member of my family will tell you that, as is Cabaret. So, I suppose I would have drawn on those things and I obviously would have watched a lot of musicals as well. I watched Hello Dolly and Moulin Rouge and Anchors Away. There’s this whole catalogue of stuff you can look through. But really it’s about bringing your own vision at the end of the day and making those numbers tell the story of these characters with these songs. It was a stage musical that I never saw. But that was good because I had to bring my own particular take and vision to it. So, this is very much a film; it’s not a film version of a stage musical. It’s a film of a screenplay that was based on that original play that I never saw.

Q. It also has a very real feel to it. There is a grittier underbelly…
Dexter Fletcher: Well, that’s the balance, isn’t it… has it got enough dirt under its nails? I wanted it to feel real and when these songs happen we don’t switch off and lose believability in these characters and their situation. So, sometimes the songs are really quick – they make their point and then get out again. Or there’s not a big musical intro, they suddenly land and then they’re off again. So, that was another part of the exciting challenge of it. There were times when I thought I just couldn’t figure out how to do it but then you’ve got to climb that hurdle and figure out how to make it work. The aim is to make it work. I wanted to keep it real, which is why Peter Mullan was a massive bonus because it kept everything nice grounded. Him and Jane Horrocks are the root and the heart of this family and it’s really important that we believe that relationship and believe the crisis that they’re trying to navigate. And that it’s not all sweetness and light and can fly away with itself. It’s the same with the guys’ dilemma. You know, they’re coming back from a war zone and it does carry through all of their journey and hopefully pays off again at the end when Ali makes that big decision about what he’s going to do with the rest of his life once Liz had to make her decision to move away from the family. You could make a film about any one of these character’s journeys just on its own, let alone having it all in one film. It was quite a juggling act.

Sunshine on Leith

Q. It certainly has a lot more depth than Mamma Mia, to which it has been compared. Do you agree with that kind of comparison?
Dexter Fletcher: It has and that’s natural I suppose. But I feel that it does. They’re different things really. Abba write fantastic pop songs and The Proclaimers write folk music and they’re different things really. And although they might both be popular in the charts, The Proclaimers are not looking to bang out another hit. They’re like: “Right, I had this thing happen to me and I hate my love for this person and that’s a big statement.” So, they’re kind of bigger, bolder statements and I think the film needs to reflect that. But there’s going to be comparisons and I understand that.

Q. How did you go about deciding when to use The Proclaimers for their cameo?
Dexter Fletcher: [Laughs] That was luck more than judgement. I won’t lie. It just happened to be that they were on set that day and I was like: “Guys, will you come out of the pub here and do that?” And they were like, “yeah, absolutely”. It worked really well in that moment and then when I got in the edit it actually worked even better than I had imagined because what I saw it was doing was that we had this very sort of severe and intense opening, and then the next song is about being happy that you’re home. But really it’s just about those two… it’s not about everybody else being happy that they’re home because they’re just going to work or walking the baby or coming out of the pub. So, it didn’t make any sense that everybody was happy to be home; it made sense that they were happy to be home. It’s why everybody else in the scene is either looking at them like, “what?”, because if you can imagine they weren’t singing and were just walking down the street and larking about because they’re happy, then I think those reactions around them are fairly normal. I think as an audience we understand that. If everybody was happy, I think we’d go: “Why the f**k is everybody else happy?” It dilutes what the boys are doing.

So, similarly The Proclaimers walk out the pub and scoff at them. It means that the audience can realise that we’re not going to be taking ourselves massively seriously; we are going to be allowed to laugh. It’s not all going to be doom and gloom. So, we can laugh because there is humour in life, and I still want to make people laugh and have a good time. So, I think just that moment there works just right to let the audience know: “Oh, OK, it’s fun as well.” And I think that’s the success of that song and that moment, in terms of telling the story and setting it all out clearly. And then very quickly Ali’s nephew comes in, the little boy, and says ‘oh, you look fabulous’ and you laugh because it’s OK to laugh in this film.

Q. That filters right through to your cameo doesn’t it?
Dexter Fletcher: [Laughs] Maybe, yeah, with the very cheeky fart on it. I did try to take that out but I was over-ruled by the producers, so there you go.

Q. So, it was almost gone with the wind….
Dexter Fletcher: Hey [laughs].

Sunshine on Leith

Q. What would you say was the biggest lesson you learned from this particular project?
Dexter Fletcher: That I’ve got a lot to learn. That I do love making films. I want to be a filmmaker that grows and progresses and does keep trying to push myself. I think that’s it… and a bit of confidence maybe. I don’t take anything for granted, you see. So, it’s a very fine line to walk. I just make films, it’s what I do, but I want to make films that are going to allow me to make another film after it. So, this film has got to be the best it can be, so is it the best it can be? I suppose, at the moment, I feel I can do better and I want to do better. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with what I’ve got. On the contrary, I’m very happy. But I know that there’s more to do and more to learn.

Q. Which filmmakers would you say that you’ve learned the most from over the years?
Dexter Fletcher: Well, not necessarily the ones I’ve worked with. Of course, yes, some of the ones I’ve worked with just by virtue of osmosis really. You’re around these people and so the ones that are great are offset by the ones that are not so great. And as you get older, you start to realise that I think I can do this because I can see the mistakes that you’re clearly making. And that’s quite a light-bulb moment, realising that, actually, I’ve got a lot of experience and I could do this and I wouldn’t do it like that and I think it would be better. But I think you’ve also got to trust yourself with that. I also think it’s about watching films that you love as well. It’s not necessarily just the people you work with. I mean, PT Anderson is brilliant, and Alan Parker, who I worked with once a long time ago, but I’ve watched all of his films and he’s a great filmmaker. Similarly, Mike Leigh is as well. There’s an endless list, isn’t there?

We all watch Kubrick and go: “Well, there’s a genius at work and those are amazing moments.” There’s Scorsese as well. But even someone like Matthew Vaughn is a really fascinating person to watch work and how he achieves what he does and his films are great. Danny Boyle is quite extraordinary as well in his own right. But that’s the great thing about it… you can take our influences and work with them. [David] Lynch, of course, is a pretty amazing person to have worked with. I was lucky enough to have worked with him when I was 14 but I knew there was something quite wonderful happening there. And he’s full of enthusiasm and ideas and moments and let’s take this right now. There’s a guy in the street with his arthritic dog, so let’s put him in a costume and make that a shot. That made me realise that you don’t have to just do what’s planned, you can take what’s immediately in front of you and use that.

It’s like the guy in Sunshine on Leith who goes: “I hope you kept the receipt for that!?” Right? He’s a fireman. And he was just one of the extras in it. I just looked at him and thought he had a great face, so I said to him: “Say this line!” And he just banged it out and I went: “Great, let’s use him.” But you believe that guy, he’s absolutely real. But he’s never done a day’s acting before in his life. Similarly, the guy when I stagger out the pub as a drunk, I did it because the guy we had before wasn’t that great and the cameraman said: “Well, why don’t you do it?” I had been saying prior to that: “It’s not working! It’s not working!” So, my cameraman said: “You do it then!” So, I did and we all laughed… it’s just about being able to take what’s there and make it immediate.

Q. Will acting now take a back-seat or will you try and do both?
Dexter Fletcher: I don’t know if I can do both. It seems to me at the moment that unless someone offers me a really amazing job, which I’d love them to do, everyone seems to think that I’m a director now, which I’m not sure is good or bad. But hopefully not, hopefully not…

Read our review

Sunshine on Leith opens in UK cinemas on Friday, October 4, 2013