Interview: Iain Smith on Death Watch
In March 2011, Glasgow-born producer Iain Smith was appointed chair of the British Film Commission advisory board, the body charged with attracting non-British productions to come and film in the UK. Iain could not be better placed to know how beneficial attracting overseas filmmakers can be. He describes his experience of working with major European and US talent at the beginning of his career as Unit Location Manager on Bertrand Tavernier's Glasgow-set feature Death Watch.
Was Death Watch the first feature film you worked on?
Not really no, I’d done a lot of documentaries of course – everyone in Scotland did, it was the only way to survive – and I’d also made a couple of children’s feature films. But this was the first feature that had serious names attached to it.
How did it happen that you became attached to it?
I’d heard Tavernier talking, I think, on the radio. He’d made a trip of some sort to Scotland and he’d passed through Glasgow and was saying that he thought Glasgow was fantastic and he wanted to make his next film there. So I sent him little messages – little letters – saying: if you do decide to make Glasgow the place for your next film, then I’m your man. I never got a reply. Three years went by, and these little messages would go out every couple of months. And then one day I got a call and it was a man called Robert Parrish to say that he and Bertrand were coming to Glasgow and could I meet them at the airport? So I got my battered old Ford Escort and went off to Abbotsinch and showed them around the city for a couple of days. And that became the basis of the start of the production.
I made sure that Glasgow really opened up for them, from the Lord Provost to every serving officer; that they were all singing from the same hymn sheet and giving them all the support. In those days filming in a city, where you had to shut down streets, was relatively unusual.
And were you able to shut down streets or did you have shoot very early in the morning?
A combination of both. But the minute you bring lights and cameras out, Glaswegians are curious and you get a lot of rubbernecking, and you have to ask them: do you mind going back inside your windae?
We weren’t doing any massive street closures – I’ve done much bigger ones since then – but basically the city was totally for it. The thing about Glasgow is that it’s such a film-friendly city in that way. Back then people went to the movies; they loved the movies, so the idea that this is not just television – “oh this is a real fillum” – it was just fantastic. We never had any trouble with anybody, everyone was totally supportive.
Bertrand loved the gap sites of the city, and he loved the gable ends and the buildings that were left hanging in mid-air aspect of it. We were invited down to the city chambers to meet the Lord Provost and some of the City Fathers for a sort of welcome to Glasgow, and I was trying to explain to Bertrand: Bertrand you have to understand that they’re all quite sensitive about Glasgow, everyone gives Glasgow a good kick. And he was: Oh, yes, yes. So the Lord Provost welcomed Bertrand and said what a pleasure it was to have such a distinguished filmmaker in our city. And then he said: “But tell me Bertrand, why did you not choose Edinburgh?” And Bertrand said: “Well…Edinburgh is too beautiful”. And there was this horrified silence, and I though to myself: Bertrand don’t mess this one up, don’t tell them why you’re really here. And everyone’s eyes were widening and then he delivered the coup de grâce – he said: “…but Glasgow is dramatic”! And of course everyone thought: yes, that’s right – Edinburgh’s merely beautiful. So in that sense he gave them the best reason possible, which was that the city looks really, really interesting.
I did an evening at the GFT about Death Watch about a year or so back, and I was really surprised at how well the film had stood up. It paced well and I thought the issues within were still very current. We’d captured the city at a time that’s now gone, which was that time of transition from post-war to modernity.
And there’s still that juxtaposition of modernity and Victorian buildings…
He loved that; what he wanted was a sense of mercantile wealth that had gone before and was now sort of slightly hanging about a bit. What’s interesting is that if you were to say that to a city they wouldn’t like it very much – because it might mean they were failing, but actually it’s a huge tribute to Glasgow that that film was made there, and it stands as a piece of living heritage. The cinematography by Pierre William Glenn was, I think, just perfect. He captured that Northern grey look – I think that Glasgow always looks best when it’s in that sort of slate light.
He didn’t try to hide the fact that it was Glasgow…
No, I suppose one would have to say that that was partly a cost thing; if you want to change the whole place you’re going to double your budget, but more realistically it was a city without a name, not a non-city, so he didn’t want to point out that it was Glasgow and he didn’t want to point out that it was particularly British. But again, being French, the Glasgow accent didn’t bother him – he didn’t hear that. We would hear that, but I suspect only a very small percentage of the audience that watched that film would really know.
Where was that swing park in the early scene?
That was down at the bottom of Kelvingrove, if I remember rightly, where the tennis courts are. We did a lot of filming around the art galleries – they played the part of the TV centre. I thought that was just hilarious that that was how he saw it.
For those not familiar with your role – at the time it was described as ‘Unit Location Manager’ – can you tell us what you did?
In actual fact I was more like the production manager in that I put all the production facilities together, and put the whole picture together. It was quite a difficult production. The only reason I took that credit was because there was already a French production manager, who was a wonderful man called Louis, a very famous old-timer. He actually had very little to do and so, much to my benefit, he allowed me the freedom to get on with it. And every so often he would just look over my shoulder and see if I was still in charge of everything; so in a way I kind of ran the production.
With a film like that, we didn’t build any sets, we used locations all the way through. Then the whole question of how you control and how you utilize locations becomes important because you have to be able to get the best from it and that means you have to be respectful of all the people that are involved in the area that you’re working in. I always take a great deal of trouble to let people know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and hopefully garner their interest and involvement, because once you’ve got that then you’ve got friendship on your side and solutions to problems.
So there weren’t any difficulties at all?
Not substantial ones. I mean, there was always the occasional guy wanting to sing, little things like that, but it was a very, very happy experience for everybody and I think the French were delighted by that.
Can you remember what the budget was?
It think it was about two, or two point two million [dollars] it wouldn’t be any more than that.
Tell me what it was like working with Bertrand Tavernier?
Bertrand as a director is a wonderful lifter of spirits, and you felt very much that you were part of his family. And although he was very clear about what he wanted, and very demanding about what he wanted, he was also very gentle and very considerate of people, and would josh with you. He would poke fun at you – he was a great leg- puller. And that just happened to sit wonderfully well with the Scottish crew because our sense of humour is not that different, and so there was this very healthy French and Scottish thing going on.
The French had it written into their union rules that they could have a half litre of wine at lunch, and that was the last thing I was going to allow to happen with the Scottish crew, because they just wouldn’t come back – but there was all sorts of sneaky things going on with French truck drivers slipping bottles of wine to the electricians, which they would park behind the seat in the truck and take home with them.
We had a few cars going off the road incidents. For the last two weeks we were at West Loch Tarbert for the country bit and we had a few French drivers getting a bit excitable on the Scottish roads and ending up not quite making the bend – I think there was three. Nothing to do with the wine – I think it was just French joie de vivre.
Harvey was a bit of a handful then – he raised a few eyebrows at the Central Hotel where he was staying. But there was a genuine sense that people were saying: we really respect the fact that these filmmakers have come to our city and we want to help them make it a success.
And did the movie’s leads enjoy their experience in Scotland?
They did. Romy was in a very delicate state and Bertrand spent a lot of time hugging her and whispering in her ear and just reassuring her. She was very highly-strung – not difficult or temperamental, but obviously a very vulnerable personality.
Harvey was very much a method actor. He became almost like a tramp to try to inhabit this man’s world. He took a blind man down to the beach at Ardrossan, paid him money and said: right, walk – and filmed the poor man trying to negotiate the rocks. This was his way of researching. I suggested that this, perhaps, was not the right thing to do…
And Harry Dean Stanton?
He was great – he was very laid back. And it was great that he was there, because he was part of the ‘Great American Dream’. He was very much the man that you see on the screen in real life.
It was kind of surreal, as a Glaswegian, seeing these people turning up right in your neighbourhood. That’s quite special really. And of course Max von Sydow came – he didn’t come to Glasgow, he came to West Loch Tarbert. He was a big, big star for me.
M. Tavernier seemed to find the food alright…in fact he shot a scene, subsequently cut, in one of his favourite restaurants I believe?
Bertrand found Glasgow alright, but I personally felt kind of ashamed in a way. I subsequently had dinners with Bertrand in Paris – and you think, oh my God, what did they think? I mean now it’s a whole different world, but then it was still very basic and you did have to know where to go, and the UB Chip was one such place. The scene you’re talking about that wasn’t in the film was a diner scene and we couldn’t find an American-style diner anywhere, so we used the UB chip because it had a bit of something going for it.
And where was Harvey Keitel’s ostrich skin shoes scene shot?
I think that was in Sauchiehall Street, if I remember rightly. It’s place that’s gone, just opposite the Baird Hall – we ended up doing quite a lot to it to make it look right, but it was the right shape.
When you did the initial recce it was winter – I’ve read that was the coldest winter since 1962/63?
Yes, it was very barren, but Bertrand liked that, because visually it made it very dramatic.
And it was also the ‘Winter of Discontent’…
Oh yes, Britain was in a lot of trouble, we were really fighting it then…
I was thinking that might have inspired such scenes as those with the professional placard-wielders?
I don’t think so, I mean possibly subconsciously he was thinking of Britain in that way, but all of that’s in The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, the book it was based on.
You had the production offices here in what are now the GFT offices, but you also used the GFT for looking at the dailies?
That’s right. It was great – we had all the cooperation we could possibly hope for, everyone was very nice and it worked very well. We’ve all become very professional since then and it’s not quite the same. But it’s a funny thing – in those days it was a surprise and people were still kind of: whoo a film. Now it’s: oh yeah, another film. Which is good – now we’re making however many films we’re making – but it’s a different process.
When was Death Watch first shown in Glasgow?
It was shown in the GFT if I remember rightly. Although it might have been down in Renfield Street, the Odeon or something because there was a lot of people there. We had a cast and crew screening and we had some press come along for that. The big proper opening was in Paris, of course, and for whatever reason I wasn’t able to go to that unfortunately – probably I couldn’t afford to – but the Glasgow screening was very warmly received and a lot of people, and their mums and dads, all came along.
It’s almost a lost film now really – it’s all to do with rights, isn’t it?
I think there has been some legal problems. You can still find it but you really have to know where to look, and it’s very, very hard to get one with English subtitles.
It’s such a great film and such an important film and there are so many people who haven’t seen it and are unlikely to…
It’s true, and even though it’s a French film, it’s really a Glaswegian film. I think it’s one of the first films to show Glasgow as a part of a dramatic narrative. And it’s funny because lots of things started then. We – we being the so-called Scottish film industry – had our first Filmbang, (based on the Frankfurt Book Fair, which they called Bookbang). What we were trying to do was to get the Scottish Government, and Westminster in a way, to take note that we should get more of their public service work to do; more of their commercials and their documentary work rather than it all going down to London, which is what the habit was.
We were successful in that, and out of that group a lot of people; myself, Steve Clark- Hall, Mickey Coulter, who worked on Death Watch – and Bill Forsyth of course – a lot of people emerged from that time of most of us sitting in the Halt Bar in Woodlands Road. The Halt in the Seventies was definitely the place where the so-called Scottish film industry was really kind of hatched.
Bill was beginning to look to make his own things; I was looking to try to find more experience on productions of bigger films – and so Death Watch, quite apart from its own merits, stands definitely as a milestone. It was inspirational – people realized that they could actually do that – that we weren’t inherently limited. Mickey Coulter was praised by Pierre William Glenn, one of the great cinematographers of French cinema. Pierre really appreciated Mickey’s gifts and I’ve absolutely no doubt that that meant Mickey was forearmed to go forward and make the most of his career.
As we all were – after you’ve done something like that you know you can do it and that’s a big thing.
Iain Smith Biography
Iain Smith, OBE, was born in Glasgow and graduated from the London School of Film in 1970. Throughout the seventies he worked in various capacities in the film industry before setting up, with Jon Shorstein, an independent production company producing commercials, documentaries, dramas and children’s feature films. A few years later he became Unit Location Manager on Death Watch.
Not long after working with Tavernier, he joined with David Putnam to produce many films, notably Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, The Killing Fields and The Mission.
Once again forming his own company, Applecross Productions, his credits were to include Killing Dad and 1492 – Conquest of Paradise. Iain has subsequently produced films for Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures and Miramax among others; his credits include Mary Reilly, The Fifth Element, Cold Mountain and The A Team. His most recent film project was executive producing K. Lorrel Manning’s feature debut, Happy New Year.
A key figure in endeavours to advance and develop the UK film industry, he has served on the boards of, among others, the UK Film Council, Scottish Screen, the Joint board of Creative Scotland, the Scottish Film Council, the Scottish Film Production Fund, and also as a Governor of the National Film and Television School and Chair of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He won a BAFTA Scotland award for Outstanding Achievement in Film in 2005.
He is currently a patron of the London Film School, Chair of the Film Skills Council, and is a director of the Children's Film and Television Foundation. He is Chair of the UK Film Industry Training Board and is a member of the Advisory Board of the Edinburgh Skillset Screen and Media Academy.
Read more about Death Watch:
For more information on the types of projects shot in the city, take a look at the Glasgow Film Office website.