Bill Forsyth, 38 at the time of this September 1985 interview, is the acclaimed Scottish director of a quartet of remarkable regionalist comedies - That Sinking Feeling, Gregory's Girl, Local Hero, and Comfort and Joy. He had been in Canada already in May '85 for a Vancouver Film Festival retrospective of his movies, joking that the only person who had seen them before in a row was his mother watching cassettes. And after a drive around the Vancouver environs, he became convinced that British Columbia was the place to shoot his newest film, Housekeeping, the script of which was written during a stay in New York City with his wife, Adrienne, and his one-year-old toddler, Sam.
We talked at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, where Forsyth had been brought for a special series, Ten Filmmakers of the Future. He's a blue-eyed, handsome man with shoulder-length hair. He seems as gentlemanly and straightforward as his movies might indicate, and even his angry words below are delivered in a soft, bemused tone.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a grocer, Forsyth left school after graduating at 17. "In those days," he said, "it was the eccentric thing to do to go to university from my background. It wasn't as if I was getting pressure from home to study." He toiled as an apprentice editor on documentaries and industrial films. At 20, he discovered the cinema through the French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut, and Louis Malle, and his earliest 16mm experimental works were in the mode of Godard.
Forsyth: "That period of my life I was fairly reserved and I tried to make a collection of images that didn't really involve people. Some might call them cold exercises in distanciation. I showed them at the 1970 Edinburgh Film Festival, and talk about people walking out of movies! I actually emptied a theatre. It was a 40-minute film, and about 400 people left during the screening."
Forsyth remains nostalgic about an extended one-shot film he made at 18 which opened on his grandfather reading a book about the War, The Marines are There, and, ten minutes later, with the camera off the tripod and taken on a car ride, concluded on a young couple kissing in a park. "The people in the park, perhaps they were the old man's memory? Perhaps the boy was his grandson? I put a Jim Reeves record on the soundtrack, a very sentimental song about 'Today I found your old love letters,' country-and-western music which, like experimental film, makes distances emotional."
And later? "My experimental films are under my bed," he jokes. "I don't really have a style, I suppose the only style I've got is to be as unobtrusive as possible."
At the conclusion of the interview below, Forsyth headed into the Toronto streets to purchase diapers for his baby.
Q- What have you gained attending film festivals?
A- I've spent most of my life in Scotland, and I haven't moved around a great deal. It's only lately that I've first-hand experience of the international community and filmmaker people. In Toronto, I've met other director like me, in the wings of the studio industry and with a lively desire to maintain our independence, people like Paul Cox of Australia and Alan Rudolph, who works in the eye of the storm in Los Angeles. We sat around a table and ended up bitching more than anything about how rotten the studio system is. It's given me a sense of belonging. There are things to bitch about. You don't have to invent them.
Q- I gather Hollywood isn't eager to finance your work?
A- Financiers are suspicious because I work in low-budget. It's easier for me to get three times the amount of money I really want. If you ask for relatively little money, they worry that you are going to get involved in something that is unwatchable or, worse, unmarketable. Unmarketable is a much more worrying term for them because if they can find an angle to make something unwatchable marketable, they'll do it every week.
The studio system reminds me of the stock market. People think the stock market is a place of levelheadedness but it actually works in a totally emotional way: the President gets a pimple on his nose, and the thing plummets. The movie business is very much like that: people in authority making purely emotional decisions instead of interesting rational ones.
Q- Your fourth film, Comfort and Joy, was a commercial failure in North America. Was the project mishandled by Universal Pictures?
A- I didn't think Comfort and Joy was going to be a box-office smash. Perhaps some people at Universal did, but the problem was more general, what can happen when a low-budget filmmaker associates with a studio. Universal wasn't out a lot of money, a million dollars or so, so it was easy not to put a lot of effort into the movie. I don't think that anyone at Universal actually made a phone call and said, "Let's pull the plug on this." But I think emotionally they did, on what basis I don't know, maybe something as simple as a slow weekend in New York. Maybe there was a baseball game or something. Those are the things that I see affect judgments: a slow weekend, a lukewarm review.
Q- Isn't it true that audiences who thought (misguidedly) of Bill Forsythe as an optimistic, cheery, whimsical director of comedy were unprepared for the darkness of Comfort and Joy?
A- I was quite surprised how easily people wanted to pigeonhole things I've done. Perhaps naively I thought people understand what humor was, that it was invented by the human race to cope with the dark areas of life, problems and terrors. It's strange to me that people want humor to be in a category all by itself, as pure "entertainment." So those who misunderstood Comfort and Joy the most were those who thought I was just trying to make a jolly farce. That is a complete misreading of the film. It means that if they misunderstood Comfort and Joy, they misunderstood my other films.
It was disappointing more than anything. I thought I'd been understood more than I'd been. But it hasn't made me falter in any way, and I've been thinking that maybe it would be nice to make a really funny film in about four years. But not now. Anyway, the nice thing about coming to festivals is to discover that there is an area of understanding. When I showed Local Hero this weekend at the Toronto Festival, someone asked me what film I was most satisfied with. I said Comfort and Joy, which, to me, is more dense, more psychologically solid, more concentrated - and there was a ripple of acceptance among the audience. Too many people like Local Hero - that's what I find.
Q- Why are you troubled by Local Hero's popularity?
A- I just suspect people liked it because of its nice eccentric Scottish background. Maybe there are too many signposts for a sentimental reading, such as the dance scene which settles people into the atmosphere in a way they forget everything that happened before, and that Burt Lancaster is a desparate bully.
Q- Local Hero ends sadly, with the businessman played by Peter Riegert in his lonely modern apartment in Houston instead of romping about rural Scotland. Was your distributor, Warner Brothers, satisfied?
A- That was one of the earlest brushes I had with a studio. I was sat down in Los Angeles with a couple of Warners' executives and asked if I'd like to reshoot the ending. I don't precisely know what ideas they had, but I said, "No, I'm not interested." The movie had been finished seven months before, and the last thing on my mind was to retire to one of those beaches and try to think up a new ending.
That experience was quite a surprise. That was very benign pressure because Warners was very happy with the movie and happy to distribute it. "Well," I thought, "if this is the best, God help me if they ever get serious."
Q- Going back to the beginning: You have said in interviews that our problem as a young filmaker was that you were too shy.
A- Yes, and I felt that if I'd ever have a career I'd have to do something about it. I'd made these experimental films but I thought the major chore of a filmmaker was to relate to actors. I went to the Glasgow Youth Theatre and they just let me in. But I was so shy that I was there for about six weeks without actually introducing myself. Finally, the director said, "You'll have to talk to the kids, Bill. They keep saying, 'Who is that weird guy hanging around in the back?'" So it was a big kind of moment for me when I actually had to address them: 'I'm a documentary filmmaker who has some ideas for a movie.' I didn't realize that someone coming along and saying, 'I want to put you in a movie' was a terrific idea for them.
They compensated for my shyness and lack of experience with That Sinking Feeling. Because I didn't know any better, I tried to explain things too much. I tried to talk them into performances that they could do perfectly well already, by themselves. One of the youngsters put me in place when he said after a while, "I don't know what you are saying, but I know what you mean." Burt Lancaster said exactly the same thing to me on Local Hero, but he said it because he couldn't understand my accent.
Q- Though you are angry about poverty in Scotland, a subject of That Sinking Feeling, you chose to work in a comic mode.
A- That's probably due to my experience in Glasgow with unemployed youngsters. Instinctively, I realized that the last thing they needed was to be told how miserable they were being unemployed. I made That Sinking Feeling more for them than for anyone else, so I knew there was no need to put a message into it. We were inside the situation so we had more right to see fun in it than anyone else. That kind of attitude has stuck with me.
Q- That Sinking Feeling was the ultimate low-budget film?
A- Oh, yes, it was shot for 6,000 pounds, about $10,000. It was the first indigenous Scottish film. And being the first indigenous film, it couldn't play. It ran for a week in Glasgow, and was taken off.
Q- What were your pleasant surprises as a director?
A- There weren't any. It was just as hard as I thought it would be. I don't really enjoy filming. Maybe someday I will, though Comfort and Joy was more fun. Maybe I'm getting more at ease, but it's certainly not a fun thing to do. It's much hard work.
Q- Gregory's Girl was your breakout hit in the USA. Were you happy with the reception?
A- It was three years after I'd finished the script for Gregory's Girl that I got to make it, but I prefer That Sinking Feeling as a film. I'm not fond of any of my films in an intimate way, but Gregory's Girl would be number 4 on my list.
Q- How did you get Burt Lancaster to agree to appear in Local Hero?
A- We just sent him the script. He said he doesn't get many good scripts, and this was the best he had in so many years. This was a script he enjoyed, and he was keen to do it.
Q- Is it easy to think regionally when you make films?
A- It's easy for me to be a Scotsman because of the overwhelming feeling of most people in Scotland of being subservient to England and therefore having a chip on our shoulder. I think, unconsciously, I was addressing myself more with Comfort and Joy than with my other films to Scottish people. There are things that Scotsmen get and other people don't get in the dialogue. Scottish characters can be pinpointed by a phrase, targeted very quickly.
Q- Why a story about a Glasgow deejay for Comfort and Joy?
A- It was only about ten years ago that we had the first local radio show in Galsgow, and that was so unusual it took my fancy. But the story is about a loss of identity reduced to temporary insanity. Like Dickie, I went mad for about three or four months. If the film had been longer, I think there would have been a point where someone said to Dickie, "It's good to see you back on your feet again." But he didn't know he was off his feet. That's certainly what friends said to me after a few months: "It's great to see you together again."
Q- What's the complication with names in Comfort and Joy?
A- Everybody has two names. Dickie Butts insists on being called Arlan at every opportunity. Mr. Bunny used to be Mr. Softy, but he's Mr. Bunny again. People have a label, they also have a name. They live more to the label than to the name. It's like the poem by T.S. Eliot about cats, that cats have three names: the name you call it, then its proper name, then its secret name which only it knows. So somebody's business, or the way he or she spends the day, can be confused with the real person.
In Local Hero, the young American executive is "Mac" McIntyre, and I was determined that he not have a real first name. I was terrified that Peter Riegert would come up to me one day and say, "I just realized I don't have a Christian name. What should I be called?" It's the kind of thing an actor does. Fortunately, he was happy with "Mac." The character didn't have a real name because he didn't know who he was. He was just pure business every time.
Q- Why are you shooting Housekeeping in Canada?
A- It's from a first novel by Marilyn Robinson set in a small lakeside lumber town in Idaho in the 1950s. We drove around the American northwestern states looking for locations, and everything is so different now. It's become a resort area with marinas, and the lakes are papered with cabins, so it would be very difficult to recreate the '50s. But we crossed the border into Canada, just 40 or 50 miles in, and the locations are there to be used.
Q- What's the story?
A- It's about two girls who don't have a mother, so they end up with a succession of female relatives, and finally their late mother's sister, a vagrant. She's almost like a wild animal. The movie is about the girls' desperate attempts to domesticate their aunt, and about her almost pitiful attempts to be a kind of housekeeper for them, and a mother.
Q- Is Housekeeping a comedy?
A- There are certain comedic elements in the domestic details of the aunt trying to be a housekeeper. If she opens a can of beans, she washes away the label and keeps the can because a vagrant doesn't throw anything away. During the course of a year, a whole stack of cans pile up in the front room, and newspapers as well.
Housekeeping isn't quite tragic, but it's too heartaching to be called a comedy, because these kids have grown up with no love at all. My movie starts with the mother delivering the two 5-year-olds onto their grandmother's porch one Sunday morning while the grandmother is in church. The mother gets into her car and drives it over a cliff into a lake. The lake is a major part of the story. To me, the dominant feeling about Housekeeping is "wateriness." In the spring, the house floods, and they spend a week walking around the house in six inches of water. There are reflections on the wall from the waters, and even the walls look like they're shaking.
I gave Marilyn Robinson a copy of the script when I'd finished it. She was amazed that an actual script existed. She said that when she was writing the novel, she was so convinced that it would never be published, much less made into a movie, that perversely she wrote half the scenes to take place into complete darkness.
When I read Housekeeping, it wasn't from the point of filming. It was months and months later that the idea of making it into a movie caught.
Q- What is your family?
A- My father died five years ago. My two elder sisters married Englishmen and went abroad. At the moment, my mother is the only one left in Glasgow, although it's certainly my home.
When I was a very small boy, my father was a plumber in a shipping yard, but then it transpired that he became a grocer. That's how my parents met. He was working in one grocery store, she in another. Her store ran out of onions, and she was sent to get onions. That's how they met, with her trying to buy onions from him.
Q- Sounds like a Bill Forsyth movie.
A- (Skeptical) Hmmmm.