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In Conversation: Ivana and Gillies MacKinnon

Gillies MacKinnon is a Scottish filmmaker and painter currently living in London. His most recent feature film is Whisky Galore (2016), and his award-winning films include Hideous Kinky (1997), Regeneration (1996), and Small Faces (1995), which he wrote with and which was produced by his brother Billy MacKinnon.

Ivana MacKinnon is a producer, and the founder of Stray Bear Productions. Her most recent film Beast premiered at TIFF 2017, recently screened at Sundance, and will be released in April 2018. Previous films include War Book (2013) and The Scouting Book for Boys (2009). She has two young children.

Ivana: Did being a parent change the kind of work you wanted to make, or make you a different artist do you think?

Gillies: It made me a different version of myself and I guess that would have influenced what I did. The films I make are often if not usually based around family. Being a father certainly focused me on producing something which could exist in the real world, pay the bills and required me not to fail. I had previously been quite vague about all that.

I think the shock of becoming a parent for someone like me who had gladly lived on a baked potato a day was incredibly focusing. I had a full time job for five years as a detached youth worker. Giving that up and going to film school – I could only have done this reckless thing if I deeply believed I could make it work.

It was a struggle, but I was fuelled by a strange self-belief. Francesca (my wife, your mother) also worked freelance as an editor at that time, work she did from home. There wasn’t much sleep. I recall waking when the lights came up at a film lecture, with Colin Young (the school’s director) gazing down my open mouth. I also remember someone on staff at NFTS telling me frankly I had made a big mistake going there. But being responsible for two little people definitely fortified my endeavours and required me not to fail.

Ivana: It’s only now that I have kids and also that I look back at the home videos of the time that I understand how hard that was for mum and how gruelling it was with you going so far away to go to school. It wouldn’t have been good if it hadn’t worked, and actually I have more memories I think of the time before it started working – when you were doing corporate videos and trying to get work – than when it was… I wonder if that is because it felt more scary/difficult/there was more conflict then?

Gillies: It took 2 years from leaving NFTS to get my first low budget feature, but nothing I did felt wasted – even the corporate videos. Throughout NFTS and that two years I worked freelance as a cartoonist, which paid okay. I can’t speak for Francesca and whatever hardships all this caused. 

When did you understand what it is I did?

Ivana: Making films at home too with the super 8 camera probably helped link “work” to something tangible. But actually knowing what a director is? I guess probably when you got me to act in The Grass Arena when I was 11, that was when I learnt what a director does and also that I never wanted to be in front of a camera again. I remember taking Frankie (my daughter) to a film set when she was about three and telling her “this is where mummy works” and then looking around and realising we were in a house full of people drinking tea and that it just looked liked a big party.

Gillies – When people close to you visit set, you (probably unconsciously) try to create a party atmosphere. I’m not sure why, but guilty as charged. Do you remember when I was in between films I used to take you, Carla and your friends in fancy dress (witches, fairies, etc) to make films with our video camera in places like Finsbury Park? From the age of maybe eleven I would get you, and later Carla, to read scripts and write a report, then pay you £2. Your reports always took me by surprise. It was well worth the two quid and, of course, I knew this was a good training. Later the price crept up till it reached £20. You always had a strong literary talent and I suspect this more than anything else may have been an influence.

Ivana: What did you think when we went into the industry?

Gillies: At the point both of you entered, I was not involved and deliberately remained detached. You started writing reports freelance as I recall – I didn’t know who you were working for but I knew you would be good at this work. As time went by I realised you had your own network, people I didn’t know, people of a generation before mine. Gradually I realised you were more aware of the contemporary scene than I was.

With Carla, she suddenly took on a job producing a film festival – that came out the blue and it was exciting, as she was learning on the job. She did that well and it led to producing several other great film festivals – again, I had no idea who she was working with or even what she actually did. Later she found her way back to animation and an MA, and now a Phd – of course, no one comes to consult the great patriarch, no one falls at my feet seeking advice. In fact, I am usually the last to know what’s happening, and that seems part of the natural order.

How I felt? Guilty… but that’s probably the Scottish Protestant in me. I know Carla says she hopes Lenny (her son) will grow up to be an engineer and I flinch, understanding that maybe I laid it on too thick, the arts as a way of life etc..  – when it is obviously a tough call. In our house film was discussed a lot. Like being in a Jehovah’s Witness family. You know so much about it you either become one or reject it all.

It’s interesting that you became a producer as over the years as a child and young person, you were aware of producers I worked with, mainly good and sometimes excellent producers – now and then disruptive egotists. So you will have seen it from all sides and, I imagine, have models and judgements going forward which would inform your performance. You will often have heard me say from a director’s point of view, how crucial it is to have a good producer who understands what is going on and takes responsibility; and how damaging the opposite is. I hope I have also transmitted the need for a director to have similar standards. A producer and director connected, interdependent, who communicate and trust one another is a wonderful basis for creative work.

Ivana: Do you feel you ever made decisions about your work because of your family life? Did any of those decisions haunt you?

Gillies: I definitely decided to return from LA to UK because I didn’t want to uproot the family to LA (you and Carla were not at an age to be uprooted from friends and school, etc) and it wasn’t a tolerable family life to be living on a different continent. I loved my experience of two films through Hollywood but it was time to come home. I then made a whole bunch of films here which I loved – much more close to my heart. I wonder if you or Carla think this was the wrong decision?

Ivana: I don’t. I don’t know about Carla. I don’t remember it ever being a real question of moving to America but I do remember finding the US pretty weird as a child, but then I was probably too old as a young teenager to make that move without going wildly off the rails. And then you made Small Faces which felt much more to me like a movie that I understood and that was personal and that we all got to feel like a part of. But then I guess the UK was also booming at that period which was quite lucky – maybe it didn’t feel like a sacrifice to be back…

Gillies: It was a better time for young filmmakers definitely. It was such a deep pleasure to include you and Carla – you singing the song on the jukebox, Carla doing the cartoons for the young central character aged 14. Knowing you would both do these things well. Since my brother and I wrote it, and it was semi-autobiographical, it really was a family affair which was unusually satisfying.

Ivana: Yes I see with Frankie now how good for her confidence it is to be able to be creative around adults and have them take her seriously and engage with her, and I think that was really important for us as kids. I remember when I went for my first interview in film I was asked I would be nervous going to a stage door to talk to a writer and I just realized how privileged I was to feel naturally comfortable in that kind of situation.

Gillies: Maybe the volition for me comes from the childhood dearth of input – I still recall my intense frustration as a child. Your Granpa was a cop and did not get it. Your Gran always encouraged my brother and I but it was an egalitarian education system which saved us and made us both so highly value any opportunity we got. It makes me so angry to see how much we have thrown away in this country, how hard it is for young people now on every level.

Did you feel like you had ‘different’ parents (from other people) when you were growing up?

Ivana: Not really. We live in London, and London is such a diverse place anyway, so while I think you’re always assessing your parents against other people’s, I don’t think the presence of films or the rhythm of filmmaking in our lives created enough difference to stand out from all the other differences (politics, whether or not there were two parents, culture, tidiness of houses, wealth, strictness, etc). And anyway, everyone thinks their own family is special. I definitely thought we had more fun than a lot of people.

Was it difficult to come home from making a film into family life and how did you navigate that?


Gillies: I’d step out a taxi and stand outside the house for 5 minutes before entering – trying to empty my head of it all. Of course it was never that easy to switch from world to the other. Do you remember me being away for work?

Ivana: Not really, or at least I don’t remember being at home and your being away. I do remember it being tricky when you came home, at the start, and fitting back into family life.

Gillies: In what way?

Ivana: Mainly being in a house of women who didn’t listen to a word you said after a set full of people who listened to everything?

Gillies: It’s true no one listened to a word I said. I thought that was because no one was interested in what I had to say?

Ivana: Yes, probably. When you’re a young girl the world of film industry tales is not that interesting, whereas who got onto the school football team is life or death.

I don’t remember you being away, but I remember visiting sets, if that makes sense. I don’t think I would have gone into the industry if I remembered weeping at home or anything. I feel confident that generally kids are immersed in their own lives and their parents’ being away for periods doesn’t have a massive effect, as long as their relationship is close when they’re around. But we were also a bit older when you started going away – 8 and 6 I guess? So our lives were already quite full and getting fuller.

I think one thing that is quite interesting about the film industry is that because it’s something of a big family and the people are quite big characters, I was always aware of the people you were working with and party to stories about them even at a young age, so the world of “work” never felt like a far-off thing that was adult and not for us? Whereas if you had worked in a hospital or in the city or something, I feel it would have felt like something very different and where we could not be welcome or involved.

Gillies: It’s something of a relief to have my guilt about absences appeased. I made sure to call home every evening. The worst was when I was stranded for months like Ulysses in LA. I would call at 11 am and it would be 7pm in London, a completely different bio-rhythm. “I’m standing here in a car park” I would say, then dry. “My God, I have nothing to say to my own family” I would think. “So, how’s your day been?” – “Okay,” came the distant reply. “And what did you do?” – “nothing much” etc etc.. I started commuting home every weekend & the jetlag was so intense my hair turned grey almost overnight.

But it was always so great when you all did arrive on set. When you came to Atlanta Georgia I spent the four Saturdays prior to Christmas buying decorations & presents for your arrival. Then you arrived and it turned out the soulless corporate apartment was actually a great place- I had failed to notice. You and Carla got to work decorating the tree. It was such a pleasure having you all see what I was actually doing.

Ivana: It’s a nightmare calling kids from any other country. Mine say exactly the same thing. In fact Rowan (my son) refuses to even talk to me on the phone. I don’t think it’s that he’s annoyed with me, he just finds it boring because it is boring. What are you going to say? Maybe this is where my lifelong hatred of the phone stems from.

Working on Regeneration.

Gillies: Do you approach the industry differently having experienced it while growing up?

Ivana: Yes, I think I probably see it as less glamorous and alluring and more a place in which you get to make films and be with people who are passionate about what they do. And I know that there is a lot of noise and nonsense around the business, things go in waves, and nothing is constant. Which I guess sounds very zen. It isn’t in practise of course, I’m as neurotic and obsessive as everyone else, but I have a bit of distance from it all, I think (hope).

Do you see any difference now in how practitioners in film manage their work and family lives?

Gillies: It is obviously still a struggle for filmmakers with families: the constant uncertainty, unsociable hours, periods of absence, trying to maintain consistency for the children. It does strike me that filmmakers with families know more filmmakers with families now and that this is some kind of moral support. I only knew one other filmmaker with small kids, Michael Caton Jones, who was going through similar financial tribulations at film school. Things felt maybe wilder – even choosing film making was an unusual choice then, so you didn’t come across other parents in the same boat. Film making was not the popular life choice it is today.

Despite my historic exuberance about drawing/painting/cartooning/animation/writing/jamming/film making – I seriously never meant to encourage anyone into this way of life. I was fully aware how difficult this life is, how much will power, resiience, self belief and base luck you need. It would have been a relief to hear either of you had gone in for medicine (or something) if that was what really moved you. My question is – I think you similarly infuse your children with your own enthusiasms – is this tantamount to encouragement? And is encouragement a good thing? I mean, what else can you do?

I ask the ‘encouragement’ question because I know I am a chronic encourager and try to rein it in, especially as I am concerned we have created a culture very much geared towards encouraging hopeful young people into an industry which can’t support them all – the proliferation of workshops, the emphasis on a film ’training’ industry, I guess I miss the more anarchic period when I left film school – the institutions were tiny by comparison, but we made a lot of films which got cinema release.

And of course I find myself continuing to get engaged with my grand children – I tend to think an intense experience of drawing, or cartooning, or jamming, opens the brain up. A lot of this (with me) comes from the dearth of input and stimulation I had as a child. On the other hand, that unsatisfied hunger may have toughened me up and made me self directed. I do have a rather primitive sink or swim mentality.

Ivana: It is a different world. In many ways. I don’t think encouragement to tell stories can ever be a bad thing. I was never much of an artist but I love being able to draw as an adult – I would never have tried to become a professional artist as I knew I wasn’t good enough; I don’t think encouragement would make the difference. I think learning to do things for their own sake is valuable too and that should be part of the teaching: not everything has to lead somewhere.

But the future world is as different as the film industry now was to the film industry then. When you were young there were secure jobs, and the dole, which I truly believe was godsend for lots of artists. Now there’s zero hour contracts and you pay for your education so students have an expectation that what they are learning has to be linked inextricably to what they can earn. And in the future the robots will take over so many of the jobs.

So it seems to me we have to teach our kids curiosity and creativity and critical thinking – and the confidence that comes from encouragement – and that storytelling may be one of the last things we are willing to give over to machines. Sorry if that sounds bleak but I can’t see why not to encourage kids into anything. Of course it would be great to also encourage them in science and maths etc – the ideal is to make them curious in everything I think.

Gillies: Well that summary is encouraging to me. Believe me- the dole saved my bacon in my juvenilia. I had so much to get out the way, so much learning to do, and I could easily live in a cupboard on a baked potato a day back then – if you felt you had somewhere you needed to get to – money – who cares? You could say that back then. The feeling is what matters. Without the feeling you are indeed an automaton.

I feel we have thrown out so much of what was great about this country, a slow creep of crass commercialism, greed and erosion of whatever doesn’t turn a buck, increased manipulation, thought control and charlatanism. It’s time for the young to take matters into their own hands and sweep away the political liars and manipulators. I trust young people more than any political leader alive today. They are getting a bum deal and it’s getting bummer!

2018-11-12T12:59:13+00:00February, 2018|In Conversation, The Long Read|