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In Conversation with David Mackenzie - a BAFTA Scotland Event

Director David Mackenzie (left) with Main Actor Chris Pine (right)

It’s 7:30 pm and Piccadilly Circus is swarming as usual, but at 195 Piccadilly, BAFTA’s home, a quiet and stylish evening is taking place. As a precursor to the talk with David Mackenzie, we have all been given the opportunity to mingle with friends and strangers, as well as getting a look at the objects that are up for auction. With the aim to raise money for BAFTA Scotland’s educational activities in Scotland, the auction included two bottles of Taittinger champagne signed by the cast, the autographed script of Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce’s Shield - an official prop from the film, and more. During this informal networking precursor to the talk, I approached David Mackenzie who generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his career. After the free Edinburgh Gin g&ts and conversations, we moved to the David Lean room where Edith Bowman held a question and answer session with David. Topics included working with Netflix, his career, and his directing techniques in his films.

On his experience of directing Hell or High Water, a neo-Western film, as a Scottish director, David explained that American cinema had been his life and that he felt a connection to the script which he felt has global themes, despite its rooting in American society. He also drew a connection between Americans and Scots, both being a population with a tough exterior yet a warm heart. He admitted being an outsider to this culture but felt like he had an insider’s perspective, as well as being strongly inspired by the film’s locations in New Mexico, “half your job is done as soon as you’re through the door because you’re there”. He explained that being in these viscerally real locations is what brings the script to life.

David’s last two films, ‘Outlaw King’ and ‘Hell or High Water’, are noticeably different in several ways. Their locations- the dryness and desert of Texas versus the fertile lands of northern England and Scotland, their subject matter- a family drama versus a historical one, as well as their temporality- a modern-day film versus a 14th-century story. Yet the films have strong similarities: both are stories about outlaws and families, and both have incredibly raw and visceral cinematography. Despite being separated by 700 years, David bridges them together through his attention to detail in his representation of events and of people.

On historical accuracy, David was anxious to ‘demythologize’ the story of Robert the Bruce and wanted to give the often-misrepresented story and hero a more accurate portrayal. However, there is a constant battle between wanting to get closer to the truth of a story while keeping it narratively interesting- a complex balance. David also mentioned that history isn’t always narratively convenient. For example, the timeline shown in the film actually happened over 3-4 years but was cut down to seem like it happened over the span of a few months.

On his experience on working with Netflix, David had only praise. He mentioned that Netflix offered all the resources needed to make the film as well as giving him a high degree of creative freedom- a sweet spot for any filmmaker. He talked about Netflix providing a much broader reach of his film that perhaps couldn’t have been achieved as well if it had only been released in cinemas. David also mentioned that it was an incredibly quick process and that things moved quickly- filming was ready to happen in just 4 weeks. This is perhaps an interesting reflection on the quickly changing landscape of the film industry. Platforms like Netflix are providing filmmakers with less traditional possibilities as well as creating a different release experience. In fact, one of the principal actors in Outlaw King (Stephen McMillan) was found on Facebook and had no prior acting experience, further exemplifying this push towards less traditional methods in the film industry.

During this talk, I was fascinated by the filmmaking aspects involved in the Outlaw King. After watching the scene of the battle of Loudon, the film’s last scene, Edith asked David about the process of filming this complex battle sequence, noting its almost dance-like quality. David explained that although the scene was rehearsed, what made it come alive was a combination of the actors giving everything they had and a judicious editing. David mentioned a few times his desire to express poetic beauty in his films and talked earnestly of this battle scene and all its ‘mud, blood, light, and movement,’ all while wanting to keep a layer of realism. This tie to reality can be seen in the final moments of the battle when the Prince of Wales drags himself through the mud while vomiting, defeated and humiliated. As David put it: ‘films are just images and sound until you can make a human connection to them’.

Interestingly, David mentions that this scene with the Prince was improvised. He comments that sometimes these scenes come alive and have a tension to them that the scripted version wouldn’t. However, improvisation might fail, so you have to let it run its course and see what comes of it. “You want to try to make the scene as written”, David explains, “and half the time you’re battling the schedule… So once you have it in the bag you have time to try and do a take differently.”

Overall it was a privilege to get to talk to David Mackenzie. After I told I had aims of directing he told me that ‘you just have to keep going’. It was captivating to hear the director himself talk about his experiences of working on his films, especially when they express such genuine passion for their job. BAFTA Scotland held a wonderful event for St. Andrew’s Day and it was sure to inspire any aspiring directors in the crowd, myself included.

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