Bill Forsyth. Photo courtesy of Edinburgh International Film Festival.
If you haven’t yet explored the work of trailblazing Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, now is the perfect time to do so. Forsyth makes the kind of small-scale, humanistic films that there just aren’t enough of these days, and there are currently a number of opportunities to see his work in New York City. The Museum of the Moving Image is in the midst of a “Five by Forsyth” series, including35mm prints of his debut, the shoestring budget caper That Sinking Feeling (1979), and his biggest international success, Local Hero (1983), an eccentric fish-out-water comedy recently given the Criterion Collection treatment. On top of that, Gregory’s Girl, his charming 1981 coming-of-age tale, is newly restored and showing at Film Forum. Gregory’s Girl, a film involving a girl who takes a spot on an all-boy’s soccer team, becoming the gangly title character’s crush, is far less superficial and more relatable than the average high school film, with authentically unexpected and fun motifs like an occasionally wandering boy in a penguin suit. The characters don’t fall into the typical nerd/jock/popular kid categories, and if the teenagers seem to act like real teens, without any Hollywood polish, well, that’s because that’s just what they are. The honesty and poignancy feel like an influence on later beloved teen media like Freaks and Geeks. Even though the Scottish accents are so thick they can be a bit tricky for American viewers to understand (more on that later), the film stands, in all its low-key appeal, as one to be enjoyed by audiences young and old. In advance of Forsyth’s visit to New York for the screenings of his work, I spoke to the director about the Scottish film industry and how he got his start.
NOTEBOOK: What has it been like revisiting your older work?
BILL FORSYTH: Well, I had been very good at avoiding these movies over the years. I used to say that if I saw them across the street, I wouldn’t cross to say hello to them. I still feel that way. They’re like people that I’ve lost touch with, in a way. When screenings happen, it's actually quite fun because I’m not very involved with them. It’s fun to kind of touch base with them though, and find people that are interested in watching them and get reactions and things. So it’s a nice experience. But I haven’t lived with them constantly. It’s like having kids. They kind of wander away and do their own thing.
NOTEBOOK: Were you a cinephile growing up?
FORSYTH: I wasn’t at all interested in cinema. In fact, I avoided it. I remember as a young kid they had these cinema clubs. I think my mom made me go one Saturday and it was just so noisy, just noisy kids putting the seats up and down. And there were these bossy people. You were herded around like cattle in the theater. So I thought, “I don't enjoy this,” and it kind of put me off movies for a number of years. And then of course I was in that first generation to experience TV when people started getting it in the '50s and '60s. All the important Hollywood movies of the '30s and '40s were just fodder for the TV companies cause you could buy them for nothing and show them endlessly.
NOTEBOOK: How did you get your start in film?
FORSYTH: It was really only when I was in my late teens that I started getting into film. I was very lucky. I left school and I was a little bit aimless. My parents were obviously saying “Get a job,” and in the local paper in those days there was a page of jobs for girls and a page of jobs for boys. For a few weeks I was applying for things religiously. And then one day, lo and behold, there was a little ad in the boys’ section. It said, “Youth required for film production companies.” So I thought that would be pretty interesting. I didn’t think of it as a full-time career thing then, because me and a couple of chums really just wanted jobs so that we could save up and travel a little bit. I thought maybe this would last for a few months and I could make some holiday money. I ended up getting that job and it was just a company making little sponsored films, but it got me hooked on cinema.
Then I started to go to the local arthouse theater in Glasgow. I was exposed to all the French films and other European films that were coming there on a pretty regular basis. So that was around '65, '66, and Godard stuff was just coming out. Godard was my big hero. Truffaut and Louis Malle weren’t quite as much. I didn’t get Bergman at all. I thought he was so theatrical. I spent most of the '60s just learning what kind of gear there was, what an assistant film editor and assistant cameraman was, all of that stuff. It was very good grounding. And then in the early '70s in the U.K. they started a national film school for the first time. So I applied, although by that time I was running a small film company with a partner, Charlie Gormley. We ran a company called Tree Films. I still had the yen to learn and get more formally involved with cinema. So I went through the business of applying to the film school and I got a place in London. I spent most of the week in the car because I had to keep working with Charlie on our little sponsored movies that we were making and I also had to keep up my presence at the film school. And then Colin Young, the head of the school, was a Scotsman who had been teaching at UCLA before. He got ahold of me after Christmas, and he said, “Come on, have a chat.” And he said, “Look, you’ve got to make up your mind. You’ve got to be here or there. I know what you're doing.” So I decided I better stick with Charlie and Tree Films, and I gave up the film school. But I suppose the happy ending was that about ten years later the film school gave me an honorary diploma. So I did finally graduate from that place.
Gregory's Girl. Photo courtesy of Film Movement
NOTEBOOK: What was the film industry like in Scotland when you were starting out?
FORSYTH: Well, in terms of narrative cinema, I think That Sinking Feeling was the first indigenous Scottish feature film. There had been nothing before then. Film crews had used Scotland as a location, but as far as I know we kind of instigated cinema in Scotland. The day-to-day business was sponsored movies, which was very, very low moviemaking. The funny thing was, one of the reasons that I started to want to make proper films was because in our films we’d be making something for say, the Highland board, about the fishing industry and the tourism industry. The thing that we found ourselves doing was shooing people out of a film. Say we were filming a scene, in a harbor or something. You’d get all these rubberneckers coming around and hanging around the camera. So we were forever saying, “Will you please move away and get out of our shot? We’re trying to make a film here.” We were keeping people at bay, but it gradually dawned on me that this was like an absurd situation when we were shouting at people to get out of our films. So that finally threw me into realizing that if I was going to be a filmmaker, I better learn about people and actors and all that stuff. After a great number of years, maybe ten years, it was the late '70s by this time, I just came up with the idea of making a very cheap feature film. It struck me that the cheapest way to do it was to use kids because they wouldn’t cost anything. So I made contact with some of the youth theater people in Glasgow and that’s how I ended up meeting the kids that were in That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl. By the time I made That Sinking Feeling, I must’ve been about 30. And I had been in the business since I was 18. So I was a slow starter. But we had to more or less invent the business in Scotland. There was nothing there.
NOTEBOOK: That must’ve been pretty overwhelming at times.
FORSYTH: In all my innocence, I had written the script for Gregory’s Girl before I went to the youth theater. The kids were up for anything so we rehearsed that and I got to know them. I was trying to raise money for it through the British Film Institute and they had a little production fund. After about a year of the application being processed, they finally said no. So I was at a dead end at that point. I spent a good year with the kids and then suddenly I had to go to them and say, “Look, this isn’t going to happen.” And that’s what really stimulated the idea for That Sinking Feeling because I had all this energy with the kids and also the people in the film business like the crew and the cameraman that I’d been egging on to help me out. I thought I had to use this energy up in some way or another. And that’s how I came around to the idea of making a film which was really more based on the life that the kids knew. At that time Glasgow was a basket case economically, as you can probably see if you watch That Sinking Feeling. That was a good thing for me, actually, to get a little bit authentic and not do the kind of sparkly Hollywood stuff before I really got to know how to work with actors. I’m pleased now, looking back on it, that it happened that way around.
NOTEBOOK: A film like Gregory’s Girl feels pretty naturalistic. Are there any elements of improvisation?
FORSYTH: It wasn’t quite that way. The script is my safety net, so I wasn’t into improv. Maybe having come to actors late, as it were, I was a bit of a dictator. And so we would talk and rehearse and I would let the kids blow off steam in that way. But when it came to both of these films, I was pretty well insistent on the dialogue. For my own sake, I didn’t know any better, I wasn't an improvisatory filmmaker, so I thought, “Well, I better not start having them improvise or I’ll end up who knows where.” So it was a nice rigid machine. I kind of regret that sometimes, but you know, it's the way that I ended up working.
NOTEBOOK: And you felt that you got along with the kids?
FORSYTH: Yeah, I wrote the dialogue, but I was learning from the kids—the language that they spoke, the emotional language and all of that. So it wasn’t as if I was imposing anything on them. I was just imposing a kind of cinematic discipline on them, so I think that is quite authentic. And certainly the kids didn’t really have a lot of trouble latching on to what the ideas were because I had written board films with a keen eye on the fact that I was getting to know these kids and seeing what kind predicament teenage kids were in at that time. So it was a nice kind of symbiotic thing.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like you draw from your own life in your writing?
FORSYTH: Maybe in the nuts and bolts more than in the details. But yes, in an abstract way, in the sense of a time in life, a place, a situation. Something like Comfort and Joy  was certainly almost a narrative of a couple of years in my life.
NOTEBOOK: At one point the voices in Gregory’s Girl were dubbed to make the film easier to understand for American audiences. What was that like?
FORSYTH: Sam Goldwyn Jr. picked it up for the Goldwyn Company and had seen the original movie in London. It was a year or two after it had been released and had its little successes when he picked it up. I hadn’t thought when we were making it that we should be modulating the kids’ accents in any way. And it worked fine in England and Scotland. So that version was purely for the States. I remember it was a slow process. Some of the young people re-voiced it themselves, but also there were quite a few professional young actors that we had to get to articulate it more and get what Sam and his team wanted. So a couple of people from the Goldwyn company came and sat in in London when we did this re-voicing. And it was funny, I remember when Sam and his wife came into to watch our run through. At one point I heard Sam say, “Hey that’s Gregory’s little sister!” And I thought, “He’s gone through the whole business of buying this film and he’s still having revelations later.” It was quite funny.
NOTEBOOK: It’s been a little while since you’ve made a film. What have you been up to lately?
FORSYTH: Yeah, and it hasn't been from any kind of tardiness on my part. It’s just much more difficult. None of my movies were moneymakers in the sense that producers and financiers want to hear about. They made their names and reputations in a very ambling way. But it’s quite interesting that we’re talking about one of them 40 years later. Nowadays it’s pretty tough to get the kind of very personal little films that I make financed. I’ve got friends here, there and everywhere, but when it comes down to crunching the numbers, my things are still a little too esoteric. Having said that, I’m still plowing on. I have probably seven or eight scripts now in my satchel if anyone knocks on my door and asks what I’m doing. So I’m an old guy but I don’t think filmmakers as a breed really retire. I think that’s the truth of it. So who knows.
Gregory's Girl plays October 4–10, 2019 at Film Forum in New York.