‘It’s out of control’ – Hollywood director Michael Caton-Jones daunted by Edinburgh tourist numbers
The advantages and pitfalls of filming in Edinburgh trip effortlessly off the tongue of Hollywood producer and director Michael Caton-Jones, as he recalls shooting his latest film, Our Ladies, on the streets of the Capital, back in 2018.
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"Well, the pro is the architecture everywhere you look. There's almost a shot anywhere. The cons are people. There are too many people. It is that simple," says the film-maker from Broxburn, a visitor to the city since his formative years.
Candidly, he continues, "Since I was young, to now, the huge difference in Edinburgh is the amount of people there, the amount of tourists. To my mind it's out of control. You can't see the place too well. You don't want it to be empty but I think it's overdone, it's a bit like Florence and Rome at the moment."
All of which can make filming a challenge, says the 63-year-old director of movies such as Memphis Belle, Doc Hollywood and This Boy's Life.
"It demands that you have a certain amount of money to be able to afford to clear streets, and what have you. If you don't, you just have to get on with it and make it work as best you can. It costs a lot of money, that's why you get all the big films in Edinburgh shutting down streets. It's basically a function of money," adds Caton-Jones, whose other films include Rob Roy, The Jackal, and Basic Instinct 2.
Based on the award-winning novel The Sopranos by Alan Warner, Our Ladies follows a group of Scottish schoolgirls on a day trip to Edinburgh to perform in a choir competition. For these teens from a small town in the Scottish Highlands, it becomes a chance to escape their daily lives and run riot in the big city. With few expectations for their futures, Orla, Finnoula, Manda, Kay, Chell and Kylah are determined to live for every moment in a raucous tale of love, life and true friendship.
"Going into the town when I was younger provided me with a big dose of social education and, for me, this film sums up something that was a right of passage for everyone in Scotland, not just these girls. To me it was reflective of a culture, of what it used to be like before we had telephones to do everything for us. What I wasn't really ready for, I think, was how emotionally affecting this film was going to be to make," he admits.
“By that, I mean… it made me realise that I wasn't just making a daft wee comedy; I was making something that summed up a certain time and a certain place that is nostalgic now, but it's really accurate to what it was like. It’s genuinely a love letter to the Scotland I grew up in.”
Reflecting on his early visits to the Capital, he remarks, "The centre of Edinburgh is, in a way, reminiscent of what it was when I was young although it's a lot more colourful now, a lot more commercial. When I used to go, there was the Rose Street pub crawl and we'd go up and down the Waverley Steps, none of that has changed. You came in at the bus garage or train station and the rest was your oyster and you could walk about it. I wasn't aware at the time but I was getting a visual education, really."
With that in mind, did he have any locations he specifically wanted to feature in Our Ladies, I wonder.
"As I said, because it is all a function of money, when you have a film which doesn't have much money, you are forced to think your way into making it look more expensive than it was," he chuckles. "So you're looking around and thinking, 'What can I use for free?’ Partially, the purpose of choosing any location is to create an emotional reaction and the beauty of Edinburgh is that you can choose places that reflect whatever you want to say, whether it be old and grand or scruffy or whatever. There's so much variety, I could have shot Our Ladies five different ways and it would have looked different every time."
However, without the budget to shut off streets, Caton-Jones opted to keep his shoot more low-key than some to have come to the city.
He explains, "I would avoid people. I'd put the camera in and keep it quiet and let things go off as they were. When you're shooting in the street, unless you can control the street you have to try and be as invisible as possible, so I would be actively trying to stay out of the way," he laughs.
The last, and perhaps only film to feature a predominantly young, female cast filmed in Edinburgh was, I suggest, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. He agrees.
"I liked that film and it did stand out because it was one of the few films made in Scotland at that time. For all of us growing up here then, it was novel. Essentially, visually the city hasn't changed since except it has in a million different subtle ways, but then I guess cities evolve, they remain familiar but there's a level that is altered as well.
"As I grew up 10 miles outside Edinburgh, I know the city well. I felt I could find these bits and pieces that were relevant to me and, hopefully, relevant to other people, and it would be a different way of looking at the city. It was really a matter of walking the city and taking photographs, and then figuring out how I could do everything I needed."
Our Ladies opens in cinemas on August 27