Thursday, 22 June 2017

MACBETH, MACBETH, BEWARE MACDUFF

My young film students have been at it again, and have produced their best work to date, in an abridged adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. And when I say abridged, well, that's an understatement. They took what is almost a three hour play and turned it into a visual spectacle of just 16 minutes.

A year ago they had spent a number of months rehearsing a stage version, but when they came to me a few months later, hardly any of them really understood the story. At first I was a little dismayed, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as they were not bound by any preconceptions.

You can watch the finished version by clicking on the picture below.

https://vimeo.com/219845892

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, just one year after the gunpowder plot to blow up parliament. James the 6th of Scotland was on the throne, as James the 1st of England, son of Mary Queen of Scots, and distant cousin of the recently deceased Elizabeth. Appropriately we filmed in a castle where Mary Queen of Scots had once been imprisoned.



In the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes attempted to kill the leading politicians, and the king, because of his lack of support for the Catholic cause. He and his conspirators were tortured and then executed for their treason. Macbeth was written as a cautionary tale, warning any others that an awful fate would overtake any such future attempts.

Macbeth is partly based on fact. He was a real 11th century Scottish king, but this historical Macbeth reigned capably in Scotland from 1040 to 1057. He did indeed succeed Duncan, his cousin, whom he defeated in battle. But Macbeth was succeeded by his own stepson Lulach, but only for seven months.  Duncan's son Malcolm, then became King of Scotland in 1058. The Stuart kings claimed descent from Banquo, but Banquo is a mythical figure.

Now my students turn their attention to devising a new film for entry into film festivals next year. The vast experience they gained from making this recent film will stand them in good stead, in all aspects of filmmaking, from story structure to production values.

Younger students also embarked on abridged versions of Shakespeare plays in the past few months, namely A Midsummer Nights Dream and Romeo & Juliet.

400 years after the death of Shakespeare, and here are children of today enjoying his stories, and creating spectacular films using the same structure he wrote all those centuries ago.
At the end of the process, and after watching the finished film, many of the students saw parallels with current political times, especially when you consider that on a basic level Macbeth was written to warn that excessive ambition will have terrible consequences.

Maybe we should send the link to some of the worlds current leaders.


Friday, 16 June 2017

SETTING THE COURSE THROUGH LIFE

My working life in the creative industries started in 1981 when I went to work at Hall Advertising in Edinburgh, then part of Saatchi & Saatchi. It was a great time, and so much foolery was had that it never really felt like work. An early influence to me back then was the Creative Director Jim Downie. Though Jim was head of all things creative for the largest and most successful agency in Scotland at the time, he felt like one of the lads, and always encouraged those below to progress. I left Halls in the mid 80s but would never forget Jim.

Fast forward 32 years to now. Recently, in a conversation with my neighbour Frank, who has lived next door for a number of years, it transpired that he knew Jim Downie. Though Jim had never been far from my thoughts of the past, I had not seen him or spoken to him in all the 32 years. But this chat with Frank set me on a quest to meet up with Jim and reminisce.

Then, by absolute coincidence, just one week ago, as I walked home, I spotted a small film crew in the lane leading to my house. Obviously I've seen a film crew before and decided to leave them alone rather than go and nose. It would turn out that the film crew's director was none other than Jim Downie!

Yesterday we met for coffee at Cafe Rouge in Edinburgh. The passage of the years had played its part on both of us, but we recognised each other despite the changes. When I look at the photographs below comparing both of us from the 80s to now though, I think you'd find it hard to believe we are the same people.



Despite the passage of time, our passion for filmmaking was shared. He's since sent me various links to some of the TV commercials he's made recently. Cinematic sequences with Jim's trademark attention to detail. We talked a while of times past, and how things took a particular path, how opportunities came and went. It was at this point that I told him of a young student under my wing called Stanley, who was successful in landing a part in a major new Ridley Scott film, recently returning from filming alongside some very recognisable stars.

I don't think it matters if your mentor is famous or not, but their influence on your path can literally be life changing. Though I have forged my journey myself, and it has been hard at times but well supported by those around me, I would never have reached where I am now without having first met Jim Downie. I wonder if all of us can point to someone from our past that opened our eyes and set us on a particular course.

Reading this you will most likely not have heard of Jim Downie, but you will have heard of the director and cast pictured below. I wonder if in 32 years time Stanley, pictured on the right, will meet up with Ridley Scott and recall the time they first met on set as Stanley started his journey.


Now that's a meeting I'd like to have coffee over.


Friday, 9 June 2017

POLITICAL COMEDY MATERIAL

Politics is boring. But thankfully it is now the 9th of June, and all the hot air is over. It would seem though that the current PM did not get the huge majority she wanted. Though she remains as PM it is of a hung parliament and is attempting to form a government jointly with the 10 Irish politicians of the DUP.

Yes politics is boring, but you have to vote. It is a privilege, and I never waste my right. Though I'm not going to state here who I voted for, I'm not a fan of the Conservatives, but I'm also not a fan of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and I was not disappointed to learn they had lost a third of their seats.

Interesting times ahead, but for me personally I rarely see any effect in my life, and I'm fairly sure this will be no different. Tomorrow I will continue my work with my young students.

My students love making films, and they are definitely improving in their acting skills in front of camera, but there can be no doubt that for me, I prefer to be behind the camera. This week though, I had to pluck up the courage to get on the other side of the lens to have a new set of professional head shots done, by a good friend of mine, professional photographer Dave Stewart, of Studio 2.


Just now my students are in the throes of understanding parody, and have spent the last few weeks making one-minute shorts on any subject they choose. One of the best so far, as they are only half way through the 16 shorts they are making, was one on the infamous "wall" proposed by President Donald Trump.

Politics may well be boring, but it provides great comedy material, even at its worst.


Friday, 2 June 2017

NOT QUITE A MARATHON

There's a great route from my house, along the sea coast, to the town of North Berwick, which I haven't cycled for as long as I can remember, but at Pauline's suggestion I rectified that last Sunday.

I'm not an early riser by any means, and Pauline's suggestion to get away early doors on a Sunday morning was met with some resistance. But her reasoning was sound, to get along the busy, narrow and winding coast road before the hoards venture out for their Sunday drive, post breakfast. But it had slipped our minds that this particular day was also the Edinburgh Marathon, when just over 30,000 runners would take the exact same route that we planned to cycle!

We were pushing off from the house around 9am, joining the promenade just a few metres from our front door, when immediately we saw all the traffic cones and tapes cordoning off sections of the beach-side walkway, for the imminent arrival of said runners. We deduced they would start their route at 10am from the city centre, so we had a good head start on them, and with a stiff tail wind would easily stay ahead of the pack. We took advantage of the taped off route as we left the city, which was a little precarious as police motorcycles were already patrolling the route, and were zooming toward us in the opposite direction, but didn't seem to mind what we were doing.

At points our chosen route was well away from the runners path, especially passing Musselburgh, taking the semi-circular dirt track around the lagoons nature area, rejoining the main road, and more cones and an increasing number of officials in hi-viz jackets, on the outskirts of Prestonpans. This was clearly some sort of staging post, and judging by the set up and mile markers, this was the finish line for those running the half marathon.

Leaving the outskirts of the small town, still hugging the coast east, it suddenly dawned on us that the twisting, narrow road, that is normally a little hair raising with fast moving morons in cars, was entirely empty. We had the whole road to ourselves. At this point we vowed to take note of the marathon date for future years, and make this run an annual event for ourselves, to take advantage of the car-free roads.

Two thirds of the way to North Berwick we left the marathon route behind, entering the quaint little village of Aberlady, past the nature reserve that we have both often visited, and then turned inland away from the coast. Then almost immediately turning east again, along narrow quiet back roads, the verges and walls covered in wild flowers, among them Red Valerian.

The distinctive shape of Berwick Law was in the distance, marking our own finish line.


The small conical hill is actually a volcanic plug, blown there through the skies around 360 million years ago. Since 1709 a set of whale jawbones has sat atop the rock, replaced several times, the last being in situ since 1933. In 2005, after they had mostly rotted away, they were removed permanently. As they were such an iconic element, a fibreglass replica was made and installed in 2008.

No cycle trip is ever truly complete until a quantity of coffee and cake has been consumed, and on this occasion we pulled in to a trendy looking place called Steam Punk, on the outskirts of North Berwick.


After a quick stop off on the coast near the Seabird Centre, to view the largest gannet colony in the world on Bass Rock, with some 150,000 birds, we headed for the train station.

Our journey had been just 22 miles, four short of a marathon. With a strong wind now blowing from the west we had opted to catch a train home. Thankfully we boarded at North Berwick, as just two stops later the remnants of those 30,000 runners also need a ride home.



Friday, 26 May 2017

BIRTH DAYS

Last week I blogged on the wide variety of wildlife in my garden and surrounds. Well, that number has swollen considerably.

The weather has been particularly nice in Edinburgh for the whole of the week, and though we are in desperate need of rain soon, it makes a pleasant change to be able to have breakfast in the garden.

Before I settle down to my own though, the wildlife feeding comes first. I'm still putting out the usual amount, but now there are many more mouths to feed. The Starlings have fledglings! They are a demanding lot, screeching for attention, and competing with the Sparrows fledglings for the seeds and mealworms. Mmmm, yum.

The mouse also needs to get his breakfast of course, but as the photo below shows, he's both daring, coming out while I'm stood right in front of him, and adaptable. The birds don't seem that interested in the high fat content peanuts at this time of year, so more for the mouse I guess. Can you spot him?


The temperature gradually rose as the week progressed, peaking today at 25C (77F), which for Scotland is a heat wave! With very little wind it was the perfect weather to get out on my bike.

And that is how the week ends, meeting Pauline after her work, on the other side of the city, for a joint cycle home. Through the back streets and various small wooded glens, through tunnels of pale green leafed trees and a backdrop of bird song, past children playing in the river, Tom Sawyer-like.

The route home was a strangled one, strangely with more uphill than on my way out. Strange, because I left from sea level. However, it had to be Pauline's choice, as today is also a birthday of a different kind, that of my good friend, and neighbour, Pauline.

Traditionally we take on the pleasurable task of providing a birthday supper, and though mine is only pizza and a movie, there is a special little something. She has a favourite sweet that I very occasionally make, which is a chocolate pecan torte. She thinks I'll have been out buying a Marks & Spencers gluten free cake today, but little does she know what awaits. Of course I also get to indulge.


The birds are happy with their mealworms, and Pauline will be delighted with her chocolate indulgence I'm guessing.


Friday, 19 May 2017

OF MICE AND . . . BIRDS

If there's one thing I really enjoy every day it's feeding the wildlife in my garden. This week has been particularly fun with an abundance of sightings, but not just in the garden.

We're just getting into warmer temperatures now, and on Wednesday of this week it was warm enough to sit out in the garden and have breakfast. So I purposely fed the birds before sitting down to quietly eat my muesli. I never have to wait long. Sometimes I don't even make it up the back steps into the house before the Starlings descend. Energetically they hoovered up the mealworms in just a few seconds, pecking each other out of the way, before moving on to my neighbour Pauline's garden for a second course. We have one particular Starling, which I've noticed perches on a particular branch, which is a perfect mimic of other birds, and even the crying of a neighbour's baby!

Then came nature's announcement that summer had arrived, as several screeching birds swooped down through the garden at unbelievable speed. The Swifts had returned!

The Sparrows are comical, almost like unruly teenagers, lazily hanging around my garden all day, making a racket that seems like they are gossiping with each other, whilst enjoying the safety of cover, usually in the dense ivy or fir tree. The ivy though is starting to get quickly out of hand as it has literally burst into rapid growth in need of a slight rim I think otherwise I'm soon not going to be able to get down to the garden to feed the wildlife.


Most of the birds are now starting to perch inside the birch as it reaches full leaf, so that provides a better opportunity to see them. On this particular morning I realised there were more than the usual number of Sparrows, when it dawned on me that I was watching new fledglings. That was a great treat.

The blackbird hangs around most of the day as well, and his song is a joy at the end of every day. Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Crows, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves, Magpies; all visitors in that breakfast time period.

The other "wildlife" in my garden habitat are two field mice. The have their own corners and are quite bold. Unusually they are out during the day, and one very small one, a picture of who ends this blog, seems unphased by my presence, and sometimes even sits atop a pot while I put food out, patiently waiting. I do worry about him, as though I have a pretty good fence all around, a persistent cat of a neighbour occasionally gets in. On Thursday this week I spotted it, slinking away slowly. Slowly that was until it heard me thundering down the stairs in hot pursuit!

Pauline also has a field mouse in her garden, which occasionally pops through to mine to steal food, and I noticed during the day that it's food had not gone. I checked a few times and it remained there all day. I was getting concerned that the cat had found its prey. Later that night, after dark, I decided to take a torch for one last check. Maybe it had been spooked by the cat and decided to return to nocturnal activities. To my relief, not only was the food gone, but he was there, on top of Pauline's narrow, thin, metal, six-foot bird table, shimmying down one of the narrow legs, upside down. It was very funny to watch. Pauline had seen this once before but I never had, so I was very lucky with my timing.

Away from my garden earlier in the week, whilst walking home late one night along a local lane, I was swooped by three bats out catching bugs. But the best siting of the week was driving home late one evening from seeing a friend in the country. On a long straight stretch of road, up ahead, illuminated by a trucks lights going the opposite way, was the white underside of a large owl, gliding through the air, across the road, to a small wood on the opposite side. I pulled over into an adjacent layby, switched off the lights and engine, and waited patiently. It didn't reappear, but it hooted several times. A very spooky but fabulous sound.

Pauline has topped all these encounters this week though. She is away up north on holiday and witnessed her first enormous Sea Eagle. Very jealous. Can't wait to hear all about that.

Meanwhile I'll be quite content with my Sparrows and mouse.



Friday, 12 May 2017

LIVE YOUR DREAMS

One of the best films of recent times is a Ben stiller movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I'm in the process of looking more closely at this film, deconstructing it, with a view to teaching my young students about it. It deals with a number of issues that may affect the majority of us, and it is this that makes the film so good I think. It is no coincidence that it is set at Life magazine.

If you haven't seen it, basically it is a quest movie about a daydreaming, boring photo processor, Walter Mitty, working at Life magazine in its last days before going online. He loses a negative, a first for him, for the last issue's cover, sent by one of the photographers, Sean, twho is the only person that recognises Walter's skills. The film takes us on an epic adventure from shark attacks in Greenland, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Snow Leopards in Afghanistan.

To mark the beats of Walters quest throughout the film, he regulalrly gets calls from Todd of eHarmony, asking what else he can add to Walter's profile to make him more interesting, to increase his chances of finding a partner. Part of what makes Walter so boring, is his scrupulous accounting of his finances, which stays all the way through. A sort of count down to oblivion for him, down to zero dollars. His first job had been in a pizza restaurant called Papa John's, and he finds himself in one on Iceland. As he studies the plastic cup, after first checking his dwindling finances of course, he suddenly has an urge to get out of there. Away from the superficial plasticity of an international food chain, a metaphor for the world. This marks the point where Walter starts to change. Working for money and counting every bean is a waste of a precious, short life. This is reaffirmed by Life magazine's motto all the way through the film:

"To see things thousands of miles away,
things hidden behind walls and within rooms,
things dangerous to come to,
to draw closer, to see, and be amazed"

Though Walter had worked at Life magazine for a long time, his role was obscure, and a bitter sweet reminder that modern technology is changing everything, including the security of all our jobs. In essence, if you aren't creating something new, you're replaceable.

We're not here long at all, and we're really good at excuses, busy living up to what other people think we should be doing. But the bottom line is, stop doing what you hate and go out and live your dreams.

At the end of the film Todd from eHarmony appears and ask Walter if he is zoning out still, daydreaming. Walter pauses a moment, reflecting on what he's experienced, before he answers . . .

"Not so much"