28 Days Later film producer Andrew Macdonald has taken some knocks, but he is already looking to build on the anticipated success of his "Ken Loach zombie movie" with a sequel to Trainspotting and an Edinburgh-set period horror, Brian Pendreigh reports.
Life has been a little hectic for film producer Andrew Macdonald recently. The man who put the Scottish film industry on the map with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting has been preparing for the UK release of zombie horror movie 28 Days Later. It is a major change of direction and there is a lot riding on it after a string of disappointments.
He has also been negotiating a new partnership between his company and a major Hollywood studio. And, as if that were not quite enough, he and his wife, Trainspotting costume designer Rachael Fleming, have been looking forward to the birth of their third child. It is all go, and you get the impression the energetic, 36-year-old Scot would not want it any other way.
It is now the stuff of legend how John Hodge, a junior hospital doctor from Glasgow, turned up at the Edinburgh Film Festival with the story of Shallow Grave scribbled on scraps of paper, and how Andrew Macdonald, who had worked in various junior posts in film and television, persuaded him he could get it onto the big screen.
The comic thriller kick-started the Scottish film industry, helped propel the then-unknown Ewan McGregor to stardom and transformed Macdonald into a bona fide film producer. He was following in distinguished family footsteps, for his grandfather was Emeric Pressburger, one half of the Powell and Pressburger partnership that made such films as The Red Shoes.
Macdonald, Hodge and director Danny Boyle were to become regular collaborators and Shallow Grave was followed by Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, their first film in the US, and The Beach, a $50 million (50m dollars) drama they made in Thailand, with Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio, for Twentieth Century Fox. Trainspotting was a huge hit, but the subsequent films failed to match its success.
28 Days Later signals a new partnership with Alex Garland, who wrote the novel on which The Beach was based and came up with the idea for the new film. Cillian Murphy emerges from a coma to discover that a deadly virus has turned most of the population of London into homicidal zombies. The difference between them and your standard film zombie is they move very, very quickly.
It marks a return to roots for Macdonald and Boyle. Like Shallow Grave, it is a genre movie, shot in Britain, albeit London instead of Scotland, with a comparatively low budget. "That is the easiest way to describe it - a return to roots... Compared to the budget on The Beach you could shoot four or five versions of this."
Macdonald has been thinking long and hard about where his career was headed and does not rule out another film on the scale of The Beach, but it is unlikely to be in the near future. "If you’re only going to make $50 million (50m dollars) films then you basically have to spend most of your time in Los Angeles," he says.
A Glenalmond boarding school old boy, Macdonald was originally based in Scotland, though his company, Figment Films, but never got round to opening offices in Scotland. He made the move to London years ago, but is not prepared to take that final transatlantic step.
28 Days Later however was made under the banner of DNA Films, which Macdonald set up five years ago with Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, as a new mini-studio, with a promise of £29 million (29m pounds) of national lottery money.
Although Macdonald was by this time based in London, DNA’s first two features, Strictly Sinatra and Beautiful Creatures, both shot in Scotland. Their reception however could not have been more different from that which greeted Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. "They just didn’t engage with critics or public and we have to be honest about that," he says.
It has been a learning experience. "We were slightly naive... I think it would have been fine to make one of the films, but to make both of them with first-time feature directors is a very tough call." Because they were being made with lottery money, he felt he should encourage newcomers.
A third film, The Final Curtain, a story of gameshow rivalry, was written by Hodge, directed by another Scottish debutant, Pat Harkins, and was meant to mark a triumphant return to the big screen for Peter O’Toole. After much soul-searching, it will now go straight to video.
Will future decisions be based more strictly on solid business considerations? "I think, in the politest way, that’s probably more the future," says Macdonald, who has not shirked tough decisions in the past, dropping his brother as Shallow Grave director to secure Channel 4’s backing.
DNA had a minor hit with The Parole Officer last year and is currently making the Richard Curtis romantic comedy Love Actually with Hugh Grant. Macdonald has been involved in negotiations to set up a new partnership between DNA and a Hollywood company. According to trade paper reports, it is Fox Searchlight, part of Twentieth Century Fox, which is distributing 28 Days Later. "I can’t comment," says Macdonald.
The original lottery funding arrangement expires next year, but it is thought DNA will be allowed to hang on to the unused £15 million. (15m pounds) "I’m in the middle of all sorts of negotiations," says Macdonald.
"What I’m going to do, if things work out, over the next three, four, five years, is concentrate on DNA. I’m going to run a film company. I’m going to be an executive, as much as I am a producer.... If you produce a film the way I have produced films in the past, it’s every year and a half or whatever, and it’s very difficult to create a company in that way."
Ties with Scotland have perhaps loosened a little, with the move south of the border and the failure of Strictly Sinatra and Beautiful Creatures, but Macdonald is not turning his back on his homeland. As well as the possibility of a Trainspotting sequel, based on Irvine Welsh’s new novel Porno, he is developing a project called The Devil’s Chamber, set in Edinburgh 100 years ago. "It’s a sort of horror movie set in the time of Burke and Hare. It’s set in the world of the anatomists."
Its fate could depend on 28 Days Later. "It’s looking pretty good," he says. "Fox are putting it out on 300 prints... We’ve got a lot of press, the cover of Time Out. We’re giving away a million CD-ROMs with the first 12 minutes of the film with the Saturday Times. I don’t think that’s ever been done before." Macdonald is hoping it will provide DNA with its first big hit.
"It’s a very, very scary film," he says. Then of course there is the extra cachet from the involvement of the author of The Beach and the makers of Trainspotting. Intriguingly Macdonald has described 28 Days Later as "a Ken Loach zombie movie", and there has been much talk of the infection as a metaphor for the rage of modern society. This is horror with aspirations.
"I want to turn DNA into the best production company in the country," says Macdonald, ambitions undimmed. And why not? In this business, you are only as good at your last movie. And the signs are good for 28 Days Later.
Brian Pendreigh is author of the Pocket Scottish Movie Book. Buy it at Amazon.