COLD-WAR era Russia, 60s New York, Gotham City – Glasgow can do it all, it seems. As Scotland’s film boom looks set to continue, recent weeks have seen the Trongate and areas around the oldest parts of the city transformed – resplendent with fake snow, icicles, and Christmas trees piled high against the corner of “Gotham Pawnbroking” and the “Gotham Globe”.
In late January, Glasgow City Council’s Film Office (GFO) revealed that film production works – such as the fifth Indiana Jones installment and The Flash – generated a record £42.4 million for the city’s economy last year.
The sector has “never been busier”, according to Screen Scotland, with demand coming from homegrown productions as well as those from overseas.
Just this week, Amazon Prime released My Son – a slow-burning thriller featuring Claire Foy and James McAvoy. Reviews have been mixed, but at least the scenery didn’t disappoint. Filmed around Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands – specifically, areas around Loch Leven, Glencoe, and Ballachulish.
As filming continued to take place for DC’s Batgirl installment in Glasgow, Mad Men actor Jon Hamm was spotted wandering down Great Western Road with Good Omen’s co-star Michael Sheen – casually enjoying a spot of brunch in Cail Bruich’s Epicures.
Amazon Prime is filming season 2 of Good Omens in Edinburgh this month, along with another of author and screenwriter Neil Gaiman’s creations – Anansi Boys – which is shooting in the city’s First Stage Studios complex, located in Leith.
The action Scotland’s film industry has scene in the past few years begs a sort of ludicrous question: Is Glasgow the new Hollywood?
In recent months, Wardpark Studios in Cumbernauld, where the phenomenally successful Outlander is filmed, was acquired by LA investment firm Hackman Capital Partners.
With its 200,000 square feet of studio space, five sound stages, production offices, workshops, and an external green screen area, it closes rank in the premier league of production studios – it is a major asset to Scotland’s film and television industry.
Perhaps the question might not be so ludicrous after all?
Erin Joan Michael, a location assistant who’s worked across productions like Tetris and Irvine Welsh’s TV drama, Crime, explained how the Scottish film boom began – and if it’s here to stay.
“It started mainly with Braveheart, that was one of the first big things that showed Scotland was capable of actually catering for filmmaking,” says Erin.
“In my mind, it slowed down a lot, until the release of Outlaw King, which was filmed partly in Scotland.”
“They did a lot in Mugdock Park and a lot in Stirling, and it really showed the Scottish film industry what we had to provide to cater for these bigger production companies – to sustain a 3-6 month stay and make money from it.
“I think Outlaw King tumbled on to Fast and Furious.”
One of the biggest road closures Glasgow has ever seen was for a Fast and Furious car chase scene – filmed on St Vincent Street. “The prep for that in Glasgow alone for three months,” Erin explained.
This scale of production marks a serious tangent from the decade previous, where a deep sense of frustration pervaded industry hopefuls – the lack of infrastructure and funding in Scotland was crippling the sector, sucking talent and creativity to the south of England, and particularly London. So, what changed?
In recent years, Scottish industries have diversified, operating in a way that can fully provide for big-budget production companies.
“We have supply companies in Scotland supplying film kits like ‘easy-ups’ [gazebos], and companies which supply the power, and companies which used to cater for parties and events – they’re now catering for film and TV crews.”
“I think people are looking at us and thinking we have it all, they’ll have their needs met in this one place.”
Scotland’s topography and geographical layout is also an important factor in attracting and retaining filmmakers. The convenience of being able to film in a city for half the day, and then reach the countryside, The Trossachs or The Highlands, for example, within half an hour, is of massive financial benefit for directors and producers.
“The thing with filming down south is that if you want to shoot in the morning in a studio and shoot in the wilderness in the afternoon – this is called a ‘Unit Move’ – you ideally want that to be under an hour, ideally under 45 minutes.
“There is not a chance you’ll get that down south. Depending on how big the production is, you’re getting more for your money up here as you can move about quicker and get more filming done during the day.
“No one wants to pay anyone to sit in a car for two hours and not get any filming done. I think we’re quite unique in this respect.”
In light of the GFO’s recent announcement – that filming has brought £42.4 million to Glasgow – it’s interesting to ask how exactly this money trickles down into the economy.
As Erin explained: “You’re bringing up to 200-300 crew for production, which obviously shrinks and grows depending on the production size – all these people are being put up in Glasgow, in hotels, in Airbnb’s, they’re eating out and doing things at the weekend. So this is all a massive cash influx for Scotland.”
During filming for My Son, McCavoy and his fellow cast and crew stayed in the Ballachulish Hotel – which was hired out exclusively by the team for the duration of the shoot.
Money also finds its way into the hands of local residents and business owners through the work of location scouts – who spend their budget on paying folks to use homes, restaurants, and office spaces to film in. “Financially, Glasgow and Scotland benefit hugely,” Erin explained.
Glasgow City Council previously approved a £150k Filming Incentive Grant to encourage Warner Bros to film the Batgirl production entirely within the city.
“You’re showing people around and trying to convince them to film there, so when those city councils are giving out grants that’s a big incentive. It’s a bit of a give and take,” she added.
The film boom in Scotland has dozens of obvious benefits. Aside from boosting the economy (an often vague and opaque term that obscures the human element behind the numbers) – it makes its mark in subtler ways too – it instills a sense of dignity and self-esteem in locals; there is something extremely pleasurable in seeing a place you know and love on the big screen.
But such success rarely comes entirely without issue: “Glasgow is in this weird period where filming is still a novelty to some people, but, over the summer we had so much over such a short space of time that people in the city centre were getting sick of film crews.”
“The littering, not getting paid in time – one of the biggest jobs in locations is repairing what’s been there before you.”
Whilst these productions generate hundreds of millions in the Box Office, there is concern that the locations used in these films will not see many long-term paybacks or benefits to the community as a whole.
“I think production companies need to start taking responsibility for making sure those communities we are filming in are seeing the benefits of the money that’s being spent for filming there.
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been told is, ‘Always leave a location in a better way than you found it, there’s only so many locations you can film in Glasgow. You’re going to be back there.’”
“You want your name attached to a spotless location, you want people to think, ‘In fact, they repaired x, y, and z whilst they were here. Ideally, you want to leave it in a better condition than you found it.”
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. The question is, when will that be?
“I think eventually the council will stop letting us film. We’re annoying, we’re inconvenient,” Erin answered.
“I love my job, but I’m so sympathetic to the people whose livelihoods are interrupted so often. It must feel constant right now. People’s lives are uprooted for a day or a week, it must feel like it’s happening all the time. We had 3-4 disruptions in the summer, which must have felt like all the time.”
But Scottish film fans can rest assured, the day the last street in Glasgow is closed for a blockbusting care chase scene won’t be for a while, at least.
“It’s not slowing down any time soon. But as I said, I think it’s going to get to the point where the council are going to say they don’t want us there anymore.
“People are going to say, ‘No, you can’t use my business,’ and ‘no, you can’t use my parking space.’”
“But I don’t think that’ll be anytime soon. The rate things are going, it’s mad. What Glasgow city council are doing with grants and bursaries – it is only going to attract more people.
“If these big film productions have realised they can film up here and it’s worked well, they’re going to do it again.”
Screen Scotland is due to publish a Scotland-wide Economic Impact Survey for Screen in the Spring of 2022.