One of Scotland's most acclaimed and versatile actors, Peter Mullan's extraordinary writing and directing talents have marked him out as one of the most exciting and original film makers to emerge from Scotland's current film renaissance. His creative partner Frances Higson's ability to produce work which has received a multitude of awards both nationally and internationally, has already been recognised by an award from BAFTA Scotland. After working together on three acclaimed short films - CLOSE, GOOD DAY FOR THE BAD GUYS and the multi award-winning FRIDGE - Peter and Frances decided to develop their talents and successful creative partnership further with a feature length film project - ORPHANS.
Filmed on location in and around Glasgow over six weeks in April/May 1997, ORPHANS tells the compelling story of a working class Glaswegian family facing up to the loss of their mother. Powerful, emotional and moving, the film is also peppered with moments of Peter Mullan's trademark black humour. "The moment in ORPHANS when you are not sure whether to laugh or cry, those are the moments I like. " says Peter.
"With ORPHANS I really wanted to look at another side of grief which never gets shown" continues Peter, "the very angry, unprotected side of grief. The loss, finally, of both parents. " The Dunblane tragedy also had an impact on Peter's writing: "With the Dunblane business I thought, here we are now literally on the edge of the abyss. To go in there one day and use five year olds as target practice? Where have we got to?"
Peter took a year to write the script, working in close consultation with producer Frances Higson. "The way Peter works," says Frances, "is to work everything through in his head before he puts it on paper. The talking and thinking through is very important to both of us. We'd sit and talk about why we were doing it and what we wanted to achieve. A lot of our ideas are social issues but done in a way that we both feel hasn't been done in Scotland before. "
The script was completed in December 1996, and producer Frances Higson made contact with various bodies to raise finance. The Scottish Film Production Fund had financed the development of the script and, once completed, funding from Channel Four and the Scottish Arts Council fell into place and filming started in April.
All three of Peter Mullan's award-winning short films - CLOSE, GOOD DAY FOR THE BAD GUYS and FRIDGE - have been based in Glasgow and ORPHANS is also set there. "For Peter, it is the world that he knows. " says Frances.
Both Peter and Frances wanted to portray a different type of Glasgow from that normally seen on the small and large screens. "A lot of the stuff I see on television doesn't make me think oh yes, that's Glasgow," says Frances. "We really wanted to give Glasgow a voice and show it as it is. We were looking for locations for the four main characters who each inhabit their own world in the story. The youngest, John, is the angriest character and his world is metallic and concrete. Sheila's world is colourful, bright, young and joyful. Thomas's world is the church and Michael's is more spit and sawdust. You have all these different things in Glasgow, all these different areas. "
Although most of the film was made on location, the production team was based in Westbridge House, a converted warehouse from Glasgow's industrial past located on the banks of the River Clyde in the shadow of the city's famous Kingston Bridge. Here the design team moved in to create the cellar of The Hangman's Bar, the interior of Carole's home and, most surprisingly, the fully operational fun-fair which John and Tanga visit to find the gun. Suitable studio space is still hard to find in Glasgow and the production team were so impressed with the facilities and vast covered space available at Westbridge House, both Antonine Films and Green Bridge now have their offices located there.
Casting was crucial and Peter and Frances spent a lot of time looking for the right actors for the job. Casting sessions were long as Peter, used to the nerve-wracking process of acting auditions, generously gave each actor half an hour to try out their ideas. Two casting directors came on board, one for the professional actors and one for the numerous children in the story and the character of Sheila.
A highly respected stage, screen and television actor in his own right, Peter's short films have been notable for the strength of the performances he coaxes from his actors, both the professionals and the newcomers. ORPHANS continues this strong vein of work with highly charged, deeply emotional performances: "One thing I feel I can do on a set is give the actors all the confidence they need to succeed or fail," says Peter. "Ninety-eight per cent of acting is confidence. If you make an actor feel that whatever they do is okay by me, the director, then they will really, really go for it. All my films have been blessed with some extraordinary performances. "
With most of the story taking place during one stormy night, the shoot was gruelling for the cast and crew but the atmosphere on set remained happy and supportive. For their first foray into feature film work, Peter and Frances called on the talents of many cast and crew who had worked on their three short films. "Its about building trustworthy relationships," says Frances. "We worked things through together which is what families and communities do. You don't instantly split once you've got the money. You stay with people you know and trust. The respect and trust Peter and I have for each other and everyone else makes for a good, creative working environment. "
The leap from making short films to their first feature film did hold some fears for the team. Peter says "The first couple of days of the shoot I felt like I had an elephant on my chest. Come day three I got cocky, changed a few things and frightened myself. Then I did really well, I was enjoying it, coming up with good ideas. The last few weeks were tough because the whole crew was tired. "
By turns funny and sad, there is also an element of violence in ORPHANS and Peter thought carefully about the scenes in which John and Tanga have the gun. "I deliberately wanted the gun to be messy and workmanlike so there is tape on it and it's grotty. " he explains. "To me, that is more frightening than a pristine gun. When DD Duncan turns and we see he has a baby, the gun goes off and there is a pause before we know whether or not the baby has been shot. The big question for us as a species is whether we are only concerned because there is a baby there, or would we be just as concerned if he didn't have the baby" To challenge people in that way is interesting to me. "
Blowing off the roof of the church, in one of the most dramatic scenes of the film, posed an interesting challenge for Roy Field of Field Films Ltd. AS the roof is devastated by the storn, so too is Thomas's careful, ordered notion of grieving. "The problem I faced on this film was one of economics. " says Roy.
"How to devastate the roof of the church without involving too much cost and avoiding costly digital technology. The answer was to build a 1/5th scale model and literally lift the roof off and then use the wrecked model to add to the live action scenes optically for the aftermath of the storm. This also involved matte painting of the devastated church for the exterior shot. The model was constructed by Steve Corderoy and the "barrel roof" was made in such a way that it could detach itself and be suspended from above and then swung off triggering debris - broken rafters, beams, timbers and slates - to fall into the church at the same time".