After the breakout hit Shell, director Scott Graham is at broody family dramas again with Iona, a tale of a young mother (Ruth Negga) returning home with her teenage son following a brutal crime. Graham’s words are quiet, introspective, humble, and never less than hugely insightful – read our interview with him below.
The duality between your first feature, Shell, and your new film, Iona – how I view it is that Shell might be about escaping home or wanting to leave home, and Iona is about returning home. Was that a conscious choice?
Well, yeah – I knew that I was exploring themes and variations on themes, when I began writing Iona – I was writing Iona almost when we were finishing Shell, so I knew that I was writing a kind of homecoming story, you’re right. I knew that I was writing about a mother and son. I’d been to the island [the island of Iona] when I was a kid, and the experience never really left me… I was aware of the religious community on this island. I thought there was a source of conflict there for someone returning to that place if they’ve lost their faith or they’ve turned away from it. But I don’t think I put it as succinctly as you just did [laughs], one wanting to leave and the other… I think that the idea that home can be both a comfort and a source of conflict is definitely something that I’m aware of.
And you said that you visited the island when you were a child.
Yeah, a long time ago – I went with my mum, my sister and we camped near a beach and I have fond memories of the place.
I know that it was filmed in a few locations, not just there [Iona].
Yeah. You have to cross Mull, another island, to get to Iona, and we shot both Mull and Iona.
When you returned there, did you kind of recognise places from your childhood memory, that you thought, ‘oh, that’d be a great place to shoot something’?
Yeah, and some of the scenes on Iona are almost sort of communing with the island. I wrote from memory, and the black rock that she hides between, I remember that. A lot of the others, I was kind of dragging people around for hours because you can’t drive there, sort of looking for something that I remember but I obviously just imagined it. But some of them were sort of iconic, particularly that North Beach that I remember, and obviously the Abbey and the ferry crossing I remember. I think that with Shell, that location, that landscape was ever-present, but it was sort of in the background – where in Iona, I wanted her to have a more direct relationship with the island. So she’s almost fighting with it, warring with it at times. And those are my favourite scenes, where her or her son are off by themselves on the island. It gives you quite a different relationship with the place. The forgiveness of what she’s done seems to be quite open to what the island seems to be offering, where Iona offers a kind of relationship.
On that note, I think my favourite thing about the film is when the characters are just looking into the distance or looking at one another, you can just tell entire stories from the expressions they’re giving. For instance, my personal favourite shot of the whole film is when all six main characters are in the church, and there’s that shot of three of them in front and three of them behind, and you can see all their faces – and there’s so much history in each face. What’s your favourite shot or moment from the film?
That shot I really like, actually, because it’s new. We shot a very different version of the film when we premiered in Edinburgh. We went and played a roundabout journey with the cut of the film, where the version that’s being released – the version that you’ve seen – was actually the first cut that we got to, and it was an experimental cut. It was a departure from the linear structure that the script had. We kind of panicked a little bit when it got closer to Edinburgh, and did a cut of the film that was linear, that was basically structured the same as the script – and we showed it, and I wasn’t entirely happy with it. I think that it’s to do with what you’re talking about, where – although it’s Iona’s story – you’re dealing with all six characters and all six characters’ history, actually seven if you count the island. And we used to begin in Glasgow, with the ‘event’ that propels them to the island, and by beginning there, I was setting up something that I wasn’t actually interested in delivering. It was almost a kind of thriller. And so, by losing that and beginning on the boat, beginning with their journey, you introduce the island and the other characters much earlier. And that’s what it’s really about, it’s about all of them, and their shared history.
That’s really interesting to hear how it transformed, because if you did start with the crime, it would totally a different-feeling film, wouldn’t it?
Yeah, exactly. And I thought it worked, and we all did, but I reverted back to the script structure for Edinburgh. But it was a useful experience for me to know that it wasn’t working the way that I wanted it to. And it had nothing to do, really, with the way that the film was received, because some people loved that version and some people didn’t, but I always knew that the film would divide people. I had to kind of not listen to anyone else, I just had to start thinking about how I felt about it. And in the end, I went back to the kind of non-linear structure.
Do you think that’s the best lesson you’ve learnt from this, or have there been other lessons that have been similarly helpful?
There’s been lots, yeah – it’s been a real learning curve. I kind of began this film without knowing how I felt about my first film either. Shell was well-received and stuff, but I was unhappy with a number of things about it, and so I sort of went into this film wanting to correct some of the things that I got wrong on Shell. And I think I was too focused on that in a way. It’s a very particular type of story, and I think that the script that I’m writing now, for example, is very different to Iona, and I’m proud of how different Iona is. But I’m also glad that it’s sort of got something out of my system, in a way, and I think my next film – although it’s also about a conflict between a parent and a child, it’s about a father and son – I think that there’s a sort of intention in my work now to let people in a little bit more, maybe? I don’t know if that’s too simplistic. I’m really drawn to characters that have trouble expressing themselves. They’re paralysed by emotion. But I think there’s different ways you can present that. So yeah, I think that filmmakers learn with every film they make. And I’m in a really good place with my writing, and I think that’s a lot to do with the experience I had on Iona.
What’s really interesting about Iona, more so than Shell I think, is how things are kind of said without words. How do you write that kind of thing, where dialogue is sparse?
Well, I have two documents when I’m writing; I have my script, then I have my notes that run alongside it. And my notes contain everything; my notes mean everything; my notes contain all of the things that I want to communicate. And mostly, they’re filled with questions: ‘Is this clear?’ ‘Have I got this across?’ And to be honest, I don’t think I always agree; that’s the risk, you don’t always communicate things. But films are like living things; people take from them different things at different times, and you can’t really control everything that people are taking from films. You just sort of, I guess, disagree with some people and let them have their own experience with it. But I think when you’re writing scenes with little dialogue, you include the importance of the context, their histories, and everything just kind of comes from that.
So when you hand your cast the script, that must be a huge leap of faith for you.
Yeah, and when you meet actors that’s sort of what I’m looking for; you’re looking for someone who can play the part but you’re also looking for someone with an understanding of the story we’re trying to tell, and yeah, you’re right – it is a leap of faith. I think particularly if you’re a writer-director, absolutely.
Most of the characters in Iona, they’re religious or have a religious upbringing. Does that come from your own beliefs or upbringing?
I don’t know how important that is, really. I’m happy to talk about it, but you know that thing where you don’t want to impose, and kind of want to leave it open for other people? And in any case, mine is not usually defined: I would describe my upbringing as a fairly traditional Scottish upbringing. My mum certainly does believe in God, so I had an awareness of that element, and how it can be a force for good and how it can be a force for not-so-good in people’s lives. But it was never rammed down my throat. It was alway just left up to me particularly as I became a young teenager, and then as I got older, and particularly the filmmakers and artists that I was responding to, like Terence Malick and Tarkovsky and Van Gogh, and even a lot of the bands that I liked – they were all kind of open about having a kind of spirituality, even if they weren’t religious. And I suppose that’s where I am, with my beliefs: I would describe myself as spiritual and quite open to that, but I’m not sure I would describe myself as religious.
Going onto the new film that you’re writing – I don’t know how much you can say about it – but is the recurring motif of home coming back into the fray?
I think it is – but it’s a very different type of home. It’s [set in] a small town, but there’s very little landscape in it, if you like; it’s a small industrial town. It’s about a father and son, and about a parent-child conflict – but it feels very different to anything that I’ve done before. I don’t know if it’s partly because I’m writing about a man this time, or if it’s because of the nature of the relationship, but it’s very much about movements; the characters are constantly moving or pursuing each other in some way, either on foot or in cars. I think, probably, people like yourself will be better judges of whether there’s a recurring motif there than I am; I think it’s difficult when you’re inside it, and just figuring out what comes next. But I feel really good about the script.
So you’ve gone from a single petrol station [Shell] to a small village [Iona] to a small town. Do you think you’ll ever reach a city set?
I’m sure I will; I’m still kind of writing what I know, and probably still trying to make the same film in a way [laughs] or trying to make this version of this certain type of story. And once I’m happy with it, I think that maybe I’ll move onto something else. But I’ve lived in cities since I was in my twenties – but I think a lot of filmmakers draw on experiences in childhood. But who knows; maybe I’ll do some gritty urban film one day.
Iona is released in the UK on March 25. Make sure to read our review.