Direction of Travel

Date: (29/07/2016)

Director Michael Keillor Michael talking to TayScreen's Julie Craik about getting into screen production and his thoughts on the industry in Scotland.

Michael Keillor has enjoyed great success as a director and film-maker.  His credits include ‘Mr Selfridge’ for ITV, hard hitting medical drama ‘Critical’ for Sky, BAFTA-nominated legal drama 'Silk'  and most recently the hit anti-corruption thriller ‘Line of Duty’ for the BBC.

A Scottish native Michael grew up in Angus and studied in Dundee.

What was your route into film and TV production?

After I finished law school in Dundee, I decided I wanted to become a film maker, but with no links into industry or family working in film, I took advice from friends working in advertising and set out to become a Runner to learn the industry from being on film sets.  At the same time I started writing, short films and plays. After about a year working as a runner on commercials, as I was working my way towards becoming a Third Assistant Director, I got a break on the writing side, working on a Dundee based computer game called ‘Grand Theft Auto’. That helped get me an agent in London and gave me the confidence to keep making my own short films and keep progressing on set, shooting corporates and comedy sketches, anything to get behind the camera.

Who or what inspired or influenced you to choose this career?

‘Shallow Grave’ and ‘Trainspotting’ came at a formative time in the early 90's and Danny Boyle showed Scotland on film in a very different way.  Those films were a big influence and led me to the kind of American indie cinema in the 90's with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith.  I liked the idea that you could maybe make that kind of film in Scotland. Low budget, shoot from the hip films and really it was that desire to be a filmmaker and just sort of put my mind to it.

What have been some career highlights and ambitions?

About eleven years ago I did half hour film for Channel 4 (UK) called ‘Happy Slapz’ and that was my break into TV.  I have been very lucky with television, arriving in a golden period, with shows like ‘Line of Duty’ being great highlights but the real highs for me have been shooting the short films I have also written. ‘Munro’ in 2009 and ‘Liam + Lenka' in 2014.  Both were shot in Scotland and they've been proof for me that if you have something to say, you can write something and get it out to the world with film. This is the reason I got into filmmaking, to tell my stories and that's how I have followed my ambition.

What are some of the key challenges in doing production?

Part of being a director and filmmaker is adapting constantly to changes but at the same time sticking with an idea and the two things are almost converse and quite difficult to do.   You have an idea of how you're going to shoot something and deliver it and certain challenges stop that from happening. You have to change the idea but also keep it the same.

I suppose the biggest challenge once you've got your cast and crew together is realising the script in the same way everyone else imagines.  You come to the job with a vision of how you think it's going to be, but it's trying to communicate that vision to all the people you're working with so everyone pulls in the same direction.  Obviously there are the physical challenges of shooting things in set conditions or under time pressure. The biggest thing is universal creative vision.  This is especially true if you're making a short film, where the people who are funding you are really relying on a vision, but have only read your ideas written on a piece of paper. 

That's what I like about it is that mixture of being creative and then we come up against practical problems and overcoming them.  No matter how creative you are, if the actor's sick, or if you can't move a car, or an animal won't do what you want it to do, you can't shoot the shot.  When you watch a film or TV and you criticize, I always think they're so lucky there's anything on there at all. It's just amazing that anything is in front of the camera.


What are some key items you take with you when you're heading to set or a studio?

Well I always have the script with me and my shooting notes for the day, which depending on how complex the shoot is, will be a plan of what we're going to shoot or a shot list or just notes with ideas for the day.  Everyone on a film set has a bag of some sort and there are 60, 70 people and everyone's wearing black with their black bags, so I've got a doctor's case that I bought in Russia.  It is unique and that's the bag that I put everything in to take to set so that everyone knows which bag is mine.  You are in a big studio and then someone moves your bag, with all your notes in it and then you have a problem. So I've learned from that mistake and the notes stay in is my doctor's bag.

I am also tall and eat an awful lot and because filming is incredibly energy consuming I take these energy bars with me onto set to keep me fuelled between breaks.  

What is your advice to people wanting to get into the industry?

There are filmmakers locally who are working nationally. Certainly when I was starting out there were very few peers at all.  I didn't know anyone from Dundee, apart from Brian Cox, but certainly no directors.  Now there are quite a lot of filmmakers from the area, so just say to people, if I can do it, you can do it too, because I knew nothing and no one when I started.  I also think that if there aren't people telling our stories, whether it's writers, filmmakers or musicians, then someone else will tell our stories for us.

And if all different story tellers are draw from a small band of people then you only get very narrow idea of art, so we need local storytellers to tell stories about us.  


What is your impression of what ‘Outlander’ has brought to production in Scotland?

I think it is great for Scotland and Scottish filmmaking. We shot ‘Line of Duty’ in Belfast and ‘Game of Thrones’ was there at the same time.  I realized it really used the whole of Northern Ireland and I know ‘Outlander’ is doing the same, basing in Cumbernauld and really using it as a base to explore Scotland.

‘Outlander’ is a huge size production and I know a lot of poeple working on that.  They have plenty of money and training and they're supportive of Scottish Industry and I think it's a great boon.  People can do six months on that and then they've earned enough money to do other smaller projects for the rest of the year.  Even when I started out twenty years ago, you scrambled for work throughout the year. That's just not the case now.  It's all good for Scotland.


What are your thoughts on studios in Scotland.

I think the fact you’ve got Tommy Gormley, a huge producer now working on Star Wars, promoting Scotland on a global level and recommending a studio, says it all. If he thinks we need one, we need to be listening because he is working at the absolute pinnacle of the industry budget wise.

The American’s are desperate to come here, they love Scotland and with the Producer credit it’s economically viable, but they need a studio to shot in, that’s how they do it and create scale. They have been talking about studios since I started in the industry and the truth is we need one. Outlander has proven that, they have converted their own shed, because there is no studio. You go to Ireland and see how successful it's been, if you build it they will come, we at least that has been the answer in both the Belfast and Dublin and it has paid dividends not just for the film industry, but tourism too.

Whether it's Ireland, Hungary, Prague or Scotland, we have to be competitive, the time is now, the Americans are not just coming, they are already filming in Europe. We have the crew, the landscape and the financial conditions, we just need a big quiet shed for everyone to film in, that’s called a Studio.