Almost threadbare, you could say. Because although Ridley Scott’s latest movie Robin Hood opens proceedings, only Mike Leigh’s latest slice of scruffy comedy realism, Another Year, will show in competition.
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Stephen Frears might also turn up with his adaptation of Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel Tamara Drewe, admittedly, but that’s about it.
Well almost. There is another British name. A Scottish name actually. Scott Graham.
You don’t know him? Don’t worry. No doubt you will soon. Graham’s third short film, Native Son, has been invited to the festival by the selectors. All being well, its presence will help ignite his hopes to shoot his feature debut in Scotland later this year.
If it happens, expect articles proclaiming him to be the new Lynne Ramsay or the next Andrea Arnold to start appearing some time next year. Then again, why wait? Here’s a cut-out-and-keep crib sheet.
Graham is 35, a self-taught writer-director who lives in Glasgow but comes from the north-east.
His favourite movie is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (he loves Badlands and The Deer Hunter too). He likes his music (Sons and Daughters provide the soundtrack for Native Son), pays his bills by doing a bit of casual labour , and has now made three poised, dark, impressive short films dealing with small town life, emotional isolation, the harsh beauty of the Scottish rural landscape.
Oh, and in the case of Native Son, necrophilia. They’re not perfect films but there’s a rhythm and weight to his image-making that is hugely promising.
Native Son was made in five days, shot on location in Annan, cost somewhere in the region of 50 grand and managed to coral such acting talent as Sean Harris (who played Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People and a corrupt cop in C4’s Red Riding trilogy) and Kate Dickie in a story of a lonely potato picker who finds solace in the most disturbing manner.
And yet despite its subject matter, the film is never played for shock value. It’s a film, Graham hopes, “about bringing people closer and not pushing them away. It wasn’t about repelling them. It was more about connecting with this man’s humanity despite what he does.”
In person Graham is soft-spoken, a little diffident about making any great claims for himself, not conspicuously accented and beginning to hope that he might make a living from making movies.
Later today he will jump on a train to London to start casting his feature debut Shell (financiers allowing), an enlarged and rebuilt version of his second short. In the meantime we’re talking art, movies, the dangers of rural bleakness and the fitness programme required for film-makers.
“I’ve read how Spielberg gets in shape for every film, and I run a bit. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep yourself sane and healthy. The days of staying up drinking all night at the end of a shooting day are long gone.”
Graham grew up near Fraserburgh, leaving to move to Edinburgh when he was in his late teens where he worked in bar jobs, coffee shops and as a labourer.
But imaginatively he never left the Highlands. Encouraged by his producer David Smith, his first film Born To Run was set in Fraserburgh, examining trapped lives and love to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack.
“He’s really popular in my home town. Those themes, although very common and well explored in American films and literature and music aren’t so well explored in Scottish literature and film. Yet they really do exist. That’s the reason why he’s so popular in Scotland and Ireland.”
It’s a bleak but empathetic vision of his home territory. “There’s a heroism to the people up north,” he argues. He’s aware that there might be an element of home-sick romanticism about that idea, “but hopefully not too much and hopefully in the right way”.
Native Son, meanwhile, was inspired by a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where he chanced upon a painting, The Weeders, by 19th-century French realist Jules Breton showing workers in the field at dusk. He shows me a picture of it on his phone. “I think I was feeling a stranger in a strange land, quite disconnected and quite lonely and seeing this painting and thinking about home somehow led to the opening scene in the potato field and from there I just seemed to find the story.”
It’s not a happy story, it should already be obvious. Is there a danger he’s a little too drawn to an easy, and in Scottish film, all too familiar, strain of movie miserabilism? “It is something I’m aware of. And you’re right. City miserabilism or city bleakness is very common and I wouldn’t want people to just think of my films as being rural miserabilism. I think that I personally quite like bleak, I quite like that sort of Wuthering Heights world and those landscapes. But I’m also trying to instil in them a heart, or just some humanity that people can recognise and feel some kind of connection with.”
In a perfect world Scott Graham will be able to turn his first two shorts into feature films. Beyond that, he’d love to make a movie in the American mid-west. And he’d quite like to make a living from making movies. Come back next year and see how he’s doing.
The Cannes Film Festival begins on Wednesday. Native Son screens as part of Critic’s Week.