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Mother of invention Andrea Calderwood was once written off as a wee lassie in a big job. Eight years later she is emerging as a creative heavyweight in the world of films

Andrea Calderwood is describing the most frightening experience she ever had in the film business. It came right at the start, when she was producing a short at the end of her trainee year with the Scottish Film Trust Training scheme.

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The film cost £ 2,500 to make but the budget came up a couple of ton short. That £ 200 was ''the scariest amount of money I ever had to deal with,'' she says. ''I remember having really heated arguments with the director of that film,'' she continues between bites of her chicken sandwich in the lobby bar of Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel. ''The lead in the film was not a young man. And the director would say we need to have a heater, but it was going to cost £ 10 and we didn't have that kind of money.'' Times have changed. These days £ 200 probably wouldn't even cover the cost of one of Calderwood's lunch dates at the Ivy or wherever it is London's mediarati are hanging out this week. And it would make a pretty tiny dent in the finances of Calderwood's latest project, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, the first film to emerge from her new company Slate Films. It's fair to say that the budget for Midlands, the latest vehicle for Robert Carlyle and Kathy Burke, though a typically low-budget British affair, is significantly in excess of four figures, some of it Calderwood's own. But then as she says, whether you're spending £ 5,000 or £ 500,000 the principles of film production are pretty much the same. ''You try and break down which parts of the film would be of interest to which financiers and for how much.'' Calderwood should know. Since her appointment in 1994 as head of drama at BBC Scotland when she was just 28 years old - a move that prompted the inevitable ''Andrea who?'' headlines - she has been responsible for a string of hits on both the big and small screen, as well as giving more than a little impetus to cinematic careers as diverse as Carlyle's, Billy Connolly's and Lynne Ramsay's. Without her we might not have had Ratcatcher, Mrs Brown, The Crow Road or Hamish MacBeth. And that's without mentioning Invasion Earth. (Okay, well maybe it's quite right not to mention that particular television series. You can't get everything right.) Anyway, you get the idea. Calderwood is a regular in all those power lists that litter the Sunday supplements. This particular Sunday, however, she is in a rainy Edinburgh getting ready to meet and greet the great and the good of the film industry as Midlands gets a Film Festival screening. In the past she has been known for wearing regulation black, the unofficial uniform of the media industry, and sporting the odd power haircut, but when she walks into the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel - home away from home for guests at the Festival - she has more of an earth mother vibe going on. True, her top is still black but she's also wearing a bright orange silken dress that looks like it is made from crepe paper beneath it - I might call it taffeta if I knew what taffeta was exactly. And even though her open-toe sandals are black, they just reveal her pink nail varnish. Calderwood's toes appear to be her only concession to vanity. She hasn't bothered with make-up and she's obviously not worried about the odd grey fleck that lightens her long, dark hair. But then, as she says, she's no longer a youngster. ''I'm actually quite old, now.'' Well, she is if you call 37 old. Of course, this look could be less earth mother, more mother pure and simple. She arrives pushing a pram with her three-and -a-half-month-old daughter, Temitayo, who is almost lost in its depths. The baby's name means ''Cause for Joy'' in Yoruba and she lives up to it. Later we are joined by the father, Biyi Bandele, a quiet, handsome Nigerian writer. The couple have been together for two years. Temitayo is a festival veteran. The last time I saw Calderwood she was at Stansted, rushing for a plane to Cannes with her daughter who was then a couple of weeks old. If it's August it must be Edinburgh. We take a seat in the hotel's lobby bar and as Temitayo settles for a feed - Calderwood needs no encouragement from the Scottish Executive in eschewing the bottle - her mother starts to talk about her other baby. Directed by Nottingham auteur Shane Meadows and with a cast that includes Ricky Tomlinson and Rhys Ifans, as well as long-time Calderwood associate Carlyle, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is an attempt to find a wider audience for the director of A Room for Romeo Brass and TwentyFourSeven. ''There was a sense that Shane's films had been critically well received and he's got a real following in the industry but he hadn't really broken out. And what I've hoped to try and do in most of the things I've done is find a way to maximise someone's potential and surround the film-maker with the right talent. That's the thing I'm most pleased with about Midlands. I've felt we've done what we set out to do.'' I rather suspect that's a pretty normal state of affairs for Calderwood. Meadows jokingly describes his producer as ''the lovechild of Alex Ferguson and Hyacinth Bouquet''. ''Cheeky bastard,'' says Calderwood in response, which is not the kind of language you'd expect from Hyacinth. And as for Alex Ferguson. Well, actually, she will happily take that one. ''One of my proudest moments at BBC Scotland was when somebody said that my team was the Manchester United of television and I was the dour Scottish manager. I take no prisoners either. That's why I identify so strongly with Sir Alex. Some film-makers will tell you I can be pretty uncompromising if I've got a clear idea for what I think will work well for a film.'' Meadows knows what that feels like. ''There was the odd clash of heads,'' he admits. ''We're both the kind of people who won't give and we realised early that there would have to be some give and take. But when she's going to fight your corner she was like a dog with a bone. I think she drove Film Four (the film's backers) mad.'' But then that, Calderwood tells me, is part of her job description. Meadows isn't the only director to find himself at odds with his producer. She admits making Ratcatcher with Lynne Ramsay, one of the projects she is most proud of, was at times fraught. ''I don't feel I'm doing my whole job if I'm just somebody who agrees all the time, if I'm just a yes man. When I'm reading a script or watching an edit of a film I tend to get a strong feeling if there's something that's just not working; then I can be pretty adamant about doing something about it.''

Although she was born in Paisley, Calderwood is adamant she's a Glasgow girl. Brought up on the city's south side, she is the only daughter of research chemists who met while working in the steelworks in Motherwell. She has two older brothers, one a quantity surveyor, the other an electrical engineer. Of course, I tell her, the third-born in any family is naturally outgoing and assertive. ''I don't know if that's true,'' she replies. Actually, in retrospect, I'm not sure that it's true either. It may be something I've just made up. Anyway, she says, she never really thought of herself as particularly bold. ''I used to think of myself as quite shy. I'm always quite surprised when people say to me they think I'm quite assertive, but I think I've always been pretty sure of my opinions.'' She puts her career choice partly down to the fact she was always late for school. Threatened with expulsion, she was forced to visit a guidance teacher. ''I think it was just cheek that I said I wanted to be a film director but he said there was this seminar about the National Film School and I should go along to it.'' She did and found herself quite starstruck. ''I can't remember who was on the panel but I thought they looked like really cool people.'' After studying English and Film at Stirling University (Mark Cousins, a former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, was in the year below), she found herself on the usual round of job creation schemes that was the lot of graduates in the mid-eighties. It was only when she was accepted onto the Scottish Film Trust Training Scheme that the idea of a career in the media began to look like a reality. Soon she set up her own independent film company and hired Robert Carlyle for one of her first shorts, Marooned. She attracted five financiers for that one. She then went two better for a Gaelic film she produced, directed by Douglas MacKinnon. Both films had BBC Scotland money in the mix, ''which is partly why I think I ended up doing the job at BBC Scotland because Colin Cameron (then head of BBC Scotland) had spotted me as a bit of a hustler.'' When the job as head of drama came up she didn't seriously expect to get it. Truth is, she didn't even want it. ''What I wanted was for them to commission my company. And because I didn't want the job and I absolutely didn't think I would get it I had absolutely no fear in the interview.'' She wasn't the only one who was shocked when she got the job. On the day she was appointed, dramatist Peter MacDougall, the doyen of West Coast hard men of Scottish television drama, came out with his infamous quote that the job should never have gone to a ''wee lassie''. ''This quote has haunted both of us,'' says Calderwood now, though you suspect it has hurt MacDougall more than her. ''And I know what happens. They phoned Peter in the pub and he said what he said. And I spoke to Peter not long after that and he very generously invited me round to dinner at his house and Billy Connolly and Brian Cox were there.'' The kind of names in her contacts book that would come in useful over the next couple of years. At least MacDougall didn't accuse her of sleeping her way to the top. Others did, it seems. She remembers talking to a sound recordist she had worked with before who had just come back from making a documentary in Greece with an English crew who asked him if she got the job because she slept with Colin Cameron. ''It's an industry that loves gossip. People love to believe a bit of dirt.'' She says she never seriously considered rejecting the job. ''I think I had the confidence of ignorance. It happened so fast and I felt that I could not not do it, and really what I was hungry to do, what I wanted to get out of it, was the opportunity to do a lot of work.'' Which she did, commissioning 22 hours of drama a year for four and a half years. A move to London, though, was increasingly inevitable. ''I was commuting once or twice a week to London because the money's in London, a lot of the talent is in London and all the decisions are made there. I just permanently felt I had half a life in Glasgow and half a life in London.'' The success of Mrs Brown opened doors in the film industry and she took up a job with Pathe, where she bankrolled Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour Lost among others, before setting up Slate two years ago. ''I wanted to work with people whose work I admired and the talent I liked rather than the people who suited the organisation I was working for at the time.'' The fact that Slate's principal backer, Film Four, has disappeared up its own projector doesn't faze her. She's confident there will be backers for her other projects, which include films based on the life of Scottish boxer Benny Lynch and comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy. Frankly I'm not sure anything could faze her. As she prepares to go to get her picture taken she applies some lipstick, something of a psychological defence she tells me, though it's hard to believe she needs any defending, given her quiet self-confidence. ''I very much go with my gut instinct as a producer,'' she says. Is it ever wrong, I ask. ''I think I've made my mistakes when I've gone against my gut instinct, when I've thought everyone wants romantic comedies I better try and make a romantic comedy.'' Audiences can see through British film- makers trying to be formulaic, she says, because the results always look so low-rent. ''The Americans have this machine. They're not embarrassed about bringing in teams of writers. They don't have any romanticism that what they're doing is art. It's just an industrial process. I think here we have a television industry, we don't have a film industry. Each film that gets made is a labour of love. It takes sheer will power to get a film made in Britain. You feel if you took your eye off the ball for a minute then it wouldn't happen.'' As if the Fergie of the film world would ever do such a thing. n

Once Upon a Time in the Midlands is released on Friday

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