500 Smiles: Dexter Fletcher on Sunshine on Leith
Adapting a stage play built around The Proclaimers’ back catalogue, actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher gets musical for his second feature behind the camera. We spoke to him while he was in Edinburgh for the film’s international premiere
Over the last few decades, Scottish cinema has enjoyed something of a renaissance. Spearheaded by the celebrated films by the likes of Danny Boyle, Peter Mullan, Lynne Ramsay, Paul Laverty and Ken Loach, this resurgence has undoubtedly become characterised by a focus on the grimmer side of Scottish life; 90% of the time these films are accompanied by the adjective ‘gritty.’ Either functioning as gritty gangster dramas or working-class social-realist pieces, the best Scottish features tend to revolve around violence, delinquency, drugs, unemployment and/or general squalor. The talent and quality is there, but the smiles and heartwarming spirit? Not so much.
Which is why Dexter Fletcher’s Sunshine On Leith is being hailed as a joyous antidote of sorts. Adapted from Stephen Greenhorn’s hit stage play of the same name, the story is set in motion when young soldiers Davy (George MacKay) and Ally (Kevin Guthrie) return to Edinburgh after serving their time in Afghanistan. Regularly punctuated by the inimitable folk-rock of The Proclaimers, the lads’ journey involves a couple of lassies – namely, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), and Liz’s pal Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) – while Davy’s parents (Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks) see their marriage hit the rocks in a big way.
The prospect of a Proclaimers musical might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But what’s important about Sunshine On Leith is that it’s not just a Proclaimers musical, and that there’s more to it than this lazy label might suggest. In fact, thanks to a warm brew of winning performances, engaging character work and confident directorial choices, Fletcher’s second outing behind the camera is a rousing, crowd-pleasing charmer. An achievement, he points out, that isn’t nearly as easy as you might imagine. “It’s hard to make a feel-good film,” Fletcher explains. “It’s hard to get that right. And unfortunately, people can be a bit cynical about things. [Audiences are] like ‘I don’t go to the cinema to feel good!’ I don’t quite get that personally.”
Considering the Edinburgh setting and feel-good vibe, I pitch the idea to Dexter that his film should be referred to as a feel-braw. “That’s a good way of putting it,” he chuckles. “I might even be nicking that later on. But there are these darker films, and they have a place. The same as, hopefully, Sunshine On Leith does. I think there’s a whole audience of people who want to have that experience. To feel braw.”
The film’s international premiere in Edinburgh proved this assumption to be true, as the audience who were in attendance provided an unusually generous round of applause when the lights came up. An audience, it should be pointed out, that was populated largely by dour Scots and cynical film critics.
Two years ago, a similarly positive response was afforded to Fletcher’s terrific debut, Wild Bill, which was also something of a pleasant surprise. Set in London’s East End, it was expected to function as another geezer-filled caper, given Fletcher’s association with Guy Ritchie and his role in Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (not to mention the misleading, canary yellow Ritchie-esque poster campaign). Instead, however, it surprised viewers as a sweet and affecting character piece, with the actor-turned-director channelling personal issues into a redemptive council estate drama about a father and his sons.
Looking back, Fletcher highlights the fact that Wild Bill was also a feel-good film, albeit one that was “wrapped in a kitchen sink drama.” Sunshine On Leith, as its title suggests, is sunnier in terms of disposition, but still manages to provide warmth and heart without tipping over into cheesy or sentimental territory. A balance, Fletcher muses, that is simply down to preference. “It’s just a personal taste thing,” he explains. “That’s my taste. I know I’m lost as an audience member when things start to strain that [balance].”
Take the climax, for example. Hoping to stop Yvonne from leaving Edinburgh, Davy makes a last-ditch dash to the train station (taking a route that locals might find geographically questionable), eventually attempting to win her back in front of a curious crowd of onlookers. This might sound worryingly close to the sort of cloying, schmaltz-heavy finale you’d expect from a Richard Curtis flick, and in a way it is. But the difference here is that the big moment feels earned, and that the emotion doesn't feel manipulative, while it helps that Fletcher's characters are far more relatable and realistic. “I always believe my characters are real,” the 47-year-old director admits. “And so I don’t ever go ‘Awww, aren’t they sad?’ and pat them on the head. I don’t want to patronise my characters, and that means not indulging them, and not taking the piss out of them.”
“Musicals can be hard to enjoy because people are always breaking into song, apropos of nothing. I wanted to keep it as real as I could, and not lose the audience, or the believability, or the reality” – Dexter Fletcher
Sunshine On Leith’s story itself isn’t especially remarkable, but once again Fletcher demonstrates a knack for capturing powerful moments – think of the beautiful paper plane sequence from Wild Bill – with a scene where Mullan and Horrocks come to a heartbreaking realisation at their silver wedding anniversary proving particularly potent. “I do kind of look for them,” the former Press Gang star explains. “I’m not always sure where they are. But as you start to build the vision, it’s like, Oh, this could be more than ‘they look at each other across a dance floor’. It’s about how do we accentuate that moment and not over-egg it, but keep those moments that feel like everything slows down. For me, that’s what the power of cinema can do.”
But what about the music? Well, the short answer is that Fletcher has pulled off a minor miracle in that department, even managing to give one of the most worn-out anthems in all of pop culture – yes, 500 Miles – a fresh spin. “I found it a massive challenge,” he admits. “Musicals [can be] hard to enjoy because people [are always] breaking into song, apropos of nothing. I wanted to keep it as real as I could, and not lose the audience, or the believability, or the reality.”
For Fletcher, the key was to use Charlie and Craig Reid’s pub-favourite ditties as part of the story. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, the film’s going along… stop! We’ll have a song, and then we should be able to pick it up again.’ I wanted [the songs] to feel absolutely integral to what was going on. It only really gets big and fussy at the end.”
It helps that the cast are game, from the always compelling Peter Mullan (who demonstrates a surprisingly tender singing voice), to the typically endearing Jane Horrocks. In an interesting casting wrinkle, meanwhile, leads George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie were originally cast in each other’s roles, before being asked to trade places prior to filming. “I knew very quickly that these guys were the guys,” says Fletcher. “It was just about finding where they sat most comfortably, and where they made the most sense. When I swapped the guys round, I think it gave them a real empathy for the other’s character. Because when you’re an actor, there’s a certain kind of affection you have for any part you take on.”
Arguably, though, the real star of the show is Edinburgh, with Fletcher and cinematographer George Richmond ensuring that the capital looks striking and gorgeously picturesque throughout. So much so, in fact, that I put it to the former GamesMaster host that his vision of Auld Reekie is the one I’d like to live in. “That’s the beauty of making a film, though, isn’t it?” Fletcher say. “If it’d been raining every day when we filmed outside, it would’ve looked very different. It just happened to be that when we filmed, the sun shone on those days. That’s the Edinburgh that I got. Because a lot of this film happens in kitchens or in bars or in the home, when we did get outside we wanted to be able to really show the city in the best light.”