The Price is Right: The soulful short films of James Price
Ahead of our retrospective of short films by talented Glasgow filmmaker James Price, we look at what makes 'The Springburn Scorsese' so special
Some filmmakers are so wedded to the milieu in which they live that it becomes hard to discuss their films without doing so in the context of their surroundings. Think of the work of Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee and one automatically pictures New York. Talk of Wong Kar Wai conjures images of Hong Kong while Pedro Almodóvar brings to mind Madrid; with Mike Leigh, it’s London. James Price has only made a handful of short films in his career so far, but already he’s staked a claim as one of our best chroniclers of Glasgow.
Anyone with one eye on Scotland’s film scene will be familiar with Price’s films and their rough-hewn poetics. He’s been a regular fixture at Glasgow Short Film Festival (GSFF) since 2015, when Dropping Off Michael, a short written by Price and commissioned through Film City’s short-lived youth training scheme Jump Cut, won the festival’s audience award that year. Matt Lloyd, director of GSFF, recalls being immediately taken with the film and Price’s writing in particular: “Although well directed by a professional, Zam Salim, it was James’ script which really shone through – the authenticity of the characters, the richness of the language, and just the storytelling – well-paced and structured, it held your attention without scrabbling for gimmicks or quirkiness.”
Over its fat-free 16 minutes, the film follows the young teen of the title during his last day of freedom ahead of sentencing at a criminal court hearing. He's been cajoled into spending the morning with his uncle Duncan, a larger than life rapscallion who, it soon becomes clear, doesn’t have the boy’s best interest at heart – far from it. It’s a heartbreaking watch, but also angry, bellicose and peppered with the gallows humour that’s become Price’s trademark. “Dropping Off Michael had a confidence and polish you wouldn’t usually find in young people’s summer film school project,” says Lloyd. “I’m sure James would be the first to credit the support of Zam and Catriona MacInnes, who was running the scheme, but it was very much his project.”
Themes explored in Dropping Off Michael would crop up again in Price’s later work, which often focuses on young men forced to grow up quick in their tough urban surroundings and their uneasy relationships with the roguish authority figures in their lives. You’ll find both motifs in Price’s finest film so far, Boys Night. It’s a jagged 'dark night of the soul' movie following an exasperated young lad who’s walking his paralytic father through Glasgow’s rain-slick, neon-lit city centre and back to their flat in Springburn, in the north of the city. Boys Night improves on the earlier film by marrying its gritty subject matter – alcoholism, toxic masculinity, sectarian violence – with absurdist wit and a slick visual vitality that doesn’t dampen in the slightest its authenticity or anguish. And also like Dropping Off Michael, Boys Night won the audience award at GSFF.
“I’m no good at second-guessing our audience,” says Lloyd when I ask why Price’s films seem to chime with GSFF’s patrons. “But I think Boys Night works so well because it takes on a very familiar trope of Scottish short filmmaking – a child caught in the middle of an alcohol-fuelled abusive relationship – without allowing the characters to be defined solely by abuse. James has created – on the page, and on the screen in collaboration with some brilliant actors – complex flawed, funny, loving, fighting characters. He doesn’t trade on jeopardy and threat for sensationalist effect, but presents a convincing situation in all its shades of light and dark.”
People have certainly taken note of Price’s talent. The Edinburgh Book Festival recently commissioned him for their Reading Scotland series, teaming him with Graeme Armstrong, writer of the instant Scottish classic The Young Team, which tells of the author's teenage years embroiled within gang culture, and challenged to pair to make a short film inspire by Armstrong’s novel. The result was the elegant and dreamy Infectious Nihilism and Small Metallic Pieces of Hope, a profoundly cinematic exploration into the swirling grief and drug-addled headspace of a young man being indoctrinated into the local gang after his brother’s murder.
And Price was recently tapped by Peter Mullan to direct a brace of episodes of the fantastic BBC4 monologue series Skint. The finest of the two, The Taking of Balgrayhill Street, which Price wrote, is a tragicomic and deeply humane study of poverty starring Mullan as a proud, hardworking guy who's now contemplating the unthinkable: diving into his block's food bank for the microwave curry sauce that's he's craving but can’t afford.
Price is not above his own self-promotion, however. Just ask The Sopranos’ actor and Zopa frontman Michael Imperioli aka Christopher Moltisanti from The Sopranos. Dropping into Insta DMs, Price sweet-talked Moltisanti into hiring him to make the official music video for his band's single Diamonds into Dust. Gallus? Too fucking right, but the resulting video has enough swagger and style to back up Price’s cocksure attitude. The promo was so good it led The Skinny to dub this young filmmaker the 'Springburn Scorsese'. It’s a title that seems to have stuck.
“People keep calling James the Springburn Scorsese,” says Lloyd, “and the last thing I want to do is blow more smoke up his arse, but I do see a comparison. James has a huge appetite for and knowledge of cinematic storytelling, but he’s not just copying his favourite filmmakers – he’s not seduced by style. Instead, like Scorsese, he’s considering form and how it can serve the story he wants to tell. Also, he’s a cocky wee shite who seems to have no trouble persuading people to do what he wants.”
The Skinny is screening a retrospective of James Price's films in a double bill with the Safdie Brothers' Good Time for the first edition of The CineSkinny Film Club; Summerhall Cinema, Edinburgh, 18 Mar, 6.30pm
Tickets at summerhall.co.uk/summerhall-cinema