Ninian Doff on EIFF opener Boyz in the Wood
Ninian Doff is set to open Edinburgh International Film Festival with his rambunctious action-comedy Boyz in the Wood. He talks about politicising today's youth, embracing a music video aesthetic and casting Eddie Izzard as a demented Scottish Duke
Over the years, movies haven't exactly been the best advert for visiting Scotland's great outdoors. An island in the Hebrides proves less than hospitable for a police constable investigating a girl's disappearance in The Wicker Man, while in Dog Soldiers a routine army training expedition in the Highlands ends in torn limbs for a bunch of grunts who wander into a werewolf den. And in last year's fat-free thriller Calibre, a lads' hunting holiday turns tragic when something other than deer pops up in one of the men's rifle cross-hairs.
Boyz in the Wood, the debut feature from Edinburgh-raised director Ninian Doff, is the latest in this lineage of rural films that should stress out VisitScotland. It centres on four teenage boys who're dropped off in the Highlands to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. Doff himself was part of this character-building award scheme in his youth, which he did with three friends. "It was a miracle we came out of it alive," jokes Doff down the phone, "we were so completely useless." The germ of his film came when he collided his memories of that expedition with the rather malevolent image of the awards' figurehead. "The first line of the idea was something like, 'four inept teenage boys are doing the Duke of Edinburgh and a psychotic Duke is after them.' That was the first inkling and it just blossomed out very quickly; it really was such a blast to write."
The pleasure Doff experienced while penning Boyz in the Wood has certainly filtered through to the screen. It's a riotous and touching action-comedy that sparkles with visual invention and is flecked with hope for the future generation. The film's visual bounce is more than matched by the vim of the four young leads.
There's Lewis Gribben as Duncan, who doesn't strike you as all that smart, but when it comes to explosives, he has the ingenuity of MacGyver. The gang's soulful leader is Rian Gordon's Dean, while much of the comedy emanates from Viraj Juneja as rapper-wannabe DJ Beatroot, who spits beats pretty much exclusively about his penis (typical lyric: "they call my dick Loch Ness/'cause it's a mystery"). Joining this rambunctious trio is the more straight-laced Ian (Samuel Bottomley), who's actually volunteered to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards – the other three are being punished for blowing up a school toilet – and keen to tick off the Duke's three chief tenets of 'orienteering', 'foraging' and 'teamwork' on his laminated lanyard.
Ian's dream of the boys completing the hike looks in doubt early on when Dean rolls a joint using their only map. When Eddie Izzard's homicidal Duke turns up sporting headgear borrowed from Leatherface to do some class cleansing, their chances of making it to their campsite checkpoint look even more dubious. "When Eddie's name was mentioned, it wasn't even a light bulb, it was just a revelation in my mind," says Doff of the stand-up. "It's mad that I toyed with casting anyone else. He comes with an amazing presence and voice that we already know, so considering that he first appears in the distance, he immediately lures you in." Elsewhere in the cast there's Kate Dickie and Kevin Guthrie as clueless cops who get it in their heads that the boys might be a terrorist cell, and James Cosmo as a local farmer whose ardour for hallucinatory rabbit droppings puts the 'high' in Highlands.
If the film sounds to you like a goofy riot then you'd be right, but Doff has ambitions to make us think as well as laugh. He secretes plenty of political ideas and comments on our modern society into the action-comedy framework. "I've always struggled with this notion – particularly in UK cinema – that films about political topics have to be really gritty," says Doff. "The options are, be very gritty and depressing or it's just knob jokes only. Why does a film with something to say have to be depressing?" From the first page of the script, his ambitions were clear. "I was like, I want to make a film that you put on on a Friday night for the fifth watch, that you're able to quote inside out, the kind of film you watch with your mates, but it also gives you a slight political kick up the arse."
It's easy to guess why Doff had such a fire in his belly. The film was written while the Brexit debate was raging across the country; Trump was elected during pre-production. "I wanted the film to be this massive validation of teenage voices and the next generation, with nothing patronising about it. I wanted the film to very sincerely say to young people, 'If you all say no, you can change the world'. You don't need to listen to this older establishment who's very much saying 'shoosh now, stay in your place'. So that was my goal from day one."
Another lively element to Boyz in the Wood is its electronic score (Alex Menzies fka Glasgow producer Alex Smoke) and soundtrack (Glasgow hip-hop producer S-Type provided DJ Beatroot's tracks). If you know Doff's stylish and playful music videos for the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Miike Snow and Run the Jewels, this adroit use of music should be no surprise. "Often filmmakers try and ignore their past," says Doff. "They like to pretend they're some sort of hotshot who's now making feature films. But I very much had this strong feeling I wanted to weirdly pay homage to all the videos that got me to this point and unashamedly be like, 'So yeah, a music video director made this film and this is my thing'."
"I wanted the film to very sincerely say to young people, 'If you all say no, you can change the world'" – Ninian Doff
This self-realisation was ultimately extremely creatively freeing, explains Doff. "Instead of saying to myself, 'OK, time to put my serious hat on because this is a film and not a video', I was like, 'Oh, you know what, the most exciting way of telling this story is to make the middle section literally be a music video'." His instincts were good. These musical vignettes are what gives the film its unique flavour and sets it apart from your typical teen comedy. "I was giggling to myself when I was writing those [musical sequences] because I was like, 'I can't believe I'm getting away with this.' The script went from being quite conventional to one of the funniest things I've written."
Boyz in the Hood will have its European premiere as the opening film of Edinburgh International Film Festival. It goes without saying that it should make for a lively night. Being bestowed an opening gala slot at your hometown festival is always an honour, but it's particularly special for Doff, who earned his filmmaking stripes at EIFF as part of a young person's film club called SKAMM – short for Scottish Kids Are Making Movies – a program set up by Mark Cousins (EIFF's director at the time) and Filmhouse's Shona Wood.
"I was part of SKAMM since I was 13 and every single summer we'd somehow blag press passes and would make video diaries of the Edinburgh Film Festival," he recalls. "Somehow we had access-all-areas; we'd meet insanely big directors 'cause we were a bunch of cheeky kids, and no one can say no to a cheeky kid." Among the directors accosted by these filmmaking scamps were homegrown talents like Alan Rickman, Gillies MacKinnon and the cast of Trainspotting. There were more exotic names too. "We'd meet all these arthouse auteurs that we'd not even heard of at the time. I remember I was talking to Bernardo Bertolucci, which now seems utterly insane to me, but I was only 14 and I was like, 'Bernardo, come meet my mum.'"
This introduction is the least Doff should have done for his mother. "Bless her for her support," he laughs. "My mum would let me miss school for it; she was like, 'Oh, this is more important than school.' So instead of going back to school at the end of the summer holiday, I'd go to the Edinburgh Film Festival."
Boyz in the Wood opens Edinburgh International Film Festival on 19 Jun at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh