Scotland on Screen: Bryan M. Ferguson
We catch up with Bryan M. Ferguson, one of the most distinct voices on the Scottish short film scene, to discuss his ridiculously prolific filmmaking practice and hear about his planned coming-of-age feature set in a funeral home
If while watching the films of Bryan M. Ferguson you come to the conclusion, ‘that’s a born director!’, you’d kinda be right. “I’m not sure if there was any sort of real defining moment that made me realise I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he tells us. “It genuinely felt like it came naturally.” From an early age he was surrounded by movies in the form of his parents’ VHS tapes that covered the shelves at home (“I’d nearly have an anxiety attack when I’d go to mates’ houses and their folks only had like seven tapes near their telly”). Not only was the collection vast, it was classy. “I’d watch Psycho, Rear Window and The Birds when I was in early primary school and just became completely compelled by how Hitchcock fucked with form in mainstream cinema. Then from there I had a real appetite for films that were unusual in narrative but also in how they were crafted.”
Ferguson describes himself as ‘self-taught’, but he did spend some time studying filmmaking – “I fucked up my exams but ended up blagging my way into Cardonald College, which did a course called TV Operations and Production” – although it doesn’t sound all that edifying. “I found the two years there really inhibiting,” he recalls. “I’d get berated for doing things differently and often pulled aside for being a ‘wild card’. I just wanted to make things that were a bit subversive and challenged the norm.” More useful was the Hi-8 camcorder he received for Christmas as a teen. “I’d spend most of my secondary school days rushing home to experiment with that camera and having to edit in-camera because I couldn’t afford/know how to digitise tapes. Thank fuck there was no Vimeo or YouTube yet, because everything I made was utter shite.”
His work has certainly improved since then. What hits you first in a BMF joint is the aesthetic. His expressive mise en scène, vivid colour design and scrupulous framing delights the eye. Your reaction to his work’s troubling subject matter is likely to be more complicated – just ask the two burly guys who fainted during the premiere of 2016’s Flamingo, Ferguson's sensual but brutal film that takes us into the world of self-amputation fetishists. But often it’s the contrast of the pleasing form with the peccadillo content that makes his films so thrilling. “I’m naturally attracted to transgressive subject matter,” Ferguson says, when we ask how he developed his idiosyncratic style. “It’s just how my brain is wired. I get excited by the juxtaposition of things that are normal or picturesque but have a real warped undercurrent that sort of fucks an audience’s perception of even the most banal thing.”
It’s a style that’s instantly distinctive but don’t be too quick to file Ferguson away in any auteurist box. His aesthetic has continued to evolve over the years. When The Skinny first encountered his work in the mid-2010s, he was trading in candy-coloured, sun-scorched films like Caustic Gulp (2015), a deadpan drama about a small cult dedicated to the consumption of chlorinated water, and the aforementioned Flamingo.
More playful were his micro-comedy-horrors like Rubber Guillotine (2016), about a young woman who wants to be transformed into a lime jelly, and Toxic Haircut (2018), featuring a heavy-handed barber. Since the Sam Raimi-influenced Satanic Panic '87 (2019), Ferguson has been playing in a more nocturnal horror universe that persists in his most recent short Red Room. Commissioned by Edinburgh Book Festival and based on Helen McClory’s novel Bitterhall, it’s a moody and mysterious short dripping in an atmosphere of paranoia and dread.
“My early stuff was me using what I had to hand and then trying to make the best of a bad situation,” says Ferguson. “I would have a script, a million ideas of what I could do technically within the limitations I had and lean heavily into the production design to give it its own identity. I remember reading Chris Cunningham mention that his first music video was the first thing he ever made and it was like 'learning in public' and thats how I feel with my early work, I was learning each job behind the camera and fucking around with form and transgressive subject matter but taking it completely seriously the entire time and to have people respond to them the way the did (often quite viscerally) was just incredible.”
Like Cunningham, Ferguson has also shown a talent for creating wildly imaginative and provocative music videos. He’s made a string of startling promos – 15 in four years – for artists like Ladytron, Sega Bodega, The Ninth Wave, Ross from Friends and Arab Strap. His latest music vid, for Alice Glass’s Love Is Violence, is his best yet, and brings to mind the violent sexual desire that often bubbles up in Claire Denis’s work, particularly her horny vampire yarn Trouble Every Day.
When we ask Ferguson how he parlayed such impressive collaborations, he explains it's chiefly by being a nuisance. “I would basically throw my showreel at people through their management or sometimes through their DMs on socials,” he says. “I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to my career. I’ll fight tooth and nail to get where I want to be and I’ve been incredibly fortunate that these artists have taken the time to watch what I’ve sent and asked me to be a part of their history.”
The next chapter in Ferguson’s own history will be the feature Funeral Home. It’s still very much in development, but he can reveal it’s set in 2002 and centres on a rebellious teenage boy who’s forced to pick up some of the slack at his crumbling family-run funeral home after his father's death. “Things sort of change [for the protagonist] when the corpse of a boy his age turns up at the funeral home which makes him question and face his own mortality for the first time. It's really a coming of age film about death. It’s all based on my own teen years and experiences when I was a funeral director.”
If you’re worried Ferguson’s shift to teen coming-of-age tale, which he says will be filled with “angst, awkward romance, dark humour, pyromania and a lot of dead people”, will make him go soft, forget it. “There will naturally be a change in sensibility as it’s feature length but the characters are definitely transgressive and the story goes to some very dark places," he says. "It’s a very personal story to me with my fingerprints all over it so my wild style from my previous work will definitely be driving the visuals.”
Red Room screens at Glasgow Short Film Festival as part of Scottish Competition 3: A Different Sphere, 26 Mar, CCA, 6.45pm
Videography (selected): Alice Glass: Love Is Violence (2022), Alice Glass: Fair Game (2021), Ross from Friends: Love Divide (2021), Arab Strap: Here Comes Comus! (2021), Sega Bodega & Lapsley: Make U Stay (2020), The Ninth Wave: I'm Only Going to Hurt You (2020), Fish Narc: New Medication (2020), Fish Narc: So Long! (2020), Sega Bodega: U Suck (2019), Ladytron: Deadzone (2019), The Ninth Wave: This Broken Design (2019), Ladytron: The Island (2018)
Filmography (selected): Red Room (2021), Insecticide (2020), Satanic Panic '87 (2019), Toxic Haircut (2018), Umbilical Glue (2017), Blockhead (2017), Rubber Guillotine (2016), Flamingo (2016), Caustic Gulp (2015), The Misbehaviour of Polly Paper Cut (2013), Sockets (2012)