Scott Graham on Iona

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 14 Mar 2016

Scott Graham follows up 2012's Shell with Iona, another wind-swept rural tale of familial malcontent, this time set on the elemental Hebridean island of the title. We caught up with Graham on the eve of the film's world premiere.

After earning raves and a BAFTA nomination for his debut feature Shell, writer-director Scott Graham returns with Iona, another Scottish film set far off the beaten track. As Graham himself explains, his new film “is about a young woman [Iona, played by Ruth Negga] who goes back to the island of her birth [the isle of Iona] with her teenage son [newcomer Ben Gallagher] to hide from a crime they’ve committed. The film opens in a kitchen in Glasgow. There’s an act of violence that they run from, and the rest of the film takes place on the island. And really the story is about the impact that going back to the island has on her and her son, and also on the family that she left behind when she was a teenager.”

The Skinny is chatting to Graham in an Edinburgh hotel in June, just a few hours before the city's film festival is due to close with Iona’s world premiere and gala screening. The story’s inspiration has a number of sources. Firstly, the location: “I went there when I was ten, to the island, and I guess it never left me," Graham tells us. Creative conscientiousness, and a Harrison Ford vehicle from the 80s, also played a part. "When I was getting ready to make my first feature, there was a delay of about six months and I thought I would try and avoid that thing that happens to bands when they go from their first album to their second album. I thought, 'Oh, maybe I should try and get the jump on it a little bit and develop something.' I’ve always loved the film Witness, the Harrison Ford film, and I kind of knew that I was gonna maybe do another film that explored the conflict between a parent and a child, and of a conflict with a place that they’re from. And somehow all of that fed into the script.”

The ideas behind Iona

The Iona we see in the film is a tight-knit religious community, and faith played a big part in the inception of the project. “One of the seeds for the idea,” he says, “was when I was there as a child, I asked why people went to this island and was told, 'To feel close to God.' Over time [writing the script] that became someone going there who doesn’t feel close to God. I thought that was an interesting conflict to have." For Graham, however, this loss of faith doesn't have to be looked at in purely theological terms. "I looked at it like a relationship that has ended, and she's going back to the place where that relationship ended. I knew people were gonna be watching this film that might have faith, but more than likely don’t have faith, so a relationship that ends is something most of us can relate to.”

As well as faith itself, Graham acknowledges faith-preoccupied filmmakers were an influence on the film’s creation: “Prior to making Shell, when I was first starting to make shorts, I was very influenced by a lot of the stuff that was coming out of America in the 70s, so Terrence Malick’s films and Bob Rafelson," he says. "After that, it was a lot of the European filmmakers, like Lukas Moodysson, Lars von Trier. And then with this, with Iona, because it’s so much about a conflict of faith I was watching stuff by Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson."

Regarding visual influences, our conversation moves on to Andrei Tarkovsky, whose film Mirror Graham had been citing in some promotion ahead of Iona’s festival premiere. “I mean, his films have influenced me in lots of ways. Mirror specifically was more of an inspiration for the look of the film: that sort of colour Kodak stock that they used in the 70s. You see it in Mirror and I think something similar was used on Claude Lanzmann’s documentary Shoah.

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All these visual inspirations came to Graham during a reconnaissance of the island with the film's cinematographer, Yoliswa von Dallwitz. "Going to the island in the springtime, seeing how rich the colours were, we started talking about not doing what we did with Shell, which was sort of to almost bleach the colours out, but to leave it quite rich."

Concerning the achievement of the film's specific look, much of it is down to the pragmatism of a low budget production. "A lot of it is just working with what you have," Graham confesses. "The way the shoot was structured was that the first scenes we shot were on a ferry, so we literally filmed the journey to the island." The tight two week shoot on Iona proved more problematic. "We had no wet weather cover, had no interior scenes to go to, so we just had to work with what we were given. We actually got really great weather, but everything that we got, depending on what scene we were shooting, we just went with. So in a way, we didn’t so much choose the look of the film, it just sort of happened that way."

One might wonder why a filmmaker would take such a precarious strategy, but for Graham, the importance of Iona's landscape to the film was worth the risk. "The island itself is very elemental, and I remember those rocks from when I was a kid and we went scouting, looking for them. Those scenes with Iona by herself on the beach and then at the end, they were in the script from the memory of me when I’d been there when I was little. The location’s important in Shell, the sense of isolation there, but it’s kind of there in the background, ever present. But with Iona, I wanted her to directly connect with the island. At times it almost seems like she’s at war with it or fighting with it, and some of my favourite scenes are the ones where she’s by herself on the island.”

Scott Graham: future projects and Bruce Springsteen

After two features concerned with rural Scottish landscapes, we ask if Graham’s next feature might venture into more urban territories. It doesn't look likely, as his next project, developed from his short Born to Run, takes inspiration from the crown prince of growing up in small towns. “The one that’s closest to me at the moment is set in my hometown [Fraserburgh] and it’s loosely based on a Bruce Springsteen song. It’s about a father and son and it’s sort of to do with racing cars and not wanting to make the same choices as your parents, but making those choices." He's quick to point out, however, that we should expact more cheer. "There’s a lot of hope to do with growing up in small communities. It’s not quite as bleak as it was, say, for Shell, so I think in tone my next film might be a little different.”

Regarding Iona, though, the director expresses a cautious excitement regarding its imminent reception: “Now that I’ve sort of left the world of the film and I’m watching other stuff that’s around and I’m watching some TV, I realise how different Iona is. I don’t know if it’s got a kind of naïvety or innocence about it, but I’m aware that it’s quite austere and that it’s different to everything else. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not yet. I hope it is.”

Iona is released 25 Mar by Verve