Film and Faction Romance – in conversation with Virginia Heath and Grant Keir

On Location: Mark Dorris sets up a car mount grip with Virginia Heath on the set of Lift Share in the Outer Hebrides

Four months ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Scottish singer/songwriter Kenny Anderson and his band, collectively King Creosote, live-score 2014’s celebrated archive film From Scotland With Love, by New Zealand-born director/screenwriter Virginia Heath.

That Bridgewater Hall show in Manchester proved to be not only the last night of a major tour reprising the group’s role soundtracking an award-winning BAFTA Scotland nominated feature-length documentary, but also my last live show for 19 weeks and counting, the UK-wide lockdown swiftly following.

As it turned out, social distancing of sorts was in place, only around a third of the audience showing up at a time of mixed messages from on high, the film’s universal themes of love, loss, resistance, migration, work and play down the years all the more poignant in the circumstances.

It was a night when I found myself so involved in the moving images unfolding on the big screen that occasionally I’d glance down and remember that there was a band performing, and a cracking one too, much of the credit for that going to Virginia and her editing team for a project originally commissioned by the BBC and Creative Scotland to mark Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Now it seems apt to look at that from another angle, tracking and tracing Virginia and the film’s producer Grant Keir down to their Edinburgh office, asking two-thirds of the creators of the Faction North film and TV production company how their lockdown’s panned out, not least at a time when UK-wide restrictions have ruled out so much work in the film industry.

Virginia and Grant established the firm in 1998 alongside London-based producer Peter Day, the trio still going strong two decades on, writing, directing and producing drama, documentary, TV and cross-platform production for the international and UK domestic markets.

And while my interviewees play it down that they’re an item, it’s worth noting that their daughter Stella has followed their lead, co-writing last year’s film short Lift Share – funded by Creative Scotland, BFI and Scottish Film Talent Network, starring Ana Ularu and Mark Rowley, with its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and last year’s best drama short award-winner at Copenhagen Film Festival – with her mother, having graduated from the National Film and Television School last year and already with film editing awards under her belt.

Interior Shot: Producer Grant Keir on the Outer Hebridean film set of Lift Share with co-leading actor Mark Rowley

Virginia and Grant engineered a coffee break to talk to me, at first explaining to me how the company seems to be based both in Edinburgh and Sheffield, Faction North’s first base and where Virginia is a professor of film at Hallam University, a research professor for the art, design and media research centre who also teaches on the MA filmmaking course, and Grant mentoring and teaching producing, pitching and business skills.

While Virginia’s originally from Havelock North on New Zealand’s North Island, Grant grew up in Essex but hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with Scottish heritage. In fact, I kind of assumed he was Scottish at first. Maybe it’s the name. Actually, I mistakenly first referred to him online as Keir Grant, which at least appeals to his socialist leanings. In fact, when I mentioned this again when we spoke, he said, “I’ll take that. I’m happy with that!”.

They were based in Sheffield when they helped set up their company, living near Endcliffe Park, which was in the news last year following a BBC campaign supporting octogenarian Tony Foulds’ lifelong efforts to honour the crew of USAAF B-17 Flying Fortress, Mi Amigo after witnessing the plane crash there as a young lad in 1944.

Home for Virginia and Grant is now north of the border though. But how long have they known each other? The first shared credit I see is for 1997’s Songs from the Golden City documentary, following the story of The Manhattan Brothers, jazz superstars who earned millions for the South African recording company, but never saw a penny in royalties during the dark days of apartheid. Did Virginia and Grant know each other before?

Grant: “Yeah, we’re married actually, but professionally don’t make a song and dance about that. We like to have our own independent existence.”

Many of their films carry strong political and social messages, and in 2009 Virginia – whose impressive CV for drama and documentary films also includes a 2002 Berlin International Film Festival award for best short, Relativity – was commissioned by the UK Human Trafficking Centre to create a film to highlight the issue, interviewing exploited girls and women, and frontline agency workers, going on to make the film My Dangerous Loverboy. A related website and social media channels later increased engagement, the overall project winning a cross-media award from the National Board of Canada and seeing her nominated for a Royal Television Society award, the film extensively used in schools and youth centres, and with frontline agency workers across the UK.

Before that, Virginia directed a number of films for Bandung Productions, who had an international art slot for Channel 4, including three episodes of the Rear Window documentary series (1992/93), Britain’s fourth terrestrial TV channel providing her with her UK television breakthrough. In fact, that channel took a lot of chances in their early years. Is that kind of opportunity still out there?

Summer Still: Jamie Sives and Ana Ularu in Anca Damian’s A Very Unsettled Summer (2013), produced by Grant Keir

Grant, also credited for producing ‘A Very Unsettled Summer’ with award-winning writer/director Anca Damian, and a former Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival board member, said: “It’s a very different beast these days.”

Virginia: “That was extraordinary. Those were very different times, of course. I think it went out on Tuesday evenings at nine, and always got good reviews in the broadsheets, Radio Times, and so on.”

Grant: “The tabloids also liked to cover the Rear Window series, because there were often programmes about black people and black culture, and the Daily Mail and Daily Express used to love ranting and raving about them!”

Virginia: “But we also had a really loyal following and good solid audience that tuned in every week. Of course though, audience viewing habits just aren’t like that anymore.

I suppose there’s a real proliferation of product through additional channels these days, so fewer people see the same alternative shows and documentaries.

Grant: “That’s true, but I think television is still a really important benchmark, sets standards and sets viewing figures too. Talk to any of the social influencers, people marking their careers on Twitter and TikTok and all that – if you offer any of them a slot on television, they’ll bite your hand off. It still sets a kind of social, political media agenda. That for me is what’s so disturbing about all the major channels in the UK evacuating the schedules of serious documentary content. We wouldn’t get to make those films Virginia made back in the day for Bandung and Rear Window. You couldn’t make them now.”

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first film for the Faction North company

Faction Debut: Songs from the Golden City in 1997 was the first of many film projects for the Faction North company

In a sense it was easier then, with just three channels in my early years then four from the ‘80s.

Grant: “That’s another world now. But the real problem with the proliferation of channels and massive variety of options for people to view things in my opinion – and I don’t mind people watching whatever they want, as long as it’s legal – is that broadcasters then go chasing these fragmented small audiences in the hope they can deliver the ‘eyeballs’ to the advertisers and secure the biggest audiences possible. That’s why you see the rise of factual entertainment, which is blocking out serious documentary filmmaking which actually has something to say. And I mean, what really does Love Island Australia really tell us about anything? That’s my question.”

Virginia: “The Bandung arts slot was incredible. For example, I made a film about a Turkish painter after the Berlin Wall came down, a really interesting time to look at that from an insider’s and outsider’s point of view. This guy’s studio overlooked the wall and his paintings included images from East Germany in them. They were about questions of identity and immigrant populations. A fascinating guy and a fascinating subject. And that was enough. When we contacted him, he couldn’t believe someone from England had seen his work and wanted to make a film about him.

“I also made a film about the first Black South African oil painter, an exile in Paris, and it was a really interesting way of looking at South Africa through an extraordinary painter. Tariq Ali was the commissioning editor and it was almost like he, with his huge cultural and political knowledge, scanned the horizon and picked really fascinating subjects to shine a light on.”

Ever consider follow-up documentaries with those subjects? They would make for similarly fascinating viewing.

Virginia: “Well, you’d never get the funding to do that now.”

Grant: “Gerard Sekoto, that first Black African portrait painter and fine artist, back in the days of apartheid just couldn’t have been an artist. It just wasn’t allowed at a professional level. He’s now dead, unfortunately (he died in Paris in 1993, aged 79), but maybe we could find out about the Turkish subject of the Berlin Wall documentary.

Production Role: Grant Keir – Essex and Tyneside roots, Scottish heritage

“But you’d have to put the usual jigsaw of finance together to make a film. That’s what I do as a producer. That is a long and difficult dance, and increasingly difficult. Even though there’s public money around – and funds like the BFI and Screen Scotland have money – they all have very particular editorial requirements. Match-aligning all the different bits of money around what they need and what they’re looking for is really difficult. You’ve got to have a lot of perseverance.

“Actually, you need enough financial stability to be able to do that long haul to put all the money together. This is where people like us – we’ve been around and at this for more than 30 years – have a network and understand how these things can be done, but if you’re starting out now as a young filmmaker, I think it’s impossible.

“One of the biggest revelations for me in my career was when I realised – I’d be at all these different film festivals and markets and see people putting films together and talking about how they’d done it, and sat there and couldn’t work out how they’d survived for five years while they did all the development. Then I heard a couple of people talking in a bar and realised they were independently wealthy people. They had trust funds behind them or just came from rich families. That’s what allowed them to survive. What that means is that people making films are coming from very particular social strata.”

True enough. I see enough of that in writing and journalism. In most cases, it seems that the writer in the household is not the main wage earner. And you need money behind you to pursue those writing dreams.

Grant: “And of course, it has real impact in the sense that in so many news outlets now the journalists are not journalists, they’re simply rewriting corporate communications rather than journalistic, interrogative, questioning writing.”

So how’s lockdown been for you two? There’s been a lot of talk about theatres being unable to open and people who think that’s not really a problem because they can watch Netflix instead, not joining up the dots and realising where those actors and creatives involved come from, how those films and productions are written and made in the first place, and the importance of the individuals behind the film and television industry.

Grant: “People very rarely understand where the film comes from, which is also why people seem to think it’s okay to steal content and watch things on illegal sites. They will understand if you walk into a shop and steal a t-shirt – that’s theft – but if you watch a film on an illegal website they’ll just think that’s being clever.”

Virginia: “Stealing music as well. Anything that’s reducable to zeroes and ones ….”

Faction North do have new features in advanced development right now though. I saw mention of a couple of psychological thriller feature films you have in advanced development,  and talk of a drama series.

My Direction: Virginia Heath, a long way from Havelock North, New Zealand

Virginia: “At the moment I’m working on a feature documentary. That’s in development and we were due to go back to film in New York in May. We’re not sure when we’re going to be able to go back now, but you can do quite a lot online, and I have researchers I’m working with in the States, so we’re carrying on, pushing forward. The feature films take a lot of time and strategising to get from scripts to screen, and there are still things we’re working on, but again because of the COVID-19 situation we have to rethink.”

Grant: “In the business you’d call those small independent feature films – in the two to five million pound or dollar bracket. The difficulty with them – and this is relatively recent with the rise of Netflix, Amazon, and all that – is that they tie up casts on these long-running drama series, so for an independent film like the ones we make, you have to have a cast to get the film finance – well-known actors. But they get tied up on these series, so it’s really difficult to get the cast to commit. And if you can’t get the cast to commit, you can’t close the finance and can’t make the films.

“Some people have talked about how ironically the COVID-19 thing has disrupted production so much that there might now be opportunities for smaller films, as actors won’t want to be tied up for months on end on something that might not actually go into production, or could be scuppered at any point. So there might be a market for limited appearances – from five to 10 weeks on a film rather than eight months. But we’re yet to see if that’s true.”

It’s been around four years since Virginia’s had the chance to return to her native New Zealand, when From Scotland with Love was part of the New Zealand Film Festival, with successful screenings up and down the country.

Virginia: “It’s almost like having a mini-release of the film around the country and was fantastically successful, with such a big ex-Scottish population, or people of Scottish heritage, there who were very enthusiastic about the film. As a result, we had an idea of doing a From New Zealand With Love, but maybe the first involved a fortunate coalescing of material, having access to some amazing archive, all concentrated in one place. That really helped us put the film together. It was a relatively simple process of accessing the material. But what we’ve realised is that in other places it’s not so simple, and sometimes the archives don’t even own the material they have.”

From Scotland with Love provided my introduction to your work, and it’s a film I’ve re-watched several times. In fact, I recently stumbled across some of the archive material within, seeing the wonderful 1948 Edinburgh-based documentary Waverley Steps again.

Virginia: “That was a gold mine, finding that film. It’s not the greatest film ever, but it’s quite beautifully shot, and I really wanted this theme of love and various love stories and liaisons running through our film.”

Since then I’ve also caught up with last year’s Three Chords and the Truth and loved that too. It’s hard to explain the pull of this short film, but it certainly works. In short, Virginia and her team follow several inspirational home-based manufacturers and fellow enthusiasts extolling the joy of cigar box guitars, these three-stringed instruments lovingly crafted from recycled and upcycled materials by true craftsmen with a twin love of great music, leading to unique (an over-used word, but in this case spot on) designs. The history of the cigar box instrument was borne out of the blues and out of necessity in an era when for many this was the only way to get hold of a guitar. But while its genesis was US-led, this is very much about men in sheds in modern, post-industrial Britain taking that legacy forward.

Cigar Man: John Farr, aka Hollowbelly, gives us Three Chords and the Truth for the short film of the same name

I guess a great documentary – like any great film – needs central characters you believe in and care about, and you get that from Three Chords and the Truth’s Nig Richards, Chickenbone John, Robyn Greig-Brown, Hollowbelly and Dennis Duffy, their stories and inspirational approaches drawing me into the story. And there’s something of the punk DIY ethos that resonates too, their cottage industry, anti-corporate, pro-recycling approach inspirational, the finished products providing an evocative sound that musicians and audiences alike will appreciate.

Virginia: “I basically got to that story through my colleague at Sheffield Hallam, Paul Atkinson, who’s part of the same research centre. He’d written an article, Hairy Guys in Sheds, and was telling me about it in the pub one day, and I thought that would be a really nice subject for a film. That kind of DIY ethos and anti-corporate spirit, making instruments from found materials. I just found it really inspiring.”

My own poor DIY skills suggest any efforts I made would be pathetic, but the sheer passion of those involved really brought the subject alive. And there wasn’t just one stand-out talker – the way those involved talk about the subject help tell the story so well. In fact, that documentary led to a follow-up, Faction North commissioned by the BBC to make a half-hour version, renamed Cigar Box Blues – The Makers of a Revolution, including extra material and footage from a guitar-making workshop.

Virginia: “One of my female colleagues from the university came along to that and managed to produce a great little guitar in a day. There was also a young boy there with his Mum, and Chickenbone John is an extraordinary teacher and just inspired people to make things.

Another film Grant was involved with, at least on the fringes of, also appealed to this music lover, not least considering my ‘70s introduction to pop and rock in the glam years, receiving an associate production credit for Liam Firmager’s splendid 2019 Suzi Q documentary from Screen Australia and Film Victoria, telling the amazing story of Suzi Quatro, its narrative supplemented by revealing interviews with Suzi and her family, plus the likes of Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry, Henry Winkler, Joan Jett, K.T. Tunstall, Mike Chapman, Tim Rice, and WriteWyattUK interviewees Don Powell (Slade), Andy Scott (Sweet) and Wendy James (Transvision Vamp).

Grant: “I’m credited as an associate producer on that film as I was trying to raise money for the film in the UK in the early stages. I was very graciously given that credit by the producers. In the end the film was sold to Sky Television and released in cinemas in the UK on a limited release, and Suzi very generously gave us time and supported that with personal appearances and Q&As.

“She’s amazing, and an extraordinary artist. She’s been in the industry for many, many decades, yet didn’t crash and burn, didn’t drink it all away, maintaining a privacy about her life but also remaining available for her fans. And as some of the artists in the film say, young women going into the music industry now should study Suzi Quatro, because she shows you how you can have a long career and not become a casualty and not be exploited.

“Not everyone loves her music, and you can argue about how innovative or not she was, but she was one of the first women to lead a rock band. That in itself is really interesting. The other interesting thing from a British perspective is that she was a star in the UK at a time when she wasn’t a star in America.

“I think people forget the rock industry in America arguably never really had a glam phase. We had Bowie, we had T-Rex, we had Slade, we had Sweet, all big bands in the UK, Europe and sometimes Japan, and they all tried to go to America and make it. But I would argue that America was resistant to a more feminine or more fluid gender image, other than Bowie – the one artist who did actually have a career in America. But what they wanted in America was not ‘Star Man’ and David putting his arm around Mick Ronson. They wanted ‘Let’s Dance’. And even though Bowie was big there, how many people actually understood the depth of his work? The thing with Suzi was that she did eventually have a career in America – not as a rock star though, but a television star on Happy Days.”

There’s plenty of Suzi’s determination and spirit in Virginia too, as I’m sure must be the case for every female director that’s broken through in what until now has been very much a male-led industry. And as she puts it herself, her work is all about investigating ‘questions of female sexuality, identity, empowerment of marginalised voices, and the conflict between different cultural perceptions’.

I ran out of time to find out more about her Kiwi roots this time, but know she studied film at London’s St Martin’s School of Art in the mid-‘80s, albeit a decade too late for the Sex Pistols’ debut gig there and three years before Jarvis Cocker studied Fine Art and Film (although perhaps she met the girl from Greece who had a thirst for knowledge, studied sculpture and wanted to sleep with common people – I’ll have to ask her next time).

But there was just about time to ask both Virginia and Grant what films they saw that inspired them to do what they do.

Virginia: “That’s a really hard question. I fell in love with cinema when I was a kid, because my father absolutely loved cinema. He’d take us to see whatever film that was going at the Saturday pictures in the small town where I grew up. We saw war films, love stories, we saw God knows what.”

It sounds like a Cinema Paradiso type upbringing.

Virginia: “I would say one of the films that always sticks in my mind and made me absolutely love cinema was (Bernardo) Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista), an extraordinary combination of being quite political but with this really powerful, slightly leftfield love story – that combination of politics and love and sex is the kind of film I really admire. I love all sorts of cinema, but I think that film for me really sums up what cinema can do.

“It’s an Italian film, subtitled, and it’s never going to be a huge mainstream film, but it’s a real example of a film that can look at politics and look at our lives in a really profound way, but it’s also extremely sensual and entertaining, and the acting, the cinematography and the production design all kind of work together to create an absolutely immersive, extraordinary experience. I was probably in my late teens when I first saw that.”

Grant: “The film I would reference that made me want to be a producer was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle for Algiers, just in the media again recently as Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack. Everyone remembers him for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and rightly so, but for me that film is a perfect combination of cinema as political consciousness, history telling and inspiring people to fight for their rights.

“And I think that’s what cinema is there for – to reflect the world back at us but also inspire us to make a better world.”

For more about the work of Faction North, head to the company’s website via this link, and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ferry Share: Virginia Heath, centre, with Mark Rowley and Ularu off to the Outer Hebrides to film the Lift Share short

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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