McLaren: GFT

This is an article written by the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT) entitled Five Questions for Jim Hickey (director, William McLaren: An Artist Out of Time).

When director Jim Hickey investigated the story behind the 1944 short film And So Goodbye, he came away with another fascinating tale – that of William McLaren, painter, illustrator and decorative artist. In William McLaren: An Artist Out of Time, Hickey traces the story of an artist who was ahead of his age in many ways, but who would have been a fascinating character whatever the era.

GFT will be screening the documentary on Wednesday 18 August (8.30) as part of the Great Scots series, highlighting some of the best Scottish-made films from Glasgow Film Festival 2010. Award-winning director Jim Hickey and producer Robin Mitchell will be taking part in a Q&A after the screening.

We asked Jim Hickey some questions about William McLaren and making the film.

1. Despite being a prolific artist, William McLaren is relatively unknown, even in his native Scotland. What made you decide to make a film about him?

Six years ago when Robin Mitchell and I made our short film, And So Goodbye, we came across William McLaren as an illustrator who had created the titles on a film in which Robin's dad had acted in the 1940s. The only article we could find about McLaren was in The Scots Magazine and its author Tom Kirk was able to give us some initial leads. Through a network of contacts in Fife and Edinburgh we began to build up a picture of the man and also started to shoot some interviews, initially to keep an accurate record. We quickly became convinced there would be enough material for a film; certainly a documentary but maybe even a feature film. McLaren is relatively unknown because he was a painter, illustrator and decorative artist and few people that we spoke to had any idea of his extensive output. Sometimes he is an artist of high quality and other times a journeyman. He's not easy to categorise and we therefore had to construct a coherent narrative.

2. Did you discover anything surprising about McLaren while you were making the film?

The biggest surprise was the continual uncovering of a wide range of work including works of high quality in private houses. He created many objects as gifts; engraved glass, miniature pianos and trompe l'oeil marble obelisks. For McLaren, any surface that could be painted was painted. We have now compiled a chronology of his work that runs to eleven pages and there are still numerous items that we know of that are not securely dated. We were also surprised that his grave in Cardenden was unmarked and, since completing the film, we have raised money for a new headstone for the grave.

3. After the film screened at Glasgow Film Festival in February, you were put in touch with a family McLaren used to stay with in Paris. What did you learn from them?

We had very little information about McLaren's trips to European cities from the 1940s onwards. After the Glasgow Film Festival screening we were contacted by someone in Killearn who had met McLaren on trips with her mother to the house in which he stayed on his trips to Paris. We have now seen new photographs of him, some letters and painted objects as well as a watercolour of the Paris house and a painting on glass of the Arc de Triomphe. These have recently been added to our chronology. Maybe after this GFT screening we will learn even more!

4. How have your previous roles as Director of Edinburgh Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival influenced your work as a director?

I have always been conscious of how difficult it is to produce films that are totally original. There are tens of thousands made every year. When programming Filmhouse and the Film Festival, the films that always stood out were those with compelling stories to tell and which also found ways to tell them cinematically. Whether fiction or documentary, the story and the manner of its telling were paramount. The filmmaker has to respect his subject. With the McLaren film the challenge was to represent sufficient examples of his work and to knit together the testimony of people into a kind of conversation about him. In this way, the accumulation of detail leads the audience to make an emotional connection with the subject and the film isn't merely a catalogue of events and objects.

5. What projects are you currently working on?

Working again with Robin Mitchell I have just directed another documentary, About A Band. This is the story of the Columcille Ceilidh Band in Edinburgh that has musicians with learning disabilities. We filmed the band over the last year performing at various gigs. Our next task is to continue submitting our films to selected film festivals. We have two other documentaries in development. Over the last year we have also been writing a feature film script, a Scottish comedy with some familiar characters in unfamiliar situations.