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The making of A Life in Progress

Alasdair Gray in a scene from A Life in Progress

Released following its premiere at Sheffield Film Festival in June 2014, Kevin Cameron's film Alasdair Gray: A Life in Progress captures the artist as he worked on some of his best known murals in Glasgow and delves into his hugely varied career. 

As he prepares to take the film on a short tour of the north of Scotland this month, we grabbed some time with the Renfrewshire based filmmaker to find out more about the film he spent well over a decade making.

Tell us a bit more about your background as a filmmaker?

I studied film and TV theory at Glasgow University and went from there to Bristol University to do a practical filmmaking postgrad. Before that I had been experimenting with super 8 and drawing on to celluloid. The combination of the undergrad and postgrad courses were a great grounding in all aspects of film culture. Leaving college at that time, ’91, was a tough transition. Access to the means to make films was very difficult, however I was fortunate to immediately get a commission from Canal Plus in France for recent graduates of European Film Schools...although this did become my first experience of “development hell”!

Since then I've had what you might describe as a portfolio career combining participative work with corporates, commissions, television and more grant aided work. Throughout this there is constant learning as no one project is the same and quite often it involves working with different technology.

How did the idea for the film come about? Was it difficult to get off the ground? 

Having been a huge fan, I had initially asked Alasdair to do a voice over for a short experimental work that had been shot on a wind up 16mm camera and edited on a on old steinbeck. I was quite surprised when he agreed. After chatting further and showing him some other projects I had made, he asked me to document the refurbishment of a mural he was doing in a private flat in the West End. This film, Unlikely Murals Mostly, was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA. After that I continued documenting work that Alasdair was doing and we kept up the contact. We had talked about this being a longer piece of work and that was always in the back of my thinking, but I thought maybe over a couple of years...not as many as it turned out.

Very few artists are willing to give filmmakers access to their world for such an extended period of time, why do you think Alasdair Gray was so open to this?

I think Alasdair is very concerned with his legacy and a film or tv programme is another platform through which that can be secured. Also as a public artist he has repeatedly had the experience of seeing his work destroyed - a very early film made in the BBC is the only record of the murals from the 50’s and 60’s. I think this is the main reason Alasdair invited me back and was ok with me hanging about for such a time.

How did you cope with the sheer volume of material you had to edit down and work into the finished film? Did you edit as you went along? 

In terms of editing, there have been a number of outcomes with a films for STV and BBC and a bit of that was refunctioned for the longer film. However for the most part I worked in probably quite a traditional way of building up long sequences of the material and then editing it back and rearranging, then going back and refining sequences. There was also a couple of work in progress screenings which allowed me the opportunity of seeing the film with fairly substantial audiences which offered a great insight into how the film was playing out. The music was commissioned fairly late in the process so there was another stage of collaboration where the film changed again.

    How did you and Scott Twynholm end up working together on the film’s soundtrack? 

    This was probably one of the trickiest parts of the process as I had initially started editing with existing tracks and had even done one of the work in progress screenings in this state. So it’s easy to get attached to a particular track in these circumstances and a bit of a challenge for the composer to shift that mindset. Hopscotch, who produced the final film and an earlier BBC film, had access to a lot of composers reels and there is an amazing diversity of talent making soundtracks.

    Scott was suggested by another producer at Hopscotch and on hearing some work he was doing for a film for BBC Alba it became immediately apparent that he was inventive and ambitious in a way that would work with what I liked to think I was doing. On further listening and discussion it became clear that Scott had lots of ideas that would add another level of depth to the film such as sampling Alasdair’s voice and creating music that follows the cadences of his voice. 

    What do you hope audiences in Aberfeldy, Helmsdale and Orkney take away from seeing the film this month?

    I did do a screening at the Sheffield Film Festival where a woman came up to me at the end and said “It made me proud to be human!” I don’t think I could have hoped for a better response than that. So I hope people feel inspired by the film and inspired by the creative way that Alasdair has responded to set backs - personal and in terms of his career - that have beset him.

    As we've had support from Film Hub Scotland, I'm able to travel with the film and do Q and A’s with the screenings. The response to these so far has been great and the film has inspired some really interesting discussions along the way.

    Alasdair Gray: A Life in Progress - March Tour Dates

    15 March - Birks Cinema, Aberfeldy
    19 March - Timespan, Helmsdale
    21 March - Pickaquoy Centre, Orkney

    What’s next for Kevin Cameron the filmmaker?

    At the moment I am doing a number of participative projects and developing some ideas with a view to longer works. It is a whole different entity from short works and demands a particular kind of focus so it’s not something you commit to lightly! And competition for funding is fierce so, as with any creative endevor, all this is framed by the need to make an income...shockingly when I first started talking to Alasdair about this work my daughter was six weeks old, now she is 16 and a half and has two younger brothers. I think my family has been quite patient with me during this time - especially during the latter intense periods of editing!

    More info 

    For more information on Alasdair Gray: A Life in Progress visit alifeinprogress.co.uk. Stay up to date with the project on Facebook here. Follow Kevin Cameron on Twitter @KPCameroon and find out more about his work at kevincameron.co.uk.

    Scott Twynholm's soundtrack received a special edition vinyl release in January 2015 and is available to purchase now through De-Fence Records.  

    Alasdair Gray: A Life in Progress was produced by Hopscotch Films and supported through Creative Scotland's Film and Television funding programme

    This article was published on 11 Mar 2015