Bill Forsyth: The reluctant father of Gregory’s Girl

The Times

February 6, 2008


It is his best-known and best-loved work but Bill Forsyth, the writer and director of Gregory’s Girl, doesn’t own a copy, and doesn’t want to. “I’ve always said, as far as I’m concerned once you’ve made a movie, it’s the kid that’s left home,” he says plainly. “I used to say, if I saw one of my movies walking down the street, I wouldn’t cross the road to say hello.”

The genesis and legacy of Gregory’s Girl is far removed from the sweetness we associate with it, even if that sweetness flowed directly from Forsyth himself. It did lead to great things for him, and then it all went wrong. Or seemed to. What happened to his once blazing star? Why does he seem so happy to see it extinguished?

Gregory’s Girl was a calculated movie on Forsyth’s part. He knew which buttons to press: “young love and football”, as he puts it. But those lovely touches, I suggest: the boy in the penguin suit, Clare Grogan looking cute in a beret (or “berry” as the gangly John Gordon Sinclair calls  it)… Forsyth says he wanted it to be a calling card, a ticket to bigger films with bigger budgets. “Sorry if it bursts your bubble,” says the director, now 61 and attractively rumpled.

It is a teenage love story stripped of sentiment, in which the boy gets the girl but not the girl he thought, and we thought, he wanted. It is a low-budget curio set in a bare-looking new town, Cumbernauld. It is chippy. It has strange little scenes: a garden full of crying babies, and Gregory and his eventual “girl” lying on the grass as the Earth magically tilts.

“The truth,” Forsyth adds forcefully, “is that when I was directing I always felt like I was killing the script, never bringing it alive.”

But Gregory’s Girl fizzes with life, I say. “Sure,” Forsyth says dismissively, before talking about “the compromises” any director makes, as with the rain that changed the colour of the football pitch at inopportune moments during the filming of Gregory’s Girl. He had been making promotional films about Scottish industry. “We thought they were masterpieces and some Hollywood studio would see them and say: ‘You are the guys for our next picture’. I put my heart and soul into them. Gregory’s Girl was an act of desperation. I was in my early thirties. It was a last roll of the dice. I had never worked with actors before.”

Indeed, Forsyth is pretty people-phobic, although he rejects being called a recluse. As a boy, growing up around Glasgow’s docks where his father once worked before becoming a grocer, he recalls hiding in his room from the “Sunday visits” of aunties and relations. He was quiet and happiest in his own company. “There was nothing tormented or unhappy about it,” he insists. He read a lot, guided to Henry James and Camus by his best friend Stu. He hated teenage Saturday clubs, “where you’d be herded in to watch films, there was so much noise — I wasn’t hooked on movie-going at all.” He and his pals would enact books such as Just William.

He wanted to be a journalist. “I wasn’t sure what it meant. But we were part of that first generation to envisage breaking away from where we’d been bought up.” At 17 he saw an advertisement for a lad required for a film company. He had no great love of film, but “it felt glamorous and cool and interesting. I had this image of crewcuts, baggy trousers, cameras and jazz music”.

In his early twenties he and Stu — who had applied for the same job and hadn’t got it, “which I still feel guilty about” — started going to art-house films. “He took me to my first Godard, Pierrot le Fou, which blew me out of the water. It was another language, a real language. Watching it moved me in every meaning of that word. After it finished, Stu and I were walking down the street smoking our Gauloises” — he cackles — “and I was waiting for him to say something ’cos I looked up to him. We turned the corner next to the bus stop, he blew out the smoke from his nostrils, and said: ‘F***ing great, wasn’t it?’ ”

In 1977, Forsyth started sitting in on workshops at the Glasgow Youth Theatre. The children began get- ting suspicious of the quiet bloke at the back who never said anything. So Forsyth sum- moned up the courage to speak to them, “a breakthrough for me”.

Their first collaboration was the cheap-as-chips feature That Sinking Feeling. “The reason I worked with teenagers is that they were cheaper to work with. I thought it would be easier, too, rather than having grown-up professionals [only Dee Hepburn, Dorothy, had real acting experience in Gregory’s Girl]. They didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. But I discussed their parts with them in the same way as I came to discussing adult parts with adults and they demanded exactly the same as adult actors. It was a big lesson.”

Maybe the film’s uniqueness is down to those self-possessed kids. “I don’t know how to make a conventional film,” Forsyth says. “There are no surfaces to Gregory’s Girl. Maybe that’s why it disarms people. I don’t buy into that kind of audience-driven cinema.”

The story “wrote itself”, he says. He had originally planned to make it on 16mm film for £29,000 but ended up with £200,000 and shooting on 35mm. “There were five million people living in Scotland who had rarely seen their lives on the cinema screen, and I figured if only half of them saw it, and paid two quid a ticket, that was still £5 million.” The new-town setting was deliberate. “I wanted a backdrop where nothing was touched or old.”

Forsyth immediately hated directing: it was “time-consuming” and, of course, it involved people. “I couldn’t deal with more than three people in a scene at any one time,” he says. The boy in the penguin suit came from watching someone at Abronhill High school, where the film was shot, carrying a papier-mâché head down a corridor “and no one batting an eyelid; a school is a place where anything can happen.” It was nothing special, “I was just recording their acting. I didn’t have any cinematic ambition. It was an attempt to make a film I thought people might want to see, and quite divorced from the films I imagined myself making.”

Forsyth’s next two films, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, were critically hailed successes. “Bigger budgets were nice but I didn’t want to disappear to Hollywood,” he says. The wheels came off with Being Human, a Warners-backed effort starring Robin Williams that never received a theatrical release. Today he says “that was me trying to work Hollywood” and that we shouldn’t perceive it as a failure.

“I was most interested in writing scripts. That film would have been ten times better had someone else directed it,” he says. “Of all the films that’s the one I thought I was killing most when filming.” Why? “The idea of sitting in a dark room with 200 strangers and somehow being moved or transported by what happens on a screen . . . to me it’s like someone trying to get one over on me. I never wanted to impose that on anyone else.”

He was a director, then, that hated directing. Some said he was hard to work with, prone to paranoia. His onetime producer Lord Puttnam said he felt “desperately let down” by him. “I don’t remember being hard on crews or actors,” is all Forsyth will say. In 1999 came the sequel to Forsyth’s famous calling card, Gregory’s Two Girls. John Gordon Sinclair’s character was now a teacher. Critical reaction was decidedly mixed.

Silence has reigned for the last eight years. No films. No word of Forsyth. “I just write, live, have a nice life,” he says. He and his partner Moira have been together for five years and live in the Western Scottish countryside. They first went out in their early twenties before his marriage to Adrienne Atkinson with whom he has two children. He has written for HBO and is developing a British-based comedy with the American sitcom queen Caryn Mandabach. The public impression is things went very wrong for you, I say. “That’s strange. I don’t see that shape,” Forsyth says. “I don’t remember trip- ping up along the way. I just kept going. I have to put my hand on my heart and say I’m ten times happier not making films than making films.” he says. I did it ’cos they let me. It’s not something you decline.”

What if he was offered one to direct now? “No, absolutely not,” he says as if I’ve just offered him a vial of poison. His lowest point was “making films and not having the wherewithal to tell myself to quit.” His two children, Sam and Doone, are in their twenties. They are “infinitely more sociable” than their father and Doone may work in film.

The difference between a good movie and a bad one is “infinitesimal”, he claims. “I can’t stand the cinema. We did go once three or four years ago just to experience it. We went to a mall outside Glasgow and had a pretty horrendous experience.” What did he see? “I’m blush- ing,” he says, and he is, and he is laughing too. “Wedding Crashers,” he says. “We just wanted a night out. But the experience of being with the audience, the stench of popcorn. I objected to the way they were being manipulated, infantilised . . . The difference between an arthouse film and Wedding Crashers is minute. Then after the movie you’re herded out, a rat in a maze. Suddenly you’re in the car park.”

Two weeks after we meet, Forsyth sends me a lovely, funny, heartfelt letter from his sickbed. “A hot and sticky stupor does wonders for the memories,” he writes.

His love of cinema was once physical, he says — when he made his first films, Waterloo (1968) and Language (1969). “I was in love with film itself, the tangible stuff, the celluloid (the smell of it even), the magic it wrought through a projector, the images it could carry; and I loved the tactile experience of manipulating these images in the cutting room.”

The movies were artsy-sounding affairs about “time, distance and memory”. The screening of Waterloo led to a mass walkout, Forsyth recalls: “One person in the middle of a row would stand to leave and rather than adjust in their seats to let him exit, the whole row would file out before him. It was utterly thrilling. Terrifying too, but I loved it . . . We had literally moved an audience. I haven’t done so in such a thrilling way since.”

This was a “crossroads”, he says. “Either I would… spend the following decades tenaciously developing what was finally manifest as the gallery video-installation genre, or I’d make that slow backwards retreat into conventional cinema. We know what happened. To think that I might now have been the grand old man of international video art (probably with a pad in Berlin). Seriously, I don’t think I’d have relished that any more than my present perch as the retiring ploughman poet of Scottish cinema (living up a hill with some trout as neighbours), and with the one residing ambition of wanting to make people laugh.

“So, no regrets. At least I didn’t ever jump headlong into the commercial pool but studiously and cussedly patrolled just the margins. And thankfully I never did stop feeling like an outsider . . .

“You’ll appreciate that you have only yourself to blame for this letter. You prodded me awake in my cage, and being simply human, my first and only demand is to be understood.

Best wishes, Bill Forsyth.”