Interview with Hannah McGill, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival


It’s sunny and very warm in Edinburgh as I sit down with Hanna McGill, Artistic Director of  the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) she shares her knowledge of the industry, tells us about  this year’s selection, young filmmakers and the impact of the recent economy on the Festival.

Fab PollerHi Hannah, first of all could you tell us about this year’s selection and how do you go through the process of selecting the films?

Hanna McGill: Well a good part of year is spent travelling to different festivals around the world. We try to go not only to the obvious ones but we also attend the smaller festivals and try pick up films that haven’t done all the round yet.We also have a submission system so anybody can send a film through this channel between October and March. For this year’s festival we watched about  1500 features films and 2000 shorts!

we keep our eyes and ears open, and then we get in touch with the producer and filmmakers that we know, for instance  some of the films such as “The illusionist”has been made for 7 years, we  have known about these films for a long time and we go back and ask them “is it finished yet?” ….

I  also work with a team of programmers and we discuss and watch many movies and travel a lot . Then we end up with a massive list to narow down. It’s not always easy because we all know the festival very well, what the audience likes. Further to the process we start to notice films, from new directors and new things that emerge.

F P: Are there any films that you think should have made it through this year but for some reason, did not?

HmcG: That always happens! the main contributing factor is release strategy. So we might we see a film  that we love , say in Berlin or  in Sundance and  we go to the producer and they might decide it is too early  to premiere, they might say  “we haven’t got the materiel ready yet”. That is the side that is kind of hidden from the public. But it is part of the negotiation

FP: So do you have sometimes the case here where the directors come with an unfinished version of the film as it happens sometimes in Cannes for example?

HmcG: Yes we have shown films that aren’t in their final form, very often I  actually watch them in rough cuts. Sometimes in response to how audience react filmmakers change things a bit

FP: Looking at the selection this year there are film from the US, France, Iran, Germany do you think there is a universal theme that comes through?

HmcG: We always want to represent as many titles and country as possible … the thing that we really noticed is that this time out  of 100 films we have 80  that are from first or second time film makers.We really are looking at people who are at an early stage of their career and I think that gives a real freshness. It’s also a great opportunity for people who are stiil finding out what they are as filmmakers and can get some interesting feedback from the audience and meet people. In terms of the content of the films, we have all kind of themes.When we did our press launch we watched the clips we had and realized there were a lot punches and guns in them!!  but you can also find films that are really delicate, romantic etc..

FP: So you just mentioned  young directors and that lead us to my next question, I was going to ask you if there is a deliberate wish to  give exposure to young directors?

HmcG: Absolutely! yes! I think it’s a good festival to come to if  you are a bit inexperienced on the circuit, because it’s friendly, you can meet everybody, we are particularly good at looking after people who are not accustomed to big Festivals.

It’s also a fun and a social festival  where people can make friends. So I do think it suits new people. One of the things that is great this year is that we’ve also got some significant  figures from the past, from British films made in the 60’s and 70’s and to have them here as the same time as new and up and coming talents is great!. I think young directors are getting good at putting films together independantly. For example we had a young american director last year who was only  about 22!! These young directors are really clever and driven and they put the finance together themselves and so now  things don’t work they way they used to. People needed a lot of experience whereas now they get on with it and just do it! It has changed!

FP: I think it is even more commanding because it is hard to produce a film, even independant features. Getting the money  for these features when you are not very expericenced can be difficult!

HmcG: Yes you’re right but at same time  I would say making a film today is cheaper than it used to be, the equipment is more available and in some ways there are more channels to an audience. You also have ways for free self-marketing, social  networks etc..so in a funny kind of way although the climate is harsh you can do it . A lot of people are multi-skilled they’re editors and directors. In  in a way it is sad that they have to do everything themselve,  in economical terms that is a shame but at the same time there is something very inspirational about people getting on and doing it!

FP: The festival involves the audience thanks to the various event you organize: interviews, Q&A, etc.. Don’t you think that audience is often overlooked or neglected?

HmcG: Well..I  think it depends on what the focus of the Festival is.For example in Cannes, the main focus is the press and the industry it’s about  launching a films internationally, it gears towards international media and the Film Market is so huge there. But  for example Festivals like Sundance, I think are very conscious of their audience, they respond a lot to their audience. I think it is very important for a festival like ours which in terms of scale and capacity it  is relatively small. If you are going to bring the filmmakers and invest to have them here, it’s a great opportunity for them to have a dialogue and also I would say that we learn a lot from what the audience tells us. We are doing it for them and so they should feel that it belongs partly to them

FP: So you feel it is not too difficult to reconcile the idea of  showing “cinema d’auteurs” and more mainstream features.There is no resistance or objection from the audience

HmcG: I tend to think that the press and the indusry underestimate the public. They think people just want to be spoonfed and I don’t think that’s true and you really see that when you travel to international Festivals there is a really ready audience for different kind of films, different type of filmmaking!

The trouble with mass marketing is that they try to identify common denominators, but you can’t niche market every single person.I think audiences are very sophisticated, very informed and they also pay to watch the films! one thing I have learnt  about filmmaking  and the film industry, doing this job  is that….well, I believe less and less that there is just one driving creative force! Filmmaking is so naturally collaborative and the creative process brings in so many influences you do have one brain that pulls it all together but it’s not always the director, sometimes it’s a great producer, sometimes a great writer or cinematographer and one element of that that fits in is the audience. You can’t make a piece without thinking who it is going to communicate to otherwise you  might as well keep it to yourself, so I think audiences are part of the creative process.

FP: Can you tell us about “FeatureScotland”, what did prompt the initial idea?

HmcG: A couple of years ago the Scottish government decided that they should invest more in all the Festivals in Edinburgh and that was partly because there was a play  at the “Fringe Festival” called “Black Watch”  produced by the National  Theatre of Scotland.It was a play about the Scottish Black watch regiment in history and it really struck a chord. Everybody loved it!!

Our first Minister, Alex Salmond noted at this point the amazing response that the play received. It travelled to  New york and L.A .. and he basically said that the governement needed to invest more in the Festivals as a mean to promote Scotland. So we spoke a great deal to the governement to see how that would translate to our Festival because we can’t take a film and tour it internationally that is not what we do. We had to figure out what would be the equivalent. So  the government invested in the Festival and we were then able to bring foreign agents, primarily from United States to meet with scottish filmmakers, actors, writers, producers.

We have refined it this year so that filmmakers have a little more to do. We have identified with the help of ” Scottish Screen”, a  group of producers with projects and these projects are going to have an opportunity to be developed here in Edinburgh and the producers they are also going to travel to Berlin, London and Toronto and have meetings there and have their projects “mentored”. So it’s a really exciting initiative. It’s about helping them, getting them massive sales contacts and move their projects on.What can be difficult in a small country that does not have much production money is getting those people the experience that they need  so that they can have the confidence to go to the next level.

FP: How do you think the recent economy has affected the film industry in general and more particularly Film Festivals?

HmcG: Well it is a bit of a contradictory situation because in some ways film prosper because people go to cinema more during recessions.Cinema attendances were massive  last year  but they were partly massive because everybody went to see “Avatar” !!!

So while it is great in terms of numbers I am not sure how many of these attendances were for small films or British films. I think distributors are running quiet scared and worried about the sort of films that we screen, mid -level budget films.

Tiny budget films can do quiet well because they are not big international reap, blockbuster do well because they have huge marketing ressources, It is the ones in middle that suffer more. We are working less with distributors this year than we ever have! Most of our films don’t have a UK distribution deal so that makes a difference.  In terms of our own budget we were fortunate because we received funding, the UK film Council had invested with us for 3 years. Next year could be very difficult because we rely on a combination of  corporate support, public funding and revenue. Corporate support  and revenue should be ok but  as far as the public funding is concerned we don’t know yet!

We have taken the Festival to a lot of changes and  difficult economic circumstances before  and we survived, I am confident we can do it, but  it is defintely a bit worrying at the moment!

FP: Well let’s hope!!..

FP:  Getting it back  to the films selection, do you have any personal favorites? Are you allowed to share that with us?!!

HmcG: Well..I would say the closing night Film (“Third star”) the director, Hattie Dalton is a first time feature director. She won a Bafta for a short film! she is really talented!  The actors are wonderful!

FP:What did you think of “Dryland”?

HmcG: Oh yes! fabulous! they did a great job with that and I think it’s very brave for someone like America, who is a mainstream celebrity but  is using her power to be really creative and ask big questions! and she is real charmer!

FP: What struck me is the  the fact that you completely forget the character she usually portrays and she embraces this role beautifully and  almost disappears behind it in a way!

FP:What is your best and worse memory as the Artisitic Director of the Festival so far?!

HmcG: Seriously, I would say last night at The National Theatre was wonderful, great film!!. It was very exciting, I was really proud of everybody last night. To be honest after each festival I tend to forget.The bad memories are more related to things that change at the very last minute, or someone who is no longer able to come but I am quiet good at forgetting the pain!

Interview by Fab Poller

Picture: Fab Poller

1 Comment on Interview with Hannah McGill, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival

  1. Thanks Fab and congratulations for this great blog ! chris

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