Published: 06/12/2013 14:04 - Updated: 06/12/2013 19:11

Cromarty Filmfest: James Mavor QnA

Screenwriter James Mavor - one of the weekend's Cromarty Film Festival guests - is also programme leader of Screen Academy Scotland, the post graduate screenwriting course at Napier University in Edinburgh.

He has written for TV series such as Doctor Finlay - which won a BAFTA Scotland best series award - Redcap, The Bill and Monarch of the Glen. Also for TV were original dramas Split Second (1999) starring Clive Owen for BBC One and, for BBC Four, Reichenbach Falls (2007), an adaptation of Ian Rankin's short story. Another Rankin tale was adapted by James into the screenplay of last year's ITV Boxing Day film Doors Open, adapted from the best-selling art robbery novel and starring Stephen Fry. James's current work includes The Pro, a TV comedy drama series about crime and golf in development with BBC Scotland and Jeff in Venice, a feature film adaptation of the work of Geoff Dyer. James is also the father of actress Freya Mavor who starred in movie Sunshine On Leith and TV dramas The White Queen and Skins. James is also the grandson of playwright James Bridie (his writing pseudonym) who worked briefly with Alfred Hitchcock on screenplays in the 40s.


1 Which is the movie above all others that you wish had your name on the screenwriting credits?

Adaptation by Charlie and Donald Kaufmann and Black Narcissus by Powell and Pressburger.


2 Which would be your best example of the screenplay from hell?

I’m not a fan of "scripted reality" shows like Made In Chelsea – it feels deeply manipulative and fake.


3 What is one the biggest myths in your opinion about the art of screenwriting?

That the screenwriter has no influence on the visual style of the film. For me, apart from structure, a screenplay is all about pace and tone: if you get those right, then everyone else involved will jump onboard to your vision.


4 As programme leader of the MA post graduate screenwriting course at Napier University, what would be your first golden rule/piece of advice for shining-eyed wannabe screenwriters?

Write five scripts. Chances are the fifth will be better than the first.

James Mavor wrote the script for Doors Open, the acclaimed ITV film adapted from an Ian Rankin short story.
James Mavor wrote the script for Doors Open, the acclaimed ITV film adapted from an Ian Rankin short story.

5 How did the chance to write the screenplay for Cromarty resident Ian Rankin’s Doors Open come about. I know Stephen Fry picked up the book at an airport, loved it and wanted to produce, star etc, but how did you get on board?

Ian and I dreamed up the idea of a Scottish heist movie in a coffee shop – a sort of Ocean's 11 with all the great Scottish male actors around at the moment – James McAvoy, Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Sean Connery – and some kind of heist plot. Ian being Ian, the next time I saw him two months later he had gone and written a novella from the idea which was being serialised in the New York Times. I felt I had first dibs on adapting it so when Stephen Fry picked it up (fancying himself in the ‘Sean Connery part’ of Professor Gissing, the high-minded art teacher who dreams up the idea to steal a bunch of his favourite paintings) I had to sell myself to him as the screenwriter. Tough job.


6 You’d already worked before with Ian Rankin on the TV version of his short story Reichenbach Falls in 2007 (first published in Edit the Edinburgh University alumni mag) and I gather the two of you have been working on a project to make Justified Sinner (Scottish classic James Hogg’s Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner) for the big screen on the go for a while. So A) How is progress on that one? and B) what is it like to work with Ian (think you were also at uni studying English possibly a year behind him…) and how did you first meet?

Ian and I met at Edinburgh University in the late 1970s and I published a magazine that printed some of his early poems. I have been blackmailing him ever since.

Our attempt to adapt Justified Sinner into a film has run aground–- and drove us slightly insane. I genuinely think that the book is cursed – like Tutankhamun’s tomb. Don’t go near it!


7 Have you been to the Cromarty Film Festival before? I know you are bringing some of your pupils’ work with you – what’s your pitch as to why we should definitely come and see that event!

I love Cromarty and the spirit of the film festival is totally admirable – much more friendly than Cannes. I hope to show some of our students’ best work from the past few years. We’re trying to create a national film school ethos and to train the next generation of film and TV talent.


Freya Mavor (bottom left) with Peter Mullan in Sunshine On Leith.
Freya Mavor (bottom left) with Peter Mullan in Sunshine On Leith.


8 Some people may not know that you are also the dad of Freya Mavor, film star of Sunshine On Leith and TV star of E4’s supercool drama Skins and BBC1’s The White Queen. What’s the best thing about being Freya’s dad?



9 Talking of family, I wondered if it felt inevitable as a youngster that you might end up working in drama or movies – and possibly medicine – as both your dad and grandad were doctors and writers. For those who don’t know, your grandad was playwright James Bridie who I believe was a co-founder of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and also worked on screenplays for some Alfred Hitchcock movies (including Under Capricorn). Your late dad Ronald was a theatre critic for The Scotsman and a director of the Scottish Arts Council. Was it inevitable that you would follow in their footsteps into an arts career … and were you ever tempted by medicine?

I think my grandfather’s experience of working with Alfred Hitchcock convinced him to stick to the theatre – a couple of lines of dialogue were all that survived from a year’s work on one film, I believe. I guess the family business aspect taught me that it was a tough career – I never knew my grandfather, but my dad wrote for a living for about 10 years before finding a more satisfying teaching job in Canada. I’ve followed him into that area too. It must all be in the genes ...


At Cromarty Film Festival tomorrow (Saturday, December 7) at 11.30am in Screen Academy Scotland Shorts James will present some of his past students' best work (at The Shed, Screen 3: U rated 90 minutes. James will be taking part in Adaptations For Television, a talk at 1.30pm on Saturday with Mairi Hedderwick, author of the Katie Morag stories and Lindy Cameron, executive producer of the Katie Morag TV series, on the joys and tribulations of adapting the written word to the moving image (Old Brewery Screen 2: 60 minutes).

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