The Scottish song heard around the world

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

“Sunshine on Leith” was a much-loved stage musical, featuring the songs of Scottish band The Proclaimers, that ran from 2007 to 2013. But when Dexter Fletcher signed on to direct the film adaptation of the musical, he had never seen it.

“People kept asking me what my feelings of the musical were, and how it compared to the movie and so on,” he tells The Japan Times, on a promotional visit to Tokyo. “Problem is, I honestly didn’t know. When I was first offered the directing job, the stage show wasn’t on anymore, and I didn’t want to watch the video version of it. So I went into it blindfolded, but with a clean slate and a fresh eye. I had to explain to everyone, over and over again: ‘No, haven’t seen it, no, I can’t compare the two, sorry,’ and on and on.”

Fletcher had, of course, done the research and stocked up on all the background information. It helped that he used to listen to The Proclaimers and “simply loved their music.” According to Fletcher, The Proclaimers (comprised of identical twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid) pulled off the feat of “touring the world and becoming Scotland’s most famous band with one song.”

The song is of course, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” — whose ardent and endearing lyrics took it to No. 1 slots around the world in 1988. It has since fueled the soundtracks of movies and TV dramas such as “Benny & Joon” (1993), “Grey’s Anatomy” and more recently, “The Angels’ Share” (2012).

“That song is the driving force behind this movie. It really stokes your desire for love and, in that way, it offers a timeless emotion because everyone wants love, or has the feeling of wanting to be with someone,” says Fletcher.

On another level, “Sunshine on Leith” is just as much a story about Edinburgh.

“Yes, the whole thing is, like, Edinburgh love!” says Fletcher with a laugh. Thought his own origins aren’t Scottish, (he was born in London) he says he has been to Edinburgh “many times, and loved it there, but I didn’t have the emotional ties of a director who grew up there. As it is, I went into the project with love, but without sentiment. Ultimately, I think that’s what worked for me.”

Fletcher added that he wanted audiences to see the movie and then think about spending their next vacation in Edinburgh.

“I wanted people to see the movie and then book a plane ticket. I think that’s one of the responses of a feel-good movie — you just want to be there, this instant!”

What might be surprising to some is that Fletcher only directed one film before “Sunshine on Leith,” — “Wild Bill” (2011) a film about a prisoner who heads home to a world of chaos. Rather than directing, Fletcher is better known for his acting, especially for his role as Soap in “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998). “Sunshine” marks his second shift to the other side of the camera, though he continues to work as an actor for British TV and cinema.

“Even when I was directing, I was thinking in terms of what an actor would want or how to shoot certain scenes to draw out the actor’s full abilities,” he says.

Fletcher’s long career and extensive connections helped him assemble a brilliant cast. “People in the UK were especially pleased that I got Jane Horrocks, who delivered a cannonball singing performance in ‘Little Voice.’ As soon as I discovered that the all the actors would be singing songs with no dubs or stunts, I asked Jane to come on board. In these situations, you have to get the best. When she said ‘Yes,’ I was so thrilled.”

Though “Sunshine on Leith” was almost completely penned by Stephen Greenhorn (who wrote the original stage musical), Fletcher managed to create a scene of his own, based around an experience he had in a Leith bar: “Before we started shooting I was down in Leith, in a quiet bar. I started singing ‘Sunshine on Leith’ and then the barman joined in. Pretty soon we were all singing together and the barman had tears in his eyes — the Scots become patriotic very quickly, just like that. ‘Sunshine on Leith’ does that to a Scot, they can’t help it.” By the time they finished singing, Fletcher had a new scene sketched out in his head and he approached the barman to see if he was interested in a bit role playing himself. “He appears in the scene where a boy proposes marriage to a girl in a bar. It’s a crucial scene and, as a barman, he came through as a perfect natural.”

Of all the heartfelt performances, Fletcher said that he was struck by the way Peter Mullan handled his role as a family man with a solid marriage, but haunted by an infidelity committed decades ago. “Peter is Scottish through and through so he has this inherent storytelling quality, just standing there, he can look like a man who has so much going on in his life. And maybe he’s made a few big mistakes, too. But Peter also has this ability to make us care about him. In spite of everything he may, or may not, have done, we want him to be OK. And that’s a talent every actor hankers for — we all want to be like that.”

Fletcher summed up that the mark of a successful film is that it stays with the audience like a memory of home.

“That way, everyone can take the movie wherever they go. Kind of like what Edinburgh means to everyone in the movie.”