Jesus shot in Glasgow
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Date: 25 February, 2004

Norman Stone. © Copyright Festival Films and 1A Productions


'This is not a religious film, it's a social film, it's a gangster film, which doesn't duck the issues. It's about a passion play and it very specifically involves God.'

Malcolm Doney meets Norman Stone, the director of Man Dancin'

Film maker Norman Stone is best known for directing the original TV version of Shadowlands, the story of the love between
C S Lewis and Joy Davidman, featuring Joss Ackland as Lewis.

It's said that Sir Richard Attenborough (who made the big screen version starring Anthony Hopkins for a budget 150 times the size) prefers Stone's relatively modest drama which is arguably truer to its subject.

Now he has made his first feature movie, Man Dancin', a kind of grittier, "See you, Jimmy!" homage to Jesus of Montreal set in modern-day Glasgow.

In the film, which went on selected cinema release on last Friday, Jimmy Kerrigan (played Alex Ferns, he who battered Little Mo in East Enders) is a Glasgow hard man released from jail. But Jimmy has changed and people don't know what to think.

His old crime boss, Donnie McGlone (James Cosmo) and corrupt police inspector, Walter Villers (Kenneth Cranham) harbour suspicions that Jimmy's out to set up on his own, threatening their inner-city empire.

Passion play

As part of Jimmy's probation he's press ganged into playing Jesus in a local Passion Play run by parish priest, Father Gabriel Flynn (Tom Georgeson). Very reluctant at first, Jimmy finally throws himself and a motley collection of prostitutes and chancers into the project, developing a personal and confrontational approach to the gospel which he takes to the streets.

But he remains entangled with his previous life and, in the conflict which results, themes of sacrifice and redemption are worked out.

Between Shadowlands and this Stone has made directed a raft of TV drama, including a number of the Miss Marple and Catherine Cookson series. However, the son and grandson of Calvinist preachers, who confesses candidly "God is at the centre of my life," is never happier than when God is at the centre of his work.

In 2001 he directed the award-winning series of 15-minute dramas for BBC religion Easter Tales, after which the BBC suggested that, rather than do a second series of short films, they amalgamate the budget for an hour's drama.

Stone wrote an outline for what was to become Man Dancin' but the BBC took the project no further. So Stone teamed up with screenwriter Sergio Casci with whom he'd worked on Easter Tales, (interestingly Casci would not describe himself as a believer) to make this adventurously low budget feature off his own bat.

Stone is cagey about exactly how much the film cost but it was closer to six figures than the usual eight or nine. Man Dancin' was nominated for Best British Feature at Raindance Film Festival.

Top: Tom Georgeson, left, with Alex Ferns
Above: James Cosmo, left, with Kenneth Cranagh. © Copyright Festival Films and 1A Productions

How do you think the
reviewers will react?

"I'm braced for a broad criticism from one or two sources. It's not an art house film or a festival film, it dares to talk about God without flinching. That is going to be anathema to some critics because they're not used to having God on their patch.

"People may not realise what the budget for this film was and the limits we made it under. I do know the budget it was made for and I'm not afraid of mentioning God as an ordinary subject of conversation. I'm 'gung-ho' about it, and I think it works.

"The public seems to think it works very well already. We've had spontaneous applause at test screenings which is very gratifying. Empire gave it a bit of a doing, OK magazine gave it three stars. It's the audience I'm aiming for. I don't think it will please certain trendy critics.

"It doesn't fit with the chattering classes point of view, it's not 'p.c.' [politically correct], which is wonderful because I don't think Christianity should be 'p.c.' This is not a religious film, it's a social film, it's a gangster film, which doesn't duck the issues. It's about a passion play and it very specifically involves God."

Will people make a connection between this and the Mel Gibson, film The Passion of the Christ?
"I've said to the people who work with him, consider this the aperitif. You can do the main meal."

What motivated you make the movie?
"When the BBC passed on it I was angry, and I thought 'I'm not going to let this idea go, I'll expand it'. Sergio and I worked on it together, got a script together and then went out to raise money. Slowly, inch by inch, penny by penny the money came in."

What made you think you could make a decent film for so little money?
"The actor James Cosmo, who's been a friend of mine for some years phoned me a few summers ago. He said, 'Norman you've got to come down and see this film I'm working on'. I asked the director what the budget was, and he said £350,000 I didn't believe him.

"That night, when I saw the rushes, I saw Vermeers, Dutch genre art, I saw Rembrandt - stunningly good stuff, all done without lights. He said the lenses are so good and the stock is so good you don't need that any more. Can you imagine the freedom of not having actors trip over cables and waiting two hours for the turn-round of all the lights?

"I was very impressed, and began to think about it. I also did a drama with Victor Lewis-Smith called Play in a Week which was shot live and that broke a lot of the old hallowed rules. Looking back at the Easter Tales I'd made those for less than the price of a local television documentary, with quality stars and they'd won all these awards, so I knew things had changed.

"Man Dancin' took just weeks to shoot which is going very fast. It's made film into a cottage industry again, if you know what you're doing."

You started life as a cartoonist _ is there an element of caricature in your work?
"In this film I have used broad brush strokes. I don't think it's caricature, but it is very much to do with storytelling. When I tell stories be it to adults or children, I animate things, there's a certain 'wallop' about what you do. And so, while there's some wonderfully subtle performers and lots of layers, this is right on the street corner saying, 'listen, let me tell you a story'.

"I love telling stories and there are three elements, audience, communication and entertainment which (though my higher-minded film colleagues don't go for them) I embrace fully, because that is good story telling."

You're the son of a preacher man…
"Who was himself the son of a preacher man."

Have you taken on the mantle?
"No. My grandfather and my father were preacher evangelist pastors. They had all of those gifts. I don't consider myself to be called to be any of those three. My other grandfather on my mother's side sat me on his knee and told me stories, and I've loved storytelling ever since.

"But I am a Christian and that gives me a perspective on the world and life and if something comes across my bows as it often does because it's the centre of my life than I'll touch on it.

"I think I have a gift for telling stories and making films and I will happily tell anyone about the Lord Jesus Christ if they ask me. My prime objective with this, as it has been in all my other films, has been to make a truthful, powerful, entertaining, really-glad-I've-seen-it, even life-changing film.

"The writer Murray Watts once said: 'I think in film and television we've got the opportunity to make people feel so much they can't help but think.' That's as close as I've got to a definition of what I do and why I do it. This could be about a lot of issues, political issues family issues, it could be about humanity and it can certainly be about faith because all these things are part of our existence."

Your next movie?
The working title of my next low-budget feature is The Power. It's set two years in the future where a SARS like virus has taken over the world. Countries hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.

International travel is cut back and it's a very paranoid society. It's The 39 Steps meets Outbreak, with a touch of Three Days of the Condor. It's a big attack at the pharmaceutical companies in this country. We're in a very dangerous place when pharmaceutical companies are in charge of research.

"There's something the reps say among themselves: 'What's worse than a patient dying from your drugs? It's a patient getting better.' We are their cows waiting to be milked and it annoys me intensely."