The Grey Area - Q+A With Producer Garry Torrance
"A young rapper, a burnt-out addict and a teenage misfit each struggle to overcome the consequences of gang violence and drugs in present day Edinburgh."
The Grey Area recently screened as one of the flagship opening programs on the new BBC Scotland Channel. It's a fantastic, raw and hard hitting drama from acclaimed Scottish director Garry Fraser and Producer/Cinematographer Garry Torrance.
Garry has been a great friend to us over the years, most notably acting as cinematographer on two of our features Big Gold Dream and Teenage Superstars. He also had kindly updated us on the progress of this new drama during the production, which we found fascinating.
We decided to have a chat with Garry Torrance about the background to The Grey Area as it may be useful for anyone wishing to try something similar.
Q: Tell us a little about what The Grey Area is.
GT The Grey Area is a fictional serial drama for TV, we like to describe it as a crime drama with a social conscience. One hour-long episode has been produced and released and we have more episodes in development.
Q: How did you get involved with Garry Fraser, and was it always intended to be for the BBC?
GT Director Garry Fraser started developing the project a few years ago by running weekly drama workshops, inviting people from the local community to attend. The idea was to develop characters collaboratively with the participants and have a writer devise storylines for a web series. Garry Fraser got pulled away to work on T2 Trainspotting for a few months, which led to him getting a lot of positive publicity – after mentioning the Grey Area in media interviews, describing it as a web series in development, he was invited to a meeting with the BBC The Social team to see if they could get involved. At that point there was no producer or writer onboard so I volunteered to step into those roles and write a short screenplay based on Garry’s story ideas to take to the meeting. This was well received and after a few more meetings we had a commission to produce it on a micro-budget as 5 x 10min episodes with Garry Fraser as director, myself as producer and the two of us as co-writers. We formed Pixel Riddims Ltd to be the production company for the purposes of making the film.
Q: I think people would be interested in how you took it from the shorts to being one of the opening week highlights of the new channel. How did you manage this? Was there a commissioning process? How much input or control did they have over the final piece? And how was it funded?
GT After supplying the 5x10mins rough cut we immediately pitched a sixth episode, our intention being to make it available as a one-hour drama for TV. This went ahead and the one-hour cut was picked up for the new BBC Scotland channel, allowing us to do a proper grade and dubbing mix. It was a bit of a drawn-out process: I felt we didn’t have the credentials at the beginning to get a broadcast tv commission on a bigger budget so we had to start small, prove the concept and ‘grow’ the project into its current form. There were many moments when I doubted whether it would work out but in retrospect it seems that it was the right strategy.
Q: From working on a number of independent productions how different was the process of dealing with a large organization with such a history? Was it intimidating for you to be able to try and get your voice heard?
GT I couldn’t say it ever felt intimidating, we generally found the BBC to be supportive, most of the script notes we got were useful but we were able to speak up for the things we felt strongly about. I don’t know the details of what conversations took place behind closed doors, I do get the sense that our supporters within the BBC had to push hard to make the project happen. I think we were lucky to work with people who understood what we were trying to do and shared our desire to bring something fresh, relevant and a little bit dangerous to the screens.
Q: Your background is as a cinematographer – which you were on this too– but you mainly served as the producer. That is quite a jump. Was it a necessity or is this something you always wanted to do?
GT When the BBC opportunity presented itself, Garry Fraser and I wanted to move forward quickly and I felt comfortable that I could handle the producer role. It was tough, a huge amount of work and a massive learning experience but I enjoyed the challenge and it’s an amazing feeling to see it through to the launch last week. We worked with a great line producer, Andy Maas, who basically ran the production during the actual shoot so that I could stay behind the camera. I didn’t feel there was a conflict with my cinematography role, but there was a lot to mentally juggle at times.
Q: What advice can you offer for emerging producers, especially those based in Scotland wishing to do something similar?
GT All I can say is just produce bold work that you would be proud of if you were looking back on your life from your deathbed. Life’s too short to make bland films. And learn about writing and story structure: even if you don’t intend to write, you need to be able to talk in depth about story with the writer, director, execs, etc.
Q: There has been a lot of positive and negative criticism about the direction of this new channel. Do you think it offers new doors and opportunities for Scottish based filmmakers which were often previously seen as closed?
GT I definitely do think that the new channel is opening doors for filmmakers, it certainly has for us. I’m not aware of all the criticisms against the new channel as I haven’t been bothered to read them but I am aware that established producers may feel that existing production models are threatened by the new channel’s smaller budgets and the new ‘digital’ commissioning briefs. However, the future of this industry depends on new talent and fresh voices, so for me it makes sense that broadcasters should have a wide range of commissioning briefs with tariffs ranging from big-budget down to nano-budget: such a framework creates opportunities for emerging filmmakers to get in the door and prove themselves and hopefully prove themselves and step up to bigger productions.
Q: What are your impressions of Scotland’s current independent filmmaking scene? In terms of problems/solutions/the future. It very much now seems like a far smaller divide or crossing of boundaries. Television and the cinema appear to have opened up to independent filmmakers.
GT It’s subjective, but I do feel that there is more activity and optimism among indie filmmakers now than there was say ten years ago. The DIY approach promoted by Tartan Features has been inspirational and recent home-grown films like Calibre and Outlaw King should inspire more filmmakers to think globally. The future looks bright to me.
Q: This film is both short form and long-form, very modern. The industry has moved on a long way in a very short time. The traditional 10 minute short was once the benchmark for emerging filmmakers. Is this still the case, where do you see the role of short films now that long form projects such as The Grey Area and micro-budget features have found some mainstream success?
GT I think short films are an important step for filmmakers learning their craft. The idea of spending years making shorts and sending them to festivals in the hope of winning prizes was never attractive to me but it is still a valid way for filmmakers to prove themselves and get noticed. I would say it’s very important to make at least a few shorts before attempting a feature: in the early stages it’s all about making mistakes and learning.
Q: What is next for you?
GT I’m currently writing more episodes of The Grey Area with Garry Fraser and also developing other story ideas for future projects.