The man shaking up the Edinburgh film festival

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The Edinburgh International Film Festival celebrates its sixty-fifth anniversary this year – but press describe it as being in ‘disarray’ and ‘living through turbulent times’. Dave Calhoun meets the new man in charge to find out what’s going on. Photography Scott Wishart

‘It’s a dream job, I’m still pinching myself in a way.’ James Mullighan looks calm enough. This 43-year-old Australian who previously ran the Shooting People website – a Gumtree for the film industry – was appointed producer of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) last December. The festival begins on June 15 and Mullighan announces his programme on May 17 – a programme, which, he says, will include fewer new features, no red-carpet events and no awards. This will be an experimental EIFF. Partly that’s because of necessity (the festival lost some funding last year) and partly because festivals need to do things differently in the digital age.

Has Mullighan secured his opening and closing night films yet? ‘No, not yet,’ he says. ‘Although I’d hope that if we were having this chat in 24 hours, the answer would be different.’ One hopes he’ll be able to persuade Tilda Swinton to pitch up with Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’, which Swinton produces and stars in. The film has its premiere at Cannes in May and is surely a perfect fit? Mullighan is staying tight-lipped.

Mullighan, who grew up in Adelaide, is in London to meet film companies. He is also on a mission to persuade people his festival won’t be the disaster it has seemed in recent months. Alongside his appointment in December, four months after his predecessor left, the festival announced that the filmmaker Mark Cousins would be in charge of the ‘artistic and creative vision’ for the festival, working alongside Swinton and former festival director Lynda Myles. Many agreed that this new approach sounded fresh and daring – if a little vague.

Then, earlier this month, the story changed again. Now, Mullighan was fully in charge, working with some of the ideas that Cousins, Swinton and Myles had drafted – but they had left the building. Cousins told The Scotsman: ‘I’ll be in the audience come June.’ What was going on?

‘I could have done without it,’ he says, looking at the publicist who sits in on our interview – always a sign something is up. ‘I have lots of other things to think about.’ The publicist refers me to their website. She wants to move on. Okay: what can Mullighan say to reassure those who think the festival is in trouble?

‘Well, we have lots of good titles in place,’ he begins. ‘There’s a strong core film programme that will be announced on May 17. We have lots of things that the EIFF has never done. I understand a perception of the festival could be that it hasn’t the funding it had or they didn’t appoint anyone until December. Why wouldn’t you conclude that it was a festival undergoing tough times? But we have a budget. It’s not that much reduced. We’ve got a good staff. I’ve got bright ideas. Just wait and see.’

In recent years, Edinburgh has had enthusiastic cinephiles at the helm. From 2002 to 2006, there was Shane Danielsen, also Australian, and then from 2006 to 2010 Glaswegian Hannah McGill. Both were critics turned curators, steeped in cinema, attending festivals and viewing hundreds of titles. Mullighan admits he isn’t that man. ‘I’m not an artistic director in the Hannah McGill, Shane Danielsen mould. I don’t  watch five films a day – well, I might do at the moment [as we close the programme]. I’m more of a creative director. I’m pulling the thing forward through change and collaboration.’

That’s why he’s sticking with some of Cousins, Swinton and Myles’s ideas to work with guest curators, such as Isabella Rossellini and Gus Van Sant. Should we expect more? ‘Yes, we approached people saying: “We’ve got this opportunity, we want your ideas.” So one guest curator says: “I love that British director, can we play some of his films?” But I don’t think there will be big headline guest curator names at the top of each page in the programme.’

Mullighan says that the festival will be more convivial. He won’t be using the faceless Cineworld multiplex and Edinburgh’s much-loved Cameo and Filmhouse cinemas remain venues. He’s also hired Teviot, the Edinburgh Student Union building that becomes the Gilded Balloon venue during the summer festival, to be a hub.

So, when audiences arrive in June, what changes will they notice? ‘There may be fewer premieres, but it won’t be smaller in terms of events with films at the core. People will notice a strong curatorial voice. It will be brainy, as Edinburgh should be: it’s the mind of the British industry. But it will be fun too. It will have its chin up a bit more. It’s had a tricky couple of years. We’re able to press reset and we have licence to experiment.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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