Director Douglas Mackinnon, whose credits include “Doctor Who,” “Sherlock” and Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens,” still recalls the moment he realized that London was no longer the center of the universe in terms of U.K. film and high-end TV production.
He was in his native Scotland, where he was directing a few episodes of “Outlander,” when one of the show’s executives asked what he was planning to do next. “I said, ‘I’ll probably head off to London like usual and look for work.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’ve never been to London.”
“As someone whose entire life has been kind of run by London in one form or another […] the idea that an exec had never even been to London and was working on one of the biggest shows in the world,” he says. “I just went, alright, okay, that means we don’t have to go there anymore if we want to.”
“I kind of mentally crossed the Rubicon.”
Just six or seven years ago the idea would have been unthinkable. But today, Scotland is living through a film and TV boom, one that is also evident in the lineup at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which features two world premieres: documentary “Prince of Muck” and “The Road Dance.”
As for Mackinnon, alongside long-time collaborator Gaiman he will soon be working on two series simultaneously for Amazon, “Good Omens,” which is shooting in Bathgate, and “Anansi Boys,” which will be moving into Edinburgh’s brand-new First Stage Studio facility in Leith.
The studio, run by producer Bob Last (“The Illusionist”) and actor/director Jason Connery (son of Bond star Sean Connery), opened in March 2020 with funding from the Scottish government. It is currently hosting “The Rig,” another Amazon Prime production from first-time Scottish writer David Macpherson.
Meanwhile, “Outlander” continues to shoot at the 200,000 square feet Wardpark Studios, between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“Scotland’s kind of really accelerated in the last couple of years,” says Isabel Davis of Screen Scotland. “What we’re now seeing is, if you like, the constellation of facilities across what’s called the central belt of Scotland, the bit between Edinburgh and Glasgow.”
And with Amazon investing so heavily in Scottish production, rumors that its “Lord of the Ring” series is set to shoot in the country when it leaves New Zealand are also swirling. (Davis declined to comment on where the show might be heading in the U.K.).
Rosie Ellison, of Film Edinburgh, says Scotland’s production wave started with Disney. In 2017, the studio filmed “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame” back-to-back in Scotland (“Infinity War” in Edinburgh and “Endgame” in the Scottish Borders). “I think that really puts us on the map in terms of being able to accommodate massive productions,” says Ellison.
The House of Mouse was swiftly followed by Universal, who spent almost two weeks shooting “Fast & Furious 9” in the capital city. And with U.K. film and high-end TV production booming more generally (the BFI recorded a spend of £1.19 billion ($2.23 billion) for the final quarter of 2020, which is expected to be eclipsed in 2021), it’s no surprise that studios and streamers are looking beyond London and the South.
“Crew, locations, studios, money,” Ellison reels off as the reasons Scotland is attracting so much interest.
Davis agrees that “Scottish crews are second to none” and the country offers a plethora of locations – from Edinburgh’s gothic streets to Glasgow’s gritty tower blocks to the Highlands’ glorious vistas – as well as a host of studio space, including the recent redevelopment of Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall to house a new £12 million production city, which has just hosted high-end prison drama “Screw.”
“Our locations are incredibly versatile, and we can double for huge numbers of landscapes for further afield and indeed countries around the world,” says Davis.
As if to underscore her point, crews for both “Good Omens” and “Anansi Boys” are constructing London sets in their respective studios. “We’re building Soho in Bathgate and we’re building Brixton in Leith,” says Mackinnon.
Scotland also benefits from the U.K.’s generous tax relief as well as providing its own finance via a local talent production fund and a production growth fund.
For Davis, the goal now is as much to nurture Scotland’s creative talent in addition to facilitating outside productions. “We know that Scotland has the creative firepower to be originating its own work,” she says. “And that’s the part of the economy that we want to see side by side with the flourishing service industry.”