Edinburgh 2019: ROBERT THE BRUCE Himself Angus MacFadyen and Director Richard Gray Discuss the Return of the Scottish King
Actor Angus MacFadyen got his break in Hollywood playing his country's favourite King, Robert the Bruce, in 1995 hit Braveheart. But while that film didn't end well for fellow Scottish hero William Wallace, The Bruce lived on, in life and in the mind of MacFadyen, who has worked on continuing the story for over twenty years.
Teaming up with director Richard Gray, the actor finally got to bring his vision to the screen. Robert the Bruce finds the fabled warrior at the lowest point of his life, on the run across the snowy Highlands after successive defeats to his armies. While recovering from his wounds in the care of an isolated family of crofters, The Bruce must find the resolve to get back on his feet and once again rally his people to fight for Scottish Independance.
Where better to Premiere the film than at Edinburgh International Film Festival, where director and star sat down to discuss the film's story and production, the timing of Outlaw King, plus Richard's work on a possible Audition remake...
Did the idea of continuing the story of Robert the Bruce grow and develop from when you played the character in BRAVEHEART?
Angus MacFadyen: Yeah, you know history didn’t end with the death of William Wallace. We had an on-going history, we had a king who took us to independence, and I wanted to tell that story for years. It just took a long time to tell it.
I also wanted to tell a story about a king, not with all the fame and the glory, this was a guy who had fallen from great heights, a man who had been stripped of everything, of his dignity, his soldiers, his wife, and his castles. He’s just this almost William Blakean figure who crawls into a cave to die, and in that cave something special happens to him.
He goes into that cave as European royalty but he comes out of it a Scottish king and that’s almost a very Celtic thing, that you go into a cave to die, a brooding, depressive quality that the Celts had which makes sense of that myth with the spider. He has a baptism of fire in there and that was the story I really wanted to tell, and then when he crawls out and is brought back to existence by this family of crofters who work the land under the most brutal conditions.
He really does become a man in this story and that, to me, is a really interesting way to tell it.
The story of Robert the Bruce and the spider has become a legend, a myth, and it works great as something passed down in story form, but was it something that was difficult to visualise for the screen?
Richard Gray: Well, Angus was adamant that any story about Robert the Bruce must have the story of the spider in the cave, but what we wanted to do was make it real. Where did these stories come from originally? What was the nucleus of that spider in the cave?
So we wanted to go realistic with it, we didn’t want it to be a Lord of the Rings type moment. It needed to be the slightest bit of hope he found and a sign from God that he needed to continue on, and that’s the way we tried to capture it.
Angus: He’s showing it very realistically, but in my mind, I’m hearing a talking spider and it’s talking to me and I’m just trying to go to sleep, the big sleep, but it’s the madness which is far more terrifying than death itself, he’s driven from the cave by that… whatever that impulse is.
Richard: By internalising the madness it feels more real to us and you don’t need to have a Charlotte’s Web spider, because he’s on the brink of death, and the only thing worse than death is madness. We rarely get to see him as the kind of king you expect in the movie.
When you think of Robert the Bruce it might be on top of a horse with an axe, but this shows the other side, what must be weighing on his shoulders, all those deaths, all those losses, that’s what we found interesting in the story and what we felt needed telling, because we hadn't see that before.
How much of this story was known and how difficult was it to walk the line between historical accuracy and dramatic license?
Angus: There’s very little known about the Bruce from the point he left his men to when he re-emerged. It’s a very Joseph Campbell mythology, so we’re following that blueprint in a way. I don’t like that idea of, “I’ll get some mud and stick it on my wounds and magically recover”. It’s freezing cold out there and that will kill you, so it’s hard to imagine someone didn't help him, and then we have this added conflict of these people who are going to die because they’re helping the king.
Richard: The idea of the highlanders helping him is entirely plausible that crofters will have taken him a in and given him aid. And we know now that in those medieval times winters were far more brutal and cold than they are now, they actually did have snows on those levels, so he will have needed help. Look at the ‘Beast from the east’ (a cold wave that hit Britain in 2018), which came in a year ago, which we were filming in. It was snowing, which made it so perfect for us and made the film look the way it needed to look, but much harder to film
Angus: It was brutal, it was our own baptism by fire, it was our own war we had to fight on a daily basis getting to set. On the second day we drove to set and what would take an hour was taking four and I actually thought, “My God, I’ve made it this far and it’s going to collapse, we’re not even going to get through the first week”. It was madness.
Richard: We were told we couldn't build these structures in the winter because the ground was frozen, so every set you see is not a set, it’s built with real rock, the church, the croft, the tavern, it’s all real, they’re still standing. There’s not a single studio shot in the film, and when you’re inside the croft it was colder than the outside, because they’re just stone buildings in the snow. And of course the actors had it the hardest because the filmmakers and crew have the clothes but the actors have the period costumes, the rags, so those children were phenomenal.
Angus: We drank such a lot of alcohol just to keep us warm and alive!
How did you feel when Outlaw King came out last year, and how did it affect the production?
Richard: Angus started writing this film over a decade ago and we knew what kind of film they were making, and we often said, “Why can there be only one film about this guy?” If you look at how many Macbeth’s there are, or how many Queen Elizabeth’s there are, or even how many Marvel Superhero films there are, well, we have the ‘old times’ super heroes.
The more stories we can have about these underappreciated Scottish legends, the better. And we knew how different our script was to what other people were doing, so if anything bringing awareness is a great thing, and they made a great film, but it’s completely different to ours
Angus: I was happy because it meant that there could be two films. The fact that they made that suddenly opened a wee portal, because then all of this opened up. Suddenly, from zero and nothing for twelve years and then 4 months later and we were shooting the film.
Richard: People were talking about the Bruce and we had The Bruce. The real one!
Producer Anna Hutchison did a movie with Angus in the UK, and he told her about the script and she just loved it. I had made a couple of films previously with Anna so she said, “Angus, do you mind if I get it to Richie? And I got it and was scared to read it because, you have to understand, as an Aussie I was 15 when Braveheart, came out, I had just started making short films and Mel Gibson was like a God in Australia at the time.
So, when I had the script I was scared to read it because what if it wasn’t good or what if I couldn't do it justice or find a way to make it happen. But when I read it, it was perfect because I know this type of movie, I’m interested in characters, and the development of characters, not necessarily 500 vs 500 on the battlefield, that isn’t where I’m coming from, so to find out that wasn't what Angus wanted either was exactly what got me excited.
One interesting side to the film is that Robert the Bruce is not fully supported by the Scottish people. There’s a brother vs brother element as the men who have thought and lost the Bruce’s battles turn against him.
Angus: Yes, it’s really a story of the clans, with the Scots divided because they’re being ruled over and fighting amongst each other. That is very much the story we’re in right now, we’re a very divided country at the moment.
Richie: There’s a line in the film “Scots vs Scots to what end?” Clans vs. clans is not something I’d seen in a movie, because it was always an English bad guy with Scots fighting for freedom but it was actually the situation within the country that was more interesting. The bad guy in the film is not a bad guy, he’s lost brothers to Robert’s wars. We loved having a bad guy that’s not a bad guy, that’s always more interesting.
How did you feel bringing the film home to Scotland?
Angus: This place is in my heart. You know, we all come back here to die in the end. My own parents travelled the world but they came back here, which is great for me because I get to come home and visit them all the time. That was exciting; we discussed it and said we have to open it in Edinburgh first, because it’s for the Scots. And we really wanted to open it in cinemas beause it's a communal experience.
I took this from Braveheart, when I saw that in the cinema, there were people weeping and standing up and shouting. The SMP (Scottish National Party) were really smart with this, they got out and handed out leafelts after the film, and it gave birth to the SMP which I think was a spent force at that time, and it brought them back to life. Within two years there was a Scottish parliament, that’s the power of a movie, it’s a cultural event. I was very inspired by that and this is the continuation of that inspiration.
Richie, I heard you’re making a remake of AUDITION…
Richie: I’m lucky enough to have a mentor in (producer) Mario Kassar, and when I started meeting him, you think about Rambo or Basic Instinct but I think about things like Chaplin or even his underrated remake of Lolita, and so just to sit around with him I would pick his brain and he’s been very helpful to me over the years. Audition is one of his favourite films of all time, so he’s got the rights to the remake and he asked whether I’d like to direct.
Well, you talk about the knives being out for trying to redo Braveheart, the real knives are going to be out when we try to redo Audition! So we’re trying to get the script perfect, and as you know from the story, it translates very well to the US, particularly in the current climate if you think about the casting couch and you think about what's going on in Hollywood at the moment. We just need to get it right.