Following a decade’s worth of award-winning shorts, Glaswegian director Peter Mackie Burns made his fiction feature debut in 2017 with Daphne, a lauded character study concerning a pessimistic and hedonistic young woman (Emily Beecham) living in south London and undergoing an existential crisis after witnessing a stabbing. 

Second feature Rialto, supported by the BFI Film Fund, sees the director collaborating with writer Mark O’Halloran and heading to Dublin. Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) is a married dock worker with 2 teenage children. Still grieving the death of his destructive father, and with his job threatened by a recent takeover, he struggles to share his vulnerability with wife Clare (Monica Dolan). Where he finds solace, while threatening his family’s stability, is in his encounters and growing infatuation with Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), a 19-year-old who intermittently works in prostitution.

Speaking to us at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, Mackie Burns discussed his tips for second feature success.

What did you learn making Daphne that you applied to Rialto?

The main thing I learned is to find collaborators that you like and can work with. So, I worked with the same producers at The Bureau – Tristan Goligher and Valentina Brazzini, who are extraordinary – and Adam Scarth, the DoP. And also, the brilliant and hugely underrated sound designer, Joakim Sundström. He does Andrew Haigh’s films, Michael Winterbottom’s films, he did Notes on Blindness (2016), he works with the Quay brothers… an extraordinary range of projects that he loves. When you find a creative team that you like, keep them; that was the biggest lesson.

When doing your first feature film, it’s so stressful. Every decision is so important because you haven’t been working for 2 or 3 years to make the film, you’ve been working all of the time since you started watching movies. In my case, that was 38 years or something. It was a long time. And I don’t think, when going from your first to your second movie, you can carry that amount of existential anxiety. With your first movie, every moment, every decision means everything. It’s very easy to overthink that, but I don’t think as humans you could carry that around with you in a career. You’d probably have a heart attack and keel over with the stress. 

On Daphne, I worked with a really fantastic editor who said: “You get one go at your first film, so you have to make it what you want it to be. You don’t get another go at that.” So, I suppose you learn ways to make effective decisions that can make it better in ways that won’t kill you. You’ll die a thousand deaths but you won’t physically keel over with the anxiety.

How do you and director of photography Adam Scarth work together?

The way we worked on Daphne is we made a lens plot as an aesthetic approach to the film, so there’s a visual language and a rhythm in advance. On that, we used basically two lenses for 90 percent of the film, one being a 75mm because it replicates what a close-up looks like to the human eye, and a 40mm Cooke Prime lens is the least lens present – it feels like you are there watching it, rather than the camera watching it.

What we tend to do is we make an aesthetic set of criteria before we start to shoot. We decide everything, test everything, test the palette and decide the camera language. We’ll have planned what the lenses are for every scene for a reason.

We didn’t use the same language for Rialto [as in Daphne], but we used the same working practice, which is that when we got to the set, we’d do everything in advance. I don’t like to rehearse, I like to get the actors fresh, so if we plan the camera movement and position, then we don’t have to waste time on the set deciding how to do the scene – often we have a pretty good idea of how we’re going to do it. And we like to encourage the actors to move, to inhabit.

In Rialto, the camera moves a lot and we picked a system where there wouldn’t be an operator but the camera was operating to movements. We wanted to get close to the actors without the operator being close to them. So, we used a little robot to move the camera. The take would finish and instead of the operator or myself being close to the actors, it would be the camera. 

Rialto (2019)

We thought the actors would love this and we asked them and they said: “Oh, no, we always like the operator to be there because that’s the first point of contact after the take, the operator looking at you.” So, trying to be unobtrusive regarding the presence of people in the moment wasn’t helpful because the actors weren’t used to it. They’re used to someone standing at the edge of the frame, potentially even looking at them to support them. We planned that for a reason and that wasn’t connecting. We tested it with the actors and it didn’t quite work with them.

Maybe on the next project we’ll have a different approach, but we always try to make the grammar of the film in advance. We don’t like to find the grammar as we go because with budgets and time constraints, we don’t have the luxury.

Rialto and Daphne are both rich in terms of a sense of place. Is that of great interest to you?

I’m really interested in the urban experience. I’m interested in sociology, so I’m interested in how cities work. And I suppose being a former schoolboy Marxist – the Godard influence – got me looking into cities and how they work, how they don’t work, and how we rub up against each other. A sense of place is really important to me. My folks were in the army so we moved around a lot, every 3 years. I think I went to about 15 schools. Maybe not great for an education but good in terms of being a new person seeing things from afresh, from cities to small towns.

I think I used the cinema in a way to learn about the world. I’d look at Japan through movies and look at Almodóvar’s Madrid, Mike Leigh’s north London, Kiarostami’s Iran. What the hell is Iran like? I can’t really understand by reading about it, but I can imagine about it with a film set there that speaks to people or an idea.

  • Rialto, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema and Barbican Cinema On Demand from 2 October 2020