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The Road Dance: A ‘little gem of a film’ about hope and grief in the Hebrides

Scene from The Road Dance
Scene from The Road Dance

Ahead of its UK cinema release, Michael Alexander speaks to the Chicago-based production team behind The Road Dance, a period drama based on the best-selling novel by Scots journalist John MacKay.

It’s 20 years since STV news presenter turned author John MacKay saw his acclaimed debut novel The Road Dance become a bestseller in his native Scotland.

Set on the Isle of Lewis where he has family and where he spent idyllic childhood summers, it’s a profound and powerful coming of age story set against the backdrop of the First World War.

Two decades after being published, the story is finally making its way to the big screen.

At its Edinburgh International Film Festival world premiere last August, the feature film staved off nearly 200 film and documentary submissions to win the coveted Audience Award, voted for by the viewing public.

Now, in an exclusive interview ahead of its cinematic release in the UK and Ireland on May 20, the film’s American producer Jim Kreutzer has spoken to The Courier about the opportunist phone call that led to the movie.

He also reveals that following this project and his production of the 2016 BAFTA Best Picture feature film “Tommy’s Honour”, which was set in 19th century St Andrews, he now regards Scotland as his “second home”.

Scottish and UK film industry

“During the five year build up for Tommy’s Honour, I knew how much I enjoyed making a film in Scotland, and winning a BAFTA for that was a big honour for me,” says Jim, who runs Chicago-based Sheridan Road Productions with his partner Maryilene Blondell.

Maryilene Blondell and Jim Kreutzer

“It created a situation where, instead of me calling people to make projects and ask for financing, people began calling me.

“But I chose not to make films in the States – I enjoyed the smallness and the fact people seemed to like each other in the UK.

“That’s not me saying people don’t like each other in the USA, but there’s a great deal of competition.

“By contrast the agents from London and Edinburgh all spoke very highly of each other rather than trying to be cut throat.”

A scene from The Road Dance

Jim decided he wanted to put the Tommy’s Honour team back together.

First, however, he needed to find another “Scottish project” that preferably didn’t involve golf.

As he searched, he came up with a couple of potential dramas, which didn’t lead anywhere.

Then, one day, he ran across The Road Dance by John MacKay on a website about Scottish novels.

Bought the book

“I bought the book online, read it, liked it and much as I did with Kevin Cook and Tommy’s Honour, I cold called John MacKay,” he says.

“I had no idea who John was at the time, that he was a news reader on STV.

“I said ‘listen I’m a two person operation here in the USA. I don’t option projects just for the sake of optioning projects. When I option I make the movie and get it done’.

“John being the gentleman that he has been all the way throughout this said ‘sure I believe you’ and came on board.”

Jim laughs when he discovered the “bonus” of John telling him he’d already written a script.

Describing him as “very much a gentleman” and “very humble” throughout the process, John didn’t ask for much other than for his son to play the bagpipes in the movie.

When Jim and Maryilene sat down with John to work through the original script, however, it quickly became apparent that changes would have to be made for any film to succeed.

“The book itself is very dark – much darker than The Road Dance movie,” explains Jim.

“Maryilene and I sent the book on to a publicist in London we worked with on Tommy. We sent the book onto Bob Last who was our producer on Tommy, and we had some opinions from these different people.

“Everyone said ‘look this is just too dark, you can’t make this movie and expect anybody to come out of here without feeling it’s time to go home and jump off a cliff’, figuratively speaking.

“So we began our task for the next two or three years of finding our direction for the script, and literally, we had 20+ versions of the script by four or five different writers.

John MacKay (centre) on the set of The Road Dance – filmed in the village where he has family roots

“John, again being very gracious because it was his book and his script, said ‘Jim I understand what you are trying to do here and I don’t know if I am the one because I’m too close to this project, to be the one to write the script’. He graciously stepped aside.”

Taking advantage of a promotional trip to the UK for Tommy’s Honour, Jim, a friend and an assistant had embarked upon a familiarisation trip to the Isle of Lewis.

There, they met John who gave them a tour of his ancestral village, adding to Jim’s determination that the project should succeed.

Choosing a writer

After going through the lengthy process of finding writers – and with the support of Uinta Productions who’d also worked on Tommy’s Honour – the production team found their man in the form of award-winning writer Richie Adams, who also went on to direct the film.

With a script that “walked a very thin line” between entertainment and telling a true story of infanticide, Jim suggests that Richie, as a male and someone who’d never been to Scotland, should not have been able to write it.

He “got the story”, however. After working closely with Maryilene who added a vitally important “woman’s perspective” to the screenplay, they settled on the final version.

“It was the story about the death of a baby,” says Jim, “and when you are dealing with a subject such as infanticide, it’s a very touchy subject and you have to be careful how you handle it.

Behind the scenes making The Road Dance

“You cannot offend the audience into disliking the heroine, which was the mother.

“We walked a very thin line between telling the true story – it was based on true events – yet at the same time making it entertaining and not so terribly dark and depressing that no one would want to see it.

“We balanced that for a while and eventually with Richie’s help we got through to the final version.

Richie threw his hat into the ring to direct it and we chose him.”

Filmed during lockdown

Filming took place on the Isle of Lewis during October/November 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 restrictions – and amid all weathers!

Maryilene, who understood the family-centric “small-ness” of Scotland through her parents’ roots on the Isle of Bute, worked hard behind the scenes to convince the people of Lewis that they were serious about the project and keeping islanders safe.

Everyone followed the rules and regulations and, despite one false positive, they did not have a single Covid-19 case.

Covid-19 precautions during the making of The Road Dance

John’s family actually grew up in the remote blackhouse village of Gearrannean that they shot in.

The project was a combination of John’s imagination and Richie’s interpretation of John’s imagination.

But the more Jim reflects on the finished movie, the more he understands how important it was to have a “female touch” from fellow producer Maryilene and director of photography Petra Korner.

The female-led plot handles female abuse issues comparable with today’s MeToo movement, even though the film was in motion long before the movement began.

Covid-19 precautions during the making of The Road Dance

“The female touch was crucial,” he says. “There’s a scene that involves the violation of a woman and a terrible incident and her reaction to it, pregnancy.

“There’s no way a man can ever understand that.

“John MacKay is as sensitive a man as I can imagine who wrote the story. But even he can’t bring a female perspective to the story. Maryilene was able to do that, so it was crucial that she was able to add a great deal to the project while she was there.”

Star Wars actress

Driven by the strength of the characters that make up the story, the choice of actors was also crucial, aided by Colin Jones who was also the casting director for Tommy’s Honour.

English actress Hermione Corfield, who played Tallissan Lintra in Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi, plays the lead role of Kirsty MacLeod.

Hermione Corfield stars in The Road Dance

The character dreams of a better life away from the isolation that suffocates her in her small village on her island.

Suppressing these aspirations is her lover Murdo Macaulay, played by The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power actor Will Fletcher.

In the film, he is conscripted for service in the First World War, soon to set off and fight alongside the other young men from the village.

A road dance is held in their honour the evening before they depart, and it’s on this fateful evening that Kirsty’s life takes a dramatic and tragic turn.

‘Innocence’ of characters

Writer and director Richie Adams says that after being presented with John MacKay’s novel, what intrigued him most against the reality of war-torn 1916 was the “innocence” of characters on a remote Scottish island.

He was fascinated by the idyllic yet Spartan life they led, the harsh seaside environment with its thick-walled stone habitations that deflected wind and cold, and of course the first love shared by Kirsty Macleod and Murdo Macaulay.

“I was captivated by the excitement and escape they found in stories and poetry,” he says.

Filming The Road Dance

“Their dream of a better life, perhaps in a place called America—and not suspecting the vile act that would come and tear Kirsty’s world apart.”

As a writer, his first job was to translate the rich story and characters John MacKay created in his novel into film.

But for him, directing is when those characters truly come to life, meeting the actors who will breathe life into each role, and them educating him on “back stories” they’ve created, informing every decision they’ll make throughout the story.

“I fondly recall my conversation with Hermione Corfield—the actress who would become ‘Kirsty’,” he adds.

“She said: ‘I think Kirsty keeps what happened to her a secret from those she loves, not out of shame but more to prevent them from carrying the burden that she has to – which is what makes her such a strong character.’ I knew then we were in good hands.

Filming The Road Dance

“I was further blown away by the rest of the cast assembled by Colin Jones—veterans like Mark Gatiss and Morven Christie, and newcomers such as Will Fletcher, who plays Murdo, and who I daresay will amaze people when they learn this is his first film.”

Richie says another character that will “truly mesmerize” audiences is the Isle of Lewis itself.

“My jaw dropped when I got off the plane and finally arrived at the humble blackhouse village that would be the film’s setting, juxtaposed against the Atlantic Ocean where it collides with the jagged coastline of the Outer Hebrides.”

Box office challenges

From the rise of streaming services to the impact of Covid-19, it’s been a challenging time for the cinema industry.

Jim Kreutzer is in no doubt that The Road Dance has an “uphill climb” at the box office.

They would never try and compete with the blockbuster franchise movies, and he thinks Parkland Pictures expectations for this film are “very realistic”.

Stunning scenery also stars in The Road Dance

On the other hand, he thinks this “little gem of a film” will attract a certain age of population who will appreciate it as a beautifully shot “nice escape” with a nice ending.

“Without giving a spoiler alert, there was a discussion at the end of this project on whether we wanted to end this on a sad note with everyone wiped out, dead,” says Jim.

“We chose the route we did because we felt the world is in a really rough place now and we wanted people to suspend their belief and just come out of there feeling better than when they went in.”

*The Road Dance is released in UK and Ireland cinemas by Parkland Pictures on May 20.

The Road Dance is released in TK and Ireland cinemas on May 20, 2022

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