Donkeys is the debut feature from Scottish director Morag McKinnon. It tells the story of Alfred who on learning that he has a terminal illness decides to make amends with his estranged family. Heartfelt and poignant yet also very, very funny, Donkeys is a gem of a film that’s worth checking out. It’s currently on selected release across Scotland.

Morag talks to Central Station about the challenges of filmmaking, shooting in her favourite Glasgow locations and what advice she’d give to those trying to break into the industry.

Donkeys has been in production for a while. It’s recently had its first public screening at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and has had some great reviews, what’s the experience been like?

It’s been absolutely wonderful. The gestation has been long but I think that’s symptomatic of the tone which is quite a difficult thing to achieve, that flipping between comedy and tragedy. There was an edit and then a rest period and then another edit which I think did us a lot of good. Everything just took a bit longer and I think it’s quite a good lesson because there’s a realism about that, some things just take longer than others. I have to say the response has surpassed what I would have expected. We wanted to make a film with real heart and if that’s what people feel then I’m really chuffed.

What was the public reaction to the film at the Festival?

It was great. I was absolutely blown away because there were people laughing at things I really didn’t expect. We’ve never had a big, full public screening so I don’t think we really could anticipate what the reaction would be and that’s been a lovely, delightful surprise.

Some of the reviews go ‘great characters’ and one other review said they’re not interesting characters and I’m thinking I wonder if that’s because they’re everyday ordinary characters? Actually for me that’s the whole point because film shouldn’t just be about exceptional people. I get a wee bit obsessed with death because I think it makes us realise how important and brilliant and funny life is, and so that’s why there’s the whole death theme in it. We go into black subject matter but in a way that has warmth so you can deal with it. To me everyday life is like that so why shouldn’t we celebrate everyday life and everyday people and everyday concerns?

Lots of people have said that the film has a very Glaswegian sense of humour, do you agree?

I’m going to be diplomatic and say that it’s possibly a very Scottish humour because myself and the writer are East Coast people! There’s obviously a big West Coast element in it but I think there’s a Scottish sensibility within all that. We quite like our swearing and we don’t go out of our way to say nice things! And if we say nice things we usually do it in an insult, you know?! I think the root of the whole thing is truthful emotions and truthful feelings so I’m hoping that over and above everything else that it can play abroad.

Donkeys is the second part of the Advance Party trilogy of films, following on from Red Road and initially devised by Lars von Trier. The idea was that three films would all be made under a set of filmmaking ‘rules’. Tell me a bit more about that…

At this point in time I can’t remember all the rules!  There was… you have to shoot on HD, it has to be shot in Glasgow, there can’t be any flashbacks, it’s all got to be present tense, you’ve got to use the characters you’ve been given and the idea was to have the same actors in the same parts. But the thing is, when Red Road came up our script wasn’t in the same state of readiness and so the casting was slightly more angled to Red Road. So when our script was ready it showed us the demands on the characters and we had to think about who can really play this and can the people who are already cast do that? I think the funders, producers and myself really felt there was a necessity to re-think that because the characters have different demands and that’s why there’s different actors in those roles. It would have been great to have kept the rules but the whole project would have to have been done in a different way to enable us to. I think filmmakers quite like to break the rules!

Because I read that Lars Von Trier said, whilst they wanted to feature the same characters, it was ok if one of them even just passed by on a bus, is that right?

Yes he did say that, and I thought that was brilliant, he’s got a good sense of humour has old Lars!

Donkeys has a great cast of Scottish actors including James Cosmo, Kate Dickie, Martin Compston…

Brilliant cast, love them to bits. Not only are they wonderful actors but they are just a delight as human beings, they’re just gorgeous! The whole lot of them are a hoot. I was very blessed.

Tell me about the locations you chose – I think I spotted a couple I recognised. Did you shoot in Nice ‘n Sleazy’s [the Glasgow bar]?

Yes! Because they were very sympathetic to filmmaking and I’ve always loved that place. They used to have some really amazing wallpaper and I think they changed it just a little bit before but I still loved it. I just thought why has nobody shot in there before?

And also the café in the East End which has the sign ‘Glasgow’s Best Fish Supper’…

Yes, and did you know that the opera singer is the real owner? The reason that is in there is because the writer was on his way home one day and he walked past and he heard this amazing opera being sung and he just wrote it in [the script]. And I went in and said ‘Would you like to be in a film?’.

I love the look of that place, it’s original fifties and you just don’t get that very often; it’s real Glasgow. It’s great that Glasgow is being modernised and rebuilt but these little pockets of exquisite character are just so beautiful and that’s what I love about Glasgow.

Donkeys is your first feature film, what advice do you have for young filmmakers?

I was having a conversation with some producers before I came here and I’ve actually developed ten feature film scripts and got one made, so the ratio is 10:1. Not only that, it’s a very small pot of money that everybody is after. Years and years ago when I was a student I went to see a talk by a guy called Iain Smith who’s from Glasgow but has done massive things in Hollywood and he said there’s three things you need to make it in the film industry and that’s tenacity, tenacity and tenacity. And I think that’s true. I think if you work at it and you love film and you’re able to take the knocks then you’ll get there, but it’s in no way, shape or form easy but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try because if you love it you will keep going.

Donkeys is now showing in selected cinemas in Scotland, check out the film’s Facebook page for more details.