Edinburgh film maker Ken Petrie prepares for premiere of Enemy Within
TRINITY raised film producer Ken Petrie may only be 32 but already he has crammed more into his life than most will ever do.
From touring with Coldplay and Prince as their pyrotechnician to creating fart gags for Rab C Nesbitt, from blowing up cars on Taggart to working with Hollywood a-listers such as Brad Pitt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Ryan Reynolds and Channing Tatum, Petrie has done it all.
Not bad for an Edinburgh lad whose original dream was of being an RAF fighter pilot.
The former George Heriot’s pupil recalls, “I was a busy kid, seemed to do loads of stuff, and was in the RAF Cadets. I thought I might want to be a fighter pilot, once upon a time.”
A slight colour deficiency in his eyesight put paid to that ambition.
“I remember Wing Commander Brian J O’Kennedy saying to me, ‘It wouldn’t affect your operational capability but it is enough to rule you out the selection process’.”
It may seem a contradiction in terms, but with that dream in tatters, Petrie turned to his next love, movies, and today heads up his own Scottish-based production company, 27 Ten Productions.
This month, is a milestone in the company’s history, on 19 April Petrie’s first feature film, Enemy Within, premieres in Los Angeles, on Hawaii and in the UK via Amazon Prime.
He’s rightly excited by the prospect, but first there’s a chance to look back on his journey to this point - it all started at the age of 11 with an extra role in the Helena Bonham Carter and James Purefoy movie Women Talking Dirty.
“I don’t know if I want to tell you that,” he laughs.
“All I remember of the filming is being cold and bored down behind the King’s Wark on The Shore. I just had to kick a football off a wall until a guy came out and said, ‘This is ma house, why are you kicking a football off ma wall’, but suddenly, on that film set, I was seeing what it was all about.”
That spark was all the young Petrie needed and joining the National Youth Theatre’s technical classes at 15 cemented his interest.
On leaving school, he then did a technical degree at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
“The great thing about that was that you made costumes, painted and built sets, did lighting and sound, a bit of everything, and that is where I discovered pyrotechnics.”
It was as a pyrotechnician that Petrie first carved a career for himself in the film and TV industry.
“I’d done a lot of live work before that though,” he recalls. “I did Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture providing the canons and bangs and flashes at the end of it at the Usher Hall.
“Then I toured with rock acts for a while before I got into the film stuff, doing pyros for the likes of Coldplay.”
“There is nothing quite like standing at the side of the stage with one of the biggest bands in the world playing and seeing an instant reaction.”
He continues, “I was also booked to do the last Michael Jackson gigs before he died and toured with Prince on his last European tour - I even got a couple of his plectrums.”
A fan of the diminutive performer, Petrie cautions, “But you can’t be star struck in this industry because everyone is a professional doing their job.
“However, you definitely catch yourself at certain moments because you get such privileged access.
“I saw Prince do eight encores one night in Paris from the side of the stage.
“That’s when you become acutely aware you are watching somebody very special, but I still said ‘No’ to him when he asked for something that wasn’t possible because I needed a clear line of sight of him.”
Branching into TV, Petrie worked on programmes like Call the Midwife, Law & Order: UK, Casualty, River City and even The Paul O’Grady Show.
“People have public personas and work ones and the fun stars are the ones where there is no difference. Paul O’Grady was good fun,” he recalls, before going off at a tangent to reveal, “Interestingly, Taggarts could be harder to do than many big films because it’s the inconsequential effects nobody pays attention to that are the more dangerous.
“When you are blowing up a bus, everyone on set knows that ‘today we are blowing up a bus’, but when you’re just shooting one person amongst the melee of action, it kind of gets forgotten about. So the smaller things are almost riskier.”
Films quickly followed and Petrie found himself adding some of the more explosive scenes to movies like White House Down, World War Z and War Horse.
Recalling the stars he met along the way, he offers, “I did World War Z with Brad Pitt in Malta and Glasgow and he was a good guy.
“Channing Tatum was a very real guy too and Ryan Reynolds, when we were in Capetown, he liked to go for a drink at the weekend, so we’d hang out together.”
Leaving the world of pyrotechnics behind to become a film producer full time required a “leap of faith” admits Petrie, who has but one regret about leaving his old life behind.
“I had made my mind up that Whitehouse Down, with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, would be my last FX movie.
“So in 2012 I turned down blowing up the model unit of Skyfall Manor in the James Bond film Skyfall to produce my first short film, The History of Chance.
“In hindsight that seems mad because as an FX guy, the only thing I didn’t do was a Bond, but The History of Chance did quite well so I started my production company.
Two award-winning shorts followed, Bucket in 2014 and The Gift, a short about the day Elvis Presley got his first guitar, a year later.
“That did incredibly well, even made the Oscar long-list in 2016 for best live action short and had a theatrical release in Japan”, he says, Consequently, Enemy Within, became his third collaboration with writer and director Gabriel Robertson, who also wrote and directed Bucket and The Gift.
“Enemy Within is just this incredible true story about a Japanese pilot who crash lands on the tiny Hawaiian island of Niihau.
Initially met with traditional island hospitality, things change when the islanders learn he was returning from the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbour,” explains Petrie.
“It’s a very human story, he’s welcomed into the community, patched back to health, and then news of the attack filters through and everybody on the island does what they believe to be right, but ultimately opinions don’t align - some want to get him off the island, others don’t want that to happen.”
The film is released on 19 April but while audiences settle down for the premieres in Hawaii and Los Angeles, Petrie will be “sitting at home in Trinity hoping it all goes well”... and perhaps watching it on Amazon Prime.
So what’s next for the Hibs-loving producer?
“I’d love to produce a Bond movie,” he confesses. “I grew up on action and adventure movies, the Indiana Jones of this world, and we have a project that’s moving along quite quickly at the moment called Flashback, which is a high concept action thriller.
“It would be great if that was the next one.”
And if Brad Pitt turns out to be the star of Flashback (the actor Petrie would most like to work with), don’t forget, you read it here first.