Jonathan Melville : Spotlight on the west but Capital still shines

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There’s been panic on the streets of Glasgow this past week, with locals warned to avoid the city centre due to the presence of the walking dead and a whopping great film crew in George Square. Oh, and Brad Pitt.

Hollywood has come to Scotland in the shape of World War Z, the multi-million dollar film adaptation of the best-selling zombie novel, with Glasgow doubling as Philadelphia for 17 days.

It’s something of a coup for the city, one which promises to raise its profile for other film-makers. Edinburgh on the other hand seems to keeping its head down. We may have had Trainspotting, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Chariot’s of Fire in the past, but where are all the blockbusters?

“You’ve got two very different cities with Glasgow and Edinburgh,” says Belle Doyle, locations department manager at Creative Scotland. “While Glasgow can pass for an American city, there’s no way that Edinburgh can do that. Edinburgh can do medieval right up to Victorian and when those films are looking around they tend to come here. Budgets are tight and period drama is expensive, so they’ve perhaps been put aside just now.

“A lot of the time it depends on what’s popular at that moment, and this year it’s zombies.”

According to Ros Davis, film commissioner for Edinburgh Film Focus – the organisation that helps film crews coming to the city – the fact that World War Z is in Scotland at all is something worth celebrating. She says: “It helps reinforce the reputation of Scotland as a place where major Hollywood productions can film easily, which in the long term helps Edinburgh too.

“It’s very common for films to use stand-in locations, but the architecture has to be comparable. Glasgow’s unique selling point is that it can stand in for US cities due to its grid system layout.

“Meanwhile, Edinburgh frequently plays London and has also doubled Oxford and Paris, particularly in period productions because it is so easy to turn the clocks back due to our unspoilt Georgian architecture. But mostly Edinburgh plays itself as directors love the layers and vistas.”

One person who knows a lot about putting Edinburgh on screen is Lone Scherfig, the BAFTA-nominated director of 2009’s An Education, who this week brings her version of David Nicholls’ best-selling novel, One Day, to cinemas.

In the film, Edinburgh is the backdrop for a love affair between Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), as they meet each year on the same day after studying here at university. Cockburn Street, Victoria Street and Calton Hill all make an appearance.

When I ask Scherfig about her decision to film here, she’s in no doubt that Edinburgh belongs on the silver screen.

“I absolutely adore Edinburgh,” she says. “I’ve been there a few times and always long to go back. I love the architecture, which is truly cinematic. We could have saved money by deciding that Emma and Dexter met at a university closer to the film studios, but we decided against that.”

One recent Hollywood outing that isn’t worth shouting about is last year’s misfire, Burke & Hare. Directed by An American Werewolf in London’s John Landis and starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, this alleged comedy may deserve to be buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and forgotten about, but there’s no denying it raised Edinburgh’s profile around the world and brought in some money for locals working on the film.

Perhaps the biggest success for Edinburgh in the past few years has been a film which wasn’t even filmed here. The Illusionist, an animated feature about a down-at-heel stage magician arriving in 1950s Edinburgh to make his fortune, opened the 2010 Edinburgh International Film Festival and has become a favourite at local cinemas. This week it returns to the Filmhouse in Lothian Road for a fifth, sell-out run.

“It’s very unusual for a film to maintain attendances for so long in Edinburgh,” says programme manager James Rice. “People love seeing Edinburgh on the big screen.”

So while we may not have blockbusters, with our streets standing in for American ones, Edinburgh does get to be herself in front of audiences for generations to come. I’d suggest that makes Edinburgh a bigger movie star than Brad any day.

n One Day opens at cinemas on Thursday. The Illusionist is at Filmhouse until Thursday.