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Get to know ‘Too Rough’ producer Ross McKenzie

Ross McKenzie established the Edinburgh-based production company DEVIL MAY CARE ENTERTAINMENT in 2019 to produce original content, primarily feature films and television drama series, for the international market. Ross worked across development and production within the UK Screen industries, most recently at Screen Scotland where he was Executive Producer across a range of feature films, feature documentaries, and television series. Before joining Screen Scotland, Ross worked for companies including the BFI, Paramount, and Film London. He produced the 2011 BAFTA and BIFA nominated short film ‘Rite’ from writer/director Michael Pearce (‘Beast’). He is a graduate of Spain’s Media Business School and teaches production at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA).

What inspires you as a film producer?

I love working with new people, discovering new voices, and telling stories that try to make sense of the chaotic world we live in. Making a film is like entering a gauntlet – when you’re in there’s no turning back. It is terrifying and exhilarating. I’m driven as a producer because I love a challenge, and making films in the UK is nothing short of that.

Tell us about your background and what led you to become a film producer. 

When I started film school 20 years ago I wanted, like most people, to become a director. However, over time I fell naturally into producing – I found that facilitating the vision of other creatives was just as appealing and rewarding as creating writing and directing my own material. Plus I was far too neurotic and self-critical to write and direct at that time. Anyway, there is so much untapped talent out there but not nearly enough producers to support content actually getting made. I felt my energies were best put toward bridging that gap. When I produced Rite in 2010 and it went on to receive BAFTA and BIFA nominations, I knew I was on the right path. But I was also broke and living in London, so I gravitated towards paid work as an Executive where I was an Executive Producer and also oversaw talent development and animation for Screen Scotland. However, seeing all the incredible talent out there, I knew I had to get back to Producing while I still had the stamina to build a company from the ground up. So far I’m still on the path. 8 months in Covid struck and somehow I managed to survive – probably because I was a one-man band so only had myself to worry about!  

Where did the idea of Too Rough come from and how did you get involved with this project? 

Too Rough came from Sean’s own experience, which I believe gives the film authenticity and heart. I had a connection with Alfredo through the former Bellrock Screenwriting Workshops. Alfredo was a Script Mentor, Sean was his Mentee, and I oversaw the delivery of the programme for Screen Scotland. Sean was developing his first feature Nostophobia. When I left Screen Scotland to set up my production company Devil May Care, Bellrock was disbanded. Alfredo took on Nostophobia as Producer to keep the project alive, and he approached me to come on board as his producing partner. 

We knew before Sean embarked on his first feature that he needed to make another short film, and one of the ideas Sean brought to the table was Too Rough. We loved it as a concept and took it to Short Circuit, where it was selected by their Sharp Shorts programme from around 200 entries. Thankfully they saw in it what we did, and the film was eventually commissioned. 

Why is telling this story so important to you, and why is this short film relevant to our times? 

This film is important to me because it’s the first film I’ve produced in 10 years. My previous film Rite was also hugely successful, receiving BIFA and BAFTA Film Award nominations and launched the career of its director Michael Pearce. So on a personal level, I wanted my first film since returning to producing to achieve a similar level of success. I’m delighted to see it going in that direction, and I know Sean has the confidence and drive to go the distance as a filmmaker.

Too Rough is relevant to our times because despite homosexuality being so much more understood and accepted in our society compared to say 20 years ago, we still have a long way to go. Sean has always struck me as someone who is comfortable in his own skin and proud of his identity as a gay man. It would be easy to think he had always been accepted by those in his life. And so the fact that Nick’s story is in fact Sean’s own story was surprising to me and makes me realize how far we’ve yet to come as a society before we’re all treated as equals. 

What was the most challenging or unusual part about producing this film? What strategies did you have to have in place to make it happen?

Definitely, the most challenging and unusual (though less so now) part of producing this film was filmed during the height of Covid. We shot the film in January 2021, during a full lockdown, and it was a massive undertaking to make sure everyone felt safe but could also do their job. It was the first film I had shot in a while and the measures in place added a whole new set of challenges, with the threat of a Covid outbreak hanging over us constantly. Thankfully our funders gave us extra funding to cover the added costs. 

Also, the location was so small for a cast and crew of around 20 who had to be on set at any one time. And January in Scotland is freezing and very bleak! So on a practical level, keeping people indoors, 2 meters apart, and masked up at all times was almost impossible and just had to be managed as best as possible. On top of that, my producing partner Alfredo was stranded in Italy so he had to perform his part from overseas. 

Tell us about your producing style and the assets you bring to your projects. What is unique or unusual about it? What type of producer are you?

I am a creative producer and I was taught to respect talent and give them the space to be creative. Rather than enforcing my views, I try to ask questions and interrogate what the filmmaker wants to say and help them get there. I try to only get involved in projects where I have an authentic connection to the material. For me, I need to love a project in order to sell it to others and give it the energy it needs. After all, we sit with these projects for years and they become our children. 

I also come from a background as a Development Executive, so I’ve seen things from the other side of the table (as a commissioner). I have a strong sense of what financiers need and I can help filmmakers navigate those conversations without confusing or terrifying them. 

Talk to us about the theme(s) of this film and how you would like the audience to receive and/or interpret its message.  

Having a protected characteristic – whether that might relate to sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, or coming from poverty – can be incredibly isolating and has a deep impact on one’s mental health. Too Rough shows us we’re not alone, and that allowing people into our lives and taking a leap of faith can ultimately set us free. 

Nick fears his family discovering he’s gay, but he has also kept Charlie at arm’s length in fear that Charlie finds out the reality of the world he comes from. They are from a different social class, and Nick’s parents have problems with alcohol abuse, resulting in Nick’s younger brother being born with Autism and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. On this one fateful day, these two worlds collide creating the perfect storm. Charlie helps Nick navigate that, and over the course of one winter’s day we see their physical attraction grow into real love and affection. 

How has your short been received so far and what impact has it had in society and your career? 

The response to Too Rough has been incredible. On the one hand, I’m always cautious not to expect too much in fear of disappointment, but in my gut, I knew the short had the heart to go the distance and connect with audiences at home and around the world. Its themes are universal after all. Every time I watch the film I never tire of it – which is the true test of how I really feel about something. There’s so much warmth and personality in every frame, and it strikes the perfect balance of seriousness and lightheartedness. Fear/anxiety and tenderness. 

As the first film made through Devil May Care, I couldn’t have hoped for a better film to demonstrate my taste as a producer, the caliber of talent I seek to work with (including my co-producer Alfredo), and the quality of content my company aims to produce.  

This is a Scottish production qualified for an Oscar submission? What would it mean to Scotland to be nominated for an Oscar in the Live Action Short Film category? What would the impact be like? 

A Scottish short film being nominated for the Academy Award would be hugely impactful. There have been a number of Scottish winners over the years including Sir Sean Connery (1988) Peter Capaldi for his short film Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life in the 90’s; Annie Lennox (2003), Kevin Macdonald for One Day in September (2000) and probably most recently resident Scot Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton. However, we’ve had a few years break from being recognized, and being nominated in this category, in particular, would put the spotlight on Scotland as a country fostering creativity and talent. 

Tell us about working with director Sean Lìonadh. What is special about him and why did you want to work with him? Tell us about collaborating with him.

Sean pours his heart, personality, and conviction into his work, no matter what the genre. For me, that’s what makes him stand out as a filmmaker. His film Time for Love for the BBC went viral and spoke literally to millions (circa 16 million views) and when I was one of the selectors for the Bellrock Screenwriting Workshops, we chose to develop Sean’s feature concept Nostophobia based on its uniqueness, and the deeply personal story within. Too Rough was the same and it draws on similar themes – both have protagonists who feel they must protect their love by hiding it from the outside world, but ultimately need to accept that love needs to escape in order to survive and flourish. Both films also show how confronting our wounds from the past (and present) can help us move forwards. 

What’s next for you? Talk about your next project and where you’re at right now. 

Alfredo and I are developing Sean’s debut feature Nostophobia, which has received generous support from our national funding agency Screen Scotland and the British Film Institute (BFI Network) via their Short Circuit programme. Devil May Care also has a number of film and TV projects in development including the feature-length animation Roots from writer/director Simon P. Biggs, following the success of our short family animation Burry Man; and the feature-length horror Don’t Let It In from writer Corrigan Foley and director Suzi Ewing (10×10) exploring the Mexican Border Crisis in the US. The company is on the cusp of making its feature film debut – we have the projects, and now it’s just finding the right partners to bring them to fruition. 

What are you still looking to achieve? What are your next personal goals/aspirations? 

I aim to create content that delivers important messages no matter what the format or genre. With Roots, it’s about man’s relationship with nature and a group of adolescents coming to terms with a world they didn’t choose. Don’t Let It In it’s about the lengths people will go to secure a better life for themselves and their families. All of my projects attempt to make sense of the world we’re living in now and open up conversations that might help us move forwards and create a better world. 

Importantly, however, coming from a background in talent development, I’m passionate about working with new voices and supporting them to get their work made. This is a monumental task because most of us know how challenging it is to get films made – particularly first and second features. However, I fight the good fight because I believe there’s space for new voices – and the emergence of the steamers has only cracked it open and created more opportunities. We need these platforms that can take more creative risks. 

Trick question: do you think homophobia will ever be abolished? 

Homophobia is a real issue in our society and I believe that filmmakers and artists contribute to making that change. As a producer, I’m here to support their stories so homophobia can be a thing of the past.

What l we can do is help shape those views by showing issues like sexuality, gender, race, socioeconomic equality, etc, are not threats but contribute to a more interesting and inclusive society and a more peaceful world to live in. 

In terms of abolition, I do think there could be a world where homophobia and gay hate crimes are made illegal (which I guess could be considered the abolition of homophobia). Though I’m not convinced I’ll see it in my lifetime. We’re still at the beginning of a very long road.

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