It took director Danny Boyle just 18 years to move from his first feature in an old Glasgow factory to creating one of the world’s most watched events in 2012 – the London Olympics opening ceremony.

This January marks the 20th anniversary of that initial calling card, Shallow Grave, telling the tale of a trio of Edinburgh flatmates whose life is turned upside down by the sudden death of a new arrival.

To mark the occasion, Soundstage Events is hosting a special screening followed by a Q and A session led by Boyle’s biographer Amy Raphael with star Kerry Fox, composer Simon Boswell and Boyle’s long-time collaborator and producer Andrew Macdonald.

The journey Macdonald has gone on since what was also his first film is underlined by one of his current projects – a big-screen adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd.

“When I was making Shallow Grave, a Thomas Hardy adaptation would have been the worst thing in the world to make,” he admits.

“You have to live with films for such a long time – from somebody writing a script to making it takes more than a year, sometimes longer. You have to understand the whole thing and want to do it.

“With Shallow Grave, I was desperate to make the film. I was involved before the director was brought on board.

“When you’re younger, you believe in it and that’s enough. Now I have more consideration of finance and audience. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how your first film is always the best!”

The starting point for Macdonald’s work on Shallow Grave was writer John Hodge’s script. “He was a guy I’d met and encouraged,” says Macdonald. “He wanted to be a screenwriter and had this idea about a group of flatmates.

“I felt there were so few films in Britain made for a younger audience and dealing with flat-sharing.

“At the time the UK was making 25 films a year, there wasn’t any digital, and it was before DVDs had taken off. Ken Loach had made his comeback with Riff-Raff, but nobody would give Mike Leigh any money.

“Apart from Withnail And I, The Long Good Friday and The Hit by Stephen Frears I didn’t like most British films at that time. There were so few that had any entertainment value.”

Macdonald initially imagined he would be making a film in the style of the Coen Brothers and Spike Lee – having to raise the hundreds of thousands necessary to make it happen himself.

Funding boost

But then Channel Four came on board and all of a sudden the production had a million pounds to play with.

But it still wasn’t enough.

“We tried to do more than we had money for,” admits Macdonald. “By the end of the filming we literally had a few cans of film left. We couldn’t afford to buy props for some of the rooms in the flat so I went to my father’s house and cleaned it out. Watching it now I recognise lots of coffee cups and things.”

In common with most low-budget films the production had tried to keep the costs down. They employed young, lesser-known actors including Ewan McGregor in his first lead role in a movie and future Dr Who Christopher Eccleston, alongside the better known Keith Allen and Ken Stott.

And the locations were kept tight, with the biggest expense being the flat set, in a former Glasgow factory.

Macdonald credits Boyle for giving the movie its bigger feel – and nearly bankrupting the shoot in the process.

“It took a long time to put the film together, but it was always a positive thing,” he says. “We took it to the Sundance Film Festival in the US, and it was a hit in France and the UK. We actually made money out of it, which is very rare when you make your first film.”

Hodge, Boyle, McGregor and Mac-donald kept up a working relationship, collaborating on the cult smash Trainspotting and the less successful Hollywood crossover A Life Less Ordinary, which also starred Cameron Diaz.

“With A Life Less Ordinary we thought we knew about the business, but we didn’t really,” says Macdonald. “With Shallow Grave we didn’t know anything – we were just trying to make the type of film we would like to see ourselves.”

Long-term partnership

Macdonald’s last film with Boyle was 2007’s sci-fi thriller Sunshine, before the pair finally went their separate ways.

Since then Macdonald has produced zombie sequel 28 Weeks Later, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, DVD cult hit Dredd, cop drama reboot The Sweeney, and the Proclaimers’ musical Sunshine On Leith.

He isn’t too sanguine about the future of the British film industry though, as DVD sales collapse.

“Certain things haven’t changed,” he says. “Channel Four are still the best people to support your film. As a producer, you hope that with Netflix and LoveFilm people will continue paying for downloads.

“Luckily Sunshine On Leith is aimed at an older audience, and it is very much a repeat viewing type of film, so I think it will have a DVD market.”

He still has more to come. As well as Far From The Madding Crowd, Macdonald is teaming up with another long-time collaborator – 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd writer Alex Garland – for the sci-fi movie Ex Machina.

“Alex has written and directed it,” says Macdonald. “It’s about artificial intelligence in the body of a female robot.”

Both Garland and Sunshine On Leith’s Dexter Fletcher are first-time directors, seeing Macdonald go back full circle.

“We filmed Shallow Grave in six weeks and did the same with Sunshine On Leith,” says Macdonald of the shoot, which saw him return to Scotland.

“It was a great experience. There are still so few British films made in any year that British audiences will reward you if they love it.

“Shallow Grave was a very British film. It was well-acted, well-photographed and edited, with good writing.

“I saw a guy watching it on a laptop the other day and I recognised it just through the design.”

  • Shallow Grave 20th Anniversary (18, 93 mins) screens at Duke Of York’s Picturehouse, Preston Circus, Brighton, on Sunday, January 12, at 1pm. Tickets £9.90, call 0871 9025728 or visit