BURNS NIGHT Preview

PrintE-mail Written by Andrew Marshall

Urban fantasy web series Caledonia is to return for a third instalment, titled Burns Night. Adapted by US author and folklorist Amy Hoff from her own series of (largely) Scotland-based novels, the series follows police officer Leah Bishop after she becomes the first human to join a special branch of Interpol that deals with supernatural creatures, investigating crimes with her deadpan selkie partner Dorian Grey (not that one).

Each season is an adaptation of one of cothe books, beginning with Caledonia in 2014 and followed by Mortal Souls in 2015. This time around, instead of a segmented series made for online viewing, the screen version of Burns Night will be released as a full-length film. Despite being the third instalment of the ongoing saga, Burns Night will act as a standalone feature and jumping-off point to the series, so having seen the previous two seasons of the web series will not be necessary to understand who everyone is and what’s going on. Although should you wish, you can watch them here and here.

The decision to film it as a movie was largely a financial one, since it’s a huge challenge to actually make any money from narrative fiction in web format, while the independent film circuit is far easier to get into. As Hoff observed, “If you’re going to put in that amount of time, money and effort to make something that’s basically a movie cut into pieces, why not just make a movie?” The simple change in the ultimate goal turned out to make a huge difference, as during production she discovered that people are more inclined to help filmmakers in making a feature film than a web series since they are simply more interested in being involved.

Burns Night refers to 25th January, on which is the annual celebration of the life and work of Scots poet Robert Burns. Burns himself was introduced as a character in Mortal Souls, appearing in the modern day as a vampire weary with the loneliness wrought by immortality and also in flashback to his human life before and after becoming obsessed with the baobhan sith Desdemona. Since Burns is not quite as renowned outside of Scotland as he is within it, his initial appearance caused slight confusion from some viewers not actually knowing who he was or subsequently why the typically sardonic Leah was reduced to a squeeing fangirl at his very presence, leading to the series website being updated with a brief biography of the poet. To avoid similar issues this time around the film will open with a monologue from Burns, hearing the man brag about himself and his prowess with the written word and romancing of the ladies. “That’s Robert Burns’ way,” Hoff laughed, “as I’ve gathered from the content of his letters and from the multiple songs he’s written about himself.”

The story of Burn Night has more of an overt horror angle than the two seasons of the web series, seeing a mysterious force bring to life the dreams and nightmares of Glasgow’s residents. Amidst the madness Dorian goes missing and with the streets of the city overrun by nocturnal terrors, Leah and Robert must fight their way through the madness to save him. Inspired by the likes of Gremlins and Critters, the film will be heavy in practical effects and creature makeup designed by creature creator Chris Stanley and makeup artist Nike Johnston, which Hoff hopes will appeal to the current wave of ‘80s nostalgia that shows little sign of abating any time soon.

In an unfortunate recurrence, Leah has once again been recast as season two’s Alison Reid, much like season one’s Vharri Lavery, was simply too busy to return. Hoff is accepting of the situation – “In the independent film world you have to do what you can with what you have” – and filled the role with Maria Jones, who had initially been cast in a much smaller part. Despite the Glaswegian Leah now being played by an “evidently Swedish” actress, Hoff is of the opinion she did the character justice. As well as Leah, Robert, Desdemona and Dorian, also returning is cheerful phoenix girl Nour-el-ain, whose part will be much bigger than her couple of brief appearances in Mortal Souls. Hoff had wanted to include more of her, but as her actress Naziyah Mahmood is rather busy working as an astrophysicist and aerospace engineer for the European Space Agency (what have you done with yourself lately?), her screen time has been thusfar stifled by her limited availability.

As well as the modern day plot involving living nightmares, the story also deals with aspects of Burns’ life before and after being turned into a vampire by Desdemona, and detailing the pair’s travels together. A key sequence is set in 1870s Minnesota, but was actually filmed in rural Aberdeenshire in the north east of Scotland. Tranquility is a small Wild West town constructed over several years by retired postman Alistair Baranowski and other likeminded enthusiasts of the days of the American frontier. With ready-made sets at their disposal and a few of the local group’s members, “who had way better costumes than we did,” appearing as extras in a saloon scene, in a day the crew were able to complete an important portion of the movie that might otherwise have been prohibitively expensive to film. The crew were also given the opportunity to film in Robert Burns’ House in Dumfries, where the real-life poet spent his declining years and is now maintained as a museum to his life, adding extra authenticity to the already dedicated production.

Described by Hoff herself as “A detective series with a dash of film noir, where faeries can have drug problems, seal men will suffer for love and a vampire will get his shirt off whenever possible,” and one which should appeal to anyone who likes “fairy stories, monsters and people being exceedingly Scottish at each other,” Caledonia is a fantasy with something for everyone, and Burns Night promises to take further its tales of beauty swallowed up by the darkness. Or as its eponymous poet once wrote:

“Pleasures are like poppies spread

You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed

Or like the snow falls in the river

A moment white, then melts for ever.”

Burns Night is currently in post-production and will be released next year.

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