LONDON — When the Scottish government launched its bid for independence two years ago, the iconic backdrop chosen for the announcement was not a stunning vista tinged with purple heather or the site of a battle where the English were once vanquished. It was a movie theater in Edinburgh.
Center stage were two Scottish actors who had moved to the United States as the stars of multimillion-dollar film franchises. Scotland’s actors, directors, and movie producers have come to symbolize the thriving cultural renaissance at the heart of the independence movement. Alan Cumming (X-Men and The Good Wife) and Brian Cox (the Bourne trilogy and Troy), who both spoke at the launch party, are back in Scotland for the final days of campaigning before Thursday’s momentous vote on whether to end the 300-year union and break up the United Kingdom.
In the intervening months, as the campaign tightened into a neck-and-neck race, Hollywood was beguiled by this romantic quest for freedom; offering comfort and support as well as a tantalizing glimpse at the leading role the film industry could play in an independent Scotland.
Cox, a veteran actor whose credits run from Rushmore to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, told The Daily Beast that he had held private talks with Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, about a program of creative investment, including tax breaks for the movie industry, which would allow the country to become a leading hub of international filmmaking.
“He loves the cinema. He's always been amenable to the idea,” explained Cox, who said his American colleagues had developed a passion for filming in Scotland. “Everyone who comes to Scotland—Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, Halle Berry, I've worked with all three of them—they love the atmosphere, they love the community, they get a kick out of it, and they do love working here.”
Among those also throwing their weight behind the yes campaign are movie icon Sean Connery, the quintessential James Bond; leading man Gerard Butler (300); and producer Iain Smith (The Fifth Element). The movie studio boss, Rupert Murdoch, whose family hails from Aberdeen, also appears to be edging closer to an announcement of support via the Scottish edition of his Sun newspaper. The Scottish diaspora, which once charged across the globe at the vanguard of the British Empire, continues to deliver an outsized impact on the world. The favored industries may have changed, but the sense of influence and adventure remains undimmed.
“It doesn't matter where you go in the world you'll find Scottish people, because Scotland is not a place, it's a people, a people chosen by God to change the world—like the Jews, but on a tighter budget,” said Bruce Fummey, an independence campaigner and comedian whose latest show is called Aaa ’m Votin’ Yes.
Cox, who moved to England as a young actor and now lives in New York, agreed with the sentiment. “The root of Scottish independence is in its cultural identity,” he said. “When I went back to Scotland in the ’80s to do theater, I realized that this country had grown up in an extraordinary way. It had become itself culturally before it became itself politically and economically.”
If the blossoming of the Scottish arts helped to inspire the independence movement, the continued growth of the cultural sector can help to build a successful independent country. The Scottish National Party is studying the advantageous tax structures implemented by countries like Ireland and New Zealand where an influx of Hollywood projects is making use of the stunning scenery as well as the financial incentives.
Filmmaking in Ireland is worth an estimated $800 million a year, which dwarfs the current total of less than $50 million spent in Scotland. Even Braveheart, which was set in the era when Scotland last seized independence from England, was predominantly filmed in Ireland.
Richard Brown, the executive producer of HBO’s True Detective, said an independent Scotland would be able to secure far more Hollywood projects if it introduced a more favorable tax structure, which is currently set in London by the United Kingdom government. “A lot of Hollywood films get made in Romania. Typically, where people go it’s where the best tax breaks are,” he told the Scotsman newspaper. “If Scotland could figure out a way to improve upon what’s already in place then it would attract more production.”
The British film industry is, of course, already well established but there are no state-of-the-art production facilities in Scotland to rival those built in southern England, where Gravity was produced last year and filming for the next installment of Star Wars is underway.
“We're down at the end of a long road from Westminster. The further you are from the place where the power and the money is being dispersed the shittier your end of the stick will be,” said John McKay, a Scottish producer and director.
There has been a long campaign to secure funding for a permanent all-weather film studio to be built in Scotland, it is hoped that an independent Scottish government would be able to prioritize the infrastructure. “Investment both for film and high-end TV is a bit of a no-brainer come independence,” McKay told the Daily Beast. “In the creative industries people are vocally ‘Yes.’”
There’s no such an obvious motive for the apparent support from Rupert Murdoch, whose 20th Century Fox is the world’s second-largest movie studio. The Australian mogul, whose reputation in the U.K. suffered badly during the phone-hacking scandal, flew into Scotland this weekend on a fact-finding mission.
He has not explicitly come out in favor of a yes vote, but the Scottish Sun has been dropping hints about its position and his Twitter feed has become increasingly pro-independence. “Scots better people than to be dependants of London,” he wrote last week.
After a day of attempting to canvass Scottish voters, incognito, he returned to Twitter and continued to back the romantic and populist vision of independence. “No camp counter-productive with bullying and lies,” he wrote. “Scottish economy may or may not be ready for independence, but country is ready emotionally and politically.”
Amid the romance, however, was a note of caution. He warned that the Scottish National Party, which would likely form the first government in an independent Scotland, was focusing too much on social justice, and environmental and pro-European policy. Perhaps his conservative political instinct will ultimately keep Murdoch from plunging fully into the yes camp.
Politics aside, Andrew Neil, a former confidante and ex-editor of his Sunday Times newspaper, thinks the flirtations have a personal and vindictive inspiration. “He thinks hacking scandal was revenge of British Establishment on him. Break up of Britain would be his revenge,” Neil wrote on Twitter.
Murdoch is not alone in having a personal stake in the battle. Millions of Scots are weighing up their own internal head vs. heart battles. Cumming, who was born in a small town in the Highlands, now lives in New York where he has been a regular on Broadway in between Hollywood roles that were filmed all over the globe. “I have seen the change in the way that Scotland is perceived and the way it presents itself to the world,” he said. “The world is waiting for us and I know that we are ready.”