Gavin Laing on adapting his graduation film into a Hollywood feature

Gavin Laing is an award-winning filmmaker from Edinburgh, who recently graduated from the prestigious Peter Stark Producing Programme at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and was awarded the Tom Hunter Foundation Scholar by BAFTA LA last year. Gavin earned his undergraduate degree in film at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he made his acclaimed short children’s film, My First Spellbook.

My First Spellbook won the Royal Television Society Scotland award for best undergraduate fiction in 2012 and the Limelight Film Award for best comedy. Since its World Premiere at Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in 2012, the short has enjoyed an impressive seven-year run in film festivals around the world, including a screening at WonderCon 2019 as part of the Los Angeles Children’s Film Festival.

This year, Gavin has announced the exciting news that he will be turning My First Spellbook into a feature film. Gavin is set to write the script and serve as producer on the film, which he is developing with a Hollywood-based production company.

A young girl clutches her magic book on the poster for My First Spellbook

As Gavin embarks on this huge next step in his career, Screen Scotland caught up with him to learn more about his background and his experiences coming up in the industry.

“I started making films at a young age, back when I was in high school in Edinburgh, though it was mostly just camcorders in the back garden to begin with.

“When it came to thinking about careers, it didn't take me long to realise I'd rather be doing that than anything else! So, I went on to study on the film programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and all the expertise and support of everyone there really helped me turn my hobby into something more. That was also where I discovered a real love for making films targeted at children and families.”

After graduating from RCS, Gavin went on to work at BBC Scotland, which he said was an “incredible place” to start his career.

“Everyone was unbelievably supportive, and I was fortunate enough to learn from some amazingly talented people while working on a variety of brilliant shows. I also continued to make short films independently on the side.

“While I enjoyed both greatly, I eventually decided that I wanted to take the chance to pursue opportunities in the U.S., since so much of the biggest and best family content is made in Hollywood.”

In moving to the States, Gavin earned a place on the prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. He told us about his experience there.

“The Stark Program has an incredible reputation within the industry, and only takes 24 students a year, so first of all I felt very lucky to be accepted into it. My classmates and I were given an unparalleled overview of all aspects of the entertainment business; learning how to make a film, how to get a film made, and specifically the skills required to build relationships, discover talented collaborators, and sell projects.

“I had a great time and made not only some great contacts in the world’s entertainment capital, but some incredible friends.”

We asked Gavin about what inspired him to work in the children and families entertainment genre.

“A lot of aspiring filmmakers seem to be drawn to serious and gritty drama – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always been more focused on entertaining audiences. Nowhere is this focus on entertainment reflected more than in the children’s and family space, where telling a good, engaging story filled with humour and heart is essential for success.

“It was perhaps my love of Spielberg movies, Pixar and Doctor Who that inspired my to pursue this career in the first place, and I’ve never really let go of the childlike wonder that flows through stories like that.

“While there is certainly room for darker and more serious stories, especially in today’s social and political climate, at heart I am an optimist, and would like everything I work on to offer people a sense of fun, hope and escape.”

"I'm really excited to flesh out the characters, expand the world, and thrill audiences"

“I'm very fortunate that a Hollywood-based production company are working with me on the project, and while I can't say too much about it at this stage, I'm really excited to flesh out the characters, expand the world, and thrill audiences in ways that just weren't possible on the scale of the original film.”

Gavin on adapting My First Spellbook

My First Spellbook

Gavin told us more about My First Spellbook, and what makes the story so special.

“My First Spellbook was a short film I made at RCS, about a little girl who wants to be a witch but discovers that being a witch comes with its own set of problems—warts and all!

“This was my graduation film, so it was a great opportunity to take all the skills I learned at RCS and apply them to the genre I was passionate about—not to mention the invaluable support I had from the RCS staff and an incredible cast and crew.

“To me, the story—aside from being entertaining—is about being an outsider. When I was young and having trouble fitting in at school, there was nothing I wanted more than magical powers, and while I sadly never developed them, I was able to live vicariously through the character in this film.

“Morals are often central to children's narratives, so beneath the magic, I also wanted to touch on something real: what it's like to feel like an outsider and to be bullied.”

Two children on set of My First Spellbook

We asked Gavin how he felt about the film doing so well in terms of nominations, awards and film festival runs.

“I was so excited to see the reception that the film got when we finished it, and was really surprised when it won its first award. Since then, I've never ceased to be surprised and thrilled! The fact that it continues to be shown at film festivals and still seems to resonate with audiences is hugely gratifying.

“I wish I could say I intended this when I made it, but I think there's something of a timeless quality to the story that has allowed it to continue to play to audiences up to today, as its themes are as relevant to young people now as they were in 2011.”

Now that the film is going to be adapted into a feature—with Gavin writing and producing—we asked him what it was like to get to this point and what he’s most looking forward to about the process.

“When I made the short film, people often asked me what I was going to do with the story next. I always hoped that one day I'd be in a position to turn it into a feature film or maybe even a TV series, which wasn't really a possibility at the time.

“Since then, I've built my career in children's and family entertainment, and established a network in Hollywood, so taking this story I love and telling it in a grander way for a much wider audience feels like a natural next step.

“I'm very fortunate that a Hollywood-based production company are working with me on the project, and while I can't say too much about it at this stage, I'm really excited to flesh out the characters, expand the world, and thrill audiences in ways that just weren't possible on the scale of the original film.”

What’s next for Gavin?

Gavin recently completed another short film that was shot in Peeblesshire. He told us what audiences should expect from The Hauntening.

The Hauntening is a haunted house comedy. It follows an amateur ghost hunter as she enlists the help of a world-famous medium (and her personal idol) to investigate a spooky old manor she believes to be haunted.

“The film is for a slightly older audience than My First Spellbook, but I think it has a big heart, and I hope people find it to be just as entertaining. It was one of the most fun films I’ve worked on, and I’m very proud of the incredible cast and crew—many of whom I’ve collaborated with for over ten years! I can’t wait to share it with audiences later this year.”

Film poster for The Hauntening featuring three people looking scared in front of a castle

What are Gavin’s hopes and goals for the future?

“I'm excited just to continue working in children's and family entertainment, so if I can have a successful career in that genre, I'll be happy. I'd truly love to continue working in LA, but I'd also love to come back and work in Scotland at some point.

“Given that the entertainment industry is more global than ever, and Scotland’s industry has really put itself on the map in the past few years, there are some incredible opportunities there. At the moment we're most known for producing dramatic and often bleak stories. Given my love for a lighter sort of story, it would be great to show the world a different side of the Scottish character—and put out some fun, family friendly entertainment to show we're not all as dour as people might think!”

You can keep up to date with Gavin’s work by following him Twitter at https://twitter.com/gavinlaing.