It isn’t as surprising as you might think that the screenwriter and co-producer of what IndieWire calls “the most Scottish film of 2016” is a Canadian.

Victoria-raised Richard Cowan, whose grisly black comedy The Legend of Barney Thomson opens today, has Scottish roots, after all.

And he needed another excuse to put on the kilt he wore at his wedding.

Cowan, 50, found one when his movie that marks Scottish actor Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut premièred at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty) plays the cheerfully macabre crime lark’s title character, a socially inept Glasgow barber suspected of being an elusive serial killer.

“It was nerve-wracking, because you’re presenting a Scottish film to a Scottish audience, but Robert helmed it beautifully, being a true Glaswegian,” Cowan said. “And Scotland was so embracing.”

It’s easy to understand why Cowan was attracted to Scottish crime writer Douglas Lindsay’s popular series of dark-humour novels. Cowan’s late father, Jack Cowan, a Supreme Court judge, was born in Johnstone, 19 kilometres west of Glasgow.

Richard Cowan, who attended Uplands Elementary, is the youngest of four brothers who reunited here last year when their mother, Peggy, died. Russ, 58, is executive director of the Vancouver Hotel Destination Association; Rob, 59, is a Hollywood producer (San Andreas); and David, 61, is a Vancouver lawyer,

Over the years, Richard has grown fond of his family’s homeland, journeying there for a high school rugby tour and to visit his dad’s ancestral home.

After working in B.C.’s film industry for 25 years, mostly as first assistant director, on movies and TV shows including Fifty Shades of Grey, Meet the Parents, Bates Motel, X-Men: The Last Stand, Double Jeopardy and Excess Baggage, Cowan says he was finally ready to take a stab at screen adaptation.

He recalled advice veteran TV director John Patterson (The Sopranos) once gave him. “John said: ‘Keep your eye out for a piece of material that you find interesting and is dear to your heart. Attack it and go for it.’ 

“It was a nice, linear story, but it’s hard to sell movies that are quirky and unique,” said Cowan, who collaborated with Colin McLaren on the adaptation of the crime series a script supervisor recommended.

“It’s hard to sell a movie, period, which I learned being a first A.D. We struggled for a long time to get financing, even with our amazing cast. You really only get one chance.”

Cowan has also learned that it helps to have patience, an inside track and good timing.

He shopped his script around for six years before producer John G. Lenic brought it to Carlyle’s attention while they were doing SGU: Stargate Universe in Vancouver, where Carlyle also shoots Once Upon a Time.

“Robert was solely responsible for bringing together this fraternity of great actors who respect each other,” said Cowan.

The stellar cast includes Emma Thompson as Barney’s hilariously profane, chain-smoking mother; Ray Winstone as a gruff London homicide detective; and Sir Tom Courtenay as an exasperated police chief.

“Emma joined us because of her adventurous spirit as an actor who won’t just do the glamour roles,” said Cowan.

He said he formulated his own style after years of reading many great screenplays “and ones that made me think: ‘I can’t believe they’re making this.”

He said he learned a lot about storytelling working on five movies with Australian director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and watching how he could pare a screenplay to its essentials.

“If you say: “They’re not going to change a word,’ your screenplay is going to gather a lot of dust,” said Cowan, who admits his initial instinct was to include everything.

He uses Catch-22 as a great example of how massive amounts of material can be successfully compressed for the screen. “In the book, every single character arc is a chapter, yet when they wrote it, they had to get all those characters into a two-hour movie.”

Cowan said it helped that he approached his job as assistant director on Hollywood blockbusters from as much of a creative as a production standpoint.

“You’re part cattle driver, part psychologist,” he says. “Your job is to help the director achieve his vision, manage a crew of 175 and answer thousands of questions every day.”

With that background, Cowan admits, “part of me missed being in the mix” while Barney Thomson was shot in Glasgow.

Cowan, who has a 12-year-daughter, Lily, with his wife, film publicist Kim Cowan, still works as an assistant director to pay the bills. “I have some other ideas I want to explore, but the film set has always been such a big part of my life.”

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