Skip to main content

Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Finlay Pretsell--'Cutting Loose'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to launch this series of conversations, here is Finlay Pretsell, co-director/co-producer, with Adrian McDowall, of Cutting Loose.


Synopsis: Hairdressers poised, scissors at the ready, clients in place. Cutting begins. The salon looks familiar enough, chatter rising above the chopping and blow-drying, but the hairdressers have something in common: They're all serving time in Scotland's jails. Cutting Loose provides a fascinating snapshot of prison life during the build-up to the annual Scottish Prison Service hairdressing competition. As the competition approaches, we hear the dreams and aspirations of some of Scotland's most dangerous prisoners as they style the hair of fellow inmates on a daily basis.



IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Finlay Pretsell: By mistake, really. Purely by chance in a way. I started working for Scottish Documentary Institute, then I worked at the university, which had a strong film and TV department (Edinburgh College of Art). I then met Adrian McDowall, and we talked about making films. We had such a similar taste and vibe for the films we wanted to make; that was back in 2007.  I was—and still am—really into cycling, and I wanted to make a film about how cycling felt. With Adrian we realized this; the result was Standing Start, our first collaboration.


IDA: What inspired you to make Cutting Loose?

FP: For me, when I heard a radio documentary on Radio Scotland about the hairdressing competition day, it felt like pure cinema to me—such a visually interesting place, subject, characters, etc. One thing I couldn't get out of my head was the scissor board: It had the outlines of the scissors like a tool board in a workshop or a children's set of toys—very visual. It's featured in the film, very briefly. There was so much more I wanted to discover about the lives of these prisoners and where they'd come from and what their plans were for outside. Doesn't everyone want to find out what it's actually like in a jail?! I loved the idea of the tenderness between inmates, the care they take on each other's hair and the creativity in hairstyling. It felt like a pure escape from the daily jail.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

FP: Working with and around characters is always very challenging, but working within the constraints of a prison made it so much more complicated. The Scottish Prison Service was really accommodating with our requests; it was up to each individual establishment on how and when we got access to film. But of course we could have done with more time in the jail with the inmates. But in some ways that will always be the case with making films.


IDA: Francis is the protagonist of the story—although we do meet other inmates. But did you interview any prison wardens or administrators?

FP: We had never intended to interview any of the prisoner officers or any other staff. Halfway through there was one man that we wanted to interview; he had such a unique take on what he was doing, he really cared about and was close to these men. It never happened in the end, and I have no idea where it would have fit anyway. As soon as we met Francis, though, we knew he was our man; he embraced what we were trying to do, and he was the perfect vessel in which to tell the story, as he was so open to the process. He was also a lot like us in many ways; we got on very well. 


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

FP: There was so much that changed, we stuck as close as possible to our vision where we could. For example, we never intended to film outside the prison walls initially, but when Francis said he was due for release during our filming, we had to find a way. While I personally didn't like the cliché of a happy ending, the release was just that, so we really wanted to find another way to end his story. He always talked so fondly of his Mum; she always stood by him so strongly. Of course, she always had her hair cut by him when he was out of prison. The tenderness between them is quite palpable. We always wanted to spend more time with the characters to really get to know them and get deeper into their stories, but due to time constraints and of course the prison system, we couldn't quite do this as much as we'd have liked.


IDA: As you've screened Cutting Loose—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

FP: The response has been great. I've been in the audience with Francis in Edinburgh and in Toronto at Hot Docs, and people laugh and feel the emotion equally well. I'll never forget when we first showed the film to Francis, his Mum and another couple of members of his family in their living room. All they did was talk all the way through and point out people they knew in the film. I'm not sure they listened to the film to really take it in. The second time in the cinema was different, though, and I think it really hit home that other people had this window into their lives. They loved it, though, and so did we to share it with them.  


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

FP: Werner Herzog (most of his films, doc and fiction), Michael Glawogger (Workingman's Death), Douglas Gordon (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), Maysles brothers (Gimme Shelter), and Peter Liechti (The Sound of Insects: Portrait of a Mummy) all serve as huge inspirations, among many others.


Cutting Loose will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City.

For the complete DocuWeeks™ 2012 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Cutting Loose and the rest of the films in the DocuWeeks New York Shorts Program for Week 1, click here.