Filthy Questions - An interview with writer/director Jon S. Baird
Steve Withers chats to the filmmaker about his screen adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel Filth
Movies ArticleIrvine Welsh novels are never easy to adapt but writer/director Jon S. Baird did a fantastic job of bringing his story of a bipolar misanthropic Edinburgh policeman to the big screen.
With a cast that includes Jamie Bell, Joanne Froggatt, Imogen Poots, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions and a towering performance from James McAvoy, the film adaptation of Filth was one of the critical and commercial successes of last year. We had a chance to talk to Jon about adapting the novel, the film’s Blu-ray release and his latest project with director Danny Boyle.
I met Irvine coincidentally through a friend and I think we were both drunk at the time...
How did you become involved with the film adaptation of Filth?
I met Irvine coincidentally through a friend and I think we were both drunk at the time and I said to him that I love Filth and I’d love to adapt it. He said if the rights become available he'd give them to me, they did and within a few months we sat down and spoke about how we should do it and he was happy to give me the rights. So I wrote a script and the rest is history.
How did you approach adapting a novel that many called ‘un-filmable’?
Once I taken the tapeworm out of the story that was it, I was halfway to cracking the adaptation. That’s why I think people describe the book as unfilmable because it had a talking tapeworm right in the middle of it. I dealt with that very quickly and then got to the point of the story, which is obviously Bruce and his journey. So I made the tapeworm into the psychiatrist and personified him through that and once I’d done that it was a lot more straightforward.
(For those that haven't read the novel, the main character of Bruce has a tapeworm in his intestines that becomes self aware and fills in much of Bruce's backstory through a series of increasingly eloquent monologues.)
How did you approach the cross-dressing/twist ending aspect of the story?
Well I just thought let’s be very, very obvious but not obvious at all. Let’s, as in the book, have Carole speaking but do a huge over the shoulder and do it as the real Carole and hopefully people will go with you that they’ll realise it’s been him all along. So that was how I did that, I just thought OK it’s maybe a bit cryptic but hopefully by shooting him in the same locations that we’ve seen her in, it helps people join the dots.
You mentioned meeting Irvine Welsh and speaking with him about adapting Filth into a film, did he have any input in terms of the screenplay?
He didn’t have any input, he basically just said send him the screenplay when it was finished. So I sent it to him and he sent me back an email saying great, don’t change a word. It was as easy as that.
I notice there were quite a few producers, how easy was it to raise financing given the dark nature of the material?
It wasn’t easy. I mean there’s far too many producers on it, there may be some that I haven't even met but a lot of people obviously got producer credits for their roles as financier. Yeah it’s not easy getting the money, that’s why we had to go to five different countries and shoot in them (England, Scotland, Belgium, Germany and Sweden) to get the money and I think a lot of that is because people had tried to do the film previously and it hadn’t worked so it was kind of looked at as a dead project.
The main character is very misanthropic, did you feel any pressure to lighten Bruce and make him more accessible?
I didn’t feel pressured, I mean that’s what I wanted to do and I felt that the key to this character was through dark humour and also through the character of Mary, a decent human being who’s grateful for him trying to save her husband. It certainly wasn’t pressured to do it, that just came from myself and hopefully I got the balance right.
If you don’t mind me saying so, I think that unlike Scorsese with The Wolf of Wall Street you managed to make an inherently unlikeable character into someone you actually did care about.
Yeah well I appreciate that mate and I think a lot of that was due to James’s performance but I think the unsung hero is Joanne Froggatt and her performance as Mary because she’s the eyes of the audience.
You mention James McAvoy, who I think gives the performance of his career in this film, was he your first choice for Bruce?
He wasn’t our first choice, he actually came to us and said he wanted to meet us because he’d read the script. We were reluctant because we didn’t think he’d be the right person but as soon as we met him, we knew he was because he convinced us very, very quickly. So although he wasn’t our first choice it didn’t take us a long time to make our decision.
I thought he was just incredible, he gives everything to the performance and he’s on screen for almost the entire film.
Yes this has been a great role for him, possibly a career defining role.James McAvoy wasn't our first choice but he quickly convinced he was the right person.
As good as James McAvoy is, the rest of the cast are equally as good. How did you go about putting together such an impressive cast on what is a relatively low budget film?
You just have to work really hard on the script and I think what you do is put a lot of time into the casting process and meet everybody. You really need put a lot of effort into your casting choices and really think about who’s right for the part, then offer it to them. Actors don’t like coming in to read if at all possible, so if you can offer them a role without them having to read and you know you’ve got the right person, they will give you 120% back on the day because you didn’t make them go through that process.
There are obviously a lot of Scottish actors in the film and a few that aren’t, were you ever concerned about the accuracy of the Edinburgh accents?
I think in real life people from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh live all across Scotland and there’s also English people that live there as well. So as long as they were Scottish, I didn’t really mind if they weren’t Edinburgh specific. The only two English actors we’ve got in there playing Scottish are Jamie Bell and Joanne Froggatt.
I loved the Silver Lady scene with David Soul, how did that come about?
That was supposed to be Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ and then basically what happened was I heard this song ‘Silver Lady’ and I said to Irvine do you know it and he said it was one of his favourite songs and he used to sing it in karaoke. He said he had David Soul’s email address, so I met him and signed him up pretty quickly, so that’s how that came about. But in the script it was Foreigner’s ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ until it got changed at the last minute.
It was one of those surreal sequences that did make me think about certain scenes in Trainspotting and given they’re both Irvine Welsh novels, were you conscious of the fact that people might compare the two films?
I was conscious of it but I was never worried about it and in fact I’m actually working with Danny Boyle on something right now. I knew there would be comparisons but it never worried me. In fact there’s more of a similarity to A Clockwork Orange than anything else.
The other film that Filth reminded me of was Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, is that a fair comparison?
The Ferrara film is a lot grittier and less funny but there is a similar downward spiral, although I don’t think there are any other similarities.
Do you think the film has a moral conclusion and what, if any, is the message of the film?
What’s the message of the film? I don’t really think you need to have a message but obviously drugs are bad and it’s not nice being bipolar. I’m only kidding but I’m adapting a book here and I think when you write a spec script it might be different and you could choose to add a message. I was just fascinated by this extremely anti-heroic character and wasn’t really interested in sending a particular message to anyone, I just wanted to entertain an audience.
One of the big surprises for me was the score, how did Clint Mansell become involved?
He’s a friend of ours and I’d met him previously and he liked the script, so that’s how he came to be involved.
Any plans to turn the sequel Crime into a film?
I’d love to, love to but that would depend on a lot of factors.
One of those factors would presumably be the box-office performance of Filth.
Actually Filth was the second highest grossing 18 certificate film in the UK last year after Django Unchained, we took £4 million.I'm a bit of a technophobe but I'd love it if someone could fit a home cinema system up for me.The Blu-ray release has nice selection of extras, are you a fan of commentary tracks and deleted scenes?
Yeah I am and there’s a lot on this Blu-ray, there’s a lot of fun stuff. The commentary by me and Irvine is not very serious at all, very cheeky and stuff, but yes I am a fan of extras on discs.
We obviously review AV hardware as well as Blu-rays and movies, are you a home cinema fan yourself?
I am but I’m also a bit of a technophobe, I’m not as good as I should be. I’d love it if someone could come in a fit a system up for me… there you go! I’m pretty useless when it comes to setting it up myself but obviously I do watch a lot of movies at home.
You mentioned teaming up with Danny Boyle earlier, I believe you’re working on the comedy drama series Babylon, how did you become involved?
He just phoned me and asked me of I wanted to do it. He’s already directed the pilot and I’ll take over and do the first three episodes of the series, so that should be fun. The writers are the guys that did Peep Show and Fresh Meat and I think it’ll be really good. I’ve obviously seen the pilot and I really liked it.
The pilot episode of Babylon is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday the 9th of February, with new series starting later in the year.
Filth is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday the 10th of February and you can read Cas’s review here.
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