By David Hennessy
“It all started in Dublin,” director Jon S Baird tells The Irish World, speaking about his new movie Filth which is adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. Starring James McAvoy as sexist, racist, seedy, corrupt cocaine snorting Edinburgh cop Bruce Robertson, the film includes the least likeable hero celluloid has ever seen. It is nearly two decades since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting launched the careers of McGregor and his cast members so much is expected of the eagerly awaited film.
“Irvine was living in Dublin and a mate of mine had introduced us at the premiere of my last film (Cass) and I had said: ‘I love Filth and I’d love to sort of adapt that,’ and he said: I’m living in Dublin, come over and we’ll talk about it’. So I flew over there and we spent a fantastic day just going around Dublin, sampling all that Dublin offers and we did a deal in a restaurant in 2009 so it’s actually four and a half years.”
Indeed Filth has been a long time in the making with financiers slow to back a project that centred around such a distasteful character. The challenge was to make Bruce, a man in the midst of a breakdown, someone to feel sorry for as despicable as his actions can be at times. Asked how it feels to finally be able to see his film land, Jon answers: “Do you know what it feels like? It feels like a flight to Australia, that’s what it feels like. You’re just coming into Sydney and it’s one of those gruesome journeys, just metaphorically speaking. It’s been five years and you can see the runway now and you’re thinking: ‘God, is it going to have a smooth landing or what’s it gonna be?’ It’s that feeling you’ve put so much into it, it’s taken so much to get here, it’s a relief as well but still a bit of apprehension until you see how it’s received, I suppose.
“Filth was always my favourite one of Irvine’s books and it was kind of spontaneous, I suppose. I think it was just that we had been introduced in a relaxed environment and I had said to him: ‘I love Filth…’, never thinking it was possible. Basically, the rights had just become available. I think several others had tried to get it going and hadn’t managed it and I said: ‘Look this is how I would do it, I would do it more as a dark comedy..’ Because I think the ones who tried it before were taking a more gritty social realism line and I don’t think that’s what Irvine’s writing is about. I think there’s always a comic element to it regardless of how dark it gets. I think he responded to that, he responded to the tone of how I wanted to adapt it. We just went from there. We just really clicked as individuals and became pals pretty quickly so that’s how it came around, it was by accident really.”
The casting of James McAvoy was a massive moment in the film’s pre-production as there are few actors in the business that don’t want to work with the Hollywood star from Glasgow and with his name attached, Baird was able to assemble the best UK ensemble cast to be seen in years. Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Shirley Henderson, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Broadbent, Emun Elliott, Martin Compston and Kate Dickie are among the cast but it was on certainly McAvoy’s performance that the film was always going to stand or fall.
Jon continues: “There’s a famous director in LA who read this script as a favour to me. He’s a guy called Walter Hill, he did The Warriors and 48 Hours and great movies like that. Walter said to me: ‘Whoever plays this part… Because he’s in every scene and there’s such a range for the character, whoever plays this part is going to be massive regardless of what the film turns out like.
“And I think that James has exceeded all expectations of what we had in the first place anyway but certainly with the press so far, the amount of people I’ve heard say ‘career defining performance from McAvoy’. Even ones who haven’t responded to the film, they were were very consolatory in terms of: ‘You can’t deny this is an unbelievable performance’. I think James thinks it’s his best work and I certainly think it’s his best work.
“You find the best actors are very intelligent people, it’s just a fact and James is extremely intelligent and he’s more intense than people think. He brings a lot to the table, he’s a great listener. If he doesn’t like what you’re saying, he’ll tell you straight away and if you don’t have the answer to his question, then like any great actor, he’ll demand the right answer.
“Fortunately we weren’t in that position hardly any of the time because we were happy with the script before we started shooting so I think to be honest, James will make a fantastic film director. I think he will go in that direction at some stage in his life because he is so technically aware and he’s a very, very smart guy and he knows what stories are. He was a great partner to have.”
The X Men and Wanted star has spoken of how he drank more excessively and ate poorly to make himself feel awful, in line with Bruce’s physical and mental state. He has also spoken of how he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the role once he had finished reading the script. Did Jon see James become Bruce Robertson? Was he acting in any way like Bruce even at times when cameras weren’t rolling? “I think that’s unavoidable whether it’s Irvine when he’s writing a novel, he’s been very open in saying that it was a very dark experience writing that and getting into it. For me when I was writing the script and when you’re trying to direct an actor and stuff, it definitely rubs off on you so I can only imagine what an actor must go through so yeah, I imagine there was a bit that rubbed off on him. He certainly wasn’t womanising or taking drugs or anything like that but I think if there was any of Bruce Robertson that came out of James, it was in his humour. Bruce is a very, very funny guy extremely funny guy, very quick witted and James is naturally like that anyway but I would imagine his humour got a bit more raucous during the production.”
Jon was joined for casting sessions by the author Irvine Welsh and they both agreed on James to be Bruce. Now, the writer says he can picture no one else in the role when he picks up his own novel. How important was it for Jon to have the author involved all the way through? “I definitely consulted him with casting ideas but Irvine became a very close friend and like any sort of friend, you do ask their advice but obviously someone like Irvine Welsh having their name attached and stuff, he did do a lot to help us in meetings. If Irvine likes the film, I’m happy and thank God Irvine likes the film because he wrote the book and everybody else will have their own opinion but if you adapt somebody’s work, if they’re happy, that’s the first step.”
In other interviews cast members have hinted that the movie Filth could be one you either love or loathe and a film that some could choose to even walk out of. Jon doesn’t agree with this: “I don’t think it’s like that so much. I think maybe that was said before they had seen the finished film. I think the press reaction we have got so far, we’ve been very buoued by it. There are things in Bruce that you find sort of unpalatable but most people who areinterested in seeing a film like this can understand why he’s doing it and it’s resolved in the story, there is a resolution to why he is like that. If you are into dark comedy, I think the Irish will really respond to it because I feel as though they’ve got that sense of humour quite similar to the Scots. Tonally, you could say it’s something like The Guard or In Bruges, they’re two movies I really like. Maybe we’re slightly darker in places but certainly we’ve got the broad comedy strokes of films like that and I feel that it’s got some heart as well, Filth. It’s a complex movie obviously but I don’t think, unless you’ve walked into the wrong film, you’re gonna walk out of it. I think if you watch the trailers, if you like the marketing, you’ll get what the film’s all about and if you go to see it, I don’t think you should be too disappointed.”
For the full interview, pick up the October 5 print edition of The Irish World.
Filth is in cinemas from October 4.
Watch the trailer below…