Jon S. Baird was behind one of the standout British movie of last year, as he adapted Irvine Welsh’s novel Filth for the big screen.
Filth has just been released on DVD & Blu-Ray and we caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the project, the challenges of adapting the novel, and casting the fantastic James McAvoy in the central role.
- Filth has just been released on DVD, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
It stars James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent and Jamie Bell, and is a dark comedy written by Irvine Welsh. It is about a man… it is a tragic love story really… but it is about a detective who is going for a promotion at work, because he thinks it is going to win his wife and daughter back.
We slowly realise that everything he is telling us isn’t quite as it seems. The tragic, hilarious and often shocking results unfold over an hour and a half. It is a tragic love story, with very strong comedic elements.
- You are in the director’s chair for the film and have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? And what was the appeal of Irvine Welsh’s novel?
It started the book came out, which was 1998, and I read it back then. I was just fascinated by this lead character, as he is such an awful human being; he is also very compelling and very complex. I wasn’t working in film at the time, so I had no inclination of making a film at that stage.
As I got to work in the industry, I revisited the book - it was always my favourite book by Irvine Welsh. When I got the chance to meet him, the first thing I asked him was ‘are the rights available?’
Also, the fact that it was the unfilmable novel; I never felt that I always thought the character was so interesting that there was a really strong story in there.
Once I met Irvine, the appeal doubled as I realised how great a guy he would be to work with. Those were really the things that appealed to me. Irvine Welsh really was a hero to me as I was growing up.
- As you say, many thought that this was an unadaptable novel, so how did you find the screenwriting process? How great a challenge was it?
It was a challenge. In the book there is a tapeworm growing right through the middle of the book, which becomes the narrator. Therefore, I felt that I had to deal with that first, and then everything else would fit around his journey.
The first scenes that I wrote were adapting the tapeworm and personifying him through a psychiatrist of Bruce’s; Jim Broadbent takes on the role of Doctor Rossi. Once I had those scenes worked out, then I started thinking about the arc of the journey for Bruce Robertson.
I love the book, I loved Irvine’s writing, and so I found it pleasurable to revisit it and write these characters. When you like something and you really invest time in it, it does become much easier.
- You have slightly touched on my next question. I wondered how much you felt that the script differed from the book? And why did you decide to make some of those changes - the film isn’t as dark as the book of example?
It definitely not as dark. I don’t think that you can make a film that is as dark as the novel because people wouldn’t go and see it. When you read a book, you making up your own mind about the levels of humour, sex, violence or drugs and you can filter it to your own mind; you can make it as graphic or as subtle as possible.
When you are doing a film, you are very much a slave to the director’s vision. As a director you can’t make something too explicit of too unappealing because no one will want to go and see it. Adaptations often have to take the edge off slightly compared to the original material: particularly when it is a novel that is as edgy as Filth.
The script has a bit more emotion and a bit more humanity to the character than the book does maybe. That was something that Irvine was very aware of, and he was very on board with the adaptation.
- The film also chooses to focus more on Bruce’s psychological degradation rather than his physical degradation, why you chose to focus on that?
I think it unlocks a character’s motivation easier if you know why they are like they are; you cannot excuse him but you can understand him a little bit more. Also, who wants to see a character with piles and flaky balls? I don’t want to see that.
That is a totally different film to what I would have done. If you had gone down that path, you would have been making an art house film that nobody wanted to see.
- This is a movie that strikes a fantastic balance between very dark and also very funny, so how do you find juggling those two elements?
It is very tough. I think that you have to be very specific in the script about humour, and really read it to yourself and work out is going over the score and what people are going to like. I think your editing process is the big thing there.
I think people don’t realise the complexity of editing; a tiny little second here or there can make you read a scene completely different. The subtly of editing really help you when it comes to finding the tone and balance between comedy and tragedy or drama.
- James McAvoy is terrific in the central role of Bruce, so can you talk a bit about getting him on board the project?
He came to us. He had read the script and his agent them came to us and said ‘will you meet James?’ We weren’t thinking about James, we didn’t imagine him in this role.
However, when we met him we soon had our minds changed by how smart and edgy he was. We certainly didn’t have him in mind and it was an approach from his agent that really started it all off.
- How collaborative a process was it between the pair of you as you were developing the character of Bruce?
A lot of it was on the page and humbling to me, James has always said that this is the best script that he has ever read; it is am amazing thing for to hear him say something like that.
What we did in rehearsal was really fine-tuning the performance and finding levels of comedy, drama or violence. We did work closely because he is in every scene. Therefore, it really was very collaborative. He really is a smart guy, and smart actors make good actor.
- You have brought together a great supporting cast with the likes of Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent, Eddie Marsan and Imogen Poots on there. Can you talk about the casting process and bringing this great line up together?
You have to really work hard on the script to get… you can’t just concentrate on the main character, you have to make all of the characters - regardless of how small they are - as believable and as playable as possible. That is how you get a great ensemble; you make all the characters with a distinct voice, regardless they have to say.
Once you have started attaching people like James McAvoy and Jim Broadbent, then you get other actors such as Eddie Marsan. It is like a magnet, once one comes, they all start to come in. Casting is the part of the process that I really do enjoy the most. I am doing a similar thing at the moment. I really love that process.
- I was reading that you have got to know Irvine Welsh quite well in recent years, so what was his response when he read the screenplay for the first time? How nervous were you about him reading your adaptation?
I was very nervous because it was his work. I sent it him at night-time, I then switched off my phone and knew in the morning there would be a message for me, one way or the other. Fortunately, he basically said ‘don’t change a word’, that was his directive.
I knew that he was on board. He is a big fan of film and has done so much publicity and press to support this movie. When he saw the film for the first time he said ‘I think it is better than the book’, and that is an incredible thing for an author to say to you. It sounds like I am blowing my own trumpet, but he really did say that. He has become a good pal.
- The film has been met really well critically and has picked up some awards and nominations recently. How have you been finding the response to the film? You must be thrilled?
We were at the London Critics Circle Awards last week, where I managed to win and James also managed to win. I was sitting there and in front of me was Gary Oldman and John Hurt, next to them as Steve McQueen and behind me was Andy Serkis and Paul Greengrass, and I just thought ‘this is incredible. This is an amazing experience’. This last six months really has just been like a dream.
- You made your directorial debut back in 2008 with Cass, and this is your first film since that debut. What did you perhaps take from your experience on Cass that you were able to use on Filth?
I think I made many mistakes on Cass, which I hope I didn’t make on Filth. Every filmmaker learns from their previous film, and I will learn from other mistakes that I made on Filth that I hopefully won’t make on the next one. I think, one of the things on Cass was the script was too long, so we never had enough days to shoot the script.
The one thing I learnt there was getting your script really tight so you have the time to shoot each page. It is just little things like that. I also learnt not to spend too long on the edit, and giving yourself some perspective going back through. I don’t think I fought my corner enough with Cass, but I did with Filth in terms of how the film was going to be marketed.
You have to learn by your mistakes and your experiences, but also learn by the good things that you do as well. I am sure with the next thing I do there will be references from this movie that I take forward with me.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I am working with Danny Boyle on a Channel 4 programme called Babylon; the pilot has just been screened, which Danny directed. He has asked me to direct the first three episodes of the series.
I start shooting them in March, and they come out in the autumn. That is what I am doing next. I am working with another one of my heroes, so I have been very blessed. Getting to learn from people like that can only make you a better filmmaker.
Filth is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now
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