First published in 1998, Jon S. Baird’s script for Filth was not the first to cross Welsh’s desk. As Welsh explained, “I’ve seen about half a dozen scripts over the years for Filth, and most of them were terrible. They were just the laddish, boy’s type of movie with bad coppers doing some nasty sexy things. It’s funny, you laugh along with them and such, but they were just embarrassing and bad, because the character was never like that to me.” It’s a passage in our conversation that is telling of the author’s connection to his novels, and his open-mindedness towards the process of adapting his work fiction for the screen. “An adaptation must change and you need to have somebody who comes in and tears the book up if need be. Jon loves the book and so he wanted to do the best that he could to capture the spirit of it, and Danny Boyle was the same with Trainspotting. They both loved the books and what they were doing, and this is a key of adaptation. You must love the work and the spirit of it. Of course you are very ruthless when you tear it up to make it work cinematically, but I think originally you’ve got to love the spirit of it, because if you don’t love the book you won’t capture the spirit of it in the adaptation. But Jon and Danny are much more loyal to the books than I am.”
James McAvoy and Filth; it is impossible to think of one and not the other. In a performance that searches for Bruce Robertson’s humanity, it culminates in a moment of manipulation via the question of the possibility of Bruce’s redemption. In spite of this, for Welsh the conclusion of Filth is a moral one that depicts both the moral and immoral Robertson. “I always thought the end of the movie was in a way a moral conclusion. He kind of knows he’s not going to do anybody any good, and he’s got that shot of redemption with the Mary character with the little boy whose husband he tried to save. But he knows that he’ll mess that up and mess her life up as well if he gets too close. He has done a lot of bad things, and so he decides that the best thing he can do is to check out. He is almost saying, “Yeah fuck you all, I’m not going to do any good.” That he smokes out at the end is like a moral choice.” Even in this seemingly moral conclusion, Filth still continues to toy with its audience, asking an important question in which the final moment is perhaps not quite so open and shut. Does Bruce check out consciously therein making a moral choice or is it the intervention of fate that undermines the moral implication of his decision? Either way Filth does what all good art should – provoke conversation. “You want a movie that a lot of people are going to see and are not going to just forget about as soon as they step out of the cinema. You want something that stays with you and you can chat about on the tube on the way home. You can go and see a technically accomplished blockbuster that you will enjoy at the time, but as soon as you’ve passed the refreshment stall or you are getting to the multiplex car park the film is completely out of your mind. You don’t remember anything about it. With this one people are talking about it days later and arguing about it, and it’s also done a lot of good repeat business, where people have gone back a second time to see what they may have missed first time.”
Within cinema there are those films that offer such a visceral experience, films such as Antichrist or Bug which rather than revisiting are instead remembered for the experience. Filth may be one such film that this would apply to, in which repeat viewings are adequately spaced out to serve the original experience. “I must admit that when I first saw an almost finished cut I said to Jon “Look don’t show it me for as long as you can; until it is almost there.” I was just overwhelmed by it.” But as Irvine suggests, whilst it is such a vivid and an overwhelming experience, Filth is a film that requires repeat viewings in order to fully appreciate the experience it offers. “I had to watch it again immediately so I could actually start to kind of process some of the moments in it. It flies by very, very quickly, and it doesn’t let up in pace. So you are basically skimming through the whole experience first time around. I just had to take a second or third viewing to get some of the nuances. Obviously James is absolutely brilliant in it, but every actor in that movie has one big emotional scene with him, in which they are acting out of their skin. So every time I go back to it and watch it somewhere else, I’m waiting for those big scenes to come up.”
The casting process on Filth was meticulously executed. In watching the film it is difficult to perceive it as an exercise in performance. Each actor and actress is so convincing in the incarnation of their respective characters that Filth transcends the very definition of performance, but such meticulous casting prevented the film evolving in a direction that would have pleased neither Welsh nor Baird. “Casting was so important to Jon. But we agreed there because the sort of stuff that I do deals primarily with working class people; primarily people who are a bit outside the system in some way. It’s those people who are in a really bad spot in their life and who are in unfortunate circumstances. If you do something like that it can easily become a bit like a parody, and so to avoid that you cast high; you cast up as much as you can.” Where Baird’s screenplay impressed Welsh was in its ability to overcome obstacles and capture the nuance spoken of by Welsh. What also impressed the author was the way Baird stepped up to the challenge of creating Filth’s brand of black comedy that would be respectful to the different tones and layers that were permitted to emerge from the film. For Welsh “There are a lot more layers and nuance to the character in the film” a characteristic missing from the previous scripts that led to a conflicting view between the authors and Welsh. As for Baird’s script, “It was just a smart intelligent script with a smart intelligent actor, and to be able to pick that up and to be able to imbue it with that. It’s very hard to do dark comedy without making it seem a bit unreal and slapstick. To actually get all the pathos and the horror in the whole thing as well is I think a very, very difficult thing, and it needs a level of sophistication and performance. One of the reasons I was really impressed with Jon when I met him was that was an absolute priority for him.” Speaking with Welsh one could almost be forgiven for picturing Baird in an Edwardian jacket stepping onto the podium to conduct his beloved orchestra that he has painstakingly put together. But for Baird and Welsh alike, it was adhering to the essential need to meticulously cast each part to ensure an assurance on the quality of the performances, the fruits of their labour now realised. “We went out to Hollywood and we managed to interest Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, two of the top casting agents in Hollywood, who were then casting it for us. We went round all the big Hollywood agencies and spoke to loads and loads of actors and not just for the big parts, but also for the smaller parts. Jon spent such a long time auditioning so that everyone looked right, but also even in little cameo scenes to deliver that level of performance so that it wouldn’t drag the film down in any way. He really wanted a top cast.”
It was a few years ago that the Twisted Twins Jen and Sylvia Soska expressed the opinion mid-interview that there needs to be a reason for a film to exist beyond the mandate to entertain. In keeping with this cine-philosophical belief, has Baird successfully taken Welsh’s novel and turned it into more than a bold and outrageous comedy? “Yeah I do think it has cultural legs. You bang through it and it is a great fun scary tragic romp, but there is a lot else to it.” In merging entertainment value with a story which at its heart is about mental illness, Filth is a prime example of what cinema can be. Its depth will compel discussion which will ensure that it retains it relevancy as a slice of not just social commentary, but an exploration of the human condition and the influence of our own psychology and communal psychology. For Filth’s original author, how would he define these cultural legs? “It is looking at the way closed organisations work, such as a police force or anything where we have a group of guys at work. They are like families and they look after their own so when somebody is in such a terrible state, the dysfunction doesn’t become noticed or commented on until it’s very chronic because people in a sense are covering up for them. So he’s this sociopath, but he’s hiding in plain sight; he’s hiding in a position of authority. It’s an interesting parable on individuals within organisations and psychotic personalities of organisations, and how they can thrive and be protected for so long.”
Filth is released on Blu-ray, DVD & Steel-book on Feb 10th. You can read our review here.