Rewind to 2008 when an important conversation took place. It was a conversation between two Scots that would deliver a shock to the system, and shake up the cinematic social consciousness with a bold and courageous piece of filmmaking.
It was the moment that writer-director Jon S. Baird threw his proverbial hat into the ring, and started out on a five year long battle to bring Filth to the screen.
“I said to Irvine, “Look I would like to do it. I don’t want to do it as a social realism piece, I want to do it as a heightened sense of reality, and pull out these big comedic moments whilst retaining the darkness of the character; but certainly with a sense of humour.” He just responded to that and so that way back in 2008 was the start of discussions. As far back as that we started talking about doing this film.” Since our conversation with Irvine Welsh from the eye of a Pornstorm five days ago, five years have symbolically become five days as we follow up the author’s interview with the filmmaker’s interview; the man who adapted and filmed what some called an unfilmable novel. The following conversation goes behind the front line, to explore the story behind the making of a modern classic.
Touching upon an aforementioned observation, 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. But for Baird, the experience of and reception of the film is what defines the film. “I don’t know. I suppose it is different for everybody, and what’s interesting is the way in which people describe the film. Some people say to me “Oh yeah, I put it the comedy bracket” and others say “No, no, no. I put it in the racy drama bracket” whilst other people are in between.” For Baird the difference of opinion Filth has invoked remains a testament to its personality. “It is a film that has got a varied identity, which is kind of the point because the guy himself has got bi-polar, split-personality, however you want to refer to it as. So I think people do take a lot of different emotions out of the film, whether they remember the humour or the psychosis of it. But it’s interesting that you say that. I’m really pleased with how it did, and Lionsgate informed me that it’s the second highest grossing 18 rated film behind Django Unchained, which was quite an achievement for us.”
The film’s leading man James McAvoy has described Filth as “bold, brave, controversial and a rare and precious film in English speaking cinema.” Bringing up McAvoy’s words to Baird, he echoed his leading man’s sentiments, and confirmed that they did indeed define the intentions at the heart of the project. “That’s what we were trying to do from day one. Cinema has become very sanitised, and I grew up or not necessarily grew up on, but certainly the cinema that influenced me most was the gory kind of filmmaking of the 1970s. Those are the films that were bold and brave and had something to say but which were not that self-conscious. So I was trying to do something where I wasn’t trying to work to a formula, but rather I was trying to do it very instinctively and sort of get Irvine’s tone off the page. We just wanted to be as honest to the material as we could be, and by doing that you have to be brave because it’s a very bold book.” One might not instantly recall the iconic decade of seventies filmmaking when viewing Filth, but Baird’s reflections suggests or offers another angle from which the film can be viewed.
Welsh previously observed a similar approach to his work that he had seen with Danny Boyle years earlier with Trainspotting. For Welsh both men possessed a greater sense of reverence for the source material than the novelist from whose imagination and pen it was born did. Talk to Baird, and it is not difficult to sense his deep rooted affection for the material, from where his reverence in all probability is born. “I bought the book the day it was released. It was the first of Irvine’s books that I had read. I had seen Trainspotting but I hadn’t read the book. Filth is still is my favourite of his books to this day; I think it’s his best writing.” Whilst Arthur Koestler may have famously wrote in The Roots of Coincidence that “There is no such thing as coincidence”, for Baird the commencement of his discussions about adapting Filth just so happened to contradict Koestler’s point of view. “I have always been a massive fan of the source material but it was coincidental that I got to meet Irvine. It was through a mutual friend and it wasn’t even organised; it just happened by chance. We were at a party, and I just happened to say, “I’m a huge fan of Filth, and I’d love to do it if it were available?” I never thought it would be available; I always thought it would have been tied up with some of the bigger studios. But it had just become available after Harvey Weinstein had had it for a while, and the option had run out.”
Whether it is a film, a novel, or a musical score, time collapses in our experience of art. Watching a film, reading a book or listening to a piece of music is not dissimilar to a dream. Dreams are illusions that are only seemingly feature films or novels, when in fact they are short films or short stories. Filth’s 100 minute running time is the duration of a dream, which we are aware of, but we remain oblivious of the time it took the film to form in reality. From dreams of the unconscious mind to the dreams of the silver screen, between reality and dreams time quite simply breaks down, and the filmmaker’s battle to realise the film can be lost behind the film’s narrative. “It was a very hard slog to get this film made. It was a real labour of love because as I say I love the source material but because the book had been optioned by previous parties who never seemed to get the right script; it was a real job to get it going. Everybody looked at it as a dead project, and they said it’s the unfilmable novel. Because there had been attempts on it before and nobody had quite got there, it made it even more difficult to get it financed.”
Nowhere proved more difficult to set the wheels in motion than here in the UK, and as Baird explained it would require a shot across the bow – perhaps a little dramatic – but American interest to pique the interest of the British. “In the UK especially nobody was really interested in it, and it kind of happened the other way round. I was in Los Angeles and I gave the script to an agent out there at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). When he read it he responded to it, and so as soon as the Americans started responding to it and started offering up these big cast names, then the British started to take notice. It was almost like a wakeup call that they needed, and often that’s the way, especially when you’ve got a filmmaker who isn’t proven or has only done one film. So I’ve got a lot to thank CAA for because they made this project popular for want of the better word.”
Baird’s experiences are a testament to the schoolyard mentality of the film business. “The film industry is very much like a school playground in terms of whose popular, who’s not and lets all hang out with the popular kid. You see it around awards season and you see it with films getting financed. But this was the most unpopular kid in school. This was the new kid who turned up and pissed everyone off until someone eventually took them under their wing and it sort of turned round, and we eventually started getting attention. Then we thankfully got the fantastic James McAvoy involved, and that brought more cast on-board.”
Speaking with Baird one realises how important the individual is to the fortunes of a film project, and how from Baird’s resilience to the support of others, the togetherness mentality through the uncertainty of shooting served as an example that film is a great collaborative art form. “But even with that, the financing was still very difficult. We had to finance the film through five companies. There was Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and the U.S, and we had to shoot in all these different countries. So not only was it a tight schedule but we’d have to travel round and shoot in all these countries in order to qualify for the tax breaks etc. That was a challenge in itself, but even five weeks into the shoot we didn’t have all the money, and so the plug could have been pulled at any time in those first five weeks.”
But for all the uncertainty facing the production, Baird is firmly of the belief that whilst it contributed its share of pressure, it was in equal measure an advantage that he was able to exploit. “I think that made the film bolder because I just thought right, there’s nobody here to say stop doing what you are doing, so I’m just going to go for it until somebody pulls the plug. That was the way that we shot a lot of the scenes, and maybe we would have been told to calm down if we had had one big financier. But because we had several their opinions were a little bit diluted. So it was a hard job getting this film made, but because it was a difficult job putting it together we got the film that we wanted because we really pushed the boat out.”
Filth is out on Blu-ray and DVD today. Buy your copy here. Check back tomorrow for our chat with James McAvoy. And we’re not finished then…