Interview: Jon S Baird on directing Filth

It's been five years since Scottish writer/director Jon S Baird's first feature, Cass, arrived in cinemas, during which time he's been busy bringing the latest Irvine Welsh adaptation, Filth, to the big screen. As Filth heads for the rest of the UK after topping the Scottish box office, Baird discusses the country's film industry and why this isn't the next Trainspotting.

Jonathan Melville: How long have you been working on the film?

Jon S Baird: I met Irvine Welsh at the premiere of Cass, and just after that the rights became available for Filth. I approached him and said that Filth was my favourite of his books and the first I’d read, and that I’d love to do it as a dark comedy. There had been some attempts to do it before but I think they took a darker approach, if you can believe it.

That was in 2008. I started writing the script at the end of 2009 and it was ready in 2010, when we went out to cast it. So it’s been a five year turnaround. It was a very difficult film to finance.

There are a lot of production company logos at the start of the film - where was it shot?

Sweden, Belgium, Germany...all of Bruce’s flat interiors are in Sweden as is the interior of Dr Rossi’s surgery and inside the aeroplane. We shot it all in a big studio there.

The reason we had to go to Sweden is because we don’t have a studio in Scotland, which is what we need. We’ve got such a brilliant infrastructure in terms of people, a massive amount of talent behind and in front of the camera. In fact every Scottish actor seems to be in this movie.

Creative Scotland gave us the maximum investment they could and I have to compliment them for backing it.

Although there have been comparisons to Trainspotting, that film said more about Scotland and its drug culture. This is a much smaller film.

Filth is a personal film, it’s not about a group of young guys. It’s about a guy going into middle age and dealing with the loss of his wife and child. It’s about his dismantling, dressed up in a load of hilarity, depravity and madness. It’s a very different book to Trainspotting. People did keep mentioning it but I didn’t feel the pressure. If I’d been doing a remake or sequel, that’s where the pressure comes.

James’ performance is very intense, how did you help him get into the zone?

I put in a lot of work with the script and we also rehearsed a lot. We fine tuned who Bruce Robertson was, but his understanding of the character straight away was so immediate that I didn’t have a massive amount of fine tuning to do.

I read an interview with Spielberg years ago and he said if you get your casting right, 80% of your movie is made. I spent a hell of a lot of time with casting every single role. One bad performance can throw the whole thing, so as good as James McAvoy is, everyone around him has to up their game. For him to get into the role it was about ingesting the script and I think he did alter his diet and smoke more, subtle changes.

There are some tender moments in there, he’s not an evil character.

He’s made some wrong decisions and gone off the rails. Even at the end he has a chance of salvation. Joanne Froggatt’s character, Mary, is the only one who sees him as a human being. She comes into the book quite late and I think by the time you get to her he’s already this monster, so we brought her further forward and added more scenes that aren’t in the book to make his journey more real.

I’m not interested in one dimensional bad guys, that’s not how life is. It’s rare that even the worst of the worst don’t have some portion of humanity in them. It was a big challenge to get that tonal balance right, how do follow a monster and make him palatable?

Filth is just one of many Scottish films coming to cinemas. Are things turning around for the industry?

I hope so, because as I said before there’s a lot of talent here. It’s a big year for Scotland with the referendum and I think what Scotland needs is confidence as a nation. He says it in the film, we’ve been responsible for some incredible inventions and what we need is confidence.

Whether that comes with independence I don’t know, I don’t have a vote so I don’t really want to express an opinion, but hopefully what films like Filth will do is give people within the industry the confidence that we can be bold. We don’t have to be shy and apologetic.

Hopefully we'll see a move away from our films only featuring drugs and depression...

The weather’s bad enough, we don’t need to be any more depressed! That’s why I’m so pleased at how Lionsgate has decided to promote this film. The trailer is one of the most successful that they’ve ever released, and it’s only been out two months. They totally understood what this film is and it’s a Scottish guy that’s the head of marketing at Lionsgate, a guy called Ross Cunningham, and he totally got this, which is so important.

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They’re selling it as a dark comedy, which is what it is to me. It has got it’s dark moments, but I think what people come out thinking is that it’s a fun ride.

It’s weird, it got banned in India on the basis of the trailer. The best way to describe it is that there’s as much positive response from females as from males, probably more, because you tend to find that women fall for Bruce because he’s so tragic. That’s the thing that will make this film work or not, the amount of women who come to see it.

What's next for you, more Welsh?

I’d probably wait a few films before I did another Irvine Welsh, but I’d love to do another one at some point. I’d love to work in Scotland again because the crew were 90% Scottish and were the best I’ve ever worked with. I want to do musicals, comedies, love stories, a whole plethora of genre movies. I’m rewriting a script for a studio that’s based on a true story, an amazing tale, but it’s a totally different beast to Filth.

Filth is out now in Scotland and opens in the rest of the UK on 4 October.