Director Jon S. Baird Digs Into Filth

We sit down with Jon S. Baird, director of Filth, for an exclusive interview on the seedy and pitch black comedy that stars James McAvoy.

For his second writing and directorial feature, Scottish filmmaker Jon S. Baird honed his focus on the third book of a famous native author: Irvine Welsh’s Filth. It also happens to be Baird’s favorite novel from the Trainspotting writer.

To adapt the controversial and exceedingly blunt text, Baird performed a certain level of liberal reimagining for the material, including the casting of James McAvoy as the titular corrupt, crumbling, and all around unpleasant copper. With the casting of a star and the removal of the many physical ailments that plague protagonist Bruce Robertson, it would seem that the movie is softening the image. But rest assured, Robertson is every bit as vile, crooked, and genuinely sadistic as Welsh imagined, and maybe a little bit more in what amounts to an out-of-the-park turn by McAvoy.

In creating such a vivid and uncouth character study, Baird spent years rearranging that crucial story. And he was kind enough to sit down and talk to us about it last week. We ran the gamut of discussing how it was adapted to just exactly what David Soul was doing in the movie’s one musical number as a prostitute’s john. Plus, could the loose literary sequel, Crime, be on the horizon with up-and-coming star Jamie Bell?

Can you talk a little bit about the first time you read Filth and what it meant to you?

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Jon S. Baird: The first thing I remember most is when I saw the poster for it in the bookshop. I didn’t even realize what it was. I was walking through and there’s this incredibly sort of arresting image of a pig wearing a policeman’s hat just like screaming out at me. I thought what the hell is that! I was really taken aback by it. I realized it was Irvine Welsh who wrote Trainspotting, and [I read it]. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is incredibly dark, but very, very funny.” When it came to do the film, I had met Irvine a good 10 years after that. And when we started talking about the film and stuff, I thought to myself that I want to make a movie where the audience has the same feeling I had when I saw that poster for the first time. Just a big slap in the face to get a reaction. Because that is what you do art for: to get a reaction, whatever the reaction is. Also, for the sake of it, but you want to evoke emotion and you want to touch people’s buttons. So, seeing that image was the big thing.

What emotion does Bruce Robertson evoke for you?

Pity, I think. Tragedy. I think he’s a guy who probably once was a decent person, but for various reasons—probably through mental illness, from drug abuse, from alcohol abuse, from becoming just a bit cynical with the world—he gets to an age where he doesn’t care about himself or his family. He has become this monster. So, it’s a bit tragic. I always think of Filth as a tragic love story. It’s about a guy who’s lost love, he’s lost his wife, and he’s lost his daughter. He doesn’t love himself anymore, and because he doesn’t love himself anymore, he [becomes] sociopathic. He doesn’t have the capacity to feel anymore. And just at the moment it’s given to him, the moment where you think he has the opportunity to get ahead, he can’t even take it then. So, it’s pity really.

When you met Irvine in I believe 2008—

That’s right, yeah.

Did you know that you wanted to make the film? And when you pitched the film to him, was he receptive or did he have any skepticism about a movie version?

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Well, I think when I met him that I wasn’t expecting to meet him. It was just by chance through a friend. So, I wasn’t going to pitch him about the film. It was just sort of a coincidental meeting. I never thought it’d be a reality that this book would be available. I always thought somebody would have the rights for it.

So, I think we had a couple of beers, and I said, “Oh, I love that book Filth. I don’t know if the option’s available or blah blah blah.” And he said, “Oh, it’s funny, because it just became available.” Whoever had it just ran off. I said, “I’d love to do it, but I see it as a comedy, a really dark comedy.” As soon as I said that, it was just like boom. Let’s start talking. He was living in Dublin at the time, and I went over to Dublin to meet him and pitch him what I thought was the thing. And we just seemed to be very similar people and have a very similar sensibility. So, it wasn’t that difficult to convince him of the passion I wanted to bring to it.

One interesting thing I did find is that in the novel, he obviously has some mental illness, but it’s not clearly defined. In this, you zero in on Bipolar Disorder. Is there a reason for that?

Well, I just think it makes him more interested in terms of what was making him crumble. I have got a lot of experience with that. I grew up with somebody close to me who’s got that condition, as did James [McAvoy].

In the book, there’s a lot of things about his physical ailments, and I just thought if we start looking at his flaky balls and his hemorrhoids, etcetera, it’s not going to go the way I want it to go. There’s far more options as an actor or a director as well to express yourself with a mind disorder instead of a physical disorder. Hence the surrealism in the movie and all the liberties we took with the usual sort of rules, I suppose. So, that was really why. I want it to be larger than life, and I want it to be sort of arresting.

A big influence for me is A Clockwork Orange, and I saw Bruce as a similar character to Alex. And there’s a lot of little sort of references to that in Filth. I suppose that is the reason why.

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James McAvoy’s fantastic in this. This is one of his best roles. How did you cast him? How did the two of you develop this role?

I think first of all, his agent came to me, and he said, “Would you consider James?” And we were like, “He’s not the obvious choice, but we’ll meet him of course.” And we met him, not expecting him to be the right guy, thinking he’d be too young, but we met him. As soon as I met him, I realized how edgy he is in real life.

He’s got more of an edge than people imagine. He’s a lot more like Bruce Robertson than Charles Xavier [Laughs]. He’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s got a real edge. So, as soon as I found out all that, I thought, “Okay, this is the guy.” We soon realized that he had grown up with someone who had this condition, once we got into it. H’s very kind and said he thinks it’s the best script he’s read, which is a lovely thing for a writer or director to hear. So, he knew what he was doing; it was all on the page for him. But he had to bring it off the page. So, we spent a lot of time in rehearsals working it out and really finding it. And also trusting each other, as well, because I think he was putting his heart and soul in this performance. He needed to know that he could trust me. So, the big thing was getting to that place, I suppose.

You say he is more Bruce than Xavier. Since you’re both Scotsman, can you relate to some of Bruce’s tendencies?

Yeah, I totally do! The Scots have got a real dark sense of humor, a real playful sense of humor. There’s a lot of substance abuse in Scotland. Humor is on the edge a lot of the time, and one could relate to his illness through experience. Obviously, he’s a very extreme guy and probably not a great guy to be around, but he’s almost like a guilty pleasure. If you saw Bruce Robertson on the street, you could just follow him around all day, just watching the shit he gets up to.

I just think I can relate to him, because he’s got a lot of failings, and we as humans do. We do.

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Did James or anybody in the cast have any reservation about how dark the material could get?

No. We wanted to push it even further, we really did. The thing about it is it’s called “filth.” You know what you’re coming into as well. And it’s a double meaning as well, because the filth is about what happened to him as a kid. But also filth means police back home. That’s what they call them: the filth. So, whoever signs up for an Irvine Welsh adaptation knows what they’re getting into. So, I think the cast wanted to push it further. We’re making a movie, not a documentary.

One of my favorite images of the movie is also the poster and cover of the book: he imagines himself as a pig. Do you think he does that because he’s ashamed that he’s corrupt or a crooked cop, or did he become a crooked cop because he already imagined that he was like that? Because he has that great line [to another character] that he joined the police to join in the police oppression.

I think, basically, there are guys who you grew up with who could either become police or become criminals. I think a lot of the people who decide to go into the police do it for the reason that if they didn’t, they’d end up as crooks. I think Bruce is one of them [Laughs]. He’s probably one of those guys who was always a bit dangerous and just saw the opportunity to abuse power.

But I actually think at the beginning—and in the book especially, with the backstory where he’s in Australia—he’s actually a decent person at the start. He just sees so many bad things that he realizes life is very dark, and people are very dark. It just changes him, as well as the mental illness.

So you do think he had the good intentions or that he didn’t start out where he is now?

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I don’t think he started out like that, no. Because when you see his wife and kid at the end, and you see how he is when he tries to save that guy’s life. The whole chance of redemption is there. I think the Joanne [Froggatt] character is the only one who sees him as a human being. So, I think deep down there is an element of goodness in it.

The movie has a lot of surrealism. I mean there’s a musical number in the car scene and there’s the tapeworm like in the book—

Well did you know that the musical number when she’s in the car with the guy, do you know who that is?

I didn’t catch that.

It’s David Soul from Starsky & Hutch, and the song that they’re singing is a David Soul number, “Silver Lady.”

I should have caught that.

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In the script it was written as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” yeah? And then I was thinking about it, “Hmm, it’s not quite right.” I phoned Irvine and I said, “Look, there’s this song called ‘Silver Lady’ by David Soul, do you know it?” And he says, “Oh, I know David Soul, I’ll give you his number.”

So, I phone David Soul, and I say, “Look, you don’t know who I am, but I have this really weird proposition for you. Would you like to do a sort of cameo in the film and sing your own song?” And he was like, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but yeah let’s do it!”

There was a lot of surrealism, but that’s really to emphasize the sort of mental state he is at. The level of breakdown at that particular point.

[Watch the scene here]

I know there is an unofficial sequel to this called Crime. First, what did Irvine think of this movie? And are you interested in adapting Crime? Also, has Jamie Bell discussed that with you at all?

Well, first of all, when Irvine saw the film, he very graciously said to me that he thought it was better than the book. Which is a lovely thing for a novelist, a very humbling thing for a novelist to say. And he [had previously said] said to me, “If you get this movie made, I’m going to get a tattoo of the book’s cover done.” And he showed me [the tattoo], just at the moment he said that, a huge pig’s face on his arm placed above his elbow. It was incredible!

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In terms of Crime, I would love to do Crime. Myself and Jamie have charted a boat—I think we would both love to do it; I just think it’s a bit too early. I think in years to come, when he’s a bit older and after a few more movies, I think we’ll probably do it. But it’s set in Miami. His character goes to Miami. It’s more of a thriller. It’s more of an obvious movie than Filth. It’s not got the symbolism. It’s almost like Léon, you know? It’s almost a relationship between him and this young girl he’s trying to save. And I would love to do Crime at some stage, yeah.

If he goes to Miami, I assume he did not kick his drug habit.

Nope [Laughs]!

Thank you very much.

Thank you!

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