Peterhead director is Scotland’s rising star

On the rooftop of one of the capital’s swankiest developments, Jon S Baird is beaming as a gaggle of photographers snap pictures for newspapers and magazines from around the world.

Waiting in the wings are Hollywood A-lister and Golden Globe nominee James McAvoy and Scottish literary maverick Irvine Welsh.

'Filth' director Jon S Baird from Peterhead.

'Filth' director Jon S Baird from Peterhead.

The pair are soon shepherded into shot by the PR team promoting Baird’s new film, an adaptation of Welsh’s ‘Filth.’

Baird is in Edinburgh for the glitzy premiere of the movie and has a hectic schedule of interviews with newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations - this builder’s boy from Peterhead has come a long way from the roofs and slipyards of the Blue Toon.

‘Filth’ is the silver-screen adaptation of Welsh’s most foreboding novel.

It tells the story of a morally-bankrupt Edinburgh detective - Bruce Robertson, played by McAvoy - bent on undermining his colleagues and enjoying every illicit pleasure from the knocking shops of the Old Town to the drug dens of Hamburg.

Filth

Filth

Rather than a gritty cop story in the Scottish Noir genre, Baird’s take on Welsh’s material is fantastical and in your face.

Oscar winner Jim Broadbent makes an appearance as a surreal psychiatrist and there is no end of explicit scenes of sex and drug taking.

McAvoy even does a mean impression of bizarre comedy character Frank Sidebottom.

The 18-rated film will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes - so shocking is some of the material that Baird had to scrape together financial backing from all over the place - but the critical reception it has received has been the best of any Welsh movie since Danny Boyle’s seminal ‘Trainspotting.’

'Filth' director Jon S Baird is joined by writer Irvine Welsh and actor James Mcavoy.

'Filth' director Jon S Baird is joined by writer Irvine Welsh and actor James Mcavoy.

Baird is unsurpisingly delighted.

“The most nerve-wracking part of the whole process,” he says to the Buchanie, “was showing Irvine the first draft of the script.

“Irvine lives in Chicago and I emailed it to him last thing at night here, went to my bed, switched off my phone, never slept a wink, got up the next day and switched on my phone
again.

“You know what Irvine said to me? Irvine had sent a really nice email that said, ‘I love it, don’t change a word.’

“That was always the important thing for me. There are going to be people who like the film and there are going to be people who don’t but when he put his name to it everything else fell into place.”

The pair first met in 2008 at the premiere of Baird’s debut film Cass, the acclaimed biopic of Jamaican orphan Cass Pennant’s journey from football hooligan to book publisher.

Welsh tells the Buchanie he and Pennant are close friends and it was Pennant who first sold him on upcoming director Baird.

They met at the premiere and Baird laid out his vision for how Filth should appear on the screen. Work on the project began immediately.

Welsh says: “I’ve worked really closely with him over the last five years and it’s been a fantastic experience and he’s done a fantastic job.

“Jon is one of the most talented guys to come out of Scotland in recent years and he’s going to go on to do huge things.”

He pauses briefly before correcting himself: “Well, he’s done them already with this to be honest - it’s going to put him right on the map as a hot British director.”

It is a view shared by the film’s leading light, James McAvoy. The 34-year-old grew up in Glasgow and in his youth was no stranger to the mental health issues depicted in the film.

His portrayal of Bruce Robertson, drawn from that time, is perhaps the finest of his career and owes much to the direction of Baird.

McAvoy says: “I had seen Cass but I didn’t know who Jon was or anything about him.

“Different directors are completely different from one another - Jon is very bold and very direct and very brave, certainly on this project.”

McAvoy takes a mouthful of a pre-packaged salad, short on time for a meal before tonight’s big opening.

He swallows. “Jon wasn’t afraid of being forceful with the audience and that was really refreshing because there are so many people trying to hedge their bets as filmakers.

“He just went all in.”

Baird’s success in getting this highly controversial project off the ground and into the projector room owes a debt to his upbringing.

His formative years were spent in Peterhead. He was educated at the academy, worked for his father’s roofing company and - like so many young loons - spent time working at the port. He even did work experience at the Buchanie.

Despite all this, however, he harboured different ambitions - Baird wanted to see his name up in lights.

“My uncle lived in Hampshire and we used to go down and visit him twice a year.

“On the way we would stop in London and go to a theatre production, usually a musical. My dad used to love musicals.

“By the age of 12 I’d seen everything - stage plays, musicals, you name it, I’d seen it.

“Ours was never an artsy upbringing but the point is that when I came out of those theatre productions I had this incredible euphoria.

“I thought that when I was older, I want to do something that makes people feel like that.”

But Baird, a thrum of Doric still audible in his voice, never told anybody about his showbiz dreams. Instead he worked those manual jobs around town and spent time as a porter at an Aberdeen hotel.

“Peterhead is not a place you can really come from and do that. It’s not achievable.

“I always believed I could do it but I didn’t know how to start. I certainly didn’t want to say to anybody for fear of being ridiculed.

“What Peterhead did give me was a fantastic grounding in reality. I had done all these jobs and worked with real people.

“That’s really helped when it comes to writing different voices and making it feel authentic.”

On set, a director manages a cast of dozens, both onscreen and off. Baird is adament the North East gave him the ability to deal with actors of McAvoy’s gravitas and electricians alike.

“It has let me tune into all these different people - I’ve been blessed really.”

Despite keeping his hopes and dreams under wraps growing up, Baird now has no qualms about returning home and making a movie about the North East.

He smiles at the thought of it and says: “Filth is, underneath it all, a dark comedy. If there is a chance to do a dark comedy set in the North East then I absolutely would.

“I actually wrote one - one of the first things I ever wrote was a dark comedy, not as dark as Filth, set in Aberdeenshire.

“I’d dread to read it now. It’s probably absolute rubbish.”

“For me personally you should always try and write about things you know and love and understand. With Peterhead I do all three of those and my family are there so why not.”

Whether he gets the opportunity to bring a host of Hollywood heavyweights to the Blue Toon or not, Welsh, McAvoy and the reporters and critics who have already seen the film are all in agreement that Baird’s career will only go one way from here - up.

‘Filth’ is out on 27th September in Scotland and 4th October for the rest of the UK and Ireland.