Eleven years in the making, we are now within touching distance of the official launch of the latest big screen adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel. This time it’s the book Ecstasy which gets the big screen make-over and it’s all down to the hard work of Toronto based director Rob Heydon. In anticipation of the movie’s October 7th release across Canada we had the chance to catch up with Rob to discuss the difficult production schedule, the importance of music in the project and his hopes for how it will be received by the public at large…
Click: Let’s start off by asking you to tell our readers a little bit about Ecstasy…
RH: Canadian Keith Wyatt originally adapted the Irvine Welsh book Ecstasy into a play which went to the Edinburgh Festival and travelled across the UK and Canada. Irvine loved it and thought it was the best adaptation of his work to date, and so Keith approached me about directing a film based on the play. I had done music videos for some DJs and kinda knew that world so I was interested. In reading the script I felt it was a great play, but didn’t really translate well to a film. It turned out that he didn’t have the rights to make the changes I wanted, so he put me in touch with Irvine and I optioned the necessary rights. That was 2000, and it took a year to get a short form option from Random House and another full year to get the long form option.
When I met with Irvine I proposed to him was that it was a great book but I wanted to make it more about transformation and change – not that his book didn’t work, the book was great as a book, but it needed to translate and change into a film. With Trainspotting and The Acid House he’d had some experience in his work being adapted for a film with varying degrees of input, so it wasn’t new to him.
So after many years of developing the script and trying to get financing together we got the thumbs up for the script from Irvine. He liked it and where it was going and what we were doing, and then we put the financing together only for it to change and fall apart seven times over the year. The first time it was financed with UK financing until Gordon Brown changed the tax laws for films in the UK and we ended up losing half of the financing overnight. That was my first lesson in film production; the money is never real until it’s in the bank. And independent film financing is very hard to do, so it’s a miracle that any film ever gets made.
Then we set it up as a Canada/UK co -production, had all the financing in place and were closing the Bond in the bank in September 2009 when Lisa Rae, our lead actress at the time, announced to the world that she had cancer. So again we lost all the financing and had to start from scratch again. The following August we put it all together again, and the UK bond company said we hadn’t raised enough money in the UK to make it a co-production. It was too close to the borderline and they didn’t want to handle that risk. So between August and September we made it a straight Canadian film, but we still had the chance to go to Scotland to film over there. Oh the joys of making a movie! [laughs]
Click: Plenty of ups and downs then! How did that affect the project and how the movie turned out?
RH: I think the film was better because of it in a weird sadistic kinda way. Because we had to struggle so much we kept going back to the script and rewriting it. And because of the story and the success of Trainspotting we’ve been able to attract a lot of amazing musicians who almost donated their music to the film. Coldplay, Primal Scream, Tiesto, John Digweed who had a track in Trainspotting… they’ve all got music featured in the film.
I had a history with Digweed coz I made some videos for him about ten years ago and I kinda kept in touch with him over the years. In December we had finished shooting the main unit of the production and were going to Scotland to shoot the second unit. I had been in touch with him and his writing partner and got some music to put into the film when I realised he was DJing in Edinburgh while we were there. So I emailed and asked if he would mind if we came to the club while he was playing and got some film of him playing to the club which turned out really well.
Click: In terms of adapting the novellas into the movie, what kind of challenges did you face in order to make it all work together for the big screen in comparison to the way the book is structured?
RH: The play focuses on the third short story, so we focussed on the third short story too. Structurally the book goes from one chapter of Lloyd to one chapter of Heather, back and forth until the last ten pages where they meet, break up and decide to get together again. Structurally that doesn’t work as a film because you need to engage your audience in a different way. There wasn’t much of an antagonist in the book – the main antagonist was Lloyd. It was Lloyd versus himself, Lloyd versus the drugs, Lloyd versus his family and Lloyd versus the world. So it’s really internalised with the hallucinations and so on.
It was interesting how we had to make simple changes to visually tell that story. We had to change the love story and kinda weave it through a little more. We introduced a gangster because they‘re obviously in Scotland where there’s a gangster element to the drug scene and the club world, so we wanted to tell that story too, you know, how ecstasy changed when the gangsters got involved.
One of my co-writers is from Paisley just outside Glasgow; it’s a really rough neighbourhood. On my first trip to Scotland he took me on a trip to the pub to meet his brother who’s a gangster and thirty other guys.I was like “what the hell’s going on! It’s three in the afternoon and everyone’s in suits and drinking at the bar”, and he told me that they were “all in business”. I asked what the hell kinda business and he told me that they were all gangsters and the penny dropped. Then I realised that they’d all got scars on their faces and I was like “holy shit”! I’m from Toronto you know, people get in a fight and it’s over! These guys take scars home! It’s rough [laughs]
I had no idea at the time but Paisley is one of the roughest areas in Europe! The police station there is like an army base with a twelve foot wall around it! It was an eye opening experience for me. We’d been going back and forth to Scotland for ten years developing the project though writing and researching. I went to Scotland about 35 times and met a lot of the guys in the scene and a lot of the DJs and so on. So it’s been a long drawn out process of writing and adapting it and making it authentic. Getting Irvine involved, getting the cast involved and then getting the musicians and DJs involved. But I think the end product was really overwhelming when I was sitting in the final mix of the film. It was better than I expected and better than I had written. I was really happy with the outcome. And Irvine has given it two thumbs up!
Click: When you’re approaching something like Ecstasy, do you try to adapt it for a more mainstream audience given that Irvine’s humour and sensibilities might be such that they’re more for people based in the UK than for "foreigners"?
RH: To a certain extent yeah. When you read Irvine’s material it’s written in Scottish vernacular, so it’s written the way people there speak. The words that they are speaking in the book are mixed up from the rest of the English speaking world. It’s like a different language at times, so we did have difficulty financing the film when people couldn’t understand the dialogue. We had to rewrite the dialogue for people to understand it… in English – proper English [laughs].
We wanted to the make the story more universal, and because it’s a love story it’s easy to do. And kids going to clubs every weekend is fairly universal as well. We also needed to consider that ecstasy was big in the 90s, but whether there was still a market for it. Last year’s Love Parade in Germany had over two million people show up, and there’s a thing in Rio that had over a million people attend. Then you’ve got all these huge DJs like Tiesto, John Digweed, Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, David Guetta, and Deadmau5 and so on who have millions of fans across the world.
We know that there’s a market for it, we just wanted to make sure that the story spoke to young people everywhere and that they could connect with it. We want them to really enjoy the situations that the characters are going through. We hope we did that, we think from the feedback that we got from Irvine that he believes that we’ve done that, but only time will tell.
Click: Are we going to have subtitles on the movie or do you think it’s going to be intelligible for non-British people?
RH: I think it’s intelligible, but that’s really a decision that’ll be made by the distributor. I think Miramax put subtitles on Trainspotting for America, but I saw it in theatres in Canada where Alliance released it and they only subtitled one of the scenes. It’s the one in the club where the girls are talking about shopping while Spud and the guys were talking about football. So for America it’s really up to the distributor.
Click: Do you think that Ecstasy is going to see people drawing comparisons between yourself and Danny Boyle given the obvious link?
RH: I think so. I think there are other films as well like The Acid House. I think there are obvious comparisons because it’s the same author and the same voice running the characters. He’s got a certain tone and texture that he portrays in his stories. On the flipside of that, it’s a different story. It’s not about heroin addiction or a bunch of junkies ripping each other off. It’s a different time; it’s set more modern day.
It’s a different story. The characters are taking ecstasy, but it’s a transformational love story moving from the love of ecstasy to the ecstasy of love. It’s not that drugs don’t work, but it’s more that when you reach your mid 30s that lifestyle isn’t sustainable any more. We’re all looking for some sort of understanding of our lives and some sort of change.
Given the word ecstasy and the name Irvine Wells people are going to think “oh it’s just another drug film”, but it’s about ecstasy and how we reach the state of ecstasy. It all comes from within.
Click: Are you worried that it’s going to court a bit of controversy given the fact that it’s another Irvine Welsh book that, at least on face value, deals with drugs?
RH: [Laughs] I think that as an independent film maker, you love the controversy. Every time Irvine Welsh is mentioned in the papers in Scotland they sell out. He’s cult hero of a mad partier who wrote about his experiences and became the poet laureate for the chemical generation. He’s definitely a huge cult hero in the UK and has crossed over into the mainstream with the prolific amount of writing he’s doing. But he’s also producing a film called Soap with James McEvoy and Jamie Bell in the leads. He’s directing a film called The Magnificent Eleven which is a remake of The Magnificent Seven about football starring Sean Bean. He’s got a prequel to the Trainspotting book called Skag Boys coming out. He’s got two other books coming out and he’s writing a pilot for HBO, so he’s a very busy man.
In addition to doing all that he’s got his book readings and nonstop touring, book reading and interviews. We love the controversy that Irvine Welsh brings to the project. I think it’s very much a UK centric project, and that’s our primary target audience for the film, but we also think the film will play well in urban cities around the world. Any press is good press right? [laughs]
Click: How did you settle on the actors used in Ecstasy?
RH: It was a long process. We had a number of A list actors in Hollywood interested, but because of the potential controversy we had their agents talking them out of it, making hard to get a bankable cast in. When we got the financing this time we decided to go back and revisit the people we had ideally wanted to cast if money wasn’t an issue and we just wanted to make the best film possible. We wanted to keep as many Scots in it as possible.
We liked the idea of casting Adam Sinclair as the lead. He’s got a good man/bad man look to him so there’s that dichotomy. Then we had Billy Boyd who I’d always envisioned as Woodsy. When I first met him in 2003 he was just finishing his word tour for the press of Lord of the Rings. He has always been attached, depending on the schedule. He would always try to make himself available for the film because he loved the script and really wanted to do it.
Other actors we wanted or cast, like Colm Mochrie who is a Canadian comedian and is very funny but was born in Scotland and can do the accent very well and people buy it. Carlo Rota plays a gangster and was actually born and raised in the UK and went to theatre school and trained all the accents quite heavily, so that was helpful.
Kristin Kreuk we have in there as a Canadian living in Scotland, married to an Englishman. For the Scottish people it’s easy to hate the English [laughs] and we wanted to play up to that. Kristin is amazing in her role. Then we cast Dean McDermott whose father is from Glasgow, so he got the accent bang on. He plays a terrible cheating husband who breaks up with Kristin’s character Heather, and he played it to a tee.
Once we got a few of the leads attached it was like a wad of actors wanted to work on it, and everyone was willing to work at scale just to make the film a reality. So we got Stephen McHattie who’s from the Maritimes but can do the Irish and Scottish accent bang on. He’s worked on tonnes of films, like 300, The Immortals and A History of Violence. He’s an amazing character actor who plays Lloyd’s dad. We had a fantastic cast because they liked the story, they liked the script and they wanted to be part of the project.
Click: Getting back to the music, Trainspotting was renowned for having one of the best movie soundtracks of its time combining classics with some of the cutting edge dance music of the time. Given the subject matter of Ecstasy, how important a role does the music take in the project?
RH: It’s actually like another co-star I think. It’s that important. It plays a crucial role in a lot of scenes. I think there are 38 music cues in the film, and we run the whole gamut of emotions and really wanted the music to enhance them. How do you show visually or feel visually a person coming up on ecstasy or feeling depressed after ecstasy or breaking up with their girlfriend or a family member dying or struggling to smuggle drugs through customs and stuff like that? We have classic dance music from the 90s and 00s, anthems from back in the day, as well as newer music by Coldplay, some classics from Primal Scream and so on, and we always use the music to enhance the scenes; to take the emotions to the next level.
It was a struggle [laughs].
We started clearing the music when were originally financed a couple of years ago. We got a lot of permissions then, but when the budget dropped quite significantly we had to go back and ask everyone to take a cut and do it as a favour. Paul Oakenfold gave us a new dance track – he’s off composing big Hollywood films now. It was great to get people like that involved.
Click: You’ve got quite a reputation for making music videos for the likes of John Digweed, Richie Hawtin and The Herbaliser among others. That must have prepared you quite well for this?
RH: Yeah, my bother lives in London, England, so I’ve visited him there and checked out the clubs. I know the scene quite well and would be familiar with how it works. I used to throw events in Toronto so I knew the music and I knew the DJs and I had produced and directed music videos for a number of them in the past. What I wanted to do was something that used music video techniques and classic film making techniques to tell this story and enhance the visuals. In certain scenes we’re shooting cinema verite with handheld cameras and shooting multiple cameras to make it as realistic as possible. We wanted to bring the audience into the world of the characters so they can feel their emotions more.
Other times were shooting with a steady cam and it’s highly stylised and there’s a lot of time-lapse photography and so on. We tried to use every trick in the book to tell this story and enhance the visuals.
Click: Given that it’s your first feature film as a director, how do you think the process has gone? How does it feel? What’s your take on the whole thing?
RH: It’s been a long process. From when I started it right through to now I’ve gotten married and had three kids, so personally I’ve gone through a huge growth process myself. It’s kinda like birthing an elephant – there’s a long gestation [laughs]. Being a first time filmmaker nobody’s going to give you a break, you just have to go out there and do it. Like Stanley Kubrick said, if you want to learn how to make a movie, go out and make a movie!
It helps that I have such an amazing cast and crew and all these musicians willing to help out, and then getting Irvine Welsh to give us the thumbs up and go out there in the press praising the movie. He came from New York to view a fine cut of the film and to give us some feedback a while back. He actually got on Google Maps us and told us to shoot “here, here and here” and “you have to shoot at this pub”, so we went back to Scotland a second time and went exactly where we needed to go. Then we went and shot in Amsterdam on Canon 5D cameras and snuck some shots in airports and on airplanes and going through customs in the airport while acting like stupid tourists fidgeting with our cameras while we were actually rolling film.
There’s no way we could have gotten that footage if we were a big Hollywood production. It would have cost so much to shut an airport. We shot it almost documentary style and it feels that real. I’m very proud of it and just looking forward to getting it out there to the world. The early feedback we’ve had from the trailer at the Cannes Film Festival was great and we’re really excited about some of the feedback from the industry and people who’ve seen it so far.
Click: Just to wrap up then, how excited are you to have the premier in your home town?
RH: Pretty excited! We’re not sure yet when it’s playing. TIFF hasn’t confirmed the film being in the festival yet. We have gotten into some other festivals in Toronto at the same time and we’re not sure what we’re going to do, but it’s nice for the cast and crew to come see the final film and get some audience feedback as well. We’re really excited to get audiences in front of it and hear what they have to say about the film. Like with a lot of Irvine Welsh material though, people aren’t going to sit on the fence, they’re either going to love it or they’re going to hate it [laughs].