INTERVIEW: 100% Uncut Irvine Welsh on "The Acid House"
by Laura Macdonald
A trio of very different stories make up the movie, “The Acid House,” controversial author Irvine Welsh’s leap from prose to screenwriting. While his novel contains myriad very smart, quirky, vastly different short stories, only three were chosen for filming. Anyone who’s read “Trainspotting” (or any of Welsh’s other books), knows that Welsh is hard on his readers. He not only writes gritty challenging content, but it’s usually in a Scottish dialect that often requires a glossary. Don’t expect anything less in this intensely surreal and raw film. (Subtitles may help viewers get into the language, but they disappear after a spell.)
Director Paul McGuigan has a history in documentary and was only slated to film the first of the three stories. But his first attempt was so well liked by Welsh and crew, that it was decided he should shoot the whole film, with his unconventional style matching well with the content. The result: a serious trip as losers turn into flies, husbands are betrayed and a baby swaps minds with an acid head. The film is not an experience for the faint fainthearted, but what else would you expect from 100% uncut Irvine Welsh? The Scottish novelist, TV writer, and now screenwriter speaks to indieWIRE about adaptation, our psychoactive lives, and the hazard of making a “Trainspotting” sequel.
indieWIRE: How was it possible to choose from the collection of stories?
Irvine Welsh: I didn’t really choose, it was the producer Alex Usborne who decided which ones to do as he bought the rights to the book. I think when someone buys the rights to your book, you’re quite flattered, so you listen to their choices. He knew what he wanted to do, so I just let him get on with it. I kind of felt that the second story he chose was a bit too realist for the other two, but once they’d been filmed I thought that the second one came across really well, especially as we decided to cut it down to fit the other three. I thought it then worked much better instead of being a single drama, it then worked in the whole progressional thread of the film.
iW: Don’t you think that maybe the film would have worked better having that particular story up first, so that the realism could lull you into a false sense of security before introducing the fantasy involved in the other two?
Welsh: I prefer the idea that it starts off quite crazy and then goes nasty and then it comes up again in the third. I think it’s important to end up on number three as the other two have quite nasty endings.
iW: What about that fantasy element, do you love the surreal and playing with people’s perceptions of reality?
Welsh: I do yeah, I think there used to be a big division between realism and fantasy, surrealism and magic realism and all that, but now people have much more psychoactive lives. I don’t just mean in terms of drugs and the like, I mean more the computer games, sound bytes and channel hopping on the TV. We’ve become used to processing images that are part of the non-linear narrative theory. I think there’s a thinner line between fantasy and normality. People spend much more time in their own heads now. There’s so much to conform to, so many influences coming at you.
iW: What do you think about the difference between a British and an American audience? I’ve spoken to other writers who’ve felt that American audiences are more open to fantasy than British?
Welsh: I think that’s probably true. I think what you call “metropolitan America,” as in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, I think there’s more awareness of the atypical, while in more traditional Britain there’s the kitchen sink dramas and thrillers. It’s more formulaic.
iW: Does that make you more resolute in your writing to open Britain up?
Welsh: I don’t see it as too much of a big issue. I just write the stuff I want to at the time, what feels right for me. I don’t think about what audience I may have. Writing is fairly self-indulgent. I just write to amuse myself basically.
iW: In the first part of the film, you had subtitles. Then I noticed that at a certain stage within the story they petered out. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Welsh: It was just to help people along a wee bit and help them get the gist of the language. We did the same in Australia and Canada but not in Britain, though they probably needed it!
iW: A British journalist told me that you’ve had to do a lot of explaining about these films to the public there.
Welsh: I think after “Trainspotting,” which has become a bit of a reference point for just about every British film, that it’s very difficult to do something a bit different, a bit less airbrushed, a bit less for the mass market. We wanted the actors to be rougher and to speak roughly. It’s very difficult after that, to just do our own wee daft film.
iW: I would have thought, after the success of “Trainspotting” you’d have had much more freedom to do your own thing.
Welsh: We did have the freedom to do it, but the whole media perception of it is another thing. I never wanted to make “Trainspotting 2,” never tried to, but that’s what everyone expected. That has been kind of overwhelming at times. I wanted to take this film to another realm.
iW: Did you all discuss that when making the film?
Welsh: We did. I mean Danny Boyle ran into the same problem when he did “A Life Less Ordinary” after “Trainspotting.” He just wanted to do a romantic comedy. I saw it for the first time recently and I thought it was a good wee film. I really enjoyed it, but people wouldn’t let it not be “Trainspotting 2.” It was interesting that “Lock , Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” borrowed a lot from “Trainspotting” stylistically, but there was no expectation. It just came from nowhere like “Trainspotting” did, it became a kind of Mark II “Trainspotting” there was this kind of safety in that. It was a sassy, pacey British film where “Trainspotting” set the prototype. It’s set a precedent for British film, an alternative to the costume dramas. It defined contemporary British film with young, kinda cool working class guys hanging out, running around, violence and of course the camera work, bizarre angles have become a much copied style.
iW: You didn’t write the screenplay for “Trainspotting.” What did you think of it?
Welsh: I thought it was really great, a fantastic job, a far better job than I would have done. I didn’t want to do it, as I had no experience at screenwriting. I think I would have really messed it up. What I wanted above all was to do something of a pacey and accessible kind of film. I didn’t want it to be a lovely piece of social realism. It would have been horrible if it had been like “The Basketball Diaries” where you know in the first frame what’s going to happen to everybody. I didn’t want the characters to be victims. That’s why I sold it to Andrew and Danny in the first place as, they had the best take on it. I think they executed it really well.
iW: Did you learn from how they adapted it? Did it help with this film’s adaptation?
Welsh: I think it was probably very helpful. To be honest, when I did this, because the stories were already there and they are so much inside the main character’s head, it was very easy to just start off with the dialogue and inject parts from there. It was the easiest thing to do and I loved it.
iW: Are you going to do more movies now?
Welsh: Well, Alex wants to make a movie out of “A Smart Cunt,” [a short story found in “The Acid House”] and I’ve written that and changed it quite radically. I’ve done about six short films for TV. I’ve also been working on a screenplay with an English writer set during the dock strike in Liverpool and it’s gone to Channel 4. So, we’re starting to film that soon. It interests me more now to do something fresh rather than adapting to be quite honest. I mean it was a good exercise to start off with to get a wee bit of experience, but now I want to do fresh stuff. I just sold my book “Filth” to Miramax and I was determined that I wasn’t going to do the screenplay as I didn’t want to. I wanted a friend to do it, so Miramax has given him the first draft and I can tell he’s going to bring something fresh into it. He’s really fired up and enthusiastic about the character. I think that the book should just be the bare bones for a screenplay.
iW: I read that the background of “Acid House” director, Paul McGuigan, is in documentary film. Did you purposely want him to retain the realism and roughness of your stories as he did with his raw camera style?
Welsh: Paul read the book and he didn’t really give a toss. There was no ego involved, he just said, “I’ll have a go at this, try this and try that.” He was very relaxed about it. I hadn’t seen any of his stuff before. The original idea was to have three different directors for each one, but he did such a great job with the first one that we wanted him to do them all.
iW: With these stories you jump so much from the social realism to fantastical extremes within the book and the film. How do you achieve that, is that just the flow of your mind?
Welsh: I don’t know where that comes from. I think you can see the genesis of every story in events and such. I go around thinking what if such and such and where would that person go and I just search around my own head.
iW: What about casting, did you have any input? For example, Kevin McKidd and Ewen Bremner were both in “Trainspotting”?
Welsh: I really like Kevin in “Trainspotting” and he’s one of those understated actors who could pull off the “nice guy in extreme circumstances” role. He really held it together well. He’s a strong actor. As for Ewen he didn’t really want to do any more acting at that time, he was just doing music, but I convinced him that it would be a good thing to do.
iW: So are your plans to now stick to film or are you going back to your novel writing?
Welsh: Well, it’s good to do both. When you’re writing a book you’re a sad bastard really as you’re on your own. I’m quite a social animal by nature so I like working with people. I like to jump between the two, go back to the roots when I need to. I think I’ll always jump between them.