An Interview with Irvine Welsh
From his debut novel, Trainspotting (1993), about the drug-addled daily existence of a gang of disaffected Edinburgh youths, to his latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), concerning a womanizing alcoholic’s journey toward self-knowledge, Irvine Welsh’s gritty prose has earned him notoriety on both sides of the Atlantic as one of contemporary culture’s most nihilistic chroniclers of urban depravity. In a review of Welsh’s novel Glue (2001) for the New York Times, Jonathan Lethem called Welsh “an unflinching contemporary Dickens.” On the other hand, during the 1996 presidential campaign, Senator Bob Dole went as far as to decry Trainspotting for its moral decay and glorification of drug use without even having read the book or seen the film adaptation.
I met Irvine Welsh in June, when he was in San Francisco with his writing partner Dean Cavanagh for the world premiere of their new play, Babylon Heights (2006), a black comedy about the dwarf actors drafted to play Munchkins in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. It might feature little people, but true to form for the creative force behind such titles as Filth (1998), Porno (2002), and You’ll Have Had Your Hole (1998), Babylon Heights is hardly family viewing. As the sodomy- and suicide-riddled plot unravels from the opening word (“Cocksucker!”) to the closing sentiment (“Open up, you lousy cocksuckin’ giraffe-assed freaks!”), we feel more like we’re getting drunk in one of Welsh’s derelict Edinburgh dive bars than skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
Welsh is best known for his novels and short stories, but he’s also recently been developing a career as a screen and stage writer. Babylon Heights is the author’s second play (the first being You’ll Have Had Your Hole) and his first cowritten work for the stage with erstwhile screenwriting partner Cavanagh. Besides undertaking projects for British television networks like Channel 4 with Cavanagh, one of Welsh’s current film projects, titled The Meat Trade (shooting January 2007), is a screenplay based on the nineteenth-century West Port murders. Welsh has transported the historical material to the familiar territory of present-day Edinburgh, with serial killers William Burke and William Hare depicted as brothers who steal human organs to meet the demands of the global transplant market. The author has also started to explore directing, having created a short film to accompany the track “Atlantic” from the band Keane’s album Under the Iron Sea (2006).
Despite his hardcore image as a writer and tough physical presence—the bald scalp, wiry physique, faded-skull arm-tattoo, long scar tracing the contours of his left ear, and skin so pale it practically advertises its wearer as a creature of the night—Welsh is soft-spoken and laid-back. The more I listened to the gentle inflections of his Edinburgh brogue that day in San Francisco, the easier it became to reconcile the man who writes with graphic aplomb about date rape and heroin overdose with the man who’s campaigning to improve the image of public libraries in the U.K. and writing television comedies about thirtysomething women for prime-time TV.
I. THE LITTLE PERSON
THE BELIEVER: Why did you choose to premiere your new play at the Exit, a tiny black-box theater in San Francisco?
IRVINE WELSH:We wanted to help the show find its legs.We knew the play would find an audience.We felt that it was initially more important to let the actors find the play. We wanted to start the play off in a small, grungy kind of space, a cabaret space, to let it breathe a wee bit. Given that the play is set in California, we planned to fucking do it in California. Staging the play in San Francisco seemed like a good way to say “fuck you” to Hollywood, which is in some ways what the play is all about. Also, the play calls for an oversized set with largerthan-life hotel-room furnishings. The characters are all cooped up in a hotel room together for most of the play, so the massive set and cramped black-box space combined to create the claustrophobic atmosphere that we wanted to convey.
BLVR: What makes Babylon Heights a stage play rather than a screenplay?
IW: The whole idea of Babylon Heights lends itself to the theater: the sense of claustrophobia, the tightness of the time frame, the fact that it mostly takes place in one room. You don’t want to take it out of that space and build a head of steam.The stage can create that sense of claustrophobia better than the screen.
BLVR: If creating a sense of claustrophobia is so important to the play, why do you send the characters out to a restaurant toward the end of the first act?
IW: If people don’t have enough space, it makes it hard for them to take stock and reflect on their situation. Getting them out of the hotel room gives the characters one short moment in which to breathe, one tiny pause. It gives them a chance to reflect and assert their identities. It also breaks up the action a wee bit. I think it would be hard to watch the play if the characters were in the room all the time.The restaurant scene might be a break from the claustrophobia of the hotel room, but at the same time, walking across the street to the restaurant is just about the only form of escape available to the characters. Otherwise they’re under house arrest in the hotel room.
BLVR: What inspired you and Dean to write the play together?
IW: We’d been working together on screenplays for a long time. I asked Dean to work on the screenplay of my novel Filth. I’m fascinated by the industry and subculture that’s grown up around The Wizard of Oz. It’s the first American film that really entered the global conscience.The film has endured. And even though it’s got a shiny surface, it’s really very dark. Our decision to concentrate on the dwarf actors who played the role of the Munchkins in the film is a new angle; their voices haven’t been heard before. More broadly, we were interested in looking at what it’s like to be the little person in a big person’s world.
II. THE FRENCH HAVE GOT IT CRACKED
BLVR: What have your experiences of working within the British film industry been like?
IW: There is no British film industry to speak of, really. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs.With the film adaptation of Filth, for instance, we ran into problems with Miramax in the U.K.—the company was going through a transition—so the plug was pulled on the whole project. A lot of our projects didn’t get made. But we just kept on.We started working with Antonia Bird, the British TV and film director. And things have progressed since then. Now we’re doing a big TV drama for Channel 4 called Wedding Belles. It’s a two-hour, one-off drama. It might become a series.You never know. In general, though, it’s nauseating working in the creative arts in England because the system stops creativity from happening. But things happen in spite of the challenges.Then again, when you get a culture that’s too accommodating and easy and helpful, I think you get too comfortable and so it’s hard to motivate yourself to work. You need a happy medium. I think the French have got it cracked. The state supports the arts; they see the arts as part of the country’s identity. Ninety percent of the films that come out of France are crap, but at least it’s their crap. So far, all our projects have basically been financed by foreign entities. We’ve received some development money from U.K. funding bodies. To raise big finance and complete the picture you have to get overseas sales. It’s pretty much impossible to completely finance a movie in the U.K. in the same way as it is in the U.S. We’re going to start thinking more globally in terms of production.Bizarrely,it’s easier for us to do a project like Babylon Heights in San Francisco, Dublin, or Amsterdam than it is in Edinburgh or London.
BLVR: That surprises me. It seems like Babylon Heights would be perfect for the Edinburgh Festival.
IW: In Edinburgh there’s a very prescribed view of what constitutes theater. Producers in that city will put on a million productions of The Cherry Orchard before they’ll commission a new play. And if they do commission a new play, it involves people who are already in the system. In some ways that’s fair enough. But it’s also very limiting. Take James Kelman. He’s a Booker prize–winning Scottish author who’s also written about a dozen plays. He can’t get them produced in his native Scotland. He’s one of the greatest fucking Scottish writers ever and they should be battering down his door to get at his stuff.
III. A LOAD OF SHITE VS. A LOT OF FUCKING NONSENSE
BLVR: What else are you working on, screenplay-wise?
IW: We’re currently working on a youth suicide drama, which is the total opposite of Wedding Belles. Wedding Belles is kind of dark but mostly a comedy, whereas this is definitely a drama. We’re not doing it for laughs. It’s very deadpan. Suicide is a major social issue that’s rarely touched upon on British TV. With the suicide drama, we’re playing a social and psychological role as writers. We’ve got one eye on the issue side of things.
BLVR: Is the suicide drama also set in Edinburgh?
IW: Right now it’s set in Edinburgh, but that might change because people might be getting a bit sick of me setting everything in Edinburgh. So we’re thinking about moving the plot to Sheffield or somewhere else in middle England. But it could take place anywhere. The story is set in a completely different social milieu from Wedding Belles.
BLVR: How did you and Dean meet?
IW: We met socially through friends in London. We’d keep coming across each other in different places and through different groups of friends. Everyone assumed we knew each other. But when we said we didn’t know each other, people would say, “You gotta meet Dean” and “You must meet Irvine.” But it’s one of those things that when people tell you you’ve got to meet someone, you kind of avoid meeting them. So we avoided each other for years.
BLVR: So when did you finally become friends?
IW: It was around ten years ago. But we didn’t start working together immediately. Filth was the project that brought us together as collaborators.
BLVR: How do you go about writing together?
IW: It all takes place through a weird telepathy. One day we just decide to do a project and we sit down and crack it. One of us will do one draft and send it over to the other. Then the other will do the next draft and send it back.And so on until we’re done.We just knock the text back and forth between us.
BLVR: So you never sit and write together in the same room?
IW: No, no, no, no, no. We wouldn’t like to do that. We’ll sit together and plan a project out so we know roughly which direction we’re going to take, and then we just leave each other to get on with it. I think our ability to work like this is a result of our temperaments. I mean, I couldn’t do this with just anybody. Dean’s so easygoing. I’ll just say, “That’s a load of shite, man.” And he can tell me,“That’s a lot of fucking nonsense.” That’s how it works.
IV. A PRIEST, A NUN, AND A COMMUNION VESSEL
BLVR: What happens when you disagree?
IW: We don’t really argue. That’s partly because we’re dealing with producers, so we’ve instantly got an “us against them” situation. So we’re more inclined to back each other up. I know that sounds like a siege mentality, but with screenwriting you need a bit of that. You need a healthy attitude because you’re dealing with so many people who don’t have a clue about writing but they think they’re all writers. They give you so many notes and so much advice that you want to tell them, “Well, you fucking go away and write it then.” That’s not to say that there’s any real antagonism between us and producers, though.
BLVR: Do you think there’s a certain amount of job justification going on at the producer’s end?
IW: Massively. They’ve got to justify their good salaries. Basically, you’ve got to remember going in that producers get paid to say no. They read millions of scripts and they can only make 1 percent of them. Because they’re in the business of saying no, you’ve got to give them something really special to get them to say yes. We wouldn’t submit anything to them if we were feeling half-assed about it. Sometimes we’ll think we have a good idea, but then we realize that it’s fucking awful so we’ll move on to the next idea. So by the time we’re ready to submit something, we’re 100 percent into it and behind it. This conviction puts us in a very strong position to argue our case for the project in front of the producer.
BLVR: I imagine that if you’re going to have to argue your case to get something made, it’s better that there are two people backing it than just one, right?
IW: We’re not confrontational, though. What we do is this: we go in to the meeting with the producer, listen to what they’ve got to say, take their notes, and then we go away and do what we want to do. Don’t get me wrong: some producers and even commissioners have come up with half-decent ideas. But it’s the exception rather than the rule. The problem with commissioners—and to some extent producers as well—is that they want to give you loads and loads of notes just to justify their existence. If we get ten notes from them, maybe one will be really important, another two will be quite pertinent, and the rest will be bullshit.
You also have to watch out because many of the things they tell you come loaded with their own personal agendas. For example, there’s one scene in Wedding Belles that the commissioner didn’t want to do because she’s a Catholic. The scene in question revolved around a sexual act involving a priest, a nun, and a communion vessel. It offended her.Then there was another problem to do with the fact that Wedding Belles has four fantastic female characters that jump off the page. But because the female characters are all so lively, the male lead has suffered. The commissioner wanted the male character to be as fabulous as the female characters. But now that we’ve made the male character more flamboyant and colorful, she’s pulling back a bit. It’s a hard balancing act. We’ve got a big commissioning editor who’s put a lot of money into the project and you’ve got to listen because the thing’s got to get made. Ultimately, how you define your characters has a lot to do with their relationships with those around them. For instance, it would be nonsense to have a strong female character in Trainspotting because strong, self-actualized women wouldn’t hang around with guys like Renton and his ilk. No fucking way. Or if they did, they wouldn’t be doing it for very long. It’s the same thing with Wedding Belles. A really cooled-up, sassy guy would run a mile from these lassies.
BLVR: What’s Wedding Belles about?
IW: It’s about four women from Leith, in Edinburgh, who are best mates. One of them is getting married, and their lives unravel over the planning of the wedding. The characters have reached their early thirties and they’re starting to reflect back on their lives. They’re looking around themselves and thinking, “What are we doing here?” and “Why didn’t we fucking get out?” One of them is a success, and the others look up to the successful one—the one who’s beautiful and is getting married—while they’re just coasting along. But as the drama progresses, each character turns out to have a really dark secret and some major problems. There’s a lot of humor in the story and it’s also quite saucy, which is the only reason we’ve been able to get it on Channel 4. I’ve also heard that some of the most profitable films are those that have “wedding” in the title.
BLVR: Like The Wedding Singer.
IW: Yes. And Four Weddings and a Funeral.
BLVR: My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
IW: Wedding Crashers.
BLVR: Muriel’s Wedding.
IW: We just thought, let’s just do a totally commercial film with “wedding” in the title so we can make lots of money. But as usual, the whole arty thing started taking over.
BLVR: In what sense?
IW: I’ve got a very small independent production company, 4Way Pictures, with Antonia Bird, actor Robert Carlyle, and producer Mark Cousins. We have to think commercially so we can do our other projects as well. But it’s one thing to think commercially, and another to actually write that way. When you sit down and try it, instantly you can’t do it. You’ve got to write what you feel.
V. SWEETHEARTS AND BAR CHARTS
BLVR: In general, with theater, you don’t have to think as commercially as you do with film. You have license to take more risks, because staging a play costs less than producing a movie.
IW: That’s why writing for the stage gives me such a buzz. On the other hand, there’s such a fucking horrible theater culture in the Western world. Especially in London. It’s all luvvies, darlings, and sweethearts. It’s a closed shop. For example, we were knocking Babylon Heights around for quite a while, but the impetus wasn’t really there to finish it in England. But we got much more support when we came to San Francisco. The Magic Theatre gave us a reading, as did the people at the Attic in Dublin. We could see what was working and what wasn’t. This support doesn’t exist in London. If we asked a theater producer in London to do a reading of our play, they’d look at us as if we had two heads. I can’t abide the London theater scene. They’ve got a great system at the Attic. They’ll read through any play or screenplay you give them. You get these feedback sheets afterwards from the audience, which mainly consist of about two hundred producers, actors, directors, and other industry people. They break the whole thing down into acts and characters. You get to take away a consolidated set of graphs rather than people’s opinions, which generally aren’t as helpful.
IW: It’s a bar chart. Audience members present at the reading give marks out of five for different characters and scenes. And then the scores are all tallied up and put on the graph. So you can very quickly see what’s working and what’s not working and therefore figure out what needs improving. It sounds crass, but as a tool it’s much better than getting involved with all the emotional feedback. I like getting this impersonal set of graphs rather than opinions from anyone who fancies him- or herself as a critic.
BLVR: Which of your projects have gone through this process at the Attic?
IW: We’ve done it with Wedding Belles and the suicide project. We’ve also had readings for The Meat Trade, which starts shooting in January, and The Man Who Walks, the film adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel of the same title, which will hopefully begin shooting next March. Oh yes, and we did it with Babylon Heights too.
BLVR: What kind of feedback did you get from the graphs after the Babylon Heights reading at the Attic?
IW: We did something about Philomena, the only female character in the play. Before, she was kind of passive. It felt like she was tacked on. She didn’t really have a lot to do. Now she pulls the strings. The reading helped us understand how important it was to develop this female character. One of the themes we want to convey is how poorly the dwarves were treated on the Wizard of Oz set. Even Dorothy’s dog Toto was treated better than they were. By showing how a woman was forced to share a hotel room with three men, we were able to accentuate the inhuman aspect of life as a Munchkin on the movie set.We could show how these little people were treated as second-class citizens.
BLVR: Given the idea of the little guy trying to get by within the Hollywood system and your own struggles with the film industry, do you see Babylon Heights as being autobiographical at all?
IW: I never thought of that. I did the rounds in Hollywood once. Nothing really happened. There’s that gossipy thing that Hollywood producers do. They just want to fill their diaries, so you get taken out to lunch a lot. You do the rounds for a couple of months, and then they all say, “I’ve done that, I’ve had lunch with him,” and then you go home. You just go out there for fun. You don’t give a fuck. You’ve just got to care about what you do yourself. You shouldn’t care about what the studios do. In a sense, maybe Babylon Heights is about fighting against the system. If these meetings in Hollywood hadn’t taken place, I wouldn’t have gotten the knock-backs and I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing now. Success teaches you fuckall. Failure’s the best and only way you can learn. Now things are going well. We’ve got great producers who are passionate about film. They do what they’re supposed to do.They don’t just sit around and have lunch. We’ve got an agent now. I’ve never had an agent before. I’ve always done the books on my own. If you don’t have an agent, you spend a lot of time talking to wankers, but if you have an agent, they do all of that for you.
BLVR: One last thing: how did you come by that scar that traces the side of your left ear?
IW: A tumbler. It was a free-for-all in a pub. I specialize in second prizes.