[NOVELIST, PLAYWRIGHT, FILMMAKER]
FAILURE’S THE BEST AND ONLY WAY YOU CAN LEARN.”
Listen to what commissioners have to say, take their notes, then go away and do what you like
Make a film with the word wedding in the title
Move to France
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.
THE BELIEVER: What have your experiences of working within the British film industry been like?
IRVINE WELSH: 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.
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