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“I Feel Completely Vindicated Now the Film’s Been Made”: Michael Caton-Jones on Our Ladies’s 20+-Year Journey to the Screen

Our Ladies

Things were going well for Scottish filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones at the start of 2020. The director of Scandal (1989), This Boys Life (1993) and Rob Roy (1995), among many others, Caton-Jones was preparing for the theatrical release of Our Ladies, a passion project he’d been trying to get made for over 20 years. It had received its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019, where it “played out of this world”, in his words, to an audience of roughly 800 attendees in its first public screening. Flying relatively under the radar in a stacked program largely comprised of Cannes, TIFF and Venice titles, Our Ladies received strong early notices from big publications that did cover it from the festival, including a rave write-up from Sight & Sound and a five-star review from The Times. Following a Scottish premiere for the comedic drama at the Glasgow Film Festival in late February, the movie was scheduled for a saturation release at the end of April.

And then most of the world’s theaters closed indefinitely. The film’s UK and Irish release (theatrical runs elsewhere were to be dependent on its performance closer to home) was postponed to September. But as many British theaters cautiously re-opened across that summer, distributor Sony Pictures pulled Our Ladies from the schedule entirely. A new date wasn’t announced until almost a year later.

Our Ladies is adapted from The Sopranos, a 1998 novel by Alan Warner, whose work was previously brought to the screen by Lynne Ramsay with Morvern Callar (2002). Caton-Jones’ film is a period piece set in 1996 following 24 hours in the lives of six Catholic schoolgirls from the Scottish Highlands town of Fort William, each 17 to 18 in age. Although an unpopular wealthier girl, Kay (Eve Austin), is among the main ensemble, the focus is crucially on five working-class friends with fewer opportunities awaiting them in imminent adulthood: Orla (Tallulah Greive), a recent cancer recoveree now looking to lose her virginity; Finnoula (Abigail Lawrie), the closeted leader of the gang; Manda (Sally Messham), Finnoula’s increasingly estranged best friend; Chell (Rona Morison), a poorer girl struggling with her father’s recent death; and Kylah (Marli Siu), frontwoman of a punk band of boys. Accompanied by teacher Sister Condron (Kate Dickie, nicknamed ‘Sister Condom’), they head to Edinburgh for a school choir competition. But instead of singing and winning, the friends have binge-drinking and hook-ups on their mind for their big day in the capital.

Now that the film is finally opening in British and Irish cinemas on 27 August, here is Filmmaker’s conversation with Caton-Jones about Our Ladies’ long journey to the screen. This particularly candid chat took place at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival. In it, the writer-director discusses classist barriers he encountered in trying to get the film made with British backers; the need for more working-class filmmakers with decent-sized budgets; how producers of Derry Girls tried to buy the novel rights from him for what eventually became that hit sitcom; late screenwriter collaborator Alan Sharp (Rob Roy, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand); and how it is that an executive from Sony in America helped this uniquely Scottish comedy finally get greenlit. (In the United States, the film was given a limited week-long run at select AMC venues in June 2021.)

Filmmaker: You got to read Alan Warner’s novel, The Sopranos, a while before it was published. How did that happen?

Caton-Jones: It was getting sent to my agency, CAA in California. It’s not uncommon. Once a book is written, or an article or whatever, it’s often sent to see if there’s any interest in film rights before it comes out. It might be because I was Scottish, and because I was one of the only Scottish clients in the place, that they thought, “Would you be interested?” I read it and thought it was brilliant. Then they artificially inflated the price and made me pay more, which is par for the course for an agency.

Filmmaker: Are you able to share what that figure was?

Caton-Jones: Something ridiculous like a couple hundred grand. A lot of money. I was aware at the time that I was way over-paying, and I didn’t really care because I so understood the material. I hadn’t read anything that was about where I came from that was as accurate.

Filmmaker: Where is it in Scotland that you come from?

Caton-Jones: I come from Broxburn, a town in between Edinburgh and Glasgow—a mining area, but close access to big cities. Most Scottish towns were similar. I could recognize what he was writing about and that it was really truthful and honest. I very strongly understood the feeling of being in a small town, stuck with your mates you grew up with all this time, where you hit that point where what you want in life is beginning to diverge from what your mates are doing. It seemed to me to have real choices and dilemmas that are the stuff of life. I hadn’t read anything like this before that came at all close to that experience. You’ve got a lot of grand Scottish novels, but this one I felt I understood more than anybody else. And if it was going to get made, it should be me.

Filmmaker: When thinking about Scotland-made films getting distributed 20 to 25 years ago, I can’t think of many that were primarily about women. Until Morvern Callar, at least, which is funnily enough also based on an Alan Warner novel.

Caton-Jones: None at all. No one wanted to make a film about young women having, or wanting to have, sex. And I thought that was a superficial look at it anyway. It’s not about that, it’s about life. It’s about being alive. And actually, to that extent, one of my favorite films is Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. I made the girls watch that because I wanted them to understand that our film’s about realizing that you’re alive. Not wanting to give the story [of Our Ladies] away, but it’s such an emotional realization at the end. You’ve had all this fun and suddenly it’s like, “Oh no, I forgot about that, oh fuck!”

Filmmaker: The novel came out in 1998, so was the plan to get a film out not long after that?

Caton-Jones: I don’t think there was any plan. It was a matter of, auction it to the highest bidder and then let them go. I was always relaxed in a way that I could do it. It didn’t have to be made right then, because it was kind of timeless as far as I was concerned. But it did change into this period piece over the years, which means you have to look at it slightly differently. There’s a nostalgic element that you would be foolish not to use. Essentially, this is a film written in the mid-90s, and it didn’t change. To me, this was never a radical move to make a film about my big sister and her pals. And, really, that’s what I was doing. I didn’t think there was anything contentious in it whatsoever. But now I look at it, I think the world has caught up with that representation of girls. It’s not that there was anything wrong with it, it’s just that the world wasn’t ready.

Filmmaker: There were almost two decades of all these pitching talks not really going anywhere, while you directed several other features in between. Do you remember what the earliest responses were like?

Caton-Jones: Mainly it was: “How can we get stars in it?” It’s just lazy thinking, very typical in the film industry. It’s hard to get people to take a chance. They want a slam dunk, not to be blamed if it does go south. It’s all about positioning for a lot of people. And I think directors and actors have to take on board their fear and they have to just sail on beyond it, because otherwise you’ll get nothing made.

I would have loved to have put movie stars in it, but it would have been a different film. And it wouldn’t, in my opinion, have worked. So, you have to try and maintain that integrity for the good of the film or for the good of the studio, maybe. Their desire to get movie stars actually would have made it worse. You’re trying to protect them from themselves in some ways. It’s not always fractious, it’s just you have to clean the lines and make sure everybody understands what we’re making. But if you’re making it for a studio, that’s the deal. They want their ten pence worth. 

Filmmaker: Were there any brief periods where it seemed like something was going to get off the ground?

Caton-Jones: The truth is I was offered that I could make it if I moved it to England. I could make it if it was in Buckinghamshire, with convent girls down there, or if I moved it to the States with an all-Black cast. All of which is absolutely fine, but I wanted to make this one. The producers of [90s Northern Ireland-set sitcom] Derry Girls tried to buy it. And when I said no, they went off and made their own. My only complaint about that is that they should have given Alan Warner some kind of credit, because it’s an obvious rip-off in my mind.

Filmmaker: Do you think Sony were aware of that show?

Caton-Jones: No, because we were [already] right at the point of starting when it came out [in early 2018]. I actually didn’t watch it on purpose because I didn’t want to be influenced at all by what it was. And I still haven’t seen it, so I don’t know. But all I know is they tried to buy it and when we said no, they went and wrote their own, which happens all the time. I just don’t want to hear any talk of Derry Girls versus this, because this is based on the book.

Filmmaker: Would you say the suggestions about moving the story to England or other regions, presumably coming mostly from British production companies, reflects a certain classism?

Caton-Jones: Oh, completely. It’s fucking classism, racism, it’s everything. The film is just a reflection of the world, and you either get on with it or you get out of it. And I knew what it was. We’ll make it if you make it in England.” Oh, well fuck you, I’m not making it in England. You have to fight for what you believe and that circumstance changes for everyone. I would have sold this years ago if anybody had given me the money back for it, but nobody wanted to, so it was either make it and lose it or not. I wouldn’t recommend it as an approach, but I feel completely vindicated now the film’s been made.

Filmmaker: I’m surprised Channel 4 or Film4, particularly in the late 90s/early 2000s, weren’t all over it.

Caton-Jones: I thought it would be right in their wheelhouse. Not at all. The truth of the matter is that the film business in London is parochial as well. It’s all mates’ rates, they’re all looking after each other. We would love for it to be about the goodness of the film, but it’s completely about the industry keeping itself stable.

Filmmaker: The film had its world premiere in October 2019 at the London Film Festival, which is run by the BFI. Would they have been one of the production bodies that turned it down?

Caton-Jones: No, it was actually the UK Film Council at that time, so before the BFI took over their role with funding. And yes, it did get turned down. “We don’t believe the characters,” is what they said. Which offended me. Again, it’s like… love, with your life experience, I’m not fucking surprised you can’t recognize these characters. You sound as though you’ve never fucking gone north of Chipping Norton.

Film is basically a bourgeois society. It’s an uphill struggle to make something that steps outside the working-class shackles and forelock-tugging, saying, “You know what, fuck you all, we’re as good as anybody.” It’s not made by those people. ‘Nostalgie de la boue’, the French call it: nostalgia for the mud. And hence you’ve only got Ken Loach, the champagne socialist, banging on about it. But actually, I feel there should be more like him, but they can be different types of filmmakers.

Our Ladies is stylistically quite different from Ken or Mike Leigh’s work, but it’s in the same wheelhouse in its purpose, which is to bring social issues through in a way that people can understand them; not an in-your-face thing. But there’s a bit of everything in this film that I’m quite happy about, making it more than just a wee comedy, if one’s prepared to look.

Filmmaker: Had the film been made in the late 90s or early 2000s with a British production company like, say, Film4, do you think your final vision for the film would have been radically different?

Caton-Jones: I think I would have cared less about its acceptability elsewhere, which I had to do when the studio came in. When you’re making a film with an American studio, they’re not paying you to go and be obscure. They’re paying you to make something that can possibly translate beyond where they started, so that’s the deal. I think if I’d done it with Channel 4, I would have been less worried about the accents. What they’re interested in is to be seen to be socially connected, which is not the same as actually being socially connected. I’m scathing about it because I’m a working-class boy and no better or no worse than anybody else, but there are no working-class boys anymore. It’s all these nice middle-class kids coming up, which is okay for them, it’s nothing against them. It’s simply that that’s not fucking healthy for the rest of us. If voices aren’t coming from everywhere, that’s not healthy.

Filmmaker: Your late Rob Roy collaborator Alan Sharp, who gets a writing credit alongside you in the closing credits, wrote an earlier draft that ultimately wasn’t used. How was that version different?

Caton-Jones: Alan was a brilliant screenwriter. He lived in California and in New Zealand for many years, so his view of Scotland was actually a little parochial; a little stuck in the past. That worked very well for Rob Roy, because he wrote westerns. I was shocked when his version [of Our Ladies] came back. It just wasn’t his kind of film, is really what it was. At first, they’re kind of mean, these girls, and you’ve got to kind of drag the audience through, just giving them a little bit more information here and there. But the cumulative effect of that is you feel really close to these girls, and Alan was looking at it differently. 

Filmmaker: It’s baffling to me hearing these stories of the stumbling blocks because, aside from arguably the very crude language at times, this is such an ostensibly mainstream proposition as a teen movie. It’s just American Graffiti.

Caton-Jones: Well, that’s exactly it. This was one of my touchstone pictures. I said, “If you really want the truth, I feel it’s more a combination of The Commitments and American Graffiti, with a little bit of Ikiru thrown in.” I was very moved by the work of the cards in American Graffiti at the very end, where you find out the boy goes off to Vietnam and it changes everything you thought about that. And I thought that would work very well for this. I went to XpoNorth one year and met this young filmmaker, Robin Haig, who lives and works up here. She’d made a film called Hula and in it was a shot of girls standing by a loch. And I thought, “I’m having that, that’ll fit this.” So, you become sponge-like and you pick little bits here, there and everywhere.

But the American Graffiti of it was really a big thing for me, that nobody seems to have got. Here’s 24 hours in the lives of these people and their lives are different from then on. That’s a staple diet home run if you get it right. So, I just think, actually, a lot of the people involved in hiring hadn’t seen things like that. If I said American Graffiti, they’d be like, “Oh yeah… what is that, a series?”

Filmmaker: How did the film finally get made with Sony?

Caton-Jones: So, I wrote the script in 1996, something like that, and kept taking it to companies and producers and saying, “I understand you don’t want to make it, but could you tell me what’s wrong with it?” Nobody could tell what was wrong with it, they just didn’t fancy it. I waited until people were fired from their jobs and took it to the next people, and I kept having to pay for it to keep it alive, which is just par for the course. But I had thought it was never gonna happen.

Then of course, they made a stage play [which premiered in 2015]. All these people started phoning me up, saying, “You still got that script?” Back then, I had bought it outright [for screen adaptation]. And I thought, “That’s interesting, all these people that said no are now coming back to me.” And it was like they wanted me to give them it so that they could then get it made. Why would I do that? I’ve spent all this fucking money, mate. Producers in America aren’t like that; producers here are part of the… chatterati.

When Sony were setting up a division which was going to make small international films as part of an overall thing, Luke Scrase, this executive from the States, was charging around the world, going to find scripts that hadn’t been made. And he got two in Britain. I actually think he was smarter than the rest, because generally what happens is they go for the latest newcomer. The heat-seeking missile: you find who’s hot and coming up and go to them, that’s your cachet. But he went the opposite way. He was asking specifically for filmmakers who had been around for a while: what scripts they had wanted to make that they hadn’t made, because that would guarantee a lot of passion and a level of experience. It was counterintuitive and, in my opinion, very smart.

He made Greed with Michael Winterbottom. He got my script and read it. And because he was from the States, he went, “Why the hell has this not been made? We’re having this.” And it really was like that. So, then the job is to convince his bosses that this is a good thing. And they did want to make it contemporary. I said, “No, I can’t do that.” Simply because the change with fucking mobile phones now is vast. That’s when I realized that it had become a period picture, when they asked me to update it. I just don’t think you can do that, to be honest. The story’s so specific and also reflects a way of living I think young kids are gonna miss. It’s really about them just being alive at that age, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing about the youth of today. I felt comfortable enough writing about what I knew existed in the past. You can only hope that you what you’re making is so specific that it becomes universal. That people recognize themselves or people they know or situations or an attitude to life, and the more you can get that the better you are.

Filmmaker: I wonder if they also had faith in you as someone who’s essentially “discovered” a lot of future stars, or at least given them their big leading breaks in terms of features. Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boys Life is the big one, but you also cast Letitia Wright in Urban Hymn a few years before her Black Panther breakout.

Caton-Jones: It is my thing. I like getting young, keen actors who’ve got a certain amount of technique, to teach them a little bit more and then watch them fly. I’ve done it since Leonardo and it really is something I enjoy, because to see the lightbulb go off above their head is just fantastic. And I believe that’s part of our job, anyway: pass on what you know, don’t be a fucking prick and keep it to yourself and baffle people with bullshit. Pass it on. If they can use it, use it, please. Lift humanity up.

Filmmaker: Could you talk about the casting of the girls?

Caton-Jones: It’s a fatal decision if you decide this is about chemistry. And it’s a pitfall that you can often find. I’d done a film called Memphis Belle years before, where I’d worked with ten young guys. And you’ll learn a lot about how to shape the drama with that amount of people, in that it’s not one lead. You have to balance out a lot of the screen time and they just have to be memorable, one way or another. But you don’t cast for chemistry. That is a gift that will or won’t fucking happen. You cast the individual and you make that individual as good, as tight, as on point as they can be. And then you bring them together. And if that is a natural situation, there will be chemistry because they’re playing those parts correctly and you’ve done that in the writing.

You also explain to them, “Look, what I’m trying to get is this thing that you guys have with each other.” And I’m a man, they’re girls, I had to rely on them. And so, my filmmaking became much more open. I was guiding it, absolutely, but I was creating all sorts of space for them to contribute, which then makes them feel part of it. Then they loosen up. It’s just all sorts of bonuses in that you create a circumstance and then get the fuck out of the way and let them do it, rather than hover over every second of it. And it worked. I had very intelligent actresses.

Filmmaker: Did the collaboration extend to visual and design elements?

Caton-Jones: Costume design, yes, I let them pick their costumes. I said, “You know better than me. This is what we’re trying to achieve, you know how to do it. What do you feel comfortable in? Remember, you’ve got to be running around a lot.” They had a huge hand in that side of it. I actively encouraged it. I’m not an expert on hair.

Filmmaker: Were there any compromises that had to be made as a result of the film coming from a studio like Sony?

Caton-Jones: You always have to compromise. It’s always held up like a dirty word, but it’s actually not. You don’t want to make a film they dislike or that doesn’t work. You have to protect them from their own instincts. If I was asked to figure out a promotion strategy for a film, I could probably do that but I’m not an expert. If someone knows their shit, let them do it. I don’t expect the studio head, who’s a businessman essentially, to understand the nuance of performance. That’s my job, that’s why you hire me. And you hire me to say yes and to say no to you.

When you’re younger, you take it as a challenge to yourself. But it’s not. You have to empathize with what their situation is. They’re in charge of a multimillion-pound corporation and don’t want to be fucked over by some guy. And they’re used to having to say, “I think this and I think that.” But my job is to deliver it. It’s not necessarily to agree with them, but it would be smart to agree with them sometimes on occasions that you don’t agree with them, because you all have to keep moving forward. And it just is a part of the life. It’s never as black and white as, “Oh, they made him compromise that way and they’re the poor artist being fucked over.” It’s much more complex than that.

Filmmaker: Considering the time period and setting, did you get studio notes suggesting putting The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” on the soundtrack?

Caton-Jones: No, they were a little frightened of me, which is OK. I was the noisy guy. They didn’t really understand what I was saying, but I was very passionate about it. 

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