“Beats” is the fourth feature by Scottish filmmaker, screenwriter, and former editor Brian Welsh (b. 1981), and is set in the summer of 1994. Against the backdrop of rave culture, this exuberant, poignant and witty drama follows the characters of Johnno and Spanner, who have a deep, earnest friendship and who are set on going to an underground rave before they are about to be separated by the circumstances of their lives.
Rave music found its origins back in London during the late 1950s, and the film obviously contains a lot of music, but it’s not always played to a full volume. Basically, “Beats” is a story of friendship that happens to coincide with a time of change for the music scene in Scotland. The film was based on a one-man play by Kieran Hurley, and Steven Soderbergh was executive producer of the film.
Film director Brian Welsh was one of the guests at the latest Film Fest Ghent in Belgium where he introduced the film and where this interview was conducted.
Mr. Welsh, how have you been able to adapt Kieran Hurley’s one-man play into “Beats”?
Well, there was a lot of personal experience that came into the adaptation of the play, which was a one-man performance with Kieran Hurley. He sat there with a microphone, a dj playing music, some rave visuals playing behind him, and a white pill on the table. He told the story about 1994 with the characters of Johnno, Alison, Spanner, and Robert, and their journey on this one evening. I felt there was something in the energy of the experience of the play that was so intoxicating and poetic that I wanted to work with Kieran and tell a rave story, so we used his play as a start with the personal stories of the characters, growing up in Scotland. We both come from a similar family background, and there was this instant understanding. We had a lot of fun writing.
When you talk to directors who also write their own screenplays, they often say that writing a screenplay is very tough. Would you agree with that?
Oh yes, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube sometimes because you have so many things you have to say, and you try to find a way to convey your ideas in a dialogue that is rich of subtext. It takes a lot of work.
If you look at the film, on the surface, it looks like a coming-of-age story, but there’s much more underneath, isn’t there?
Yes, the film talks about our country in transition; 1994 was the year that John Smith, the Labour Party leader, died and there was this new shiny guy Tony Blair who was leading this new Labour, almost repackaged conservatism if you like, which at the time seemed very exciting but didn’t really serve to change the country for many. At that time, you also had a conservative party in Parliament introducing this piece of legislation called the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which outlawed gatherings that are music characterized by a succession of repetitive beats. This legislation was trying to outlaw rave parties and was an attack on many other forms of alternative lifestyles. So there’s a lot going on there in the film. For me, there’s something about the idealism of youth that gets eroded over time by society and our need to survive. That, for me, is a big message in the film.
Your casting is tremendous, isn’t it? It reminds me a little bit of what Alan Parker did when he made ”The Commitments” ; he also used young, unknown but incredibly talented actors who are all just wonderful.
I just had a belief in young Scottish acting talent, and create chemistry, truthfulness and having fun, and I don’t really care about casting stars in a movie—that’s an imposed idea that comes from financiers or frightened distributors: you can have this much money if you cast that person—and I think Scotland gets a bit of a bump deal in that respect, because for example all the movies that come out or are set in Scotland, they have no Scottish actors. So I went out, intending to try to find a really strong team of young Scottish actors, and I was very fortunate to find Lorn Macdonald, Cristian Ortega, Rachel Jackson, Amy Manson, Gemma McElhinney to name but a few. They all just gave themselves, so it really paid off. And we had so much fun making the film.
When you wrote the script, did you have any one of them in mind already?
No. There’s this strong culture of Scottish theatre; there’s so much talent out there. The hard thing actually is trying to build the ensemble cast because you want everybody to be a part of the jigsaw, and that’s an interesting process. For example, Lorn Macdonald came in, and he read for the part of Johnno the first time—the role played by Cristian Ortega—I knew he was a very gifted actor, but it didn’t feel quite right, and then I asked him to come back and read for [the part of] Spanner. All of a sudden, he had that humor and kind of gangly brilliance. And Cristian Ortega is Laura Fraser’s best friend from drama school.
Considering all those young actors you worked with, did you have a specific working method before you started shooting?
Yes. I like to rehearse, have chemistry readings and nurture the environment when the actors feel like they can play. I don’t look at them as models, I always think of them as active contributors, and I try to create a stress-free and playful environment, so they can do their thing, even when the clock is ticking [laughs]. I think we had like five weeks of shooting. We did eleven-day fortnights.
What is up there on the screen now, is that what you had in mind before you started shooting?
The spirit, the tone, the energy, that’s exactly what we had in mind. Still, inevitably there are always things that end up being snipped because you just want to push the story forward. Sometimes I think you overwrite certain ideas when you are trying to convey something to a reader—generally a financier—that is embedded in the subtext or in the characters. For young filmmakers, like we are, they want to know that you know what you’re doing, and then you tend to overwrite. So some things were maybe overwritten, and they got cut. But overall, I think it’s a good representation of what we wanted to make.
How did the audience respond to the first screenings?
I have noticed that there is one moment that sometimes people laugh in the wrong place. It only happened occasionally, but I think it tells something about the people who were watching [laughs]. I worked as an editor before, and I studied editing at film school, so that helped me, I tend to work things out on the set. I always watch the monitor, and so I’m quite often trying to edit in my head already, and I tend to overshoot—I shoot a lot because I always know I need the material to make it work, particularly when it’s comedy or has a sense of freedom. Then it would help if you were looking for the dots to join up.
Would you have been able to make this film without executive producer Steven Soderbergh?
Would I have been able to make it without him… It definitely helped. His name opened up a lot of doors that had been closed before. Quite often, you sit at a table with a financier who looks at you and can’t quite believe that you’re a filmmaker, and then when you mention Steven’s name, all of a sudden, they are very interested.
Did he give you any advice when you were preparing or shooting “Beats”?
Yes. He read drafts of the script and watched a couple of cuts of the film, and he would offer very precise notes. About ninety percent of them ended up in the film because they were so perfect. He also had a big question mark about shooting the film in black and white because it’s very hard to make a black and white movie that exists outside of the art house circuit. If you’re trying to make a popular movie, black and white may be a problem.
There were a number of scenes that seemed pretty difficult to shoot. Did you use storyboards?
Oh yes, I did. I made an animatic of the entire movie. I studied a lot of archive material from that period, research reels, we played around with the score, and then we kind of storyboarded the entire movie and scored the animatic, so we’d know how the camera would move through the story. We also had a fantastic music director, Keith McIvor, who’s one part of a very famous Scottish techno duo called Optimo. We sat and tried to create a soundtrack that felt like it was almost a mixed tape from that era when records would be played on top of each other, and the beats would be matched up, sampling something from here and something from there. It was really fun for me because I have loved that music since I was young. We went through thousands of tracks, and we were very lucky that all of the artists that we got in touch with agreed to give us their music for not too bad a budget [laughs].
How was the film received in Great Britain?
It was good. I think everyone asks himself, ‘How do we get people into the cinema to watch independent movies?’ It seems people go to the movies to watch Marvel films, big commercial blockbusters, and Netflix and Amazon have become the place to watch more thoughtful and visual storytelling. “Beats” was released the same week as “Avengers: Endgame,” “John Wick Chapter 3—Parabellum,“ and “Rocketman.” So in the multiplexes, we didn’t do such great business, but in the smaller cinemas where we had Q&A screenings, there we did good business all the way through. In terms of how to connect with audiences when they see it, it’s been great. It’s been really lovely. Do you know this website called Letterboxd? If people watch a film on DVD or in the cinema, they can write their own review, and last night someone said to me that maybe two thousand people wrote some comments and said some really nice things.
And with a score of 7.3 the film also works very well on IMDB.
Yeah, that’s not too bad. Critically we did very well in the U.K. as well. I think it has a cult following, so I’m hopeful that over time with word-of-mouth it will continue to find its audience.
Is there another project you’re already working on?
Yes, I’m working with Kieran, and we’re developing three movie ideas; they’re all based in Scotland, I’m also reading scripts, and I’m always thinking [laughs]. But in terms of a specific story I can tell you right now, it’s too early, I think.
Bill Forsyth was one of the filmmakers who put the Scottish film industry on the map many years ago. What is the film situation like right now?
There seems to be very good high-quality television to be made everywhere in the U.K. at the moment. The Scottish crews are excellent to work with, and they’re kept busy. I know there are talks of a big studio being built up there. In terms of trying to make movies like “Beats” for the cinema, it seems to me it’s very hard everywhere at the moment because of the economics. A film costs that much to make and makes this much at the box office, you know. But I hope the cinema will have another period of glory.
Did you have to fight to get this film made?
Oh yes, until the very last day. It was like a house of cards. The financing, the negotiations… even until you start filming on day one, you live in this constant fear and anxiety that the past three years of your life have been a waste of time, you know. I’m hopeful that now that “Beats” has been made and it’s been rather well-received, that the next one will be a little bit easier to make.
Film Fest Ghent (Belgium)
October 10, 2019
“Beats” (2019, trailer)
THE LAST STATION (2009) DIR Michael Hoffman PROD Bonnie Arnold, Chris Curling SCR Michael Hoffman (novel by Jay Parini) CAM Sebastian Edschmid ED Patricia Rommel ASSISTANT ED Brian Welsh MUS Sergei Yevtushenko CAST Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon, James McAvoy
KIN (2009) DIR – SCR Brian Welsh PROD Laura Rees, Rogers Estelle CAM Jean-Louis Schuller ED Brian Welsh, Andrea Cuadrado MUS Gary Sactuary CAST Jean Boht, Dominic Kinnaird, Nicola Marsland, Ivan Wilkinson
IN OUR NAME (2010) DIR – SCR Brian Welsh PROD Michelle Stein CAM Sam Care ED Hazel Baillie MUS Stuart Earl CAST Joanne Froggatt, Mel Raido, Chloe Jayne Wilkinson, Andrew Knott, Janine Leigh, Drew Horsley, John Henshauw
THE RACK PACK (2016) DIR Brian Welsh PROD Barney Reisz SCR Shaun Pye, Mark Chappell, Alan Connor CAM Zac Nicholson ED Ben Yeates CAST Luke Treadaway, Kevin Bishop, Will Merrick, Nichola Burley, James Bailey, Daniel Fearn, John Sessions, Tom Fisher
BEATS (2019) DIR Brian Welsh PROD Camilla Bray SCR Brian Welsh, Kieran Hurley (play by Kieran Hurley) CAM Benjamin Kracun ED Robin Hill MUS Penelope Trappes, Stephen Hindman CAST Lorn Macdonald, Cristian Ortega, Laura Fraser, Brian Ferguson, Gemma McElhinney, Ryan Fletcher, Rachel Jackson
GLASGOW GIRLS (2014) DIR Brian Welsh PROD Anna Stephens, Kate Cook SCR Brian Welsh, Joe Barton CAM Benjamin Kracun ED Paul Knight CAST Letitia Wright, Olivia Popica, Kirstie Steele, Aruhan Galieva, Hailey Ikunna, Assly Zandry, Effie Scott
MAYDAY (2013) DIR Brian Welsh PROD Chris Fry SCR Caroline Ip, Ben Court CAM Zac Nicholson, Dirk Nel ED Alastair Reid, David Barrett MUS Stuart Earl CAST Peter MacDonald, Sophie Okonedo, Sam Pruell, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Peter Firth, Lorraine Stanley