The myriad delights in The Legend of Barney Thomson might be too numerous to cover here, but let’s start with Emma Thompson feasting on her role as a foul-mouthed, geriatric Glaswegian bingo lady named Cemolina.
“It was such a massive part, I knew I needed someone who was gonna be brave,” starts actor Robert Carlyle, talking to the Straight as he strolls through Kitsilano. “Obviously, I didn’t need anyone who was gonna come on showing any kind of vanity here, you know what I mean?”
When you catch the actor’s feature directorial debut, a black comedy with a healthy body count getting its North American premiere at the Whistler Film Festival, you will indeed know what he means. Carlyle is the thin-lipped Scottish barber of the title; Thompson is his endlessly gobby mum, a nonstop smoker in the classic mould as handy with an insult as she is with the task of body disposal.
“Emma accepted the script within a day and a half,” he continues. “She was on the phone right away. It was fantastic. Feasting on it—that’s exactly what it is. What Emma was able to bring was, well, can we say ballsiness, for a woman? It needed that kick-into-touch type of performance, because that’s generally a guy, that part, and actresses don’t really get the opportunity to play stuff like that every day of the week.”
Carlyle’s supporting cast is no less spectacular. There’s Ray Winstone as a dyspeptic and largely incompetent cockney cop constantly under siege from Ashley (Extras) Jensen’s younger and explosively violent nutter of a Scottish detective. Perhaps best of all is Tom Courtenay whooping it up as their unimpressed chief superintendent, a part that gives one of Britain’s most venerable screen actors the opportunity to say: “I’m not eating off a plate that’s served up a human arse!”
Asked how one goes about directing Tom Courtenay, exactly, Carlyle answers with a chuckle: “You don’t.
“If you cast it correctly, you don’t really have to do an awful lot of directing. You get actors in there who know what they’re doing. All they’re looking for is to be comfortable, and to feel at home in the part and amongst the cast, and that’s something I have to say I picked up from many directors, but particularly from Danny Boyle.”
Courtenay seems to have served as a talisman of sorts to the younger actor. Carlyle says he pitched Barney Thomson somewhere between Britain’s Ealing comedies of the ’50s and the Coen brothers, but he also returned to the kitchen-sink years for further inspiration.
“These guys were amongst my all-time heroes,” he says with a sigh. “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with Albert Finney—just wonderful, the films from that time, and these guys, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, all of these actors have a big, big influence on me and my life and my career. I went back and watched an awful lot of those films, and actually a lot of TV shows of the ’60s and ’70s as well, and looked at how these things had been shot, and began to get an understanding of how they worked.”
Principally, Carlyle says—in a statement that should quicken the heart of any movie lover—he was struck by the “emptiness of the frame”.
“The way they would set these beautiful shots up, and just let them sit, let them breathe, without cutting in all the time,” he says. “No dollies, no fucking spinning cameras, no stupid unnecessary close-ups and stuff like that. Let’s just sit the camera there and let the backdrop do its job, and let the actors within that backdrop do their job.
“The other thing,” Carlyle continues, “is back in the day, they shot a lot of these movies very quickly. Compared to today, where they’re looking for three, four, five months of shooting. For fuck’s sake. One of the reasons I kinda walked away from a lot of that, many years ago, these big-budget films, was I can’t stand it. I can’t stand the thought of sitting in a trailer for two-and-a-half days while you light a teacup. Drives me crazy. I’ve no time for that. We didnae have any time for that. We had five weeks to shoot the film, so I thought, ‘That’s that, there’s no teacups being lit in this thing.’ ”
No, but there is an arse on a plate.
Robert Carlyle will be in conversation at the Whistler Film Festival on Saturday (December 5). The Legend of Barney Thomson screens there on Saturday and Sunday (December 5 and 6).