Riot Girls: Michael Caton-Jones on Our Ladies

Veteran filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones returns to filmmaking in Scotland for the first time since 1995's Rob Roy for Our Ladies, his long-in-the-making adaptation of Alan Warner’s The Sopranos

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 24 Feb 2020
  • Our Ladies

In the corner of a busy bar in a posh London hotel, barely visible through a throng of journalists, PRs and swirling waiting staff, sits Broxburn-raised filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones, who’s cheerfully sipping on a hot beverage. You wouldn’t have found him looking quite so calm a few nights earlier, when his zesty new film, Our Ladies, was having its world premiere as part of the London Film Festival.

Our Ladies made its bow on the big screen on Friday 4 October, but Caton-Jones explains he only finished the film 48 hours earlier. “Literally I was fixing cards and titles on Monday evening and I was checking the print on Wednesday.” The rush job was the result of a slight skittishness on the part of Sony Pictures, who produced the film. “I had tested [the film] months ago, when I still had the ability to change things, so that was the last time we saw it and basically the studio were a bit iffy about the whole thing and they said, ‘Well maybe we should run it at the festival and see what the response is?’”

Caton-Jones isn’t the type of filmmaker to back away from such a challenge. After all, his filmmaking motto is “Pain is temporary, film is forever”. Compared to the brutal Highland shoot of Rob Roy or directing a script as awful as Basic Instinct 2, a tight editing deadline was child’s play. “I said OK, because that would give me a deadline that I could then fight to be ready for, and that of course became fractuous and difficult and painful, but it was quite surreal to have finished it on the Wednesday and then walk into that place to show it to an audience of that size, on a screen that size. I should have been more nervous than I was, but because it happened so quickly, it was just, 'OK, fucking hell, this is bizarre'.”

It’s fair to say Caton-Jones was happy with the response. “The reaction was absolutely beyond what I could have hoped for,” he says. “I was just completely knocked out when I heard people getting all the things, all the little details I'd been working on for months and months. You think to yourself, 'well, maybe they'll get that, maybe they won't.' But that audience was getting it one after the other and it was really gratifying. It was really one of the great days of my life.”

The only other screening he remembers going as well as Our Ladies' premiere was a preview of his winning fish-out-of-water comedy Doc Hollywood, starring Michael J Fox. “We screened that in Burbank, and the people in the audience roared with laughter, and I'd never had that before. You show a drama and it's silent in the audience. You can't tell; they just all get up and walk away, and I'm left shrugging my shoulders. But with a comedy, if they don't laugh, you know you're dead. Not that I would say Our Ladies is necessarily a comedy to be honest.”

Adapting Alan Warner's The Sopranos

We might disagree with him on that score; the film is uproariously funny. Based on Alan Warner’s cult 1998 novel The Sopranos, it follows a group of Catholic schoolgirls from a small coastal town who let loose for a day on a trip to Edinburgh for a choir competition. The film's chief selling point is the rambunctious chemistry between the ensemble of mostly greenhorn young actors and the authentically crude banter of their characters. “My main intention was to celebrate these girls,” says Caton-Jones. “It was an offhand comment, but I’ve called it a love letter to my big sister and her pals. When I was growing up I thought these girls were brilliant. You know, they were on the razz and cocky and confident and full of life, and I wanted to make something like that about a period before smartphones and technology dictated the world.”

This wasn’t exactly the initial plan. When Caton-Jones started adapting The Sopranos in the late 90s, alongside the great Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp, who had written the script for Caton-Jones’ Rob Roy, it was a contemporary film. Two decades later, it’s now a period piece about a time when a trip with your friends could be a logistical nightmare given you’re not all connected by the device in your pocket. Caton-Jones has a few theories as to why it took so long to find financing. “I don't think anybody was interested in making a film about girls at that point,” he suggests. “It was well before #MeToo – I think the world changed and the world caught up.” Another sticking point with financiers, he reckons, was the girls’ class. “If it had been set in a convent school in Buckinghamshire it would have been made already, no question,” he says. “I had offers – if you want to move it, or if I wanted to use movie stars. And I said, ‘I'm not interested. I want to do this one. You can remake it if you want.’ You could remake this in any country in the world and it would work. But I wanted to do this one in Scotland.”

Perhaps the biggest barrier to financing, however, was the script’s unabashed attitude to female sexual desire. “A bunch of middle-aged guys in Beverly Hills didn't like the idea that these girls owned their sexuality,” recalls Caton-Jones. It wasn’t just US producers who were prudish, though. “I remember I took it to the BBC too, and when I never heard back I gave the guy a call and he said: ‘I thought it was going to be something like Les Choristes,’ that French film about a nice choir, and then he said, ‘I was frankly horrified. Girls don't behave like that.’ I told him, ‘You want to get out more, mate.’”

'Pitch Perfect meets Trainspotting'

Caton-Jones’ toil has been worth it. In its best moments Our Ladies is a riot, scattershot with raunchy zingers and vivid performances. One thing it doesn’t feel like is your typical British film. “There's a line that you have to tread,” Caton-Jones says when I bring up Our Ladies’ buoyant style and tone. “You have to remember, it's Sony Pictures USA that are putting the money up. I couldn't do it like it was a shoegazing, Channel 4 misery film.” The producers gave Caton-Jones a very specific pitch, and this versatile director knew exactly how to give them what they were after. “I quite gladly entered into this idea they had that it would be Pitch Perfect meets Trainspotting,” he explains. “Now I've never seen Pitch Perfect, so I've no idea what that would fucking look like. But I knew it basically meant it had to be commercial, and I wanted to make something that was a little joyous anyway.”

The film fairly moves along and is shot in a classical style that’s a cut above your typical small UK indie film. “That’s my training,” says Caton-Jones. “Once you know how to compose and once you know how to stage, it's hard to unlearn that. It would be daft to try and run away from that and try and become something else.” This isn’t to say that Our Ladies is some Hollywoodisation either. You will recognise these young women: there’s a real authenticity to the way they behave and speak. The film has a pleasing spikiness too, not shying away from the rivalries and personality clashes you’ll find in any tight knit group of friends.

“I feel that if this was a pure American film, they would have been friends and nothing would have gotten between them at any point, apart from one guy maybe,” says Caton-Jones. “But I find that all kind of bullshit. You can have an argument with your mates, and actually that's how you prove your friends, by being able to fucking poke at each other. That's what people are like. And so if you can portray that accurately, someone in Kolkata can watch this and go, ‘Oh, she's just like my mate.’ That was the idea: if you make a film specifically and accurately and honestly enough, it will be universal.”

Fri 28 Feb, GFT, 8.40pm | Sat 29 Feb, GFT, 1pm | Sun 8 Mar, GFT, 1.30pm – tickets and info here
The 28 Feb screening will be followed by a Q&A with Michael Caton-Jones and members of the cast

Our Ladies is released in UK cinemas on 24 Apr via Sony Pictures UK