It had taken Michael Caton-Jones, director of Rob Roy, Memphis Belle, Scandal and Doc Hollywood, 20 years to bring his latest vision to the big screen.
But as Our Ladies, his adaption of The Sopranos, Alan Warner’s late 1990s novel about a group of Highland school girls let loose in Edinburgh, was being unveiled at the Glasgow Film Festival last February he had a deep sense of foreboding.
Hailed by critics, the Scottish coming-of-age movie, featuring a largely unknown cast as a band of rebellious teenagers who hit Edinburgh’s streets in pursuit of booze, shopping and boys, was due to be released at the end of April.
The film festival had been unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but Caton-Jones was already fearing the worst for his industry.
Caton-Jones, who is based in London, recalls: “My wife is clinically vulnerable to Covid so I could see it all coming. We had been reading about it and her doctor had already phoned her about it. She didn’t come up for the Glasgow premiere.
“When I was at the Glasgow Film Festival I knew the film wasn’t going to open in April. No-one else would listen to me. But I knew it was going to be bad.”
Caton-Jones had faced a long struggle to get an adaptation of Warner’s book off the ground, resisting efforts to relocate the film to the Home Counties and even Hollywood in order to secure financial backing.
The success of a 2015 National Theatre of Scotland musical, adapted from Warner’s book by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall, was the catalyst for renewed interest in a film version. The impact of Me Too movement on the film industry was was said to have been crucial in Sony agreeing to finance the film, which Caton Jones began shooting in Edinburgh and Fort William in 2018, with Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Messham, Rona Morison and Marli Siu playing the five central characters.
After rapturous receptions at festivals in London and Glasgow, Our Ladies became a forgotten film, as the industry grappled with the implications of a global shutdown of cinemas and huge backlogs of expensive blockbusters.
Caton-Jones says: “All the executives at Sony who worked on the film moved on and there was no-one there to fight our corner. The film just got bounced about like an orphan. Sony had a stack of films they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on. We were way down the priority list.”
Caton-Jones admits the wait for Our Ladies to be released feels worth it with the film, which is released on 27 August, about to open to audiences who have gone through the experiences of lockdown, adding extra nostalgia to a story set in 1996.
He says: “I possibly would have been happy for it to come out on a streaming service if I hadn’t seen the film with an audience a few times. I just felt that the cinema was its natural place.
“It is as cinematic as a big action film. Comedy works really well with a cinema audience – it’s not just action films or spectacle that deserve a cinema release.
“With something that’s supposed to be funny you know almost immediately if you’ve won or lost. It’s pretty miserable if you’ve lost, but if you’ve won, you hear everybody get all the little things that you put in hoping that people will get them. It’s pretty gratifying.”
Caton-Jones describes Warner’s book as one of the best he has ever read.
He says: “So many people told me it would never get made. I just thought they were all f***ing mental. There was never a doubt in my head it would work.
“Shooting it was a fantastic experience and one of the easiest films I’ve ever made. I had written it and knew when I wanted to do with it.
“The cast had a lot of freedom to create their characters. They were so much stronger together. I was in heaven making the film with them.
“I was really happy when it finally got a summer release date. I thought it would be good counter to big action movies and shoot ’em ups.
“After 20 years, getting the film made was a success for me. If it makes money, that’s great, but if it doesn’t I’m not bothered because I feel it’s a really good film.
“I actually think that’s a film that we all need right now. It will have a bit more nostalgia for people who don’t even remember when it was set. It represents a time when people went out without a care.
“I think people will have a laugh, but they’ll also be moved by it. It’s a human story.
“I’m always looking for universal things and human situations, because they will work anywhere in the world.”
Penelope Cruz and Kate Hudson were both linked to a Hollywood version, but it was interest closer to home that Caton-Jones is still aggrieved about.
He said: “At one point I thought about selling the rights to the book, but I spent so much to keep them. I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
“One of the original ideas when I got the book was to get Lee Hall to write the screenplay, but he wasn’t interested at the time.
“After the stage version all these producers started crawling out the woodwork. The producers of the Derry Girls tried to buy the rights off me.
“The Derry Girls thing really bugs me. They just ripped him off. They tried to buy Alan’s book off me, but I wouldn’t sell it, so they just took it and made it in Derry. It came out just as I was talking to Sony.
“I just think it’s wrong that they don’t credit who did it first. It’s cheap and classless.”