Campaigning against drugs in Sault Ste. Marie is not the first thing you might associate with Irvine Welsh, the Scottish writer best known for his cult story of Edinburgh heroin addicts Trainspotting.
So why his recent visit to the Soo?
Officially, the trip was for a cameo as an anti-drug Scots businessman in Ecstasy, an independent film adapted from one of his novellas. But his enthusiasm for the project, from the actors to the script, suggests something more was at stake. Something, say, a decade longer than a cameo.
It's been 10 years since Welsh first met Toronto filmmaker Rob Heydon to discuss the project. In that time the film has had to recast a lead actor, move shooting to another country and won and lost financing (a few times). After all that, Welsh just had to be on set.
"I keep encouraging Rob because it's been such a lonely furrow he's plowed the last 10 years," he says in a telephone interview from Sault Ste. Marie. "He's never wavered for a moment and he's come so close a few times."
Ecstasy is a romantic comedy about unhappily married Heather (played by Canada's Kristin Kreuk) and hard partying Lloyd (Scotsman Adam Sinclair), who meet at a nightclub. Heather manages to shed her husband, but can Lloyd give up drugs and other distractions? The young couple is called on to identify what's chemical about attraction and what's real. Or as Heydon puts it, the film moves from looking at the love of ecstasy, to the ecstasy of love.
Heydon has researched all sorts of ecstatic experiences: from the drug (Ecstasy is made from a banned drug called MDMA, an empathogen once used in marital therapy) to dancing (many cultures employ dance to enter a trance state). "Now," Heydon says during an interview on set in Toronto, "everyone is texting, e-mailing, like time is sped up, everyone is in a rush to get there quicker, to reach a transcendental state as quickly as they can. If there's a pill, they'll take it. But what are the repercussions of that on their family, friends and society at large?"
Still, the heart of Heydon's film is the relationship between Lloyd and Heather. Although it touches on the after-hours scene and is aimed at a younger crowd, Ecstasy is not "just another drug film," he says. "As in Clockwork Orange, the third act shows them growing up and getting out of their old ways, shedding their skin."
Heydon explains this with the quiet calm he demonstrates on set, a calm he's surely needed over 10 years. It's difficult to get a film financed at the best of times, but this film was particularly tough because of the content. He says that private investors have pulled out at the last minute. He had trouble getting backing from Scottish Screen, the country's national development agency, which he says tried to disqualify the project from funding, even saying Welsh wasn't Scottish (he is).
And then there's just sheer bad luck. At one point, the film was set to begin in Scotland, but changes in tax laws caused the financing to fall apart. He was ready to shoot last year, but his original female lead, Lisa Ray, was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer.
Heydon describes the project's fits and starts as a room filled with balloons. "You're trying to collect all these balloons into a corner and you start pulling all the strings down. But if one of them goes free you have to let all the balloons go and start all over again."
As the deals came and went, Ecstasy changed from a U.K. production to a Canadian-U.K. co-production and, finally, to a wholly Canadian project. With some help from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund (he has investors), shooting finally kicked off in late 2010. Most of Ecstasy has been filmed in Sault Ste Marie, with a day in both Toronto and Kitchener, Ont. In coming months, some exteriors and establishing shots will be filmed in Edinburgh.
This is the 40-year-old's first narrative feature. He's an award-winning music video and commercial filmmaker and has also worked on documentaries. But for this project, Heydon has had to wear many hats - director, co-writer and producer. He says it's been a team project, but of course, the team hasn't been on it for 10 years like he has.
And he's had more than the film to occupy him. In the past decade he's married and had three children. He's also lined up other work, including a role as the Canadian co-producer of an upcoming feature Gaza, starring Helen Mirren. Asked when that will start, he shrugs: They're "waiting on Helen."
Perhaps only someone who has spent 10 years on an artistic labour of love can casually wait on Dame Mirren.
Heydon doesn't mention that Ecstasy is actually the name of a collection of three Welsh novellas. The story of Heather and Lloyd has a title more appropriate to the man behind the project - The Undefeated.