‘The girls don’t apologise for anything - they are who they are’ - Meet the stars of new Scottish coming-of-age film Our Ladies

It is the new feature film about a rebellious band of Scottish choir-girls that hardly anyone wanted to know about for two decades.

The cast of Our Ladies.

Now it is swiftly shaping up to be one of the British movie industry’s next big crowd-pleasers.

And Michael Caton-Jones, one of Scotland’s most successful film directors, is reflecting on what he describes as “the most surreal experience of my life” at the helm of Our Ladies, his adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1998 much-loved book The Sopranos.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Following a group of less-than-angelic Highland teenagers bound for Edinburgh for a singing competition, but far more interested in the pursuit of booze, clothes and boys, the new comedy-drama is led by a cast of largely-unknown young actresses.

Caton-Jones wanted to make a story set in contemporary Scotland after working on Rob Roy and The Jackal.

But the Broxburn-born filmmaker faced so many struggles to get it off the ground that it he ended up making a “period piece”.

Within the space of a few days this month, he put the finishing touches to it and unveiled it to acclaim from audiences and rave reviews from critics after securing a “last minute” slot at the London Film Festival.

Much of the post premiere-buzz has focused on the chemistry of the twenty-something cast – Eve Austin, Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Messham, Rona Morison and Marli Siu – and their portrayal of female friendship.

The early response, he says, has been “way beyond” his own expectations and those of the executives at Sony, who green-lit the film last year after its repeated rejection by the British film industry.

He said: “As soon as I read the book I thought: ‘I’m having this if I can.’ It was just the most fantastic piece of writing.

“I thought there was a great film in it as it was a world that I really knew. I also thought no-one else would realise how accurate it was as there weren’t really any other Scottish film directors around at the time.

“But nobody was interested in making films about women and young girls.

“I bought the film rights, wrote the script and tried everywhere, but the BFI, the BBC and Channel 4 all ran a million miles away from it. They were horrified at the idea that anyone would want to make a film about these girls.

“There was a lot of negativity and for the life of me I just couldn’t work out what was wrong with it.”

An obvious explanation for the film eventually getting off the ground was the huge success of a stage adaptation of Warner’s book by Lee Hall, the creator of Billy Elliot, for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Launched at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, it would go on to win an Olivier Award after a transfer to London.

Caton-Jones, who then had to fight to keep the film rights, insisted it was the #MeToo revolution that saw a host of Hollywood actresses speak out against sexual harassment and sexual assault in the industry, which led to the film – released in the UK in the spring – being made.

He added: “A young executive at Sony, Luke Scrase, was charged with finding new material. He went around all the agencies looking for scripts. He came across this and thought: ‘Why the hell has this not been made yet?’

“I owe him such a debt of gratitude for finding it and championing it, even against resistance from within Sony. It was a film without any names attached and a script with obscure language. But, crucially, the whole landscape had changed.”

Lawrie, who plays Fionnula, was among several cast members to have seen the stage show, and read Warner’s book as preparation for the part.

She said: “The characters are just so beautifully written. They are all so different and detailed. The book is really funny, but I also loved the depiction of female friendship and being that young age, when everything is such a big deal and you feel everything so hugely.

“I’d loved the play so much, but I was also really looking forward to a job involving six young women. It is very rare to get the opportunity to work with women around my own age. I couldn’t wait to meet the other girls and get started.”

Siu, from Forres, in the north-east of Scotland, who plays Kylah, had seen one of her friends perform in the stage show at least six times.

She said: “Both the play and the film take so much inspiration from the book, but they have their own completely different energy.

“The overall arc is a great story in terms of what the girls get up to over the course of a mad 24 hours, but it splinters off into stories about each girl and their past.

“The book is so detailed and authentic about the characters – it gave us so much more depth about them.”

Caton-Jones, who did not see the stage show, wanted a brand new cast for the film, who were assembled for three weeks of rehearsals and “bonding” in Glasgow, where they lived together under the one roof, and even headed out on drinking sessions with the director, before location filming began in Edinburgh and Fort William, where the beginning and end of the story was relocated from Oban, Warner’s home town, to take advantage of the dramatic Lochaber landscapes.

He said: “I told them that I was trying to create the invisible bond of energy that girls have and needed as much help as I could get from them. After a while, I couldn’t separate who they were from their characters.”

Lawrie added: “We were very lucky to have several weeks of rehearsals, which is so rare. Michael and the producers were really keen that we spent a bit of time bonding. We had one-to-ones with him, worked in pairs and also did big group rehearsals. It was also a chance for us to get to know each other, play about and have a laugh. It all made starting on the first day on set so much easier.”

Glasgow-born Morison, who plays Chell, said it felt like “the right time” for the film to be made.

She said: “In a way, it felt quite moving to be making the film after the #MeToo movement and having a sense of “we can ****ing do this.’

“The characters are so different from what you normally see on film – they don’t apologise for anything. They are who they are and don’t ask for any empathy or forgiveness, but you kind of end up giving them it anyway.

“It’s also about getting through those really horrible teenage years together, when you are constantly being told what to wear and are worrying about what everyone is thinking of you.

“It is about a really strong relationship between young women and how they get through those times together, even though they are all so different, and are all going off on different paths.”

Our Ladies’ young ensemble cast, expletive-laden script and nostalgic soundtrack has already drawn comparisons with Trainspotting, which was released in 1996, the year Our Ladies is set in, and Derry Girls, the hit 1990s-era comedy focusing on a group of teenagers from a Catholic girls school.

Siu said: “I think it will be a really nostalgic film for women who grew up in the 1990s, but it will also appeal to young girls who just don’t get to see themselves and their friends on screen that much.

“It was the first time I’ve ever acted with five other girls, either on stage or on screen, which is mad.

“There are so many stories on film about gangs or groups of guys having fun and so few about girls. I don’t know what the worry is.”

Morison said: “It really captures that very specific Scottish sense of humour. It’s not dark, but it’s about taking the piss out of each other and not taking life too seriously.”

Lawrie added: “It will have an obvious appeal in Scotland, but the struggles that the girls face, the decisions that they have to make and the relationships they form are universal.

“Everyone has been a teenager and can remember how those feelings and emotions affect you.”

Our Ladies will go on general release next year


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.