A bright sunny lunchtime in East Lothian, and we’re in Peter Mullan’s trailer, looking at beards. “I call this one ‘George Bernard Shaw’”, he says, pulling up a photo on his phone where he poses in a sepia suit and a furze worthy of Karl Marx. He flips to another: “Maggie in makeup calls this ‘Kenny Rogers’”. The last picture is Mullan in red long johns and shades. “And this one we call ‘ZZ Top’”
There is some awesome facial furniture on the set of Tommy’s Honour, although it requires careful management. When Mullan’s co-star, Jack Lowden, settles down to a plate of vegetables, he presses the glue on his upper lip carefully between mouthfuls. “Eating with a moustache is a nightmare,” he sighs. “If I smile too enthusiastically, this pings off.”
Tommy’s Honour swings film audiences back to an age of golf when players, clubs and courses were more hirsute and certainly rough-hewn than the modern, manicured game. Towns lined up against each other for tournaments, and fights on the courses were not unusual. “There was betting, smoking and drinking: it was a very visceral game,” confirms director Jason Connery. “I’m hoping this film will change the way people see golf as always being a rather genteel sport.”
Connery has spent almost five years working on the story of golf’s first dynasty, a Scottish father and son, both called Tom Morris, who won eight Opens between them. Old Tom, played by Mullan, is viewed as the founding father of modern golf. Born in St Andrews in 1821, at 10 he fashioned his first club and knocked wine corks about the streets. Later he designed more than 100 of Britain’s top courses.
Young Tommy (Lowden) was the game’s first superstar; handsome, headstrong and talented enough to win three Opens while still in his teens. He was also the first golfer to be paid for exhibition matches and public appearances – a major milestone at a time when players were underpaid employees of the moneyed aristocracy and their clubs.
Like his film star father Sir Sean, Connery is a long-term golf fan. “I have a home in St Andrews,” he says, during a break between takes. “And if I didn’t play golf, I would never have seen my father because he was either working or on the course. I know Mark Twain called it a good walk spoiled, but you do talk to each other between holes, and I’d get to know dad better. It’s that element of the game that I loved seeing in the story.”
This is Connery’s fifth film as a director, and his most personal: “I saw the link between fathers and sons immediately, with its story of a young man with a famous father carving his own path,” he says. It’s certainly a family affair: Connery’s sister was a set visitor the previous week, and his son Dashiell is one of the runners, a slightly-built youth with the Connery eyebrows, loping amongst the crew with gentle efficiency.
For the past week, Connery, Mullan, Lowden and the crew have been based within sight of Arthur’s Seat in a period cottage which doubles as Old Tommy’s house. Inside, the set designer has kitted out Tommy’s living room with cosy chairs, a gilt clock and a well-stocked fire. Outside there’s a dovecot and a small orchard with sun-blushed pears arranged amongst the branches so immaculately that I mistake them for props. “Very few additions needed,” beams one of the crew.
Connery was very particular about filming Tommy’s Honour in Scotland with Scottish actors, some of whom he’s known since he started out as an actor at Perth Rep. “I was also very sure early on that I wouldn’t have any shots of heather or bagpipes,” he says, dryly. “It’s not that sort of Scottish film.”
It would not be Scotland without a bit of weather however. “Amazingly, there were no dreich days, but there was one filming in Dunbar, standing in for North Berwick, where the wind got up to 35mph,” Connery recalls. “We had bunnets flying off down the street, followed by tents. Very funny to watch, but a bit worrying at the time.”
Unlike Connery, neither Mullan nor Lowden had played golf before, so they were despatched for coaching by PGA Master Professional Jim Farmer during preproduction. “He was a great teacher, very encouraging,” says Mullan. “Although also very particular about the swing.”
After a few lessons, Mullan flew out to New Orleans to begin work on the HBO drama The Quarry, and took a golf club with him to practise. “It was a ladies wood iron, because that was the nearest equivalent to what they played with back in the day, and on my days off, I’d jump on a bus with my club and a bag of plastic golf balls and go to a park. Then one day, I heard a woman laugh and say “oh there are too many stories behind that”, and I realised that people were avoiding me. Up till then it hadn’t even crossed my mind that a man walking around town with a single golf club might look like he was on his way to kill someone.”
Of the two actors, Lowden is reckoned to have the edge as a player in real life. “We developed a cool swing drawn from all three photographs we’ve got of young Tommy,” he deadpans. Originally from Oxton, East Lothian, Lowden was a comparative unknown when he was cast. His supporting role in the Northern Ireland thriller ’71 was still on the shelf and his appearance as Nikolai, the reckless eldest son of the Rostov family in the BBC’s War And Peace, had yet to be screened. However Connery’s instinct during their first meeting was that Lowden was the ideal Young Tommy, right down to his irreverence towards the game.
“The thing about golf is it’s the worst thing in the world when you’re getting it wrong,” says Lowden, as he gives his moustache another dab. “But when you hit a shot that takes off like Concorde, instead of dribbling off the tee, I can see how it gets addictive – although I’ve got very little patience for walking between holes. It’s not like table tennis where you can hit the ball then instantly go again. I prefer to hit the golf ball, then run to the next hole to hit it again. The walking’s the one bit of the game I’m not buying into.”
Tommy’s Honour is strolling into cinemas next week. A lot has happened since filming wrapped, including a premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and a Bafta Scotland award for best film. “I can remember making an acceptance speech and having a glass of champagne, but the rest of it was a bit of a blur,” says Connery when I call him for a catch-up.
“It was unexpected – I don’t dare have expectations, although when people said nice things in post-production, I started to hope a bit.” This film about fathers and sons also now carries a family endorsement. “Dad and some of the family saw it on the big screen at the Bahamas Film Festival. He’d seen bits and bobs before, but as you can imagine, it was quite a potent moment for us.”
Tommy’s Honour opens on Friday