Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald become ‘Johnno’ and ‘Spanner’ in ‘Beats’, a hedonistic journey into Glasgow’s club scene in the mid-90s
There is an effortless bond that exists between Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald – the breakout stars of exuberant rave-fuelled coming-of-ager Beats – that is at once immediate and totally infectious.
Directed by Scottish indie filmmaker Brian Welsh and set in the starker pockets of Glasgow in the mid-90s, Beats hinges on a climactic warehouse party in an era where rave culture was fighting for survival. The Tories’ Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was just coming into effect, and along with it a mass crackdown on public parties.
Having met in acting school, Macdonald and Ortega became and remain close friends, so much so that Macdonald recommended Ortega to star alongside him in the film, a smart move that lends to the authenticity of the pair’s story onscreen, and also meant he got to hang out with his best mate.
Nestled away in a booth near the entrance to Soho Theatre – where Macdonald is starring in a play – the leading pair slot together comfortably, colouring in each other’s anecdotes and yes, finishing each other’s sentences, as they recall fond memories from their dual big-screen debut.
In Beats they play best friends Johnno and Spanner respectively; Johnno the product of a loving home with a bright future ahead, and Spanner the subject of constant bullying from his older brother in their small council estate flat.
It’s a sincere, cinematically stunning tale of brotherhood and resistance, shot in black and white, and partnered with a soundtrack curated by J.D Twitch that perfectly crystallises the communal ecstasy of the era.
Beats was chosen to close Glasgow Film Festival, that must have been an amazing night.
Lorn Macdonald: It was so nerve-wracking. We’d seen it before the premiere, and we knew that it was generally good, but it’s different when there’s everyone that’s worked on it sat watching it with you. I remember sitting down just as it was about to start playing and my stomach was in fucking knots. I was nervously trying to look over at Brian (Welsh) the director, and that’s when the first laughs came in. It was a feeling of total vindication. Then when it ended there was a huge round of applause. There was this standing ovation, which was a bit surreal. Cristian was behind me, and I looked round and everyone was up on their feet. It was emotional.
Cristian Ortega: And then we went to the Sub Club.
I understand that they reopened the Archers especially for the afterparty?
Cristian Ortega: The closing party for Glasgow Film Festival was at the Archers, which used to be this legendary club, but now it’s an artisanal food place. We went in and the lights were too bright, the music wasn’t quite loud enough. It didn’t feel like the Archers that I grew up going to. We left there for Sub Club, which is one of our favourite clubs in the world. So we dipped out of the quite nice Glasgow Film Festival party and nipped round to see (J.D) Twitch – who chose the soundtrack for the film – play this perfect four hour-long 90s megamix instead.
“The closing party for Glasgow Film Festival was at the Archers, which used to be this legendary club, but now it’s an artisanal food place” – Cristian Ortega
What’s your relationship with the music from the film – you weren’t old enough to appreciate it at the time I assume?
Cristian Ortega: Well I was two, and loving it. I got right onto the scene. I’m a big fan of good music; it doesn’t really matter what genre it is. Classical, heavy metal, pop; if it’s good at what it is then I’ll love it. Rave music from the late 80s and early 90s especially.
Lorn Macdonald: I do think that I like this music even more now, after making this film
Cristian Ortega: What’s amazing about what Twitch has done with the soundtrack is that he’s included some of the big hitters, but there’s also quite a lot of dub and reggae in there as well. Lee Scratch Perry’s been used a few times, for example. I think it’s important that he’s linking it back to UK soundsystem culture, which is something that gets forgotten quite a lot.
That’s great, it could’ve easily have gone the other way after spending so much time immersed in that sound.
Lorn Macdonald: No, not at all. I think my favourite thing about the film is the soundtrack.
Cristian Ortega: “Stand On The Word” by The Joubert Singers has become such a legendary club anthem for me. When that played over the credits I started to tear up; I couldn’t have thought of a better song to put over those credits.
Lorn Macdonald: It is a beautiful, beautiful song. “Belfast” by Orbital plays as well during the rave scene – that for me was when the scene went from “Rave! Rave! Rave!” to something more meaningful. People do think that rave is too intense, when actually it’s beautiful music. It’s really well orchestrated.
I wanted to talk about the big climactic rave, specifically the walk through the fields up to the venue. There’s something tangible to it - it reminded me of Fever Pitch, or Almost Famous, where the characters walk into this big event for the first time. What was that like to film?
Lorn Macdonald: That was the most boring part of the whole film to shoot for me.
Cristian Ortega: That night was four and a half hours of walking in the woods.
Lorn Macdonald: Don’t get me wrong, it looks like we were having a great time. But that was not a short distance to walk; those shots were spread over hours. There were midges everywhere.
Cristian Ortega: It was next to a litter dump. It did not smell good. But we were aware of that importance of excitement, of getting to that party.
Lorn Macdonald: For a large part of that sequence I’m not with Cris, so I was walking along with a lot of the ravers. I got to chat with them, and that was really cool. It was nice to hear people saying: “Yeah I actually study philosophy, but I thought that this sounded really cool so I came along.” For me it was about stepping outside of my character a little and having really good conversations with young people.
Cristian Ortega: A lot of those extras were recruited from clubs. People were handing out flyers at the Berkeley Suite and places like that.
Lorn Macdonald: So they were all very passionate about it as well, and that made a big difference. We had to redo a lot of the walking, so the fact that they were so keen and loving it helped. A lot of them had come by themselves and had made friends, which is what the film is all about. So filming experience: meh, but actually what happened in those hours was really good.
It sounds like it was a communal experience.
Lorn Macdonald: It was, it totally was. We made a lot of friends from that party.
Cristian Ortega: Big Mad Callum.
Lorn Macdonald: Big Mad Callum?
Who was Big Mad Callum?
Cristian Ortega: He’s a guy who met us at Sub Club afterwards.
Lorn Macdonald: Oh yeah he wore the yellow vest!
Cristian Ortega: The yellow string vest, yeah.
This film made me think of Shane Meadows’ and Richard Linklater’s work, who both have this unfaltering knack of capturing camaraderie onscreen. How did Brian achieve that with this film?
Lorn Macdonald: We were both at acting school together, so we knew each other before filming, which I think that massively helped. And Brian’s very good at being a mate on set. He has his director hat on because he’s got to control this huge beast, but then he’s really good at having a laugh inbetween takes, or he’d be taking our ideas on.
Cristian Ortega: 50 per cent of a director’s job is casting, and I think that he’s cast this really well. Even the small parts are played by lovely, cool, awesome, hilarious people. So there was a genuine buzz and excitement, because everyone felt like a group. It felt like we were a…
Lorn Macdonald:...young team...
Cristian Ortega:...a young team yeah! There was no awkward bickering, it was just a proper group dynamic. And because we already knew each other, it was kind of like a short cut to the characters’ understanding each other.
Lorn Macdonald: There’s something about just sitting next to someone and being comfortable with them immediately. Like, on the second day of filming we had to shoot a scene where we were sleeping in bed together.
Cristian Ortega: If we hadn’t have been mates that would’ve been quite difficult.
Lorn Macdonald: Luckily Cristian and I have been on many nights out and had many hungover mornings in the same bed. In fact this morning was one of them.
“Luckily Cristian and I have been on many nights out and had many hungover mornings in the same bed. In fact this morning was one of them” – Lorn Macdonald
There are some pivotal scenes which involve both of your characters on a lot of drugs. Could you tell me about capturing that state of mind?
Cristian Ortega: Basically we organised a party, and filmed around that party, without ever really calling cut.
Lorn Macdonald: The music never really stopped.
Cristian Ortega: We didn’t see Brian at all.
Lorn Macdonald: For about four and a half hours, we didn’t see Brian once. Henry (Jay Gordon), who was First AD, had a crappy microphone that he gave up on really quickly, and instead would run up to us and yell directions.
Cristian Ortega: So we were actually at a party.
So it wasn’t like in teen movies, where you see the extras dancing awkwardly in silence at house parties?
Lorn Macdonald: The people behind us were having a much better time than we were, believe me.
Cristian Ortega: You can’t not be having a good time in that environment, with the live tunes and everyone around you having a good time.
Lorn Macdonald: This is the closest that you can possibly have to a rave on film.
Cristian Ortega: Because it was a rave.
Lorn Macdonald: It was an actual rave!
Cristian Ortega: I remember grabbing you at one point and shouting “this is our fucking job!”
Lorn Macdonald: It wasn’t that difficult to shoot when you’re thrown into the deep end and everyone’s dancing and everyone’s buzzing and having a great time, and you’re there with your best mate. It wasn’t like we had to awkwardly cut and then start again. That was a smart move on Brian’s part.
We’d worked with him for a month before putting on the rave, which meant that we knew his direction and style. We knew what notes would be in his head. If we had to retake, we knew what he would want us to do differently in our heads.
“I remember grabbing you at one point and shouting ‘this is our fucking job!’” – Cristian Ortega
What do you think that this film will mean to young people today?
Cristian Ortega: Because of phones and technology now, there’s this honest feeling to going round to your mate’s and knocking on their door, and if they’re not in just going home. Those days are long gone. I think they’ll look at this film as very separate from today. The idea of friendship and of going for a big big night out when worlds are dividing however; I believe that’s a genuinely universal theme. Every young person will get that. Also that feeling of being heartbroken by losing the most important person in your life at that time, and feeling like it’s the end of the world.
Lorn Macdonald: That’s the thing, the stakes of Beats are fairly small. It’s two friends going on a night out. But for them, it’s massive. These are the nights that you will remember for the rest of your lives.
Cristian Ortega: In the end rave turned into something really corporate. We now have EDM festivals, it’s not called a rave anymore. Rave became a dirty word for the establishment. I look back on it as a more innocent time, a more anarchic time.
Lorn Macdonald: There’s a naivety mixed in with anarchy and chaos. Those are two completely opposite things that go hand in hand in the movement.
“The stakes of Beats are fairly small. It’s two friends going on a night out. But for them, it’s massive. These are the nights that you will remember for the rest of your lives” – Lorn Macdonald
Beats pairs the importance of rave culture at the time with this sense of vulnerability felt between the two boys. I don’t think a film would’ve dealt with masculinity and music in this way ten years ago.
Lorn Macdonald: What I like about the film is that it’s not showing a friendship that many people are used to, especially a Scottish friendship. There’s been lots of speculation around masculinity in the film, but it’s literally just about breaking down the idea of vulnerability and being caring and emotional and loyal, and showing them as strengths, not weaknesses. They’re qualities that a lot of people had when they were young, and then had them beaten out of them the older they got. And that for my character Spanner, that’s definitely where his story is going.
Cristian Ortega: There’s something about this film that harkens back to like a period piece. It’s set at a time where Tony Blair was the great hope sent in to save the country, and today we’re in one of the most politically turbulent periods in a long time. There’s something about it being in the past, but still being relevant because systems are cyclical. And you have to try to remain human in spite of it all.