On location in Chicago, a place he quickly admits to loving thanks to the “gothic feel” of the buildings and a sense of being “in Gotham City”, JASON CONNERY took time out to speak with me in this exclusive interview about his latest film, TOMMY’S HONOUR, the story of legendary father and son golfers, Tom and Tommy Morris, the men credited with ushering in the modern game of golf.
Set in the early days of the game and shot in Scotland at some of the historic locations where Old Tom and Young Tom made their mark, TOMMY’S HONOUR goes beyond the sport itself and delves into the often challenging father-son relationship between the two. Starring Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden as Old Tom and Young Tom, respectively, the Morrises were considered Scotland’s golf royalty back in the 1850’s and 60’s. Once very close, the dynamic between the two men shifted exponentially when Tommy’s talent and fame surpassed his father’s accomplishments, among them, founder of the Open Championship in 1860, not to mention his skills as club and ball maker, caddie master and greenskeeper. In fact, one of Old Tom’s records, that of largest margin of victory in a major championship – 14 strokes in the 1862 Open Championship – stood until 2000 when Tiger Woods won the US Open by 15 strokes.
While Old Tom was a known commodity with a personality that was constant both publicly and privately, Tommy was the opposite. Wanting to break out of his father’s shadow, Tommy bucked the system and tradition of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and defied his parents wishes when it came to his relationship with his girlfriend (ultimately wife) Meg Drinnen.
Leaving no stone unturned, Connery is meticulous in the telling of TOMMY’S HONOUR. From locations to lensing to casting and beyond, exhibiting a fun-loving rakish sense of humor but dedication to his craft, Jason Connery talks not only about TOMMY’S HONOUR, but his approach to storytelling and directing, his days as an actor, and yes, his own famous father.
I was just enthralled with the story that you told about Tom and Tommy Morris with “Tommy’s Honour”.
I knew I liked you when I first got on the phone with you, but now I think I might be in love with you! Thank you, that’s music to my ears. It would be even more music to my ears if you tell me that you’re not a golfer.
I am not a golfer.
There we go! For me, that’s so important because while I love the game, I would love this film not to be seen only in the light of it being a golf film. I believe it has more to offer than that.
Oh, it definitely does. I know many golfers. I watch golf. I know the basics, but I don’t understand all the logistics. I can take it or leave it, but I could not leave this film. It is such a wonderful story about love. A father and son, two men and a game of golf, and of course, Tommy Junior’s love for his wife. It transcends. This story could be told were it not set against the world of golf and it would be equally as moving.
Well, I feel that way, and thank you so much. It means a lot to me that you saw those things, because when I first received the book, I read it in one sitting and I remember a very, very strong image I had in my mind when I read it in my mind of, this is really nothing to do with golf in essence. It’s men who had a tremendous passion for something, and they were united in that, but they also had conflict in it.
And, like any generation … I’m a father to my son who’s 19 now, and in fact he’s out in Los Angeles. He’s just got his first full-time job and his first apartment. God knows what he looks like already. I’m a son to my father, and generationally, there’s change. Then you throw in to the mix of 1866 with the class situation — upper class and lower class of standing — and also the church being incredibly influential in the community. The love affair, obviously as you said, between Meg and young Tommy are a very different relationship than between Tom and Nancy. Not better or worse in some ways, but just different. I came from a different place.
I rang the producer back who sent me the book and said, “I love this. I love this, but you’ve got to know, it’s not a golf story. It’s a family drama and a tragic love story.” And luckily, he didn’t hang up on me.
Then, really, what it then became was how to meld the two together. I was lucky in the sense that it was the beginning of golf, or certainly, the modern game, and therefore I saw that this really was very different from the game you see today. As you saw in the film, the crowd are right next to the players and they have a very vested interest in the outcome, because a lot of them would’ve bet their entire week’s wages on the outcome of the game. And they were prone to kicking the ball. They were prone to drinking. They were prone to smoking. They were prone to shouting out and to getting physical.
And we were lucky enough to shoot in the environment where all of this took place. At one stage, I remember sitting, feeling a bit strange, because the fight that they have in the bunker in Musselburgh was the actual bunker that they fought in 150 years ago. So, it was quite a strong sense of real and these people being very real and having no sense of their own legacy.
I’m glad that you brought out the environment that you shot in, because I’m watching this film and can’t say enough about you and your cinematographer, Gary Shaw. Visually, this is so beautiful. Filled with that light, that Scottish seacoast light, the grass, which is overgrown and obviously far different than what we see on a golf course today.
Yes. I had the idea that perhaps we would shoot at the real R & A [The Royal & Ancient Golf Club] on the real old course. As soon as I arrived there and saw how unbelievably manicured and how the building had grown exponentially, and they put on another floor and side bit, and there was cars everywhere, I just realized there’s no way we can shoot this. In fact, we couldn’t shoot on many golf courses because they were so manicured. Because back in the day, they used to cut the greens with sheep. So, the fact that the old course, if you bend down and look along the fairway, there’s not a single blade of grass that’s higher than any other. I just said, “This is never, ever going to work.” So we were lucky to find a field called Balcarres Estate. And it was covered in cows and cow shit, I may add. We had to clear that off and then we built half the R & A using the actual architectural drawings that the R & A gave to us. We built half of it and the other half is digital. And then we built the 18th green and the fairway and the teeing off area, Swilcan Burn, and the bridge.
The irony of this story was, on the first day of shooting, two massive oil rigs decided to arrive and plant themselves in our shot having maintenance. They were there for three weeks, so we had to digitally remove them, too. That being said, I would basically go to the golf courses and say, “It’ll be wonderful if you could not cut your grass for three weeks, and I’m going to use your fairways as the green and your rough as the fairway.” So that’s what I did. I feel that it certainly showed a different side from how things look now.
The visuals from the greens standpoint are absolutely gorgeous, but then you also get into this meticulous detail with the rest of the film, Jason. I notice the china patterns on the china in the Morris household, and the fabrications of the clothing. The level of authenticity here is stunning. I really felt transported back to 1860, 1870.
Well, again, thank you. I watched a lot of theory of movies and what I found with them quite often was it was prosaic in the sense that they would shoot things almost as though they were showing you the period. I worked really hard at breaking down all the costumes. Most of these men spent their entire lives outside and they didn’t have many clothes. So I wanted the costumes to be textured with all the different tweeds and all the different textures of very muted color, but it had its own beauty in the sense of it was very worn and threadbare in that way if you look at the crowds. Then the whole thing with beards and wigs, which I have to say, when you’re battling the elements on a golf course and three of the extras’ beards go flying down the fairway in 40-mile an hour winds, and you have to chase after them, was a joy.
But again, as I say, thank you. We did work exceedingly hard. My father saw the film in Bahamas and he said to me, “From the moment that the film started, I felt like I was there”, which was a huge compliment for me, because for me, sometimes it’s difficult for an audience to assimilate with the time and sit outside it. I really wanted to get the audience to feel like they were in the world rather than outside looking in.
I think you definitely achieved that, Jason. I’m curious. How difficult was it for you to balance your narrative? The narrative is very well-balanced so you don’t go too far in to the world of golf, nor do you shun the world of golf in favor of the various family dynamics and aspects of love.
Well, I have this theory about sport. I like sport, I do, and I think that there’s nothing better than live sport because the thing that makes it so exciting is the fact that, during a live sporting event, anything can happen. We see it all the time. We see it in the Master’s, just the other day with Sergio. We saw it with the Super Bowl this year and so many amazing sporting events. But the re-enactment of those events is never quite as exciting because, obviously, it’s not live. My theory on that was not to dwell too much on where we are and how things are, but to get into the event and never really make the outcome of the sporting event the most important, dramatic element that’s happening. For instance, in the Musselburgh game, it was about the fight. It was about the fact that I’m gonna show you that this is how it was at that time. And that event did, indeed, take place, but it also shows you the mentality of the people at that time.
Old Tom literally did take his son and go and have this — the pub is still there, it’s called Mrs. Forman’s — and went and had a drink of whiskey while they all beat the shit out of each other and then he came back when they’d stopped. And then the fight started again, and he left. Then, also in the North Berwick patch, you have a situation where this telegram arrives, so that’s an underlying element which then, hopefully, yes, of course, you’re wanting them to win if you’re invested in them. But also there’s other things playing. And it was the same when I was showing historical developments in the game. I wanted it to be part of their life while they were doing something else so that it wasn’t just a history lesson.
There was a couple of times with the writers where I had to say, “You can’t just have someone pontifically think about, ‘Oh, we make balls now from the Malaysian rubber tree which is called blah, blah, blah, and da, da, da’. We can’t .” These guys, this is their life, so they’re not talking about it. We just see them doing it. We see them boiling them. Whatever it is, we don’t know. We see them putting it into a paint pot. It doesn’t become a history lesson where you’re sitting and saying, “I want to slit my wrists because I don’t play golf and I’m not interested”.
It’s a very polarizing game, though. People hate it. We’ve had a few reviews, and it’s been quite hard to swallow where people literally say, “It’s a golf movie. I hate golf, it’s boring, and I don’t know why they made the film”. It’s tough. It’s tough to take. It really is.
They’re obviously idiots because this is not a golf movie.
Well, maybe you could tour the country with me! Every time someone says, “Well, I don’t like golf, and I think …”, then you can stand up and say, “It’s not a golf movie. You’re an idiot!”
How much do the characters of Tom and Tommy Morris resonate for you? Tom Senior, he was already legendary. And then here comes Tommy, and there’s now a rivalry between father and son. Did any of your own experiences in life with your father, did that bring emotions to the surface that let you connect even deeper with these men?
Of course, of course. I’ve done some different films, and maybe they didn’t resonate in the same way. But, I’m fascinated by people, and why people do things, and their stories, and often, people will tell me their stories because I am, indeed, very interested by them.
I started playing golf with my dad and we had these amazing times when he was playing Pro-Celebrity golf matches, and I would be there in Gleneagles in Scotland with him. I’d be with my family and we’d be all together.
There’s something about golf that non-golfers maybe don’t understand. Unlike many, many other sports, it’s very passive. The ball doesn’t move, and the hole doesn’t move, so you have plenty of time to walk to the ball and to prepare to hit the ball. And then when you’re walking on from it, you’re spending a lot of personal time with whoever you’re playing with. You can say it’s a very psychological game, because the ball doesn’t move. So, you can’t say, “Oh, that person hit a really good shot and that’s why I didn’t manage to get it back”, like tennis or something. [With golf] basically, the onus is on you. You’re playing yourself. I was gonna say playing with yourself, but that’s a whole different game.
So, it’s a very psychological game. In fact, it happened to Old Tom. Old Tom got what’s called the yips, where he could not putt. It was a psychological thing, and unfortunately in the North Berwick game, he was putting very well for the first time in many, many years, and that’s why he made possibly one of the only selfish choices he ever made in his life, and it had an absolutely massive impact on him and his family when he didn’t pass the telegram to his son. Obviously, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the wife’s death, but he may have got there in time to perhaps at least have the moment.
I think you did an amazing job casting Peter Mullan and Jack Lowden as the father/son here, but I’m curious. Did Jack realize when you guys were shooting that he was 24 when making the film, and that was the same age that Tommy died at?
Yeah, I think there were a lot of things that tie making this film to the real story. Jack is a wonderfully gifted actor. The only problem that Jack will ever have, he just needs to stay out of his own way, which I feel a lot of actors need to do. The irony is that I think that was the case with Tommy, too. I think Tommy was the most unbelievably good golfer and people would say, “Why don’t you just play golf instead of trying to change the system?” But he had that in him. He was always questioning. He was always asking, “Why?”
Jack is a very inquisitive actor. I think that’s a wonderful thing, but he also second guesses himself and questions himself, and sometimes, he’s just so dead-on it’s beautiful to watch. He and Peter, they have quite contrasting styles and they’re quite contrasting physically, but they had such a wonderful connection with each other. I pride myself having been in that because I see potential in people, but there are certain potential that I can’t take credit for. That is when two people have a chemistry.
It’s the same thing with Jack and Ophelia, to tell you the truth. I don’t know if you know this, but the first day of shooting, and the first day that they ever met, they got married. That scene when they marry each other in the church. To tell you the truth, there were a lot of cutaways in that scene where I could’ve gone to other people and I had other shots. But I just wanted to stay on them because the beauty in that scene, for me, is the way they look at each other. That’s something that one can’t direct because it’s either there or not there.
I have to ask you for all the “General Hospital” fans out there as so many of them knew I was gonna be speaking with you, having an experience in the soap world, soap performance is very, very challenging.
It’s a fucking hard job, I tell you! Yeah, it’s really interesting.
So, I have to wonder, was that the tipping point that pushed you in to directing?
The thing about directing is that your perspective is completelyintoerent in the sense that you’re telling the whole story. What began to happen to me as a performer was, first of all, I wasn’t particularly excited about the parts that were coming my way. I was living in Los Angeles, and there’s very little theater there — which, I was used to doing a lot of theater — and I was being offered lawyers and cops. In fact, the reason I took the “General Hospital” one was I thought it would be fun. And it was fun, but I didn’t realize quite how hard work it was going to be, because it was full-on, that’s for sure. But I realize now, I’m much more comfortable with directing.
If I say to you, “Debbie, I know how to tell this story. I know, and this is how I’m gonna tell it. This is what I’m gonna do. I really see it very clearly, and I’m very confident in telling you how I’m gonna do that”. But as an actor, for me to go, “Listen, Debbie, I’m a really good actor and I’m perfect for this part and I’m gonna knock this out of the park”, I was always less comfortable with that and more comfortable with saying, “I know how to tell this story and I’m gonna tell it.” I feel very comfortable behind the camera. But I have to say, every now and again, I think, “You know what? I’d love to play a fun part.” And if I get offered one, I might very well do it.
You and your dad could have played Tom and Tommy Morris here.
Well, yeah, many years ago. My dad’s 87 this year. He’s getting up there, and I’m 54, so those days are long gone. But I have to say, when I’m on the set, I realized even in “General Hospital” I gravitate towards the crew to start talking about the angle or one of the lens, or whatever, and they’re looking at me because I’m in there as an actor, thinking, “What the hell’s this guy doing?” But sometimes it’s nice, the idea of not having the responsibility of the entire story and just having the responsibility of turning up on set and playing it from one perspective. My girlfriend desperately wants me to act again, but I’m busy developing a new project for film. So we’ll see where that goes.
I have to say, again, I am so enthralled and just captivated by “Tommy’s Honour”. I’d seen your earlier work, “Pandemic” and “The Philly Kid”, but you really outdid yourself with this one, Jason. And I can’t wait for the next one.
Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m working on a romantic comedy called “Tortellini” that we’re trying to cast at the moment. I’m in a strange position where, instead of scrambling around trying to find the money, we actually have the money and we’re trying to put the cast together. It’s very difficult to get all the actors available in the same period of time.
I know you’ve got a long day ahead, so I just want to ask you one more question, Jason, before you go. What did you learn about yourself and the directing process in making “Tommy’s Honour” that you can now take with you into your next projects?
Well, I think you learn so much from ever job, and they’re all different in some respects. It is a tremendous amount of information that you’re garnering about the subject matter, especially if it’s a true story. I think what I take to the next project is, my job really, as a director, is to create an environment. And if I can create the environment necessary, then I’m doing my job. Yes, there’s a tremendous amount of work to do in pre-production and a tremendous amount of work to do on script pre-production, and then post, of course, too. But if I, in those 33 days that we took to shoot this movie — we had 50 locations, so we were hauling ass, as they say — what I realized was that if I create an environment where everyone involved in the film feels as though they’re working on something that could be special and that they all have a voice, ultimately, the last word is going to be mine because I’m captain of the ship. But they have the opportunity — the actors, the production design, the art department, the makeup, the hair — they all have a voice, and I’m open to hearing all of their ideas.
If that happens, then there’s the possibility to do something special. That’s why we all do it. When we won the BAFTA for the best film, I have to say I got very emotional because, for me, that was what was being said: that everybody who came to this film did their job and that it was recognized by the people who saw it and honored us with that award.
interviewer: debbie elias