With a little bit of loch

Michael Caton-Jones returned to Scotland after 17 years to do a Hollywo od-approved Rob Roy. Kevin Jackson watched him get wet `Period pictures take you to a different dreamscape - and you come out someplac e different at the end'
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To the right, a lumbering, sweaty, unshaven haystack of a man clad in dark fustian - the sort of horny-handed son of toil whose ripe bodily fragrance would stun an unwary sheep at 12 paces. To the left, a haughty, sharp-nosed, mincing exquisite, g loriously arrayed in a turquoise frock-coat dripping with gold brocade, who prances and pirouettes on the toes of his buckled shoes as he sketches baroque figures in the air with the tip of his sword. The opponents face off, ready for a duel to the death . Thescene might make a near-perfect emblem of class conflict in the 18th-century, save for the odd jarring detail. For one thing, the fop is wearing a baseball cap.

For another, he is played by Tim Roth, a man who has been known to use some harsh words about costume dramas, and who in the present PT (post-Tarantino) era might more reasonably be expected to sport a dark Italian suit and a .45 than an embroidered weskit and rapier. Roth is walking through the principal moves of the sword fight which his character, the dastardly Archibald Cunningham, is about to enter with Guthrie (Gilbert Martin), champion of the Duke of Argyll. When the cameras start to roll, Roth will quickly swap the baseball cap for a periwig of outrageous proportions; framed by white curls, his pinched features suddenly appear weirdly antique and aristocratic. Meanwhile, Argyll's enemy Montrose (John Hurt, in black frock-coat and even more outrageous wig) looks on, plots and gloats.

This is the 12th and, with any luck, final week of principal photography on Rob Roy, a high-budget, wide-screen adventure based - quite faithfully, it seems - on an early episode from the Highland hero's life rather than on the novel by Sir Walter Scott.The film stars Liam Neeson, immensely bankable after the Schindler Oscar, as Rob Roy Macgregor and Jessica Lange as his wife Mary; the director is Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, Memphis Belle and so on), which is why crew members are sporting caps and T-shirts reading "Clan Caton-Jones".

Today's set is a cavernous stone chamber (actually wood and fibreglass), lit by flickering torches (fed from portable gas canisters) and crammed with 100 or so extras clad in hessian or lace (portable phones and cigarette packets hidden carefully inside their folds) according to their caste. This whole set is contained within the Perth Equestrian Centre's main cattle shed. It's huge; so huge, indeed, that the same roof also covers a mock-up of Rob's home village, the double of a larger, outdoor s et some miles away on the shores of Loch Morar.

Much of Rob Roy has been shot on location in and around Fort William, in defiance of the notoriously changeable local weather system. The faked-up village inside the shed will play host to a ceilidh sequence that was rained out - not the only scene to suffer a drenching. "Did you know," one of the co-producers mentions wearily, "that Fort William has the highest average rainfall in the UK?"

But if some of his key scenes have been seriously dampened, Caton-Jones himself remains ebullient. Rob Roy represents not only the chance to enjoy himself while making what he describes as "a Scottish Samurai movie", but a kind of homecoming: "I went to the Edinburgh Film Festival last year with This Boy's Life, and a bunch of ex-schoolfriends turned up. I hadn't been back in Scotland for 17 years, and I didn't know if they thought I was alive or dead.

"Suddenly it all turned into a quite emotional reunion for me, and I went back to the town where I came from, which is a mining area in West Lothian, and I saw how everybody was living and I thought, `Oh God, I'd love to come back here to make a film.' Partly because I've never seen Scotland portrayed on screen the way I knew it could be - I've never seen the landscapes I knew from growing up here. And partly because it's a bit run down, and I know that by bringing a picture anywhere you pump a lot of money into the community - I think we've dropped something like £7m into Fort William's local economy."

The opportunity to make what Caton-Jones describes as "a film which would have its integrity as a British or Scottish film, but that would also have an appeal elsewhere because of its genre" came sooner than expected. A few months after that festival, Caton-Jones was approached by Richard Jackson and Peter Broughan from Talisman Films, an independent production company formed in 1991. Talisman had commissioned a screenplay about Rob Roy from the veteran Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp, whose credits include Night Moves for Arthur Penn and The Osterman Weekend for Sam Peckinpah.

After nearly two years of development, the script was ready to hawk around. Caton-Jones was an obvious first choice for director, although he describes the draft he was shown as "a brilliant script that was almost completely unreadable because it was written in dialect".

Sharp and Caton-Jones started to work together on a screenplay more to the director's taste: "I streamlined it. Alan had far more dramatic contrasts, but the structure was not beholden to anything. I tried to eradicate the troughs and keep the thing boiling. I don't think he was aware of the potency of the enmity inspired by the characters. For an audience to get satisfaction, it really required a denouement that was going to take advantage of that potency."

With Caton-Jones on board, Talisman approached Liam Neeson, who soon decided to accept the role; the company then went to United Artists who, somewhat to the producers' surprise, not only approved the project "literally overnight", but put up 100 per cent of its substantial budget. "We're admitting to $25m," Richard Jackson says cautiously, "a frightening sum for British producers but no more than average for Hollywood nowadays."

As Caton-Jones concedes, another reason for UA's quick green light was Hollywood's rediscovery of action-adventure films in a period setting, started by Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and The Last of the Mohicans, spoofed by Robin Hood, Men in Tights, andcontinuing with two other productions that have just wrapped in the UK and Ireland, Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Jerry Zucker's Arthurian escapade, First Knight, starring Sean Connery.

"It's like the science fiction cycle," Caton-Jones believes, "It'll burn itself out soon and we'll all be back to dreary urban reality. But that's not necessarily what the cinema is best for. The reason I like period pictures is that they take you to a different dreamscape, and you come out someplace different at the end. And for a film-maker there's another appeal: you have to be a lot more disciplined to make a period picture."

For Rob Roy, aspects of that discipline have included working with skittish horses, persuading riggers and producers alike that it was actually worth dragging heavyweight cranes to the top of mountains and orchestrating the intricacies of sword fights. After several hours of taking a variety of angles on the bout between Cunningham and Guthrie, which culminates in Cunningham scornfully lifting him up for the crowd to bay at, Caton-Jones declares himself satisfied.

Cast and crew head off for an evening of pumping money into the local economy. Onlookers congratulate Roth on his work, and one lady asks him whether he has modelled his performance on Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks movies. "Naah,' he replies. "Edna Everage, John Inman and Danny La Rue."

`Rob Roy' is scheduled for release this summer