It takes a team to make a movie, and it takes an exceptionally committed, resourceful team to make a shiny indie gem like Tommy’s Honour, the true story of Tom Morris and Tommy Morris, Jr. Father and son champion golfers in Scotland toward the end of the nineteenth century, they transformed the game, laying the groundwork for what the sport has become today. But this picture is about far more than golf: it’s also a love story; a tale of sweeping social change and class conflicts; and a moving portrait of a devoted father and the eldest son who would surpass him in talent, ambition, and fame. Based on the 2007 book by Kevin Cook, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pamela Marin, the film is directed by Jason Connery (The Philly Kid, 51, The Devil’s Tomb), himself a keen golfer who practically grew up on the links watching his father Sean Connery play. The movie stars the internationally acclaimed Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe, Braveheart, War Horse) as Old Tom; magnetic rising talent Jack Lowden (Denial, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) as Young Tommy; and the dazzling Ophelia Lovibond (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) as Tommy’s wife Meg.
Connery, Lowden, and Lovibond were joined by American producers Keith Bank and Jim Kreutzer for the U.S. launch of Tommy’s Honour over Easter weekend, still savoring the film’s win as Best Feature Film at the Scottish BAFTA Awards. “That was a wonderful moment,” recalls Connery. “It was a sort of culmination of—well, then it was five years’, now it’s six years’ work. I completely lost the ability to speak for about three or four seconds, which felt like three or four minutes, and I think the audience were thinking, what’s happened to him, did he have a mini-heart attack or something, because I literally went blank.”
The narrative of the movie is sturdy and propulsive; its tone and scale, intimate. Old Tom Morris was the groundskeeper at fabled St. Andrews golf course, and in addition to being a great player in his own right designed many of Scotland’s finest courses. During his prime, most of the other top players were also manual laborers, non-pros hired by the aristocracy; the gentry would bet on them at matches and pocket the winnings, giving only a small percentage to the struggling men. Young Tommy was his father’s co-worker and protégé, but unlike his dad, questioned the status quo. As Tommy’s skills grew and he became the star attraction on the circuit, drawing ever larger crowds and therefore heftier bets, he challenged the rich landowners—in the film led by the imperious Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill of Dead Calm and Jurassic Park)—and defied his father by setting his own terms financially and going on tour. When Tommy fell in love and married a woman considered beneath his station, other frictions within his family arose.
I tell Connery one of the things I most like about the movie is that his direction is not fussy. “I hate it when the camera has a mind of its own, when the camera has a perspective that is different from the storytelling,” he explains, adding, “The idea was that the camera doesn’t make moves that aren’t justified by what’s happening in front of it. I’m a big fan of John Ford, and if you actually watch a John Ford film, and try to imagine where he put the camera, after about three minutes you’re so in the story you forget to think about where the camera is.” The views captured by cinematographer Gary Shaw (Moon, Believe) are nonetheless impressive; Tommy’s Honour was shot on location in Scotland, inviting the audience in with an unobtrusive attention to details that feel authentic and natural.
A movie screenplay is the underlying framework for images and sound; I wonder about the connection here between script and images, how Connery arrived at his visual strategy. He replies, “I love the idea of the visual elements telling the story as opposed to people verbalizing, because in a way, words–certainly in films sometimes–can be mundane, in the sense that they only tell you one part of the story. Now, when you’re working with actors who have many levels of ability, hopefully you’re getting more than that. And when the actors flesh [the screenplay] out with their emotions, very often I find that we don’t need to say that line, because actually I can see it in their faces, and I would prefer that.”
When he has a certain sequence or scene in mind, does it spring from one dominant image that then colors everything around it? “I often look at the art of the time,” he says, “and maybe not even of the time–the artists, and what people were doing. The end of our film is near the start of the Industrial Age; there was a Civil War in America, and much change going on. I watched a lot of period films before making the film, and I also watched quite a few golf movies.” He says he storyboards, and also works from a “lookbook,” a term new to me. He clarifies, “It’s an electronic version of the idea of the film and what I’m trying to do. It’s like 22 pages of pictures, and character profiles, and how I’m going to shoot it, and how it might look, and I use it as reference to show not only investors, but also people who might be interested.” [He later emailed me the lookbook, and indeed every major aspect of Tommy’s Honour is evoked there in some form–Victorian-era photographs; biographical sketches and historical anecdotes; weathered handwritten documents, like the rules of golf (there were only 13 then); and notes on how Connery planned to use the camera—all arrayed across a green plaid tartan background.]
If the lookbook’s vintage photos of the real-life Tommy Jr. and Margaret Drinnen, the disgraced former maid whom he wed, capture the youth, promise, and beauty of the couple, actors Lowden and Lovibond breathe vitality into the characters. You get echoes of their on-screen chemistry in their off-screen banter, at once playful and mutually supportive, and as though they share some shorthand, or a kind of secret language. To call them entertaining and lively is an understatement: they’re not just the brightest lights in any room, they are the room. I ask Scottish-born Lowden what initially attracted him to the project. “First and foremost,” he replies, “the story. I just thought it would be beautiful, the arc of it. It was quite a tragic arc, of him achieving so much, and then he’s dead at 24. I just found it amazing. There’s something about these people. He seemed to have sort of a death wish. You know, Senna, the racing driver Senna was always accused of that, that he had a death wish.” Lovibond concurs, “I think these people kind of burn out, don’t they? They fly too close to the sun, and they’re gone.”
A favorite scene of them together in the movie is when Tommy and Meg first meet in the restaurant where she works, where he is being pitched by a British aristocrat to decamp to England for bigger bucks. But all the while Tommy barely listens, as his nose keeps following Meg’s progress around the tearoom. “I’m with you,” Lowden says. “Even just as a film fan watching that scene, it looks like two people in love. It looks like we know something that nobody else does. And he does love golf, but he’s bored by all this talk about golf.” Lovibond interjects, “It’s like when he says to his father, ‘Your god is golf—‘”
Her co-star completes her thread, “’—but it’s not mine.’ He’s not just looking at some girl. And [to Ophelia] you come over to him, and I say, ‘You know, you’re serving tea to the champion golfer of Scotland,’ and you slam him. And he likes it.”
I ask how they respectively found their characters’ physical and psychological cores. Lovibond answers, “The corset certainly helps you get into character right away, but I consciously wanted to make her more relaxed, and not focus on posture all the time, but more on sitting into my hips, because she was quite rejected [by the close-minded society of the time] over the way one ought to behave, the way one ought to be. I wanted to reflect that insouciance, I suppose, in her body language.” She then turns to Jack, remembering, “We were just talking about that, about your walk, the way Tommy walks.”
The 6’1” actor, who feels he looks like “a baby giraffe in tweed” alongside his partners up on screen, reveals he was inspired by Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. “He’s also quite a tall bloke. I love the film; there’s something about whenever he walks out of a scene—everybody’s always walking in that film, but he walks with such purpose. I watched it before I did this film, where there’s a lot of Tommy hitting a shot, and then walking away, that whole thing of Tommy moving forward all of the time, kind of a restless bloke. So I tried to do that with my character.”
The hero’s gait is definitely jaunty, with a bit of swagger. Tommy Jr. tilts full speed ahead for most of the movie, slanting toward the future; he may not know what that future is, but it’s not going to be what insufferable toffs like Boothby dismiss as “nothing.” In today’s golf, you’re looking at highly paid, elite athletes—although considering what the broadcasters make, more power to the players if they can get it, right?—but the sport in Tommy’s Honour is about the common people. Lowden’s response to what I thought was a casual observation is so forceful he startles me: “But that’s where it came from! It came from the people, it came from the guys that worked on the land; it really did! And, look, if anyone can take a kicking, it’s the upper classes, okay? And you know, I hate ‘class,’ I hate the idea of class, I hate that’s in our society. I hate that people get referred to as middle-class, working-class.”
I try to make the point that you can’t ignore that it exists, and Lovibond leaps to his defense: “But the use of the terms perpetuates that.” He continues, gathering steam, “If we would stop using the terms it would kind of disappear. Even the people who say they’re working-class, and take pride in it, it’s like—“ She jumps in, “Why don’t they go out and buy a T-shirt that says it?”
He agrees. “I would rather that people distinguish themselves through their nationality rather than their class, because there are so many different nationalities in the world, it’s fantastic. But classes—are there like four classes, or three perceived classes?—and [referring to Boothby and his ilk] you’re shoving yourself in there? Shut up! That’s what I like—that they can get a kicking in the film. And they can take it.” Clearly, this young man with so much fire in his belly was the right choice for the role. And the two of them together made me rethink some things I thought I knew.
Well before the actors signed on, and years before Connery’s assured turn at the helm, Tommy’s Honour began as a passion project for Chicago-based film producer Jim Kreutzer (Just Write), who first learned about the Morris family while playing the links at St. Andrews during a vacation with a then ailing close friend. Kreutzer soon bought the rights to Kevin Cook’s award-winning book, and after much searching eventually tapped Connery (who had been producing and directing films since he founded his own production entity, Unconditional Entertainment) to direct, certain they were on the same page. But after putting some of the initial financing pieces together, Kreutzer hit a wall. “I was stuck. I couldn’t get it done,” he recalls. “We were fortunate about three and a half years ago to meet Keith Bank through a mutual friend. And as we were casting things on the water, sometimes you’ll get a nibble, but pretty much Keith just swallowed this for a lot of reasons: his interest in golf, his interest in philanthropy, his interest in promoting the game himself.”
Bank, who also lives in the Chicago area, adds, “You know, my day job is the venture capitalism industry. I did a film [Heaven is a Playground] 28 years ago and swore I would never do it again. It’s a tough business. It’s not like I hate the business. I like it; it’s just not my goal to do full-time. But this project just really struck a chord with me when Jim came in and told his motivations and reasons for doing it. I read the material, and met Jason, and I just said, if I’m ever going to do it again, this speaks to me.” Kreutzer and Bank dubbed their company Gutta Percha Productions, named after the stuff old golf balls once were made of—which is also, coincidentally, the substance used to fill root canals (Kreutzer started out as an endodontist).
I ask Kreutzer if he thinks it’s harder to do this work because he lives in the Midwest, rather than on the West Coast. “I don’t think so at all,” he replies, “in fact, just the opposite. I think fundraising is easier outside of Los Angeles, because people in L.A. are so cynical about filmmaking because they’ve been there for all those years. I was offered a job to go live in California and make movies ten, twenty years ago, and I turned it down, because I liked living here. Here you’re able to step back, not get swept up, and not get so inundated with projects. And if you start believing your own press, then you’ve made a mistake.”
“The challenges in making a film are multiple; certainly, coming in on time and on budget,” Bank adds. “My attitude, right or wrong, is you can hire talented, good people that are experienced, who know how to do that. We were fortunate that we had good source material and a good script to start with. You have to get a little bit lucky along the way to make sure the weather cooperates, to make sure you don’t have accidents on the set, and so on, but the raising the money part is challenging for any film. It’s, I think, extra challenging for independent film, and it’s extra, extra challenging for sports and golf-oriented film, and it’s extra, extra, extra challenging for people who are kind of in the industry, but kind of not in the industry. There’re just so many hurdles that it’s a lot easier for people to say no than to say yes, so you have to give them a compelling reason to say yes. And then once you do all that, and you make the film—and I think we made a very, very good film—you have to find someone else who believes in it. And you hear the same diatribe from all the distributors: it’s an independent film; it’s a period piece; it’s a sports movie. Everyone likes to put a label on it–and, as you know, one out of ten movies that get made never land in a movie theatre.
“So you have to have a distributor that sees the vision, shares the vision, and gets people to show up. With this film, the upside is that you have 24 million golfers in the US—that’s the low-hanging fruit—you know where to go find them, there are channels where you can get to those people. The downside is those who put it into the bucket and say it’s a sports film, or it’s a golf film, and how do you get to the non-golfers and the rest of the movie-going audience?”
With some trepidation I admit to Connery that I have never played golf and don’t understand the game, yet Tommy’s Honour resonates with me and I got very caught up in his film—which is honest, but could sound like faint praise. But he responds, “It’s such a joy to hear you say that you don’t know anything about golf, you’re not interested in golf, and yet you were fascinated. This film was at least a gateway for you to say, so, that’s how it started, oh, that’s what happened, oh, now look at it. To me that’s accessibility, because golf is a very polarizing game. You either love it or you hate it. A lot of people hate it. I’m hoping that we can bridge that gap.”