British actor-turned-director Harry Macqueen (whose first feature, Hinterland, received nomination for Best British Debut at Raindance Film Festival and Best Debut at Beijing International Film Festival in 2015) attended the 20th edition of Transilvania International Film Festival for his most recent film’s Romanian premiere. Supernova centers its story around the way dementia impacts not only the diagnosed patient, but also the people around him. Even though the interview took place in extreme sunlight in the midst of a heatwave, Macqueen was present all throughout our discussion, reflecting upon the subject of his work, the way he relied on honesty to do that, as well as his experience of directing a team during a road movie and working with two acclaimed actors.
Why dementia? And why dementia during a road trip?
What happened was that 5 or 6 years ago I was working with a lady who ended up being diagnosed with early onset dementia and she was in her fifties, and I was really sort of inspired and by that, by spending time with her, I started working for charities in London – for UCL mainly – and I did that for about 2 years, and realized about 2 years into doing it that it was a really inspiring thing to tell a story about. I wasn’t planning on making a movie about dementia originally. It kinda happened organically, from spending a lot of time with people with dementia. So it became a really important thing for me, and so I guess I wanted to make a film for those people.
And why a road trip? I think because, firstly,…
‘Cause you leave some places behind, and new places open up…
Absolutely, yeah. They are going on an emotional and a literal journey, but also I think I wanted to tell an original story in an original way. I realized I’ve seen a lot of films about, you know… There are couples that are going through difficult times in a lot of dementia films, and all of those tend to be set domestically, in people’s houses, and I just wasn’t interested in telling that story. I thought getting the story on the road was an original thing to do and adds a lot of freedom to the whole filmmaking process, which is interesting and allows the landscape to be part of the film, and I’m a big believer in landscapes. So all of those reasons, yeah.
Supernova as a metaphor – Where does this come from?
Well, I suppose the most obvious thing is that, when a star dies, and it explodes, [it becomes] the brightest thing in any galaxy, and that really represents their relationship. But also specifically Stanley’s character, Tusker. He’s a very outgoing, fun, bright person… And he’s dying, you know. It sort of seemed to suit him. I knew that I was going to be making a really intimate film but in a much bigger emotional context, and it felt like the film could also be about why we’re here and what we’re doing.
The story follows two men who are older than you. How difficult was it it for you to put in their place in order to be able to write about their relationship?
It was definitely a challenge. [Being a good observer] is the most important thing with storytelling and directing anyway. You have to be a really good observer of people, and I think that’s fundamental to the process, really. But I don’t know, it took a lot of time to sort of get to know those characters and research their lived experience, ‘cause I’m half their age… But I got to know those characters so well before I started writing.
And how difficult was it for you to direct them?
It wasn’t [hard] for me, because Colin and Stanley really trusted me right from the start and they fell in love with the script. They were just really nice to me and we did really feel like we had a beautiful collaboration. We knew that we were making a film that hopefully was going to be important. We weren’t going to make it just to make it. They loved it and really believed in me and my vision. That helped enormously, ‘cause with other actors that might’ve been different, but with them, it was right.
How was it for you always being on the road as a team?
It was hard. Making road movies is always a challenge, because you almost never have control over the environment. We couldn’t close roads, Colin was actually driving the van in public, so it was challenging. But also quite freeing and fun. Yeah, it’s always hard not being in one place for long… And the weather was awful, obviously. But it was really fun being with a bunch of such great people. We all lived together… It was cool.
How much time did you spend writing the script? And how much time did it take you to complete the film, from the very start to the premiere?
As I said, I did 2 years of research before I even started writing. It probably took 3 years, maybe a year of writing, a year when we were trying to get the money to let us make the film, and then probably a year of filming and finishing it. So yeah, roughly 3 years, I would say.
Was it a challenging task to get the money?
We’re really lucky in the UK, because there’s a lot of government support for films, and I think that’s one of the only ways to get films like these made. The film was funded by the BBC and by the British Film Institute, BFI. They are just amazing institutions, because they are really well funded, and they really believe in the filmmakers. They can’t make money, they aren’t institutions that can make a profit, so that allows you to be creatively quite free with what you do. It’s very difficult to get films like that made without that support.
How did Firth and Tucci maintain their relationship outside the “set”? Was it hard for them to do that? Because their relationship in front of the camera had to be very intimate. I know that they had this already existing bond, that they’re friends and really know each other.
I think sometimes it was hard. Like you said, they know each other really well, they are best friends, they’ve known each other for 20 years, and I think that really helps. But also, it is difficult, because what you have to do is forget about your relationship at some point, because it’s not the characters’ story. But they are such talented actors, and that helps a lot.
This is where your acting background might have been of help.
Yeah, definitely! I think it [having this background] really helps, because, you know, working on anything is about trust, I think, and the actors really trusted me. In part because I’m an actor too, and I understand how you go through the process. But I also think that, as a director, you have to be interested in all the aspects of the filmmaking process. You have to collaborate with everyone equally. I’m just as interested in the photography of it, and the sound design of it, the performances… You have to try and inspire everyone, I think that’s the job, really… It helps, it really helps. Sometimes directors find it very difficult to talk to actors, and give actors directions. For some people, that’s very, very difficult. They lack the language, the right way of saying this, or whatever…
What about the music in the film? Who helped you with the soundtrack?
We worked with an amazing music supervisor, Sarah Bridge, the composer is this incredible English singer and songwriter called Keaton Henson. He’s amazing, and this is his first film as a composer. So we worked together very closely, and I suppose what you have in the film, the songs that are there, that they’re listening through the journey, the music that was composed for the film… You have to try and make sure that these things complement each other.
… And the music complements the scenery.
Yeah, it is really intimate, but also really expansive and cinematic. I think that’s very difficult to do, but it complements it a lot.
The scenery you shot could stand on its own if you were to remove it from the film, just like the soundtrack would. They belong to the narrative without being intrusive, and with the landscape scenes, you could distinguish in them something aesthetically different from the rest of the scenes.
I think the landscape is really important in my films, anyway. With road movies, the landscape is definitely another character.
Let’s talk about how you use honesty in Supernova. There is honesty in the way Sam and Tusker laugh about small stuff and enjoy their little happy moments, but there is also honesty in the way they argue, just like when we see them having that talk in the forest, Tusker really opposing Sam’s plan of finding a new place to live together. They interact very honestly and humanely with one another.
My focus, really, was on trying to make it as naturalistic as possible, and as believable as possible. And I think a lot of things I am interested in doing, writing and whatever… It feels the job is to make sure that everything feels completely authentic to the characters and to their relationship. So it is a particular kind of humour, but I think honesty is the best word. The film, in a way, is about people that aren’t honest with each other… until the end. So honesty is quite important in the film. But I think it is a challenge to just throw an audience literally in the back of a car with two people in there and say okay, believe this, believe that this is happening. So yeah, it’s difficult to do it. Hopefully we did it.
Sam seems to heavily rely on their past together as a couple, whereas Tusker lives in the present. Does that, in your opinion, make Sam look a bit selfish? Is this how you intended to build his character? Or is he just expressing his love and affection in a different way?
It is a really good question. I think what is hopefully interesting in the film is that you have a character who’s dying that is thinking about the future, and a character that is not dying who is thinking about the past. Naturally, if you know your time with someone is running out, you look back to the past. And maybe you shouldn’t do that, I don’t know. But I think with Sam it hopefully didn’t really feel too selfish. It felt like he had to play on the stuff that he knew, and not think about the future, because it was so difficult and challenging and sad to even think about tomorrow.
Yes, indeed, Sam might act selfishly at times, but he definitely isn’t a proper antagonist.
Again, I think that’s a really interesting point. The antagonist in the film is the disease. Hopefully, you love these two guys equally, and it’s the situation that is the antagonist.
So… it’s relieving for me to know that there are directors out there who still share your belief about intimate and humane relationships.
Yes, humanist films are really important, I think…