GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH SHELAGH MCLEOD
“It’s a very personal film for me because all the characters I have either known very well, or have met and loved” says actress and filmmaker Shelagh McLeod. Her feature directorial debut ASTRONAUT tells the story of lonely widower Angus (Richard Dreyfuss), who lies about his age when entering a competition to win a trip into space
A career in front of the camera since the late 1970s, with roles in PEAK PRACTICE and POIROT for ITV, and HOLBY CITY and DOCTORS for the BBC, the last decade has seen her creative expression diversify through writing and directing. Her first two shorts RUN and DAVID ROSE centre on characters confronted by events that change their lives, while the father-daughter relationship and theme of hope in her third short film THE GREAT ESCAPE, features narrative shades of ASTRONAUT.
In conversation with Paul Risker for FrightFest, McLeod discussed her personal connection to the film, the need to respect both her actors and the audience, as well as learning to embrace and convey her own feelings.
FRIGHTFEST: Interviewing filmmaker Pablo Larraín, he spoke of how you discover the film in the final cut. Would you agree that filmmaking is a process of discovery?
SHELAGH MCLEOD: I would agree, and it’s the writer’s, then it’s the director’s and obviously the cast and crew’s, and then it’s the editor’s story. Then you all step back together and it becomes your [the audiences] story. When you see the first assembly it’s an horrible moment because you think, ‘Oh my God, is that what we’ve got!’ I spoke to far more experienced directors and they said, “Oh don’t worry, it’s quite common to be sick after you’ve seen your first assembly.”
All the pictures that you’ve carried in your head you see through a weird lens when you’re shooting, because you’re still configuring the reality that you’ve had in your head since you began writing. It becomes a different thing as you direct, but there are some shades of what’s left of the written word, of what was that image you had in your head while writing? And then when you go and work with the editor they take over and begin to shape the story, finding the bits that work and the bits that don’t.
You “kill your darlings; kill your babies”, but the funny thing is I can honestly say from the first day eight years ago when I started writing ASTRONAUT to today, the theme and the tone never changed. Characters have changed, but the actual tone of the film I had in my head is still there, which is extraordinary. I think that’s a thread and you need it, or I do because I’m an inexperienced director compared to top filmmakers, and you have to find a great editor who has the same tone in her or his head. I worked with Tiffany Beaudin who had the humour that I had in my head for these characters, and she also had the tone of the film. So I knew that I was in great hands with her, but she found things that I didn’t even know were there – it’s a funny old process.
FF: While the relationship between Angus and his wife, daughter and grandson are the dominant connections, Angus’s relationship with his son-in-law Jim is an equally important one. Jim who is losing his job is another version of Angus, forced to confront the question of whether or not you’re going to go out and find out what you want to be? It’s presented with subtlety, nestled there within the story for us to pick up on rather than thrust at us.
SM: Originally this script was a very dominant son-in-law versus Angus film – it was almost a two hander. Jim loses his job and is redundant like Angus is, so it was all about redundancy. I told both of the actors this is about my dad who was made redundant at 59. I saw how devastated he was by this, and redundancy as an act to an actor is like second nature because you’re always looking for a job. You’re always looking for someone to want you, to employ you and a lot of actors spend a lot of time feeling redundant.
As a little kid watching my dad feeling this way left its mark on me, and so I said that Angus is redundant because he’s old, he hasn’t got a place and he’s not listened to. Jim is redundant because he’s just about to be dumped by his job because he’s done something stupid, advised by his colleague to do it, and he is alone in that spot. Therefore they have this common bond, and so in the original film there were car chases and Jim took him to a prosthetic expert to put a face mask on him to look younger. They were climbing over fences and the rocket scene was enormous, and I of course realised this is going to cost $20-30 million dollars to shoot, and a first time feature film director, I was not going to get that budget.
So I started drilling down and there was actually a big theme that we cut, where Jim, played by the brilliant Lyriq Bent gets fired. When we got to the edit, Tiffany said, “You don’t need that scene, I think we should stay with Angus and we should just show Jim dealing with the repercussions himself.” We cut the scene and just have Jim reading the [termination] letter, and watching Lyriq’s face in long shot - he’s such a brilliant physical actor that everything he does is interesting.
FF: I recall Steven Spielberg talking about the difficulty of knowing how to end the story, and watching ASTRONAUT, I found myself curious to see how you would end the film. I thought it needed to be spectacular in a conventional way, but instead you choose a simple approach, using the emotions of the characters.
SM: Some people have missed it and our fantastic PR guy said, “People get the film, they get the story and they understand it. They don’t want more, but there will be people who do want more; they just do, they want it spoon fed.” I kept saying all the way through, and I talked to Richard Dreyfuss a lot about this, “We cannot spoon feed the audience here. We’ve obviously got limited funds and we’d have liked a bit more of the rocket, but we have to trust that you are all brilliant actors, and we have to trust that your relationship with each other are enough to carry this story to its conclusion.”
FF: What we are versus what we feel we are can often be out of synch. I’ve spoken with filmmakers who have told me that they didn’t feel like a filmmaker after their first feature film, taking a number of films before they felt they were. Do you consider yourself a filmmaker?
SM: I’ve got the word from my mum in my head at all times that things are “earned.” I suppose I consider myself a filmmaker, but have I earned the title yet? Probably not. I’ll have to be on my third film and then I’ll think, ‘Okay, I really am a filmmaker” [laughs].
… I can see the identity crisis and it’s not to do with not wanting to be considered a filmmaker, it’s just you have to earn your stripes, and I’m hoping I’m beginning to earn them, but I’m at the beginning of the journey.
FF: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
SM: I hope the film does help people feel a little bit more hope. I wrote this for anybody who is at a certain stage in their life, looking back on their lives and all the things that they hoped and dreamed have gone. I’m hoping that this makes them look through life with a different lens. It may be presumptuous to think that that might happen, I hope it does and it has changed me enormously.
Seeing a film through from the very beginning to now, and it’s still on its journey out to an audience, it’s a big growing up experience. It’s a massive learning curve and it’s taught me to not be, again this sounds ridiculous because I’m an actor and so I should be used to it, but it has taught me to not be so shy about speaking to people from the heart, and telling them the truths. And by that I mean trying to convey my own feelings.
… Talking to people afterwards and going around the festivals has been an amazing experience, and it’s talking to the audience as myself. So it’s not being afraid of absolutely embracing them and trying to bring them into our journey, as opposed to just give them the bog standard answer of, “Oh yeah, it was hard work.”
… The point is I’ve learned to communicate with people as me, with all my flaws and lack of knowledge and insecurities. I can’t pretend that I’m some hot shit director who knows everything, because I don’t. And that has been a big learning curve, to just be me, and if I don’t know the answer to something, then I say I don’t know.
ASTRONAUT is available now on Digital via iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google and Rakuten.