“Supernova, “from the actor turned screenwriter / director Harry macqueen, is a tender but bittersweet love story about a longtime couple on a road trip to see favorite places and people as one struggles with memory loss. In an interview, Macqueen spoke about what he learned about filmmaking as an actor reading scripts and watching directors, and which actors Colin firth and Stanley tucci brought to his film that was even more than he had imagined.
So far you’ve written and directed two films and both are about literal journeys, with two characters on the road.
Truly the literal journey, mirrored or parallel at least, an emotional journey is always a pretty interesting way to tell a story. And also, the way you hope to use a landscape in this cinematic setting can be very powerful. So these things have always attracted me to road movies in general. And also, just the kind of originality really, to do one in the UK, because we don’t really do a lot of road movies here. I think I was aware very early on with the movie that I didn’t really want to make it into a domestic drama about two people living at home. I found it to be an original and interesting way to tell the story, to put it on the road, and to really compensate for the kind of micro and macro; because you have this intimate little journey through this vast landscape, both emotional and literal. So all of these things really helped in my decision to make a different kind of road movie.
One thing that particularly impressed me about the film is how it portrays a very long lived relationship, with all the affection, jokes and bickering that reveals a long story. How did you work on this in the script and with the actors?
It’s a team effort to get there and it extends right down to the production design, how you shoot the movie and, of course, play it. But it starts with the script; it must start with the script. Obviously, a writer knows the characters incredibly well, so you kind of form as strong a relationship as possible in this part of the process. And you want to try to make it as grounded as possible, really, as subtle and nuanced. And that obviously extends to performance. Colin and Stanley do it so remarkably well. What they bring out of each other in the film is surprising because it is or seems effortless, really, in a way, and exactly what I hoped it would be, subtle, nuanced and complex. . Colin and Stanley have certainly been helped by the fact that they have tremendous trust in each other as they have known each other for quite some time and they are so close. So I think bringing a lot of that kind of natural energy that they have into their relationship into that relationship was a big part of it. But of course it was hard work for them as they have to get away from their relationship offscreen. You kind of use what’s worth using, which is useful, and then you have to recontextualize the rest to suit the character in the situation.
There’s such a vivid moment in the film at the start of the film where Stanley Tucci’s character Tusker walks away and Colin Firth’s character Sam is frantic. And yet the resolution of this scene, when Sam finds it, is taken from the perspective of the driver’s seat in the camper van, through the windshield. Tell me about this choice.
Well, I think one of the things that really interested me about this movie was trying to avoid the melodrama. The film comes from a long period of intense research for me. And what I’ve found when spending a lot of time with people who are living with this condition is that melodrama and drama does happen, but it’s actually quite rare. The drama of this kind of relationship is constant, in fact. It’s a constant low level drama. And so, I think the movie reflects that and that’s how I wanted to shoot it.
The atmosphere of the film, in general, had to be as truthful as possible and also be as authentic as possible at that. So being almost voyeuristic at times with the way we shot it, and certainly removed and held back, not emotionally taken away, I hope, but certainly, cinematically balanced, I think that seemed like a really truthful way of telling this. history. It is a very difficult thing to do. But you try and make it look easy and poetic, which is definitely one of the things we were trying to do with the movie. It seems like a good example because a very obvious way to film it would be to immerse them in close-up and see their emotions. But actually, sitting down for a bit allows them to have a private moment away from the public, which I think was essential at this point.
There’s a long scene towards the end where they get into a fight and the two have some good points to make. The big question, however, is who decides? Who casts the deciding vote?
When you find yourself in this situation, there is no answer, really. And I think that’s one of the reasons I wrote it. These arguments are strong. The back and forth is also strong on both sides. It’s just an incredibly complex thing to find an answer to. And I think that extends to the genre of the end of the movie itself, really. I’ve always wanted to leave the film hanging over the precipice, because that’s what these characters do. It was certainly the most truthful way to present this conversation or this debate about end-of-life choices. Because I think sometimes there is no answer, and I think that’s good. And it’s important to explore that as much as finding an answer in a movie. When movies, books, plays or whatever leaves you with maybe more questions than you can answer, I feel like it’s a little gift from the filmmaker or the filmmaker. writer it’s up to you, the audience, to pull the story out in your own life and do what you want with it. I’ve always found this quite rewarding as a movie watcher. So, something I wanted to do here.
What have you learned from your acting experience about scriptwriting? How has this influenced the way you write?
I write above all for the characters and for the actor or actress. It’s really the first thing that happens in my process. The characters come first, and then other things are informed by it rather than necessarily the other way around. I always want to try and write for actors, the kind of roles I would like to have on my own, maybe that’s a good way to think about it. And I think this project has no doubt that the exercise was really kind of a simplicity of narrative, complexity of character.
As an actor you have had the opportunity to work with great directors, including one of my favorites, Richard Linklater. What did you learn from them that you brought to your own production?
Well, with Rick in particular, I had a very small part in his movie, [“Me and Orson Welles“]. But I stayed there for a good month, doing it. And so, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with him and being led by him, obviously. And I think his directing style reflects his films very well. He’s really, really laid back. And it makes it all fun. And I think he wants to have a good time making the movie. To be honest this is also important, how you do the work is just as important as the outcome of the work itself. And you have a duty as a filmmaker to make the experience collaborative and enjoyable for everyone. Because as you know making a movie is really hard all the time. So, I definitely learned that from him. I was rightly inspired by how relaxed and free he was with his actors and with his directing.
You talked about doing research and clearly you know something about people with dementia, but apparently you’ve studied caregivers as well.
Yes exactly. I spent a lot of time learning all sides of the equation, really. So the medical aspect of it, the kind of biology of it, but also really, really important, has spent a tremendous amount of time with families and couples, who are living this life. And if you do that over two or three years, which I did, and still do, you see those relationships change. You obviously see the person change, which is really interesting, and also hopelessly sad and funny and life-affirming and all that stuff. But you also see how relationships change around that person to accommodate this disintegration of the character, and that’s what really got me to make this movie.
In a way, it’s a bit more of a story about the caregiver than about a person suffering from the disease. And I think the way the relationship has an equal partnership and then becomes very unequal when someone in it has to become a caregiver. So you go from being a lover to being a guardian. I think it was really interesting for me. And that’s actually one of the things that affected me emotionally more than anything else when I was doing my research. Because I think at the end of the day, any form of dementia is, of course, an incredibly difficult thing for anyone to experience. But you can’t ignore the fact that at some point in this dementia journey you won’t know you are sick anymore, you won’t know who you are. You therefore have the collateral damage left for the people around that person. And it is very interesting. And watching a loved one unravel and lose a loved one almost piece by piece, week after week for a long, long time is a truly amazing thing to experience.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci give wonderful performances in the film. What did they show you about your characters that you weren’t quite aware of when you wrote it?
Oh, so many things. I would be here all day to talk about it. But I think the honest answer is really the nuance with which they have permeated each character. Because the script is naturally very subtle, and it’s short, and there’s not a lot of exposure, and you actually throw the audience straight into a situation that they absolutely have to believe in from the start because they don’t. there is nothing to really help you. ; these are the actors and that’s it. So I think what they brought to both roles was a huge amount of compassion. And I think they still do that as actors. This is one of the things I liked about working with them before I even met them. They have such a great pit of empathy that they tap into and give to their characters. And I think it’s pretty amazing.
The film was inspired by some really important experiences that I had and a lot of time that I had spent with people who have this kind of experience, and it changed my life. It was so important to make sure the characters were played with integrity and complexity. Stanley also taught me how to make cocktails, so there you go!
“Supernova” is in theaters today.