Writer and director Harry Macqueen tells Simon Brew about his new movie, Supernova, and the years of research it took to make it.
The last time I watched a film called Supernova, it was a sci-fi movie. With that particular production, its director took his name off the project, and a bizarre fumble in space was re-edited with different actors’ heads overlaid onto other performers during post-production. It was one of the worst films of its year. The Supernova of 2021 is a far, far more complete film thankfully. It has its feet firmly on the ground. What’s more, it’s one of the best movies of its year so far.
It tells the story of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci’s Sam and Tosker, a long-time couple with the latter in the grip of dementia. The second feature from writer/director (and before that, actor) Harry Macqueen, it also involves a camper van, the Lake District and some of the most human cinema of the year.
“It stemmed from a long and quite immersive research process”, Macqueen tells me as we chat about the background to the movie, “which involved spending a lot of time with people who were affected by several issues in the film”. The prolonged research gave Macqueen much to ponder, and he concluded that the best way forward was “to sort of wrap that up in a small kind of microcosmic story”.
“The job always I felt from the start was if the audience would buy into the little nuances of this small story, then actually the broader themes of life, death, dementia, end of life choices and all of those things would hopefully come into the perception of the film naturally. The exercise was always to make things smaller and smaller and smaller”.
The research he did – and he still remains involved in volunteering long after the film is complete – taught him that “almost everything I thought about dementia wasn’t necessarily true… that extends to how many people it affects, what age range of people it affects, what we know about it and what we don’t know about it. Especially when you’re looking at young onset dementia, new discoveries are being found almost monthly”.
The bulk of the research wasn’t medical, though. Macqueen simply spent time with human beings. He saw the harrowing parts, the funny moments, and observed the network of people around the UK offering a support network. “It’s an incredibly emotive and profound thing to witness first-hand”, he argues.
With all those ingredients, there was a far more showy film that could have been made here, perhaps even something blockbuster-y and Oscar bait-y I put to him. “It’s partly my taste”, he admits. “But also it’s being faithful to the people I was lucky enough to spend time with … I don’t know, it would have felt almost distasteful to make a big blockbuster movie about something like this. What I found is the opposite of that – real people, going through incredibly difficult times. I wanted to be really delicate and compassionate with it”.
It was this approach that helped lure in the high-profile cast. The stature and profile of the project is lifted here very much by its two leads. Macqueen confirms that he didn’t write the script with any actor in mind though, “I just wanted the characters to feel authentic and original… I don’t think about actors when I’m writing, and personally I think that’s the best way to do it… that’s my own opinion”.
Both Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth were attracted to the text, and came aboard with a finished script in place. Neither felt the need to tinker with it. “In another sense there might have been the impulse to completely rewrite it. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that anyway, but I don’t think they did either. One of the pure things about the process I that they came to the script with open arms and really fell in love with both of the characters”.
So much so that Firth and Tucci couldn’t originally work out which of the two leads they each wanted to play. They’d both committed to the film, but it took time to work out who was going to be who. “We set it up one way, and we read it a few times, all sat around the table. They almost auditioned as if they were playing both parts. It was such a privilege to see those actors try both of those roles, and see what energy they bring to both of them”. Whilst Macqueen was ultimately happy with the casting, he does confess “they both missed playing the other character, which is pretty flattering”.
Tucci and Firth’s involvement heightens the chances too of the film finding a bigger audience than it otherwise might. “It was almost the best of both worlds really”, Macqueen agrees. “They have their own global audience already. I personally think my creative vision has stayed in place, and we have two actors of that calibre playing the roles. It’s now going to have a pretty wide release globally. And I really hope it brings those topics to light”.
One feature of the film is how timeless it is, save for a proper barney over a satnav early in the movie. The lack of specificity was a keen choice. “I’m always slightly conscious of that with the things that I write. I think you can be lost in something a bit more easily if you’ve not constantly reminded of the exact month in the exact year that those people are existing in. There’s a timelessness about a journey movie anyway, and getting rid of laptops, mobile phones and obvious modern markers seemed like an interesting cinematic thing to do”.
What now, then? Should Hollywood come calling at Macqueen’s door/Zoom window with something like Die Hard 9, would that interest him? “I’m really interested in writing and directing my own work”, he laughs. “What excites me is creating these worlds from scratch. So I really hope to be able to continue to do that”.
“And yeah, I do have the urge to make work on the whole that has some broader social or political context. You know, I that is the kind of work that that excites me. And that’s not to say that that can’t happen in big Hollywood blockbusters, but I think that’s what excites me…”
Supernova is in cinemas from Friday.
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