In director Harry Macqueen’s Supernova (2020), Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) are travelling across England in an old camper van, visiting friends, family, and revisiting familiar places from their 20-year relationship. Two years prior, Tusker was diagnosed with young-onset dementia. On their holiday road trip they’ll confront the toll of the irreparable illness on their relationship and the time together they’ll be denied.
Macqueen is establishing thematic interests early, with recurring beats from his debut feature Hinterland (2014). The characters in each film take to the open road and revisit places from their past. The difference is that Hinterland explores the discovery of love between two old friends, but in each story, heartbreak looms.
In conversation with PopMatters, Macqueen reflects on how he’s driven by the urgency and necessity to tell a story, and the importance of empathy in changing the hearts and minds of his audience.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
Stories have inspired me in different ways. I believe that you can change the world for the better if you tell the right story, and it’s culturally and socially vital. I’ve always been interested in telling and being part of storytelling, whether it be as a performer, a writer, or in this case a writer-director. There’s no one defining moment necessarily, rather there’s an accumulation of lots of things.
When you say stories are vital and can change the world, would you agree that it’s not necessarily a dramatic change?
Most of the time it’s not about one film changing or unlocking something massive. It happens sometimes, but it’s that trickle effect. It’s fundamentally about empathy, showing people another way of living and experiencing life or love.
This is increasingly important as we become more self-involved and myopic in our world views. It’s important to be shown other ways of living and to see other people’s stories. If you’re able to show someone a story and have them empathise with those characters, then you’re indelibly changing the way they look at the world in a small but important way.
It’s the purpose of culture and art. I hope to be part of that.
What are your thoughts on the need for equal, open, and honest representation? Is the argument valid that diverse representation has more value to those outside the group represented than those whose experiences the film directly speaks to?
It’s not helpful to put things under an umbrella. …[I]n this instance [Supernova], diversity and representation are fundamentally important. It links back to the conversation we were having about empathy, and seeing the world through other people’s eyes – the two are intertwined.
… The LGBT community, for example, might find a project directed towards them unhelpful, whereas someone else might have the opposite reaction. It has to be a personal response and that’s the important thing. On the whole, you can’t be someone that sees the value and importance of storytelling and doesn’t want to see and hear diverse stories when the two are married.
Each storyteller takes a different approach to develop a story. Are you attentive to specific themes from the outset, or is it a journey of discovering the story?
I’m not sure how to answer that and partly why is because I’ve not been doing [filmmaking] for long enough to know. Making films is hard and it takes a lot of time and energy. The stories I’m telling and the characters I’m writing have to be vital. There has to be an urgency and inherent value in the story I’m trying to tell. I’m sure that’s the same for everyone, but it’s too involving a process for it to not be the most important thing in your life.
In the instance of Supernova, it came organically. I didn’t set out to make a film about dementia. I was volunteering and spending a lot of time with people living with various forms of dementia. I was inspired watching how people change their lives for other people after a diagnosis. I couldn’t not try to tell a story about it.
This is how it works for me. I try to first think about what’s urgent and what kind of story needs to be told, and I go from there. Having said that, character is always the first thing. I come from a performance background, which might be partly the reason why. The stories don’t come alive until I’ve found out who the characters are.
Those first images of a film are special because even with the expectations we bring to the experience, the opening moments present the filmmaker’s vision. They can either confirm or reject our expectations. Do you place an emphasis on the opening scene?
You can go one of two ways. You can set out your store at the start of the film and say this is the kind of film it’s going to be. Supernova is a story that’s going to emerge organically from the darkness, be patient and watch these two characters, still and poised.
It continues to be that throughout and that was a deliberate choice on my part. I was telling the audience to relax into this because you’re going to spend some quiet time in the company of these characters.
… You can go the other way and pull the rug out from under the audience, and challenge them by setting something up as one thing, and then it becomes something else. I was not trying to do that in this case. [I intended] to express the tone, the pace, and the atmosphere of the film from the start.
Are we prone to overemphasising narrative instead of letting emotions create the drama and its complexity? Stories can be about simply spending time with characters and becoming emotionally involved in their lives.
The pace of modern life lends itself to shorter attention spans than we might have had before. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s maybe not for me to say. I’ve always felt there’s a beauty and power in drama that’s created through character.
As you say, the story itself in terms of plot is not complex and deliberately so, but the characters are complex, and their dramatic situation is infinitely complicated. It felt it was a fitting way of telling this story and also spending time with the characters. Investigating the human condition is what engages me most of the time when I read books or watch films.
I’ve heard novelists talk about the pressure of their first novel, and looking over their shoulder at this imposing presence as they try to write their second novel. Is it a similar feeling as a filmmaker, the achievement of scaling the mountain that then becomes a weight of expectation?
My first film [Hinterland] was made for nothing. I didn’t have any resources to make it, and I’d never made anything before, not even a short film. I see that as my apprenticeship and Supernova is my first film in the industry. Hinterland I did entirely on my own – I produced and released it. The two were very different experiences, but I cared about the characters and the stories so much in both films that they feel similar.
You invest a lot of time getting to know the characters and their journeys, and in that way, they’re all very similar no matter how much more money you have, or how many more people you have floating around the camera. They all have to feel as important.
I do see it as hopefully evolving my craft as a storyteller. I hope I’ll get the opportunity to do it a third time.
Do you think that having actors like Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci playing characters suffering through the experience of dementia can create a greater empathy and drive society towards embracing mental health on a practical level?
Well, I hope so because that was the main reason I set out to make the film in the first place. It deals with some important, real-life social issues, and using Colin and Stanley, as brilliant as they are, but also as famous as they are, is a powerful tool.
It doesn’t just stop there because we’re working with the dementia charities that I was involved with when I was doing my research. The film is being used as a tool for them. We’re taking Supernova into the House of Commons in the coming months to help with the debate around end-of-life choices.
Hopefully, Supernova will make a real and definitive change because that was always the plan, and I hope that comes to fruition.