Interview with Andrew Steggall, director of Departure

First of all can I just say that I absolutely loved your film, it blew me away. For a first feature as well, it’s such an impressive feat, there’s just so much to take away from it and read into it. Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for it, the very concept is quite intriguing.

AS: I think that a lot of first-time feature makers are kind of around the age of 24, and I’m kind of long in the tooth now, because I was working in theatre and opera, and was an actor before that. So whilst it’s a first feature, I hope that the experience I had in theatre and opera kind of lends a bit of weight to those parts of the processes which are shared, ie. storytelling and directing of actors, and when you’re shaping a narrative. Now, the specific idea for Departure… I think it was autumn 2008, I was at a friend’s house in South France on a holiday, and the houses are a very evocative set within this wooded valley, with a river running by it and the reservoir near it. I had this idea for a narrative, or rather a moment I recalled from my adolescence which I wanted to see if I could dramatise, and suddenly this place seemed like the obvious landscape to put it in.

It was really on a walk from the house to the reservoir that I shaped quite a lot of the key points of the narrative, the idea of a family falling apart, of a mother going through a major transition in her life in parallel to her teenage son doing the same thing… I borrowed a lot of my own adolescence, as you’d expect, and some of my family’s idiosyncrasies and some of the corners in their lives, around the end of my parents’ marriage and my coming out, and various other things. So there is an autobiographical aspect, but then of course the story went through such a process evolving from that first idea… It was a year later at the same place, sitting under that chestnut tree in front of the house, that I wrote the script in three weeks, and it was finally ready.

I naively thought I had a film that I could now start shooting, but the process was only really starting then: looking for the partners and friends and collaborators who would help develop it and nudge it forward, meeting my producers and getting their input on the screenplay, attempting for a couple of years to secure support from the BFI, and then getting development and support through a brilliant guy named Jamie Wolpert who helped with the refining of the screenplay. He had a particular gift–as do, generally I think, the people at the BFI–of helping you make the film that you didn’t always realise you were trying to make in the first place; the film that they understood that you’re making, that they understood better than you in a way, cause you can get quite lost in it. So that process was long, and during that I’d also made four short films, so that was kind of my film school. There was never any particular overlap, there were a couple of films with some LGBT content in there but none of them were really preparation for Departure. They were really about getting used to translating what I’d done in theatre into film and getting more confident as a writer, developing in particular my relationship with my DOP, Brian Fawcett, who is brilliant, and my composer Jools who did the score for two of my shorts and then my feature.

Before that, I’d seen an opera called Rusalka, by Dvořák, and that’s the story of a water nymph who yearns to be human, who exists within a pool of water in the forest, and when a handsome prince, who is hunting a deer in the forest with his bow and arrow, discovers her looking up at him from the liquid depths, and they fall in love, she sings to the moon to ask to be made human, so that she can be embraced as a physical being. That really felt thematically like what Beatrice and Elliot and Philip and Clément were in their own ways yearning for: to be recognised physically, having spent so long longing for it. I’d always loved Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the story of Actaeon who’s out hunting Diana, and is then turned by Diana into a deer and then hunted by dogs – echoing Narcissus in the forest of the unconscious. Narcissus is how Elliot starts the film, looking at his own reflection in the mirror. Those sort of ideas of transformation which I really like definitely echo in the film, and it kind of came naturally: I wrote it and then realised it was all there in a way, that those echoes were there, because of the landscape and because of the core ideas of the narrative, which are quite universal.

Andrew Steggall - Departure

KK: By the sounds of it this has been six years in the making, really, what with the money having to come from different sources in order to get made.

AS: Exactly. I think that’s not unusual for a first feature. A part of that process involves the writing of applications, and having to force yourself to distill your sometimes vague, sometimes chaotic ideas into something you can pitch, or write in a document, or share with someone you’re asking to put their money on the line. So that process is actually quite good in terms of getting your eye in, and I actually kind of enjoyed it. There were some pretty painful bits along the way, where we thought it wasn’t really going to happen, and there were times where we thought we could delay six months but I was always uncomfortable with that because that would require us to shoot in spring and I always felt it was an autumnal film, so every delay was twelve months or nothing.

KK: Regarding the screenplay in particular, I thought it could have also made a fantastic play if you wanted it to be. One could peel away layers of performance or editing or dialogue and still discover more subtext underneath it all – was that intentional?

AS: I think it’s probably a result of what I’ve been exposed to, so much theatre and theatre-making. I wouldn’t say it was intentional – there was once a strand of the narrative in the screenplay that had a touring theatre company come to the village and perform a Felliniesque play based on Rusalka, and what was left of that strand is Francois, the barman, who used to be a director. So there’s a theatricality, I suppose, to my imagination, and in Elliot’s as well, not surprisingly – and there’s really no point in your life that you’re more operatic than when you’re fifteen, whether you’re exposed to opera or not. I was, it was something my dad listened to which was rather alien, but it’s the right pitch, isn’t it? The hysteria and the grief and the love, the drama is elevated. You could say, in a way, that Elliot wrote Departure, that he’s writing it in his notebook during the course of the film, and that he’s our unreliable narrator, in a way.

Andrew Steggall and Alex Lowther - Departure

KK: I can definitely see that happening. There’s that line that Clément tells him, “you’re such a cliché”, which Elliot is but he also plays into it in such an authentic way that it never feels like a construct.

AS: I think so, yes. And if you get that, and you respond warmly and with recognition to his intentions, there’s something universal about his experience which we can all connect to. His costume was actually a mixture of his clothes and my clothes and sourced costume, and by the end of the film we didn’t really know what was costume and what was not, really.

KK: Was the jacket sourced?

AS: The jacket was sourced but it was pretty identical to one that I wore when I was fifteen.

KK: It’s timeless though, it still works stylistically in 2016.

AS: I like that, yeah, and I think there is an element about the film that is a bit out of time. If it weren’t for a couple of number plates, there would be nothing to particularly date it anywhere between the 80s and now, really.

KK: Everything about it is quite analogue, as well, no phones or computers can be seen at all in the film.

AS: [laughs] That’s because we picked a valley without WiFi and without phone signal! I’m just not interested in all of that, really. I mean, if there was a narrative which compelled me and it was more of an urban story, that would’ve been fine, but of course, my Elliot… he was going through these experiences in 1995, and so there is maybe an unresolved question, or perhaps a flaw, which is “is this now, or is this then?” In a way, I don’t think it particularly matters. I think it certainly means that older audiences will respond with recognition and nostalgia and familiarity to the setting. I just find it kind of hard to get into texting and WhatsApping and all of that.

KK: It would’ve been a very different story if Elliot and Clément had been on their phones for half the film, texting each other rather than having clandestine meetings in the woods.

AS: Yeah, it just wouldn’t suit. For me growing up, life was lived in the woods, and it was a sort of “come back eight hours later and explain to your mother why there are leaves and twigs in your underpants” thing. It was safer if they didn’t ask.

Andrew Steggall and Juliet Stevenson - Departure

KK: Beatrice never really talks about the change happening with Elliot, even though she can see it happening, until quite late on. This is spoiler territory of course, because it’s not until the end of the film that we realise that her source of resentment is not a personal thing against Elliot, but stems from her husband. I have to admit I didn’t see that coming.

AS: I think she’s grown inarticulate, because no one’s really listened or taken any notice of her. Partly she doesn’t know who this teenage boy is, this obnoxious kid who, when he sees her reading something, he says it’s something edifying. He’s just horrible, and I think she’s given up on him for the moment. Her experience of her marriage is really closely entwined in my head with her understanding of Elliot, and I think that while she always knew on some level that she’d chosen to marry someone who couldn’t love her, and that she felt that was what she deserved because of what she’d done before the marriage, it’s not something she’d ever articulated even to herself. It’s in seeing Elliot’s grief and feelings towards Clément that she realises rather late that she’s able to finally understand what she’s always known about Philip. You can see in the marriage she’s had and in Philip’s cruelty and coldness a potential of what Elliot might go on to become if he’s not able to express himself and be honest with himself. So I think that Beatrice is the most intuitive character in the film, and she liberates Philip, and she liberates Elliot and herself, by forcing the moment to a crisis.

KK: Can you tell me a little bit about your cast and the filming process?

AS: Oh, they were horrible! [laughs] I saw Alex first in a play in the West End by David Hare called South Downs when he was sixteen, and I approached him at stage door about it. Subsequently I took a few years to find the money, and I met lots of the other actors, and then came back to Alex. Juliet–we had other ideas, but then came to Juliet and it was immediately obvious that she was the perfect actor to play that role, to carry that much narrative with so few words, internalising unactualised feeling. We worked really harmoniously, it was complete bliss, I have to say, because they both have theatre and film experience, they’re both very emotionally intuitive and sensitive individuals, and they’re both very interested in what’s happening in-between them, rather than what each of them is doing individually. I wish they were together more often on screen, actually. We didn’t get much rehearsal, it was a case of grabbing a moment while lights were being moved and stoking and encouraging and creating an atmosphere that was safe, and not getting in the way of their natural instincts. But they were very trusting of the script, and there was almost nothing they couldn’t inhabit with real authenticity, which was great.

Andrew Steggall on the set of Departure

KK: Regarding the writing process, you’ve said previously in other interviews that you don’t want certain sequences to be misconstrued as symbols. I’m assuming you mean the underwater sequences etc?

AS: Yeah. I mean, there are lots of little visual motifs in the film. When the boys are taking apart the bed, it’s actually what’s called sort of a ship, and they are kind of underwater because the walls are painted blue, so there’s an intimation of the boat that’s going to become rather important in their lives later. There’s also an image that repeats throughout the film of a hand, and the feeling of Beatrice’s hand having been burnt, and then cutting her hand, and telling Elliot to wash his hands, and Elliot experiencing sex through his hand and not wanting to wash his hand, and then punishing himself with the nettle through his hand… There’s a feeling–it’s a bit Catholic really, isn’t it–which connects to desire and feeling guilt. Those aren’t really symbols so much as I’d hoped they would make the audience be aware of their hands–you know how in a lot of violent films they’re always dislocating people’s shoulders, and you get that sort of loud CLICK sound, and everyone shudders… In a much more nuanced way, I hoped that would kind of mke people have a feeling about their hand, just a sense of connecting.

The water stuff, and the mirror, of course–you see someone looking in the mirror and you think Narcissus, though I hope not–it’s such a primal image that you hope is expressive of something. Lots of the wall colours in the house provide the sense of being underwater, and there are some pretty direct images, fantasy images.

KK: It all kinda circles back, though. One of the first things I noticed was the opening sequence and how it felt like a dream, and yet we go back to each individual shot in that sequence during the course of the film, and it all ends up playing into the narrative seamlessly.

AS: For me that’s all connected to the feeling of knowing something before you know it. Elliot had a feeling that he’d be running through that forest–there was a strand initially in which Elliot kept seeing someone running in the forest without realising it was him, but I didn’t achieve it. So what you see there is what’s left of that. The deer was also, in a way, a fuller strand at one point, but it didn’t quite work.

Andrew Steggall on set - Departure

KK: I wanted to ask about that, actually–unless it’s too painful a subject?

AS: [laughs] It is a little bit painful… Some people come away from it going “oh, I loved that, it was kinda weird and I didn’t understand it”, and other people go “what were you doing there?” I would say it was not fully realised in the final edit.

KK: Was there going to be an actual deer at any point?

AS: No, there wasn’t, and in hindsight that would have been an obvious thing to do, wouldn’t it? There’s so many films in which a deer walks across shot and it’s expressive of monarchy, or a liberator, or the majesty of nature… Does it symbolise Actaeon? Does it symbolise the prince hunting for the deer and Rusalka? Maybe. I know that when I watch films I get pleasure out of there being several layers of language being spoken. You can feel things and intimate things that are being expressed through the images chosen. I’d say there’s a lot of that.

Symbols, I think, are dangerous, as they’re a bit of a signpost. I think it’s splitting hairs a little bit, but I do think that where I’m getting it wrong it might feel like a symbol, and where I’m getting it right you wouldn’t have noticed it but  it would have helped contribute to a sense of something bigger expressed in the language of the film.

KK: As a motif it’s certainly very powerful.

AS: And listen, come on… Boy jumps into water and swims upwards. If that’s not rebirth, if that’s not cleansing, if that’s not danger of dark water, of death, if that’s not sexuality… it’s implicit, we don’t even need a process of interpretation. Unless you’re not in the film, in which case you might think “ah, I see what they’re doing here”. If you’re in the film, it will hopefully feel like what it is to me, which is a balancing image with the mirror, the cold hard mirror at the beginning in which he looks at his own reflection narcissistically. The complete image, as it were, of entering through that mirror in the water into himself… but that’s all a bit pretentious to say, isn’t it?

Andrew Steggall directing - Departure

KK: Let’s go back a bit and talk about Clément, because he’s an interesting figure. Phénix Brossard gives a very powerful performance, especially when Clément finally allows himself to be vulnerable.

AS: I’m glad you think so. I think Clément is easy to overlook, because his physical presence is so strong, he’s so clearly an instigator and catalyst of change in Beatrice and Elliot’s lives, and you can see him as just that, something so “other” to them. There’s a pathos to me in the fact that his mother is dying, and that his response to Beatrice is probably really blurred by that, his feeling of warmth towards her is obviously looking for a mother substitute, which is what makes her, at one point in the film, actually clumsy, emotionally clumsy. I think it helps explain why he’s in this liminal place as well, where he’s more open to the peculiar than he would in his otherwise pretty straight, regular life. I had those relationships with people who were, in part, exploring something in themselves by being available, open to something sensory, and drawn to me as I was to them, though in a pretty lopsided way.

But he does provoke something in Elliot, and I think he’s a very lovable character, in his warmth and generosity. That’s something that they could never do–he just wanders into their house, sits down, starts helping, like it just doesn’t matter. There’s all of 300 people in the village and him and Elliot are the only young people left, so what does he do? He’s not someone who has a lot of friendships, so he spends his day calling his dad trying to find out what’s happened to his mum, and wondering why he’s being kept away. There was going to be a scene at the end where they all drive to Paris; Beatrice and Elliot were going to decide to drive back to London and stop in Paris on the way, so they pick up Clément and go.

KK: Was that the original ending?

AS: It was one ending, I don’t know what the “original” ending was but it was one that we tried out, we shot that and it was really sweet. But it felt like a double beat.

KK: Will that be in a DVD cut of the film, perhaps?

AS: Yeah, maybe… We’d have to talk to Peccadillo about that.

KK: Yes, let’s make that happen.

AS: The songwriter, Oliver Daldry, who wrote the song “Catch The Wind” which is in the film–the music video for that is all made from unused footage from the film.

Andrew Steggall (1)

KK:  Speaking of the music, tell me a bit about your collaboration with Jools Scott who did the score for Departure.

AS: There were three things going on with the music. One was what Jools composed. I love Philip Glass scores, you know, minimalist and not directly emotive, not directing your feelings so much as maintaining and sustaining momentum and atmosphere, and allowing you to read feeling into a moment. That was the kind of thing we wanted to achieve.

Then, Rusalka was there from the beginning. There are various times and places it appeared in the film and we pulled it back, and then we had the idea of putting it in the scene with Philip, so that we get that anchor into why Elliot might know about that music, and the idea that the Rusalka aria, “Song to the Moon”, is in a way a gift from Philip to Elliot. I got the licence for this piece about four years before we made the film, so I knew we could use it, and we found a recording which would be credible that Philip would have owned it.

And then, the Oliver Daldry song. He wrote some stuff, he already had a few tracks, he watched an early cut of the film, and we got to know each other over a year or two, actually. “Catch The Wind” was something that he had in his head anyway, and I just loved it when we played it with that scene. It felt like an opportunity to change the tone and lighten and freshen the narrative at a sort of midway point which leads into the mild drunkenness and hysteria of that evening. Again, it feels quite timeless–it’s about as contemporary as I go. It has that sort of pathos, an optimistic feeling and cheerfulness, but it’s about missing something.

The music was a struggle, it’s funny cause there’s a lot of music in a lot of my work, but I find it quite hard. I get attached to the first piece of music I listen to, and then when I can’t use it I ask myself “hang on, am I making a film around this piece of music?” My next film is about a conductor, so again very rooted in music.

KK: Tell me about your next film, what can you share at this point?

AS: The working title is “The Conductor”, and it’s a story about a fictional acclaimed conductor diagnosed with Parkinsons, and the relationship he has with his estranged son, who becomes his unwilling carer and equally unwilling protegé.

KK: That sounds very interesting. What stage are you in, right now?

AS: We just got some support from the Wellcome Trust, to expand my research into Parkinsons. I’ve had some personal experience with it, but I wanted to widen that a bit, and hopefully have a new draft of the screenplay over the summer. I wanted to turn the volume up on the relationships, and have characters be a bit more expressive, and with more externalised conflicts. The conductor’s Parkinsons, the estrangement and alienation with his son, those are much more psychologically intense, a driving force for the story.

KK: Well good luck with The Conductor, and with Departure, and thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us.

You can read my review of the film here.

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