Ahead of The Edinburgh Film Festival’s World Premiere screening of ASTRONAUT, a moving drama about a retired man’s desire to fly to space, debut director Shelagh McLeod describes how the film achieved lift-off, working with Richard Dreyfuss and her love for sci-fi and horror.
Q: You’ve just completed your first feature film as writer/director – ASTRONAUT, which stars Richard Dreyfuss. What inspired you to create it and how did you manage to get the project off the ground?
I got the idea for the film when my mum was in a nursing home and I used? to visit her almost every day. In the nursing home gardens there was an old man in a wheelchair who would sit all day – rain or sunshine – staring up at the sky. The nurse would literally have to drag him in as night fell. One day I sat next to him and asked; “What is it that you’re looking for up there…?” He said; “ Another go…” That was over eight years ago and when my mother died a few weeks later – I started developing the idea of an old man who wanted another go at life and a final chance to achieve his dreams. And what bigger dream to have than to win a ticket to space! Can you imagine?
It took a long time to the project get off the ground. At one point we nearly gave up – but of course we couldn’t. Producer Jessica Adams and I travelled around the world pitching the project – but the real turning point was making our short film – ‘The Great Escape’ – and then winning the JETS Berlin. My agent, Jennifer Goldhar, sent the script to Richard’s agent and we got just one line back: “Cute script. I’ll send it to Richard…” And that was the start.
You draw out excellent performances from all your cast, but Dreyfus is particularly commanding. How did you find the process of working together?
Richard is a brilliant actor, so it was pretty easy. He is fun, full of mischief and has the brain the size of a planet. He would come up with fantastic suggestions and more often than not, I’d say – “Yeah – Great.” He is such an experienced actor, has been on a million sets working with the top directors in the world and I was aware of this. So if Richard was going to make a suggestion, I was going to listen, and if he suggested a line change… Well, they say ‘steal from the best…’
The journey Angus (Richard Dreyfus) takes to finally achieve his dream of going into space has a fantasy adventure feel to it. Is this something you feel is important for the audience to embrace?
Yes. The story is a bit of a fairy tale. I think science fiction extrapolates from the truth. In order to tell our story we had to condense a lot as we knew that our budget would restrict our wilder ideas. If you are a literal thinker – it might be hard to watch a film with fantastical elements. You might say: ‘ Hey, wait a minute…” But I promise you – we did years of research (with our fantastic science adviser ED Wilmot) and the core of the story is based on fact. But the fantasy adventure element was something that I didn’t want to lose as we moved through draft after draft. This is meant to be an uplifting tale of second chances. A story of (about?) flight and escape from ill health and advancing years. It’s about the chance to achieve your dreams no matter how big. And if you can’t do that in a story, or in a movie – or even in real life – well how depressing a world would that be?
Although the film centres on one man’s desire to go into space, the impact it has on all those around him is life-changing. What are your own feelings about space travel and how much of that informed the story?
If I had the chance to go to space I would go like a shot. To see Earth from space, to look into the vastness of the universe would be the absolute dream. A life changing experience. We are, after all, just a rock spinning around the sun and I don’t have a religion. I love science and have a spiritual sense that we are not alone – and I don’t think this is just wishful thinking on my part. The possibility that there is life out there, even when put to the top scientists, is very probable. We must go out there, search and hopefully find another habitable planet.
Q: Let’s rewind. Although you were born in Vancouver, you relocated to England when you were six years old and have since worked in Canada and the US. How you view your national identity?
It’s a good question. I have always felt quite split; one foot in North America and the other here in the UK. I have memories as a child of Vancouver, and later on when we moved up to a small town called Cornwall near Ottawa. And they were happy memories. We had little money and the six of us lived in a two-bedroom flat. Once abiding image is of my mum putting out the washing to dry at night and more often than not – frozen shirts, socks and pants would be stuck to the washing line the next day.
Coming to England at about five and half years old was a culture shock. The Canadians are very friendly and gentler in a funny way. Going to an English school with a Canadian accent was a challenging time so I dropped the accent after a few days! I live in England now and love it, but a lot of me still is in Canada and when I go back it feels like home.
Q: Your acting break was starring in Dennis Potter’s, Prix Italia winner, CREAM IN MY COFFEE. What do to recall most vividly about that experience?
It was a fantastic experience. Meeting Potter was quite daunting but he was a lovely man. I also met a lifelong friend, Peter Chelsom, who played my future husband in the film, and of course Peggy Ashcroft and Lionel Jeffries were completely brilliant. Gavin Millar is still one of the best directors I have ever worked with. And Martin Shaw and I worked together several times after – he was so good in the film and a lovely actor to work with. I still feel lucky I got that job
Q: You built quite a television career in the UK playing such characters as Dr Kate Webster in PEAK PRACTICE, Jenny Clayton in DOCTORS and Matron Judith Marchant on HOLBY CITY. Do you have any plans to return to our TV screens?
Absolutely. I love working in TV. ‘Peak Practice’ was such a special show to work on – Simon Shepherd (my screen husband) and I used to live two streets away from each other in Shepherds Bush. He was great fun, hugely supportive and generous of any actor that joined the show – and a fantastic actor. I miss the laughs too much to not do any more TV in the future.
Q: After completing a three-year BA film and screenwriting course you made two award-winning short films. Was this when you decided to embark on a filmmaker’s career?
I made a test commercial when I was in my early thirties and loved the process of writing, then directing and seeing the story I had in my head come to life. I have been an actor for a very long time – my first role was in Isadora Duncan staring Vanessa Redgrave. I was one of the very young kids running down the hill. I remember watching Vanessa looking so beautiful and being so good and thinking – “Hmmm… that looks like fun..” I really love the post production process as well. I could sit in there for months – well you do – but you get the luxury of not being so rushed. Film making is all about collaboration. It has to be. On ‘Astronaut; every one of the crew and cast all had great ideas and often far better than I had at the time.
Q: So, back to ASTRONAUT. You shot the film in Canada. Why?
I had started shopping the film around in England but learnt early on not to mention the space rocket in the pitch – the finance guys I would pitch to would almost pass out when I did: “An unknown director, and a rocket..! Goodbye!” Then I met Jessica Adams who is a young, very clever producer and then we met Dan Lyon at Telefilm who was so supportive of the project, and we said: “Let’s make the film in Canada.” There is a vast pool of exceptional talent there. It was a very easy decision.
Q: The film will receive its World Premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year. Excited?
Very. We were all so thrilled and grateful to be selected for EIFF. It’s such a fantastic film festival and has great prestige all over the world. The moment we heard we wanted to tell everybody who had worked so hard on the film. It’s an honour.
Q: NEXUS, your second screenplay, has been shortlisted by Sundance Screenwriter’s lab and chosen for the prestigious Writer’s Lab 2018, supported by Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Where are you with that and tell us a bit about the film?
After the Writers Lab, which was a great experience, I’ve spent the last few months working intensively on the script. I have just attached a great producer from the UK and hope to do a co-pro with Canada. Fingers crossed this film won’t take seven years to make. It’s a bigger story than ‘Astronaut’ in terms of budget and it’s a story that is close to my heart – and again, it has a big space theme to it. I love space.
Q: You’ve recently been named one of Canada’s ‘6 Directors to Watch’ by The Hollywood Reporter. Do you feel pressure to succeed?
Of course. Canada has got the most brilliant directors. My newest favourite is Danishka Esterhazy. Have you seen Level 16? I was on the edge of my seat. So well directed and made. But just like being an actor – its only by watching, working and learning from the greats that you learn to develop your own voice.
Q: You’re a big fan of the Sci-Fi and Horror genres. Do you plan to make a horror film in the near future?
I have a story I wrote at Uni in 2015. It’s a dystopian horror – a spaceman who was lost in space is returned to Earth five hundred years after he left. The world is not as he knew it and he tries to escape, with horrifying consequences. The story has an undercurrent of what’s bubbling up now across the West.
Q: There’s a current resurgence of genre filmmakers coming out of Canada. Is there anyone you particularly admire and why?
I love Atom Egoyon. Sarah Polley and of course Danishka. All amazing film directors – Sarah for the heart in her films – especially Away From Her, Danishka for the spell binding tension she built in Level 16 – and the political message beneath. Atom because he is just a brilliant film maker but there are so many more.
Q: Finally, what does the future hold for you?
I mentioned earlier – a return to acting is on the cards, taking on a lead role in the film ISLAND WEST, a sci-fi thriller, currently in pre-production, which I’ll also co produce. And I’ll be re-united with Simon Shepherd, my screen husband in ‘Peak Practice’. I’m looking forward to the shoot!
ASTRONAUT will be screened on Saturday 22 June 18:00 at Filmhouse 1 and on Monday 24 June 18:05 at VUE Omni 12.
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