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Andrew Steggall interview: ‘Everybody knows about love and loneliness’
May 21, 2016
Despite having written and directed four short films before venturing into feature-length with his outstanding debut Departure, British filmmaker Andrew Steggall comes from theatre, having trained as an actor at London’s Central School Of Speech and Drama and later turning to theatre directing. His background inevitably has played an important part in the making of this first feature film yet those influences haven’t translated into a stagy approach to filmmaking but rather an inspired understanding and expression of the human condition.
After premiering at the BFI London Film Festival back in October, Departure finally gets released in UK cinemas, announcing the arrival of a sophisticated new artistic voice in British filmmaking. It’s the story of a mother and teenage son coping with the sad but ineluctable capitulation of their family unit whilst going through personal discoveries and transformations that will affect their relationship and set their lives on a new path.
On his filmmaking influences and his background:
My favourite filmmaker is Tarkovsky but I don’t think that had a big influence on the day-to-day work. I borrowed from this French film in black and white called Le Souffle by Damien Odul and another French coming-of-age/coming-out film called Les Roseaux Sauvages by André Téchiné, but also North Sea Texas and all the films about homosexuality that moved me and affected me as a teenager. In trying to tell a story that was as much about Beatrice as it is about Elliot, films like Truly Madly Deeply or Emma Thompson’s performance in Love Actually and Dianne Wiest’s sadness and sorrow in so many films I’ve always loved, definitely were in my mind. These are all films that do that infinitely better than mine so I feel embarrassed saying they inspired me, because the least you can do is something as good as them, but they certainly had the tonal qualities I was really drawn to.
I don’t come to filmmaking from a technical perspective so I’m not one of those filmmakers who’s going to talk about the shots they’ve seen in the works of Scorsese. I trained in theatre and acting and my approach is from an acting and a storytelling perspective. I have a feeling about how I want to frame things and whether I want the camera moving or still and I tend to lean towards composed shots, which I guess comes from my love for Tarkovsky.
On whether the film’s LGBT content was ever an obstacle for the financing process:
Having LGBT content-themes didn’t make any difference at all in terms of the challenges of getting funded. I think as long as your budget level is appropriate for a film that might not break out of its niche then having LGBT content shouldn’t represent any challenge. Often you have films like Weekend or Lilting that prove they deserved more funding than they got. As with all filmmaking you’ve got to make a product with a credible capacity to reach an audience that can, if not recoup, at least contribute towards recouping costs. So the LGBT aspect wasn’t a challenge for me.
On how personal Departure’s story is:
I’m not skilled or clever enough to write films that are totally made up, though I think I’ll gradually work through my dominating internal narratives and become more courageous around making up stories as I go along, if I get a chance to make more films. In regards to Departure I think it’s a very documentary-like film in its attempt to accurately portray how I was feeling. We didn’t have a house in France or anything as grand as that, and I have brothers and sisters so it’s a completely different narrative. But there was the ending of a marriage, and a coming out, and various boys that came together in my head as Clément.
We are all magpies, pulling out things from our memory and things we observe, read, and watch, and it’s quite hard sometimes to untangle them all. I’ve been struck sometimes by friends who have seen the film and have known me for 20-25 years, and who knew me at the point in my life that corresponds to Elliot’s, and they say it’s quite uncanny both how he sounds and the key events he goes through. I guess I’ve grown so far away from perceiving it like that because Alex and Juliet took over those parts and made them their own so I tend to see Beatrice and Elliot rather than echoes and parallels to my life.
On what he’d like the audience to take away from the film:
I suppose I’d like people to come away with the feeling of having recognised something of themselves in the film, that maybe the film expresses some experience or sensation or feeling that perhaps they had not yet articulated but that the film articulates for them or refines and develops and it’s a cathartic experience for them so that they come away knowing more about themselves than they did beforehand. But that’s probably the hope with all of creative work. The themes that are particularly dominant in the film revolve around self-awareness, growing, changing, and understanding our need for love and how our hostility to each other sometimes is a result of not being reconciled to our own identity and of the transition that we are going through and the fear and excitement that transition causes. And despite the viewers have gone through different experiences in their lives, the fact they recognise themselves in that after seeing it is the best thing I can hope for.
That has happened already during the festival run with people coming up to me being moved or elated in some way by the film. I think people that watch it twice, especially a gay audience, come out of it identifying especially with Elliott and Clément and then they watch it a second time and realise it’s also about Beatrice. Upon first viewing it’s easy for them to be hooked by Elliot and Clément, which is the more traditional boy-meets-boy story so some of the early beats of Beatrice’s journey are not missed, but they are not focused upon, and then as her story has its own climax you wish you knew more about her. So when you watch it the second time you realise that information is already there but you just hadn’t paid enough attention to it.
Everybody knows about love and about loneliness and they have their own version of conflict. Some people’s conflicts are huge and dramatic and some people’s are quiet and internal and I hope by making a film that was not attempting to be universal but was quite personal and idiosyncratic, that people would recognise in that idiosyncrasy their own version of that idiosyncrasy because if you try to generalise you can become meaningless.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia