Subscribe to Candid Magazine
Paul Wright & George MacKay talk about working together on For Those In Peril
March 4, 2014
For Those In Peril was one of the most intriguing and fascinating British films I’ve seen this season and if you didn’t have a chance to catch it during its limited theatrical release back in October, now it’s the time: the film has just been released on DVD and it’s worth every penny. Yesterday I reviewed the home video release for Candid and you can find my praises for this wonderful, BAFTA-winning film here.
Today, I share with you the lovely chat I had with the film’s writer/director Paul Wright on his feature film debut here and his lead actor, rising star George MacKay (How I live Now, Sunshine On Leith, Defiance, The Boys Are Back). I was lucky enough to be able to steal thirty minutes of their time at the BFI Southbank two weeks ago, on a typical London cloudy afternoon, right before they attended a special screening of the film with Q&A to promote the DVD release.
As I sit with them in the BFI green room I immediately realize they have developed a really good friendship after working together. The atmosphere is goliardic and I easily tune in with their sense of humor that fills up the conversation with many laughs throughout. Despite this being his feature film debut, the Scottish filmmaker is quite assured in talking about his work while George MacKay, whose first role on film was P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003) when he was 9 years old, shows a maturity beyond his age (21) that explains quite a lot about the interesting career choices he’s made so far.
In For Those In Peril, MacKay plays Aaron, the sole survivor of a fishing expedition gone wrong. As he tries to reprise his life in the Scottish village he’s from, he actually becomes a misfit: not only he’s the constant reminder of everyone’s grief but he firmly believes his older brother (who took him along on the trip) is still alive and Aaron is determined to find him, despite everyone thinking he’s out of his mind. And it’s exactly this central element of the story that kicks off our conversation:
While hanging out with his lost brother’s fiancée, Aaron asks her: “Do you think, if you believe anything enough, it will become true? I think if you believe anything enough it will come true, if you just believe.” Paul, do you think these lines thematically represent the driving force behind the film’s narrative?
Paul Wright: Yeah, sure. You know, the idea all along was to have a character going after a seemingly impossible goal, to explore the thin line between madness and pure devotion, when one person believes what no one else does. That’s where a lot of the conflict in the film comes from as well.
Are you religious and if so, did your beliefs influence the themes of the story? You could argue that Aaron is almost reminiscent of a Jesus-like figure, especially towards the end. Also, PTSD, grief and guilt are strong elements in the film. Have you experienced any personal life event that has affected your imagination while conceiving the story?
Paul Wright: Yeah well, my father passed away when I was 14 or 15. It was that kind of a weird age and maybe it didn’t really matter what age it was, to be honest, because everything becomes heightened for anyone who’s touched with death in a big way. For me, at that stage, certainly it was, I remember. Obviously there’s the whole understanding what happened but I guess not totally accepting the finale of it. And even stuff like dreams affect you in a strange way. When you dream, it often seems like you are reunited with the person and it does feel so real until you wake up. So, definitely, stuff like that for sure came through in the film since it was quite a tough time in my life. And well, I’m not religious myself particularly but inevitably the upbringing and the environment you grow up in affect you and whether you’re a believer or not, certain elements become engrained in you and they come through. So yeah, there are similarities with a Jesus-like figure but it was never a deliberate thing. It’s interesting though, you’re not the first person to point it out.
George, the role of Aaron seems like a daunting task to pull off, given how extremely shut down he is. He’s a dark character in a grim story. You strike me as quite a bright person. How did you get into character on a daily basis?
George MacKay: For me, I think it was all about the fact that Paul and I talked a lot and got to know each other very well. We had a week of rehearsals and then really, Aaron is on his own so much of the time. I had two days with Nichola (Burley) who played Jane, the fiancée of Aaron’s brother, and I had a day and a half with Kate (Dickie) who played Cathy, Aaron’s mom and then really every other person he interacts with had a day or half day of work. The fact he’s alone most of the time informed a lot about him. The main thing for me was assessing why he was doing what he was doing. It wasn’t about trying to play someone who’s kind of mad. It was about realizing that he was completely focused and had a rationale about what he was doing. It all made sense to him. Obviously when you’re the only person who thinks like that, suddenly you’re the weird one. So, every day, I was focused on just being sure about what he was thinking. It wasn’t so much necessarily about being sad or being upset, it was just about his focus on what he needed to do. What’s sad about it is that everyone else knows or at least feels that what he’s doing is not right. Because of the nature of the story, we went to some dark places but we genuinely had such a great time doing it. It was a really fun set and the fact we were together all day, every day on location helped a lot. It often happens that the crew is there from beginning to end and you just pop in and out to do your scenes and that’s it. Here it was nice that we were all together all of the time and then you felt in it enough to kind of make sense of everything.
Paul, some have defined the film like a lyrical horror and I can see why. It definitely has an intense esoteric feel to it. Some moments are extremely daunting and creep up on your subconscious all the way to that jaw-dropping conclusion. Without spoiling anything, was that ending always your first choice? Did you come up with it early on in the writing process and built up the story towards it or maybe did you have a revelation down the line?
Paul Wright: With the writing of it, it all started with the general idea for the film. I think it was six or seven images that popped into my head and the ones at the end of the film were part of it. Actually, they were almost the starting point before the idea even came. The way I write is always finding these moments, trying to get them down and then build the script around them with things like structure and progression in mind. But it was hundreds of potential little moments floating about and then trying to arrange them in the right order. And especially with there being different layers, it was all about looking at them individually and then trying to make them work within the context of the film, so yeah it was complicated… Maybe someone else could write the next one (laughs hard).
George, how about you? I’m wondering what does an actor do when he deals with this kind of enigmatic material? Do you beg or blackmail the director to explain what the hell he means with this story or is it better for the sake of performance to remain in the dark and use that to your own advantage to build the character?
George MacKay: I guess for me it goes back once again to having talked with Paul and within those metaphorical images and sort of grey areas, knowing what the sense was for Aaron. Even if the sense is that he’s not making any sense at the moment, just knowing that when he’s reaching up, he’s reaching for something that (if it were to be explained) you could take away from the image, was helpful. You know, just to have something I could be sure of when I was doing it, not because necessarily that’s what it has to mean. Then people can obviously interpret what they want.
Paul, do you feel there’s necessarily a divide in filmmaking between commercial success and artistic value or do you think they can go together? Sometimes it feels like the industry pushes you towards one way or the other and you get stuck in one of the two.
Paul Wright: It’s a good question. With this film, from the starting place, we knew it was about making the film we wanted to make and we could’ve made a lot of compromises along the way that might have made it more accessible but then it wouldn’t have been the same film. We knew we were making a film that wasn’t going to be for everyone and was quite tough in places and we definitely weren’t sugarcoating a lot of it. It was about going to an extreme with it and then I guess, along with that, you’re kind of have to accept that it’s not going to be playing on three screens in every multiplex. It’s an interesting point since obviously this is the film industry. I was really fortunate to have a lot of people that backed me and believed in the group we had in order to make a strong piece of work, hopefully. How can you keep making a career out of it is another question I guess…
George, what’s your take on this from an actor standpoint? I’m really impressed with the extremely versatile choices you’ve made so far in your career. You’re currently in a play and definitely seem to be the anti-typical young actor who only goes after certain kind of things. Is it hard to walk that fine line between art and commercial success?
George MacKay: It’s a hard one. To begin with, I want to make choices as much as I can but it wouldn’t be fair to say that at the moment I’m in the position to be picking and choosing. Right now it’s amazing I’m able to have this fantastic job. I’d say, lately, I’ve started to be a little bit more aware of this kind of politics you’re talking about. You know, you want to make a film because of the story and the people involved but I know there’s the politics of getting that film made and how it needs to do this or that. I don’t want to speak too much about something I don’t really know but for instance, a place like Warp Films that got behind the film is a really great production company and their goal is making good films whereas for other places it’s not necessarily about making the film but it’s about putting bums on seats and things like that, but that’s not necessarily less credible, it’s just a different way of thinking. So yeah, as an actor I’m still not in a position where I have too much of a choice I think. For me, whenever a choice comes along you’ve just got to stick to yourself and not have any strategy other than wanting to be true to what you’re making and believe in it and then the size of the project comes after. And by the same token you shouldn’t believe it’s something less if it is The Avengers and that’s what really gets you going and you’re excited about that. Just because it’s a big film you shouldn’t pre-judge it and likewise if you get a script that you’d do for free if the script’s amazing and the director’s amazing. I think it’s all about making the choice based on the piece of work, not considering what it would do money-wise because that’s not your job. Your job is just telling that story.
There’s no doubt we’ll hear soon about Paul Wright’s sophomore effort that he’s currently writing and that I’m eagerly anticipating. Whereas if you’re in London, you should definitely go see George MacKay in the theatre adaptation of Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden. It’s playing until March 8th at the Vaults Festival in the tunnels under Waterloo and it’s a fantastic production where Mackay shines once again. His next cinematic appearances this year will be in the upcoming films Pride and Bypass which have no release date yet but promise to be a couple of very interesting projects. He’s a star in the making and England should be proud.
For Those In Peril is out on DVD now.
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor