Interview with director Andrew Steggall by Paul Risker
Andrew Steggall’s directorial feature debut sets the young filmmaker aside as a storyteller interested in the scope of film to explore the intricacies of human nature.
Departure could be perceived as a human ghost story by way of one couple’s habitual denial of emotional truth that propels their marriage through its final chapter.The parental narrative strand is meticulously offset with their son’s journey through adolescence, and the burgeoning question of whether he will repeat the mistakes of their past history or whether he can liberate his future.
Infusing his film with an art house sensibility, Steggall’s camera captures the small gestures that are often silent, while actively exploring an emphasis on the honesty of voiceless emotion versus verbalised understanding. In the young filmmaker’s hands Departure is a film with a voice that seeks not only to draw our attention, but to offer us a means to further explore human nature and our world that we define by our presence.
In conversation with Flux, director Andrew Steggall looked back to his acting and theatrical roots that have informed his approach to filmmaking, the often overlooked human event to the filmmaking process, the intimacy of the writing and editing process amidst a discussion of this, his contemplative tale on human nature.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I started as an actor and opera director, and I think as a child it was theatre and film that really inspired me. I probably started in theatre believing that one day I’d be a filmmaker. The excitement of telling stories and having watched Empire of the Sun when I was a boy, as well as E.T and Indiana Jones, and other films that were not directed by Steven Spielberg, I felt that storytelling was what I wanted to do. The early part of my career was focused on acting and I moved into film directing out of directing theatre with a real instinct to write and direct, and if possible to aspire to be an auteur who could tell their own stories. But there wasn’t a blinding flash of a moment and I wasn’t an eight year old with a Super 8 camera. I progressed from acting and theatre into film, and it feels to me that film is the medium I am most at home in. It allows me to express myself with actors and words; images and sound. For me it is the ultimate place to be right now and I hope I get permission to make another one.
You discuss how acting was the focus at the beginning of your career. Looking back how important has that experience proven to be as you progress with directing?
Incredibly important for me, and I really approach filmmaking from the actors perspective. I am very comfortable with actors, but they are the most frightening and exciting part of the process. Frightening because like all of us they are susceptible and vulnerable. You can reset the camera and put the lens back on that was working best, but if you’ve given a note that was misdirecting and clumsy, and you’ve begun to undermine an actors confidence then that is something that is hard to undo [laughs]. So there is an excitement and a challenge in getting it right. I hope my experience as an actor as well as my experience working with actors in the theatre means that I approach it with a kind of an empathy and understanding for their process. So it’s essential to me and then as a consequence of that, and not having trained as a filmmaker at film school – without a grounding from a technical and camera perspective – working with a great director of photography like Bryan Fawcett and with a crew that were very confident helped in those areas of inexperience.
Within the discussion of film as a collaborative medium, the human aspect and the diverse range of personalities often falls within the shadow of the oversimplification of this term collaboration.
There are filmmakers that are actually a bit uncomfortable with actors and they’ll stick to the camera so long as they cast really well, and that’s fine. But if you need to nudge and encourage an actor, or you need to recalibrate the direction of travel for a film or a performance, then it is really important that you can be at home with them. As a director you need to be a kind of mirror because they are looking to you, and not to the monitor or the camera. You need to reflect back to them encouragingly and enable their performance. But each actor requires a very slightly different kind of mirror and so you might be directing three actors in a scene, and you’ll be reflecting in simultaneous different ways to each one of them. But that act of reflection is something that is going on in your eye or is something that is going on in what you say, and the way you behave towards them. And it is not just the actors, it is the atmosphere the crew creates because the first person the actor is going to see when they have finished a take is probably the cameraman or the director of photography. Alongside the boom operator they are the person standing very close to the actor. So you really need to find those crew members who create an atmosphere of play and creativity, which I have realised is important beyond the fact of ensuring everybody can do their job because the greatest contribution they make is their personality.
How did the expectations of your feature debut compare to the realities of the experience?
I went in looking forward to it and it lived up to what I hoped I would experience. The shoot was enjoyable and everyone got on very well. We were all living in the same village and and the dynamic with the actors was great. We were constantly falling behind schedule, but I guess I understood that would be the case. You battle to keep up and I was very prepared in the sense that the personal energy helps to keep you going each day, and ensures that at the end of the day you are operating at the right level. But there are things that always take you by surprise. Even though you may have experienced it before, there is that moment where you are facing a bit of a crisis in terms of a decision that has to be made around dropping a scene or if you feel quite strongly about an issue. No matter how much you’ve done, those moments require you to think on your feet, and even though you know what’s going to happen that always takes you by surprise.
The edit was a process that surprised me in the sense that I hadn’t anticipated how much like the writing process it is – of being in front of your screen and shaping the story with almost as many choices as you had when you were writing it…. You could write anything. There was an infinite variety of configurations of the material and choice of shots and then texts in which you had so much potential to if not necessarily change the story, achieve or miss a moment or beat. And I found that enjoyable, stressful and tiring in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It was like shooting and writing at the same time, and I loved it.
Filmmakers have told me that editing is the best training ground for a director. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the experience of editing Departure will impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
What you would wish to come away from this process with is having learned to cut all the scenes at the script stage that you would then probably cut in the edit stage. When I sat in the edit we threw away whole scenes or strands of the film that we had spent so long shooting, and you would think: Oh gosh, if only I could have spent that time on a scene that ended up in the film. I think you maybe get a finer eye and a greater sense of wisdom around economy of storytelling in your scripts, which means you shoot less. Therefore maybe you build confidence around what shots and coverage you need for a scene or for a moment as you have built an experience of what was useful in the edit. But again, everything is different each time, and everybody’s films would get better and better if they didn’t keep making the same mistakes because you’d just know what is going to end up in the final cut. I found the process informative and educative, and I do hope I will be more economical in the future in terms of what I keep on the page, and therefore what I spend time shooting.
Watching the film I struggled to imagine it could have come from someone who lacks an interest in human nature and the contemplation of big ideas. Would it be correct to say this was what drew you to the film?
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. I am interested in what can seem to some people to be the small intimate changes in understanding the small progressions in a character’s development, which are epic to them and can compel and consume them, but are not necessarily dependent on (external) fireworks. So there is a kind of quietness, and I think most of us if you can say such a thing go through our lives without living through a war, and not at risk of getting shot or arrested. Lots of people do, but lots of us don’t and I think those lives and those transitions are worth exploring. Anybody can be unhappy and anybody can achieve happiness whether you own half of Bedfordshire or whether you live on mean streets. Everybody’s experience is authentic and worth exploring.
The film permeates an honesty through emotional silence in contrast to the verbal awkwardness of trying to express through words that emotional sensibility. It says a lot about how limited we are when it comes to expressing an understanding of our emotions.
What you said is really thrilling to hear because it is how I wanted to tell the story. I felt that Elliot, Beatrice, Clément and Philip – although maybe not Clément – all experience a suffocating silence that comes from their personality, and from the circumstances of their lives. Casting Juliette Stevenson (Beatrice) and Alex Lawther (Elliot) was a gift. You want to say things without words because they are both so expressive, and both are very interested in what’s happening between them rather than what they are doing individually. They are listeners rather than talkers and they communicate a lot in the unspoken. And for me being a bit of a chatterbox I still feel that most of what you say is pretty unimportant compared to what you don’t say. And often being English we say the opposite of what we mean anyway. I think it connects closely to this film in the sense that I was exploring the things that you already know that you haven’t yet realised, and that is sort of an implicitly unspoken thing. It’s something that Beatrice or it’s something that Elliot already has an awareness of, but they are yet to articulate it to or to coalesce it in their minds. They are waiting in a way for the experience to happen that will eliminate that awareness which they already had. And that’s the nature of all the characters’ journey in the film – a preemptive understanding that is as of yet to be actualised, and the events of the narrative are seeking of that knowledge, and the result of that knowledge finding them out as it were. For Elliot experience is something he is chasing after and he is frightened of.
Departure appears to speak of the importance of being emotionally and practically truthful in the way that we choose to live our lives, but our reluctance to embrace this truth haunts us in our present and future.
I think the reluctance is entrenched. The decisions we make are sometimes made out of a need to compromise or in a way that reflects our sense of self worth. I think this is very much Beatrice. And sometimes decisions are made without a clear acknowledgement of some important truth about ourselves. In the case of Philip this is perhaps because he is uncomfortable with some aspect of his identity. In her quietly heroic way, Beatrice finally tries to play a role in liberating Elliot so that he avoids making decisions on similarly unstable grounds.
There is an interesting juxtaposition within the film between adolescence and adulthood, wherein both Elliot and Beatrice are caught in the flux of change, although both are experiencing change that is at once similar and very different. Regardless of where we are in lives, the experience of living does not change.
This is central to the film and to what I wanted to explore. While mother and son are at very different places in their lives, they are both confronting similar needs to shake themselves free of limitations – of perspective, of a sense of self-worth and of fear of expressing themselves sexually.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I think this is inevitably true and does Heraclitus not say something about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice?
Departure was released theatrically in the UK on Friday 20th May by Peccadillo Pictures.