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Old Boys – Interview with director Toby MacDonald – words Paul Risker
Toby MacDonald’s Old Boys is inspired by Edmond Rostand’s classic French tale, Cyrano de Bergerac. Transposing the French setting for an English all-boys boarding school, Amberson (Alex Lawther) finds himself playing matchmaker between his friend Winchester (Jonah Hauer-King) and the French teacher’s daughter Agnes (Pauline Étienne), who he conceals his own romantic feelings for.
The director’s feature directorial debut, his previous credits include the short films Je T’aime John Wayne and Heavy Metal Drummer. Each were nominated for a BAFTA, and his first short was selected for Directors Fortnight in Cannes. The common thread running through his two shorts is the focus on an individual fuelled by a passion for art – in Je T’aime John Wayne a young Englishman obsessed with the French New Wave, and in Heavy Metal Drummer a character’s love of metal. The triangular relationship in his feature debut continues this theme of passion, though it os one that looks to not only the expression of passion, but also its concealment.
In conversation with Flux, MacDonald discussed the surprising shifts in the anticipated tone of the film, exposing the Englishness of a classic French tale, and a deepening personal understanding.
Transposing the classic Cyrano de Bergerac story to an English all-boys boarding school, were there any uncertainties in telling your version of this tale?
I tried to ask as many questions of it before we filmed as possible, in terms of knowing what the themes were, what the through line, sensibility and the tone was. I’d talk about that a lot and that’s the thing I’m really obsessed with. What was surprising in the making of it was that it probably turned out a little bit more tender, and a little less rough than we maybe thought it was going to be. So I tried to plan and interrogate the script and the idea as much as possible, so I had as many answers and as much of the deep foundational architecture of everything laid out for all the bumps in the road, and the surprises that happen as you go through the making of it. Obviously the other thing I should say is that comedy is quite unique. You need to have all those answers and then you need to make it funny [laughs] at the same time, and that requires a whole other layer of thinking.
Was it the performances that contributed to that transformation of the film becoming more tender?
Yeah, it was the performances and it was the relationship between Agnes played by Pauline and Amberson played by Alex that shifted it. They were so great together that it just became much more what the film was about. But the way Jonah played Winchester, it was a much gentler character that could have been played like a flash-man type, a big school posh thicko in a big way. Rightly so, he was much more modern and Jonah saw the sweetness in the character, and I think that changed it as well. So the triangular relationship was actually much more charged because of the way the actors played it.
From your authorial perspective, did the English setting infuse the story with a new sense of identity?
One of the central parts of Cyrano is that repression of your true emotional self, even though he’s a very flamboyant character. We always felt that would transpose really well because there was something English in that feeling. Even though he’s a great French character, there’s something English about him not being very good romantically that we thought was funny about Englishmen stuck at an all-boys boarding school. So there was that part of it that seemed like it worked well, and in terms of the language, I think it was just the fact that it seemed so teenage. I saw the Rappeneau/Depardieu film when I was a teenager and it really spoke to me. It felt like a lot of the teenage things that I was feeling were felt by Cyrano – that surge of self-importance, but then not being able to say to the girl that you are in love with that you love her. I suppose that’s why the play is so universally loved and why it felt universal, but it also felt quite English as well. And those were the things I was interested in by transposing it.
On the subject of repression, in contrast to Agnes who is honest about her situation and desire for liberty, Amberson is less honest. Each are in search of a form of liberty from their present predicaments, but while she seeks escape from her father, he seeks acceptance from his peers. Therein, Agnes’s honesty and Amberson hiding behind Winchester creates an interesting juxtaposition.
I think that’s really interesting and I remember talking about that with the actors. Agnes is searching for something, but she is still tied to her father, while Amberson is looking to fit in. The thing is he’s never going to find it at this school because they are never going to forgive him for where he’s from. It doesn’t matter, he’ll never be fully part of their clique. I suppose the joy of the two of them was the way that they bumped into each other at that point in their lives, and I think that collision and the bittersweetness of the ending, were the things that the actors sparked to with the characters as well. They’re both looking for the same thing, but they don’t know it, which I think is probably the best way to say it.
You’ve spoken of how the Rappeneau/Depardieu film spoke to you, but to take a moment to speak about the audience, interviewing Carol Morley for The Falling, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I know it’s not a fashionable thing to say, but we tested the film a couple of times, and suddenly it sort of went pop. We understood lots about it by showing it to the test audience, not in a robotic or computerised way, but just feeling it in the room with them. I felt very strongly with hindsight that we really needed to show it to an audience to realise they were caring about it. It’s interesting with comedy, especially as one of the things you read about a lot is that an audience laughs when they care. And from the very beginning of the first screening, everybody was laughing with Amberson as he went on his journey. They found him very funny and that was a sign that they cared. And then later on in the romantic parts, even when I’ve shown it around the world, we’ve been to lots of festivals in China, there are gasps when Agnes gives him the video to give to Winchester, not to him. So yeah, it’s a great point, and with this film particularly it needs the oxygen of the audience, just like all comedies probably do. One of the qualities that Alex has is that he’s just amazing at gaining people’s sympathies, and it’s totally uncalculated. It’s a very natural quality that he has and it’s amazing how strongly an audience empathises with him.
Did the interaction with the adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac as a filmmaker offer you a new appreciation for the story, or could you sense a change in response from watching the Rappeneau/Depardieu film as a teenager?
I suppose the thing that is very powerful in the Cyrano story is the irony at play within it, and it’s a really wonderful part of it where he’s talking through somebody else, and she’s falling in love. There’s just something very strong about that, and the thing that surprised me was how universal those feelings are from the Rostand play, and how it has worked so well translating it into an English environment. I suppose the thing that we tried to change from the original was to make Agnes a stronger character. We wanted her to be much stronger and we wanted there to be a tension in the triangle, so that there’s also much more of the friendship relationship between Winchester and Amberson. The thing that surprised me was that the romantic story works, but the friendship has been the thing that the audience has really responded to. When I think about the teenage years, friendship is the saving grace from that disastrous period [laughs] of my life I suppose. And that’s the other thing I didn’t realise perhaps that the story held, and it’s a testament to the actors that their own friendships came into the film in such a lovely way.
Old Boys is released in UK cinemas on 22 February 2019, with Q&A screenings with the director and cast in London, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. For more information visit: http://oldboysmovie.com/