On Shelagh McLeod, Filming, Writing the Future with Astronaut, An Interview

25 Jul

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

In theatres July 26th
Please check local listings

Not everyone would have been able to attend the North American premiere of Astronaut last week at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival. Fortunately, hot off the heels of this event are theatrical showings starting tomorrow in major cities of this very fine film. The themes writer/director Shelagh McLeod explores are many, and to balance between the concept of sending an elder into outer space to the challenges he faced meant figuring out what the film must focus on. 

For readers not aware of your work, could you please introduce yourself and the work you feel you are best known for.

My name is Shelagh McLeod, I was born in Vancouver. My family left Canada when I was six years old and we moved to the UK. I have been an actor for nearly forty years and have worked all over the world. I guess my career really started with a TV Film called ‘Cream in my Coffee’ written by the great, late, legendary writer–Dennis Potter. I played the younger version of Dame Peggy Ashcroft’s character–Jean. I did theatre, film and many TV series. One of which was Peak Practice—a lovely heartwarming series that went on for many seasons.

After many years acting, what made you decide to work behind the camera, and become a writer/director?

I had wanted to step behind the camera for a long time. However, I continued to work as an actress as I didn’t have the confidence or enough financial security to say—“right I want to train as a director.” And in those days the opportunity for an actress to step behind the camera was not as available as it is now—it’s taken this long for things to start getting easier for women. I had been writing for a while and when I was shooting the series Holby City in 2012,

I finally decided to go back to school where I took a BA in film and writing and then an MA in creative writing. This gave me the confidence to create and direct three short films before developing the script for Astronaut. Then Jessica Adams and Sean Buckley, our incredibly talented producers, agreed to take on the project and we were supported by Telefilm, Ontario Creates, The Movie Network, Eggplant, along with many others.

What inspired you to write Astronaut?

My mum died in a nursing home. I used to visit her a lot. In the nursing home gardens there was an old man, in a wheelchair who was always looking up at the sky. He would literally never want to come inside. And he also was very silent. One day I sat next to him and asked, “What is it that you’re looking for up there—what do you want? He said, ‘Another go…'”

That was the trigger for me. I started thinking about this man and what had he wanted to achieve in his life? What had been on his bucket list?”

I hear that you’re a big fan of science fiction and horror. If you had a bigger budget to realize the former, what would you like to put in Astronaut?

In the early drafts of the script there was a huge action and sci-fi plot line: there were car chases, forging of identity documents which Barney got involved with, and a whole sequence when Angus went for a wig and makeup fitting in the effort to look younger. For the finale, he ended up in space—jumping out of the space station—for his first spacewalk. I wanted to show him really being liberated and happy. But, I knew that this was to be my first film as writer/director. I knew that I was not going to get a ten-million-dollar budget, (pitching the film the financiers would stare at us in disbelief when we mentioned there was a space rocket!)

So, I started drilling down into the script and unearthed that the themes in the story were about second chances, dreams, love, family and ultimately making friends, and mattering–no matter how old you are.

In the film, the comet felt like the catalyst to get the plot going. Is this a correct assessment or did you have something else in mind?

The comet is an emblem/motif of change and hope. It’s true the story starts, the comet arrives and just after they see the comet—Marcus (the space entrepreneur)–announces his space competition. A comet is a sign of a fresh start, a risk, an opportunity. I did a lot of research on every single strand in the script. Comets can be bad omens—but they can also signify change.

Did you have Richard Dreyfuss (and his previous roles) in mind when casting?

No. We never ever dreamed we would get Richard to play Angus. Originally, I was thinking of shooting the film in the UK–but after meeting Jessica–Canada just seemed like the perfect place to make the film. There is a huge spirit of optimism; a buoyancy in Canada. However, when my agent mentioned Richard for the role of Angus – I said, “well we’ll never get him!” I was all too aware that I was a first-time feature film director, and that Richard is one of the finest actors in the world. Jessica, Sean and I just thought—“How?!” But Richard’s agent read the script, liked it and that was the beginning of the journey.

How about Richie Lawrence, who played the grandson? I found the chemistry between him and Dreyfuss was bang on.

Richie came to audition for us a couple of times. We all fell in love with him. He is a wonderful young actor, very talented and was just a great person to work with. I loved working with him—he listened so intently and despite the long, freezing cold days always brought a huge sense of fun to the set. A total trooper. Richard D and Richie, Lyriq and Krista all got along very well. So, the chemistry was real.

What parallels were you thinking of when telling a story of how not to put older people into the pasture to that where space exploration is headed next? As your story nicely reveals, the experience that the older generation still have plenty to share, if not relate, which can aid in that quest.

I watch older people struggle with life. To get a parent or a loved one into a good nursing home or retirement home can be a battle. Our politicians blithely promise things—but amongst all this noise, the elderly are marginalized and often forgotten. Astronaut is not a typical indie film with an edgy, gritty look at old age. It’s a wholesome story, that has some whimsy and some magic. It’s more of a story about hope. As the story progresses and Angus is in with a chance, a more gleeful tone emerges.

When the millennium happened my brother, who worked for a bank, told me that they got all the original old guys who had programed the computers out of retirement in case there was a meltdown. I think the elders in our society have an important voice and we should listen. I am also passionate about space exploration—it’s such an exciting time and suddenly there is a real interest again. The kids and the seniors are all talking about it. And that excitement and the possibility of adventure unites the two generations.

I wanted Marcus to tear up the rule book and say, “…To hell with it! If he wants to go. Well, it’s my mission and I am going to take him!”

Your film suggests that private enterprise will carry space exploration into the next decade. Though will it be more about space tourism or seeing the collective quest to return to the moon?

Both would be good. Let’s go to the moon, go to Mars—and let’s all have a chance at going up—if that’s what we want to do.

In closing, what would you like to impart to those who have yet to see this film?

I would love it if people took their family or friends or just saw the movie alone and came out feeling more uplifted and hopeful. Life can be tough. But with friends, family and hope—well, things can be a lot better. I am a romantic and a big dreamer. And Astronaut has elements of a fairy tale—but—why can’t a person; no matter what age they are, or what medical conditions or ailments they might have—have a chance to achieve their dreams?

Who says we can’t? Who really makes the rules? We do. So, if we keep our dreams alive, with a bit of help from our friends—well, the universe is the limit.

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