Talking 'Departure' - Sex & Coming-of-Age in the South of France
Writer-director Andrew Steggall has fashioned a cinematic coming out poem, "Departure," which blends the painfully real with expressionism where framing and locations are integral to storytelling.
Key to the film's success is the remarkable lead performance by Alex Lawther who plays Elliot, an intelligent, pompous, sometimes downright annoying, yet often endearing teen. Lawther rather fearlessly gives us a fully rounded 15-year-old coping with his parent's shambles of a marriage while trying to navigate his own burgeoning feelings of same-sex attraction.
Set in the French countryside, poet-wannabe Elliot crushes on the brooding, handsome Clement (Phénix Brossard), who may or may not return his feelings. Things come to a climax, so to speak, while the two are boating.
The divine Juliet Stevenson co-stars as Elliot's very English mother, Beatrice, who happens to be battling her own demons (her husband's attraction to men being one) and is completely at odds with her son. Both mother and son go through their own transformations as they come to terms with their respective desires.
"Departure" is Steggall's debut feature. He started out as an actor on stage (and screen) appearing in Stephen Daldry's celebrated production of J. B. Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" in the West End. He soon began directing for the stage and making short films, including, "The Red Bike," a gay coming of age story.
Lawther is a star on the rise. After his breakthrough performance on the London stage in David Hare's semi-autobiographical play, "South Downs," the actor garnered international attention when he was cast as young Alan Turing in Morten Tyldum's Oscar-winning film, "The Imitation Game." A year later he portrayed one of the math geniuses in James Graham's "X plus Y" (known as "A Brilliant Young Mind" in the U.S.).
Later this year, Lawther will be seen as a defiant, cross-dressing gay teen in Trudie Styler's adaptation of James St. James' popular novel, "Freak Show," co-starring Bette Midler and Laverne Cox. The film recently premiered at the Berlinale.
"Departure" is currently available on VOD and DVD.
EDGE recently spoke with both Steggall and Lawther, separately, about the film.
EDGE (to Steggall): The film feels deeply personal, can you speak about where the idea came from and how you developed it?
Andrew Steggall: In a way the film is a response to a particular landscape I got to know because some friends have a place in France and I got to spend a bit of time there and the river, the reservoir, the forest all provoked a feeling, an atmosphere of storytelling and myth. And brought back to my memory of a holiday I had when I was a boy where I had a kind of intuition that something was going to change, some curious thickening of the atmosphere and a sense that things were about to get challenging. That holiday and the events that occurred on that holiday and my relationship to my sexuality and my relationship to my parents all changed. That was the memory I wanted to explore... so there's an autobiographical element to it, very much a response to the landscape.
In developing it I thought about various stories that have always stuck with me like Ted Hughes's translation of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses,' and also an opera I had seen a while ago called 'Rusalka' by Dvorák, which is the myth of a water nymph who longs to be human. That theme of longing for something and wanting to be more physically related to and reassured really felt relevant to Elliot and Beatrice.
EDGE: You mentioned the theme of longing and all four main characters actually express it but it manifests in very different ways.
Andrew Steggall: Elliot has an emerging sense of desire and a feeling of shame or lack of understanding of what it means to have the desires he's having. I don't think he's massively sexually repressed, I just think it's an emergent and non-normative sexuality so it provokes anxiety about what will be accepted or not.
For Beatrice her life was being married to a homosexual man without knowing that. (She) only knew that she was not desired in a way that she'd hoped she might be. And her realization is that perhaps the reason was not her, not her lack of skill or lack of attractiveness, but the fact that she was fundamentally mismatched.
A kind of openness
EDGE: With Clement, there's a violence that meets tenderness which was captured exquisitely.
Andrew Steggall: And in some ways that manifest as tenderness and kindness towards Beatrice that she misinterprets and it provokes a kind of openness in him in that strange week in this strange place in France where both he and Elliot experience something which is new to them. And one imagines Clement will not turn his back on it, but that's not going to be a part of his life moving forward. But he was available to that part of himself that week and found some solace in the peculiar presence of this pretentious English wannabe poet, Elliot.
EDGE: You were an actor first, onstage, how did this experience prepare you for directing for a predominately visual medium?
Andrew Steggall: I've always wanted to tell stories and when I was at school I'd direct and design plays and I trained as an actor and for me the whole thing is very bound up together...With 'Departure' all the layers... are intrinsically part of what was supposed to be a kind of poem to longing... but it's very much saturated with an attempt to express everything about the characters and about that longing and the feeling that the house is somehow under water or submerged or that Elliot goes into the forest of the unconscious to find the water of sexuality where he sees the boy diving from the wall of death... they're all images and qualities of aesthetic that are intended to be expressive of the internal states of the characters.
A long journey
EDGE: Was it a long journey from page to screen?
Andrew Steggall: Yeah, I think it always is, isn't it, particularly for first films? It was probably six years from the first draft and finding money and losing money and finding actors and losing actors. And I only wanted to shoot in the autumn so every delay had to be a year's delay. And that led to some good things. We cast Alex Lawther a year ahead of the final shooting date. So we got to spend a year getting to know each other.
EDGE: How did you assemble your terrific cast?
Andrew Steggall: We saw a lot of young actors for Elliot and for Clement. And interestingly, we met Phenix in Paris quite early on in the process... I saw a short film he'd done and auditioned him. And again, the next year. And again, the next year. He was always one of the ones that came back each year.
Alex I'd seen in a play when he was probably 17, in the West End, and approached him outside the stage door of the theatre and mentioned the project to him. And a few years later came back to him via his agent. He was on his way to shoot "X plus Y" and I could only see him if I went down to his hometown, which I did, and he was there waiting on the train station platform, reading a copy of Camus and we did an audition on the bench, near the train station and it was obvious he was right.
We came to Juliet quite late and she read the script and I met her at her house one late Sunday evening and she said, "I read it and I don't want anyone else to play the part so I'll have to do it." She really responded to it and it was a real privilege for us. And she and Alex got on terrifically well as mother and son.
Playing a dick?
EDGE (to Lawther): Andrew mentioned seeing you in a West End show and wanting you for Elliot, can you elaborate on how you were cast and what drew you to the project?
Alex Lawther: I was doing a play, my first job on the West End, and we spoke briefly afterwards. My mother had come that evening and she whisked me off to dinner and I remember Andrew (saying), 'I have a script I'd like you to read.' This strange person (speaking to me). (Laughs) A while later he got in touch through my agent. I was just about to leave England to go make 'X plus Y' in Asia and Andrew came down to the countryside and we did an audition facing the town pond which is this thick artificial lake. And it was weirdly symbolic of the film.
It was a year until we actually started shooting... But it was useful because it gave me and Andrew time to get to know each other and work out the story we were trying to tell. With Andrew's writing, not much is said bit a lot is going on. The attraction actually for me to the role was trying to understand somebody who seems unable to express himself fully and yet is clearly going through something on a great scale... seeing the slightly almost fantastical operatic scale next to scenes of people having dinner together-the mundane-that attracted me to the work.
EDGE: One of the really cool and atypical things about Elliot is that he's exasperating at times.
Alex Lawther: He's a dick, isn't he?
EDGE: He can be, but that's far more interesting than his being a wholly likable boy. He's messy and real even within the expressionistic realm. Was that built into the script or was it something you worked on achieving with Andrew?
Alex Lawther: I was worried because before this I'd made coming of age films and films about young people growing up in the world and there's often, in that genre, especially when the protagonist is the one who is coming of age, the young person is often intensely likable and very sweet and earnest. And it concerned me that sometimes he's not likable at all. But Andrew said that's the point. When you're 14-15 years old, the only world you're concerned with is your own. You're intrinsically selfish in many ways. And your tragedy seems far greater than anyone else's, which isn't true.
Elliot's mother Beatrice is going through such heartbreak and needs some human connection and Elliot because of that teenage egotism is unable to realize his mother is a human being and needing to reach out to him. He's preoccupied with himself and what he's going through. I found that difficult because I think often as an actor we all like to be liked I suppose and it's sometimes difficult telling the story and not letting your own worries about being liked get in the way of that. And the story is that sometimes he's a bit of a dick. I think that might ring true for some people. I definitely wasn't sunshine and happiness all the time when I was 15 years old. I was trying to figure things out.
EDGE: It was refreshing, especially in a gay-themed film-so nice to have variation on the squeaky clean gay characters in films.
Alex Lawther: They do serve a purpose. It's important to have a likable queer protagonist. That is essential. But now it's interesting that we've come to a place perhaps where we're ready to tell stories-and maybe it's because we're progressing further with the diversity of characters we're seeing onscreen and we're ready to see LGBT characters that sometimes aren't very nice. These are just flawed anti-heroes, which is interesting. I don't know what it means, but it's interesting.
Andrew Steggall: I was very pleased that Alex was brave enough to play a character that wasn't always likable. And I think that's been probably the most common trope in coming out/LGBT films -- the desire to paint the central character as a likable everybody, an easy to associate with character whereas Elliot, like me, was difficult and obnoxious and self-indulgent and pretentious and precocious... his journey is not so much one of coming out as coming to terms with the need to be less selfish and to recognize that he shares something with his mother, who's gone through her whole life unable to express something about herself and that his coming of age is that he, at the end, recognizes her and what they share. And that he's gay is less important than that being an adult isn't going to be all freedoms and all liberty, it's going to be full of ambiguity and complexity and that's the journey he's going on.
Working within limits
EDGE (to Steggall): 'Departure' features quite honest and funny masturbation scenes as well as a very natural use of nudity. Did anyone try to sway you in a different direction?
Andrew Steggall: When you're working with professional actors, particularly younger actors, you map out pretty comprehensively beforehand what's in and what's out. And then you work sensitively within those limitations. And given the tone of the film-this wasn't 'Weekend,' this wasn't confronting that side of gay life, it's more elusive in that way. You have challenges.
Elliot has to swim up in the dark water of an underwater tank so there's quite a lot of time spent doing those takes over and over again to make sure his leg was coming up in the right position at the right time as his body turns so that it did look natural but so we weren't unnecessarily being exploitative or distracting the audience by waving things in front of their eyes which wasn't really the point.
For me the sexual journey is for him, rather like Narcissus in front of the cold glass mirror looking at his own reflection via the carrot, past the lopsided moment with Clement in the boat to the point where he can jump in through the mirror, through the water into the darkness of the reservoir and he can feel the danger and possibility of death, of being embraced by water and coming out of it. That's the arc. And the water is important in that way. It's a bit of trope in gay films that if you put your character's somewhere near water they have to take their clothes off! And in 'Departure' the use of water was thematically essential as opposed to a device to provoke nudity. (Laughs)
EDGE: Speaking to those tropes, 'Departure' is a departure from the usual gay-themed films. What has the reaction been to the film?
Andrew Steggall: In terms of the LGBT content, it's been really fascinating. Some of the western audiences, particularly the younger audiences, are a little bit baffled by the kind of nostalgia in the film and they're probably wondering why Elliot doesn't just get on Grinder and sort himself out. (The film) is based on recollections of when I was 15 in the mid-90s so while it's set now there is a looking back quality to it which has made it resonate, in some ways, with people who are older.
Interestingly, in Mexico with an urban, younger audience what Elliot experienced seemed to resonate more. It's quite hard to pin down who will connect to the particularly pent up, inward looking and at times self-indulgent qualities of these characters.
EDGE: (to Lawther) You've been a great friend to queer-cinema and theatre, David Hare's 'South Downs,' 'The Imitation Game,' the upcoming 'Freak Show'... how important do you feel supporting and making LGBT films is right now-especially in this political climate?
Alex Lawther: That's a very interesting question. I think the question is even broader than that. I think we still have a long way to go to really represent the public onscreen. I'm a white English male and there are a lot of us on and off screen and it's not representative of these wonderful varied diversity of humans and audience members that go see those films. Yes, I think filmmakers do have a responsibility to be telling stories that speak to people of any orientation or background-any demographic.
It's interesting you included David Hare's play... David would be,'"South Downs" is not necessarily an LGBT play but the character (Blakemore) is certainly someone who is-doesn't understand the world as it is and is trying to find out why it is.' And I think that's what's interesting about LGBT cinema is that there are characters that-at least the ones I've been lucky enough to play-have been questioning why things have to be that way. And I suppose that's what cinema is doing. It's not necessarily providing answers, it's maybe asking questions or at least trying to explore questions.
"Departure" is currently available on VOD and DVD.
Watch the trailer to "Departure":