Supernova’s Harry Macqueen talks about representation, dementia and the problem with one-way roads

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Director Harry Macqueen (center) with stars Stanley Tucci (left) and Colin Firth (right).

Theatres: Friday 12
VOD: Tuesday 16

Films about early onset dementia are often so similar their any impact gets lost in the clichés. The Colin Firth-Stanley Tucci starrer Supernova does the smart thing and approaches the subject indirectly, by focusing on their relationship, not on the disease.

We meet Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) as they prepare for a road trip in a motorhome. Their banter indicates they’ve been a loving couple for a while and they’re about to face the biggest test of their relationship, one that’s unlikely to have a happy ending: Tusker’s mental faculties are failing and his deterioration seems to be speeding up.

Tusker, a writer, doesn’t want to be a burden and fails to see the point of going on living once his mind is gone. But Sam is willing to care for him and he’s upset Tusker is considering an early exit.

Supernova was written and directed by British actor Harry Macqueen from his direct experience with dementia, which in turn inspired him to volunteer with families and couples living through this condition. “What struck me most profoundly was how a relationship changes because of a terminal illness and how someone turns from being an equal partner in a relationship to being a caregiver,”, says Macqueen.

Did you make it a point to avoiding mental illness tropes?

I strive to make original, thought provoking work. Whether I succeed or not it’s for you to decide (laughs). Knowing what you don’t want to do is just as important as knowing what you do want to do. I was keen to avoid melodrama, and to telling the story in an obvious, domestic setting.

Representation is a sensitive issue and there’s a vocal community that would rather see gay roles go to gay actors. Was this a concern for you during the process of making Supernova?

It was something I thought about right from the start, when I made the decision to make the characters a same-sex couple. As a filmmaker, I think it’s my responsibility to make the process as open and inclusive as possible, and we did that. But also you have to treat each project as an individual entity. I don’t think we could have found two actors that could have done better than Colin and Stanley. You can’t ignore that you may be in a position to work with two brilliant, beautiful actors who have known each other for 20 years.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that the project treats the subject matter and the characters with compassion and integrity. For me, representation comes in many forms. I would like to think that, by representing a same-sex couple of a certain age and that not being commented on at any point, is — in a small way — quite revolutionary. That can’t be ignored in the conversation about representation.

The Road Warrior

Even though this is only his second feature behind the cameras, Macqueen demonstrates both maturity and a knack for recreating intimacy. “It’s incredibly hard to channel a pre-existing relationship into a new one, but if you know the person you’re working with —in Colin and Stanley’s case, they love each other already because they’re best friends — you help yourself out because you don’t have to go through a long rehearsal period to be on the same wavelength,” says Macqueen.

There’s nothing less intimate than a movie set, yet your film features emotionally searing moments. How did you make this possible?

The filmmaking team wasn’t very big and we were filming in real-life locations. We strived for authenticity and truthfulness. The campervan, for instance, was a very contained, intimate space and we couldn’t get many people in there. It didn’t help us, because we had to work in that confined situation and certain tools were taken from us, but really helped Colin and Stanley. Nothing felt false or fabricated. The one thing we did was rent an empty warehouse and drove the campervan into it to control the sound and the lighting for the interior van scenes.

How does your background as an actor inform your directing?

It informs my entire process, what I write and how. The characters come first, and the story follows. I like to write characters I would like to play if given the opportunity. You also have a shorthand and know the process an actor goes through. With Colin and Stanley, when we first met, it helped them trust me. I’ve worked with some great directors and some not so great and you learn how not to work as much as how to.

Considering how raw and intense some of the exchanges are, I imagine you didn’t do many takes.

You’re exactly right. It’s very difficult because when you’re making a road movie, you don’t have a lot of control over your surroundings. I believe with the right preparation, as few takes as possible is the best way to work. You don’t want to put people through it more than they have to. The big, more emotionally deep scenes at the end of the film we tried to do two, three times maximum.

The roads Sam and Tusker travel on all seem to be one-way and incredibly narrow. How was that?

Jorge… it took a long time. [England’s] Lake District is a beautiful place and I recommend going, but it’s not built for road movies. A lot of the time we didn’t have permission to close the roads. You just have to try to get it right the first time or hope Colin can get the campervan in reverse, to reset.

About the ending: my wife and I came out of Supernova with entirely different interpretations.

The ending is deliberately open. When you’re dealing with important issues like having control over one’s own destiny, there are no easy answers.