Andrew Steggall is set to make his feature film directorial debut this week as he makes the leap from shorts to bring us Departure.

Andrew Steggall

Andrew Steggall

As well as being in the director's chair for Departure, he has also penned the screenplay, which follows a family going through major changes.

The film sees the director team up with actors Juliet Stevenson and Alex Lawther as they play mother and son. We caught up with Andrew to chat about the film, the inspiration behind the story and making his feature film debut.

- Departure is about to hit the big screen, so can you tell me a bit about the film?

Departure is a coming of age narrative, which differs from other as it charts a coming of age of a teenage boy but also a coming of age for his mother; who is about to go through her own transformation from one life to another. It is called Departure not arrival and it is set in the autumn. It is about the end of Elliot's childhood, the end of Beatrice's marriage, and the end of a nuclear family at the end of the year. There is a feeling of transition and evolution for all of the characters.

At its heart, for me, it is a love story between a mother and a son, in which two people, who are not very well equipped to express kindness and warmth towards each other, learn to do so through the events of the week.

- The film sees you in the director's chair and you've penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you and what inspired the idea for the story?

A whole number of things actually. I was very lucky to have gone to a friend's house in France for a holiday and, while I was there, the idea for the story came, in response to the landscape there, this lonely house by a river and a forest. At that moment, I recalled an incident in my own adolescence when I had an epiphany that my parents were perhaps as complex and unhappy as I was capable of being (laughs). I had previously been too narcissistic to realise. I wanted to explore that moment of change as I thought it was an interesting take of coming-of-age and growing up; it wasn't so much about sexual awakening but more about maturing through developing empathy.

I wanted to explore that moment and the sense that all the characters knew something that they needed to know already; Beatrice knew something about her son's sexuality that she had not yet articulated to herself. Elliot understands something about his parents' marriage and his own sexuality that he has not yet confronted. Over the course of this week, they become self-aware in a way that they had not previously been.

There is also an opera by Dvorák called Rusalka, which is the story of the water nymph who yearns to be human so she can be embraced by the prince who was hunting the deer in the forest. I saw that in Ireland when I was directing an opera a few years ago and that theme - and the musical theme of The Song of the Moon - was very evocative of what I thought Beatrice and Elliot were experiencing. That opera ends up in the film.

- The movie explores themes such as the relationship/bond between a mother and son, as well as sexuality and transformations - both internal and external - and I wondered what it was about those themes that drew you to them?

I think all drama is about change and transformation. It is my first film and I wanted to explore and express part of my life, in which I had wrestled with and come to terms with my sexuality. In that sense, it comes from a very personal place and a desire to share that story. The central story is a love story between a mother and a son, in which they give each other permission - finally - to be complicated, human and fallible; that is the simple and quiet act of love at the end of the film.

Although it seems that the film is preoccupied with Elliot's relationship with Clément, the handsome French boy in the village, or that Beatrice is preoccupied with her relationship with her husbands, for me, those parallel narratives are about moving mother and son towards an understanding of each other.

- Can you talk a bit about your writing process - do you start with characters first and them plot? Or do you develop the story and then work on the characters? How does it work for you?

I think it is all very simultaneous. I have pretty strong ideas about events and an arc where I want the characters to start and finish - in a way, their personalities and the character of those roles are as much defined by what they do as some idea you may have about their personality. As you give them dialogue, you are, in a way, both filling in the character that must perform the actions that you feel are inevitable for the story and they also begin to manipulate the story without your control as a character and a personality starts to emerge.

Events that you imagined become no longer relevant and no longer realistic and they should go because that's when I think people notice there's a lack of integrity in the story, when characters behave in one way but seem to act in another. We are also contradictory individuals and we often act our better judgment or behave in a way that is counterproductive and it is useful to explore that.

- Alex Lawther takes on the role of Elliot, so what were you looking for when you were casting this role? And what did you see in Alex that you thought would be perfect? I read that you auditioned him while sitting on a park bench.

That's right, we did. He was heading off to shoot X+Y at the time. I had first seen him when he was seventeen at the Harold Pinter Theatre where he was playing the lead role in a play called South Downs by David Hare. I was very struck by his particularness, his intelligence, and his translucence; the ability to read through is skin a story. For me, he brings a poetry and a sensitivity and the ability to be both likeable and unlikeable at the same time. While Alex is entirely likeable, I felt that he would compensate for some of Elliot's less likable qualities through his personality.

Alex was attached for over a year and there was definitely a process in which the role of Elliot that I had written, me and Alex all converged into the character. I thought he was great. I also wanted to find someone who I could connect with emotionally, in terms of how important it is to have a good relationship not only with your lead actor, but the person who is channelling the autobiographical aspect of the story.

- Juliet Stevenson is also terrific as Beatrice, so how did you get her on board?

She read the script really late actually. I didn't get to meet her until Sunday night, at quarter to midnight, at her house in North London just a few days before I went to France to start work on the design for the film.

She had read it and said that she didn't want anyone else to play the part and she had to do it. She responded to the writing and felt that Beatrice was not a mother at an ironing board in someone else's story but was an equal and central role.

- Departure has been playing on the festival circuit - playing at London Film Festival last year - so how have you been finding the response to the film so far? It does seem overwhelmingly positive.

I think so. The people who like the film do tend to come up and tell you and those who don't like the film don't (laughs). I think it is important that the film has and audience and part of that audience who won't respond as well because you are trying to provoke recognition.

When the film works and when it gets its best response is when there is an audience who recognise the good and the bad in the characters and in that recognition, find humour and find they can be moved. You don't expect everyone to recognise themselves in the particular and peculiar characters of Elliot and Beatrice.

- Departure marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found the whole experience and the leap into features for the first time?

I have just loved it. It is a bloody slog as it has taken six years from first conceiving the film to releasing it in the festival. There are so many points that have been demoralising and there are so many moments that have given me such pleasure. The edit was a pleasure. And the shoot and working with Juliet and Alex and Niamh Cusack, Finbar Lynch, and Phénix Brossard was just a dream in terms of their warmth and their talent. I was lucky that I got to shoot the film that belonged to those friends; so we shot it in the house I conceived it in and wrote it in and there was a wonderful integrity and coherence to that. People who were in the village got to be in the movie and that was a hoot.

At every screening, there is always someone - maybe more than one - who come up to you and be visibly moved and engaged by what they have seen. One feels that they have recognised something in the film of themselves and that is an honour and makes it all worthwhile.

- You have brought us short films such as The Door and The Red Bike in recent years but how do you feel your work in shorts prepared you for your first feature film?

Writing and directing shorts was my film school; I trained as an actor and then worked as a theatre and opera director. I felt that the experience of making the four shorts - all of which I made subsequent to the first conceiving of Departure - were a way in which I got an understanding of how a set worked and began the long journey of refining my voice as a filmmaker. Nothing really prepares you for your first feature and it was pretty much on the last day of shooting did I feel that I was ready to start shooting; unfortunately, you have shot it by that point.

Ironically really, the more experience you have and therefore the more efficient and brilliant you ought to be, the more money and time they give you. They should give all the time and money to people who don't know what they are doing because they are the one who need to reshoot (laughs).

- Finally, what's next for you?

I have been really fortunate to get some support from the Wellcome Trust, who are helping me develop a screenplay. That is really a story about family and music but has a medical aspect to it as well. That is what I am writing at the moment.

Departure is out now.

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