Morgan Matthews is no stranger to the director's chair having made a string of documentaries during his career, Beautiful Young Minds. And it is this documentary that inspired Matthews to make his live action directorial debut with X+Y.
X+Y is set to hit the big screen this week and has seen Matthews team up with James Graham to pen the screenplay, while Asa Butterfield, Sally Morgan, Rafe Spall, and Eddie Marsan make up a terrific British cast list.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about X+Y, how Beautiful Young Minds inspired the new film, and bringing together this great cast.
- X+Y is set to hit the big screen next month, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
X+Y is loosely inspired by a documentary that I made years ago, which followed a group of British teenagers on their way to the International Mathematical Olympiad, and really it is about a boy learning what it means to love and coming to terms with the more difficult things that have happened in his life.
- The movie was inspired by work that you did on s series of documentaries - especially Beautiful Young Minds - so can you talk about what interested you in taking a story from a documentary and turning into a drama?
Firstly, the world that I experienced when I was making that documentary was so rich, the characters were so real, and it was a revelation to spend time with them. So I always thought that it would translate to from a documentary over to a feature film. X+Y is not a dramatic remake of the documentary, I didn't see much point in that, so we took a lot of creative license with the story but at the same time, we had the richness of the real world and my experience in that world to draw from.
- I suppose that the dramatic format gives you more freedom and artistic license than documentary. So what themes and ideas were you keen to explore with X+Y that perhaps you couldn't with the Beautiful Young Mind?
For me, it wasn't just that documentary that was inspiration for me to make X+Y, it was really all of the documentaries that I have made throughout my career as I have made lots of different kinds of documentaries in different circumstances, but I suppose they all have humanity in common. I think that it is really important to care about people in my films, and I think that if I can care about them then other people can too.
This is very much a story about everyday life and the challenges that come with that. One of the challenges is finding someone who you can love and making that work and this is something that all of the characters in X+Y are experiencing and looking for in different ways - whether they realise that they are looking for it or not. It is about people who have been isolated by their circumstances and who are on a journey to find some unity and some harmony with another person.
- James Graham was brought on board to pen the screenplay, so how did he get involved with the project? And what was it like handing over a story that you already had reasonably well formed?
It was probably six years ago when I teamed up with James Graham for the first time and we were being funded by UK film, as it was known then, and was a small fund that was intended for first time filmmakers. I had seen a couple of James' productions and had realised that he was very talented and we a paired up on the script.
It was a very collaborative process and one that I enjoyed very much. James brought some wonderful detail, humour and humanity to that world and to that story. He had also experienced that world himself having gone out to the Olympiad with team during that documentary. Therefore, he had experienced and was very connected to that world and he translated that into the script. It went through several drafts, as you do, and we ended up with something that everyone was happy with and was prepared to back.
- The movie has am impressive cast with Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, and Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, and Jo Yang all on board, so can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your central characters?
Firstly, I was very lucky to get the cast that I had and the casting of each actor had its own story and process to it. With Rafe and Sally, I had seem them in a play called Constellations - which is a very challenging play in terms of just them being on the stage together for ninety minutes - and I had seen the chemistry they had and their ability.
Of course, I had seen both Sally and Rafe in many other films, but just seeing them together on stage and working in that way, gave me a lot of confidence in casting them together in X+Y. I know that they hold each other in… they are very special to each other as that play that is so dramatic and so intense over so many nights really did bring them closer together. They really admire each other from an acting point of view as well. So it was great bringing them on board but them also looking forward to working together again, which I believe that they did.
Many people will know Asa Butterfield from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the lead boy in Hugo and in Ender's Game, in which he starred alongside Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, so he has been in some very big movies during his career. So I had seen all of those movies and see his potential and ability.
When we did some screen tests, which were in a very informal way, it was clear to me that he was able to translate the character of Nathan and play him in a way that allows us to empathise with this boy, who could otherwise appear quite cold.
Eddie Marsan is one of the best British actors around at the moment and we were able to cast him as the team leader of the maths team. I didn't get to spend much time to rehearse with Eddie because he was working on another film, which was a major scene. He just filled the shoes of this maths professor wonderfully and it was quite a thing to see really.
The performance that he gave on that first day really did impact on all the other cast members who were listening to him - it really was just a master class in acting. For use, firstly, it was very exciting to see but also, just to understand what a great actor is and have them working with you was fantastic and I was very grateful for that.
- Asa Butterfield takes on the central role of Nathan so how did you work with him to develop this complex character? How did you go about placing Nathan on the neurodevelopment disorder spectrum?
Daniel Lightwing was the subject of the documentary Beautiful Young Minds and we basically filmed him being diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, which I understand now, is not a term that people use. Daniel outwardly appears as quite challenging and difficult that is something that he gets quite distressed. However, if you know him quite well, sit down in a quiet room and spend some time with him you will find him very shy but is able to communicate an enormous amount about his experiences and what is going on inside his head.
So Asa was able to spend some time with Daniel and Daniel was able to explain that to him, which informed Asa's performance a huge amount. Asa was also able to meet other people who were also on the spectrum and they were able to articulate their experiences. Nathan is a composite of Daniel and other people that I met while making and researching the film and I hope that it feels like an authentic representation.
However, it is not meant to represent everyone on the spectrum because everyone is different, I think that is the point. Sometimes when a film presets a certain type of character, people can focus on that as being a representation of something as a whole, instead of being a just a representation of just that individual.
- The movie is released this week, so how have you been finding some of the early responses to the film so far? It has been playing on the festival circuit.
The movie played at the Toronto International Film Festival as well as at a series of others, including the London Film Festival and the Rome Film Festival. For me, the first experience of watching the film with an audience is quite wonderful because it is what you make the film for as a director. To get a full house of twelve hundred people all sitting down watching your film, is really quite special. Then to hear them and to hear the sounds and the noises - the good noises - and the laughter was just music to my ears and was quite a moving experience.
It played very well in Toronto and then again in London. London is not always the easiest audience to win over. Toronto audiences are known for being generous and quite vocal - in a good way - and I don't I don't think that London audiences are viewed in the same way; the audiences that we had in London were fantastic in terms of the response, laughter and noises that we were able to hear.
- This movie is backed by BBC Film, which won a Bafta last month, so how have you find working with them? And just how big an impact has BBC Films had on the UK film industry?
The simple fact is, this film would not have happened without BBC Films and many other great movies would not have happened without BBC Films. That goes for the BFI as well; the UK Film Council absorbed into the BFI, and continues to back movies. Some of the best British films would never have been made if those two experiences had not been around. The experience of working with them was a really good one. BBC Film is an organisation that loves film and wants to see good films and it very much about creating good films as well.
- Finally, what's next for you?
I am not sure. I have a script that I am working on at the moment, which is loosely based on world that I immersed myself in while I was making a documentary. I am also reading other scripts and making a documentary at the same time. We will have to see which one of those projects happens first.