Christmas spirit

Hector director on homelessness and humanity in his debut feature.

by Amber Wilkinson

Peter Mullan as Hector: 'I don't think any first-time director making a film with Peter Mullan in the lead role could deny being very, very nervous for the first couple of days'
Peter Mullan as Hector: 'I don't think any first-time director making a film with Peter Mullan in the lead role could deny being very, very nervous for the first couple of days'
Many of the Christmas movies served up at this time of year are as heavily seasoned as Christmas dinner, complete with sugar-overload, but there are nearly always one or two little gems to look out for that celebrate the humanism and warmth of the season in less in-your-face ways. In the States, Christmas, Again is offering offbeat thoughtfulness and, here in the UK, Jake Gavin's debut film Hector explores what it means to be homeless in a season synonymous with hearth and family, without descending into misery.

Jake Gavin on the red carpet at Edinburgh Film Festival.
Jake Gavin on the red carpet at Edinburgh Film Festival. Photo: Rob O'Donnell, EIFF, Edinburgh International Film Festival All Rights Reserved
Gavin's film is a portrait of the eponymous Hector - a homeless pensioner, who is prompted by hospital tests to try to reconnect with his brother (Ewan Stewart) and sister (Gina McKee) as he makes his annual pilgrimage from Scotland to a hostel in London for some Christmas cheer. We join him and his friends Hazel (Natalie Gavin) and Dougie (Laurie Ventry) on their journey - featuring positive and negative encounters - south. I caught up with the director after the film had its world premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival.

Gavin should know a thing about portraits, having worked as a photographer off and on for most of his career. As a child he made Super 8 movies but he moved into stills photography mainly because it "was a lot cheaper to do".

Speaking about his lengthy career before coming back to filmmaking, he says: "I was a photojournalist and worked abroad but I wasn't very good because every time it got a bit hairy, I'd be down in a ditch. So then I became a barrister, practicing property law for four years and then I realised I'd slightly overreacted and gone for something a little bit too safe, so I returned to photography, but doing magazine work and editorial portraiture.

"At that time, there were also still a lot of music promos being made, so I did some of those, very low budget. It was also when mini-DV was starting and it was easier to edit on a computer. So I started editing and shooting little short things like that. And gradually I worked on other people's short films and a couple of features, in the camera department, and I realised I loved being on set but I don't really like heavy lifting and I don't like being told what to do, so I realised the only thing I could do would be a director. So I gradually moved into film and I wrote a screenplay and here we are."

Although Hector goes on a long journey, the film is, in many ways, another type of complex portrait, showing how even one event in a person's life can change things dramatically. Perhaps then, Gavin's shifting career could help him relate to aspects of Hector?

"In a sense, every character in the film is a side of me," says Gavin. "But I think what appealed to me was the idea of someone disappearing and then reappearing and reconnecting with his life and his story coming out over the course of a film.

"It was my intention to leave everything very ambiguous. In fact, the ending is ambiguous. I enjoy films where I have to do a lot of the work, as an audience member. If everything's laid out for you, it's an unsatsifying experience. I wanted not to lead the viewer by the hand but to let them work it out for themselves."

Hector. Jake Gavin: 'In a sense, every character in the film is a side of me'
Hector. Jake Gavin: 'In a sense, every character in the film is a side of me'
Gavin was inspired to write the story after volunteering with Christ's at Christmas, helping the homeless over the festive period.

"It kind of landed in my lap," he says. "I met all sorts of extraordinary people with extraordinary stories. There was one particular man who, when I asked where he normally stayed, said: 'On the motorways.' I said: 'Do you mean under bridges?' And he said: 'No, service stations.' And he explained that in service stations you've got hot showers and loos and everything and there's usually a warm place to sleep round the back, and at the end of the day, Marks and Sparks throw out their sandwiches or give them away. Plus you can stay in a service station very anonymously because people are coming and going and it's very easy then to pitch on to the next one.

"This particular guy had come down from Scotland to London to stay in the shelter where he comes every year and I think his trip had taken him two weeks to get from Stirling to London. It was about three or four days after Christmas that I thought that was the kernel of an idea for a film. So I took that journey as a starting point then over the course of a year and a half worked on the script and came up with the backstory."

The casting of Peter Mullan in the central role is crucial to the film. He's in every scene and the camera frequently closes in on his face. The actor brings his usual intensity to the role - and Gavin says he was involved from quite early in the project.

"The first meeting I had with anyone was Amy Hubbard, who is a brilliant casting director," he says. "She read the script and she loved it - it was the first British screenplay she'd read that year that didn't have guns and car chases in it. I think that was enough to attract her attention. We had this meeting and she asked, 'Who would you like as the lead?' At that stage I was thinking we would be shooting very, very low budget, maybe £100,000 if we were lucky and I was thinking we would get an elderly Scottish character or stage actor but didn't have anyone particular in mind.

"Amy said, 'Who would be your fantasy actor.' I said, 'Ideally, it would be Peter Mullan' and she said, 'Let's send him the script'. She did and he read it and he came back within about a month and said he would be interested in doing it. Once he was attached, everything else followed, it was easier to get finance and every actor I saw over the whole course of the casting, was there because they wanted to do a scene with Peter Mullan."

There was a false start with the film, which came very close to shooting before Gavin felt he had to pull the plug on it because they were missing one element of finance. He thought at the time that it was unlikely they would be able to get Peter back - "I think if you're attached to a project that goes down the tubes, you're wary of getting reattached" - but Mullan stayed loyal to the film. While it is no down a boon to have an actor like Mullan, does it make things harder as a first-time director?

"I don't think any first-time director making a film with Peter Mullan in the lead role could deny being very, very nervous for the first couple of days," admits Gavin "We'd worked together over the previous year on the character and script. But it's very different on the set with 40 or 50 people standing around. The first couple of days, I was very very nervous. Peter, as you know, is a great talker and while we were on-set setting up, he'd be chatting away to the other actors, telling endless anecdotes.

Hector. Jake Gavin: 'If you're in a really horrible situation, people still make jokes and people show extraordinary kindness and generosity as well'
Hector. Jake Gavin: 'If you're in a really horrible situation, people still make jokes and people show extraordinary kindness and generosity as well'
"To begin with I'd wait for him to finish an anecdote before I called, 'Action', but then I realised that if I did that we'd never get the film made. So, if you watch the rushes, you'll hear him chatting away, then you hear me say, 'Action' and he goes straight into the scene, then you hear, 'Cut', and he picks up the story exactly where he left off. So once we realised we could trust each other, it was great."

The film was shot in February and March 2014, with locations stretching from Glasgow and Annandale Waters service station on the A74M in Dumfries and Galloway to Liverpool and London. The conditions look gruelling for the cast and crew, with Hector often seen in driving snow which was the real thing rather than studio fakery. So will Gavin's next film be set on a tropical island?

"It's funny you should say that," says Gavin "There was a point where me and my DP David Raedeker were sitting in a howling gale. He said: 'Jake, this is not so good.' I said: 'You know what, the next movie is going to be a two-hander in one location and that location is going to be a bar on a tropical beach and you and me are going to spend six weeks location scouting."

Despite the cold weather, however, and the precarious lifestyle of Hector and his friends, the film reamins warm at heart despite its realism.

"I don't really like 'misery tourism' films, occasionally, they're a little too much," says Gavin. "I think it comes more from one of my experiences as a photojournalist. I've been in places where people are doing unspeakable things to other people and the cruelty is horrific. But, at the same time, you always get humour. If you're in a really horrible situation, people still make jokes and people show extraordinary kindness and generosity as well. Hector, through the course of this film, is treated fairly harshly by some people but at others he isn't."

As for what is really next for Gavin, he adds: "The experience of directing has made me realise that I am a complete egotistical maniac and power-hungry. I'd never realised. I always thought I was a laidback sort of guy." and he says of his next project: "To be perfectly honest, I'm not quite sure which direction it's going at the moment. I'd like it to be funny and uplifting but serious at the same time. I'm not quite sure how it's going to go."

Hector is on release in selected cinemas across the UK from December 11. You can read more about the film and find a venue here.

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